They say that class is permanent, while form is temporary. Mullins and Walsh day at the Cheltenham Festival proved the epithet 100% right. Knocked sideways by the defeat and injury to the previously unbeatable Douvan, they came out twenty-fours later and knocked the opposition for six, or four to be more precise.
Of course no man is an island and the great Willie is helped in no small way by having as his main ally the greatest, at least to my mind, jump jockey of all time. As Ruby is helped by riding for the genius that is Mullins. As no doubt both are helped by the loyalty and wealth of Rich Ricci. Yet in the white heat of the horse race, with the muck and bullets of impending doom coming at him from all sides, it is the cool magnificence of the horseman that is the difference between the glory of success and close-but-no-cigar of defeat. Ruby’s handling of Yorkhill and Un de Sceaux were masterclasses of how to ride a steeplechaser and when a man of Noel Fehily’s ability makes the bold assertion that Ruby is the best around ‘by far’ then no man whose feet have never left the ground should argue. Even the legend that is A.P. bows in honour of his friend’s skill.
To return to Un de Sceaux. As with many of Willie’s talented horses I would like to know how truly good this horse is. We never really had corroborative evidence as to how good Quevega was, for instance, as she was never tested in the race that really matters for staying hurdlers. Winning the mare’s race six, seven or ten times was never going to tell us how she ranked alongside the top stayers and for the sake of racing history that is perhaps important to know.
I have the same disquieting thought about Frankel. Undoubtedly the best flat horse for many a decade but was he the equal of Brigadier Gerard? The Brigadier suffered a defeat but on the other hand he was tested over 1-mile 4-furlongs and albeit by a small margin won a King George and Queen Elisabeth. It niggles me that Frankel was whisked off to stud when keeping him in training as a five-year-old would have answered the last lingering questions on his place in the hierarchy, and, of course, his presence as a 5-year-old would have given the sport a massive shot in the arm. At the moment Frankel is possibly the greatest flat horse in racing history. But only possibly. The ghost of Brigadier Gerard remains unbusted.
Occasionally, when great fortune is delivered in spades, owners have a responsibility to the sport that overrides self-interest.
If Willie decides to keeps things simple with Un de Sceaux and foregoes the opportunity of testing him over three miles in The King George the horse will go down in racing lore as a winner of many races but not a winner of a race that really mattered. With Douvan injured and perhaps not likely to be ready for the Tingle Creek we will, admittedly, have the tantalising prospect of an Un de Sceaux v Altior clash, though it is more likely at that stage of the season that Un de Sceaux will stay at home for the easy pickings of all those 2-mile 4-furlong chases that proliferate the Irish calendar.
It should be remembered that if Jessie Harrington had not bowed to the advice of Robbie Power and experimented by trying Sizing John over 3-miles she would not have a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner housed in her stables. As a trainer who is yet to have a Gold Cup winner housed in his stables Willie Mullins might want to think on that, even if he does have Yorkhill waiting in the wings, and perhaps who knows what else.
Owners like Rich Ricci and J.P. require the big prizes to balance the huge investment they continues to make in jump racing but one would hope Un de Sceaux’s owners are in involved in the sport for the fun of it and might be tempted to find out how good their horse really is. They own a horse who seemingly loves what he does and for him to strut his stuff on a wider stage can only be good publicity for the sport. Douvan may possess the grace of a principal dancer but Un de Sceaux has the reckless vitality of a break-dancer. They are both box-office but I know who I would rather see perform.
But Willie and Ruby are what I am not – they are professionals, consummate professionals, with other potentially great horses to consider. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, though, to go through the summer and autumn dreaming of Un de Sceaux, Thistlecrack and perhaps Sizing John lining up in the King George?
What gifts racehorses are to the human that truly respects them? At Cheltenham we paid homage to Un de Sceaux and Sizing John and thought all of the while of Thistlecrack, and what might have been. We dream, therefore we are.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.