10 Aug

In the immediate aftermath of Faugheen’s victory in the Flogas Novices Chase, trainer Willie Mullins quickly shut down any talk of the Cheltenham festival, refusing to answer questions about his 12 year-old’s festival target.   “Today was the day. I said on the way here that today could be his Gold Cup. He’s won, he’s done it and we’re going to enjoy it”.   

In an age where the festival permeates almost every facet of national hunt racing, this was a refreshing refrain from Mullins. The line of questioning put to the trainer was inevitable, and his response perfectly cordial, but as Ireland’s champion trainer affirmed, on certain occasions in life it surely pays to live in the now, to bask in the glory of events just witnessed and to simply “enjoy it”. 

For hadn’t Faugheen, the equine pensioner and hero of the hour, achieved enough at Leopardstown? It was a monumental moment for the sport and Cheltenham, for once, seemed like a mere afterthought.  

Were Mullins to have publicly pondered Faugheen’s next target, it could have insinuated that the horse still had to deliver more. That he still had to win at Prestbury Park in March to cement his status as a novice chaser. At once this would have diminished Faugheen’s achievements in winning the Flogas and, on some level, degraded the Dublin Racing Festival itself. By all intents and purposes, these two days at Leopardstown deserve more than the moniker of ‘Cheltenham trials’.  

More pertinently, victory in the Flogas itself was sufficient cause for celebration. In terms of remuneration, it is also worth more to the winner than both the Marsh Chase and National Hunt Chase next month. Cheltenham may overshadow the entire season, but it need not deter us from celebrating in the here and now. 

The point here is not to crab the festival, for it remains the apex of the sport. But as each new national hunt season unfolds, countless grade ones and heritage handicaps - on both sides of the Irish sea – are unequivocally viewed through a Cheltenham-shaped lens.  

Racing is ubiquitous. Its permanence in our lives sets it apart from all other sports. Irrespective of what happens today, there is nearly always racing tomorrow. At every level of the sport the opportunities are plentiful, there is always more to be accomplished, more targets on the horizon. 

On the surface of it, this is no bad thing. But equally, once racing takes residence in the mind, it can be relentless. And in this unceasing, frenzied environment, it is ever more difficult to live in the now, to put on the brakes and achieve a kind of mindfulness. To savour the moment, as Mullins did. 

Cheltenham is a convenient example, as it perpetually looms large. During the season it is nigh on impossible to win a feature race – say the Tingle Creek – without thoughts turning to the big one in March. That it aids punters and bookmakers in establishing a pecking order for the Champion Chase is a by-product of the race existing, but of course it is not the reason it exists. 

Connections of the winner are seldom afforded the opportunity to celebrate the prize outright, for our collective attentions, interests and desires are habitually refocused to the next target. As stakeholders in a sport which leaps from one race to another in such a breathless fashion, we struggle to allow ourselves any time for reflective thought.

Racing’s health is constantly in question, be it funding mechanisms, the whip debate, prize money, the stable staff crisis, attendance figures or the impact of Brexit. But what of personal health? Is it possible we slow everything down just a little? For those at the business end - such as the splendid stable staff who keep the show on the road - the sport has surely become nothing more than the definition of a labour of love. It is generally a thankless task.  

Of course we need not bite the hand the feeds. For a variety of obvious reasons we require an abundance of racing, it allows us all to thrive, but must we forever lurch forward without stopping for breath?  

When winning a race, any race, never has it at once seemed so important and yet so insignificant. We are forever looking forward. The “game of opinions” has reached a new zenith. In the age of social media, racing lives in a newfound, fickle environment that demands more, more and yet more. 

If we return to Faugheen, he is of course a unique case. As a rule, horses of his age don’t embark upon novice chase campaigns and they certainly don’t win grade ones. Nevertheless, Mullins’s words still resonate. It was clearly an emotive victory, but still it was met with an unusually poignant response from the trainer.  

“Today was the day”, said Mullins at Leopardstown. Let those words sink in. Unswayed by his 65 wins at the Cheltenham festival, the master of Closutton had little time for anything other than the present moment. If ever a message needed extrapolating to racing as a whole, it was this.  

Let’s face it, our sport has rarely been for the fainthearted and it will forever be the ‘great leveller’. But, for those at the coalface, life somehow seems rougher than ever before. On top of the unreasonably long hours, it is now all podcasts, tweets, expert panels and nit-picking. It’s an unforgiving, 24-hour-a-day occupation, a life lived under a gigantic, forever-critical microscope. 

When the good times do come, it’s imperative they are enjoyed. Mullins, of course, has won far more than most and yet, somewhat ironically, it is he who has hit the nail on the head, invoking the spirit of the great A A Milne.  “What day is it?” asked Pooh, “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favourite day,” said Pooh.”  

Take heed of such words. With such a contemplative approach we would do a great service to both ourselves and racing as whole.  


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