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Sunday 17 December 2017

Cheltenham 2015: Day of days for Willie Mullins

Trainer Willie Mullins after victory in the Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy on Champion Day, during the Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse
Trainer Willie Mullins after victory in the Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy on Champion Day, during the Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse

Irish sport is littered with historic occasions but yesterday’s opening day at the Cheltenham Festival is right up there with the best of them as Willie Mullins managed to create history on two counts when becoming the first man to train the first, second and third in a Champion Hurdle and to win four Grade One races on one day at the Cheltenham Festival.

Holes could be picked in all four of the Mullins favourites on the opening day but that didn’t stop each of them going off favourite and even when Annie Power crashed out at the last flight with the OLBG Mares Hurdle at her mercy, another Mullins contender, Glens

Melody, was there to pick up the pieces.

Faugheen’s one and a half length defeat of stable companion Arctic Fire was a third Champion Hurdle win for Mullins who had won the race in 2011 and 2013 with Hurricane Fly who, himself, earned a fine reception on his return to the enclosure after staying on stoutly up the hill to claim third on ground that he’d now find far from ideal.

A winner of the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham last year, Faugheen was expected to go chasing this time 12-months ago but after impressing over two-miles when winning the Herald Champion Novices’ Hurdle at Punchestown last April, connections had a rethink and it proved to be the correct decision as he fulfilled the potential that had made him favourite.

Rich Ricci’s seven-year-old had been a long standing ante post favourite for the Champion Hurdle despite the fact that he hadn’t quite met with Grade One opposition this season but an almost flawless front-running display saw him leave both his rivals and the bookmakers reeling.

“I didn’t think he would win that impressively,” Mullins admitted afterwards.

“I was wondering like punters, the media and the bookmakers, could he take on the Grade One horses and beat them because we picked races for him that did not have Grade One horses in.

“However, it paid off and he has learned his trade and he got confident. Ruby rode him with huge confidence and he showed that he was the good horse Ruby and everybody else thought he was.”

Despite much speculation over the last couple of months about what horse Ruby Walsh would ride in the race, the winning trainer admitted that a decision had been made some time before confirmation arrived last week.

“Ruby told me about a month ago what he was going to do and how he was going to do it - and he did it,” Mullins continued.

“We looked at the race and we thought no one probably wanted to make it and Ruby just thought it might be the thing to do. I was happy once he was happy to do it.”

Walsh admitted: “It was a massive decision not to ride Hurricane Fly. I know the betting reflected that I was always going to ride Faugheen but when you are in a stable like Willie’s and you see what Hurricane Fly is doing at home, it is still a big call to make and get off him.”

Of Faugheen he said: “This is an

incredible little horse, a fine horse. He was awkward at the second last but pinged the last and saw it out well.

“It’s some training performance to have the 1-2-3 and a 1-2 in the Supreme. It’s a great place to work and the man is a genius. He has a great team of staff around him and it’s brilliant to be part of it.”

Reflecting on the efforts of his runner-up Arctic Fire and the legend that is Hurricane Fly, Mullins said: “Hurricane Fly ran a fantastic race and was right there at the second last. Possibly on softer ground, he would have made more of an impression. However, I don’t think he was going to beat the winner at any point today.

AMAZING

“Arctic Fire is improving all the time,” he added. “And it’s amazing because I still don’t think I have him fit - I can’t see a rib on him. He may go down the Flat route. He has the same owner as Simenon so we may look to for the Melbourne Cup.

“All three horses may go to Punchestown. I’ll look at the Aintree Hurdle as it is a race I have never won so I’ll see if I can send one of them there.”

Douvan had began the day off in the perfect manner. Despite drifting out to 2/1, Mullins, Walsh and Ricci hardly had a moments fear during the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle which they were winning for the third year in a row.

Shaneshill ran a blinder to finish second and Sizing John was third to make sure the first three home were all Irish-trained but Douvan oozed the class that Mullins insisted beforehand the horse had.

“It’s joy and relief. It was good to see that everything he can do at home he was able to do there. If there wasn’t so much at stake I suspect Ruby might not have let him come off the bridle - he has huge ability.”

Regarding future plans he added: “Douvan is every inch a chaser ... are they famous last words? I said the same about Faugheen last year,” Mullins quipped.

“He’s got scope and needs to fill out - after a summers grass I hope he comes back a big, well muscled horse. He’s raw bu has natural ability.”

The Herald Champion Novice Hurdle won last year by Faugheen is now the target for Douvan at the Punchestown Festival.

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