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cheltenham 2021 How maestro Willie Mullins can help rebuild tarnished image of racing game

He is a font of gentle wisdom, a high-achiever who oozes humility, old-world courtesy and a natural-born decency passed down from his storied father Paddy


Willie Mullins with Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen

Willie Mullins with Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen

Willie Mullins with Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen

IF this is to be the week when racing gallops out of its self-made darkness, then there could not be a more convincing figure than Willie Mullins to bear the torch.

Now, more than ever, the sport’s acutely bruised horizons require the kind of uplifting Cheltenham sunrise that is the calling card of the patrician Irish horse whisperer.

Mullins is required to french-polish the National Hunt furniture – fittings rendered shop-soiled and streaked with scandal by his fallen rival, Gordon Elliott.

At a moment of existential crisis, as it reels from the supreme court of social media’s withering verdict, the sport can consider itself blessed to be able to turn to Mullins to author a powerful message of redemption.

There could even be the scorching irony of that pulverising image of Elliott straddling a four-legged corpse giving way to the story of a living Pegasus who rejoices in the name of Al Boum Photo.

The nine-year-old who pursues Gold Cup three-in-a-row immortality on Friday is one of the constellation of equine stars with which Mullins will seek to spangle the skies above the old Prestbury Park coliseum.

Willie has reimagined the rolling hills of this quintessentially English amphitheatre as his seat of power.

Here is the Arkle of horsemen, a once-in-a-lifetime talent who continues to brilliantly defy the top weight of momentous expectation to leave even the best of the rest labouring in his fedora-shaped shadow.

It is not just that the master of Closutton has pushed out the boundaries of what was considered possible at Cheltenham, 72 visits to the festival winner’s enclosure announcing him as the untouchable Caesar of the Cotswolds.

An equally vital salve for a sport seeking to rise above its self-inflicted wounds is Mullins’s dignified comportment.

The 64-year-old is a font of gentle wisdom, a high-achiever who oozes humility, old-world courtesy and a natural-born decency that has passed down the bloodlines, from his storied father, Paddy, and onto his own impressive son, Patrick.

That Mullins has the capacity to greet the twin imposters with benign stoicism, that his huge competitive streak is tightly wrapped in the kind of propriety which forbids sulking or pouting, announces him as the ambassador the shamed country of racing is required to introduce to the world.

Cheltenham 2021 is the equivalent of a four-day Oprah interview.

An audience of millions, one stretching beyond racing’s constituency, will have their antennae raised, hanging on every headline, ready to prod open wounds.

And yet, even in the toxic aftermath of the Elliott photo, and with only ghostly silence where great flares of anticipation ordinarily streak down from the grandstands, this has the potential to be a race meeting for the ages.

The partnership of two immensely talented females, Rachael Blackmore and Honeysuckle, will deliver one of the imperishable festival storylines should they seize the Champion Hurdle title from another mare, Epatante.

Envoi Allen, a kind of equine 007, an athlete so suave he could run in a tuxedo as legitimately as the familiar Cheveley Park silks, will look to confirm his standing as a wonder horse.

What dark thoughts are likely to scramble Elliott’s mind if the flying machine which, until last week, resided in the penthouse at his Cullentra Stables, tightens his grip on greatness for his new landlord, Henry de Bromhead?

Chacun Pour Soi and Monkfish – Mullins inmates running in the pink-and-green Ricci colours singed into Cheltenham history by Faugheen, Vautour, Douvan and Annie Power – are other budding titans who can claim their perch on the sport’s Giant’s Causeway.

Mouth-watering duels abound: Kilcruit v Sir Gerhard in the Bumper: Allaho v Min v Melon in the Ryanair.

Sadly, Energumene’s late withdrawal denies us an eagerly-awaited showdown between the Mullins’s colt and Nicky Henderson’s imperious Shiskin in the race named for the untouchable Arkle.

Untouchable, yes, yet there is a low-key, high-achiever who – statistically, if never emotionally – can emulate Tom Dreaper’s majestic champion on Friday.

Al Boum Photo cannot touch the myth of “Himself”, but should he hold off rivals led by JP McManus’s Champ and the impressive upstart, A Plus Tard, he will occupy the terrain that belonged to Arkle in 1966.

Should he emulate the greatest steeplechaser of them all by winning a third consecutive Gold Cup, the horse who runs in Joe Donnelly’s black-and-yellow chessboard uniform will leap to the first page of Cheltenham champions.

Even then, his understated trainer’s celebrations would extend no further than a warm smile and a doff of the soft brim and indented crown of his trademark fedora.

But Willie Mullins, not for the first time, will have redefined the prism through which the world views his chosen code.

Once more he will have worked his alchemy, transforming last week’s gruesome base metal into gilded glory; once more the wizard of Closutton will have wrapped a sport shivering with foreboding in his magic cloak.

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