Mullins edges El­liott to re­tain cham­pion trainer ti­tle

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - ASH­LEY IVE­SON

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.

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