For Willie Mullins, three Grade Ones on Saturday became six by the close of play on Sunday as State Man, Gentleman De Mee and Il Etait Temps gave the Closutton maestro another Dublin Racing Festival treble of top-grade successes.
Who knows if State Man is good enough to down Constitution Hill but after the Grade One Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle, we can say with some certainty that he is a credible challenger.
Willie Mullins previously voiced concerns about his jumping, but whatever work has been done to bring improvement in that department is certainly working.
Paul Townend settled him in front and his jumping was an asset as market rival and three-time winner of this race Honeysuckle spent a little more time in the air than did the leader.
The race was still on as the small field turned for home, but one felt Townend always had the measure of those behind. The rapidly improving six-year-old quickened up to take complete control early in the straight and ran stoutly to the line to win readily.
As we’d expect from a champion, Honeysuckle didn’t buckle, and she held second place, half a length in front of Vauban but four and a quarter lengths behind the winner. The third-placed runner made an early mistake, became extremely keen as a result, and ran a super race to finish as close as he did.
“Paul surprised me when he came into the parade ring and he said he was going to make it,” admitted Mullins.
“He didn’t see much to make it, so I said to do that, and it worked out. The horse is not used to being in front, but he jumped well enough in front and Paul thought he was a bit idle. But he did it well, and you couldn’t ask for any more.
“When he has to be sharp, he’s well able to jump, and I thought he jumped like a Champion Hurdle horse all the way down the back. Paul asked him some big questions and he came up every time. I was very happy.” Bookmakers reacted to the performance by cutting the winner to 10-3 for the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, with Constitution Hill no bigger than 1-3.
Mullins’ Gentleman De Mee upset stablemate and long odds-on favourite Blue Lord in the Grade One Ladbrokes Dublin Chase.
With Danny Mullins deputising for Mark Walsh, who took a nasty fall from Risk Belle in the opener, the eventual winner raced close to the pace throughout and by the time 1-4 chance Blue Lord made a mistake at the second-last, the writing was almost on the wall.
The latter tried but never really threatened to get back on terms as Mullins punched out the JP McManus-owned Gentleman De Mee to a seven-length victory.
Said the winning trainer: “Disappointed with Blue Lord, but fantastic for Gentleman De Mee and great for Danny, who I thought was very brave on him. He was asking him all the way down the back and the horse was loving it, responding to him. I thought it was a terrific performance.
“Things didn’t go right for him at Christmas but his work on Thursday was very good. I was very pleased to see how he was moving, and possibly a bit of drier ground here played to his strengths rather than to Blue Lord, who had a very hard race here at Christmas – Paul thought that might have been the effect, but I think the change of ground.
“I haven’t thought about it, but I’m not going beyond Energumene for the time being, anyhow. But you need plenty of horses for races and if they all get there, I’ll be delighted. They’re all entitled to take their chance.
“He’s some super sub. He’s there riding sort of second jockey when Paul is not there, and just keeps riding winners for me, and I’m very, very pleased for him. He’s very brave. He rides very well that way (from the front) but he can ride them any way, but he’s particularly good in front.”
The Tattersalls Ireland Novice Hurdle resulted in Mullins’ third and Danny’s second of the day, but it also saw Facile Vega relinquish his unbeaten record in most disappointing fashion.
From an early stage, the 4-9 favourite went toe to toe with classy Flat performer High Definition but the latter made a bad mistake halfway through the race and unseated his rider, leaving Facile Vega clear.
However, it wasn’t long afterwards that some distress signals began to show, and by the time they turned for home, Danny Mullins, riding 14-1 chance Il Etait Temps, was travelling all over the leader.
As Facile Vega backed out, clearly not running to form, Il Etait Temps quickened clear, and by the line he was almost ten lengths clear of the staying-on Inthepocket, with Dark Raven third. The winning time was almost three seconds quicker than that posted by State Man in the Champion Hurdle.
“Brilliant weekend,” said the winning rider. “Just riding good horses, that’s the main part of it. Danny Mullins is just the luckiest jockey here.
"There was no fluke about that fright he gave Facile Vega at Christmas. The writing was on the wall for the clever ones to see it.
“Going by the second-last hurdle, I knew Paul was probably in trouble, but it was still plenty soon to be in front. But my jumping down the back put me there and, in fairness to him, he kept galloping well. It would have taken a good one to beat him, anyway.”