Mullins edges Elliott to retain champion trainer title
Willie Mullins’ illustrious training career is decorated by great achievements, but successfully defending his title this season after the most titanic of tussles with Gordon Elliott must be near the top of the list.
The Closutton maestro has dominated the National Hunt scene in his homeland for the last decade and only 12 months ago came mighty close to becoming the first Irish-based trainer to win the British trainers’ title since the legendary Vincent O’Brien in the 1950s.
In the end, he was narrowly beaten by reigning champion Paul Nicholls on the final day of the season at Sandown.
At that stage few could have imagined that a year on Mullins would head into the Punchestown Festival with only a slim chance of holding onto the Irish crown that he has worn for so long.
The seismic shift came last September when the shock news emerged that Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud operation was to remove all the horses they had in training with Mullins — numbering around 60 — due to an apparent row over an increase of training fees.
While the empty boxes were filled within a couple of weeks, the quality that left the yard was difficult to replace.
The fact that Elliott proved the chief beneficiary, with around 20 big guns making the journey from Co Carlow to Co Meath, meant it was game on for the first time in recent memory.
Elliott, who runs far more horses during the summer than Mullins, already had a healthy advantage heading into the autumn and a host of big handicap successes in the first half of the season left the defending champ on the back foot.
Mullins suffered further body blows, with Vautour sadly meeting his end after a freak accident in a field and Faugheen and Annie Power suffering setbacks that would rule them out for the campaign.
A brilliant Christmas period helped Mullins close the gap, but Elliott kept up the revs in front and even beat his rival to the leading trainer award at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Mullins was unable to bridge the gap back on home soil over the Easter weekend at Fairyhouse and, as a result, entered Punchestown week €400,000 behind. Bookmakers had Elliott priced up as a 1/5 favourite to claim the crown for the first time. The pendulum swung dramatically within the space of two hours on Friday, with Mullins landing successive Grade Ones before ending the day with a treble.
For the first time in a year, Mullins was top dog again. It was not mathematically over heading into the final day, but there seemed to be a sense inevitability about the result.
Even a top-level victory for former Closutton inmate Apple’s Jade, now one of Elliott’s prized assets, was not enough to stop Mullins being crowned champion — with Bapaume’s Grade One success later in the day effectively sealing the deal.