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Dublin: 8 °C Saturday 11 July, 2020

Willie Mullins: 'I haven't let the Gold Cup burrow into my mind but now it's arrived it's fantastic'

Al Boum Photo’s victory helped lift the mood after Sir Erec’s death earlier in the day.

Paul Townend, Willie Mullins and his mother Maureen celebrate winning the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Paul Townend, Willie Mullins and his mother Maureen celebrate winning the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

I ASKED A jockey lately what a trainer to whom he was attached was like as a bloke. He paused.

“A great man when he’s winning, but…”

Nothing advertises the class of Willie Mullins like his manner when things are going wrong. Two years ago, with Douvan running no race as a mad-hot favourite and the yard having a disastrous Cheltenham until Yorkhill finally got him off the mark on day three, Mullins could not have been better to deal with from a journalist’s perspective.

Both in betting and racing, you tend to go from one extreme to the other with incredible speed. The third day of Cheltenham 2019 was one of the most heartwarming in memory.

The fourth began in the most demoralising of punches to the gut, a sickening reminder of the constant threat of death in this most hazardous of pursuits.

Before we talk Sir Erec, Mullins went through a million and more emotions in the space of one race. In what seemed little over a minute, three of his four Gold Cup horses were out: Kemboy unseated at the first, Invitation Only fell at the 10th; Belshill was pulled up in between.

And then he only went and won it – for the first time, no less, having supplied the runner-up on six occasions, with Al Boum Photo producing a career-best performance.

Before he could celebrate, Mullins had to first find out if his son Patrick were OK and secondly if Invitation Only were OK. Sadly, for the second time this week, a horse Mullins trained lost his life.

Five years ago, Mullins’ On His Own was edged out in a photo-finish against Lord Windermere and there was nearly universal agreement that the horse should have been awarded the race. He was not – and Mullins did not appeal.

It was remarkable, almost misguided sportsmanship from this most competitive of trainers, so pivotal in the progress Irish racing has made in recent years. To finally win the Gold Cup, his mother Maureen in attendance 66 years after attending her first Cheltenham Festival, will have meant more than words can describe.

“I didn’t think I’d have a good Cheltenham this year,” Mullins revealed after winner number four for the week.

“It used to bug me but after the fourth (runner-up in the Gold Cup) I thought ‘maybe it’s not to be’. But racing has been very good to me.

“I haven’t let the Gold Cup burrow into my mind but now it’s arrived it’s fantastic.”

Paul Townend onboard Al Boum Photo clears the last on the way to winning Paul Townend onboard Al Boum Photo clears the last on the way to winning the Gold Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The concern, now, is that the press will latch onto the harrowing sight of Sir Erec’s front leg flailing; that two horses died – rather than focus on Mullins’ first Gold Cup win and his winning the trainers’ title again.

In truth, this was a day when Sir Erec’s death took the good out of nearly everything. The youngster that Willie Mullins’ brother Tony described as the most exciting jumper he had seen never looked comfortable but his grizzly end will leave a mental mark on the many who saw it on TVs across Ireland and Britain.

The press-room here became somewhat funereal and it was not until the Gold Cup that the mood lifted again – that two hours later.

Those who criticise racing because of horses dying in combat are not without a reasonable argument – but they need to accept that the most passionate of racegoers feel genuine sadness and a sense of loss when incidents happen as that which befell Sir Erec.

Sir Erec was probably one of the best-backed horses of the festival, yet the considerations of the pocket were, for once, secondary.

Sir Erec was a beautiful horse, like his daddy, Camelot. “Maybe I am biased but I love Sir Erec,” his trainer said at a preview night recently. He was a glinting diamond to observe, a kind animal who wanted to please.

Before the race, the televised delay because he had spread a plate and had to be re-shod gave an insight into his benign manner. In front of tens of thousands of fans, he took it all in his stride, and then barely budged as the farrier applied his shoes for the last time.

He could have been anything. If Joseph O’Brien feels a little low this evening, Willie Mullins can provide a hand around his shoulder.

Bernard Jackman joins Murray Kinsella and Ryan Bailey on The42 Rugby Weekly as Ireland bid to spoil Wales’ Grand Slam party in Cardiff, and the U20s target their own piece of history.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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