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Dublin: 6°C Saturday 27 February 2021
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Johnny Ward: Few things bring emotion out like a sporting personality rolling back the years

It was a good day for Willie Mullins at Leopardstown.

Trainer Willie Mullins at Leopardstown yesterday.
Trainer Willie Mullins at Leopardstown yesterday.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

IN A PANDEMIC, somehow seemingly never-ending despite it being perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime thing, there is a marvellous beauty in what we took to be normal.

To wallow, as Kavanagh wrote, in the habitual. This morning, Gardai were out in force near the coast at Portmarnock: they had a specific intention, doing their job, to prevent the public from breaking the rules of pandemic restriction.

So, on a morning in early February, the police in Ireland were preventing people from swimming in the open water. What odds would you get on that 12 months ago?

These are truly mind-bogglingly extraordinary times, yet whatever odds you would have gotten about the coppers turning would-be swimmers away from Portmarnock beach, they would be nothing like as short as the prices of Willie Mullins’ winners on day one of the Dublin Racing Festival.

Forget for a moment that a year ago racing went back in time when the crowd actually participated in the sport again and cheered on Faugheen whether they had backed him or not to defy age and allow them to hark to a time when he did that sort of thing blindfolded. Few things bring emotion out like a sporting personality rolling back the years.

Against that backdrop, the sound of silence at Leopardstown today would have been exceptionally eerie for the four jockeys who rode winners – were they not so accustomed to it all after the guts of a year of it. But if racing needed performances of virtuosity perhaps not unexpected but still quite staggering, it got it – thanks to Willie Mullins and Honeysuckle.

It began with a Mullins one-two in the staying novice hurdle, Paul Townend’s first leg of a treble the cool steer aboard Gaillard Du Mesnil, yet somehow a five-length success in a Grade One was rendered ordinary by the performance of Chacun Pour Soi in the feature of the chases.

Ruby Walsh was not alone in admitting afterwards that how he travelled in the race made him uneasy: Mullins was of the same view. “I was worried at the third-last: had Paul anything left? He seemed to be niggling. At the second-last, he’s not putting this race to bed or anything. But Paul felt he was in command at all stages.”

Fair enough, Min had an off-day and perhaps Chacun Pour Soi did what he was entitled to do, but he’s beyond majestic. What can beat him in the Queen Mother come March?

Not stablemate Energumene, in any event: he is not entered. But there were more than a few commenting after the novice’s sensational front-running rout in the following race, run over the very same course and distance on ground that was at this stage getting worse, that he had run a faster time than Chacun Pour Soi. Sacre bleu!

“I thought that was a hell of performance from a novice. He jumped and galloped and gave no quarter to any horse,” said Mullins.

“Obviously when you get that type of performance you’re delighted as you don’t ever expect that.”

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It was hard to know what the hook was when looking back on the day, since Honeysuckle’s effort in the Champion Hurdle was, in many ways, as stunning a visual victory in this race as we have seen. Henry de Bromhead has spoken how she was initially not a particularly remarkable character in his stables near another coastline, that of Tramore, but once she started winning big races she developed into a real madam who knew the boss that she was.

I doubted that she could boss this race like she did yesterday, given the calibre of rivals, but de Bromhead didn’t. Neither did Blackmore, who rode a race full of confidence, tactical acumen and belief in what could be her first Champion Hurdle winner at Cheltenham.

“Class” was how the trainer described the mare. “Class” was how the rider described the mare. And it was notable that de Bromhead preferred to talk about Leopardstown than Cheltenham: regardless of what anyone says, this means a lot, and Cheltenham means a bit less this season with no racegoers to cheers on a horse like Honeysuckle.

“We’ll enjoy today. We’ve won a Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle which is amazing. There is a lot of relief after that and I don’t feel as sick as I did ten minutes ago,” he said.

That young Simon Torrens could take both handicaps (Wave Of The Sea and Drop The Anchor) on a day as demanding as this was the stuff of dreams, but there was time for another wow: Kilcruit’s demolition job in the bumper.

On a day when Dubliners were denied access to the Baltic Irish Sea, Kilcruit looked like he could simply walk on water. Breezing to victory by a dozen lengths, hard held, that brought up the Willie Mullins four-timer.

The great man was talking about Energumene when he said: “He’s every inch a chaser to look at. If you were going to draw a picture of a chaser he’s the one you’d draw.”

He might have been talking about Monkfish, one of the star attractions tomorrow. There are three other Grade 1s, too, and many multiples of those in terms of reasons to be thankful, in these horrible times, that we still have these breathtaking horses to see.

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Johnny Ward

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