Ruby Walsh took the world of National Hunt racing by surprise when, immediately after winning the Punchestown Gold Cup on Kemboy in May, 2019, he announced his retirement. In his 24-year career, Walsh rode over 2,500 winners, including 59 at the Cheltenham Festival – 23 ahead of his nearest pursuer, Barry Geraghty – and for several years had the pick of rides from Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins, both champion trainers on their respective sides of the Irish Sea. Indeed, Willie Mullins, who has been Irish Champion National Hunt Trainer every season since 2007/08, described Walsh as ‘the daddy of them all’.
In fact, it was for County Carlow-based handler that Walsh rode his first Cheltenham Festival winner, Alexander Banquet in the Champion Bumper, as an 18-year-old amateur rider in 1998. He turned professional at the start of the following season and, in the next 18 years, was leading jockey at the Cheltenham Festival 11 times, including five consecutive years between 2013 and 2017. In 2009, Walsh set a record by riding seven winners over the four days and equalled that record in 2016, by which time he had left his role as stable jockey to Paul Nicholls after over a decade commuting between Britain and Ireland.
Of the four main ‘championship’ races run at the Cheltenham Festival, Walsh won the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice on Kauto Star, trained by Nicholls, the Champion Hurdle four times, on Hurricane Fly (twice), Faugheen and Annie Power, all trained by Mullins, the Queen Mother Champion Chase three times, on Azertyuiop and Master Minded (twice), both trained by Nicholls, and the Stayers’ Hurdle five times on Big Buck’s (four times), trained by Nicholls, and Nichols Canyon, trained by Mullins. Elsewhere on the Festival programme, he also won the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle eight times on Quevega (six times), Vroum Vroum Mag and Benie Des Dieux.
Few, if any, steeplechasers of the modern era – not even the trail-blazing grey, Desert Orchid – have captured the imagination of the racing public in the same way as Kauto Star. Although rated fully a stone-and-a-half inferior to Arkle, according Timeform, Kauto Star nonetheless ranks joint-fourth, alongside Mill House, in the list of highest-rated steeplechasers of the Timeform Era. Poignantly, until usurped by Arkle, Mill House was widely regarded as the best British steeplechaser since Golden Miller in the Thirties, so the assertion of Ruby Walsh, who rode Kauto Star to 17 of his 23 victories, that he was ‘the horse of my lifetime’ is entirely justifiable.
Owned by Clive Smith and trained by Paul Nicholls – from whose yard his eventual departure, to embark upon a new career in dressage, in 2012, caused an acrimonious split between the pair – Kauto Star is probably best remembered for winning the King George VI Chase at Kempton an unprecedented five times between 2006 and 2011. However, Kauto Star ran at the Cheltenham Festival every year between 2006 and 2012. On his first attempt, as a six-year-old, he fell at the third fence, when favourite, in the Queen Mother Champion Chase but, for the rest of his career, exclusively contested the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Indeed, Kauto Star won the ‘Blue Riband’ event at his first attempt in 2007 and, although beaten 7 lengths by stable companion Denman when odds-on to defend his title in 2008, avenged that defeat with an impressive, 13-length defeat of the same horse on his return to Prestbury Park. In so doing, he became the first horse to regain the Cheltenham Gold Cup. All told, Kauto Star won 19 of the 31 steeplechases he contested – including 16 at Grade One level – at distances between 1 mile 7½ furlongs and 3 miles 2½ furlongs, and over £2.3 million in prize money. Tragically, after suffering complications to neck and pelvic injuries sustained in a freak accident in a field at home, Kauto Star was humanely euthanised in 2015.
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.