Willie Mullins

Willie Mullins is the son of the late Paddy Mullins, who saddled the legendary mare Dawn Run to win the Champion Hurdle in 1984 and the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1986. However, although he had won the Champion Hurdle four times, with Hurricane Fly (twice), Faugheen and Annie Power, Willie Mullins had ‘hit the woodwork’ in the Cheltenham Gold Cup so many times prior to the 2019 renewal that he had all but resigned himself to never winning the ‘Blue Riband’ event. Nevertheless, after six second-place finishes, Mullins finally claimed his first win in the Cheltenham Gold Cup when Al Boum Photo – only third choice of his four runners in the betting market – stayed on strongly from the final fence to beat Anibale Fly by 2½ lengths.

Mullins has still yet to win yet the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but Al Boum Photo was one of four winners for his Co. Carlow yard which, along with seven placed finishers, were enough to edge out Nicky Henderson and win Mullins the leading trainer award for the sixth time in his career. Indeed, Mullins remains the most successful trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival with 65 winners, although he is just one winner ahead of Nicky Henderson.

Mullins saddled his first Cheltenham Festival winner, Tourist Attraction, in 1995, but has really come into his own since winning the leading trainer award for the first time in 2011. He missed out to his old rival, Nicky Henderson, in 2012, but was leading trainer again in 2013, 2014, 2015 – the year in which he saddled a record eight winners over the four days – and 2016. Aside from his victories in the Champion Hurdle and, more recently, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Mullins has also won the Stayers’ Hurdle twice, with Nichols Canyon and Penhill. Of course, Mullins can no longer rely on the services of his former stable jockey, Ruby Walsh, who retired in May, 2019, so what the effects that might have remain to be seen.

2019 Cheltenham Gold Cup

The 2019 Cheltenham Gold Cup once again featured the first, second and third from the 2018 renewal, namely Native River, Might Bite and Anibale Fly, but having mixed fortunes since, started at odds of 6/1, 14/1 and 22/1, respectively. Despite not having run over fences since winning the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival twelve months previously, Presenting Percy, trained in Co. Westmeath by Patrick Kelly, started favourite at 100/30.

However, Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins, once again, saddled four runners in an attempt to finally end his Gold Cup ‘hoodoo’ and improve on his unenviable record of six second-place finishes in the ‘Blue Riband’ event. It turned out to be a bitter-sweet race for Mullins; three of his charges, including failed to finish, but the fourth, 12/1 chance Al Boum Photo – who was, by his own admission, only his ‘third or fourth choice’ – produced the run of his life under jockey Paul Townend to win by 2½ lengths.

Anibale Fly was placed again, finishing to good effect to fill second place and Bristol De Mai, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, took third place, a further 3¾ lengths away. Presenting Percy, attempting to become the first horse for nearly 90 years to win the Gold Cup without a preparatory race over fences, went lame, Native River was as game as ever, but never really travelling on going probably slightly faster than ideal and King George VI Chase winner Clan des Obeaux appeared not to get home over the extra two-and-a-half furlongs.

As a footnote, victory for Al Boum Photo also provided redemption for Townend, who had inexplicably elected to go around, rather than jump, the final fence on the same horse in the Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown the previous April, thereby denying connections €59,000 in prize money.

2018 Cheltenham Gold Cup

Beforehand, the 2018 Cheltenham Gold Cup had looked to revolve around Might Bite, trained by Nicky Henderson, and Native River, trained by Colin Tizzard. However, late support for Our Duke, trained by Jessica Harrington – who had won the race, at her first attempt, with Sizing John in 2017 – forced his price into 9/2, between Might Bite at 4/1 and Native River at 5/1. Nevertheless, the race was dominated by Native River and Might Bite, was widely predicted, and backers of Our Duke were resigned to their fate soon after halfway. The former Irish Grand National winner was never travelling after mistakes at the eleventh and thirteenth fences and gradually lost his position before being pulled up after the fourth-last fence, at the top of the hill.

Meanwhile, Native River made virtually all the running, but was pressed by Might Bite throughout and, together, they turned the race into an extreme test of stamina, especially on the prevailing soft going. In what effectively turned into a match between the leaders, Might Bite took a narrow lead between the final two fences, but Native River regained the advantage at the final obstacle and galloped on resolutely, ultimately outstaying his rival in the final hundred yards or so, to win by 4½ lengths. Might Bite finished a highly creditable second, especially on going that favoured the winner, with outsider Anibale Fly, trained by Tony Martin, emerging as ‘best of the rest’ in third place, a further 4 lengths away.

Winning jockey Richard Johnson fell foul of the stewards, for a breach of the whip rules, which cost him £6,550 – the equivalent of 1.8% of the winning prize money – and a seven-day riding ban. Nevertheless, Native River delivered a dominant performance and, Might Bite aside, none of his rivals made any real impact. Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins – still trying to win his first Cheltenham Gold Cup – saddled four runners, but Killultagh Vic, Bachasson and Total Recall all failed to finish and Djakadam, the outsider of the quartet at 25/1, could only manage fifth, beaten over 20 lengths.

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