CANYON GIVES MASTERFUL MULLINS DAY THREE TREBLE
Trainer Willie Mullins registered his first success in the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle and along with jockey Ruby Walsh, gained his third victory of the day at the Cheltenham Festival, after Nichols Canyon ran out a game 10/1 winner of the three-mile hurdling showpiece, the feature race on day three, St Patrick's Thursday, of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival.
In a superb finish to the Grade One event, Walsh and the seven-year-old son of Authorized kept on resolutely up the stands' side rail to get the better of Neil King's ultra-consistent Lil Rockerfeller (33/1) by three-quarters of a length.
The well-backed 5/6 favourite Unowhatimeanharry, trained by Harry Fry, was a further three and a half-lengths back in third.
A delighted Mullins, registering his 51st winner at The Festival, said: "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.
"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.
"He has handled very soft ground over two miles but he handled that ground today fine.
"It's absolutely magic. 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."
'WARRIOR' CANYON WINS FOR WALSH
Nichols Canyon gave Ruby Walsh a fifth Sun Bet Stayers' Hurdle success - and a third today, snatching victory from 33/1 chance Lil Rockerfeller in the shadow of the post by three quarters of a length at 10/1.
Walsh's four previous wins in the race came aboard the Paul Nicholls-trained Big Buck's (2009-2012).
Nichols Canyon, a seven-year-old by Authorized, is trained by Willie Mullins and owned by Andrea and Graham Wylie.
Walsh, for whom it was a 55th Festival win, said: "Nichols Canyon is a little warrior, isn't he? He switched off, he jumped, and crept away.
"I thought Lil Rockerfeller was battling back close home but Nichols Canyon galloped all the way to the line.
"He started to come back to himself the last 10 days. Maisie has been riding him and she was happy. Katie (sister) rode him at the Curragh the other morning and she thought he worked very well.
"Yesterday morning, whatever way you looked at it, this fella had won seven Grade Ones, albeit at shorter distances. I suppose he will have to go for the Iroquois [the $200,000 TVV Capital Iroquois Cheltenham Challenge, with $500,000 going to any horse who can win both the Sun Bet Stayer's Hurdle and the Calvin Houghland Iroquois Hurdle at Percy Warner Park, Nashville, Tennessee] to see if he can get the bonus. He was third last year.
"It is brilliant for Andrea and Graham. They are great supporters and this is the race Graham likes."
Graham Wylie said: "When Willie bought this horse for me, he said 'I might just have found you the next Inglis Drever [Wylie's Sun Bet Stayers' Hurdle winner in 2005, 2008 and 2008]. This is the little horse's eighth Grade One and he hasn't got the plaudits he deserved; hopefully today he will do.
"I said to Andrea this morning, I hope today is the Willie Mullins-Ruby Walsh day, and so it's proved. I was hoping to get placed, but I saw him coming up the hill and he was absolutely flying, so I thought, 'we might just nick this'."
MULLINS PUTS ADVERSITY BEHIND
Racing's strange bedfellows called peaks and troughs have been shadowing Willie Mullins at this year's Festival.
No winners in the first two days, and the nadir of seeing Douvan's unbeaten run end in lameness was a low point, and now three winners, a 74.6/1 treble, in the first four races on St Patrick's Thursday. Mullins, coolly analysed the juxtapositions during a press conference following victory by Nichols Canyon, who he trains for Andrea and Graham Wylie, in the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle.
Mullins, ever the ambassador, entered the conference following lengthy press interviews in the winner's enclosure and asked, "Can there be any more questions?" before giving further fulsome answers and new angles. He said: "We bought him with a view to going for this race. Graham has said this is his favourite race at The Festival and one he loves to win."
Wylie, whose colours were carried to victory in the Ryanair Chase by the Mullins-trained Yorkshill, said of the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle: "It's the race that brought me into the sport in the first place. Very early doors in my time as an owner I was lucky enough to own some very special horses, including Inglis Drever who won it three times, despite missing a season with injury. Nichols Canyon reminds me of him - he's not big, but he's like a terrier.
"Willie rang me one day to say he had a horse for me and he could be the next Inglis Drever, and today he was proved right." Mullins, in self-deprecatory mode, added: "Except I got a bit caught trying to win two-mile races and Champion Hurdles with him, but at least he's back now at the right trip. It's taken a long time to settle him, and Ruby used to ride him differently by jumping out and saying go, because he's such a good jumper and a good battler. Today he changed tactics, dropped him in, got him settled. Coming over the second-last I thought he might finish first four, and then I saw him locking onto the rail and knowing Ruby's style of riding, I thought, 'well this race is gone' but he might finish in the first three.
"Lil Rockerfeller went off to his left giving Ruby room, and if you ever need a jump at the last it's when you are against Hurricane Fly or this fellow. Once he locks onto a hurdle it's done and dusted, because he's going to get a half length at it, and then he'll battle. He was made for Ruby - they both love having to get a jump and a battle."
Walsh said: "I was worried would he settle or not, but he was quite relaxed at the start. I had no massive plan, and I was looking at the big screen and could see 'Harry' [Unowhatimeanharry] was 10/11 so I thought I would follow him. He was going to be in the right place at some time, so I followed Noel [Fehily] and away we went. The ones in front went quick, but they came back to us and we went the same pace. The tempo was level, and while they quickened at the top of the hill I wasn't sure how well I was going. I sat a while longer, then pinged the second-last and he started to pick up. I was just hoping I would get home.
"I don't know what was wrong with him at Leopardstown when he jumped right, but today he was dead straight and very accurate."
Asked about pre-race plans to unlock the Nichols Canyon box of talents, Mullins said: "My wife Jackie said to me perhaps we should change the [work] rider, so put up Mite, a French girl who works for us and weighs about 6st. We weren't sure how she would get on because he's a tough ride - first morning he was grand with her. Then we changed his stable and put him out the front, and every day he was out looking over the stable door and taking a new perspective on life - maybe that's just a load of bollocks, and we were simply running him over the wrong trip. I'll let you think we had some influence on it."
Asked if he had a message for Harry Fry, a young trainer whose hopes of victory were thwarted when Unowhatimeanharry finished third, Mullins said: "Harry was the first to congratulate me, it shows his heart is in the right place and he'll be back. How many times did we have runners here before we trained our first winner? It's what you go through when starting off in any sport.
"I wasn't feeling super-confident last night, but having been through the beaten horses, with the exception of Douvan who had a veterinary problem, there wasn't any other race that we could or should have won. We were beaten by better horses."
LIL TO PUNCHESTOWN?
33/1 chance Lil Rockerfeller showed what a big heart he has when going down by three-quarters of a length to Nichols Canyon in the Grade One Sun Bets Stayers Hurdle.
The six-year-old gelding, has been second to Unowhatimeanharry in a Grade One and Yanworth in a Grade Two at Ascot this season.
Neil King, the son of Hard Spun's trainer, said: "It is absolutely fantastic. I am over the moon with him. Trevor (Whelan, jockey) has given him the most fantastic ride. It is the best he has jumped and he travelled so well throughout the race today.
"Trevor kept producing him at the right time and then he hit the front at the last. He just got in a little bit close to the last but, to be fair, I don't think that we would have beaten Nichols Canyon. It was a tremendous run.
"It was most disappointing at the time to miss the National Spirit (at Fontwell) but, with hindsight, it was probably a blessing in disguise. He was dull in himself on the morning of the race and not as sparky as he should be.
"Fortunately we left him at home and, with the benefit of hindsight, we couldn't have beaten Camping Ground, who was a machine round there. He would have probably had a hard race in second and would not have been able to come here, so it was a blessing in disguise.
"We knew we had got him in good order, we had done the most brilliant bit of work at Lingfield last Wednesday and then he had a couple of hours out hunting and he has been in cracking form since then.
"I am so proud of him, he is so game and genuine and why he was the price he was today, 33/1, it was an insult to him really.
"The owners have been so supportive and allowed me to do what I thought was best.
"Probably we go to Punchestown next, Aintree just wouldn't suit him as a track, it would be a little bit too sharp."
Whelan added: "I thought I had it won to be fair. Often, when a horse comes to him he digs it out very well. At the end of the day, he was beaten by a multiple Grade One winner. I couldn't fault him, what a horse."
3.30pm £300,000 Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle
(Grade 1) - 2m 7f 213y
1 NICHOLS CANYON (Andrea & Graham Wylie) Willie Mullins, Ireland 11st 10lb Ruby Walsh 10/1
2 Lil Rockerfeller (Davies Smith Govier & Brown) Neil King 11st 10lb Trevor Whelan 33/1
3 Unowhatimeanharry (J P McManus) Harry Fry 11st 10lb Noel Fehily 5/6 Fav
4 Cole Harden (Jill & Robin Eynon) Warren Greatrex 11st 10lb Gavin Sheehan 9/1
5 Snow Falcon (Patricia Hunt) Noel Meade, Ireland 11st 10lb Sean Flanagan 16/1
6 Clondaw Warrior (Act D Wragg Syndicate) Willie Mullins, Ireland 11st 10lb Ms Katie Walsh 33/1
7 Zarkandar (Sullivan Bloodstock & Chris Giles) Paul Nicholls 11st 10lb Harry Cobden 25/1
8 Jezki (J P McManus) Jessica Harrington, Ireland 11st 10lb Robbie Power 15/2
9 Agrapart (The Gascoigne Brookes Partnership III) Nick Williams 11st 10lb Lizzie Kelly 66/1
PU Ballyoptic (Mills & Mason Partnership) Nigel Twiston-Davies 11st 10lb Sam Twiston-Davies 14/1
PU Shaneshill (Andrea & Graham Wylie) Willie Mullins, Ireland 11st 10lb Paul Townend 16/1
PU West Approach (John & Heather Snook) Colin Tizzard 11st 10lb Tom Scudamore 28/1
Distances: ¾, 3½, 3½, 12, 4, 3¾, 3¾, 2¼
Tote Win: £10.80 Places: £2.60, £5.30, £1.40 Exacta:£289.60
Willie Mullins - 51st winner at The Festival
Ruby Walsh - 55th winner at The Festival
BetBright Cup - standings after 18 races
Great Britain 6