Willie Mullins said it was “game on” in his pursuit of a first British trainers’ championship as I Am Maximus provided him with a second Randox Grand National victory.

While it has taken 19 years for him to follow up his initial success with Hedgehunter, his domination of the National Hunt scene on both sides of the Irish Sea is now such that he is odds-on across the board to win a title in a country in which he does not even reside.

The prospect of emulating the legendary Vincent O’Brien – who did it in successive years in the 1950s – has loomed large ever since Mullins once again commanded the Cheltenham Festival, winning the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup in the process.

Mullins himself, though, played down the prospect, with one proviso – unless he won the £1 million National.

I Am Maximus was sent off the 7-1 favourite under Paul Townend, one of eight runners for the yard, and despite one or two hairy moments that are generally par for the course in a Grand National, he seldom looked like not winning.

With a lead of almost £40,000 over Dan Skelton, Paddy Power make Mullins the 8-15 favourite, and British racegoers certainly have not seen the last of the man from Closutton this season.

“I didn’t know we’d gone in front. You can expect to see us at Sandown, Ayr and wherever!” he said.

“We’ll have to go for it now. We needed to have a really good National and we have. It’s game on now, isn’t it.

“I’d love to win the championship. Vincent O’Brien has done it in the 1950s and it is something different to do.

“As much as I’d like to win it my owners would like me to win it and so would my staff, so now we’re in this position you have to have a real go.

“JP McManus (owner of I Am Maximus) has been telling me for the past couple of years to have a real go, but I always think just mind yourself at home rather than spread yourself too thin and leave yourself wide open to have a bad season at home.

“Travelling horses takes it out of them, especially early in the season, which is why we don’t do it, but it’s panned out well today.”

Mullins himself is taken aback by the quantity of the quality in his yard. But even for him, winning the Champion Hurdle, Gold Cup and the National is something special.

“You might have the favourites for all those races, but you don’t for one minute think you are going to win all three,” he said.

“We can’t believe it at home. We’re gobsmacked looking at the talent we have in the yard. When I was a smaller trainer I’d be proud to have one of the barns that we have.

“I have an amazing team, I don’t think I saddled a runner at Cheltenham, I let them do it and it probably works better when I’m not involved.

“If someone had said we’d have 100 winners at the Festival you wouldn’t have thought it was possible, so we’re as amazed as anyone that it happened.”

So it could be a very different end to the season for Mullins, with Sandown and Ayr occupying his thoughts rather than Punchestown, but Townend may not be on many of them.

“We have a different programme nowadays to when Vincent won it. I find the English programme very hard to navigate, it seems to be a lot of handicaps and that is tough on horses,” Mullins said.

“I’ll let David Casey (assistant), who plans those things, get to work on it. He’ll be working overtime over the next two or three weeks!

“Paul has a title of his own to try to win so I’m not sure if he’ll be coming over, he’s got four winners to make up on Jack Kennedy.”

Bookmakers were put to the sword as I Am Maximus’ supreme Randox Grand National triumph meant the layers left Aintree licking their wounds.

It has been a chastening week for the layers in Liverpool, with a huge amount of winning favourites inflicting misery.

And that was compounded in the main event itself as Willie Mullins’ 7-1 market leader became the second consecutive winning favourite of the world’s most famous steeplechase after Corach Rambler’s success in 2023.

“It was a tough opening two days of the Aintree Festival for the bookies and the Grand National didn’t provide any respite on day three,” explained BoyleSports’ Brian O’Keeffe.

“I Am Maximus delivered a knockout blow in the big one for punters as he was one of our biggest liabilities. The placed horses weren’t kind to us either, but there’s always next year!”

It was Mullins’ second win in the Aintree showpiece and the sport’s leading trainer is no stranger to giving the bookies a bashing on the biggest stage, as I Am Maximus led home a 1-2-3-4 for Irish-trained horses.

“It was that man again Willie Mullins who so often is a thorn in our side,” said Sam Boswell from BetVictor.

“Whilst we had a significant spread of money in the race, we still ended up down thanks to the brilliant performance from his eight-year-old who had plenty of backers.

“Minella Indo, Delta Work and Kitty’s Light who all placed had plenty of each-way support too and it continued the theme of the jumps season which has been utter Irish domination in the big races.”

I Am Maximus’ victory puts Mullins in pole position to claim a first-ever UK trainers’ championship and he is now the general favourite to lift the trophy aloft at Sandown in two weeks time.

“The £1million Grand National was always likely to have a massive say in this season’s NH trainers’ title race, and of the three contenders, Willie Mullins went into the race with the strongest hand,” said Coral’s David Stevens, with the firm offering 4-5 for the master of Closutton to win the title.

“Victory for I Am Maximus has seen him claim favouritism for the championship for the first time, as the competition moves to next week’s big Ayr meeting and the £250,000 Coral Scottish National.

“The Grand National remains the biggest day in the betting calendar, and while I Am Maximus had plenty of supporters, he was one of many runners to prove popular on this unique occasion, and so we’ve no complaints about the result.”

Nicola McGeady of Ladbrokes added: “This year’s trainers’ title race is giving the Premier League race a run for its money. In what has turned into a very exciting three horse race, Willie Mullins’ Grand National victory has put him firmly in front of his rivals.”

I Am Maximus was an emphatic winning favourite of the Randox Grand National, storming clear of his rivals to give the all-conquering Willie Mullins a second victory in the Aintree showpiece.

Successful with Hedgehunter 19 years ago, Mullins was responsible for eight of the 32 who headed to post in Liverpool, but I Am Maximus was well-touted to follow up last year’s success in the Irish Grand National.

An impressive tune-up in the Bobbyjo Chase saw punters latch onto the Grade One-winning eight-year-old and Paul Townend rode the 7-1 market leader with supreme confidence down the inner as I Am Maximus showed no sign of previous jumping frailties.

In a race with early drama when defending champion Corach Rambler unshipped Derek Fox at the very first fence, there were a plethora still in contention heading down to two out, where I Am Maximus was inching into contention.

However, the complexion of the race would change at the elbow where I Am Maximus scooted clear of the Rachael Blackmore-ridden Minella Indo and the staying-on Delta Work, who picked up second place in his third attempt at the famous race.

It was a first Grand National triumph for Townend, while owner JP McManus was striking at Aintree for the third time after Don’t Push It (2010) and Minella Times (2021).

Dancing City strutted his way to a cosy success in the Cavani Sartorial Menswear Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree.

A surprise Grade One winner at the Dublin Racing Festival in February, Willie Mullins’ seven-year-old was third when upped to three miles for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Paul Townend’s mount was placed alongside fellow Joe and Marie Donnelly-owned runner Shanagh Bob as the duo tracked the steady pace set by Albert Bartlett runner-up The Jukebox Man and Pertemps second Kyntara.

The tempo was increased turning for home and as Kyntara began to retreat it was Dancing City who appeared in The Jukebox Man’s slipstream travelling menacingly.

Townend stalked his prey down to the final flight, with the rider simply having to keep the 4-1 winner up to his work in the closing stages as the gelding kept on for a five-and-a-half-length triumph, reversing Cheltenham form with The Jukebox Man who bravely held on for second.

Kyntara took a heavy fall at the last, but was thankfully able to walk away.

Arizona Cardinal prevented a perfect Grand National rehearsal for Paul Townend when flying home in a thrilling conclusion to the Randox Supports Race Against Dementia Topham Handicap Chase.

A typically great sight as a packed field tackled the Grand National course, there were plenty in with chances as they approached the final fence.

Townend, who partners I Am Maximus in Saturday’s main event, headed to the elbow in front though and was travelling well aboard the Willie Mullins-trained James Du Berlais.

However, Stuart Edmunds’ Arizona Cardinal was keeping on gamely up the run-in under Ciaran Gethings.

With the stride of the Closutton challenger shortening in the dying strides, Arizona Cardinal clawed his way to the front to score at odds of 20-1, securing a length verdict at the line. Kandoo Kid took third with Celebre D’Allen a short head back in fourth.

Arizona Cardinal was realising a long-term plan for Edmunds and owners the Oakman Racing Club.

The trainer said: “You couldn’t quite believe it was happening to be honest.

“It is a massive emotion as the horse didn’t have it easy at the beginning of the season with a lung infection. It took a while for him to get over that, but he is a lovely horse and an absolute gentleman. It’s a massive team effort.

“It was seven or eight months ago when we started looking at this race, mainly because we thought his jumping was superb. We took him down to Lambourn to have a pop over the National fences and he was class and I don’t think he’s made a semblance of a mistake today.

“I thought he was beat and you’d be silly if you didn’t think he was beat, but the fact that he stays three miles has helped him on the soft ground.”

On a possible future tilt at the Grand National, Edmunds added: “He’d jump round, quite whether he’d get that trip (I’m not sure). We might try to stretch him to the Becher Chase and give it a try.

“He’s obviously relished the fences.”

Paul Townend will be on board I Am Maximus and Mark Walsh has opted to partner Limerick Lace after owner JP McManus finalised riding plans for his five-strong team in Saturday’s Randox Grand National.

The celebrated owner has enjoyed two famous victories in the world’s greatest steeplechase, memorably providing AP McCoy with an elusive first success aboard Don’t Push It in 2010 before the historic triumph of the Rachael Blackmore-ridden Minella Times three years ago.

McManus is set to be well represented once more at Aintree this weekend, with Irish Grand National hero I Am Maximus and his Willie Mullins-trained stablemate Meetingofthewaters his two shortest-priced runners.

William Hill on Tuesday suggested the latter, third in the Ultima at the Cheltenham Festival last month, could even go off favourite following a “massive gamble”, but with Townend in the saddle on I Am Maximus, the owner’s retained rider in Ireland, Mark Walsh, has interestingly sided with Gavin Cromwell’s Mares’ Chase heroine Limerick Lace.

Confirming riding arrangements, McManus’ racing manager Frank Berry said: “Paul is on I Am Maximus, Mark is on Limerick Lace and Danny (Mullins) is on Meetingofthewaters.

“Mark has never ridden I Am Maximus, so Paul will ride him. Mark had a difficult decision to make as he liked Meetingofthewaters at Cheltenham as well. It was a difficult decision, but he’s gone with the mare anyway, so he’s hoping she’ll get the trip.”

Berry said Keith Donoghue had been booked to ride Cotswold Chase winner Capodanno, while Jody McGarvey will do the steering on Janidil.

He added: “They’re all going there in good form, they’ll need a bit of luck in running on the day in the National as everyone knows, but hopefully they’ll give a good account.”

Hills make last year’s winner Corach Rambler their 9-2 favourite, with I Am Maximus 7-1 and Meetingofthewaters only a point behind at 8-1 after being cut from 10s.

Spokesperson Lee Phelps said: “The money started coming in for Meetingofthewaters last week and it has not stopped. Make no mistake, this is a massive gamble, and we’ve been forced to take more preventative action, cutting Willie Mullins’ runner to 8-1 from 10-1, having been as big as 14-1 less than a week ago.

“Most people would have expected last year’s winner Corach Rambler to go off favourite, but if this gamble continues at its current rate we think there’s a good chance Meetingofthewaters could be favourite come Saturday race-time.”

The well-fancied Kitty’s Light, a 14-1 shot with the same firm, appears almost certain to make the cut after Gordon Elliott revealed top-weight Conflated will instead run in the Melling Chase on Friday.

Conflated was one of 13 Elliott-trained horses still in contention for the event following the confirmation stage on Monday, but owners Gigginstown House Stud later said the prospect of running under 11st 12lb on testing ground over four and a quarter miles was a major concern.

The 10-year-old was also entered for Thursday’s Aintree Bowl over three miles and a furlong, but was not declared on Tuesday morning and is instead set to run over two and a half miles the following day.

“We had the option of the Aintree Bowl and the Grand National, but with the ground going the way it is we are going to run in the Melling Chase on Friday instead,” Elliott said in a stable tour for Attheraces.com.

“I thought he ran great in the Ryanair Chase (at Cheltenham, finished third), he hit the line well and I was very happy with his run.”

Conflated’s anticipated defection means all six horses with an allotted weight of 10st 6lb are now set to get into the final field of 34.

As Glengouly, Galia Des Liteaux and Panda Boy are rated 146, all three were already guaranteed a starting berth, but the same could not be said of Eklat De Rire, Chambard and Kitty’s Light.

As that trio have all been dropped 1lb to an official rating of 145 since the weights were unveiled in February, connections faced an anxious wait and a potential random ballot to decide which two of the three would creep in at the bottom if none of the horses above them were taken out.

Christian Williams, trainer of last year’s Scottish Grand National and bet365 Gold Cup hero Kitty’s Light, admitted to being relieved that barring a late change of mind from Elliott, that will no longer be the case.

He said: “It’s great that he’ll get in now, it’s good for the owners. The whole season has been geared towards the Grand National so it’s great that we’ve got in.

“The owners have been looking at it for the last three weeks and had everything upside down. They’ve been thinking about it for the last three weeks and I just stayed out of it.

“I think Gordon declared Conflated for the Bowl this morning, so one of the owners rang me and said ‘brilliant Chris, we’re in’, then Gordon took him back out! Anyway, it sounds like he’s running on Friday hopefully.”

Of Kitty’s Light, he added: “He’s flying, it’s just a shame with the ground because when we had him in a good place last year the ground was good and it looks like it will be heavy on Saturday.

“He might still have won the Scottish National last year if it was soft, you don’t really know do you? You can’t discount him on the ground until he actually goes out there as when we’ve run him on that sort of ground before we didn’t have him in the best of form and it wouldn’t have been his ideal trip.

“When he’s had his ideal trip it’s been in the spring and that’s when the ground has been good. We’ll see how he runs on heavy ground in the spring – there’s only one way to find out.”

Owner Audrey Turley reported Galopin Des Champs to be on course for the Punchestown Gold Cup after seeing her Got Glory hit the target at Naas.

Galopin Des Champs followed up last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup triumph by losing out to Fastorslow at the Punchestown Festival but will try to pull off the double this term at the start of next month.

The Willie Mullins-trained eight-year-old powered to victory at Prestbury Park again when galloping on gamely up the hill to beat Gerri Colombe by three and a half lengths under Paul Townend.

Regarding a return to Punchestown, Turley said: “I think that is the plan and I think he’s doing good, so fingers crossed he’ll run.”

Reflecting on the gelding’s second Cheltenham Gold Cup success, she told Racing TV: “We’re watching it on the loop at home and we can’t get enough of it, to be honest. And the more you watch it, the more you enjoy it.

“He’s a superstar horse, he really is. The whole team are superstars and it’s just been a privilege to be involved with it. We’re thrilled and feel very lucky.

“It’s terrifying to watch (at the time) and I can’t watch it, but I really enjoy it afterwards when I watch it back. It was an incredible experience and it’s hard to put words on it – excitement, nervous, the anticipation, it’s all there and it’s all wonderful.”

After winning on her debut in France back in July 2021, Got Glory spent 636 days on the sidelines before being pulled up in last year’s Grade One Honeysuckle Mares Novice Hurdle first time out for Mullins.

Following another 361-day lay-off, she made an impressive reappearance when scoring by five and a half lengths at 4-7 in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Mares Maiden Hurdle, with Townend in the saddle.

“It was very satisfying and she ran so well,” said Turley. “I think Paul makes it look very easy but over the last three years, she’s been injured quite a lot and it’s lovely to see her back on the track and winning the race. It’s incredible and really nice for her.

“We’ve had patience with her and it worked out in the end – she’s a beautiful horse, a beautiful mare and we’re delighted to be here having her running, let alone winning. It’s a real thrill.

“I think she looked fine and in good form, so I’d say she’ll run again pretty soon, maybe at Galway.”

Townend commented: “She was fresh and gassy and wanted to get on with it, but the engine is in there, we just have to keep the wheels on the bus.

“She’s a fine filly but has just had a lot of problems. The owners were patient, she does smart work and hopefully we can keep her right.”

Mousey Brown caused her second big upset in the space of two weeks when winning the I.N.H. Stallion Owners EBF Novice Handicap Hurdle Series Final at Fairyhouse.

A winner at Down Royal at 25-1 last time out, she was sent off at 33-1 on this occasion for Dermot McLoughlin and Conor Maxwell.

The Gold Cup-winning team of owner Audrey Turley, Willie Mullins and Paul Townend looked sure to collect with Olympic Man when he took the final flight in front, but Mousey Brown stayed on strongly to get home by half a length.

“Everyone said she was lucky the last day in Down Royal but she was nearly knocked down and still won,” said McLoughlin.

“As Conor said, she’s very tough. She wasn’t enjoying the ground but from the back of the last she came home well. He said she started pricking her ears and looking around her.

“It was a good performance in a good race. I thought it might be a bit soon bringing her back after Down Royal, as it was only 13 days.

“She’s hardy, Conor said it’s hard work out there but she’s game.

“I like her, she had to do a lot of work from where she was there, but kept going. She’s a big, strong mare.”

Effernock Fizz was a game winner of the RYBO Handicap Hurdle, also at 33-1.

Having built up a big lead at one stage, she looked sure to be swallowed up at the second last but found plenty on the rail to fend off Conyers Hill for Cian Collins and jockey Carl Millar.

Collins said: “That’s unbelievable, she has the heart of a lion.

“She’s a mare that wants good to firm ground-wise. On the ground, I didn’t think it would happen today at all, I thought she might even pull up on heavy ground.

“She gave me my first two winners and that’s my 20th today. I thought she was gone turning in but she just doesn’t know when to quit. It’s crazy.

“I was very lucky to get her. She just suits the way we train them, I keep her fresh. I actually ride her out every day myself, she’s always in great form and is a pleasure to have. She tries her heart out every day and just loves racing.

“I think we might go for the Scottish Champion Hurdle now. That’s the plan and we’ll probably go straight there, as it’s in a couple of weeks’ time. That’s her 96th run today and her 10th win.”

Mullins and Townend also had to settle for second best in the Listed-class BoyleSports Mares Handicap Chase with Instit after Ardera Ru finished well to prevail by three and threequarter lengths at 18-1 for trainer Eoin Doyle.

Winning rider Shane O’Callaghan said: “She was brilliant. The plan was to drop in, creep around and try to sneak a bit of black-type.

“It’s the best she’s ever jumped for me, she jumped fantastic everywhere and cruised into it very easily.”

Anthony McCann looks to have a hot prospect on his hands after Familiar Dreams galloped on strongly to complete a hat-trick in the closing Irish Stallion Farms EBF Total Enjoyment Mares’ INH Flat Race at 13-2 under Aine O’Connor.

The five-year-old was giving weight away all round due to a double penalty but put in a powerful effort from the front to pull five and a half lengths clear of the Mullins-trained favourite Magic McColgan.

Mister Policeman ensured Cheltenham Gold Cup winners Willie Mullins and Paul Townend kept the bandwagon rolling with Grade Three glory in the Pierce Molony Memorial Novice Chase at Thurles.

The six-year-old was a winner in France before joining Mullins and he made a winning start for the yard when beating stablemate Cash Back in a Cork hurdle last April.

Switched to fences subsequently, Mister Policeman was an odds-on winner at Fairyhouse in November but let down his supporters when well held in third by Quilixios at Navan on his next start.

A six-length win at Punchestown bolstered his confidence according to jockey Paul Townend, who settled his mount in second before making his challenge with four fences to jump in his latest assignment.

The 30-100 favourite was clearly travelling best of all coming to the last and he kept on well to record a length-and-a-half victory over Thecompanysergeant.

Townend said: “He jumped fantastic for a horse that his jumping probably let him down in the past. He loved jumping and is probably getting the hang of it.

“I still think he can go out in trip, but the way he’s jumping now is getting him through. He got a lot of confidence from the last day and he’s built on that again today.

“Hopefully he can keep building, but he has a bit to go to fulfil what he was supposed to be.”

Mister Policeman was the only runner in Ireland for the Mullins-Townend team the day after another fruitful Cheltenham Festival.

Galopin Des Champs provided a perfect finale in winning the Gold Cup for a second successive year, impressing Townend with his cosy three-and-a-half-length verdict.

He said: “He won in a different way (than the previous year) and he dug in so much. We got racing at the top of the hill and on heavy ground it’s a long way home.

“They are really, really good when they can do that.”

Townend finished the week at top jockey with six winners, although he rode a couple of beaten favourites, most notably El Fabiolo who relinquished his unbeaten record in the Champion Chase.

Sent off the 2-9 favourite, El Fabiolo made a bad mistake at the fifth fence and was soon pulled up by Townend.

He added: “It was an amazing week. Obviously El Fabiolo was disappointing.

“There were a few disappointments, he was the main one, but outside that everything went great through the week.”

An attempt to emulate three-time winners Arkle and Best Mate is uppermost in Willie Mullins’ mind for Galopin Des Champs having watched his stable star smoothly add a second Boodles Gold Cup at Cheltenham.

While last year’s race had its moments of concern before he eventually stamped his class on the contest, this time around it was much more straightforward.

In fact, the biggest worry was when Fastorslow, his nemesis from the Punchestown Festival and the John Durkan Chase earlier in the season, loomed up alongside him – the difference being this time his old foe had unseated earlier in the race and was riderless.

“The loose horse was obviously a worry, I was trying to work out if it was an English or an Irish one! But I could tell by Paul’s body language that he was comfortable throughout,” said Mullins.

For Mullins, the old saying ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’ certainly rings true where the Gold Cup is concerned.

Before Al Boum Photo won the first of his two Gold Cups in 2019, the master trainer had finished second in the blue riband an incredible six times.

“The two horses don’t really compare, Al Boum Photo was more of a galloper who would stay all day while this fellow has a bit of class but he’s still able to pull it out at the end of three and a quarter miles,” said Mullins, who was winning his fourth Gold Cup in six years.

“We’ve been very lucky that after six seconds we’ve now won four in six, we’re also very lucky to have Paul. He’s level with Pat Taaffe now (on four winners), that’s esteemed company.

“To win the 100th Gold Cup is amazing. The horses have been running so well, the jockeys have been riding so well, it’s like a perfect storm, that’s what it is, just the perfect storm.”

Where Al Boum Photo came up short in his bid for a third Gold Cup, Galopin Des Champs’ biggest test may come from within in the shape of Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase winner Fact To File.

“The aim now has got to be to get him back next year and go for a third and I imagine we’ll run a similar type of programme as we did this year,” said Mullins.

“Looking at the amount of horses he’s beaten, he’s probably run more times than most Gold Cup horses but I’m a believer that if you’ve got a good, sound horse and the prize-money is there, run them.

“I’m sure it’s a big help that we got those runs into him early in the season. He took the runs really well and gave us no reason not to run and that enabled us to come with race fitness rather than hope.

“It’s awesome that it looks like we might have other Gold Cup horses coming through, but we know through bitter experience how hard it is to get three-mile chasers back to the track, it’s a tough game. It would be great to bring him back but if he doesn’t, hopefully we have A, B and C as well.”

For Townend, who you sometimes feel would rather be anywhere else than the centre of attention, he has, as Mullins pointed out, matched the Gold Cup record of Arkle’s legendary rider.

“He’s felt stronger this year so we were able to ride him differently, he’s more grown up, he’s tough,” said Townend.

“It was more straightforward this year, last year we sort of had to fight our way through but this was a different race on a different day.

“You obviously never know what a loose horse is going to do, but he actually behaved himself quite well and my horse was very professional. He was also something for me to race with.”

For Mullins, the Gold Cup was his ninth winner of the week in a year he brought up an incredible 100th Festival success and put the seal on yet another remarkable meeting.

“The other morning before we came, we were all in the office and I said to them all ‘is it me or is everything in place this year’. The horses we were running at home were winning and the ones that were coming here were all in tip-top order and that has proved to be the case,” he said.

“It’s hard to say which is bigger, 100 winners or another Gold Cup, but there’s a Gold Cup every year – not many people will train 100 winners. I never dreamt I would and I didn’t aspire to do it, but you hope to have a Gold Cup winner.

“I obviously tried for a lot of years and couldn’t do it, but a few years later here we are with four out of six. You dream it would happen, but you don’t dream what has happened to Closutton in the last 20 or 25 years.

Townend, who had the misfortunate of being compared to Ruby Walsh when he took the top job, has now established himself as the man for the big occasion.

“It’s been an amazing journey and it’s all down to Willie, he gave me a lot of experiences as a young rider behind Ruby and I’m just grateful to be able to repay him with winners this week and every year,” he said.

“He gives you huge confidence riding the horses because if it’s not going to Plan A, you have the confidence to be able to go and do something else. I don’t remember us ever having a row!”

Comparing Townend to Walsh, Mullins said: “Totally different rider, different style of riding and a different way of viewing a race, but it works. I always admire Paul’s style of riding for different reasons – and he’s really settled into the top job hasn’t he.”

Mullins also had a poignant word for his late parents, Paddy and Maureen, the latter having died last month at the age of 94.

“I would have loved to have had my mother and my father here, for the whole week, not just the Gold Cup, but it’s not to be,” he said.

When asked what was left for him to achieve now, Mullins said: “Paul alluded to it coming in after winning on Absurde when he said ‘what the hell were you doing down in Melbourne with him!’.

“We’d like to go back. In the context of Flat racing, we’re never going to win a Guineas so we target the staying races and the Melbourne Cup is the one I’d really like.”

Galopin Des Champs bids to join the Prestbury Park immortals when he defends his Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup crown on Friday.

Willie Mullins’ stay stayer erased any stamina doubts with an ultra-impressive success in the blue riband 12 months ago, staying on strongly up the hill to finish seven lengths ahead of game runner-up Bravemansgame.

Although subsequently defeated by Fastorslow in both the Punchestown Gold Cup and when reappearing in the John Durkan, Galopin Des Champs firmly accounted for his reopposing rival when producing a dominant display in last month’s Irish Gold Cup, a victory which supplemented a clinical display at Leopardstown over the Christmas period and sees him head to the Cotswolds in peak condition.

The first time Paul Townend and Galopin Des Champs joined forces at Prestbury Park, the Irishman finished on the deck in the Turners Novices’ Chase as the then bold-jumping novice forfeited a 12-length lead when falling at the last.

However, the Closutton number one was handed plenty of plaudits for the way he nursed the eight-year-old to Gold Cup glory last year and with his mount now the ultimate professional, Townend is relishing the prospect of linking up once again.

“It was disappointing to get beat in the John Durkan but he was very good at Christmas and again at the Dublin Racing Festival,” said Townend.

“People had doubts about him (last year) and you always have doubts I suppose when a horse runs in the Gold Cup – until they stay, they don’t stay. We had confidence in him that he would stay and he did.

“Like us all, he’s getting older and wiser and a bit more laid-back and he’s developed into the finished article.

“I’m looking forward to getting back on him and it’s always exciting. I’ve had the horse underneath me (a few times) in the Gold Cup and you wouldn’t be anywhere without the horses and the rub of the green.”

Golden Miller famously won five successive Gold Cups in the 1930s, with Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate recording heralded hat-tricks in the Cheltenham Festival feature. But as a rule, back-to-back champions are a rarity in the modern era, with the great Kauto Star even surrendering his crown in 2008 before regaining the title a year later.

The outlier in the past 20 years is Al Boum Photo and now Galopin Des Champs has the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious former stablemate and provide Closutton with their fourth Gold Cup in six years.

However, the trainer’s son Patrick Mullins believes there are few similarities between the pair, viewing the stable’s latest Gold Cup hero as a “superstar”.

He said: “They’re chalk and cheese a bit. Al Boum Photo very much had his own way of jumping. I remember schooling him one day in Punchestown after racing and Paul just said ‘close your eyes and trust him’!

“He broke Ruby’s leg one time and he fell at the last with David (Mullins) another. He wasn’t a flashy horse and didn’t work fantastically well, whereas Galopin Des Champs is a superstar.

“It’s a bit like Nicky Butt and Roy Keane, but Al Boum Photo won two Gold Cups. It feels to me like he was more a specialist horse for that race, whereas Galopin is a superstar of the sport.”

Martin Brassil knows all about the might of Galopin Des Champs, but his Fastorslow is the only horse to lower the defending champion’s colours in the past two seasons.

The eight-year-old is the general second favourite as he prepares to lock horns with Galopin Des Champs yet again, but his handler believes there is plenty of depth to a competitive Gold Cup.

“We’re looking forward to the race and it’s a really strong renewal of the Gold Cup,” said Brassil.

“They call it a wind operation but we’ve just cauterised his palate that’s all (since Leopardstown last month). There is more than one horse in the race and some really good Grade One winners in there, it’s a strong race that will take plenty of winning.

“He’s as entitled to be there as any of the others, though. The horse has travelled over great and has eaten and drank and stuff and it’s all system go.”

Gordon Elliott’s Gerri Colombe entered the season as a major Gold Cup player in the making and was disputing favouritism after making a winning return at Down Royal.

However, hopes were tempered somewhat when trailing some 23 lengths behind Galopin Des Champs in the Savills Chase at Christmas.

Asked how he can reverse that form with Galopin Des Champs, Elliott said: “We need a miracle, I’d say.

“He’s in great shape, he didn’t run his race at Christmas and it’s going to be very hard to turn that distance around, but we’ll see what happens.

“He was unlucky when he just got touched off here last year and it’s an open race if you take the favourite out of it.”

Owners Robcour have a second string to their Gold Cup bow in the form of Gentlemansgame, who made a successful raid on the Charlie Hall Chase in the autumn, downing Paul Nicholls’ Bravemansgame.

Mouse Morris’ gigantic grey heads to the blue riband on the back of just three chasing starts but would have a fighting chance of giving his handler a second Gold Cup victory if repeating his Wetherby heroics.

Ten-year-olds Jungle Boogie (Henry de Bromhead) and Monkfish (Mullins) are others from Ireland in the Gold Cup mix, representing the two trainers who have traded the last six runnings of the race.

The latter is a dual Festival winner who finally gets his crack at the main event having been seen just the four times since winning the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase here in 2021.

However, one who will not to be at the start is John ‘Shark’ Hanlon’s King George hero Hewick, who is likely to now head for the Randox Grand National after ground conditions curtailed Gold Cup hopes.

In a post on X, Hanlon said: “After walking the track this morning, we have decided Hewick will not run in the Gold Cup.

“While this is disappointing, we are doing what’s best for the horse”

Ballyburn made impressively light work of the Gallagher Novices’ Hurdle on the second day of the Cheltenham Festival.

The 1-2 favourite was one of five runners for the all-conquering Willie Mullins and travelled strongly behind the leaders under Paul Townend.

When the field rounded the final bend there was no question whatsoever as to the outcome, with the Ronnie Bartlett-owned six-year-old strolling away from stablemate Jimmy Du Seuil to win by a yawning 13 lengths.

Another Closutton runner, Ile Atlantique, was a further three and a half lengths back in third. Just for good measure Mullins was also responsible for Mercurey (fourth) and Predators Gold (fifth), but Nicky Henderson’s Jingko Blue was pulled up to continue a testing time for the Seven Barrows trainer.

“It’s the first time he’s wowed me, I thought ‘wow, what a performance’ and to me that was a Champion Hurdle performance,” said Mullins.

“It was really really spectacular. With his size, scope and pedigree our owners might decide to go chasing with him next year, I don’t know. But with that performance he can go anywhere.

“Our team are in flying form, but we are just so sorry for Nicky Henderson that he has had to pull his good horses out. It could be us, so our sympathies go to him.”

He went on: “My heart hasn’t skipped a beat when a horse jumps a hurdle since Annie Power, but it skipped a beat there!

“I thought he was a good horse, but I didn’t view him as the horse that people were saying until today. When he jumped the last and went away up the hill I just thought ‘wow’.

“This fellow could be anything, he could be a Champion Hurdle horse, a Gold Cup horse or both with his size, scope and pedigree. He’s made for fences but looks to have the ability for a Champion Hurdle.

“I didn’t realise we’d had the first five, Michael Dickinson obviously did it in the Gold Cup but it’s nice to do it in a Grade One at Cheltenham.

“I hadn’t even got my licence then, but it was extraordinary to look at a man having so much firepower in one stable and now it looks like we’re in the same position at the moment.

“It’s nice to do that at the Festival.

“I know how good our others are, they would be top-class horses any other year and they deserve to be here, the strength behind him – he blew me away.

“When we saw Slade Steel win yesterday that really franked the form and gave us an even better chance.”

Bartlett said: “He jumped well, we didn’t know how he was going to handle the ground, but that was exciting.

“Let’s enjoy the day and the future is in front of him, so we’ll just keep our fingers crossed.

“He had lots of different options and in typical Willie style he didn’t want to tell us too much, but listen it all came right in the end.”

Ballyburn made impressively light work of the Gallagher Novices’ Hurdle on the second day of the Cheltenham Festival.

The 1-2 favourite was one of five runners for the all-conquering Willie Mullins and travelled strongly behind the leaders under Paul Townend.

When the field rounded the final bend there was no question whatsoever as to the outcome, with the Ronnie Bartlett-owned six-year-old strolling away from stablemate Jimmy Du Seuil to win by a yawning 13 lengths.

Blood Destiny came back in trip to some effect to claim the Flyingbolt Novice Chase at Navan.

Beaten by Spillane’s Tower in January when taking a keen hold in front, he moved nicely this time in second for Paul Townend, going strongly after three out before leading two from home and winging the last on the way to an impressive victory, with his Punchestown conqueror six and a half lengths in arrears on this occasion.

“New tactics, I thought that might be a help after Punchestown,” Willie Mullins said of his 8-11 favourite.

“Paul was very taken with him there. He’s brilliant to jump, that was always his feature, but we were making too much use of his jumping instead of just using it when we needed it.

“Coming back in trip might have been a help as well.”

Despite being trimmed for his Cheltenham Festival entries (Arkle and Turners Novices’ Chase), Mullins has other plans.

He added: “I don’t know whether we’ve made a mistake now leaving him at home for Cheltenham but at least he has one nice prize in the bag.

“I’d imagine he’ll probably go for the WillowWarm Gold Cup at Fairyhouse. That was the plan, here and then on to that.

“I know it’s two and a half, but that two and a half will be all right for him as well.”

Ash Tree Meadow was a 7-2 winner of the BoyleSports Webster Cup for Gordon Elliott and Sam Ewing.

Turning out just six days after finishing fourth in the Newlands Chase at Naas behind the brilliant but injury-plagued Ferny Hollow, the eight-year-old made every yard of the running on his way to a three-and-a-quarter length victory over Lucid Dreams.

The long-absent 4-6 favourite Journey With Me was a further half a length away in third place.

“It wasn’t really the plan to run him but when the race looked like it would cut up we decided we’d declare him and then make our mind up what to do. It worked out great,” Elliott said.

“He’s a good horse, Sam said he hated that ground and he’ll be better on better ground.

“There is a race in Fairyhouse and a race in Aintree for him. ”

Elliott and Ewing were completing a double on the card following the earlier victory of 4-6 favourite Instant Tendance in the BoyleSports Money Back 2nd To The Favourite Mares Maiden Hurdle.

“We had four or five seconds last weekend but no winner. I’d be anxious myself, we haven’t much between now and Cheltenham but it’s happy days (today),” Elliott added.

Galopin Des Champs is odds on for the Cheltenham Gold Cup after registering back-to-back success in the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown.

Leading from flag-fall, Paul Townend was content to set a sedate pace on Willie Mullins’ 1-3 favourite, with his old rival Fastorslow never letting him get too far in front.

The pair had met three times in the past, with the score heading into this contest in favour of Martin Brassil’s chaser by two victories to one.

Team Closutton were determined to level the scores before heading to Cheltenham and Townend – who had picked the wrong Mullins-trained representative in the first three Grade Ones of the afternoon – was always in control.

J J Slevin attempted to make his move after the second-last and aimed to get the rail, but Townend was alive to it and made sure it was not straightforward, while Conflated was not completely out of it on the far side.

Galopin Des Champs jinked to his left approaching the last which just put Fastorslow off for a stride or two, while Conflated unseated Jack Kennedy, but just like at Christmas the winner’s most impressive part was the final 100 yards and he pulled four and a half lengths clear.

The winner is now 4-6 (from evens) to repeat his Cheltenham success in March with Betfair and Coral.

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