Willie Mullins raised both hands.
Like a crossing guard in front of an inferno, Mullins stood as Rachel Robins slowed Nichols Canyon, the six-time Grade 1 winner, sides heaving, nostrils flaring like hazards on a flipped-over car, tossed his head in the air and searched for balance. David Porter halted Shaneshill. The Grade 2 winner stopped, sidestepped, blowing hard, but nothing like Nichols Canyon.
The British-bred and the Irish-bred fidgeted, steel ring bits rattled, energy still coursing, the test still asking, the fire still burning as jockeys, race officials, friends, competitors, reporters from the Irish Field to National Public Radio hovered and Mullins stared at his two vanquished stars.
“I just want to see them,” the trainer said, still holding his hands aloft.
“How’s that guy there?” Mullins asked, pointing to Nichols Canyon. “He’s blowing hard.”
“He needs a scraper,” Mullins said. “It’s the only way they’ll cool down. We should have brought our own scraper.”
As the water, sprayed from the hoses along the inside rail of Percy Warner Park on a beautiful spring afternoon in Nashville, evaporated into the sun, the two Irish raiders slowly, gradually regained their composure.
Mullins, hell, he’s always composed.
Satisfied with what he saw, Mullins sent Nichols Canyon and Shaneshill on the long walk back to the shaded barns across the wide expanse of Tennessee’s only steeplechase meet.
“Right. We’re here,” Mullins said. “What sort of prize money do we get for second and third?”
The quickest mathematician of the group offered the answer, “$56,000. I think you just covered your costs.”
“Well, we put a good dent into it,” Mullins said.
“Don’t do the math now,” an American owner said. “It was a sporting venture.”
“Hey, hey, hey,” Mullins said. “My son, he was about 6, he said how much money did we win today? Jackie said, ‘Paddy, you should never say that, it’s for the honor and glory.’ The next day, he comes in and says, ‘How much honor and glory did we win today?’ “
On May 14, 2016 in a far-off land across the sea, Mullins and his team won honor and glory.
Vanquished, yes. Humbled, far from it.
Ruby Walsh bounced out Nichols Canyon to lead early in the $200,000 Iroquois but continually drifted right at his hurdles, losing valuable ground and initiative to America’s best hope, Irish-bred Rawnaq and Jack Doyle. The Irish-bred 9-year-old slipped inside Nichols Canyon after he veered right at the third, a tricky hurdle placed on the bending-left turn at the bottom of the track.
“I thought I was going in the hedge,” Walsh said.
With his wayward jumping, Walsh was forced to ease Nichols Canyon back behind Rawnaq instead of dictating the pace. Rawnaq loped as straight as a broom handle on the inside as the eight horses completed one full circuit of the course. Rawnaq led, comfortably, with Nichols Canyon pulling and drifting to his right and Shaneshill leading the peloton, about 5 lengths off the leading duo.
Heading down the long backstretch, Rawnaq controlled the tempo as Nichols Canyon hung tough despite his exit-ramp jumping, Shaneshill crept into the fray from the inside, Irish-bred Scorpiancer clung in fourth and last year’s Iroquois winner, Demonstrative, found nothing and drifted back. Turning for home, with the urgency of a $120,000 first-place check and the scent of the $500,000 Brown Advisory Iroquois Cheltenham Challenge, Rawnaq, Nichols Canyon and Shaneshill threw their final chips on the table.
Rawnaq flew the second-to-last hurdle as Shaneshill split him and his stablemate and the duo accelerated from Nichols Canyon and Scorpiancer. Rawnaq launched long and low at the last, landing with a half-length advantage as the course levels off and offers a short run to the wire. Rawnaq staved off Shaneshill by a diminishing neck after 3 miles in 5:42.40.
“Nichols Canyon was just a bit too cold in front. He wasn’t facing his hurdles, he was losing ground. His best runs are making the running, but the third, for some reason, he got a fright. Ruby couldn’t go on with him,” Mullins said. “Shaneshill ran a cracker. I’m not worried about him. He’s fine. He’s hardly blowing. The other fellow is blowing hard.”
At the end of a long season, Mullins’ pair acquitted themselves well, but ultimately couldn’t match Rawnaq’s speed and stamina on what is now his home court. Owned by Irv Naylor and trained by Cyril Murphy, Rawnaq improved his 2016 mark to a cool 2-for-2 and $150,000 in earnings.
“We got some prize money,” Mullins said. “But they whipped our ass.”
The Iroquois Steeplechase committee, led by Dwight Hall and Ted Thompson, initiated the Brown Advisory Iroquois Cheltenham Challenge this spring, offering a $500,000 bonus to any horse who could win the World Hurdle at Cheltenham and the Iroquois in May. The key to the bonus is it can be won from March to May or May to March. The latter enticed Mullins to venture to America, after this year’s World Hurdle winner Thistlecrack predictably skipped the Iroquois and aimed at a chasing career next season.
Mullins saw an opening. The champion Irish trainer has talked the talk about increasing international competition in jump racing. On May 14, he walked the walk, making his first foray to America.
“We need to get jump racing more international, get Europeans traveling over here and Americans coming back to Europe, let it grow like flat racing where horses run all over the world,” Mullins said. “We’ve got to grow the purses, we’ve got to get more links between Europe and America and have more competition at the top level. We think it’s crucial that we try and make the game a bit bigger, rather than just traditional Ireland and England and maybe France and the Americans stay at home. It needs to be broadened to grow, otherwise National Hunt Racing will disappear all together.”
National Hunt Racing was alive and well at the Iroquois Steeplechase, one of 31 stops along the American circuit during the spring and fall (racing shifts to the major tracks for abbreviated options during the summer) that offers in excess of $5 million in purses during the year.
“I’m disappointed it’s taken me so long to come over, we’ve had entries before but the horses just weren’t good enough to bring, there’s no point in coming over for a day out. It’s expensive, we need prize money to be bigger to incentivize people to come over,” Mullins said. “This ground you have over here is what we call good ground, I’m delighted, I think, I’m delighted with the ground. We’ve learned a lot, we’re going to take that home and hopefully come back better next year.”
Asked what he had learned, Mullins smiled.
“I can’t tell you that.”
As for the Americans, well, they learned that they can beat Mullins with horses, at least trained in America, albeit born in Europe. Rawnaq led a four-way sweep by foreign-bred horses in the Iroquois. Reaching a rating of 144 (18 pounds lower than Nichols Canyon and 12 lower than Shaneshill) while winning five times over hurdles and twice over fences for trainer Matthew Smith, the son of Azamour ventured to America last summer, finished third in the American Grand National and second in the Colonial Cup behind Naylor’s other import, Dawalan. Voted champion last year, Dawalan, made one flat start at a point-to-point this spring and bowed a tendon, clearing the way for Rawnaq to become the best horse in the barn – in the sport.
“We went out there with the idea that we were running to win,” said Murphy. “If it all fell apart so be it. We weren’t going to sit back and hope it all fell apart in front of us. I was happy enough watching it. Nichols Canyon was jumping away (to the right), we were running a shorter route and doing less. Crossing the road down here (with four fences to go), I said to myself the winner’s in the first three. It’s either we’re good enough or we’re not.”
Rawnaq proved that he was plenty good enough.
In a race with no breathers, Rawnaq and Nichols Canyon ran pretty much every step. Shaneshill had the easier time of it early, but the winner got first run and hung on late.
“When he flew the third to last, I thought ‘if it doesn’t happen now, it can’t,’ ” Murphy said. “He cut the corner and those last two they came for him and he came for them too. He needed the last two jumps, the other horse was running.”
An Irishman himself, Murphy never won an Iroquois in eight American seasons as a jockey. He delivered Naylor’s third, to go with Tax Ruling in 2010 and 2011, retiring the trophy. Doyle, who rode Demonstrative in 2015, collected his second consecutive win in the only 3-mile hurdle stakes in America.
Murphy said Rawnaq will probably get a summer break and point for the Grade 1 Grand National at Far Hills in October, with November’s Colonial Cup to follow and then maybe the trip to England.
“There’s 10 months of thinking to do, isn’t there?” he told the crowd when interviewed Saturday. “We’ll see, we’ll see. We’ve got a lot of things to overcome to get there, but it’s nice to know that we could if we wanted. I think we’re good enough.”
As for the Irish raid, Walsh said it best.
“We had been meaning to come and we’re coming back,” Walsh said. “We don’t like losing, we have to come back.”
• Originally published in the Irish Field.