Tuesday, the opening day of the Punchestown, was to be Willie Mullins’ day. Expectation was high that the stable could make the necessary start in its bid to reel in championship leader Gordon Elliott in the race for the trainers’ title. And so it did.
The heavily backed Douvan was expected to lead that charge in the feature race, the Boylesports Champion Chase.
But if ever there was a horse you would want to go to war with it is Un De Sceaux, and the diminutive star, long dubbed the iron horse by those closest to him, refused to be bowed by his much-vaunted stable-companion as he bounced right back to his best with a tremendous performance.
If, having been well beaten in his defence of the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham, and set for a real buckle until Doctor Phoenix departed at Fairyhouse, it was difficult to gauge where Un De Sceaux sat on the grand scale of his own ability, he told us, in no uncertain terms, that rumours of his demise were grossly exaggerated.
Patrick Mullins sent his mount to the front from the outset and he was unchallenged through the early part of the race.
But it was only turning into the back that Un De Sceaux’s old exuberance returned, and thereafter it became apparent he wasn’t going to come back to the field. If they wanted to pass him, they had to come and catch him.
Douvan looked the most likely candidate – nay, the only candidate – but Un De Sceaux skipped across the last three fences and ran on strongly to deny his stable companion by almost four lengths.
Elliott’s A Toi Phil denied Mullins a clean sweep by taking third place at the expense of Min.
The delighted winning rider said: “I have been dreaming about riding this horse, and since I was told I would be riding him, I have been like Charlie when he got the golden ticket in Willy Wonka. I schooled him yesterday and even schooling him was some buzz.
"But he seemed to warm up and I just let him roll as I didn’t want to take him back - a bit like Wicklow Brave last year. Once he was jumping and travelling, that’s how he puts other horses in trouble.
“He’s very intelligent, he’s looking at his fences from ten strides back, so Ruby, Paul and David just said to me ‘you just hold on and he’ll do the rest’.
"Realistically, I didn’t think he was going to beat Douvan or maybe Min on this ground over this trip, but he is a horse that always runs well, so you can never count him out.”
And the winning trainer was similarly impressed by his charge, who was winning for the 22nd time in his career and chalking up a ninth Grade One success.
Said Mullins: “I thought, looking at him, that he was not going in the first half of the race. He was on the wrong leg and not galloping out.
Of runner-up Douvan, who was bidding to get his career back on track, he added: “Paul thought he might have had enough in the tank to catch Un De Sceaux but when he asked him to move he slightly disappointed.
"But he showed he is no back number, Paul said he just didn’t lengthen his stride as he thought he might.”
It was the start to the day the Mullins camp dreamed of as the 9-2 chance became the third leg of a 1,858-1 treble and reduced Elliott’s championship lead from €521,414 to €226,714. But, oh how fortunes were to change in this wonderful but unpredictable game or ours!
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