Cheltenham Festival - Willie Mullins’ domination of Festival can’t bring him elusive Gold Cup win

Don Cossack ridden by Bryan Cooper (centre) celebrates winning the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase with trainer Gordon Elliott (far right) and owner Michael O'Leary (second right) during Gold Cup Day of the 2016 Cheltenham Festival.
Don Cossack ridden by Bryan Cooper (centre) celebrates winning the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase with trainer Gordon Elliott (far right) and owner Michael O'Leary (second right) during Gold Cup Day of the 2016 Cheltenham Festival.
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THE Emerald Isle’s strength in depth at the 2016 National Hunt Festival was such that the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning exploits of Gordon Elliott and Bryan Cooper with Don Cossack were eclipsed by the remarkable run of success enjoyed by Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh – the trainer and jockey responsible for the runner-up Djakadam.

The latter were virtually imperious. Their seven successes accounted for half of Ireland’s 14 wins, and one quarter of the Festival’s 28 races, as the battle of supremacy between Britain and the Emerald Isle ended in a tie.

Walsh, the best big race jockey in history, now has more than 50 Festival wins to his name – a record that will require a superhuman effort to eclipse – while Mullins is now within touching distance of Paul Nicholls in the race to be champion trainer on this side of the Irish Sea. The outcome is likely to hinge on next month’s Grand National.

Yet, 30 years after the heroic Dawn Run won the Gold Cup for his legendary father Paddy, the only big race to elude the magnificent and meticulous Mullins is Cheltenham’s blue riband race after Djakadam was runner-up for a second consecutive year.

The sixth time that Mullins has had to settle for second best in the Gold Cup, he could only tip his trademark Trilby hat in admiration at Don Cossack, who justified last season’s status as the highest rated steeplechaser in training.

Though the Gold Cup was always going to struggle to match the scenes when Sprinter Sacre rolled back the years to win the Queen Champion Chase, the raucous reaction that greeted Annie Power’s Champion Hurdle win or the hats thrown in the air as Tom Scudamore’s Thistlecrack turned the World Hurdle into a procession, it was a coming of age of win for the aforementioned Elliott.

Though one of his very first wins as a licensed trainer came in 2007 when he saddled Silver Birch, a bargain buy from Doncaster Sales, to win the 2007 Grand National, the former point-to-point rider has been slowly building up his County Meath stables with the horsepower that could one day challenge that man Mullins in the supremacy stakes. He’s only going to get better.

His staff are steeped in the sport – his racing secretary is former North Yorkshire trainer Ferdy Murphy’s daughter Zoe whose husband, John Winston, is a trusted work rider. Camilla Sharples, another stalwart of Murphy’s West Witton yard, supervises the travel arrangements for the horses – Don Cossack included.

“I’m just so happy for all of us - all the staff in the yard, and my mother and father,” said an emotional Elliott, who has endured a rollercoaster week after his top novice No More Heroes paid the ultimate price. “I can’t believe it! To be honest, I need to look at the race again – I was so nervous all the way around. That was something special.”

It was also Elliott, let it be remembered, who convinced the baby-faced Cooper to ride Don Cossack, owned by Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary and his brother Eddie’s Gigginstown House Stud, in the big race over two-time Festival winner Don Poli, who finished a gallant third.

His powers of persuasion worked. Cooper, whose career hung in the balance just two years ago when he suffered a badly broken leg in a sickening fall at Cheltenham, had the roughest rides in Kempton’s King George VI Chase on Boxing Day when Paddy Brennan outrode him on the eventual winner Cue Card.

However he learned his lesson, thanks in part to Elliott’s quiet and reassuring counsel. Unlike last year, he tried not to let the pressure of Cheltenham – and his Gigginstown role – get to him and his unexpected win on Thursday aboard Empire Of Dirt was the perfect tonic.

He rode Don Cossack far more positively in the Gold Cup – this is a horse that has disappointed on two previous Cheltenham visits – and was always near the pace. And Cooper’s mount was still travelling well when Cue Card came to grief at the third last fence in a fall that saw connections lose the chance of winning a £1m bonus. Thankfully Colin Tizzard’s ever popular horse was unscathed.

From then onwards, it was a case of Cooper keeping his cool as Djakadam began to pay the price for a blistering a pace. He left nothing to chance at the final fence and pulled clear to win by four-and-a-half lengths.

“I can’t believe that’s happened – it was over so quick,” said Cooper who was recording his sixth Festival win. “I couldn’t believe I was going that easy turning for home. He went to go round again at the bend after the last. He galloped the whole way to the line.”

The jockey also praised the loyalty of the O’Leary brothers, winning the Gold Cup 10 years after War Of Attrition prevailed.

“From the time I broke my leg here two years ago, they have supported me all the way,” he added. “They really stuck by me.”

Now, after a night of celebration, the road to the 2017 Gold Cup begins today. For Gordon Elliott and Bryan Cooper know that they will have to work even harder if Don Cossack is to hold off the challenge of Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh as a great new racing rivalry takes shape.