Willie Mullins has trained 88 Festival winners. 23rd February 2022 on Sporting Life.com - “I dread it because of the expectation from everyone that we’re going to have half-a-dozen winners and really going over there we’re looking for just one winner to get us off the mark. One year we didn’t have a winner until Thursday and it will happen. One year we’ll have a blow-out and that’s always in the back of your mind."
Nicky Henderson has trained 72 Cheltenham Festival Winners, he's 16 behind Willie. Interviewed by the RP in 2018 "You always say you'd settle for one and what you do settle for is a winner on Day One. It's amazing what it does if you can get any winner on the first day."
Eddie O'Leary - Interview by David Jennings Racing Post December 2020 - "Our entire year is built around Cheltenham. It's sad to say, but that's the way it is," he admits. "If we get a winner at Cheltenham, one winner, I say 'thank f*** for that'. Our entire year is defined by Cheltenham. It's not even a thrill, it's more of a relief if we do get a winner."
If you've been on this page before, you'll know the theory. The grid's been updated. You might want to refresh your memory.
2022 - Nicky's theory works. Get one on the first day and chill. Constitution Hill provides that immediately. Jonbon second. All relax. Willie runs 15 on the Tuesday, Gordon 14, Nicky just the four. They finish 1,2,2(Epatante),1(Marie's Rock. A sound sleeper that night, full of hope for Shishkin. WPM gets Stattler home so he's away on the Tuesday immediately doubles it up first thing Wednesday with Sir Gerhard. When Energumene saunters home for Willie's first QM, sure you couldn't annoy him. Facile Vega, Allaho. Five winners on GC day. 10 in total. On the Saturday Willis is interviewed. 'I'll give myself a seven-plus out of ten for the week.'
Henry gets Honeysuckle to defend her title. Some say not her best but who cares? A Plus Tard? Oh yes, he's in mighty form. Gordon wins a Coral from nowhere with Commander Of Fleet. Relief even before he plays his two jokers in the Cross Country. American Mike taken by Facile Vega but it's still a good run.The Skeltons, PN, the Tizzards,can't get going. A King wins a Festival race, a favourite in a grade one. Been a long time. And after 78 unsuccessful attempts, Venetia also wins a Festival Novice Chase followed by a Kim Muir. Her horses ran out of their skin all week. She had 10 in the first six. Using Skybet's extra places, you would have been paid on them all.
2021 - Henry and Rachel's golden storm. Mrs Foster, representing Cullentra hits a double on Day 1. Willie, Nicky and Henry on the board. Wednesday - doubles for Nicky and Willie (Would have been for Gordon but...). Thursday - no one has more than one winner but Nicky, Willie, Henry and Sneezy keep on their merry way. Friday - Henry kills it with a Grade 1 double and Willie takes the last two races. Gavin Cromwell returns for more.
2020 - I didn't dream this bit up since Willie Mullins trained four winners in a row on finishing with Al Boum Photo in back to back Gold Cups. Been banging on about this for years. Nicky wins Supreme with a horse that drifted like a barge. All confident before Epatante? Henry takes Arkle with outsider. Stable with a spring in it's step before Mares Hurdle? Gordon interviewed after Ravenhill says 'Tuesday wasn't our good day, great to be on the board, big day tomorrow.' Double with Envoi Allen and Aramax. And those are just a few.
2019 - Tues, the rains came, Ruby cruises round on Klassical Dream. Willie interviewed, delighted, his joy and relief is coming out of the screen at you. Ruby says the words. 'Monkey off back.' What happens next? Duc De Genievres wins the Arkle, Benie Des Dieux should have, the Mares. Wed - Not sure that William Henry would have made much difference to Altior but can't have dampened Nico's mood. Tiger Roll and Envoi Allen an Elliott double. Thurs - Barry enjoys life on Defi De Seuil, immediately follows up with a barnstormer on Sire De Berlais.
2018 - Tues - W Mullins treble, Footpad the shorty, calms everything. Benie Des Dieux overturns Apples Jade, everyone happy then Patrick comes off the Festival Jockey Cold List with Rathvinden. All slept well. Wed - . Apples Jade in the Mares didn't fire for G Elliott on the Tuesday, his next best chance for the week is Samcro 8/11. Concerned? That's him above during the race. Praying? Then Tiger Roll, Veneer of Charm. Treble in six races. (Gordon sighs, I do know what I'm doing). Willie, now chilled, kicks on with Bleu Berry and a 1-2-3 in the Bumper. Thurs - Willie a double, Gordon wins three of the first five races. Gordon wins the Ryanair for his boss, overturning Willie's Un De Sceaux at the same time. Its an easy game. Gordon can't remember the Ballymore anymore. Fri - Doubles for Elliott, Tizzard and Nicholls. I'm sure the GC parade ring was a happier place for Native River after Kilbricken Storm ploughed home in the Albert Bartlett. The Tizzards had just come off a losing Festival run of 42. Nicholls was on 18 before the wonderful Pacha. Relief? Joy?
2017- Altior wins Arkle for Nicky, does that make everyone chilled that the Big One has obliged? I'm sure it but it didn't hold back Buveur D'Air nor Might Bite. G Elliott finishes with a first day treble, Labaik and Apples Jade can only have helped Lisa O'Neill's confidence as she got the leg up on Tiger Roll. After Tiger Roll's win in the 4 miler, I was standing near the walkway at the bottom of the parade ring near that huge double sided big screen. Gordon Elliott went past, beaming smiles, couldn't say enough thank yous. I can't remember when I have seen a happier person. Another back to back stable double Wednesday with JJ Codd on Cause Of Causes and Fayonagh.
Every Festival brings stories like this. I asked Tom Wilson @TomWilsonHorses, author of the excellent 2020 statistics book 'The Festival' to have a look at Nicky's statement above. Unlike me, Tom actually knows about statistics. He ran the numbers and would suggest that results were 'interesting but not definitive.'
One Festival winner means well... Davy Russell - Racing Post March 2016. 'When you ride winners at Cheltenham it changes the look on everything really and changes the way people see you for a while. It means a huge amount.' Discussing the win on Mall Dini in the Pertemps that year, he said without hesitation, 'Ah yeah, it (Diamond King in the Coral) would have helped, and I probably rode better on the Thursday because of it. That's the beauty of Cheltenham, when you ride a winner it's a weight lifted.' Some months after the 2014 Festival Davy Russell was interviewed in the RP Supplement and said that without the win on Tiger Roll in the Triumph three races earlier he would never have ridden Lord Windermere as he did in the GC passing seven horses from the bottom of the hill to the winning post. He would 'have come there at the top of the hill, taken the lead early, finished 5th or 6th and everyone would have said what a great guy I was.'
Go back and watch Davy just after the finish of the Ballymore on Envoi Allen in 2019. I counted three fist pumps. Pretty demonstrative for Davy. It could be the pleasure of getting the stable good thing for the week home. Or could it be that he had just stopped a personal Festival losing run of 23? Relief?
The table above shows Festival Days when trainers had more than one winner. For example, if you go to the 2018 Friday you will see that GE (Gordon Elliott) CT (Colin Tizzard) and PN (Paul Nicholls) each had a double. You know all these trainers, save to say that JH is Jessica Harrington and with no offence meant to Mrs Foster, CULL is Cullentra when she was temporarily i/c.
What does it show?
1. There have only been four racing days in the last seven Festivals where there wasn't a trainer with a winning double. Last year's Thursday, (Galopin Des Champs would have made it two for WPM). The 2021 Thursday (Envoi Allen fell at 8/15, long way to go, but would have been a double with Mount Ida), The 2019 Thursday (JP owned a double, B Geraghty rode both), and the 2019 Friday (stretching it again, I know) but Joseph and JP would have probably had a double with Sir Erec RIP and Early Doors.
2. Some trainers are obviously better on certain days. Nicky's mainly a Tuesday man, Willie can do any day but currently is harvesting Friday. Gordon big on Wednesday (X Country?). Henry loves doubles. (His shy demeanour might suggest a real momentum guy?) Paul has done well on Fridays mirroring his stable.
3. In the last seven festivals i.e. 28 days racing, Willie Mullins has had 14 days where he trained at least a double. Nine barren days in that 28. Has only had a 'single' on seven of the Festival days. The Tuesday and Thursday last two years, the 2019 GC Day, the 2019 Thursday and the 2016 Wednesday, (Boston Bob fell at the last in the RSA) The last two Tuesdays have been his first 'single win' Tuesdays since 2012. (Very likely because I put the grid up) It seems that he is currently nearly twice as likely to have a least a double than a 'single'. Therefore if he gets one...
So then. The Question. This is the Olympics. Can this relief, joy, momentum pass on to the next runner from the winning trainer, jockey, groom, owner? Don't know. What I do know is that horses rarely talk. Don't tell you why they won or lost. I do however believe that we are all guilty of putting each Festival race in its own separate box, as if what has just happened 40 minutes ago is irrelevant. TV, Newspapers, Pundits. We all do it. Each race, especially the Grade 1s, are set up as stand alone events. Paul Kealy talking about Preview Nights 'At least 90 per cent of the people who attend these events already know what they are backing – or have already backed – in all the Grade 1 races.'
One forgets the difference a Festival winner (or two) makes to any NH Jockey, trainer or owner. Even WPM will admit to the relief.
In the film 'Being AP' they had a camera in the jockeys room on lunchtime on Champion Hurdle day for AP's last Festival in 2014. All jockeys including B Geraghty were just sitting there, no noise, no chat, just silence. Ruby talks over the pictures. He says something like 'The thing you notice about the jockeys at the Festival is the level of disappointment. So many jockeys in tears, sitting with their heads in their hands.' John Gosden - Racing Post 19th July 2015 - 'A horse will always sense an edgy atmosphere, someone who is nervous or a nervous jockey.'
Humour me. The link below should take you to the 1986 Triumph Hurdle won by Solar Cloud. Robin and I were there, our second year, dressed in best suits as we were so in awe of the place then. Still are. It looks completely different. Before 1986 you knew not to back anything trained by Josh Gifford or David Nicholson ''cos they can't train Festival winners." Then they got one... Sir Peter catches the importance of it all.
So just how happy/relieved/de-stressed are jockeys and trainers when they win that first one? Paul Townend had a losing run of 34 before Annie Power crumbled at the last in the 2015 Mares allowing Paul the chance to win on Glens Melody. He immediately followed up on Irish Cavalier and jogged round on Wicklow Brave later in the week. Four timer in Limerick that Sunday. In 2017, his losing run was back up to 23, then he rides the top weight to win the County Hurdle. Seems to like that race. And what does Paul Townend do when he rides a Festival winner? He immediately rides another one. Penhill in the Albert Bartlett. 2018 Thursday. Penhill followed by Laurina (long odds on admittedly). 2019 wins GC on Al Boum Photo and then with his next ride, Roll Again at 11/4 in a Down Royal maiden hurdle the next day. The 2020 three on GC day. And all pretty good rides, especially on Al Boum Photo. Last year Vauban then immediately State Man. Davy Russell (again) won on five successive Festival rides between 2014 and 2015, the last being Rivage D'Or in the cross country. That horse was the original stats crusher and hadn't gone a yard in the two races previous or in any of its six races after. 'Going easily 2 out, led last, ridden out.' Wins by 2 and 1/4 lengths. Davy's confidence that day can't have been a hindrance. Barry Geraghty in both 2019 and 2020 rode one winner immediately followed by another one.
2021 Henry de Bromhead becomes the first person to train the winners of the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother and the Gold Cup. Talk about momentum. Seems a lovely man. In many interviews after, he just seemed bemused about the whole thing. Even got Quilixios a fortnight before from Cullentra. Great grace to immediately ring G Ellliott to thank him.
W Mullins. In 2017 Douvan didn't fire in the QM at 2/9 and although the horses hadn't run badly, no winners by Wednesday tea time. Gordon had five by that stage and, on course, I spoke to sages who whispered to me that Willie 'had gone at the game' and had practically 'lost the power of his legs.' Well, no. The Willie Mullins 2017 Thursday saw him saddle four winners in the first five races, including the three G1s. All fine rides from Ruby. Then on Friday he made in 6 wins in 9 races with the Paul Townend double. I personally think that Yorkhill in the JLT was the most important of these. Don't tell me that once he obliged, the whole Closutton organisation didn't let out a huge sigh of relief and everybody relaxed a little. I'm sure Ruby relaxed as well. 'We're on the board.' was the quote. In 2020 they were 0 from 13 races before the bumper. 1-2. A relieved man when interviewed. Then they took off. Check the grid above.
It is very true to say that 'sure, they have the best horses, so it's not rocket science, Bryan.' I agree. But Mullins, Henderson, Elliott and de Bromhead will always say how difficult it is to fight at the top table. Harry Whittington ran only 5 horses at the 2020 Festival. Finished with a h'cap winner, a G1 second and a h'cap third. Not bad at all. 2021 Gavin Cromwell lost Jonathan Moore through injury on the Thursday morning. Flooring Porter went in with Danny Mullins and then Vanillier. Two winners form only three runners 2021. Venetia pulled momentum out of the hat last year, Two winners and eight others finishing in the top six.
This Festival is so important to these people. A winner even to a mid ranking stable will mean kudos, prospective clients, wages for the next 12 months. Now, for betting purposes. Check if the winning jockey/trainer has a horse under 20/1 for the rest of the day. Be prepared to change tack. At least a little. God, that's easy to say, Bryan. I repeat. These are not stand alone events.
To finish, Momentum On A Big Scale. Racing Post Sunday 17th February 2019. Paul Nicholls on the 1999 Festival. 'That's when it all began for me' he enthuses, 'I won the Arkle with Flagship Uberalles on the Tuesday, Call Equiname on the second and See More Business won the Gold Cup on the third, and having never trained a festival winner, that was some three days and really got the ball rolling for me. On the wall at home I've got a picture of those three horses' heads and I always say to people they're the ones who started it all. They were good days.'
Barry Geraghty's only win in 2016 was on Ivanovich Gorbatov in the Triumph first race Friday. As he circled at the top of the hill after his success, Alice, the C4 lady, sticks the mike under his nose and asks, 'Where have you been all week Barry, I've been looking for you?' At that time the man had 34 Festival successes and a winner every year from 2002 to 2015 but it might be true to say that momentum was not the thing working for Barry in 2016. Lots of beaten favs. Nico now on Sprinter Sacre. B Geraghty rarely gives much away. I'm not sure when he muttered 'Oh, I've been about.' that he was all that happy with Alice that day.
Move forward four years, after Defi Du Seuil took the 2019 JLT, putting Barry on the board for that Festival, he says
'Its just great to get winners here. Not every lad is fortunate enough to be in a position to ride good horses. You see good riders in there who aren't riding winners and its a cruel business in that aspect. I've been feeling sorry for myself not getting winners the first couple of days. It means so much to get a winner - it's the be-all and end-all.' That was his 37th Festival winner. Immediately carries Sire De Berlais home in the 2019 Ride Of The Festival.
2020 - Ruby and AP now gone, Barry was asked what's it like to be the top Festival jockey currently riding. He replies 'You start every Festival on zero.'