Tag Archive for: Paul Townend

Jack Kennedy claims first Irish jockeys’ title

Jack Kennedy survived having to sit out the final day of the season through suspension to claim his first Irish jump jockeys’ championship.

Paul Townend had topped the table for the past five years but went into the last afternoon of the Punchestown Festival trailing 123-119, with five booked rides left to turn things around.

His task was made even harder when opening mount Klarc Kent was pulled up and a smooth success for Lossiemouth only delayed matters, before Glengouly was another Townend ride who failed to complete the course.

Townend closed the gap to two when scoring on Kargese but was out of luck on his final mount Olympic Man.

Kennedy, who has struck up a formidable partnership with trainer Gordon Elliott, said: “It’s an unbelievable feeling to have won the championship.

Punchestown Festival – Day Five – Saturday May 4th
Trainer Gordon Elliott and new Irish National Hunt champion jockey Jack Kennedy (Brian Lawless/PA).

“Paul got close enough in recent weeks to give me loads of sleepless nights but I’m delighted to have hung on. I’ve had a great 12 months, leading the championship for much of the way and riding over 100 winners in a season for the first time in my career.

“There were loads of great days and riding Grade One winners in Ireland on such good horses as Gerri Colombe, Teahupoo, Farren Glory, Found A Fifty, Caldwell Potter and Irish Point was very special.

“A massive thanks to Gordon and all the owners, all the staff in Gordon’s and all the trainers that have supported me this year, my agent Kevin O’Ryan and everyone behind me. Without my family, this wouldn’t be possible.”

Elliott added: “I’m thrilled for Jack. We have been thinking about this day since he was 16!

“Unfortunately, he got a couple of hold-ups each year. Last year, he was clear but got hurt in Naas. We knew this year he was in good nick. He’s a lot stronger.

“I’m so happy. He deserves this more than anyone, with all the injuries that he’s had. He bounces back and that’s his attitude. Hopefully we’ll get another 10 or 15 years out of him.”

Willie Mullins
Willie Mullins receives his trainers’ championship award (PA)

Willie Mullins continued his domination of the National Hunt trainers’ championship in Ireland, coming out on top for the 18th time and adding to his memorable title triumph in Britain.

He said: “It’s fair to say that this has been our best season at home and abroad, and it is a credit to our hard-working and dedicated team that we are celebrating again today.

“The horses have been in some order from around November-time. They’ve just been so healthy and even this week, some of them have been putting in their best performances. When you have a healthy horse, they can keep on improving the whole season through.”

Champion owner JP McManus said: “It’s such a great honour to win this title and I feel so lucky. My sincere thanks to all the trainers, jockeys, stable staff and all who contributed so much to my success.

“I have had wonderful days out with my family, grandchildren and friends and the season has given me memories which I will greatly treasure.”

Danny Gilligan was crowned the champion conditional rider, Patrick Mullins was the leading amateur jockey and Jody Townend prevailed in the female version of that category.

Kargese win ends Mullins’ Grade One campaign on a high

Willie Mullins extended his record haul of Grade One wins in a season to 39 after Kargese came with a flying finish to claim the Ballymore Champion Four Year Old Hurdle at Punchestown.

The Closutton maestro had already struck with Lossiemouth earlier on in the day and Paul Townend produced this 9-4 favourite with a perfectly-timed run to add another to the tally.

Kargese provided one of those elite-level victories at the Dublin Racing Festival in February, before finishing second in the Triumph at Cheltenham and again at Aintree.

She had pulled too hard early on during those runner-up efforts but settled much better under a confident ride from Townend on this occasion.

It seemed as though the jockey may have been a touch too patient when Kargese still had four horses to pass approaching the final flight.

However, a swift jump at that obstacle meant she landed with more momentum than the other contenders and Kargese came home a length and a half ahead of Bottler’secret.

Mullins said: “She’s very tough. She was really hard on herself in Aintree, so that was a tremendous performance to come back and win here.

Punchestown Festival – Day Five – Saturday May 4th
Kargese ridden by Paul Townend after winning at Punchestown (Brian Lawless/PA).

“To see where she was turning from home, Paul certainly got his fractions right there and got the jump right at the last.

“I think she deserved that after the way she ran in Aintree.”

Connections now have a decision to make with regards future plans for the Kenny Alexander-owned Kargese.

“She is big enough to jump a fence,” said Mullins. “I’d imagine she will stay over hurdles but we’ll have a word with Peter Molony (Alexander’s racing manager) to see what he thinks.”

Lossiemouth strolls to another Grade One success

Lossiemouth cruised to victory in the Coolmore N.H. Sires Bolshoi Ballet Irish EBF Mares Champion Hurdle to complete a Cheltenham-Punchestown double for the second straight season.

Last term, she followed up her Triumph success by battling home in the Champion Four Year Old Hurdle in County Kildare.

This time, the Willie Mullins-trained five-year-old arrived at Punchestown on the back of comfortably accounting for Telmesomethinggirl in the Mares’ Hurdle at Prestbury Park.

That same rival built up a healthy lead early on under Rachael Blackmore but Paul Townend and Lossiemouth always had the front-runner in their sights when lying second and took control before entering the home straight.

Stablemates Gala Marceau and Ashroe Diamond did their best to go with Lossiemouth but the result was never in doubt and it was all plain sailing for the 2-11 favourite, who crossed the line seven lengths clear.

Townend said: “She stamped her authority on it again there. She is just superior to the other mares at the moment. It’s lovely to have her.

“It was a good test today. The only scare was up the side when Rachael was dropping back. I wanted to pop and she (Lossiemouth) had a cut at it.”

Punchestown Festival – Day Five – Saturday May 4th
Lossiemouth and jockey Paul Townend after winning at Punchestown (Brian Lawless/PA).

Speculation will now be rife regarding whether Lossiemouth will be given the chance to take on the boys at elite level next season.

Townend would rather see her continue on a different path to stablemate State Man and added: “It’s a privilege to ride both. I hope they stay apart for as long as possible.”

But Mullins commented: “Off that gallop, it was a great performance. Paul wanted to keep the lid on, for want of a better word.

“I think she has done enough for the year. All being well, she will go for the Champion Hurdle next year.”

Dancing City backs up Aintree win with gritty Punchestown success

Dancing City had to dig deep to repel the challenge of fellow Willie Mullins runner High Class Hero in the Channor Real Estate Group Novice Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival.

The winner was sent off as the 7-4 favourite in the hands of Paul Townend having claimed Grade One glory at last month’s Grand National meeting at Aintree, but he had ground to find with Stellar Story, who had beaten him by just over seven lengths in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham.

Dancing City was clearly travelling well at the top of the straight and while he easily had the measure of Stellar Story, High Class Hero served it up to him after jumping the last.

Townend’s mount responded to every urging though, and while the second tried his best, Dancing City held a half-length advantage at the line.

The victory was a third at Grade One level for Dancing City, having also struck at the Dublin Racing Festival back in February and Mullins lauded the winner’s attitude.

Dancing City leads High Class Hero over the last
Dancing City leads High Class Hero over the last (Niall Carson/PA)

He said: “It just shows how tough he is that he’s been to every racing Festival, it takes a lot of doing. It all goes well for the future going over fences.

“He did quite well coming back from Aintree. We haven’t done that before – Cheltenham, Aintree, Punchestown. It looks achievable so we might do more of it in the future!

“He didn’t show how good he was until we went out in trip.

“High Class Hero ran very well and looked for a minute that he might upset Paul.”

Betfair make Dancing City a 10-1 chance for next year’s Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham

Townend added: “He was (a good winner in Aintree) and I thought he had a hard race the last day.

“He has danced every dance, so to turn up here and perform was a big performance.

“He was disappointing at the start of his career, but he is more than making up for it now.

“In Aintree, when I left the back straight, I thought I was stuffed and, by the time I got into the straight, I was back on the bridle so he is a little bit deceiving.”

He went on: “He doesn’t kill himself when he gets to the front and I got all mixed up with reins wrapped around my hand and everything, so all I could do was try to not interfere with him. He stuck it out well.

“He is indeed (progressive) and he is very deceiving. I was actually going to ride another one in Aintree and it got withdrawn on the day, so these things can work out for the best sometimes.

“I thought I bottomed him in Aintree, but he bounced out of it well and he’s a tough horse and a good horse.”

Monday Musings: Willie’s Big Nose(s)

I was going to try to demean a little Willie Mullins’ amazing Saturday at Ayr, his four-timer surely guaranteeing him a first and unique UK NH trainers title for an overseas stable, writes Tony Stafford.

My line was: where were the Gordon Elliott hordes, seven in the previous week’s Grand National and, who can forget, 14 in the Troytown Chase at Navan in November?

I thought maybe the two dominant forces (one rather more than the other it’s true) might have had a chat, but on further research, I see Gordon didn’t run anything in the Ayr race last year either!

So it was left to Willie to run six, mostly horses that had been slogging through heavy ground all winter and now faced with a much faster surface. The shortest-priced, Mr Incredible, refused to jump the first fence from miles behind, and another unseated there, but that was it.

The remaining quartet finished first, for £110k, then fourth, fifth and sixth in the 26-runner race – if they can run 26 around Ayr, why not 40 at Aintree? Only one horse fell.

Here, it’s about time we started to marvel at the skills of Paul Townend, for so long dismissed in some circles as merely an inferior replacement for Ruby Walsh. Like the big-race win on Macdermott, ridden by Danny Mullins, the following three-mile handicap hurdle success on Chosen Witness was also by a nose, clinched in the last stride.

Earlier, multiple Grade 1 hurdle winner Sharjah was coaxed to stay a previously never attempted three miles under 12st in a novice handicap chase in the patient hands of Townend. Might we see the winner in next year’s Grand National as a 12-year-old?

There was a marmite-like divided reaction to the no-fall Grand National debate last weekend. The BHA and no doubt the top Irish trainers, for; others, like Chris Cook of the Racing Post and Geoff Greetham, former boss of Timeform, sharing my view that it’s not really a Grand National anymore. Probably, if anything, the once-feared fences will remain at best as they were last weekend, or even become easier to placate the ever-closer attention of the Animal Welfare adherents.

Gordon Elliott does have entries for Sandown’s end-of-season party on Saturday but unlike in the earlier days of the Pipe/Henderson and Pipe/Nicholls last-day cliff-hangers, his will only add to the potential Irish domination on the day.

The four Mullins horses that took chunks of the money on offer in Saturday’s big race would generally have been hard to assess, mostly stepping up in class. The trainer has an abundance of horses already at the top but many more coming through the grades. How can you (or maybe even he) put a figure on such potential for improvement?

After Sandown, there’s Punchestown of course. I wondered how many of our top trainers will be involved in a competitive way? Nicky Henderson has ten entered at the opening stage, including Aintree winners Jonbon and Sir Gino, slipped in surreptitiously almost into a Mullins-dominated meeting often with up to ten potential contenders in each race.

Mostly, none of the stars was needed to collect the two biggest prizes at Aintree and Ayr.

Dan Skelton seems to be giving it a miss while Paul Nicholls’ trio includes the so far unraced for him but eagerly anticipated €740k buy Coldwell Potter. Jonjo has a quartet in one bumper and we might see Aintree bumper runner-up Tripoli Flyer for Fergal O’Brien. Less likely, there’s an entry for Corach Rambler.

As I said last week, Willie Mullins takes his success with great dignity, but it does tend to get on one’s nerves after the continuing monopoly!

*

The 2024 flat-race season finally got going with Newmarket and Newbury last week and now it’s less than a fortnight to the first two Classic races. If anyone was expecting the Craven Stakes to indicate a potential threat to City Of Troy, they would probably be thinking again.

Richard Hannon had his Haatem ready to make a winning return and last year’s Group 2 Richmond Stakes scorer added another good prize to his tally with an authoritative three-and-a-half length verdict over the Gosdens’ Eben Shaddad. Sighters from the Charlie Appleby and Aidan O’Brien teams were well behind.

When Haatem won the Richmond, it followed an earlier six-and-a-half length demolition by the O’Brien colt in the Superlative Sakes on Newmarket’s July Course. Haatem’s final run coincided with City Of Troy on his next appearance, an all-the-way victory in the Dewhurst Stakes by almost four lengths from Alyanaabi – Haatem was eight-and-a- half lengths back in fifth.

You can still get 4/6 about the brilliant Coolmore horse, his price only buttressed by second favourite Rosallion, trained by Haatem’s handler Richard Hannon. His horses have made a great start to the season, not least winning nice races for long-standing stable owner Julie Wood.

I love her strategy. Rather than keep her good horses, she enjoys racing them and then, even the fillies, sells them on. Last week she had two first time out winners on the same Newbury card, Voyage in the ten-furlong maiden, and Star Style, a Zoustar filly in the seven-furlong newcomers’ race.

Stretching more than five lengths clear of some well-related if less talented fillies, Star Style filled the usual Julie Wood sourcing pattern.

Preferring to buy on her own judgment as foals rather than wait for agents to tell her what’s nice a year later, she happened to take a liking to this filly, who is out of a mare she raced, Sweet Cicely. Star Style will, I’m sure, more than live up to her name.

One agent who is becoming ever more prominent is Sam Sangster, with his horses with Brian Meehan. Last year they had Isaac Shelby as an example of his skills at the sales and, at Newmarket last week, Jayarebe romped home in the Feilden Stakes in the manner of a guaranteed high-class performer.

Up with the pace throughout, he strode clear of some smart types to win by almost four lengths in the fastest time of the day on the drying ground.

Half an hour later Godolphin’s five-year-old Ottoman Fleet gained a repeat victory in the Group 3 Earl of Sefton Stakes, fully extended to hold fast-finishing Astro King, winner of last year’s Cambridgeshire under a record weight, and Hi Royal, last year’s 2000 Guineas runner-up. The two winners carried the same weight of 9st2lb which makes the three-year-old’s performance 10lb superior, allowing for weight-for-age.

He carries the lucky (for Meehan) colours of Iraj Parvizi, whose Dangerous Midge won the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Turf for Meehan at Churchill Downs. Jayarebe has no Classic entries, but the likelihood is that he could be supplemented for the Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) at Chantilly.

Later on the card, there was a suggestion of yet another great buy by Sam Sangster when the three-year-old filly Kathmandu outran her 40/1 odds to finish third in the Group 3 Nell Gwyn Stakes behind Pretty Crystal, trained by Richard Fahey, and 1000 Guineas hopeful Dance Sequence, trained by Charlie Appleby.

It was a messy race and many thought Dance Sequence ought to have won. She’s still only 7/1 for the Classic on May 5.

Before the race, Kathmandu’s connections – they go by Sangster and (Ed) Babington and she runs in Robert Sangster’s colours - were already on a winner with their 50 grand purchase. The previous evening, Kathmandu’s two-year-old half-sister by New Bay was bought for 525,000gns to join Godolphin on the first stage of the Craven Breeze-Up sale. That and black type, too.

“We’ve always thought she was good, so we entered her three weeks ago for the French 1000 Guineas. The decision on whether she runs, as ever, will be left to Brian.” Quite right too!

- TS

I Am Maximus booked for hero’s return on Tuesday evening

Leighlinbridge will welcome the return of yet another Willie Mullins champion on Tuesday evening, with Randox Grand National hero I Am Maximus set to enjoy his homecoming parade.

It is little over a month since Galopin Des Champs received the acclaim of the locals after successfully defending his crown in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, a fourth blue riband in six years for Mullins following the back-to-back victories of Al Boum Photo in 2019 and 2020.

Similar scenes can be expected on Tuesday, with the JP McManus-owned I Am Maximus, along with Mullins and jockey Paul Townend, due to parade through Leighlinbridge in County Carlow at 5.30pm before posing for photographs outside of the renowned Lord Bagenal Inn.

Galopin Des Champs poses at the Lord Bagenal Inn
Galopin Des Champs poses at the Lord Bagenal Inn (Damien Eagers/PA)

Patrick Mullins reported I Am Maximus to have returned to Ireland none the worse after providing his father with a second National win, the first being Hedgehunter 19 years ago, and reserved special praise for Townend, who completed the extremely rare feat of winning the Champion Hurdle, Gold Cup and Grand National in the same year.

“It was an incredible day and it was some ride from Paul, he was at his best,” said Mullins.

“There’s not a bother on him (I Am Maximus). It’s not the race it was, so it’s a bit easier to come out of it well.”

Jade De Grugy carries Honeysuckle colours to appropriate success

Jade De Grugy bounced back from a first career defeat at the Cheltenham Festival to claim an appropriate success in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Honeysuckle Mares’ Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse.

The five-year-old was beaten four lengths into fourth place when well fancied for the Ryanair Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle in the Cotswolds two and a half weeks ago and lined up back on home soil as one of 10 runners for Willie Mullins in this Grade One contest.

Carrying the Kenny Alexander colours of the great Honeysuckle, Jade De Grugy was a 7-4 favourite for the two-and-a-half-mile affair in the hands of Paul Townend.

For a moment turning for home she looked in a spot of trouble, with Townend having to get lower in the saddle, and it looked like her stablemate Spindleberry might claim top honours after she mastered Jessica Harrington’s Jetara after the second flight from home.

But to her credit, Jade De Grugy found plenty for pressure under a well-judged Townend ride and produced a big leap at the final obstacle when she needed it before pulling two and a quarter lengths clear on the run-in.

Mullins said: “That was a huge performance coming back from Cheltenham, she was very tough.

“Paul didn’t think he was going well a lot of the way, but it just shows what sort of engine she has.

Jade De Grugy with connections at Fairyhouse
Jade De Grugy with connections at Fairyhouse (Gary Carson/PA)

“It’s tough luck on Spindleberry. I thought she had it won at the last, but as we saw yesterday so many races were lost between the last hurdle and the line.

“The extra half-mile was definitely a help to her (Jade De Grugy) and she does look like a two-and-a-half-mile mare.

“I’d imagine we’ll look at Punchestown with her now.”

Willie Mullins full of admiration for Paul Townend as focus turns to Fairyhouse

In the wake of the Cheltenham Festival and with thoughts turning to Fairyhouse, Willie Mullins has lavished praise on Paul Townend as their association goes from strength to strength.

If anyone questioned whether Townend was the right man to replace Ruby Walsh when Mullins’ former number one called it quits at the Punchestown Festival in 2019, the champion trainer was certainly not one of them.

Townend rode six of Mullins’ nine Cheltenham winners – five of them coming at Grade One level, while his other winner, Absurde in the County Hurdle, was lauded as the ride of the week.

Paul Townend celebrates with Galopin Des Champs
Paul Townend celebrates with Galopin Des Champs (David Davies for The Jockey Club)

Galopin Des Champs’ second Gold Cup win means Townend has won four of the last six renewals and now his sights are switched to winning another Boylesports Irish Grand National on Easter Monday.

His ride on last year’s winner I Am Maximus also earned plenty of plaudits, none bigger than from Mullins himself.

“I thought Paul was going to pull him up, but when he pulled him to the outside he started to gallop a bit better. Undoubtedly it was some ride,” said Mullins.

“Paul was thinking on his feet the whole way and to get that performance out of that horse after the performance he put in for the first two miles was extraordinary horsemanship.

“Paul was a real jockey in Cheltenham winning on Galopin Des Champs last year, but then he showed what a real horseman he is when he came back to Fairyhouse, putting in that performance was what I call horsemanship.

I Am Maximus winning the Irish Grand National last year
I Am Maximus winning the Irish Grand National last year (Healy Racing)

“I never thought about it when Ruby retired. To me Paul was always going to be his replacement because he’d been second jockey to Ruby for however many years.

“Any time Ruby went to England or was injured Paul stepped into his shoes and we never had any problems. I was actually surprised at the time that the press were wondering if he would take over, it never crossed my mind.

“Paul probably felt the pressure a little in the early days as he did say to me about six months after he took over could he have his old job back because he was after picking the wrong one at Punchestown a couple of times, it’s much easier to ride as second jockey all right.

“But I had full confidence in him, I always had. He has a totally different style of riding to Ruby and you have to get used to it, but I’d been used to it for years. I’m happy with how he does it and for everyone the winners keep coming.”

Policeman lays down the law at Thurles

Mister Policeman ensured Cheltenham Gold Cup winners Willie Mullins and Paul Townend kept the bandwagon rolling with Grade Three glory in the Pierce Molony Memorial Novice Chase at Thurles.

The six-year-old was a winner in France before joining Mullins and he made a winning start for the yard when beating stablemate Cash Back in a Cork hurdle last April.

Switched to fences subsequently, Mister Policeman was an odds-on winner at Fairyhouse in November but let down his supporters when well held in third by Quilixios at Navan on his next start.

A six-length win at Punchestown bolstered his confidence according to jockey Paul Townend, who settled his mount in second before making his challenge with four fences to jump in his latest assignment.

The 30-100 favourite was clearly travelling best of all coming to the last and he kept on well to record a length-and-a-half victory over Thecompanysergeant.

Townend said: “He jumped fantastic for a horse that his jumping probably let him down in the past. He loved jumping and is probably getting the hang of it.

“I still think he can go out in trip, but the way he’s jumping now is getting him through. He got a lot of confidence from the last day and he’s built on that again today.

“Hopefully he can keep building, but he has a bit to go to fulfil what he was supposed to be.”

Galopin Des Champs won a second Gold Cup on Friday
Galopin Des Champs won a second Gold Cup on Friday (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Mister Policeman was the only runner in Ireland for the Mullins-Townend team the day after another fruitful Cheltenham Festival.

Galopin Des Champs provided a perfect finale in winning the Gold Cup for a second successive year, impressing Townend with his cosy three-and-a-half-length verdict.

He said: “He won in a different way (than the previous year) and he dug in so much. We got racing at the top of the hill and on heavy ground it’s a long way home.

“They are really, really good when they can do that.”

El Fabiolo failed to sparkle at Cheltenham
El Fabiolo failed to sparkle at Cheltenham (Brian Lawless/PA)

Townend finished the week at top jockey with six winners, although he rode a couple of beaten favourites, most notably El Fabiolo who relinquished his unbeaten record in the Champion Chase.

Sent off the 2-9 favourite, El Fabiolo made a bad mistake at the fifth fence and was soon pulled up by Townend.

He added: “It was an amazing week. Obviously El Fabiolo was disappointing.

“There were a few disappointments, he was the main one, but outside that everything went great through the week.”

Gold Cup hat-trick firmly on Mullins’ mind after Galopin to glory again

An attempt to emulate three-time winners Arkle and Best Mate is uppermost in Willie Mullins’ mind for Galopin Des Champs having watched his stable star smoothly add a second Boodles Gold Cup at Cheltenham.

While last year’s race had its moments of concern before he eventually stamped his class on the contest, this time around it was much more straightforward.

In fact, the biggest worry was when Fastorslow, his nemesis from the Punchestown Festival and the John Durkan Chase earlier in the season, loomed up alongside him – the difference being this time his old foe had unseated earlier in the race and was riderless.

“The loose horse was obviously a worry, I was trying to work out if it was an English or an Irish one! But I could tell by Paul’s body language that he was comfortable throughout,” said Mullins.

Galopin Des Champs powers up the hill
Galopin Des Champs powers up the hill (David Davies/PA)

For Mullins, the old saying ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’ certainly rings true where the Gold Cup is concerned.

Before Al Boum Photo won the first of his two Gold Cups in 2019, the master trainer had finished second in the blue riband an incredible six times.

“The two horses don’t really compare, Al Boum Photo was more of a galloper who would stay all day while this fellow has a bit of class but he’s still able to pull it out at the end of three and a quarter miles,” said Mullins, who was winning his fourth Gold Cup in six years.

“We’ve been very lucky that after six seconds we’ve now won four in six, we’re also very lucky to have Paul. He’s level with Pat Taaffe now (on four winners), that’s esteemed company.

“To win the 100th Gold Cup is amazing. The horses have been running so well, the jockeys have been riding so well, it’s like a perfect storm, that’s what it is, just the perfect storm.”

Where Al Boum Photo came up short in his bid for a third Gold Cup, Galopin Des Champs’ biggest test may come from within in the shape of Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase winner Fact To File.

“The aim now has got to be to get him back next year and go for a third and I imagine we’ll run a similar type of programme as we did this year,” said Mullins.

“Looking at the amount of horses he’s beaten, he’s probably run more times than most Gold Cup horses but I’m a believer that if you’ve got a good, sound horse and the prize-money is there, run them.

“I’m sure it’s a big help that we got those runs into him early in the season. He took the runs really well and gave us no reason not to run and that enabled us to come with race fitness rather than hope.

“It’s awesome that it looks like we might have other Gold Cup horses coming through, but we know through bitter experience how hard it is to get three-mile chasers back to the track, it’s a tough game. It would be great to bring him back but if he doesn’t, hopefully we have A, B and C as well.”

For Townend, who you sometimes feel would rather be anywhere else than the centre of attention, he has, as Mullins pointed out, matched the Gold Cup record of Arkle’s legendary rider.

“He’s felt stronger this year so we were able to ride him differently, he’s more grown up, he’s tough,” said Townend.

“It was more straightforward this year, last year we sort of had to fight our way through but this was a different race on a different day.

“You obviously never know what a loose horse is going to do, but he actually behaved himself quite well and my horse was very professional. He was also something for me to race with.”

For Mullins, the Gold Cup was his ninth winner of the week in a year he brought up an incredible 100th Festival success and put the seal on yet another remarkable meeting.

“The other morning before we came, we were all in the office and I said to them all ‘is it me or is everything in place this year’. The horses we were running at home were winning and the ones that were coming here were all in tip-top order and that has proved to be the case,” he said.

Willie Mullins has come to dominate at Cheltenham
Willie Mullins has come to dominate at Cheltenham (David Davies/PA)

“It’s hard to say which is bigger, 100 winners or another Gold Cup, but there’s a Gold Cup every year – not many people will train 100 winners. I never dreamt I would and I didn’t aspire to do it, but you hope to have a Gold Cup winner.

“I obviously tried for a lot of years and couldn’t do it, but a few years later here we are with four out of six. You dream it would happen, but you don’t dream what has happened to Closutton in the last 20 or 25 years.

Townend, who had the misfortunate of being compared to Ruby Walsh when he took the top job, has now established himself as the man for the big occasion.

“It’s been an amazing journey and it’s all down to Willie, he gave me a lot of experiences as a young rider behind Ruby and I’m just grateful to be able to repay him with winners this week and every year,” he said.

“He gives you huge confidence riding the horses because if it’s not going to Plan A, you have the confidence to be able to go and do something else. I don’t remember us ever having a row!”

Comparing Townend to Walsh, Mullins said: “Totally different rider, different style of riding and a different way of viewing a race, but it works. I always admire Paul’s style of riding for different reasons – and he’s really settled into the top job hasn’t he.”

Mullins also had a poignant word for his late parents, Paddy and Maureen, the latter having died last month at the age of 94.

“I would have loved to have had my mother and my father here, for the whole week, not just the Gold Cup, but it’s not to be,” he said.

When asked what was left for him to achieve now, Mullins said: “Paul alluded to it coming in after winning on Absurde when he said ‘what the hell were you doing down in Melbourne with him!’.

“We’d like to go back. In the context of Flat racing, we’re never going to win a Guineas so we target the staying races and the Melbourne Cup is the one I’d really like.”

State Man ‘doing everything right’ ahead of Champion Hurdle

With Constitution Hill unable to defend his crown, State Man appears to have been presented with a gilt-edged opportunity to claim Unibet Champion Hurdle glory on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.

The seven-year-old has met with defeat only once since joining Willie Mullins – and that was when left trailing in the wake of Nicky Henderson’s brilliant hurdler 12 months ago.

State Man has since won a second Morgiana Hurdle, a second Matheson Hurdle and a second Irish Champion Hurdle, taking his overall tally of Grade One victories to eight.

Last month, hopes appeared high within the Mullins camp that the chestnut gelding could at least make more of a race of it with Constitution Hill this time around, and it is undoubtedly a bitter blow to the race that the rematch will not take place after the reigning champion was ruled out.

In his absence, State Man will be cramped odds to provide Mullins with a fifth Champion Hurdle triumph following the previous victories of dual winner Hurricane Fly, Faugheen and Annie Power – but the trainer himself is taking nothing for granted.

“He looks a worthy favourite and hopefully he can prove himself to be a proper favourite,” Mullins said on the Cheltenham gallops on Monday morning.

“He’s been doing everything right, so it would be great if he could win a Champion Hurdle, but nothing is a given when you come over here.”

Paul Townend has steered State Man to all but one of his 10 career wins so far and the leading rider hopes he can continue his winning streak on his return to the Cotswolds.

He said: “He’s been excellent this season, hopefully he can keep it going for another day.

“This is his third time here, so he knows the run of the place already.”

Irish Point on his way to victory at Leopardstown
Irish Point on his way to victory at Leopardstown (Brian Lawless/PA)

The biggest threat to the red-hot favourite is Gordon Elliott’s Irish Point, who for much of the season looked set to contest the Stayers’ Hurdle later in the week.

However, with Constitution Hill not in attendance and Elliott and owners Robcour already responsible for a major Stayers’ Hurdle contender in the form of Teahupoo, they have decided to split their aces.

“If you take the favourite out of it, it looks an open race. I think there’s only two horses in the race under about 10-1, so we have to take our chance,” said Elliott.

“I’m not worried about the trip.”

Henderson has won the Champion Hurdle on a record nine occasions and despite Constitution Hill’s defection, the Seven Barrows handler fires a twin assault, with his supplemented Betfair Hurdle winner Iberico Lord joined by high-class mare Luccia.

Regarding Iberico Lord, Henderson told Unibet: “As everyone knows, this was definitely not the original plan, but circumstances have meant he now slots into this, and our decision was also swayed by the fact that the ground is going to be softer in the early part of the week.

“Obviously, he has to improve dramatically to beat the likes of State Man, but his victory in the Greatwood Hurdle has worked out particularly well, as has his win at Newbury last time, so the form is strong, and he is an improving horse who deserves to be there.”

He added of Luccia: “She is the most wonderful person to have around the place and her owner has always been keen to run her in the Champion Hurdle, so here we are!

“Her form is very good all the way through, anyway, and she receives a 7lb sex allowance which is a big help. We haven’t seen her since December; therefore, she arrives here a fresh mare and I’m hopeful she can run a nice race.”

The home team also includes Kerry Lee’s Nemean Lion and Hughie Morrison’s admirable veteran Not So Sleepy, who has been kept fresh for this race since landing the rescheduled Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Sandown in early December.

Owner Lady Blyth and jockey Sean Bowen with Not So Sleepy at Sandown
Owner Lady Blyth and jockey Sean Bowen with Not So Sleepy at Sandown (John Walton/PA)

The 12-year-old’s title-chasing jockey Sean Bowen said: “State Man obviously looks the one, but there doesn’t look too much beyond him.

“I schooled Not So Sleepy last week and he was in great form with himself, so hopefully we can play a part. Hughie thinks he’s in great form.

“It was the absolute best, a brilliant day when he won the Fighting Fifth and it’s great to have horses like him still winning Grade Ones.

“Everyone will be watching him and willing him on, so it will be fun.”

Mullins sends over a youthful second string in Zarak The Brave, while it would be a mystery of Cluedo proportions if Lorna Fowler’s outsider Colonel Mustard comes out on top.

Mullins and Townend heading to Cheltenham on back of Naas treble

Willie Mullins and Paul Townend enjoyed a near perfect warm-up for the Cheltenham Festival after signing off on home soil with a Sunday treble at Naas.

The formidable partnership is widely expected to dominate proceedings Prestbury Park this week, with Tullyhill, Gaelic Warrior, State Man and Lossiemouth all strongly fancied on the opening afternoon on Tuesday.

The action was a little more low-key in County Kildare, but the Closutton team nevertheless served an ominous notice of what could be to come in the Cotswolds with a hat-trick of victories.

Mullins fired a twin assault at the Grade Three Bar One Racing ‘Guaranteed Overnight Prices’ Kingsfurze Novice Hurdle, and it was 9-4 shot Fun Fun Fun who made all the running under Townend, with his better-fancied stablemate Mirazur West beaten into third as a 4-6 favourite.

“That was super and the race suited Fun Fun Fun, a quick enough two miles and she jumped great,” said Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father.

“She’ll go to Fairyhouse next, I don’t know if two and a half miles there will really suit her but it’s a mares’ novice Grade One so she’ll go there.”

On Mirazur West, he added: “I didn’t get to talk to Mark (Walsh) yet, but it looked like he was just too keen. We were hoping the hood would help, but it’s back to the drawing board.”

Mullins and Townend also combined to land the other Grade Three on the card, the Bar One Racing ‘Extra Places At Cheltenham’ Directors Plate Novice Chase, as Tactical Move justified 1-2 favouritism in the colours of Champion Hurdle favourite State Man.

Tactical Move returns to the Naas winner's enclosure
Tactical Move returns to the Naas winner’s enclosure (Gary Carson/PA)

Townend said: “He’s won but he jumped average for him, I was really looking forward to riding him to be honest but I never really go into a rhythm on him. He wanted to go left everywhere.

“He went to the first and went left for some reason and then never concentrated afterwards but look he’s won, and won with mistakes, so it’s a good sign.”

The Mullins-Townend treble was initiated by Olympic Man, sporting the silks of reigning and defending Gold Cup hero Galopin Des Champs.

The evens favourite, previously placed twice at Galway, was far from fluent in the jumping department but still had far too many guns for his rivals in the Bar One Racing “Guaranteed Multiples All Shops” Maiden Hurdle, passing the post with 15 lengths in hand.

“It showed that Willie is getting a good run at training him now when he could put in that performance while jumping (like that),” said Townend.

“The first day (he ran) it was just good to get him on the track but it was disappointing he didn’t back it up the second day. He just felt a different horse now that he’s getting a good run at him and he can train him, he makes a difference.

“He can jump, he has a load of it done. Once we can keep him right the engine is in there. Fair play to the owners for persevering with him as he hasn’t been easy.”

Minella Cocooner was the 9-4 market leader to make it a four-timer for the combination in the Bar One Racing Leinster National, but he was ultimately well beaten as Gavin Cromwell’s Hartur D’arc (4-1) claimed top honours in the hands of Sean Flanagan.

Hartur D'Arc won the Leinster National for Gavin Cromwell and Sean Flanagan
Hartur D’Arc won the Leinster National for Gavin Cromwell and Sean Flanagan (Gary Carson/PA)

“That was nice. We weren’t really sure whether he’d stay, but obviously when we pitched him in here we thought he might,” said Cromwell.

“Sean gave him a nice ride and everything happened for him. It was a lovely pot to win.

“You’d have to consider the Irish National with him, I know it’s a lot further.”

Cromwell also plundered the big race at Limerick, the Grade Three Irish Stallion Farms EBF Shannon Spray Mares Novice Hurdle, with Bioluminescence (7-4).

Ferny Hollow returns with smooth success at Naas

Ferny Hollow made a triumphant return from over two years on the sidelines with a dominant display in the Newlands Chase at Naas – but appears unlikely to be seen in action at next month’s Cheltenham Festival.

It is fast approaching four years since the Willie Mullins-trained nine-year-old carried the Cheveley Park Stud colours to success in the Champion Bumper at the showpiece meeting in the Cotswolds and injuries had restricted him to just three subsequent appearances.

He made a winning hurdling debut at Gowran Park the following season, but was then off the track for over a year, and while he made a smooth transition to jumping fences following his comeback with successive wins, including a Grade One at Leopardstown in December 2021, he had not been seen since.

Despite his 791-day absence, Ferny Hollow was a 2-5 favourite for this Grade Three assignment, and in truth odds-on backers will have had few concerns for the duration of the two-mile contest.

Paul Townend’s mount raced exuberantly and jumped neatly in the main and moved ominously into the wing mirrors of the three horses in front of him from the home turn.

Once angled out into clear daylight, the Westerner gelding soon swept to the lead and only had to be pushed out after safely negotiating the final obstacle to seal a comfortable five-and-a-half-length verdict.

Willie Mullins was pleased with Ferny Hollow's comeback victory
Willie Mullins was pleased with Ferny Hollow’s comeback victory (Niall Carson/PA)

Mullins said: “I was happy with him to do that after such a long lay-off. Hopefully, now he stays sound so that we can keep him that way.

“He popped over a few hurdles and a few fences yesterday morning and I was happy with him. The conditions of this race suited him a bit better than last week (Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park).

“I think he’s still young enough to put in a career best over fences. He just has to overcome this first run and come back sound and we’ll see where we go.”

Coral cut Ferny Hollow to 8-1 from 12-1 in their non-runner money back market for the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham, but with that race only 17 days away, Mullins is set to keep his powder dry for the other major festivals in the spring.

“He’s entered in Cheltenham. It may be a big ask on his second run, but we’ll have a look. It may come a bit soon,” he added.

“He settled lovely and even though he’s free going, once you settle him in, he listens and responds to you. We were happy to use those tactics and hoped that if he got around safe and sound that he’d be the fastest horse in the straight, which he was.

“It will be all about how he comes out of the race in the next week, and we’ll probably look for easier options for the time being.”

State Man is just champion again at Leopardstown

A rematch with the mighty Constitution Hill looms large for State Man following a comfortable defence of his Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle crown at Leopardstown.

Since falling on his first start for Willie Mullins at this track in December 2021, State Man has been the dominant force in the division in Ireland, winning nine of his next 10 outings.

His only defeat during that period came at the hands of Nicky Henderson’s Constitution Hill, who proved nine lengths too strong in the Champion Hurdle at last season’s Cheltenham Festival.

And while State Man clearly has his work cut out to turn the tables in the Cotswolds next month, he confirmed his status as the reigning champion’s biggest threat with an eighth Grade One victory under Paul Townend.

State Man came home alone at Leopardstown
State Man came home alone at Leopardstown (Niall Carson/PA)

Having been unable to reel in his stablemate in the Matheson Hurdle in December, Impaire Et Passe this time set out to make all the running under Daryl Jacob, with State Man (2-5 favourite) his nearest pursuer.

State Man took over travelling strongly before the home turn and was always doing enough in the straight to keep a resurgent Bob Olinger at bay, with five and a half lengths separating the pair at the line.

Coral left the winner unchanged at 3-1 for the Champion Hurdle, with Constitution Hill their 1-5 favourite.

On his Champion Hurdle bid, Mullins said: “We have our chance, State Man is out and racing and is going to go there in tip-top order. It’s all to play for.

“Everything is open. They (connections of Constitution Hill) are not going to be too worried and they’ll be confident enough they have enough in the locker to beat us no matter what we do.

“I doubt you’d be able to lock up Constitution Hill, as soon as he got one bit of daylight he’d be gone, and that wouldn’t be fair anyhow.

“All’s fair in love and war and you go and run. I don’t think there’ll be too many runners in it and a change of tactics might make all the difference.”

Mullins was impressed with State Man’s performance, but admitted the change of tactics had not worked out for Impaire Et Passe.

He added: “State Man is a lovely racehorse, himself and Galopin Des Champs, Fact To File and El Fabiolo have a lovely temperament, which is half the battle. When they’ve a good temperament, it means the trainer can train them the way they want to and the jockey can ride them the way he wants to. It makes life a lot easier for the people involved.

“I thought Christmas was his best performance up to today. Today’s race was different as we tried something different with Impaire Et Passe and he obviously didn’t enjoy being out in front. I think he’d take a lead and probably needs another half-mile and fences down the road.

“It was an experiment to go down the Champion Hurdle route with him this year, but it doesn’t look like it’s working. That (Aintree Hurdle) could be on the cards, but the Champion Hurdle is there and there’s only two horses in front of him for me and any one of those could get injured or run bad on the day and if you’re not in you can’t win it.”

El Fabiolo makes light work of Dublin Chase assignment

El Fabiolo continued his relentless march towards next month’s Queen Mother Champion Chase with a dominant display in the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase at Leopardstown.

Winner of the Irish Arkle at this meeting last year before following up in the Arkle at Cheltenham, the seven-year-old had stretched his unbeaten record over fences to six when making a successful start to the current campaign in the Hilly Way at Cork.

With the weather denying him an intended trip to Britain for the Clarence House Chase at Ascot last month, El Fabiolo was rerouted to the Dublin Racing Festival for his final outing before his return to the Cotswolds and ultimately got the job done without too much fuss.

Having tracked his stablemate and last year’s winner Gentleman De Mee for most of the two-mile-one-furlong journey, El Fabiolo (4-11 favourite) took over with a big leap two fences from home and was in in full command thereafter, only having to be pushed out by Paul Townend to score by eight and a half lengths from another Willie Mullins-trained runner in Dinoblue.

Both Coral and Paddy Power make El Fabiolo the 4-9 market leader to provide Mullins with a third successive victory in the Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival following the back-to-back wins of the currently sidelined Energumene.

Mullins said: “He did his job well because Dinoblue had worked very well during the week, and I thought if he made any mistake then she would definitely give him a race, so it was a good test and not a freebie by any means. She was getting 7lb from him and she is a good mare.

“He was very clean today and very good. Paul just sat very quiet on him, and he appreciated that and did his job.

El Fabiolo and Paul Townend after winning at Leopardstown
El Fabiolo and Paul Townend after winning at Leopardstown (Adam Morgan/PA)

“I’m delighted all the owners are here and they love coming to Ireland to race. They have raced in France and England extensively, but they say the experience here is way better.

“The appreciation Irish people have for racing is huge which you don’t get in other countries.”

Townend said: “He’s a monster, a huge horse with loads of power.

“I was always happy”