Brendan O’Brien: Even when Willie Mullins loses, he wins

If there was one moment that summed up the sheer size and strength of the challenge from Willie Mullins’ team here this week then it came shortly after four o’clock when the opening day’s banker Annie Power crashed to earth in the Mares’ Hurdle.

Brendan O’Brien: Even when Willie Mullins loses, he wins

The Irish trainer had, until then, enjoyed a day of supernova proportions, one where all his stars had aligned in the form of three winners from the first four races.

Then Annie Power did a decent Devon Loch impression and Mullins’ run looked over.

Except it wasn’t.

Cue Paul Townend on Glens Melody.

Like a soldier bending down to relieve a fallen comrade of the regimental colours, the stablemate of Quevega took up the mantle on the home straight and claimed yet another win for the Closutton yard.

“It showed the benefit of having more than one runner in a race, I suppose,” said Mullins. “We had another runner like that here a few years ago, Adamant Approach, who looked to have the race sown up at the last and then fell at the last with Ruby but those things happen.

“That’s sport and you have to just hope that no-one gets injured.

“That just shows that we are getting the bounce of the ball today, that we had our second string there to win it and I was delighted for Paul who was riding the second-string to get his Grade One winner on the board for the first day of Cheltenham.”

With four winners and almost half a million pounds in prize money banked, this was a profitable day for the trainer, bumping up to 37 the number of races won at this Festival and going some way to improving on a record in feature races that stood as his one asterisk.

Mullins’ warchest has been spoken of with awe for some years now, but the scope of his powers were positively devastating in a Champion Hurdle in which he claimed a one-two-three with Faugheen, Arctic Fire and Hurricane Fly leading the field home after the two-mile trip.

Most trainers would do a deal with the devil for one horse with the pedigree of Hurricane Fly in the course of their careers and yet Mullins can bring to post a successor in the form of Faugheen long before the great 11-year-old is even fit for pasture.

“He has got to be right up there,” he said of the new champion. “I am not going to say he is as good as Hurricane Fly was in his heyday. He has got a lot of improving to do. He is a very good horse and, over hurdles, probably the second best I have trained.”

The Fly may never be equalled, but the general dominance is suffocating.

Mullins told a few favoured insiders long before yesterday that something like this was possible. “Scary,” was how he described the preparations that had been so smooth and silky that he had to second-guess himself.

Were they kidding themselves beating their own horses on the gallops, he wondered. Obviously not. Like Brian Cody’s Kilkenny in their pomp, it may simply be that Mullins’ mounts face stiffer competition in their own version of Nowlan Park these days than on the pitch.

Mullins, like the humblest of sporting greats, tends to put all this success down to others rather than himself. Wealthy owners, canny buyers, dogged staff and jockeys like Ruby Walsh all get the spotlight turned on them by a man who tends to mention his own input sparingly.

He makes it sounds like he is a mere miner who just happened to strike gold in the gold rush of ’49 or, some smuck who gambled on the stock exchange and bagged a fortune, but his centrality to the operation was highlighted by his reaction to last year’s successes.

Not least among his attributes is ambition.

Still unsated ambition.

“It is my job to put the whole lot into the one mix. We have learned to use our gallops the way it is best for us to use them. So, the whole thing, we put it in and it comes out and the odd time you hope you have a day like this.

“Last year we had a fantastic time but, in reality, we went home and said we had four winners and were leading trainers, but we had six seconds and we just thought could we get one or two of those seconds into winners?

“This year, at this point in time, you are just thinking that maybe we got over that little hill. Maybe it’s just luck to get those extra winners.”

Hardly.

Not even Annie Power’s rotten luck could unseat Mullins yesterday.

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