A symbolic day as Gordon Elliott shines while Willie Mullins toils

It’s been less than a week since a 26ft statue of Pharoah Ramses II, or Ozymandias as the Greeks liked to call him, was rescued from its ignoble resting place beneath a suburban Cairo slum and surrounded by dirty, running water.

A symbolic day as Gordon Elliott shines while Willie Mullins toils

The irony was lost on no-one.

The find was just another reminder that the ravages of time conquer all: Even the most imposing of rulers and empires.

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his famous sonnet. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Willie Mullins would sooner choke than utter such grandiose sentiments.

The Closutton trainer has built his empire with a calm and humility that doesn’t always attach itself to people of considerable achievement and an ability to meet victory and defeat with the same measured tones served him well on a trying afternoon at Prestbury Park yesterday.

This was a day that was always coming.

Just as the Dubs will lose a football match again some day soon, and England will be reminded of the taste defeat in rugby, Mullins’ frantic hoarding of victories and prize money in the Cotswolds was always destined to slow down.

It is far too soon to be declaring a definitive changing of the guard, but the course of events on the opening day of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival stand as confirmation that the winds of change are picking up in the battle for supremacy among Irish jumps racing’s leading exponents.

For the first time since 2008, all of the opening seven races passed us by without a winner for Mullins or, for that matter, Ruby Walsh.

Instead, we witnessed a hat-trick of victories for Gordon Elliott and a trio of jockeys whose bodies of work come up more than a few furlongs short of the game’s leading jockey.

Walsh has routinely spoken of the boon that is an early winner at this festival.

He mentioned it again yesterday morning on TV but there is at least has the consolation of knowing that, unlike in 2008 when the Wednesday card was abandoned due to high winds, he can hope to make his mark today.

Mullins, too.

With Douvan the prohibitively priced favourite to claim the Queen Mother’s Champion Chase, and the likes of Djakadam and Yorkhill yet to leave their stalls, Mullins still possesses an impressive arsenal and yet the effects of a rotten year have already been felt.

Michael O’Leary’s decision to withdraw 60 of his Gigginstown horses last September, the fatal injury suffered by three-time festival winner Vautour and the fitness issues that have deprived the week of Annie Power and Min have left the Mullins yard vulnerable to rising tides elsewhere.

That was captured perfectly by the finish to the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.

Elliott’s Apple Jade, a Gigginstown horse and former Closutton stablemate of Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag, found herself sandwiched between Rich Ricci’s pair of pursuers and losing ground on the latter before Bryan Cooper pulled her clear to claim the win for the Cullentra yard.

“I was waiting for Ruby to come and pounce but I was happy that I had a nice gallop,” said Cooper who claimed a seventh festival winner.

“I needed a good jump at the last and thankfully I got it. Her stamina proved the best. She’s tough as nails.”

She had a length and a half to spare in the end and the manner in which she continued to stretch the lead inch by inch as the line approached was all too symbolic of a season in which Elliott has drawn level with, and then pulled ahead of, Mullins in the race to be leading Irish trainer.

The changing landscape was evident at every turn.

“I have never had a winner on a Tuesday,” said O’Leary with no little glee.

“So it is great to have the pressure off. Now I know how Willie Mullins feels banging in winners on the first day. Normally I am here sweating it out on the last day.”

Mullins has had practise watching his old charges usurp him.

Don Poli winning for Elliott in December’s Lexus and Petit Mouchoir coming good for Henry De Bromhead in the Irish Champion Hurdle the following month were two notable ones that, literally, got away from him but this … this must have been excruciating.

Mullins was nothing less than gracious in defeat, offering O’Leary a handshake and a hearty congrats in the parade ring afterwards while remarking that there was a point as the first three came thundering around the final turn when he felt that this was going to be his race.

O’Leary thought so, too.

“It was a great performance and a great ride by Bryan,” said the Ryanair boss.

“He had to stretch Ricci’s two horses. Coming down to the last you thought Willie would be one and two but this mare just keeps fighting and keeps fighting. Gordon has done a magnificent training job.”

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