Willie Mullins, who has won the Irish National Hunt Trainers’ Championship every season since 2008/09, has also been no stranger to the winners’ enclosure at the Cheltenham Festival in recent years. Indeed, the County Carlow handler is the most successful trainer in the history of the March showpiece meeting, with 72 winners, and has been crowned leading trainer seven times.
The Queen Mother Champion Chase is a notable omission from Mullins’ CV but, of the other three main ‘championship’ races, he has won the Champion Hurdle four times, the Stayers’ Hurdle twice and, after finishing runner-up six times, the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, courtesy of Al Boum Photo in 2019 and 2020. Everyone needs to start somewhere, of course, and in Willie Mulllins’ case his first winner at the Cheltenham Festival was Tourist Attraction in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 1995. Ridden by Mark Dwyer, the 25/1 chance led on the run-in and stayed on well to beat Ventana Canyon, trained by Edward O’Grady and ridden by Charlie Swan, by two lengths.
County Kildare-born Rupert ‘Ruby’ Walsh, who retired from race riding on May 1, 2019, just two weeks shy of his fortieth birthday, was one of the greatest National Hunt jockeys of all time. All told, in his 24-year riding career, Walsh rode 2,756 winners in Britain and Ireland, include a record 59 at the Cheltenham Festival, where he won the leading jockey award no fewer than 11 times.
Indeed, Walsh rode his first Cheltenham Festival winner, Alexander Banquet, trained by Willie Mullins, in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, as an 18-year-old amatuer, in 1998. Having turned professional later that year, Walsh went on to enjoy a remarkable career during which he would win each of the main ‘championship’ races at the Cheltenham Festival at least twice. Indeed, he won the Stayers’ Hurdle five times, the Champion Hurdle four times, the Queen Mother Champion Chase three times and the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice. His last Cheltenham Festival winner came courtesy of Klassical Dream, again trained by Willie Mullins, in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2019.
The Champion Hurdle and the Cheltenham Gold Cup represent the pinnacle of achievement in their respective divisions of National Hunt racing so, unsurprisingly, jockeys who have managed to win both races in the same season are few and far between. Norman Williamson did so in 1995, courtesy of Alderbrook and Master Oats, respectively, both trained by Kim Bailey.
However, the last jockey to complete the Champion Hurdle – Cheltenham Gold Cup double was Sir Anthony McCoy, popularly known as A.P. McCoy or Tony McCoy. On March 11, 1997, McCoy rode the six-year-old Make A Stand, trained by Martin Pipe, to a five-length victory in the Champion Hurdle at odds of 7/1. Two days later, he also rode the nine-year-old Mr. Mulligan, trained by Noel Chance, to a nine-length victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup at odds of 20/1. All told, McCoy rode three winners at the 1997 Cheltenham Festival – the other being Or Royal, also trained by Martin Pipe, in the Arkle Challenge Trophy – which were sufficient to win him the leading jockey award for the first time.
The simple answer is no, Aidan O’Brien is not related to the late Michael Vincent O’Brien, but the current ‘Master of Ballydoyle’ has much in common with his predecessor. Indeed, it was Vincent O’Brien who bought Ballydoyle House, in Co. Tipperary in 1951 and, later, along with his son-in-law, John Magnier, and the late Robert Sangster, established what became known as the Coolmore syndicate, for whom Aidan O’Brien has been private trainer since 1996.
Both Aidan and Vincent O’Brien began their training careers in National Hunt racing; both have the distinction of having won the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival three years running, Aidan with Istabraq in 1998, 1999 and 2000 and Vincent with Hatton’s Grace in 1949, 1950 and 1951. Similarly, both men subsequently rose to become the dominant force in Flat racing, not just in Ireland, but in the whole of Europe and both became Champion Trainer in Britain, despite training on the other side of the Irish Sea.