Only for the Mullins family this week, with some help from Rodger Sweeney, Ireland would have been sunk without trace.
Yesterday, it was Tom Mullins’ turn — he’s Willie’s brother.
Mullins was sure his chance had gone.
The binoculars he had just flung to the ground were proof of that.
His eight-year-old Alderwood was a 20/1 shot for the Vincent O’Brien County Handicap Hurdle in the first place and when he was hampered coming round the final bend, the Kilkenny-based trainer thought his latest shot at a first festival winner had been squeezed out.
Not so. Tony McCoy found a way. Again. Alderwood jumped the last with some ease and pounded on up the hill to break the trainer’s duck and get the celebrated jockey off the mark in a week that started slowly but ended with Gold Cup glory.
“It was a worrying moment,” said Mullins.
“It is the last couple of furlongs and that could put your horse out. It didn’t, obviously. He came back but I was very worried when it happened.
“We felt he might win a big handicap at one of the spring festivals.
“We gave him a run at Leopardstown last time and he wasn’t right. The vet said he was clinically abnormal, but was fine five minutes later and has not put a foot wrong since.
“He has been working well in the past three weeks and so we decided, to hell with it, we’ll go to Cheltenham.”
Any win at Cheltenham in the month of March is to be celebrated but especially so for a man with Mullins as a surname and one who has come close with no cigar here before in the shape of a few placings.
“He’s a great little horse and had a nice weight, under a great rider. That’s my first winner and hope it’s not my last.
“It’s nice because of Tony and Willie and my father (Paddy) and even Seamus, my first cousin. We all have winners here now. It’s nice to have on my CV. I did start to feel a bit left out. I don’t know where we go from here.”
It’s an extraordinary achievement for one family and one that started with Hazy Dawn, who won the National Hunt Chase for Paddy all of 30 years ago and who knows how many champions they will boast between them when this latest generation retires?
That said, it can’t have been easy following in so many famous footsteps but Tom has always accepted the raised expectations and pressures as a fact of life and has said before that he “had to get on with it regardless”.
Having completed the course at the National Stud in 1982 – the same year Hazy Dawn won at Prestbury Park – he spent some time in America before returning home and riding as an amateur for the guts of a decade.
After that it was a spell as an assistant trainer with his old man before taking out a licence of his own. He has had some notable winners in the years since but yesterday will stand out in the years to come.
“It is an unbelievable feeling,” he said. “I just wanted to get one on the board.”
Similar sentiments were being voiced less than an hour earlier by Irish jockey Dougie Costello, whose maiden festival success made up for his absence last year when a broken leg suffered the week before Cheltenham cost him an impressive book of rides.
Costello had been approaching the four-day event at the time on the back of his best ever season but he gave Countrywide Flame what trainer John Quinn called “an exceptional ride” to claim the opening JCB Triumph Hurdle.
“Cheltenham is a special place,” said Costello.
“His preparation wasn’t the best and he’s not very big but he is very tough,” he said of the winner.
So-called banker Boston Bob, in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, was the final nail in the coffin of many Irish punters.
He went off a ridiculously short price and, considering the manner in which he travelled through the contest, it was a miracle he managed to take second behind Brindisi Breeze.
This was a first festival success for the horse’s trainer, Lucinda Russell, and pilot, Campbell Gillies.
Indeed, Gillies was seen to real advantage, driving his charge into a decisive lead into the straight.
Ruby Walsh by now had thrown the kitchen sink at Boston Bob and, somehow, managed to work him into the contest.
But when the hot-pot landed flat-footed over the final flight his prospects, remote anyway, were finally extinguished.
Russell said: “It’s just fantastic, we have been trying so hard to have a winner here at the festival.”
Willie Mullins said of Boston Bob: “He ran a bit flat and Ruby said the horse didn’t carry him through the race. He did stay on all the way to the line and we live to fight another day.”
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