Last weekend saw Willie Mullins unleash several of his stable stars as his winter campaign began in earnest. He is set to dominate racing in Ireland, with a yard simply bursting with talent.
Two of his leading lights, Faugheen and Vautour, won in terrific style at Ascot and Navan respectively. While one scorched the turf in England, the other leapt like the proverbial stag over in Ireland. Both have far more serious tests to face, but onlookers could not fail to be seriously impressed.
While Paul Nicholls continued to collect the ‘big Saturday pots’ at both Ascot and Haydock, a number of potential stars were impressing over the Irish Sea, and it’s the Irish racing that I wish to focus on, after so many runners caught the eye over the weekend.
Gowran Park got things under-way on Saturday, and it was little surprise to see the Mullins team stealing the show. Tell Us More cruised to victory in the two mile maiden hurdle carrying those famous Gigginstown Stud silks. He’s a gorgeous big horse and jumped his obstacles like a chaser in waiting. He’s not short of speed, though looks the sort to be even more impressive over further.
In the following novice hurdle also over two miles, it was another Mullins trained horse, this time owned by the Ricci’s, who put in a solid performance. Douvan had been purchased from France and looks another out of the Vautour mould. The horse jumped well and looked to have gears when sweeping clear from the last in a slightly faster time than Tell Us More.
Don Poli was next to catch the eye, when jumping fences for the first time like a seasoned pro’. The trip was probably on the short side, indeed connections appear to fancy the ‘four miler’ at Cheltenham, but this certainly didn’t hinder his performance. He looks a horse capable of going to the very top, and it would be no surprise to see plans change, with the RSA becoming his Festival target.
I also feel the need to mention the Henry De Bromhead trained Smashing, who ran a terrific race behind Don Poli in third. He was fourth in the Coral Cup in March, and his progress over fences should be followed closely. He could be the type to arrive at Cheltenham next March on a rather attractive handicap mark.
On Sunday it was the turn of Navan to take centre-stage. Milsean opened proceedings with a hard-fought win in the two mile maiden hurdle. Another Mullins/Gigginstown combination, he’s clearly a talented horse. The close proximity of three rivals gives the impression that he may come-up just short of the very best novice hurdlers. He looks to need a trip, and I fancy that both the stable and owners have a few that are better than this one.
Free Expression also had to work hard in the Monksfield Novice Hurdle. Trained by Gordon Elliott, this JP McManus owned five-year-old is highly thought of by connections. It’s likely that the slow pace did him no favours, and a stronger run race would be more suitable. He was certainly less impressive than others over the weekend, and only time will tell if he has the ability to mix it with the very best. Shantou Flyer ran a mighty race in second. Colin Bowe’s four-year-old is a son of Shantou out of a Bob Back mare. He’s bred to make a far better chaser and is certainly a name worth noting for the future.
Finally Lyrical Theatre has to go into the notebook. Yet another Mullins inmate, she continues to quietly go about her business in stylish fashion. Yet to be sent over hurdles, she is beautifully bred and ought to be a natural over obstacles. She looks sure to stay a trip in time, and could become a serious contender in the Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham next March, though a certain Annie Power could well be lying in wait.
There’s little doubt that the Irish jumps scene is now in full swing. Fairyhouse holds a sparkling meeting this weekend with three Grade 1 races on Sunday including the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, in which the aforementioned Annie Power is an exciting entrant. It’s set to be an informative two days, with the likelihood of further impressive wins for horses owned by Messrs’ Ricci and O’Leary.