We’ve just had the two days of the Dublin Racing Festival, and the excitement of the course commentator when he announced that Willie Mullins had just completed a clean sweep of the eight Grade 1 races over the two days, finally sent me to sleep, writes Tony Stafford. More of that later…
Instead, I will start on a very different tack, following up a piece here last summer in which I revealed I had been stunned by the enterprise and success of Sophie and Christian Leech’s small stable near Bourton-on-the-Water in Gloucestershire. They were at it again at Leopardstown on Saturday, with the only English-trained runner on the entire card. There were two yesterday, one finished eighth, the other pulled up.
In the piece I told the tale of an itinerant eight-year-old who had spent time in several of the best stables in the UK and Ireland, but how said gelding, Lucky One, only came to his peak when sent from the Leech yard to compete in very valuable hurdle races in France. He had just picked up €69k in one race and has since finished sixth (for the second time) to France’s best hurdler, Theleme.
I thought I’d start yesterday morning by looking at their team in Horses In Training 2023. Twenty were listed, and I reckon you’d go a long way in any serious horse racing country to find a similar-sized yard where the youngest occupant was a single five-year-old. Seven of the rest, starting at the top were 15, 14 twice, 13, 12 and 11 twice. The 15yo did not run last year but won his last race as a 14-year-old the previous summer. His name? Applesandpierres.
Another five of the newcomers in the total of 18 to run in the UK this jump season are aged 10 or older and Via Dolorosa, now a 13-year-old, won two races and 60k in France last October..
So what, you might ask, would they do when they get a proper horse to train? Sophie gives the credit for travel plans and overseas race planning to husband Christian and son Ed, and they also clearly keep an eye out for talent spotting when the possibility arises.
Not in the way of Mullins, who had secured five of his six runners in Saturday’s Grade 1 juvenile hurdle at Leopardstown, by reputedly paying massive sums privately for the most part for horses that usually have won a single maiden hurdle. The odd exception will have run on the flat in France.
The Leech collective eye settled on a 2m1.5 furlong claiming chase for four-year-olds at Auteuil in early October. The horse in question, Madara, a son of State Man’s sire Doctor Dino, had already won two steeplechases either side of his fourth birthday, when a 4/1 shot and a faller in a €60k to the winner Grade 3 race at Compiegne.
At the same time, his trainer David Cottin, previously a multiple French champion jumps jockey, son of a great trainer and now making an incredibly successful second career, had lost his licence. Four of his horses, including Madara, were involved in having had banned substances administered. Madara found his way to Yannick Fouin’s stable and, second time out, he was entered for the claimer.
He finished a neck second to a horse called Romarius and Sophie claimed him, paying €25,555, a hefty increase on the nominal 18k he was in to be claimed for. A bit like it used to be here 40 years ago.
Switched to Bourton, with chase wins already in his locker, the Leech’s didn’t waste time sending him over fences. His form was good enough for a 66 jumps rating, equating to 145 over here. The starting point for the first of three runs in late October (just 20 days after the claim), November and December was outlined.
Unseated and then sixth in the first pair, he then showed terrific speed to run away from his opponents in a 20k chase at Cheltenham’s December meeting. I can’t remember many four-year-olds winning handicap chases at Cheltenham. After that, the plan was laid to run in the €59k to the winner Ryanair Handicap Chase (Listed) over 2m1f.
French-based James Reveley was booked and, watching the race, this now five-year-old was cantering along easily in the front five on the inside rail all the way round. You could see James never had a problem and even though there were four in a line coming to the final fence, he showed the suggestion of a sprinter’s pace to surge around five lengths clear before James eased him markedly at the finish.
I know to all intents and purposes Madara can be regarded as a French horse even now, despite four runs for his new connections, and that French jumping-bred horses start practising over small obstacles even as early as yearlings. But this hard-working team is far from being the only trainers with that type of raw material.
I had a quick look down the races run over fences at the three UK cards on Saturday along with Leopardstown and then Musselburgh and the Dublin course once more yesterday.
In all 128 horses ran in chases at Wetherby, Sandown, Musselburgh and Leopardstown over the two days and only one other five-year-old, apart from Madara, ran. That was a horse trained in Ireland, running at Musselburgh on Saturday. He finished last of five to get round.
After Saturday’s race there was plenty of talk between connections about which Cheltenham Festival race they would be going for. Sophie and Chris (and of course their oh so happy owners, stable stalwart Brian Drew and friends) don’t look further than the Grand Annual. He’ll win it pulling a cart!
4/1 about an eight-timer – how exciting!
I’m sure bookmakers would have been inundated with multiple bets over the two days’ action, usually on singly-named horses in each leg. Not many of those will have got past the first race. Willie always helps the enemy with multiple runners doing their absolute best. The first three wins on day one all went to second or even third choices for the yard each ridden by Danny Mullins rather than Paul Townend who was on the stable first-choices.
I thought it would be salutary to try to work out the true combined odds for his runners in each race, or somewhere near, so here goes. On Saturday the first race comes out at 2/7, the even-money favourite beaten by the great man’s 16/1 no-hoper; race two, six juveniles lined up, five bought from France in the manner of Lossiemouth last year and all either having a first or second run for Willie, the 7/2 second-best beat the 9/4 favourite. The combined odds of the six comes out at 92%, so say 1/12; In the one race of the eight where Mullins didn’t have the favourite, Barry Connell’s unbeaten long odds-on shot ran a stinker, his trio including the 6/1 winner total 40%, so 6/4; and finally In the Irish Gold Cup, Galopin Des Champs (1/3) and one other made up to a 2/9 chance.
Yesterday opened with a Mullins match, the wrong one won; the wonderful Ballyburn, owned by David Manasseh and Ronnie Bartlett, enjoyed a seven-length Sunday stroll, despite four more Mullins beasts including Ebor winner Absurde. The winner was 10/11, the quintet combined at 1/3. Next, El Fabiolo (4/11) had three stablemates among four opponents. The odds amounted to 104%, so another no bet. Finally in the Champion Hurdle, State Man (2/5) plus two of the other three, came out at 95%, so 1/20.
Buoyed by the 6/4 because of the eclipse of Marine Nationale in the novice chase on Saturday, the other five only represent around 2/1. Even then, would you have bet against it? Great horses admittedly, and Mr Mullins will have added – hey let’s have a reckon up! I’ve had a quick scan and make it his 30 prize-earning runners made a combined €1,190,00. Wonder how much it cost just to buy the six juveniles that represented him on Saturday?
At a much more realistic end of the business I was delighted for Fionn McSharry, who trains in West Yorkshire, not far from Leeds, home of Keith Walton, her mentor. Keith is a form student, boxing coach, former pro fighter and conditioner of many northern jockeys, and was also thrilled when Fionn’s Berkshire Phantom won at Wolverhampton. The four-year-old, sourced from the HIT sales from the Andrew Balding yard for 28k last October, came good with an easy win and It won’t be his last victory. I’m equally sure that for the dedicated Fionn, it will be the first of many.