Shishkin and Nico De Boinville win the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton. 27/12/2021 Pic Steve Davies/

Monday Musings: The Sound of Music?

I realise that most people nowadays might not have more than a passing acquaintance with the 1960’s musical, The Sound of Music – although it’s part of the TV schedules every Christmas – but over this weekend I’ve had two of its best-known songs going constantly through my head, writes Tony Stafford.

Firstly, with the Festival now only four weeks away, there’s the title song which begins, well slightly amended: The hills are alive with the sound of Cheltenham.

And secondly and more appropriately for UK trainers: How do you solve a problem like Willie Mullins? (Maria, of course, speeding up problem!).

As ever, one name sticks out as the home antidote to the Willie Mullins epidemic of winners. That’s Nicky Henderson, now the wrong side of 70 but as he showed at Newbury on Saturday, he can see off the Irish maestro when he has the right horse.

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Mullins didn’t bother to tackle Shishkin in the Denman Chase – it was left to a couple of Sir Alex Ferguson partnership horses, trained respectively by Paul Nicholls (Hitman) and Dan Skelton (Protektorat) to follow the Ascot-errant and still unforgiven for it Seven Barrows horse home.

From being an outstanding novice hurdler and then chaser, Shishkin has the Mullins-like career tally of 14 wins from 20 and would have made it 15 if he hadn’t lost his concentration and unseated Nico De Boinville at a messy penultimate-fence incident of which he was blameless, in the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Willie kept his big boys at home, preferring instead to run most at the Dublin Festival last weekend. Gold Cup titleholder and next month’s favourite Galopin Des Champs stands firm at the head of the market at around even-money after his Irish Gold Cup win over Fastorslow, but if not quite breathing down his neck, Shishkin as a 9/1 shot doesn’t seem bad value each-way.

Mullins’ challenge for the Betfair Hurdle was a triple one and, of them, a newcomer from his favourite talent pool, ex-French Ocastle Des Mottes made a bookie-terrifying first run for the stable after a lengthy absence, but the 7/2 shot gave no indication on his French form that he had such a chance, running like it to finish only eighth. The other pair, Onlyamatteroftime, one of the best-backed on the day at 8/1, finished 18th while Alvaniy was pulled up.

Resplendent at the front of the race were the J P McManus colours, often connected to Mullins horses, but equally well-accustomed as representing Henderson. They came to the fore approaching the final flight of the Betfair Hurdle in the shape of Iberico Lord, and caught and outpaced Dan Skelton’s L’Eau Du Sud, a 28/1 shot and another in the Ferguson syndicate. They shelled out €740k for bright prospect Caldwell Potter last week. Sir Alex seemed to think they’d got a bargain - I suppose it might seem so compared with the cost of footballers these days or indeed tickets to last night’s Superbowl! Paul Nicholls will be training him.

This was the fifth win in the race for Henderson and considering he doesn’t blatantly lay out horses to benefit their handicap marks in the way that many trainers are obliged to given the state of UK prize money, he still wins stacks of them. Like Iberico Lord, they continue to improve through experience. lberico Lord has now won four of eight races and is sure to be in the field, and may be favourite, for the County Hurdle at Cheltenham. The runner-up will be at the meeting too, Dan Skelton being a wizard at winning Cheltenham handicaps, often under the noses of legions of Irish horses who clearly have been laid out for them.

I was surprised to see, on my latest excursion into the pages of Horses In Training 2023 – I always pick up the new one at Cheltenham – that while J P has 12 horses listed under the Henderson team, that represents only 8% of the trainer’s total of 142.

The next two Sound of Music songs I think apply to the same Nicky Henderson horse, not seen when expected for a warm-up race as he attempts to defend his Champion Hurdle title. Obviously for owner Michael Buckley, Henderson and De Boinville, you could say Constitution Hill is one of Their (My) Favourite Things and has Climb(ed) Every Mountain. As to Edelweiss, I’ve no idea how it fits in, except it’s a white flower and Buckley’s colours feature a white jacket.

I think my quick look through the races already priced up had nine Mullins horses at the head of their respective markets, although Ballyburn and Fact To File both have a second option. If the seven won – never mind any of the later closing races – that would be enough to take him past the century of winners at the Festival from his mark of 94.

Henderson stands 2nd on 73 and can be very hopeful with Royal Gino in the Triumph Hurdle after his easy demolition of Burdett Road in their trial over course and distance last month. The six Mullins juveniles that ran at Leopardstown last weekend have yet to show anything like that form.

Chances are spread over the four days for him, too, with Constitution Hill the banker. I cannot remember any horse being 4/1 on with a month to go in any Cheltenham race. That said, I believe he’s the best we’ve seen, so why not and the bookies are betting non-runner no bet, with no potential injury safely-value to fall back on. All set for Champion Hurdle number ten for Nicky and eat your heart out, Willie and State Man!

After the big two, Nicholls has had 48 Festival winners, but even though his stable is very solid and his jockey Harry Cobden gets the best out of everything he rides, he’s not the force of the Kauto Star/Denman era. Who could be? The old-time trainers used to spread the winners around a lot more when Cheltenham was three days of six races. Best of those was Fulke Walwyn on 40.

Next from today’s vintage comes Gordon Elliott on 37 and he will still be boiling after losing Caldwell Potter and quite a few more of his stars at the private disposal sale of the 29 horses owned by Andy and Gemma Brown, all sold without reserve at Tattersalls Ireland a week ago.

The Browns, who have a young family, have had some success over recent times but also devastating losses through injury and are taking some time out. Elliott did his best to get back his most treasured prospect, bidding €720,000 for Gigginstown House Stud, but Anthony Bromley stayed the pace to set a record for a jumper in training.

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Getting back to the roll of Festival honour, of present-day trainers Jonjo O’Neil has 26, Henry de Bromhead 21 and Philip Hobbs 20. From Martin Pipe down – 34 wins – apart from Jonjo O’Neill on 26, it’s a parade of the great old-timers, showing it was never easy to win at this meeting, even more so with the fewer opportunities in their day.

Fred Winter had 28, Fred Rimell 27, Tom Dreaper, Arkle’s handler, equals Jonjo on 26, Vincent O’Brien 23 along with Bob Turnell and, from an earlier era, Ivor Anthony had 22, which bar the War would have been considerably more.

What is interesting is that Mullins has had 65 in the last ten years, which means only Henderson’s career tally matches that. The wonder is that he hasn’t done the brave thing that his peerless predecessor and compatriot Vincent O’Brien did and switch to the flat, although that could be because Ballydoyle hasn’t been available!

Vincent basically targeted the big races over jumps in the UK between 1948 and 1959, before opting out. He won three successive Champion Hurdles (all with Hatton’s Grace, 1949-51); four Cheltenham Gold Cups, three in a row 1948-50, and again in 1953 with different horses and three in the Grand National,  a hat-trick from 1953-5. In the post-War years, the present-day Supreme Novices Hurdle was run in two divisions as the Gloucestershire Hurdle. Between 1952 and 1959 O’Brien won ten!

If he’d have continued until the 1990’s rather than becoming the best flat-race trainer in the world, he would probably have set a target even Willie Mullins would never have managed to match!

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