With every doubt dispelled and every foe swept aside with consummate ease, we again arrive at a Monday morning having witnessed a ‘Weekend Mullins Mauling’.
At Ascot on Saturday Un De Sceaux proved a cut above the rest in the Sodexo Clarence House Chase. I remain of the opinion that his jumping is often adequate rather than spectacular, and that it is his speed between fences that ensures the opposition remain constantly stretched to stay in touch. At various stages during the race Sire De Grugy appeared to be travelling every bit as well as the favourite, but Mullins’ chaser is a relentless galloper.
He heads to Cheltenham as an odds-on shot for the Champion Chase, with only one likely opponent possessing the ability to lower his colours. Few have every jumped a fence like Sprinter Sacre, and should he arrive at Prestbury Park in tip-top shape he has the capacity to apply pressure to Un De Sceaux at his fences. Whether he still retains enough ability to exert a sustained challenge to force an error from Mullins’ charge remains questionable, if not doubtful.
Another Mullins horse to live up to the hype was Vroum Vroum Mag. She could well prove to be as talented as her stable companion Annie Power. Ricci owns them both and this latest ‘wonder mare’ positively purred to victory in the OLBG.com Mares' Hurdle. Uncertainty remains as to her Cheltenham target with the Mares Hurdle and World Hurdle both in the mix.
After the Ascot win a relieved Rich Ricci speculated on her likely target, saying: “She is 3-1 for the World Hurdle and that's too short but it gives us options. She is a great mare. We will go the Mares' Hurdle if we can get a run into Annie Power before Cheltenham. Off her rating I think she(Annie) will be hard to beat in the World Hurdle. The problem is can we get a run into Annie Power, and I am not sure we can. That's the thing we are debating and we won't know that until closer to the day and so I am sorry to punters. We are going to have to live with that uncertainty."
Annie has proved her ability against the boys, but Ricci would not want her taking them on without a prep run, and hence arriving at Cheltenham too fresh. Though impressive, this latest victory for Vroum Vroum was against a mediocre gathering of mares. She’ll probably need to improve a stone or more to win the World Hurdle, and that’s a huge ask.
Silencing the doubters continued into Sunday, when Ricci’s Faugheen produced one of his greatest performances. The Irish Champion Hurdle was billed as a clash between ‘The Machine’ and Nichols Canyon, with Arctic Fire playing a supporting role. In the event the Champion Hurdler proved completely dominant. Nichols Canyon attempted to go with the long odds-on favourite and managed to keep tabs until the second last flight. At that point he cracked under the relentless pressure and could barely manage a trot at the line.
Faugheen is now as short as 1/3 with many bookies, and it’s hard to imagine any horse landing a blow. Peace And Co remains the only challenger with untapped potential, but even the most devoted fan will be finding their faith dwindling after another none-show at the weekend.
Ricci had further cause for celebration when the horse he describes as ‘the best I’ve ever had’ sauntered to another success over fences. Douvan is now a general 1/2 for the Arkle Chase, and after yesterday’s success his trainer Willie Mullins said of the talented gelding: “He jumped fantastic and I was very impressed with him. He hurdles his fences and there's no effort to it. He has a temperament like a good pony, he's so docile and you can put him anywhere in a race, he doesn't have to make the running. He's just a different species.”
When asked how good he is, Mullins added: “I don't know. I've yet to see anything that can give him a race. He could be absolutely anything. He has the ability to go back over hurdles and win a Champion Hurdle, let's hope he passes the test coming up in six weeks’ time.”
That test looks sure to come from the Nicky Henderson yard once again. Vaniteux and possibly L’Ami Serge will have the task of chasing Douvan down, though the inclusion of Gary Moore’s Ar Mad would prove interesting. Moore’s charge only knows one way of running and would give Mullins’ favourite a fresh type of challenge.
Many have took to social media bemoaning the dominance of Mullins leading to Cheltenham. Surely fans of the sport should be rejoicing at the quality on display and tingling with excitement at the prospect of witnessing Jump racing at its most thrilling. Douvan, Faugheen and Co should be treasured while they’re here; the sport is all the better for them.