No shocks, just awe as Mullins dominates at Cheltenham
Irish trainer the master of all he surveys on Day One of the Cheltenham Festival
Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh celebrate winning the Champion Hurdle with Faugheen on day one of the Cheltenham Festival. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Willie Mullins has redrawn the parameters of Cheltenham dominance with a dazzling opening day Grade 1 four-timer which indicates further radical recalibration of the famous festival’s record book can’t be ruled out before the week is over.
Faugheen led home an unprecedented ‘1-2-3’ for Ireland’s champion trainer in the Stan James Champion Hurdle, the 4-5 favourite beating his stable companions Arctic Fire and Hurricane Fly to become the headline act in a unique top-flight four-timer for Mullins.
However, even Faugheen’s brilliance couldn’t come close to budging his trainer from centre-stage after a display of overwhelming dominance by an individual never before witnessed on National Hunt racing’s greatest stage.
Although a dramatic final flight fall by Annie Power in the OLBG Mares Hurdle prevented a nightmare scenario for bookmakers of all four Mullins favourites winning all four top-flight races, the unlucky 1-2 favourite’s stable companion Glens Melody simply stepped up to do the job to complete a 62-1 winning streak for her trainer.
The Gordon Elliott trained Cause Of Causes later secured a 64th birthday success for his owner JP McManus and become a fifth Irish trained success on the day, but everything revolved around one man to a degree never seen before at Cheltenham.
After a Supreme Novice Hurdle win for Douvan, and Un De Sceaux’s victory in the Arkle, only Annie Power’s fall robbed Ruby Walsh of the chance to share top-billing with Mullins. But the champion jockey appreciated better than anyone the scale of what his great friend had just achieved.
“The man’s a genius,” Walsh said simply, and no one at Cheltenham was disagreeing.
With another leading trainer award almost certainly already wrapped up with three days to go, the potential to break Nicky Henderson’s 2012 record tally of seven winners at a festival looks under serious threat.
Not even a mind-boggling double-digit winner tally can be dismissed before the week is out with four Mullins-trained favourites due to race on Day Two alone.
But even for Mullins the idea of replicating his opening day rout might be too much to ask for.
Henderson saddled four winners on one day in 2012 but ‘only’ three of them were in Grade 1 races.
The Irishman has brought the most powerful team of horses ever before seen at Cheltenham in terms of strength in depth and trumped that in style and currently has such a hold on the sport’s top events that he couldn’t even plead surprise.
“You couldn’t write a script like it but I knew all the horses were doing everything right. We had no sickness, no virus, no bad weather – it was going scarily well. I thought coming here it was either going to be a great success or a blow out,” Mullins said.
“I was leading trainer last year but we had six seconds so we thought about how we could make some of those seconds into winners. Right now it looks we got over that little hurdle as well,” he added with some understatement.
The Champion Hurdle clean-sweep brought comparisons to Michael Dickinson’s ‘famous five’ in the 1983 Gold Cup. Paul Nicholls too saddled the first three home in the 2008 Gold Cup. But a trainer from Cheltenham’s ‘away team’ exerting such a grip on a championship event is new.
Faugheen maintained his unbeaten record in superb style, putting even his veteran stable companion Hurricane Fly in the shade.
“Faugheen has to be right up there with the other great horses I’ve trained. I’m not going to say he is as good as Hurricane Fly in his heyday as he has a lot more improving to do. What Hurricane Fly has done I don’t think can be surpassed – although if it is I’ll be glad to admit it,” said Mullins.
“But a 1-2-3 is a dream. On paper it is my best training feat. All three horses may go to Punchestown. I’ll look at the Aintree Hurdle as it is a race I’ve never won so I’ll see if I can send one of them there,” he added.
Cause Of Causes could be on route to Liverpool too, and a crack at the Grand National, but there was a sting in the tail for his jockey Jamie Codd who picked up a ten day ban from the stewards for his use of the whip.
Another Irish jockey, Paul Townend, followed up his victory on Glens Melody when scoring on Irish Cavalier, completing a clean sweep of all seven races for Irish jockeys in front of a record opening day crowd of 63,249.
There was one equine casualty, Theatre Queen, who was put down after a fall in the National Hunt Chase won by Cause Of Causes. Ground conditions of ‘good to soft’ and ‘good in places’ are anticipated to remain for Day Two of the festival.