Apparently impervious to deluges and gales, never mind horses saddled by rival trainers, Willie Mullins had won four of the five races they managed to salvage at Punchestown on Wednesday. Yesterday he brought his own force of nature in the mighty mare, Quevega, who warmed the cockles of the Festival diehards even as another squall swept across a gripping dénouement to the Ladbrokes World Series Hurdle.
For once, it had seemed that Quevega faced an authentic menace in Voler La Vedette, who had shown such ambition against another relentless champion, Big Buck's, at Cheltenham last month. Once again, Andrew Lynch gave Voler La Vedette a fine ride, restraining her behind a brisk enough gallop in the exhausting conditions. Moreover, he so timed his challenge as to give Ruby Walsh limited room for manoeuvre on the favourite, as the leaders began to fade.
But while both mares lasted on the bridle until the final flight, it was Quevega who found most on the other side. Driven out, she showed stamina to match her class to go over five lengths clear and win this prize for the third year running. "She's a good mare," trainer Mullins said, with epic understatement. "Obviously Voler La Vedette had great form, coming into the race, so we were quite worried. But she did the business. She's extraordinary."
He has not ruled out a race in France, but is more likely to put Quevega away to resume her usual programme, with a fifth consecutive Cheltenham win her priority. Walsh, as rider of both, is one of few who do not yearn to see her take on Big Buck's himself some day. He is indebted to Mullins, then, for taking a similar view. "I'll take Big Buck's on at Cheltenham if he can get an entry for the mares' hurdle!" he said. "The programme we follow with her works, and works fantastic, so we're not looking for other diversions."
Mullins had already won the banks race with Uncle Junior, who got up in the final stride under his son, Patrick, after negotiating over four miles of mud, standing water and a taxing variety of obstacles.
Ireland's champion trainer seems sure to extend his terrific run today in the Rabobank Champion Hurdle. His entrants are headed by Hurricane Fly, whose odds-on defeat at Cheltenham may be reckoned a below-par effort with no affront to the pair who beat him.
Certainly he lacked the zest that has characterised so many of his past wins, not least three at this meeting, and Mullins himself admits he hopes for better today. "His first bit of work after Cheltenham, I was a bit disappointed," he revealed. "But his last bit was very, very good, and he handles these conditions, no problem."
This latest, extemporised Punchestown card opens with three Grade One races. A showdown between Menorah and First Lieutenant in the Ryanair Novice Chase has been salvaged from yesterday, while Felix Younger has no Simonsig to worry about in the Champion Novice Hurdle, having trounced the rest at Cheltenham.
The British jumps programme reaches a formal conclusion on a mixed card at Sandown tomorrow, but there is some competitive sport on the Flat there this afternoon. Richard Hannon has won six of the last eight runnings of the Bet365 Mile and has two runners this time round, but confesses uncertainty as to whether Libranno will get home in such demanding conditions. Dubawi Gold, meanwhile, "needs to bounce back from an unpleasant experience in Dubai, where he lashed out in the stalls and caught his hind legs".
Chris McGrath's Nap
Kid Suitor (1.50 Sandown) Experience, improvement, fitness and ground all in his favour.
Penitent (2.20 Sandown) Back to his best for his new trainer, David O'Meara, and at home in the conditions for this Group Two mile.
Where the money's going
French raider Mashoora is 8-1 from 10s with William Hill for the Qipco 1,000 Guineas.