Cheltenham Master at work
As Master Minded was led under the arch into the saddling area, his jockey was over in the parade ring, being hoisted aboard Cooldine.
Suddenly a foam and water engine from the Gloucestershire fire service appeared, and reversed onto the apron between the two horses. It turned out that a bowser used for cooling down the runners had run dry, but a more obvious inference had been that someone was determined to establish, once and for all, whether Ruby Walsh could really walk on water.
For by the time Master Minded had duly landed the odds in the big race, the answer seemed perfectly obvious to everyone present.
Even to the bookmakers, who had grimly paid out twice already as Walsh landed unflinching gambles for the Irish. And even to Sam Thomas, second jockey to Master Minded’s trainer, Paul Nicholls. Thomas followed Walsh and Master Minded back past the adoring enclosures on foot, his own mount having been tailed off when falling two out, and
looked on forlornly as they entered the winner’s enclosure, Walsh standing up in the irons as the cheers reached a final crescendo.
True, the acclaim this time lacked the visceral edge so conspicuous when he had returned on Cooldine, and earlier Mikael d’Haguenet. After his runaway success in the Seasons Holidays Queen Mother Champion Chase last year, Master Minded was too short a price this time for anyone to be bothering himself with a bet.
But by this stage Walsh’s fans already made so much money that even the most rapacious could afford to feign the superb detachment of the purists who had come to see a great horse, and great rider, in their mutual pomp.
Walsh had now won three consecutive championship races inside two hours. He bestrides this stage with total assurance.
To Nicholls, the contrast in poor Thomas – despite his success on Denman here last year – remained such that he passed him over in favour of Tony McCoy when Master Minded (with Walsh injured) made his reappearance at Sandown in December.
Even Nicholls, not a man obviously short on self-assurance, seems to gain palpably in belief from Walsh. Before the race, his face was taut with tension.
The champion trainer of Britain had watched his Irish counterpart, Willie Mullins, saddle three winners in the first nine races of the meeting. Moments of satisfaction for Nicholls, in contrast, had so far been confined to a narrow defeat for Celestial Halo on the opening day.
Dan Skelton, his young assistant, likewise had a stiff, sombre demeanour as he lifted Walsh into the saddle. But the jockey himself had a seraphic calm.
On Mikael d’Haguenet (pictured), he had coolly taken a pull when the horse darted into a premature lead three out. And while Cooldine is clearly the most natural of jumpers, like all these horses he was suffused with the intuitive purpose of his partner. Intervention, to Walsh, is something a horse scarcely notices.
That delicate equilibrium extends to his political skills, too. You would think that he would indeed have to walk on water to dovetail his commitments either side of the Irish Sea. Yet somehow he keeps both Nicholls and Mullins content with a share of his services, despite the fact that so many of their best horses are aimed at the same races. “Willie and I are lucky to have him,” Nicholls said afterwards. “And vice versa I suppose.”
Master Minded was not quite as flamboyant as last year, admittedly, and Walsh had to drive him out firmly after going past Petit Robin two out. But he had jumped and travelled slickly throughout, and Well Chief never had a prayer, beaten seven lengths.
Even so this was a remarkable performance from Well Chief, who had been patiently patched up by David Pipe and provided a tenuous benchmark for the winner, having chased home Moscow Flyer here four years previously.
A more pertinent comparison, however, is perhaps with the Gold Cup horses also stabled at Ditcheat. Last year, it seemed outlandish that Kauto Star might have an even better horse in the very next stall, in Denman.
But nowadays it is routinely acknowledged that Kauto Star is not even the best horse owned by Clive Smith.
Walsh’s verdict on Master Minded was therefore a pointed one. “He’s the best chaser around,” he said. “I’d say he wasn’t as good today as he can be. He got worked up in the parade and the false starts were messy. But that’s what makes him so good. The good ones always win on an off-day.”
“He’s just got everything,” Nicholls assented. “A huge cruising speed, he jumps well, he’s dead genuine. And the good thing is he seems to be getting a bit lazier, a bit more grown up. He used to be a bit of a tearaway when he was younger, and had his falls, but he’s much more relaxed now. If we can look after him, I reckon he can stay top of his game for a good few years.”
Still only six, Master Minded is already odds-on to match Badsworth Boy with a third success next year, and Nicholls sounded reluctant to use up any more petrol this season. “He does have his problems, in that he does tie up a bit so you can’t really give him a day off,” he explained. “We’ve come round to the view that he wants to race fresh, off a lot of work at home. So I wouldn’t be keen on Aintree, and that would only leave Sandown or Punchestown, when the ground is likely to be too quick.”
By this stage, Nicholls was all breezy assurance once again. Skelton, in turn, had become jaunty and flushed. Nicholls candidly acknowledged his relief. “There is great expectation,” he said. “If things go wrong, I tend to feel guilty, as though I have let everyone down.”
That is what all the top trainers want when they come here, to be seen as dependable. It must have been rather galling to see Walsh vindicated so handsomely in his preference for Cooldine over his own candidate, What A Friend. Certainly Mullins remains the modern master of a Festival preparation, but a lot of punters nowadays cut corners and just wait to see which way Walsh has jumped.
This was the first Festival treble since Mick Fitzgerald on Gold Cup day in 1999. “It’s unbelievable, one of those days when everything went right,” Walsh said. “Things like this don’t happen here.” And with that, he was gone, his boots barely dimpling the lake.