Team Mullins roared back to life with a stunning four-timer on day three of the Cheltenham Festival.
Yorkhill set the ball rolling with victory in the JLT Novices’ Chase. Many had expected Disko to set the fractions after his dominant display in the Flogas Chase last time in Ireland. But for reasons best known to himself, Bryan Cooper thought it wise to sit patiently on Noel Meade’s talented six-year-old, and try to out-sprint last year’s Neptune winner (Yorkhill) and Top Notch, fifth in the 2016 Champion Hurdle.
Needless to say, the tactics proved wide of the mark, as both swept past him from the second last, with Yorkhill having the class and the gears to hold-off Nicky Henderson’s gutsy challenger by a length, with Cooper and Disko three lengths further back in third. It certainly wasn’t the Gigginstown jock’s finest hour. Nevertheless, Ruby Walsh wasn’t complaining, as his mount made it two Festival wins on the bounce.
A relieved Willie Mullins said: “To get on the board is huge. To get on the board in a Grade One is better. It's good for Ruby and the whole team. We've had a hard few days, but that's the way it is and we take what we can get.” Walsh was bullish after the win, saying: “He's got 'Gold Cup horse' written all over him and always had. People crab him because of his jumping, but he has a huge kink in him - people never realised the job Paul Nicholls did with Denman, because he was the same. Both are chestnuts by Presenting, the best ones all have a kink, he has a massive engine. He's brilliant. He's fantastic.”
There’s no doubting that Yorkhill is a classy racehorse; winning twice at the Cheltenham Festival is testament to that. But I’d be surprised if a one length victory over Top Notch in a JLT makes him a potential Gold Cup winner.
Things improved further for Mullins and Walsh, when Un De Sceaux put in a dominant display to win the Ryanair Chase. Briefly held up, the horse as much as the jockey decided to make the running from the fifth fence, and at no point in proceedings looked like being caught. It was a stunning performance from the winner, who has now won 18 of his 23 career starts.
Walsh said of the win: “I was a passenger. I got him back at the first fence down the back, but he attacked and jumped and he stayed. The jump at the last was special. He's a cracking little horse and he's so consistent, he must be a joy to own, he's a little tiger. He wants soft ground at two miles which is why we went two and a half miles on better ground.”
Just half an hour later, Team Mullins were at it again, this time in the Stayers’ Hurdle. Like Yorkhill, Nichols Canyon is owned by Graham and Andrea Wylie, and though somewhat different in stature, has proved no less talented. Third to Annie Power last year in the Champion Hurdle, the step up to three miles looked risky, but the decision proved to be spot-on. He travelled beautifully throughout, and when asked for his effort quickened and stayed for a decisive victory. Lil Rockerfeller battled on bravely for second, with race favourite Unowhatimeanharry, just done for toe back in third.
It was a cracking renewal, with Cole Harden doing his best to repeat his success of 2015 from the front. Neil King’s Lil Rockerfeller took over as they turned for home, but it was the superior speed of Nichols Canyon that proved the telling factor. Jezki looked threatening approaching the home turn, but failed to see-out the trip. Shaneshill proved disappointing, as did novice West Approach, with both being pulled-up late-on.
For owner Graham Wylie, the victory brought back memories of a previous hurdling hero, Inglis Drever. Speaking after the success he said: “When I told Willie to buy a horse for me, he rang me up and said 'I think I've found you the next Inglis Drever'. He looks like him as he's only a pony, but he flew up the hill. Ruby told me he'd ride him like that to make sure he got the trip. It wasn't until approaching the last I thought he might get placed, never mind win.”
Mullins said: “It was some performance. I didn't particularly think the three miles would suit. He is tough, I just thought he would be too keen over that trip. With age, a lot of these horses learn to settle.”
Walsh was also impressed, saying: “He's a little warrior. He switched off, he jumped and we just crept away. Lil Rockerfeller was battling back at me but he kept going all the way to the line. He just started to come back to himself the last 10 days, Katie (Walsh) rode him at the Curragh the other day and said he worked very well. I'm delighted for Graham and Andrea (Wylie), this race means a lot to them.”
The four-timer was landed when Let’s Dance romped to victory in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. Ruby was again exceptional in the saddle, judging the pace of the race to perfection. He had his mount way-out the back, until making his move between the last two flights. The five-year-old dived a little at the last, but that didn’t prevent her from storming up the hill for an impressive win.
The victory also signalled a welcome change of fortune for owner Rich Ricci. He’s had to endure an incredible run of misfortune, with Douvan’s disappointing run in the Champion Chase the latest blow. The well-known saying ‘Form is temporary – Class is permanent’, was never more apt than at Cheltenham yesterday. Mullins, Walsh and Ricci team up with Djakadam today in the Gold Cup.