Blackmore adds to superb CV but can’t halt Mullins’ march to 100 wins

Willie Mullins reaches an incredible milestone on day two while Rachael Blackmore landed the Champions Chase

Brough Scott

Thursday March 14 2024, 12.01am, The Times

It took a star to stall a century. Willie Mullins’s unprecedented, unthinkable 100th Cheltenham Festival winner would come two races later, but first Rachael Blackmore foiled the expected trainer’s moment by making her own Queen Mother Champion Chase history on Captain Guinness. 

The Mullins-trained El Fabiolo had started at 2-9 favourite to continue his unbeaten six-race chasing career. Ironically, he carried the same light and dark green Simon Munir and Isaac Souede silks that Willie’s son, Patrick, was to sport on Jasmin De Vaux in that later moment of immortality.

El Fabiolo is, in jockey Paul Townend’s words, “a great brute of a thing”, and he has an engine to match. He had left Captain Guinness 14 lengths adrift last time at Leopardstown, but his jumping has looked to have its flaws. From the start it was obvious that his rivals were out to exploit them.

Edwardstone, Funambule Sivola and the grey, Elixir De Nutz, were the trailblazers. El Fabiolo was canny but not spectacular over the first three, twice losing ground when a bolder jump was needed. At the fourth, right in front of the crowd, Townend asked for a long one and he got it. But one fence later he didn’t.

El Fabiolo got his front end up, but without enough commitment. His forelegs twisted and his hindquarters crashed through the fence, causing him to lose all momentum. Townend was not a poised pilot, but a precarious passenger, and their race was over.

That left us eight fences and three zinging minutes as Tom Cannon on Edwardstone threw his heart and horse over fence after fence. It was an exhilarating sight, but Blackmore was always stalking, her hand firm on Captain Guinness’s foam-flecked rein.

Swinging into the straight and the second last, she took him and one final despairing leap was too much for them, and now it was the Mullins’s second string, Gentleman De Mee, that was the danger. Over the last, Blackmore’s mount held him. For a moment on the run-in Captain Guinness rolled wearily to his right, but his rider firmly straightened him and the Champion Chase was added to her astonishing, mould-breaking CV.

Appropriately enough, it was on a horse of Henry De Bromhead’s, who has also provided her with A Plus Tard’s Gold Cup, Honeysuckle’s Champion Hurdles, and Minella Times’s Grand National. Blackmore has partnered Captain Guinness in all his 22 races since they struck gold first time in a maiden hurdle at Navan in December 2019 and as usual she wanted to give the horse the credit.

“He’s an incredible horse and just fantastic,” she said. “I’m not shocked, because 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. It’s unbelievable.”

Blackmore and De Bromhead have now shared Cheltenham’s greatest prizes. “You just leave it to her,” the trainer said. “She’s such an incredible rider, and whatever it is about here, she’s amazing here as well, even better — as good as she is everywhere else, she’s even better here. We’ve had some incredible days.”

So, too, has Mullins and for him, his whole team, and in particular, for his family, this was a day of days. El Fabiolo may have fluffed his lines, but Patrick and Jasmin De Vaux were never going to muff theirs. First Jalon D’oudairies and then Romeo Coolio, both trained by arch Irish rival Gordon Elliott, threatened, but Mullins Jr and Jasmin De Vaux had a relentlessness which had a history about it.

So it was, 40 years on since Willie’s father, Paddy Mullins, saddled Dawn Run to win the Champion Hurdle, his son turned out a 100th Festival winner with grandson Patrick at the reins. The symmetry was beautiful as Willie led the horse back in the fading light, his face a beacon of fulfilment to banish any parochial beaten British gloom.

It was to wholly united cheers to which he doffed that now famous brown trilby in the winners’ circle and then linked with his wife and son around the century for the photos at the century maker’s head.

“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,” he said. “When I started out and had my first win here with Tourist Attraction in 1995, 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!”

Patrick Mullins is a key and extremely eloquent member of that team. “He’s a funny man,” he said of his father. “He could say something one day and when you do that the next, he will give out to you for doing it — he will forget that he told you to do that the day before! 

“He is always chopping and changing things, he is never standing still. He can’t be told ‘no’. When David Casey had his appendix out, he couldn’t fly down to Melbourne, so Willie said: ‘Well, can we get him there by land?’ To Melbourne! Who else would have even…! It’s that kind of thinking. It’s outside the box, at times it can be like the man from the moon, but enough of it works.”

The light was really going now, but the memories will not need extra illumination. For while Willie Mullins and his family, and Blackmore and De Bromhead may hail from across the Irish Sea, they have lifted Cheltenham and the whole jumping game to newer and better heights.

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