JUMP SEASON FINALE 2024

Sunday Times

5th May 2023

Utterly unprecedented. Not only did Willie Mullins become the first Irish trainer in 70 years to land the UK trainer’s championship he did so by winning the Bet 365 Chase with Minella Cocooner to complete a previously unthinkable sequence of big race success. 

For no other trainer, not even the legendary Vincent O’Brien whose 1954 championship was earned mostly to the heroics of Royal Tan in the Grand National, has had a run which took in the Champion Hurdle, the Gold Cup, the Grand National, the Scottish National and now this final big race of the jumping season. 

What’s more, as at Ayr last Saturday, he did it with a supposed second string and had it ridden in the closest of finishes by his nephew Danny Mullins. Just to rub home the dominance, stable jockey Paul Townend rode the third Nick Rockett before proceeding to win the next race for his employer on Impaire Et Passe with his son Patrick Mullins third on Sir Gerhard. 

The statistics are overwhelming. With just 28 winners he has amassed over £3 million of prize money while also setting a new record of the yet unfinished Irish season of 247 winners and E 5.8million. The other trainers would love to hate Willie but he is so genial and gregarious that they can’t.

“It is very special,” he said. ““This is right up there with anything that I have achieved. To win the two Championships in one season, it’s not something we even dreamed about doing until we went close a few years ago (in 2016). I have been amazed by the goodwill that people from the racing fraternity have shown to us, over here and at home. We will celebrate it tonight, we will celebrate through Punchestown and probably a bit after, too!”

There was praise too for his nephew. “For Danny to ride this winner is extra special,” Mullins added.” He’s our super sub and after what he did for us at Ayr last week, this is magic. He got two terrific jumps coming over the last two fences and it’s put the icing of the cake.” 

Up in Scotland Danny Mullins got home by the narrowest of margins and yesterday things were equally desperate before getting the better of front running Annual Invictus right on the line. Mullins had ridden a canny race creeping through the field before swinging out round the whole host of horses who were still in it at the final bend. 

Five were still in it at the second last and one must spare a thought for 19 year old Freddie Gordon who got as brilliant a tune out of Annual Invictus as he had when winning the Great Yorkshire in January only to get chinned in the final strides. 

On a day when Nicky Henderson reminded us of what Cheltenham might have been with two winners including a marvellously authoritative repeat victory for Jonbon in the Celebration Chase, things didn’t work out for Mullins closest pursuer Dan Skelton. Not that the family were short of happiness for in the small hours Bridget Andrews and Dan’s champion jockey brother welcomed a baby son to add to the Skelton clan.

New champion Harry Cobden managed to stand up after a brutal looking fall in the sixth race but his stella 167 winner season has long established him as one of the finest and most stylish riders to ever grace the crown as well as being the most laid back since John Francome.

So we move on to Newmarket and to British racing’s most redeeming of virtues, that just seven days after its jump racing climax we have, in the 2,000 Guineas, the first classic of the flat racing season and with it the possibility in City Of Troy, of a horse whose promise remains infinite. 

There was no doubting the very real sense of excitement in Ballydoyle when I visited last month and Aidan said “yes, this could be the best I have ever trained.” But 50 years ago I was also in Ballydoyle to interview another O’Brien about an unbeaten three year old that he was describing as “a horse apart”. Vincent was a genius but Apalachee got beat in the Guineas and never ran again. Let’s hope the present does not reflect the past. 

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