Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott have vowed to go all out at this week’s Punchestown Festival as the battle to be crowned champion trainer reaches what promises to be a thrilling conclusion.
Elliott led perennial champion Mullins by a shade over 400,000 euro heading into last year’s Festival, but gradually reduced the deficit and after five winners across the final two days, ended up retaining his crown with almost 200,000 euro in hand.
Mullins has an even bigger deficit to overcome this year, trailing by over 521,000 euro, and Elliott is long odds-on to take the crown for the first time.
However, with the likes of Douvan, Penhill, Laurina and Footpad all set to be part of a formidable squad, it would be a brave man who bets against the County Carlow maestro producing another stunning comeback in County Kildare.
Mullins said: “Usually we have a very big team and hopefully this year won’t be any worse.
“There’s a lot of racing and there’s a lot of prize-money. The championship is all to play for, I think.
“Everything that can raise a gallop will be there. If we had a race for the stable cat I’m sure that would be up there, too!”
Mullins is usually keen to split his aces, but admits some of his big guns will have to lock horns over the next five days, with even place prize-money likely to be crucial in deciding whether the title ends up in Closutton or Cullentra.
He added: “We’re lucky enough that we have horses to run in those big races and they will have to run against each other. There isn’t anywhere to hide. This is it.”
Mullins has been forced to play second fiddle to Elliott for much of the season and in the last three weeks alone has seen runners beaten a head by Elliott inmates in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse and the Grand National at Aintree.
He said: “After being beaten in two photo-finishes to two Nationals, maybe Lady Luck owes me a bit back!”
Whatever the outcome this week, the current campaign has been nothing short of staggering for Elliott.
As well as winning the Irish National for the first time with General Principle and claiming the world’s most famous steeplechase for a second time with Tiger Roll, he has broken records by saddling over 200 winners in Ireland this term and claimed the top trainer award at the Cheltenham Festival for the second year in succession.
However, following what he admitted was a “heartbreaking” defeat in last year’s title race, he insists to come out on top this season would be his biggest achievement to date.
Elliott said: “We’ve had an unbelievable season and to train 200 winners was fantastic and to win both Grand Nationals was incredible, but if I could swap every single one of those to be champion trainer I would.
“Anything that can breathe will be there this week! All joking aside, we’ll do our best and try and bring as many as we can.
“It’ll be a great week, I’m looking forward to it.
“It’ll be a long, nervous week. I know the ammunition Willie has and he’s going to be chasing me hard. Seconds, thirds, fourths and fifths will all count.
“It’s good for the public and I’m sure if I win it Willie will be able to shake my hand and if he wins it I’ll be the first one to shake his.”