Willie Mullins might have been out of luck in the Gold Cup but finished the 2022 Cheltenham festival more in control of racing’s biggest event than ever before.
After some agonising near-misses in the last decade, Ireland’s champion trainer was integral to the last day of this year’s festival, playing the lead role in delivering a clean sweep of Irish-trained winners on a single day.
A Plus Tard delivered in the Gold Cup for Henry de Bromhead and Joseph O’Brien’s Banbridge completed the rout in the concluding Martin Pipe Hurdle.
Everything else though was all Mullins, who brought up a superb final day 1,518-1 five-timer to bring his tally for the four days to a record 10 winners in a single week.
His career festival tally now stands at an astounding 88.
It brings into prospect next year the once scarcely credible prospect of a single figure reaching a century of festival winners, even one who has transformed the parameters of success at Cheltenham like Mullins has.
Remove Ireland’s champion trainer from the equation and a home team left mortified by a 23-5 drubbing in 2021’s renewal of the famed Anglo-Irish rivalry could be said to have rallied impressively this week.
They narrowed the gap to 18-10 and even edged both the Tuesday and Thursday legs 4-3 each.
But in a week when his great rival Gordon Elliott endured frustration with seven runner-up places, and agony when his promising novice Ginto sustained fatal injuries on Friday, Mullins reigned supreme.
A ninth leading training award for the week was all but in the bag before Friday’s action began.
Having saddled four winners in a single day on previous occasions in 2015 and 2017, Mullins’s final day trick was to reach new levels of overwhelming dominance.
After uncovering another pair of Champion Hurdle contenders for next year in Vauban and State Man, who won the Triumph Hurdle and County Hurdle respectively, Mullins saddled a one-two in the Albert Bartlett with an 18-1 shot in The Nice Guy beating Minella Cocooner.
His son Patrick then pulled an unlikely victory out of the fire in the Hunters’ Chase as Billaway denied a gallant Winged Leader in the final strides.
When Elimay went one better than last year in the Mares battle – prompting a bizarre singalong in the stands to the tune of Give It Up by KC & The Sunshine Band – there was almost a sense of inevitability about ‘WP’ Mullins in the winner’s enclosure.
So when one of his Martin Pipe contenders, Adamantly Chosen, loomed up early in the straight the only surprise was that he faded out of the picture so quickly.
“I didn’t realise no one has ever trained this many winners here, but since it became a four-day festival things changed number-wise.
“I’d imagine this sort of thing will happen more regularly – and if they go to five days someone will do it easily!” Mullins joked when accepting the trainer’s prize.
“I’m delighted with the whole team and I’m going to accept the award with all my team because they are ones who do it in the background, leaving me free,” he added.
The one man apparently able to pull rank on Mullins this week was owner Rich Ricci, who persuaded his trainer to campaign the high-class French recruit Vauban as a four-year-old rather than wait for a novice campaign.
The outcome was a Triumph Hurdle success that suggests better is to come and not just over flights.
An expedition to Australia for the Melbourne Cup may be on Vauban’s radar at some point in his future.
“It is a particular itch as we have finished second, third, fourth, fifth and probably sixth in it over the years. It’s just a race I’d love to win. I call it one of the greatest atmospheres and it rivals Cheltenham. I can’t say it’s better this week though,” Mullins said.
That’s especially so since he fulfilled a long ambition for his son, Patrick, to win the Hunters’ Chase.
It looked improbable for all but the final strides as Billaway, runner-up in the previous two years, chinned Winged Leader on the line.
“He [Willie] is all right at what he does, isn’t he?” the winning jockey said.”He’s very good, he has an incredible amount of pressure. To be the boss’s son and get the rides on these horses makes me very lucky.”
The thought struck some too that the Mullins haul might have been even more if the outstanding novice Galopin Des Champs hadn’t fallen at the last with Thursday’s Turners Chase at his mercy.