Cheltenham: Annie saves the bookies

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Cheltenham feels different. Where is the owners and trainers bar? Where do I buy polo mints? Where is the closest bathroom? In the middle of a massive renovation, it’s like someone has moved the furniture. A shell of a grandstand looms, like an erector set, half finished.

The front seems finished, the back far from it. Normalcy begins as the first Guinness is poured, you see a couple of jockeys head off to the course in running gear, trying to sweat out the last pounds and quell the last nerves and the horses emerge from the pre-parade and into the paddock for the first. It’s Cheltenham again. Sweet Cheltenham.

Tuesday was hyped as Willie Mullins’ day, as the Irish trainer unleashed four of the heaviest favorites in the history of the storied place. Hype turned quickly to deliverance.

Mullins wins the Supreme with Douvan, he’s second with Shaneshill. It’s never in doubt.

One down.

“Douvan looks every bit a chaser,” Mullins said as he walked into the paddock after novice hurdle. “He’s huge, he’s got scope. He has talent everywhere.”

Asked about pressure of bringing 50-plus horses to the Festival, many of them favorites, Mullins shrugs it off.

“There’s so much work to do,” Mullins said. “It’s not about the pressure.”

In the second, Mullins unleashes Un De Sceaux, winner of two out of three and a faller in the other.

Un De Sceaux has learned his lessons, he pricks his ears and pops fences instead of launching low and flat like before. He simply toys with the Arkle field.

That’s two.

After the second, Nicky Henderson puts his hand on Mullins’ arm and congratulates him. Mullins says how good Henderson’s Josses Hill ran to be third. Henderson laughs, “We’re just picking up the crumbs.”

Mullins doesn’t win the third, simply because he didn’t run one. Neil Mulholland wins his first race at Cheltenham when The Druids Nephew wins the Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase. Well positioned, well deserved, good trainer, going place.

Back to the Mullins (and Ruby Walsh) show in the fourth, they win their third of the day, going 1-2-3 in the Champion Hurdle when Faugheen saunters on the lead and turns back stablemates Arctic Fire and Hurricane Fly. Walsh rode like he was sipping a cup of tea, slowing it down when needed, pressing when wanting.

Asked what he was thinking while watching, Mullins smiles, “Too good to be true.”

Indeed.

Afterwards, Mullins used another cliché, which was perfect as well.

“It’s beyond our wildest dreams.

And beyond the bookies wildest nightmares.

William Hill’s Jon Ivan-Duke was quoted in the Racing Post Tuesday morning, “It could be one of the worst days in bookmaking history if the Four Horses of the Apocalypse all win and we could be looking at a payout in the region of 100 million (pounds)”

Mullins laughs when asked about the bookies plight after the first three and asks to be dismissed as the horses cut through the center of the paddock for the winner’s enclosure, “I’ve got to go say hello to Hurricane Fly.” The Fly, two-time winner of the Champion Hurdle, walks circles and blows off steam, there for the fifth time after the Champion Hurdle. Mullins gives him a pat on the neck.

Then it’s Annie Power. The once-beaten mare is odds-on to make it four and give the noose around the bookies’ necks one last, deadening pull.

As easy counting 1-2-3-4…not so fast.

Moments after the announcer bellows, “The four-timer is on,” Annie Power rolls down to the last and for the first time all day, there is indecision when before there was precision. The favorite, the bookie breaker, gallops to the last hurdle, all alone, one hurdle away from the greatest day a trainer has ever had at Cheltenham, when she picks up against Walsh’s will and steps at the last, crumpling and falling.

Mullins wins it anyway, with Glens Melody, eking out a nose decision. Mullins has his four, but not the right four for the bettors.

Annie Power rises and gallops off, L’Unique falls separately and stays down, still on the track. Walsh stands, back to the Cheltenham hill for the first time all day and stares at the last hurdle, like a man who just lost his dog. L’Unique gets up. Walsh walks home, grass stains across his back and scars across his psyche. An imperfect game has claimed one more.