Celebration time for Willie Mullins
Celebration time for Willie Mullins

Willie Mullins Cheltenham Festival century: Donn McClean tribute

Donn McClean pays tribute to Willie Mullins after the trainer saddled a remarkable 100th career winner at the Cheltenham Festival.

The landscape was different in 1995. There were four Irish-trained winners at the Cheltenham Festival that year. Klairon Davis got the better of Sound Man in a thrilling Irish 1-2 finish to the Arkle on the Tuesday, Chance Coffey won the Coral Cup on the Wednesday for Pat O’Donnell, and Dorans Pride won the Stayers’ Hurdle on the Thursday, Michael Hourigan’s horse ridden to victory by Shane Broderick.

Tourist Attraction won the opening contest that year too, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the North Kildare Racing Club’s mare driven to victory by Mark Dwyer to spring a 25/1 shock, a first Cheltenham Festival winner for Paddy and Maureen Mullins’ son Willie as a trainer, still an amateur rider.

The Willie-Mullins-first-Cheltenham-Festival-winner story didn’t grab the main headlines in 1995, trumped, as it was, by Kim Bailey and Norman Williamson, trainer and rider of the Champion Hurdle winner Alderbrook and the Gold Cup winner Master Oats. The Willie Mullins story could wait.

The Cheltenham Festival lasted for just three days and 20 races in 1995. Six races on Tuesday, Champion Hurdle day, seven on Wednesday, which included the recently-added Champion Bumper, and seven more on Thursday, Gold Cup day, with the Stayers’ Hurdle run 40 minutes before the Gold Cup. They did race at Cheltenham on the Friday that year, but it wasn’t part of the Festival. We didn’t think it then, but it soon would be.


We didn’t think then either that Willie Mullins was an integral strand in the Cheltenham Festival tapestry, but he soon would be.

The year after Tourist Attraction was the year of Wither Or Which, the Welsh Term gelding who had won a Leopardstown bumper by 20 lengths on his racecourse debut. Inevitably, well-fancied for the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham, he was the subject of many offers, and the trainer had a decision to make: are we going to be trainers or are we going to be traders? The young trainer decided on the former, and rode Wither Or Which himself to victory in the 1996 Champion Bumper.

The momentum started to gather. Florida Pearl came along in 1997 and won the Champion Bumper and, straight over fences, Fact To File-like, went back in 1998 and won the Brown Advisory Chase. Alexander Banquet won the Champion Bumper that year too, a brace for the trainer and a first Cheltenham Festival winner for Ruby Walsh, but that’s a whole other story.

There were fallow Mullins years, 1999 and 2003, peppered by Joe Cullen and Scolardy and Rule Supreme and Missed That, another bumper-straight-to-fences project. And 2006, when there were 10 Irish-trained winners, when 10 different Irish trainers got on the Cheltenham scoresheet, and Willie Mullins wasn’t among them.

Remarkably, that’s the last time there was no Willie Mullins-trained winner at the Cheltenham Festival. In 2007, it was down to Ebaziyan, the Thurles maiden hurdle winner who sprang a 40/1 shock in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle under Davy Condon, the sole Willie Mullins-trained representative in the race.

Two in 2008, Fiveforthree and Cousin Vinny, and three in 2009, Mikael D’Haguenet and Cooldine and Quevega, who would contribute five more.

There have been marquee winners, Hurricane Fly’s two Champion Hurdles, 2011 and 2013, followed by Faiugheen two years later and Annie Power the year after that. There were the Stayers’ Hurdles, Nichols Canyon and Penhill, and all those Champion Bumpers, 12 of them if you count them up. Before this year.

There were trying times too, Annie Power’s fall and Douvan’s defeat, and there was that year, 2017 it was, when Willie Mullins drew a blank on the first day and drew a blank on the second day, and you wondered, would it be one of those years? You wondered if there would be any photos to hang on the wall at all in 2017.

The answer came on the third day, a Ruby Walsh masterclass, Yorkhill and Un De Sceaux and Nichols Canyon and Let’s Dance, rat-tat-tat-tat, and, in the end, the collage was full.

There was the wonder if he would ever win the Gold Cup, six seconds and no winner, and the trainer himself started to think that it might just be a race that wasn’t for him. Then Al Boum Photo won it, then he won it again. Then Galopin Des Champs won it last year, and now, suddenly, Tom Dreaper’s record of five Gold Cups is in view.

Energumene runs away with the Champion Chase
Energumene runs away with the Champion Chase

In 2022, the one marquee race that had eluded him up to that juncture, the Champion Chase, was annexed too by Energumene, who went and won it again last year for good measure.

And the Mullins milestones. In 2022, he had 10 winners, more than any other trainer ever at one Festival. He had six last year, which brought up his 10th Leading Trainer award at the Cheltenham Festival, and brought his total number of winners to 94.

On Day 1 this year, Gaelic Warrior won the Arkle and State Man won the Champion Hurdle and Lossiemouth won the Mares’ Hurdle. That was 97.

On Day 2, Ballyburn won the opening race, the Gallagher Novices’ Hurdle, 98. Then Fact To File won the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase, 99. Then we waited until the last race on the day, then Jasmin De Vaux won the Champion Bumper, driven to victory by the trainer’s son Patrick, and that made it all the sweeter, the trainer said, because that was 100.


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