In the end it was a case of ‘so near and yet so far’ for Willie Mullins, as Paul Nicholls maintained his stranglehold on the UK Trainers’ Championship.
The writing was on the wall when Mullins hit the runners-up spot in the opening two races; Voix Du Reve unable to peg back Wolf Of Windlesham in the juvenile event and then Menorah rolling back the years with yet another success in the Oaksey Chase, beating off Valseur Lido in the process.
The win for Menorah gave Richard Johnson a thrilling success on a day when he was crowned Champion Jockey. How fitting that the victory should come on the Philip Hobbs trained star, owned by Diana and Graham Whateley. Many of Johnson’s greatest moments in the saddle have come when carrying those familiar silks. Menorah at the age of 11, continues to shine with conditions to suit. He was winning the Oaksey Chase for the third year on the spin. Valseur Lido probably found the ground a little lively, and getting in close at the last did him no favours.
When Un De Sceaux found Sprinter Sacre far too hot to handle in the Celebration Chase, Mullins’ title challenge was all but over. Henderson’s superstar was simply stunning, and though he’s not quite the Sprinter of old, he’s still head and shoulders above all other two mile chasers. His 15 length romp was aided by a horrible error at the third last from his main challenger, yet the result was looking a formality, even at that stage of the proceedings.
Nicholls will have been pleased with the improved performance of Dodging Bullets. He was badly outpaced for much of the race, but warmed to the task, and stayed on strongly to take third.
When The Young Master took the Bet365 Gold Cup Chase, with Nicholls’ pair second and fourth, the championship race was over, and Nicholls could celebrate his tenth title. He was almost crowned in style with Just A Par getting within a short-head of repeating his success of 2015.
With the rare taste of defeat still fresh on the palate, Willie Mullins decided to take Vroum Vroum home, and caused something of a rumpus in the process. The mare will undoubtedly now appear at Punchestown, but for those hoping to see her mixing it with the boys, it was somewhat disappointing.
Nevertheless, the incident could in no way take the gloss off a terrific Jump racing finale. Nicholls was understandably thrilled with the outcome: “I'm hopeful it has been really good for racing. We have all got stuck in, worked hard and got some great results. I thought I had no chance after Aintree to be honest. Vicente (Scottish Grand National) was a big day last week and all the horses have been going really well, just when you think it is over.”
Of his relationship with Mullins the Champion trainer said: “Some in the media say there is animosity between us, but that is absolute tripe. This has been the hardest one to win, because we have only had a couple of Grade One winners. We haven't had those top horses, but we won nearly £2.5million in prize-money and you just have to keep maximising what you've got. I've been very lucky to have those horses in the past. But when you have to dig in deep and do different things, it is a lot harder, so it probably is a lot sweeter. It is a fantastic day.”
Mullins was magnanimous in defeat, saying: “Of course, this makes me more determined to win the title next year. I'm honoured to be in the position I am today. I thank all my owners and team for putting me in this position. They all to a man said ‘Willie, take whatever horse you need to Sandown', even though they would be missing good prize-money at Punchestown. I think that is fantastic. I didn't expect it and didn't ask them. That was the feeling of my owners and I have to thank them for their generosity.”
Of next year’s challenge Mullins added: “Paul has had a fantastic team this year without Grade One stars and if we can keep our Grade One stars and perform at Cheltenham like we have been the last few years, then it's on. But otherwise, unless you win the National or something, it is difficult. They all have to stay sound and get into next season. But I would dearly love to come back to Sandown next season with...hopefully a better chance.”
He added: “Our rivalry starts when the point-to-pointers are first into the winner's enclosure or who is first over to France to buy one. It starts well before we get to the racecourse. It was amazing that Ruby Walsh worked for both of us over the years and I think that shows the respect we both have for each other. We have never had a cross word.”
And that title race will no doubt start immediately, with bloodstock agents hot on the trail of potential stars. In roughly six months, we’ll gather again to witness which team were successful in finding those hidden treasures, thereby enabling the winter’s push toward the trainers’ title.