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.
Of course, the 2020 Grand National was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic but, three weeks before the event was due to take place, Burrows Saint was second-favourite, behind only Tiger Roll, and had been well touted as one of the more likely winners. However, Burrows Saint is still a young horse and, granted that the last seven-year-old to win the Grand National was Bogskar in 1940, the enforced delay in his Aintree challenge may not be altogether a bad thing.
Owned by Susannah Ricci and trained, in County Carlow, Ireland, by Willie Mullins, Burrows Saint first emerged as a bona fide Grand National contender when justifying favouritism in the Irish Grand National, over 3 miles 5 furlongs, at Fairyhouse in April, 2019. He subsequently ran creditably in defeat, in two Grade One events, the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris at Auteil and the Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse, before reverting to hurdles in the Bet With Tote At Punchestown Hurdle on New Year’s Eve.
On the latter occasion, despite being disadvantaged by the race conditions, Burrows Saint was enterprising ridden by Rachael Blackmore and, having made all the running, only had to be pushed out on the run-in to win, easily, by three-and-a-quarter lengths. Bookmaker Paddy Power responded by cutting his odds for the Grand National from 20/1 to 14/1 so, while the 2021 Grand National is obviously some way off, the 25/1 available ante post, at the time of writing, could yet represent some value.
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.