A Mullins Treble Puts Cheltenham Century in Reach

Zara Tindall and Willie Mullins | PA Media


CHELTENHAM, UK — The biggest cheer all day at Cheltenham came from the Ascot crowd. Sir Francis Brooke, first Her Majesty's and now His Majesty's Representative at Ascot was engulfed by back-slappers and well-wishers as the horse he owns with Richard Pilkington, Chianti Classico (Ire) (Shantou {Ire}), ground his way through the extended three miles of the Ultima Handicap Chase to provide the sole strike for Britain on a day dominated – predictably – by Willie Mullins. 

Chianti Classico's trainer Kim Bailey has had his share of Cheltenham glory but those high days were almost 30 years ago when, in 1995, Alderbrook (GB) took the Champion Hurdle followed two days later by the victory of Master Oats (GB) in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the maestro Norman Williamson in the saddle for both. 

That was in the days when it seemed that the spoils were more evenly spread, and Bailey claiming two of the championship races in the same year was big news. Now, Mullins does that with regularity and the winner's enclosure on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival was again frequently occupied by his horses.

There seemed little doubt, barring the vagaries of luck in running, that State Man (Fr) (Doctor Dino {Fr}) would carry off the G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle once Constitution Hill (GB) (Blue Bresil {Fr}) had been ruled out last week. The latter is the only horse who has been able to tame State Man in his last 12 races, when, on this day last year, Constitution Hill handed him a nine-length drubbing in this same race. 

“You've got to turn up to win a Champion Hurdle. We turned up,” said Mullins, unable to resist a a gentle sideswipe at those constantly comparing his fifth Champion Hurdle winner to the rather more flamboyant absentee. 

“There's no wow factor with State Man,” he said of the seven-year-old. “And you don't go 'wow' when you look at him either, but he does what it says on the tin. He's that type of horse. It's very hard to be wow in that ground, but he's a good solid, sound horse and he just gives his running every time.”

There is a rather bigger wow attached to the lovely five-year-old mare Lossiemouth (Fr) (Great Pretender {Ire}), who prowled round the parade ring, cruised around racecourse, making light work of the heavy turf, then returned to claim her second prize on Cheltenham's main stage. She has only been beaten once in her life and we will surely see her in the Champion Hurdle in years to come but, having taken last year's G1 JCB Triumph Hurdle it was plainly the right decision to keep her among her own sex in the G1 Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle. The sheer depth of that race in recent years is testament to the fact that it is doing exactly what is was introduced to do, and that is to encourage owners to buy and race mares.

“You can say anything you want to in hindsight,” said Lossiemouth's owner Rich Ricci. “We had a plan and we stuck to it. Hopefully we'll be able to do it next year. We've won the Mares' [Hurdle], it's a Grade 1 and I'm delighted.”

It was in fact double delight for Ricci and his wife Susannah, whose colours had already been borne to victory by Gaelic Warrior (Ger) (Maxios {GB}), who had started the ball rolling for Mullins with victory in the G1 Arkle Novices' Chase. This provided a rare top-level winner over fences for the breeding operation of the Niarchos family. He'd been sold by them for only €9,000 as a yearling in Germany and thus became the first of two BBAG September Yearling Sale graduates to strike at Cheltenham on Tuesday. He is one of the standout performers, along with former Triumph Hurdle winner Quilixios (GB), for his sire Maxios, and his breeding is Niarchos through and through, with his first two dams and damsire Hernando (Fr) having also been bred by the family. 

Incidentally, lovers of racing trivia may recall that Maxios's half-brother, the Arc winner Bago (Fr), was responsible for the only horse ever to have carried the Niarchos colours on a Henry Cecil runner at Cheltenham when his son Plato (Jpn) won the 2011 St Patrick's Day Derby under Lorna Fowler, whose first runner as a trainer in the Champion Hurdle this year, Colonel Mustard (Ger) ran an honourable fifth.

It is now the norm for Irish-trained horses to have the upper hand at Cheltenham, and Henry de Bromhead, Joseph O'Brien and Emmet Mullins also wrote their names on the first-day scoresheet.

First blood went the way of de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore in the G1 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle when Slade Steel (Ire) outbattled Mystical Power (Ire) up the hill. The latter has the bloodlines to excel on the Flat or over jumps, as he is by Galileo (Ire) out of the brilliant Champion Hurdler Annie Power (Ire), but it was Galileo's son Telescope (Ire) who provided the winner. Though born in Ireland at Ballincurrig House Stud, Slade Steel was bred by British breeder Dena Merson, who joins an elite group to have bred a winner at both the Cheltenham Festival and Royal Ascot. The two horses are related, too, as the 2008 Ascot Stakes winner Missoula (Ire) (Kalanisi {Ire}) is a half-sister to Slade Steel's dam Mariet (GB) (Dr Fong). 

The cousins Joseph O'Brien and JJ Slevin combined for their second joint-Festival win with Lark In The Mornin (Ger) in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. The son of Soldier Hollow (GB) may not be one of the main poster boys for the breeze-up sales but he adds an extra level of versatility to the list of graduates from that division, having been bought at BBAG by Tom Whitehead for €28,000 and resold through his Powerstown Stud for 130,000gns at the Tattersalls Guineas Sale. Also the winner of Listowel mile maiden on debut at two, Lark In The Mornin was bred by Gestut Hof Ittlingen out of Loyalty Ger), a mare by their G1 Japan Cup winner Lando (Ger).

Emmet Mullins, who runs his Grand National winner Noble Yeats (Ire) (Yeats {Ire}) in Thursday's G1 Paddy Power Stayers' Hurdle, claimed Tuesday's finale, named in honour of his grandmother, who died last month. The Maureen Mullins National Hunt Challenge Cup saw the widest-margin winner of the day when JP McManus's Corbetts Cross (Ire) (Gamut {Ire}) shot clear by 17 lengths in the hands of Derek O'Connor.

“It was a great honour and a privilege for The Jockey Club to name the race after Mrs Mullins, granny, and it's extra special to win it,” said Mullins.

But the day really belonged to Emmet's Uncle Willie, who, with Lossiemouth, recorded a 97th Festival win. Don't bet against him getting a hundred up before the week is out, and there would perhaps be no more appropriate way to do so than in the hundredth running of the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday. Conveniently, and totally unsurprisingly, Willie Mullins has the favourite for that race, too.

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