Willie Mullins has four chances to break Gold Cup ‘hoodoo’
Champion trainer has finished runner-up on six occasions – but he’s not dwelling on it
Champion trainer Willie Mullins: his failing to win the Gold Cup has become “a thing”. Photograph: The Jockey Club/Cheltenham Racecourse
Willie Mullins knows his failure to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup has become “a thing”. When jump racing’s Blue Riband comes around his six runner-up finishes are always referenced. People have started talking of a “hoodoo”. Mullins wins most everything else – why not the Gold Cup?
So it really would be best if one of his four runners on Friday nips it now before this “thing” starts getting even bigger.
It’s not as if it’s in real hoodoo territory yet. We’re hardly talking Gordon Richards taking 28 goes to win the Derby. Or the Boston Red Sox waiting 85 years for the World Series. Or Irish rugby going 61 years without a Grand Slam.
It’s not as if Mullins particularly dwells on it either. Ireland’s champion trainer always insists on focusing on the positive since a lifetime in racing has convinced him it’s mostly a game of disappointments.
Point out the Gold Cup “thing” and he says it’s how you look at it: he views himself as being in the fortunate position of having had at least half a dozen horses good enough to run in the Gold Cup. Most people can only dream of that.
Still, it is there. And Mullins knows it. And he knows everyone is going to harp on about it until he does finally win the race he freely admits wanting to win more than any other. He has never been accused of lacking persistence.
That’s just about the one move he hasn’t made. Annie Power reminded Mullins of Dawn Run in many ways. But there was little point going over fences with her when top hurdle races were there. And it’s not as if there’s been a shortage of male options that seemed up to the job.
Florida Pearl first tried for the Gold Cup in 1999 and finished third. A year later he was back and for one heady moment coming to the last fence looked like winning. Then his dubious stamina gave out up the hill behind Looks Like Trouble.
The term three-mile chaser overlooks how the Gold Cup is actually run over three miles, two and a half furlongs. That final climb from the last can be tortuous. It looked to be beyond Florida Pearl despite all the attempts made to conserve his stamina.
“Maybe we were too conservative. We always felt he was too free. But if we’d let him go, because he was such a good jumper, he might have gained in the air and put others under pressure. Whether he’d have got home I don’t know.
“But Martin Molony, one of the greatest jockeys of all time, told me once he thought with his style of jumping he’d have put horses under pressure and got breathers himself. For someone whose opinion was huge that’s one thing I often wondered about,” Mullins ponders.
He doesn’t beat himself up over it however. Of the other five runner-up placings he reckons only once was he unlucky. That was in 2014 when On His Own was carried across the track by Lord Windermere, lost by a short head, yet failed to get the race in the stewards room.
It was a stark illustration of how interference rules overwhelmingly favoured the transgressor at the time and owner Graham Wylie was urged to appeal the decision. Instead Wylie immediately ruled it out, arguing he didn’t want a Gold Cup from the stewards.
“I thought we could have won that day. One time I might have liked to [appeal] but we both just thought, to hell with it, the ref didn’t give it to us on the day, so leave it,” he says. “But other than that I don’t have many memories of thinking if we’d done this or done that we might have won.
“Hedgehunter  ran the race of his life [behind War Of Attrition]. He certainly wasn’t unlucky. It was a really good run,” Mullins adds before failing to find any excuse either for Djakadam in either 2015 or 2016. “It was a fantastic run the first time and the second time he ran well too,” he says.
More than a few good judges reckon though that if there was one that got away it might have been Sir Des Champs in 2013 although Mullins is inclined to disagree.
Davy Russell had ridden Sir Des Champs to an impressive JLT victory the year before, nursing the Gigginstown runner in his own inimitable style. Russell suffered a punctured lung on Day Two of that festival however and Tony McCoy stepped in for the ride.
McCoy was never the one-dimensional jockey some of his harsher critics claimed. But he’d never ridden Sir Des Champs before and the suspicion remains that a patient Russell might have pounced on Bobs Worth in the closing stages rather than the other way around.
This time Ruby Walsh’s absence means more jockey shuffling is required. That’s “a thing” about Cheltenham. Certitude is rare. What can be said for certain is that no one will want to win this Gold Cup more than Willie Mullins.
And by the law of probability he has to win it sometime. Still, it might be a good idea not to mention Mayo and Sam around him today.