Willie Mullins has made no secret of the fact that he regards the novices he has under his care this season as the best batch of young recruits ever to walk through the gates of his Closutton yard. And from the class of '09, he now has not just one, but two who are being touted as future Gold Cup winners. The pair stood in the winner's circle here yesterday 40 minutes apart, first the hurdler Mikael D'Haguenet, then the chaser Cooldine.
And such richness of talent is not causing Mullins the slightest embarrassment. "It's what we try to do, upgrade each season, like any business does," he said. "We're not necessarily paying any more money to buy the raw material. Maybe, at last, we're just getting better at identifying it."
Such self-deprecation plays down the Co Carlow man's expertise, but he is as aware as anyone of both the elephant traps that wait for anyone involved with horses and also the constant opportunity to gain insight and experience.
Cooldine, the third leg of Ruby Walsh's unprecedented Festival four-timer (he won Tuesday's finale on Quevega and had to sit-out yesterday's opener for amateur riders before taking the next three races), is now as short as 10-1 to win the Gold Cup next year after ruthlessly outclassing the opposition in the RSA Chase. But those who plunged in at the 14-1 offered as he pulled up for a race more than a year away should perhaps consider how fine is the fitness line that equine athletes tread.
Just an hour and a half before yesterday's fray, Cooldine was lame, standing on three legs in his stable. The problem was that a nail in a recently applied racing shoe was pressing against the quick of his foot; anyone who has suffered a torn fingernail knows how sore that can be.
Happily, it was quickly resolved by the racecourse farrier, Richard Stafford, with some technical skill and a little imagination. "He took the shoe off, but he couldn't put nails back in," explained Mullins, "so he glued it on and put Polyfilla in the nail-holes, and we put the foot on ice for an hour. And I owe that man a drink."
Out on the track, there was barely a single sticky moment for the 9-4 favourite. With Carruthers blazing a bold trail, Walsh was able to settle and pick his moment at his leisure. It came soon after the second-last fence; from there the only question was how far? The answer was 16 lengths. "He has the heart of a lion," said the rider, "and jumped like a stag."
Six winners of the three- miler have followed up in the Gold Cup, most recently Denman. Mullins has won it once before, 11 years ago with Florida Pearl, carrying the same red and white colours, of Archie and Violet O'Leary, as Cooldine.
Florida Pearl never did win a Gold Cup – the nearest he came was his second to Looks Like Trouble – but he was better than many who did. Comparisons may be odious, but making them is part of the fun of the game and Mullins is in no doubt about the relative status of yesterday's winner and the horse who still occupies the prime position in his affections. "This one jumps," he said, "and he stays really well. But he wouldn't be in the same class as Florida Pearl."
Mikael D'Haguenet was offered at 8-1 to win a Gold Cup – any Gold Cup, year unspecified – after putting a collection of unbeaten records to the sword in the Ballymore Properties Hurdle. And Mullins saw a rare quality in the 5-2 favourite, on whose behalf he had been fretting slightly about the quickening underfoot conditions.
"All winter, he's shown us a high, round action, the sort that is ideally suited by soft ground," he said. "I could hardly believe it when I saw him going to the start and jumping so sharp over the first two hurdles. He'd adjusted his action to long and low, like a typical good-ground horse. I've never seen one do that before."
The tall, angular French-bred showed another rare quality at the sharp end of the contest, the lightning change of gear that marks a top-class performer and to which runner-up Karabak, gallantly though he tried up the hill had no answer. "He was travelling in my hands all the way," said Walsh, "almost too well, if that's possible. When the gap came for me two out, he shot through it and put the race to bed in three strides. The horse that can do that is the sort I like."
With Tom Taaffe taking the Coral Cup with 14-1 shot Ninetieth Minute and Philip Fenton adding the closing bumper with Dunguib, the Irish raiders had doubled their score to eight victories from the 13 races and are more than on course to top their record of 10 at the second four-day Festival, in 2006. The Celtic tiger may have stopped roaring back home, but it is purring along quite nicely here, thank you.
Sue Montgomery: Cheltenham Tips
1.30 Pancake (nb)
2.05 BALLYDUB (nap)
2.40 Voy Por Ustedes
3.20 Kasbah Bliss
4.00 Three Mirrors
4.40 Go For One