Irish dominate Cheltenham with nearly a clean sweep
Willie Mullins makes history while Michael O’Leary has first winner in Ryanair Chase
Willie Mullins brought his tally of winners for the week to seven, with Penhill taking the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle and Laurina strolling to an effortless win in the Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
There was almost complete domination by the Irish at Cheltenham on Thursday, with the visitors just missing out on a clean sweep of all seven races on the card, and Willie Mullins becoming the most successful trainer in the meeting’s history.
Mullins brought his tally of winners for the week to seven, with Penhill taking the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle and Laurina strolling to an effortless 14-length win in the Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.
Even without his long-term jockey Ruby Walsh, who was injured on Wednesday and remains the festival’s most-decorated rider, Mullins passed British trainer Nicky Henderson and racked up his 60th and 61st race wins at Prestbury Park.
“When you start in a base in Ireland, you’re thinking if I get a Cheltenham winner, that will be it,” Mullins said. “So I’ve never dreamed of being able to win as many as this. I’m lucky and delighted.”
There was a strong Irish contingent among the record attendance of 66,384, and there was plenty for them to cheer on an afternoon marketed by the racecourse as St Patrick’s Thursday.
Last year’s festival saw a record 19 Irish winners. However, that mark could come under pressure with a day of racing still to go and the Irish with 15 victories on the board against six for the British.
Businessman Michael O’Leary, who owned yesterday’s first three winners, gained an elusive success through Balko Des Flos in the Ryanair Chase, a race his airline has sponsored since 2006 and in which he had been runner-up on four occasions.
“It has cost me fortunes trying to win this race,” said O’Leary, whose wife Anita presents the trophy. “I think I’ve had a runner every year since we have sponsored. It’s the one opportunity that I get for my wife to give me some jewellery; it’s normally the other way round.”