Cheltenham Festival 2015: Willie Mullins' machines turn on the power... until Annie crashes out

Faugheen won the Champions Hurdle

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The winners, sport reminds us, are not always the story, even on a day when this Festival’s most lethal finisher opens with a hat-trick of Grade One victories and Ireland’s most powerful trainer racks up four. The fact that Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins were also tethered to Annie Power’s epic car crash served only to enhance the theatre.

It is perhaps cruel to dismiss the fate of Mullins’ mare as a great equine choke, but how to see it otherwise when she was four lengths clear and moving away at the point she butchered the final hurdle. That loaded moment contained the greater drama since it reinforced the idea that perfection is a thing only for Plato’s forms, that to err is to be human, and, importantly, that failure is as much a part of this business as the winning.

Walsh appeared as unassailable as he had been on those other Mullins machines, Douvan, Un De Sceaux and the mighty Faugheen. The last obstacle in the Mares’ Hurdle appeared a formality when Annie Power launched. It was as if she were jumping the moon. Perhaps she went a little early in her excitement, catching the top of the hurdle on the way down.

Her sudden, almost freakish demise bore an inverse relation to her regal jumping hitherto. The crowd, poised to commit hats and bonnets to the sky in celebration of a remarkable fourth for Walsh, almost sucked the air out of the arena with their collective gasp. And with that valorous collapse Annie Power bookended the emotional spectrum.

“I felt Ruby stood off at the last hurdle, probably through going too well and clipped the top. Ruby set her alight and she took off, but I was shaking so much I couldn’t really see,” Mullins said. The smelling salts came in the shape of Glens Melody, the second of his runners in the race and grateful to inherit victory.

Just as golfer Charl Schwartzel’s triumph at the Masters four years ago was lost in the maelstrom of Rory McIlroy’s torrid failure, so Annie Power’s catastrophic leap diverted the gaze from what had been a remarkable opening.

Spring burst across the Cotswolds, the sun warmed the National Hunt soul, glazing Cheltenham in a patina of gold. This was a day to propose to a bride, to bring a child into the world, to drive along the Riviera in a convertible Roller, or to ride a hat-trick of winners at the greatest show on jump racing earth.

Walsh, despite Calamity Power, described it as the best day of his career, and he’s had a few worthy of mention. Mullins suggested there would not be another day like it, and he once saddled nine winners across a meeting at Punchestown.

First, Douvan devastated the field in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Un De Sceaux hit the front and stayed there to romp home in the Arkle Trophy, and Faugheen did as legend demands, laying to rest the past two winners of the Champion Hurdle, Jezki and stable rival Hurricane Fly in another effortless display of front running. That’s eight from eight over hurdles for a horse fast entering fable.

Douvan lit the fuse with a display so good that Mullins has him marked as a future Cheltenham Gold Cup winner. On this evidence he could probably go again on Friday. Manoeuvring Douvan on to the shoulder of the front-runners as they rounded the final turn, Walsh hit the throttle and simply blew the field away up the hill.

Owner Rich Ricci, whose colours claimed the prize for the third year on the spin, said: “It’s unbelievable. He jumps easily, travels well, he’s a good mover. He is still raw. When he fills out and matures he is going to be something.”

Un De Sceaux was no less impressive, setting a lightning pace from the gun and seeing off God’s Own up the hill. “He jumped super, considering he was going so fast,” Walsh said in appreciation of a horse that delivered his first victory over fences at this meeting since partnering Kauto Star to the Gold Cup six years ago. “When Paddy [Brennan, aboard God’s Own] joined me on the turn I knew I had plenty of horse underneath me. He’s a very, very talented horse.”

The same has always been said of Faugheen. What he had been denied in his previous victories was a field to justify the hype.

Here, in the big race of the day, he turned for home flanked by last year’s winner Jezki and Hurricane Fly, the horse closest to Mullins’ heart and winner of 22 Grade One races, including the 2011 and 2013 Champion Hurdles.

Jezki was the first to fry. The Fly, justifying the love of his trainer, kept on like the champion he was, only to be snared in the run-in by the fast-finishing Arctic Fire,  giving Mullins an unprecedented one-two-three.

“Ruby told me a month ago what he was going to do and he did it,” Mullins said. “We thought probably that no one wanted to make it [the running]. Ruby thought it might be the thing to do. I wasn’t concerned at any stage.”

Walsh was ultimately vindicated in his choice of Faugheen over Hurricane Fly. “I know the betting reflected that I was always going to ride Faugheen but, when you see what Hurricane Fly is doing at home, it is still a big call to get off him. This is an incredible horse.”

This was an incredible day.

Comments