Willie Mullins passes Nicky Henderson’s record with 61st Cheltenham winner
‘We never thought you could do that with a base in Ireland coming over her’
Willie Mullins secured a record 61st winner at Cheltenham on Thursday when Laurina claimed the Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire
On what came agonisingly close to being a landmark day at Cheltenham for Irish racing, Willie Mullins secured his own piece of history with a double through Penhill and Laurina that makes him the most successful ever trainer at the Festival.
Penhill sprang a 12-1 surprise in the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle. But the sense of inevitability about Laurina’s 4-7 success in the Trull Mares’ Novice Hurdle mirrored that of Mullins’s remorseless running down of the legendary Nicky Henderson in the all-time table. Mullins now stands at 61 victories.
What’s remarkable is how Henderson began his own haul of 60 Festival winners over a decade before his Irish rival. And from the not insignificant advantage of having a base just 45 miles down the M4.
But Mullins’s transformation of National Hunt racing is such he has overhauled Henderson from his Irish base. As away victories go it bears comparison with anything seen in Irish sport generally and is perhaps best correlated to Aidan O’Brien’s sustained excellence at Royal Ascot.
“It’s unbelievable. When you start training you’re hoping you might get one winner at the Festival. That’s the aspiration most Irish trainers have. It’s something we never dreamed of because we never thought you could do that with a base in Ireland coming over here,” Mullins said.
If one man had an wider smile after the Mullins double it was his jockey Paul Townend, whose luck changed for the better courtesy of Penhill and Laurina.
Earlier in the week Mullins’s number two jockey endured the grinding frustration of second place finishes in the Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase.
On the back of Ruby Walsh’s injury on Wednesday, Townend was then shuffled off the eventual winner Bleu Berry to ride the apparently more fancied Max Dynamite in the Coral Cup.
If that was hardly conducive to improving the Cork man’s mood, finishing runner-up again on Un De Sceaux in Thursday’s Ryanair Chase would have convinced most their festival luck was out.
But at the end of a Stayers’ run at enough of a crawl to threaten the trade descriptions act, Townend produced Penhill with perfect timing to win day three’s championship event by two lengths from Supasundae.
“It means a lot. It’s been a strange couple of days. It was getting frustrating to say the least. I’m just relieved. To win a championship race here is very special. I’m lucky to be riding for Willie. He’s a genius,” Townend said.
No one seemed more surprised at Penhill’s victory though than Mullins who admitted: “I never dreamed he’d win. I hoped he’d run well and go to Punchestown. He’s very hard to train and I’m surprised how little he’s blowing. Paul’s blowing more!
“I have to give a lot of credit to his lass, Holly Conte, who rides him every day and treats him like a child every night. She really looks after him. He has little niggles that need tending. When I told her I wanted this fellow for Cheltenham, she’s got him here,” he added.
In contrast Laurina’s rout could hardly have been more straightforward. Townend barely had to move a muscle as she sauntered 18 lengths clear.
“She’s a fine big mare. If there was ever going to be a mares’ chase in Cheltenham she’s the type you’d want for it,” Mullins said. “Her two runs at home have been very good. But to do that against the best in the British Isles is unbelievable.”
It’s a comment that could equally apply to her trainer. With eight winners for the week and an all-time record already in the bag, perhaps a first Gold Cup victory on Friday may yet provide the perfect cherry on top for the Irishman.