His charge destroyed the opposition in yesterday afternoon’s RSA Chase on day two of the Cheltenham Festival.
“Oh, he has Gold Cup written all over him,” he emphasised. “If he can do that to the best novices they have in England at Cheltenham, there’s only one road for him.”
The Blue Riband of National Hunt racing is the final gap on the CV of the master trainer and if that particular wrong is not righted tomorrow afternoon, the Closutton trainer can dream of what his latest Cheltenham hero might achieve in 12 months’ time.
Although inexperienced, with just two chases under his belt, Don Poli was the confident choice of punters ahead of the season’s defining staying novice chase, and the six-year-old justified odds of 13-8 with a sometimes lazy, seldom flashy, but ultimately very impressive display.
The market leader jumped well throughout, with jockey Bryan Cooper happy to concede the early advantage to The Young Master and Kings Palace.
Though the rider never had the luxury of sitting quietly, supporters’ concerns were heightened when Cooper had to push vigorously as they raced down the back for the final time.
The unique demands of this track can catch many out but drew the best from this rising star. Excelling on every climb and responding generously to urgings, he found himself in front when leader Kings Palace over-jumped at the fourth-last and the chasing Southfield Theatre followed suit.
Momentarily back on the bridle, he was kept honest as Kings Palace raced on his inner to the home turn. An impressive turn of pace then carried the Gigginstown House-owned runner clear to the second last fence and, while he gave the pursuers a glimmer of hope as he idled going to the last, he simply bounded clear from the last fence to post a brilliant six-length victory over Southfield Theatre, with Wounded Warrior touching off the winner’s stable companion, Adriana Des Mottes, for third.
“That was a terrific performance. He’s probably as good an RSA winner as we’ve had, including Florida Pearl,” said Mullins, before explaining the winner’s tendency to race lazily: “He’s not keen. Our two horses in the first race, Nichols Canyon and Outlander, were both too keen, and lost their races, whereas this fella is quite the opposite, and I love that in him.
“It’s a bit unsettling for the rider because you always think you’re going nowhere, but he has so much in the locker, and he showed that when he got to the front.
“He looked like he was going to idle all the way up the straight but when he landed over the last and heard the crowd his two ears started pricking and he said ‘what’s this?’ and then galloped up the hill like a loose horse. That showed what ability he has in the locker when he needs to use it.
“Bryan said he didn’t want to get to the front too soon, but I said if you happen to get to the front on this fella don’t worry about getting there too soon, because he will fight off anything that comes at him.
“If you can get to the front around Cheltenham, hold on to your position — that was my attitude, and that’s what I said to Bryan going out.
“If we take it the RSA is the meeting of the best novices in the British Isles, he has, I think, destroyed them.”
For Cooper, it was a special moment to record his first Festival victory in the maroon and white silks of his retainers.
He said: “It’s great to get the monkey off the back. It’s great to be here after what happened last year (when he broke his leg), and to get the first one. Hopefully, we can go on from it.
“He’s a very laid-back horse and does things at ease. But, when you get him into gear, there is some engine there and he won with plenty up his sleeve.
“He jumped around there today like he was jumping all his life. I was at the front plenty soon, but he’s the one you want and he galloped away from them.
“In the first half they were going plenty quick enough, but I knew he’d stay and didn’t want to get too detached early on. I got a great jump at the fourth last and he came alive. That’s when you saw the best of him.
“He had plenty under the bonnet, and can only get better. He could be something special.”
Owner Michael O’Leary had a famous four-timer on the final day of last year’s Festival but was a relieved man to get on the scoresheet much earlier this time around.
“We had to wait until Friday last year, but, mind you, they’re all worth waiting for here,” he said. “All winter long we’re dreaming of winners at Cheltenham but they’re very hard to come by unless you’re Willie Mullins or JP McManus.”
Of the idle gelding, O’Leary added: “He’s a lazy bugger. Bryan had to get after him up the back but, like a lot of very talented athletes, they only turn it on when they have to.
“It’s great for the horse, great for the jockey, and the trainer is a somewhat unknown, emerging talent in Ireland, Willie Mullins, so it’ll be good for his career as well!
“Bryan is a wonderful jockey. He had a very bad experience here last year, on Clarcam, but look how well he’s come back. He gave him a peach of a ride.”
O’Leary, who has tasted victory in the Gold Cup with War Of Attrition, wouldn’t be drawn into thoughts of a second. “next year can look after itself,” he concluded.