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king of the course With 16 festive winners there is no sign of Willie Mullins slowing down


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Willie Mullins, picking up the trophy for Grade One Novice Chase winner Monkfish, enjoyed a 55/1 four-timer at yesterday’s concluding day of the Leopardstown Christmas Festival. Photo: PA

Willie Mullins, picking up the trophy for Grade One Novice Chase winner Monkfish, enjoyed a 55/1 four-timer at yesterday’s concluding day of the Leopardstown Christmas Festival. Photo: PA

Willie Mullins, picking up the trophy for Grade One Novice Chase winner Monkfish, enjoyed a 55/1 four-timer at yesterday’s concluding day of the Leopardstown Christmas Festival. Photo: PA

The sight of Willie Mullins loading his car boot at Leopardstown yesterday afternoon was something to behold as he quickly ran out of space, such was the extraordinary haul of silverware which he accumulated over a sensational Christmas.

The 64-year-old will require extra mantelpieces or an additional trophy room at his Closutton base to show the fruits of the festive period with 16 winners amassed - including six Grade One victories as well as the Paddy Power Chase to claim over €560,000 in prize money - and there is no sign of him slowing down.

If anything, Mullins is gathering even more pace and his inability to stand still or rest on his laurels is one of the surest signs of his genius after Sharjah's third successive victory in the Grade One Matheson Hurdle led a 55/1 four-timer at the Foxrock track.

Mullins doesn't usually have his star-studded string fully wound up at Christmas, but his son Patrick detailed some subtle changes that were made by the 14-time Irish champion jumps trainer after continuing his love affair with Sharjah (11/2).

"Willie is extraordinary," the younger Mullins said. "Last year at Christmas we left the horses a bit short and a few of them got beaten, this year we've done a bit more with them, he's trained them a little bit differently and we're definitely reaping dividends from that."

Flipped

Mullins, who has flipped the trainers' championship battle with Gordon Elliott back in his favour and is expected to land another title next May, would later expand on those comments, albeit without revealing too many secrets of his success.

"I was wondering if the horses were sick after the first two races on Friday. We aim a lot of horses for here, but I suppose I'm pleasantly surprised. I was hoping for a good Christmas, but it's well ahead of what I expected. You don't expect this sort of stuff," the legendary trainer said.

"We set up our gallop differently. Every year during the summer, we have a think tank after Punchestown and see what we're going to do the following year. You try and tweak things and you hope that the changes that you make will be for the good and it's working well this year."

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Paul Townend. Photo: Sportsfile

Paul Townend. Photo: Sportsfile

Paul Townend. Photo: Sportsfile

Those concluding words are an understatement with Sharjah denting a lot of big reputations - including stablemate Saint Roi (13/8 favourite) - when Patrick collared housemate Rachael Blackmore after the last before going on to finish two lengths clear of Aspire Tower (6/1).

His jockey compared Sharjah to Santa Claus "as he rocks up every year at Christmas", but he emulated equine legends like Istabraq and Hurricane Fly when landing a sensational hat-trick with the Irish Champion Hurdle next on his agenda in early February at the same track.

Another crack at the Champion Hurdle in March is then the plan after finding only Epatante too good at Cheltenham earlier this year.

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"I'd love another go at the Champion Hurdle. It was a big field last year, when you're riding a horse that drops out that puts you three or four lengths further back than you should be," his rider outlined.

"In a normal Champion Hurdle field, I should be able to be closer if nothing else and does that get me past Epatante? Maybe it does. I have to believe it does anyway."

The other Grade One also went Mullins' way with Monkfish (1/2 favourite) enhancing his glowing reputation with a flawless jumping display in the Neville Hotels Novice Chase after another epic duel with old rival Latest Exhibition (4/1).

There was nothing between them as they galloped to the last fence in tandem, but Paul Townend's mount found extra towards the finish to score by three lengths and harden his favourite's tag for Cheltenham's RSA Chase. He's now as low as 7/4.

The prospect of Monkfish and the unbeaten Envoi Allen colliding at some stage in the future is tantalising - maybe in the 2022 Gold Cup - with Mullins suitably impressed as the six-year-old passed a major test on just his second chase start.

"He seems to be a natural over fences. There was a lot of pressure on him going to the last, with Latest Exhibition, which has a bit more experience than him. He pulled himself together, fought his way over it, and he just had a little bit in reserve," a delighted Mullins said.

Townend (left) finished with eight winners in three days - having earlier partnered Statler (13/8 favourite) to maiden hurdle success for his boss - but few were more impressive than Concertista (4/5 favourite) in the Grade Three Mares Hurdle.

Cheltenham is high on her radar - she is battling for favouritism with reigning champion Honeysuckle in the Mares' Hurdle at the Festival - after Townend stalked her prey from off the pace before scoring by six-and- a-half lengths.

"She was very good," Mullins said. "It was a searching pace. Paul elected to drop in and I thought he might be a little too far out of it turning into the back straight. She was very brave and very good to do what she did there. She's improving all the time."

It's been a testing week for Jack Kennedy - who missed Monday with a sore collarbone - but he returned in style when guiding the Francis Flood-trained Millen To One (4/1) to novice handicap hurdle success.

Similarly, Elliott's string was blown away by the Mullins battalion, but the Meath trainer does have a nice prospect on his hands with Hollow Games (1/2 favourite) securing back-to-back bumper wins under Jamie Codd.

Tom Kelly also enjoyed a day to remember when breaking his duck in the Adare Manor Opportunity Handicap Chase as Enda Bolger's Midnight Maestro (16/1) easily scored in the colours of race sponsor JP McManus.

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