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Cheltenham 2017: Ruby Walsh to the four

By Vincent Hogan

The world grew small around Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh again in the ash-grey tint of Gloucestershire yesterday.

True, in most educated conversation that revelation will never exactly find a market as breaking news. But given the disordered happenings of the opening two days here, it was hard to look at a rampant Ruby surging up the hill just after 5pm on Let's Dance and not suspect he might have swapped his silks for a loin cloth.

For it was a fourth victory in three hours for the Mullins/Walsh alliance that had left this place on Wednesday evening with pride in a sling, having blanked the opening 14 races.

On just about every level, fate tilted into a dramatic U-turn yesterday. It was a day the Irish, incredibly, plundered six from seven to stretch commandingly clear in the Prestbury Cup.

"Yesterday is history," declared Ruby with a smile after Un De Sceaux's imperious victory in the Ryanair.

Only one favourite had justified its billing through Tuesday and Wednesday, but three made it a redemptive card for punters yesterday, all of them saddled by WP Mullins. There was the gentle fragrance of romance in the air too, though. Presenting Percy's win in the Pertemps signalled a successful defence of that title (won last year by Mall Dini) from the tiny Craughwell yard of Pat Kelly.

A story like Kelly's makes vivid all the tiny, everyday things that must be tended to keep a race yard breathing.

Things that tend to get whitewashed when the big houses flex their muscles. Yesterday you could listen to Mullins and imagine the business he is in demands little more than a resilient heart and a reliable eye.

Yet, as Yorkhill returned to the enclosure victorious in the opener, Mullins pointedly reached across to slap Walsh's left boot. It was about as animated a celebration as we are accustomed to see from him. Yorkhill is a handful of a horse and, maybe, not the easiest hand to be leaning on when you're trying to scramble your way clear from a two-day stormlight of bad news.

Then again, when Walsh is your jockey, maybe you're simply working with different odds.

An hour later the same combination trounced the field with Un De Sceaux in the Ryanair, after which Mullins wore a smile concealing a multitude behind it. Out-stretching the two Gigginstown hopes up the hill in a race the maroon army so palpably yearned to win can only have brought the most profound fulfilment to Mullins, out of whose yard they'd pulled 60 horses last year.

Afterwards, Michael O'Leary found refuge in self-parody.

"A certain inevitability about that," said the Gigginstown and Ryanair owner. "We fight over fees, but he still takes the money off me at Cheltenham!"

That victory brought Mullins past the half-century mark for Festival wins and it was clear - all that bad weather having rolled away out of his thoughts - that he was now simply back doing what he does better than anybody else. Pursuing the big prizes with painful clarity.

"He's the ultimate iron horse I think," he said of the 7/4 favourite which had, simply, galloped the opposition into submission. "He does that every day at home, so you're trying to keep a lid on him all the time. He's as tough as nails and, fingers crossed, sound as a pound. He's extraordinary.

"My heart's in my mouth every morning watching him come up the gallop with Virginia (Bascop) riding him.

"She just keeps the lid on him, keeps talking to him. That's a real racehorse now, an iron horse to do what he does every day.

"Ruby's only half in control I'd say half the time. When he put in a jump like he did at the first... (I had) memories of yesterday with Douvan. I thought if he keeps doing this, he's never going to come home. But he seems to keep finding reserves from I don't know where.

"He's just so brave. He's everything you'd want in a racehorse."

Soon enough, Nichols Canyon - a horse Mullins described to this writer last year as "a bit of an oddball who often sleeps with one leg off the ground, like a dog nursing a sore paw" - had blitzed the field in the Stayers Hurdle.

And when Let's Dance then came up trumps in the Mares Novice Hurdle, a realisation had settled across Cheltenham that - with the big players in this game - trust is sacrosanct.

For as the last light began to bleed away, there at the top of the jockeys' leaderboard sat Walsh with a hard-charging Mullins second on the trainers' table.

"The team wasn't ever really off track," explained Walsh. "They were running well, they just weren't winning. Listen, things can't always go your way. That's life. There's ups and downs. Downs make you appreciate the ups. That's life, not just sport.

"People say you make your own luck, I'm not so sure."

When Baily Cloud went tumbling in yesterday's first, Walsh and Yorkhill were lucky not to go down with him.

"When I landed, I'm thinking, 'Hmmmm maybe our luck is in here!'" he grinned.

So he went home last night having moved to an astonishing 56 Cheltenham winners.

"The bullets don't always land," he told us. "But he (Mullins) is a genius."

A status Ruby is familiar with.

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