By Tony Stafford
Willie Mullins may not have won the main prize last weekend, failing by just over £100,000 to prise away the British trainers’ championship from now 10-time winner Paul Nicholls, but he did end one unhelpful statistic on the way to that ultimate and - unusual for him - disappointment.
From April 5 2005 when the Ruby Walsh-ridden Hedgehunter won the Grand National for Mullins and owner Trevor Hemmings, until last Friday at Perth, a track that had never previously been on the trainer’s agenda, he’d had 95 runners in handicap chases over here without a winner.
Step up Rolly Baby, an 11-year-old veteran of six seasons’ action but still a novice over fences after a total of eight races. Faced by three opponents, Rolly Baby won easily. Just as well he did as the two Mullins candidates for the following day’s Bet 365 Gold Cup (still the Whitbread for most old stagers) at Sandown were never at the races and a round ton would have been in the offing come next season.
The failure of unplaced Measureofmydreams and pulled up Sir Des Champs to add to the Mullins stable haul in that big race, where Nicholls collected the best part of 40k for second and fourth with short-head vanquished Just a Par and Southfield Theatre, was the final turning point in an epic struggle.
That prompted a final controversial act from Ireland’s finest – withdrawing Vroum Vroum Mag from what looked a penalty kick in the £28,000 Select Hurdle, allowing Nicholls to collect with P’tit Zig.
The stewards took umbrage, fining the trainer £1,000 for disregarding the interests of racegoers and punters almost certainly because of the lateness of the scratching, nine minutes before the advertised off time.
Mullins was reportedly angered at the sanction, but with a full crowd his action was tantamount to the richest boy in the park taking the (his) ball home because things haven’t gone to his liking.
It wouldn’t have stuck quite so sharply into the craw of those racegoers and punters but for the fact that Ascot and Cheltenham winner Vroum Vroum Mag, unbeaten in nine starts, six over fences and the last three hurdles for Mullins, had not been the second major attraction on the card after Sprinter Sacre.
He’d already done the business, as had champion (at the time –elect) Richard Johnson on Menorah, in their case for the third year in a row in the two-mile chase.
In the lead up to Cheltenham, nobody was more visible in his slightly silly suits and indefinable mid-Atlantic accent than Rich Ricci, husband of nominal owner Susannah. With 48 of the best of Mullins’ 231 listed in Horses in Training, the Ricci’s made their money from banking and now live in the Cotswolds.
It was seemingly rare for a Cheltenham Preview evening – apart of course from the Monday night at the Bedfordshire Racing Club – not to be graced by Ricci, and no doubt where he stated his belief that jump racing is a much more sporting environment than its money-grabbing relation on the Flat.
So in that context it is hard to sympathise with Mullins’ assertion that part of the reason Vroum Vroum Mag was withdrawn was the option of Punchestown, with one possible opportunity each day from Wednesday to Saturday.
Three of those races, the Gold Cup Chase (wed), Champion Stayers’ Hurdle (thurs) and Champion Hurdle (fri) are worth €118,000 to the winner against the £28k ‘real money’ at Sandown. Saturday’s Mares Champion Hurdle is worth half the sum of the first three at just short of €60k.
But such is Mullins’, and to an extent Ricci’s, along with Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House – for the first time UK Champion owners - dominance, that “Mag” is merely one of six of twelve for her trainer on Wednesday. Mullins has six of twenty in Thursday’s race, five of thirteen in the Champion Hurdle and ten (!) of 21 in the Mares race. I reckon he might have been able to cope without her.
It would have been more satisfactory and easier for the stewards and the celebratory crowd that kept the atmosphere going all day at Sandown, if a little more emphasis had been made of the mare’s preference for easy going before the meeting. She’s never run for Mullins in any of her nine races since November 2014 on anything faster than good to soft.
But to delay the announcement until the punters were already swarming towards the pre-parade ring was guaranteed to take away a decent chunk of the goodwill and admiration connections built up during a wonderful winter season.
In the event it was all down to a couple of high-profile falls at the major festivals of Cheltenham and Aintree and the post-Aintree organisation and astonishing April form of the Nicholls brigade that prevented Mullins from being the first Irish trainer since Vincent O’Brien in his pre-Flat race days to win the trophy.
With little sign of diminution of dominance in Ireland, and the ability to produce raw and largely unsuspected talent such as 41-length Aintree Grade 1 juvenile winner Apple’s Jade, Mullins would probably be favourite to win next season unless the umbrage factor simmers for more than the few quiet months before autumn.
The problem with days like Saturday is that when you are caught up in the excitement of horses like Menorah, Sprinter Sacre and the like – great that Nicky saw fit to mention the absent Corky Brown (another knee operation) - you can miss what’s going on elsewhere.
So it was not until I got home that I saw Home of the Brave had sloshed in for Hugo Palmer at Leicester and much later that the stable earlier brought out a likely Ascot juvenile contender in Hyperfocus, five-length winner of the novice median auction.
Hyperfocus was bought at the Tatts Ireland sale by Amanda Skiffington, one of the best known and most respected talent spotters at the sales. She got the nod at €55,000, so considerably less than the 220,000gns it cost her to buy dual Guineas third Ivawood, now a first-season Coolmore stallion along with his conqueror Gleneagles.
Ivawood was the cause of one of the funniest moments of 2015 when Matt Chapman was desperate, in the true sense of that over-used word, to talk to someone about the horse. Richard Hannon had already moved away to confer with his jockey and the owners were less than keen, so it was left to Ms Skiffington to field the intrepid reporter’s questions.
“What’s your name?” said Matt. “Amanda,” said Amanda, who agreed with Chapman, who still had no clue who she was, that they hoped the horse would run well. Reporting of the highest order!
Hugo Palmer has 90 two-year-olds this year and I’ll be going up with the boss, Ray Tooth, and Steve Gilbey tomorrow morning to Newmarket to monitor the progress of two of them, a home-bred half-sister to Harry Champion called Jean Harlow, and a Delegator filly named Betty Grable – Marilyn Monroe wouldn’t come out to play!
Hugo’s ease of communication matches the skill level of his training so it is perhaps hard to believe he’s yet to make a career total of 100 wins. Last season’s 34 was his best so far, but Classic winner Covert Love and talented three-year-olds Galileo Gold and Gifted Master are evidence enough that his expanded string will leave that figure miles behind.