Willie Mullins hasn’t ruled out even better to come from his brilliant Gold Cup winner Galopin Des Champs and a ‘Blue Riband’ title defence in 2024 is his “first priority”.
The man, who with six winners was crowned the festival’s top trainer for a 10th time on Friday, also praised Ireland’s jockeys for working with the British Horseracing Authority’s new regulations and not making the whip an issue during last week’s Cheltenham action.
A total of six referrals to the BHA’s whip review committee were made from 444 individual rides at Cheltenham and they will be examined on Tuesday.
However, the BHA has confirmed that none of them involve the potential disqualification of a horse as had been widely feared before the most high-profile week of the racing year.
One of the half-dozen referrals was for a winning ride. Three were for use above the permitted level, two for hitting a horse in the incorrect place, and one was for use above shoulder height. No names have been identified until the whip review committee has concluded its examination.
It is nevertheless a much better outcome than had been feared, particularly in relation to Irish based riders who hadn’t had the benefit of advice during a ‘bedding-in period’ in Britain.
“I think it’s huge credit to the Irish jockeys. They took on board everything that was going on and it’s fantastic that they rode within the rules.
“I know fellahs will say jockeys should be able to count up to six but when you’re flat out and horses’ heads are coming around you, the last thing you’re thinking about is counting.
“Your natural competitive instinct kicks in to stay in front of the horse beside you. There were a couple of three- or four-horse finishes where they were riding flat out, so it’s great testament to the jockeys that the whip wasn’t an issue at Cheltenham,” Mullins said on Sunday.
The festival’s dominant figure reported his star-studded team had emerged from the week with no major problems – “a few cuts and bangs but no problems we can see yet, other than small match injuries which should repair themselves in time.”
Winners such as El Fabiolo (Arkle), Impaire Et Passe (Ballymore) and Galopin Des Champs himself are likely to be targeted at next month’s Punchestown festival.
The latter created a huge impression with his Gold Cup victory under an audacious Paul Townend ride, where any lingering worries about his stamina were firmly put to bed.
“I was surprised he won by seven lengths in the end. I watched it from the last fence and I saw him go up the hill, thinking unless he slips up he’s going to win. But I was surprised to see seven lengths, which shows the performance he put in.
“Paul told me he was still galloping through the line and that’s a huge performance by a horse who a lot of people doubted his stamina,” he said.
Asked if the seven-year-old could progress even further, Mullins replied: “In the normal course of events horses will improve away up beyond seven years of age, especially when you’re going for stamina-laden contests.
“They often say horses are strongest when they’re eight or nine or 10. Once you’re going beyond three miles, experience and strength are huge.”
As for immediate targets, he added: “I wonder how hard a race he had. I always think when a horse wins like that, people think he won easy. But Paul had to dig deep going over the last two, they’d set a searching pace, and I will defer that decision until we see how he bounces out of the race.
“Punchestown [Ladbrokes Gold Cup on April 26th) is where I’d like to go. I know Greg Turley [owner] and myself have an ambition to win the ‘Grand Steep’ [Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris] in France and it was mentioned we might go there too.
“I know Greg mentioned after the race could it be done but I think I’ll try and get him back to Cheltenham next year. That’s my first priority. Punchestown this year is my second focus, and basically next year’s programme will be much the same at this year’s.”
No decision has been made on whether the unbeaten Impaire Et Passe will go down the Champion Hurdle route next season, although Mullins admitted on Sunday the horse looks to have “star quality” about him.
As for closing in on the once scarcely credible landmark of 100 festival winners, he insisted it doesn’t figure in his thinking. Last week’s tally of six took him to 94 Cheltenham successes in all.
“There’s nearly a countdown now every time we have a winner which is embarrassing,” he said.
“But we just take each race, and each win is savoured today the same as we savoured the first one. There are no ‘gimmes’ over there. We get plenty of favourites beaten, plenty of horses we think could win are beaten. So, when you do get one it’s treasured,” Mullins added.