Cometh the hour, cometh Annie Power

A palpable sense of relief at a past laid to rest, and wild expectation for the future emanated from Cheltenham after Annie Power became only the fourth mare in history to land the Stan James Champion Hurdle.
Cometh the hour, cometh Annie Power

Her triumph came on an opening day which yielded yet more success for the Festival’s leading men, Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh.

From a distance we may take it for granted that the Mullins yard will continue to roll forward successfully but by the standards of the smooth-running Closutton machine it has been a turbulent few months.

Faugheen, it had seemed after his Irish Champion Hurdle victory, was better than ever and set to take the next step towards greatness.

A small suspensory injury later, a rather large spanner took root in the works.

And to compound the misery, stablemate Arctic Fire, who had been promoted to favouritism in the champion’s absence, joined him on the sideline just days later.

But there was still Nichols Canyon and even Sempre Medici.

Not enough for a stable with the depth of talent the Carlow yard enjoys.

Step up Annie Power — a mare with a chequered past at Cheltenham.

How quickly we forgot she had Champion Hurdle pretensions long before yesterday.

Think back to 2014. With Hurricane Fly as the stable’s main hope in the Champion Hurdle, it was decided to set her sights elsewhere. The history-seeking Quevega had a stranglehold on Mares’ Hurdle, and thus options were quickly becomingthin on the ground.

The World Hurdle was not first nor second choice — and that may have found her out.

There was honour but no glory in her runner-up finish, when the three-mile trip and a very good horse proved too much on the day.

Roll on 12 months. Faugheen was quickly establishing himself as champion-elect but with the record-setting Quevega safely in retirement, the Mares’ Hurdle was an obvious option.

For much of the race it was textbook. She travelled, jumped, and looked vastly superior.

But for a bookie-lifting, punter-flooring fall at the final flight, so it would have proved.

Third time’s a charm, they say. But we doubted her once more. She had so much to prove: The trip, the obstacles, not to mention the opposition or a rushed preparation.

But cometh the hour, cometh the lady.

And Ruby was positive. No doubts about stamina, on concern about jumping frailties, just a typically forward ride at a Festival at which he has been more successful than any other rider.

The mare responded. At no point looking like anything but the winner, she quickened clear into the last hurdle. With last season’s demise fresh in the mind, the crowd drew a collective breath as she left the ground for the final time. Audible relief for punters, visual relief for connections as she landed safely at the back of the last.

“I know Rich hasn’t enjoyed a winner as much, and certainly Ruby seemed the same way,” said the winning trainer, after watching Walsh punch the air numerous times before and after he and the triumphant Annie Power crossed the line clear of the gallant My Tent Or Yours.

“I didn’t expect her to do anything like that, particularly the way the race was run, but am delighted to have a mare as good as her.

“To come off a run in a slowly run mares’ hurdle three or four weeks ago, and to come into a championship race and jump out and make all was huge. And I think she must be able to improve more from that.”

Given the authority, does Mullins wish he had run her in the race sooner?

“No regrets,” he said, adamantly. “Last year was fantastic (Faugheen’s victory), and in 2014 Ruby was going to ride Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle and I wanted him on Annie Power, so she went for the World Hurdle, and was beaten by a very good horse.”

The thought of the new champ taking on the last one whets the appetite for next season but Annie Power may have her sights set on even greater things.

Mullins’ late father, Paddy, trained Dawn Run to win the Champion Hurdle in 1984, and two years later she became the first and, as yet, only horse to win that championship race and also the Gold Cup.

Mullins sees distinct similarities between the two and would “love to go down that route”.

“It would appeal to me — I’d love to do it,” he admitted. “We’ll see what happens, but it’s much easier to keep horses sound jumping hurdles than trying to go for the Gold Cup.

“When I saw her I thought this is the nearest thing to Dawn Run I’ve ever seen.

“We bought her with the intention of going over fences, and that will be discussed. At this point, I’m not sure. The same owner has Faugheen coming back next season, and has Douvan, and some novice chasers coming through, too.

“But if he wants to try to emulate Dawn Run with Annie Power, we will.”

The wealth of talent at Mullins’ disposal is astonishing and each year promises even more than the last. Now is not the time to speculate where they will might all turn up in 12 months — the racing public has had its fill of fluid targets this week.

For now we should marvel another remarkable opening day for a team which continues to dominate the meeting in a manner never before witnessed, and never likely to be again.

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