Two Queens But Only One King as Mullins Rules Cheltenham 

Jackie, Patrick and Willie Mullins celebrate the trainer's 100th Festival victory | Racingfotos


CHELTENHAM, UK — “It's the Willie Mullins five as they come towards the last.”

Commentator Ian Bartlett issued a line to strike dread into the hearts of rival trainers. Mullins had picked up where he left off, with Ballyburn (Ire) (Flemensfirth) leading home his stable-mates Jimmy de Seuil (Fr), Ile Atlantique (Fr), Mercurey (Fr) and Predators Gold (Fr) in the G1 Gallagher Novices' Hurdle. The only other finisher, and one of two British-trained runners, was Ben Pauling's Handstands (Ire), tailed off, while Jingko Blue (Fr) continued a week of woe for Nicky Henderson by becoming his sixth horse in the last two days at Cheltenham to be pulled up mid-race.

In the parade ring ahead of the next, Queen Camilla looked unperturbed by England's apparent inferiority in the jumping ranks as she chatted with friends, very much at home in the Cotswolds. Just across the paddock was the man who trained Cheltenham's original 'Famous Five', Michael Dickinson, holding court amid a group of visiting influencers.

Things have changed since 1983 when Dickinson saddled Bregawn, Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House, who became an instant quiz question when securing their places in history by being the first five home in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Dickinson looked around, gesturing towards the impressive new grandstand, and said, “The Festival is so different now, none of this was here. It has changed and gone forward, it was nothing like this in the old days.”

The Yorkshireman has been based in America for many years but can't resist an annual pilgrimage to Cheltenham.

“It's four days of championship racing with over 200,000 people attending. They bet half a billion dollars and there's £7 million in prize-money,” he added. “That's it in a nutshell. There's nothing like this.”

There is also nothing, or nobody, quite like Willie Mullins. After Ballyburn came the stunning Fact To File (Fr) (Poliglote {GB}) to win the G1 Brown Advisory Novices' Chase and put Ireland's champion National Hunt trainer on the cusp of notching 100 winners at the Cheltenham Festival. He walked in to the winner's circle with an almost apologetic air. Nicky Henderson, his main British rival and the man who for a long time had been the winningmost trainer at the Festival, was barely at the races. Henderson had acknowledged the poor performances of his runners on the opening day of the meeting and announced the withdrawal of Jonbon (Fr), First Street (GB) and Kingston Pride (Ire) from Wednesday's proceedings.

As Mullins mused next year's Champion Hurdle potential of Ballyburn, his thoughts turned also to his friend and rival. 

“Nicky Henderson must be devastated, having to pull out his horses,” he said. “That's what I'm always dreading, that you have an axe swung in from the side that takes you out at the knees.

“We all feel for him, because we'd rather have beaten Constitution Hill to win the Champion Hurdle. We're good pals and we like the competition, and it's just awful for people. You save it all up for the whole year, your energy, everything, put it all into this and then the horses are taken out because of some mystery, whatever's going through the yard.”

Setbacks come in different guises, however, and by the time of the day's feature race, the G1 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, it was Mullins who was ruing his luck when his odds-on favourite El Fabiolo (Fr) (Spanish Moon) crumpled on landing over the fifth fence and, though swiftly back to his feet with Paul Townend still aboard, was sensible pulled up, all momentum lost. 

Instead, it was that immensely popular duo of Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore who prevailed with the appropriately named Captain Guinness (Ire), who had been second last year behind Energumene (Fr). This time around Mullins had to settle for second courtesy of his other runner, Gentleman De Mee (Fr) (Saint Des Saints {Fr}).

For the winning trainer it was a fourth success in this championship for the two-mile chasers in the last 13 years, but it was the first time his stable jockey Blackmore had won this particular race and it completed her triple crown to go with Honeysuckle's Champion Hurdles and A Plus Tard's Gold Cup.

“Here she is, the Queen of Cheltenham,” said the announcer as Blackmore was led back in while the actual Queen stood discreetly to one side applauding. 

Blackmore has long been jump racing's greatest gift. A fierce competitor on equal terms in an unforgiving sport, she would almost certainly loathe to be thought of as anything other than just a jockey, but she is indubitably one of the best we've seen and she just happens to be female. 

“You just leave it to her,” said de Bromhead as he assessed the performance of Blackmore. “I've said it all before, she's such an incredible rider, and whatever it is about here, she's amazing here, even better.”

Blackmore herself said after claiming her 16th Festival victory on Declan Landy's nine-year-old, “He's an incredible horse and just fantastic. I'm not shocked, because I thought his day would come, but at the same time I can't believe it came today.

“Although he was beaten a long way, he ran a really good race here last year behind an incredibly talented horse, and when you are riding for Henry around here this week he does just get them spot on, so I was very, very hopeful coming into the race. I'm just so delighted it's finally happened, and on the biggest stage of all. It's an incredible race to win.”

Britain did get two strikes on the board on Wednesday – both from the same stable. Dan Skelton, the trainer of repeat Coral Cup winner Langer Dan (Ire) (Ocovango {Ger}) and Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase winner Unexpected Party (Fr) (Martaline {Fr}), had started the week in less auspicious fashion by being fined £6,000 by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) for his part in the saga surrounding the sale of George Gently (Fr). 

In a “fast-tracked” disciplinary hearing into a case which has actually been ongoing for six years, Skelton admitted to two breaches of the Rules of Racing. He was handed a financial penalty but no suspension despite having been found to have misled or attempted to mislead the BHA in regard to the ownership of George Gently prior to his sale to a syndicate. Not the greatest PR for British jump racing at a time when its fragility is becoming increasingly apparent. 

Cheltenham, too, has issues that will need to be addressed in the near future in regard to the Festival. The attendance figure for Wednesday was 46,771, the lowest it has been since 2009. In 2022, the first year the crowds returned after Covid, there were 64,431 people at Cheltenham for Queen Mother Champion Chase day, but prior to the pandemic the more usual figure for the Wednesday had been just shy of 60,000.

More positively, the day ended as it had started, with victory for Willie Mullins and a significant milestone reached with his century of Cheltenham Festival winners.

“Willie's in the bumper” has been a favourite fall-back option for festival-goers for years, ever since Mullins trained – and rode – his first Champion Bumper winner Wither Or Which (Ire) in 1996. That sparked three in a row, and his tally in the Festival's sole flat contest now stands at 13 victories. On four of those occasions his son Patrick has been aboard, as he was for this significant 100th Festival win. 

In fact, these days it is hard to narrow down exactly which one of Willie's it will be in the bumper. This year he trained eight of the 19 runners, and the winner, Jasmin De Vaux (Fr) (Tirwanako {Fr}), is owned, like the unfortunate El Fabiolo, by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede.

“I can't put into words what it feels like to train 100 winners here, because nobody ever thought that anybody would train 100 winners,” Mullins said. “As I've often said, when I started out and had my first win here with Tourist Attraction I thought that was a lifetime achievement, so I'm absolutely stunned that we've come this far.

“We have such a wonderful team at home, with my wife Jackie, Patrick, David Casey, Ruby [Walsh], Dick [Dowling], and all of my head people. It's such a team effort, and they had all of those horses to saddle there. I didn't go near one saddle.”

He added, “I was really pleased Patrick got the ride. I wasn't sure he was on the right one, but he picked it and he was spot on.

“Simon and Isaac had the disappointment with El Fabiolo so for them to own this horse was a little bit of justice.”

It is indeed, for while Mullins is dominating the Festival, with six of the 13 winners at the halfway stage, those horses were owned by five separate owners or partnerships. It is hard to see the influx of young equine talent to his stable ending any time soon.


Not a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the daily PDF or alerts.

Copy Article Link

Liked this article? Read more like this.

  1. Honeysuckle Silks To Be Offered At Goffs Punchestown Sale
  2. ChildVision To Build New Indoor Facility Named In Memory Of Jack De Bromhead
  3. Cheltenham Was Always About the Horses and Britain Has Lost Ground 
  4. Galopin Des Champs Seals Golden Week For Mullins, Again
  5. Skelton Takes Trainers' Championship Lead As Brits Fight Back

Never miss another story from the TDN

Click Here to sign up for a free subscription.