Willie Mullins might have won just about everything this great sport has to offer – but the most successful trainer in Festival history admitted to feeling a level of pressure he has never previously experienced ahead of Galopin Des Champs’ victory in the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The master of Closutton has made Prestbury Park his own in recent years, with his tally of 88 victories at National Hunt racing’s showpiece leaving him head and shoulders above his contemporaries ahead of his latest raid on the Cotswolds.
The Gold Cup, the most coveted prize of all, was the one that alluded Mullins for so long – but Al Boum Photo broke that particular hoodoo in 2019 and successfully defended his crown 12 months later.
Having also collected four Champion Hurdles and back-to-back wins in the Queen Mother Champion Chase with Energumene, Mullins is well used to big-race success at this stage and is rarely flustered – but he revealed he was feeling the nerves both before and during his latest bid for Gold Cup glory.
“I think what stands out is the pressure I put myself under. I was surprised actually coming to the third-last how much I started to feel it,” he said.
“When he went through the third-last and I saw Paul (Townend) back on the bridle again I thought ‘wow, this could happen’, and I was amazed how much it meant to me. I didn’t think it would.
“The pressure was coming from the fact that we had so much confidence in the horse. We nominated him for the Gold Cup, we thought we had a Gold Cup horse and lot of people were saying he wasn’t because he has too much speed and no stamina.
“There was pressure because we disagreed with everyone. So many people said he wouldn’t stay, which surprised me.
“It was our word against others and it wasn’t like he was a 10-1 shot. He was a hot favourite and people backed him in the belief that I was right, I suppose.”
Not for the first time, Mullins was proved spot-on in his assertion that Galopin Des Champs possessed more than enough staying power to win the blue riband.
Given the coolest of cool rides by Paul Townend, the 7-5 market leader breezed into contention racing down the hill and pulled seven lengths clear of a valiant King George winner in Bravemansgame from the final fence in brilliant style.
With Galopin Des Champs providing him with his 94th Festival success, Mullins will be short odds to pass the century in the Gold Cup’s centenary year next March.
At this stage he could be forgiven for taking it all for granted, but insists even he struggles to comprehend the position he finds himself in.
“It’s mind blowing. I can’t comprehend the numbers we have in training at home and I can’t comprehend the quality we have – it’s something no one ever dreamt of,” said Mullins.
“At one stage the top-rated horse I had was a 126-rated hurdler, which we nearly wouldn’t have in the yard now. We had 20 or 30 horses at the time and he was our Saturday horse.
“On the day I got my licence, if someone said to me I’d have 60 horses for the rest of my training career, I’d have grabbed that because none of the top trainers had more than 60 – Fulke Walwyn, Fred Winter, The Duke (David Nicholson), all those.
“You were lucky if you got a Grade One horse every year or you might get one every two years. What is in Closutton every day now – every night I go through the barns and pinch myself.
“We don’t take it for granted. Myself and my wife Jackie know what we have and we’re in awe of it as much as all you guys are.”
The ride produced by Townend, also winning his third Gold Cup following his successive wins aboard Al Boum Photo, was widely hailed on course as one of the best in the race’s recent history.
While many of his rivals jostled for an early position, Galopin Des Champs was kept out of the heat of battle until the last possible moment, although the jockey admitted it was not entirely by design.
He said: “I suppose he got me out of trouble to be honest – the first circuit didn’t go smoothly. He got into a nice rhythm on the second circuit and showed a lot of class to come from where he did.
“I was further back than I wanted to be after a messy start and a messy couple of jumps early, but luckily when I came down the hill and put the bit up in his mouth, he came alive underneath me.
“I had full belief in the horse. This year he has matured a lot and his work had been very good. He showed his true ability today.
“From where I was, I was always going to be the last one on the scene, luckily we met the last on a good stride and he galloped on through the line.
“I’m lucky to be throwing my leg over horses like this. The hardest thing in this game is to get on the horses. There’s a lot of lads capable of doing it and I’m in a fortunate position.”