Ruby Walsh tilts his head. Smiles, squints, smirks. And whispers words. They slide out of the side of his mouth, like dice into a corner of a craps table. Not many, but pertinent, pointed words, water to the parched. He’s done this his whole career, after wins and losses, to his father, Ted, to Paul Nicholls and so, so many to Willie Mullins. The words are secrets to us – the fans, the punters – and doled out to the insiders, the ones standing in the winner’s enclosure, gleeful, or the unsaddling enclosure, glum. Yesterday, he doled out four to me. Yes, four words, in the heat of Cheltenham, between saluting the crowd, weighing in and holding the trophy.
“See you in Nashville.”
Certainly not secretive words, but they sounded like just what I had imagined Walsh had said after Kauto Star’s wins and his fall at Cheltenham, after Quevega clawed back time one last time, after Hurricane Fly let loose outside the wings with the race in the balance, after Douvan wilted in the Queen Mother Wednesday, after his high-wire acts on Yorkhill and Un De Sceaux earlier Thursday. Just a few words, said in the moment, said because of the moment.
Yes, see you in Nashville.
Team Mullins came to Nashville last spring to win the easy part of the Brown Advisory Iroquois Cheltenham Challenge, joining the 3-mile Iroquois at Nashville with the 3-mile Stayer’s Hurdle at Cheltenham. They failed, finishing second and third with Shaneshill and Nichols Canyon. Well, this year, they got the hard part of the Bonus, now the TVV Capital Iroquois Cheltenham Challenge, upsetting this year’s Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle.
Walsh and Nichols Canyon bided their time, scythed through traffic and reeled in Pennsylvania-bred Lil Rockerfeller and 5/6 favorite Unowhatimeanharry as the hill punished the ambitious.
With a $500,000 bonus on the carving board in May, Nichols Canyon will be there.
Since finishing third in the Iroquois last year, Nichols Canyon took the summer off, won his return in November, finished second in December and fell in January. Mullins wasn’t bullish about the Stayers’ Hurdle but changed a few things and hoped for the best.
Walsh and Nichols Canyon took care of the rest.
“It was some performance. I didn’t think three miles would suit him particularly as I thought he would be too keen, but Ruby got him settled and got the rail in the home straight,” Mullins said after his 51st Cheltenham winner. “He is tough and with age they learn to settle. His last bit of work, we changed his stable and his work rider. He always works a bit dead at home so we thought about a change of routine and it worked. I thought of all the horses in the world you want to jump the last, you want him and he did. He had the benefit of the rail which also helped.”
Mullins said he would probably skip Aintree and aim Nichols Canyon at Punchestown and then the Iroquois.
“It’s absolutely magic,” Mullins said, after his third winner on the day. “I enjoyed that one, the first two were probably relief but that was a little unexpected as I was wondering whether he would come alive as he hasn’t in his two races this season.”
See you in Nashville.
As for today. It’s Gold Cup Day. One last day to savor the sport.
For months, all we’ve heard about are the horses who aren’t coming to Cheltenham. After three days, I haven’t heard Thistlecrack’s name mentioned, haven’t lamented those who aren’t here, just celebrated those who are here. The sport has a tendency to move on, with or without you.
Race 1. 1:30. The JCB Triumph Hurdle. Grade 1. 2 1/8 miles.
Walsh and Mullins aim to finish strong with Bapaume. We wrote down Mega Fortune’s name sometime this winter, we’ll stick with him. Defi Du Seuil has been flawless all winter. They tried to sell Ex Patriot last night but he failed to hit his reserve, how’s that for a prep?
The Picks: Mega Fortune, Defi Du Seuil, Ex Patriot.
Race 2. 2:10. The Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle. Grade 3. 2 1/8 miles.
Now here’s a real handicap, with 26 runners and a 24-pound spread from top weight Arctic Fire to bottom weight Mohaayed. Air Horse One rides a three-race win streak for the ever-potent Harry Fry. American George Mahoney has a chance with Mick Jazz.
The Picks: Mick Jazz, Air Horse One, Dominada.
Race 3. 2:50. The Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. Grade 1. 3 miles.
Novice hurdlers stretch 3 miles. Next year’s Stayers’ Hurdle winner? Look long and hard, you might discover him (or her). Death Duty looks like a certainty for Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown. Mullins and Walsh team up with Augusta Kate, who hasn’t run since falling at Naas back in January. Constantine Bay is undefeated in three starts over hurdles. Deep race. Tread lightly.
The Picks: Death Duty, Any Drama, Augusta Kate.
Race 4. 3:30. The Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup. Grade 1. 3 1/4 miles.
The feature of the final day, the blue riband of the year, the greatest race in all the world. Yes, that sounds about right.
There won’t be an asterisk by the winner’s name because of who didn’t show.
Colin Tizzard sends out the first and second choices, Cue Card and Native River. And, yes, he would have had three if Thistlecrack made it (OK, I mentioned it).
Last year, Cue Card sauntered into contention before falling, he didn’t deserve it. He’s a year older, but returns fresh after winning the Ascot Chase by 15 lengths. A Cheltenham bumper winner oh so many years ago, he’s still going strong at 11. He would bring the house down with a win. Walsh and Mullins have already salvaged their Festival, they will immortalize it with a win from Djakadam, second behind Don Cossack last year.
The Picks: Djakadam, Cue Card, Minella Rocco.
Race 5. 4:10. The St. James’s Place Foxhunter Challenge Cup Open Hunters’ Chase. 3 1/4 miles.
The final amateur race of the meet.
Our favorite jockey, Lisa O’Neill, rides longshot Current Event. Jamie Codd looks poised on favorite On The Fringe. Will Biddick had a tough choice between Ask The Weatherman and Wonderful Charm, the top amateur picked the former, we’ll pick the latter.
The Picks: Wonderful Charm, On The Fringe, Black Thunder.
Race 6. 4:50. The Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle. 2 1/2 miles.
One for the apprentices. No Comment roars in off three straight wins for Philip Hobbs and the rest have chances. One word to the boys and girls, it’s Cheltenham, sit still at the bottom of the hill.
The Picks: Thomas Campbell, No Comment, Battleford.
Race 7. 5:30. The Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Chase. Grade 3. 2 miles.
Good night, my friends.
The Picks: Dandridge, Le Prezien, Theinval.