The overall picture remains a little puzzling after a dramatic weekend in the novice chase division.
One thing is pretty clear; and that is the continuing dominance of Willie Mullins. Just which of his classy young chasers are top of the pile is hard to tell. But victories at Warwick, Naas and then yesterday at Leopardstown confirmed, as if confirmation was needed, that he has gathered the most powerful Jump racing team in the history of the sport.
Killultagh Vic is the latest to surge to the head of the Cheltenham Festival betting after his thrilling win in the Grade 2 novice chase at Leopardstown. Seemingly cruising to victory as he approached the final fence, he over-jumped and buckled on landing. Somehow Ruby Walsh managed to maintain the partnership and gathered the classy novice for a renewed effort. He hit the front in the shadow of the post for an unlikely success.
“Ruby said when he gave him a squeeze he took off and was going to the fence too fast,” said Mullins. “To do what he did, you wouldn't believe that could happen. I thought Ruby was going to go out the side-door. That performance was good enough to run in the Arkle but he's possibly more likely to go for the JLT. We know he stays but the way he jumps he can come back in trip and if I hadn't got Douvan I'd probably say Arkle straight away.”
A relieved Ruby Walsh said of the winner: “I think he's a little bit the forgotten horse, with the bookmakers anyway, and when you look at what he's done, he's beaten Thistlecrack and Shaneshill at Punchestown, and in the Martin Pipe he beat Roi Des Francs, the form is rock solid. He's a good horse. You'd have thought the JLT would be ideal but who knows - I just hope he stays away from Douvan anyway.”
He certainly wasn’t a forgotten horse after the win, with bookies making him favourite for the JLT Novices’ Chase in March ahead of another Mullins inmate, Shaneshill.
Just a day earlier Ireland’s champion trainer had flexed his novice chase muscle both home and away, with Roi Des Francs winning at Naas and Black Hercules successful at Warwick.
At Naas a Mullins one-two saw Ruby coming off second best for a change. Gigginstown’s Roi Des Francs out-fought Pont Alexandre in a driving finish. After the race Mullins appeared happy with both horses though his summary of the race suggested he felt the runner-up was a little unfortunate. He spoke of the front two taking each other on, allowing Bryan Cooper on the winner the perfect tow into the race. He hinted that further improvement in Pont Alexandre would probably see him improve past the winner.
As for the winning jockey, Cooper appeared more than satisfied with Roi Des Francs, saying: “My lad never missed a beat. I could have sat on him a bit longer, but the last 50 yards he pulled out a little bit more and found that bit extra.”
For what it’s worth, my view is that the winner is the better horse and improving at a hell of a rate. As for Pont Alexandre, I remain to be convinced. He’s spent an awful long time off the track, and though Mullins is clearly still a huge fan there’s a chance he may never reach the heights many expected him too. He reminds me of Mikael D’Haguenet, who also looked a world beater before injury struck. He too returned to action, though only showed flashes of his former ability.
At Warwick the monster that is Black Hercules jumped and galloped the opposition into submission. He was given a positive ride from Danny Mullins, who after the win said: “His jumping was very slick and you wouldn't mind going back in trip, but he's galloped all the way to the line too and you wouldn't mind going up in trip either. He's got the frame of a chaser and that looks like where he's going to excel. We weren't going a great gallop but when he's jumping like that you can make ground at your fences and when I let him fly at a couple he made four lengths on them.”
Brian Ellison’s promising young chaser, Definitly Red, chased him all the way, but in fairness the winner always appeared to have things under control. He became yet another Festival favourite for Mullins and his team, and now heads the four mile National Hunt Chase market, ahead of Roi Des Francs. He does look a powerful stayer, and this race looks the most likely target. The same connections, Mr and Mrs Wylie, took the event in 2013 with Back In Focus.
Though intended targets remain uncertain, there’s no doubting that Mullins holds most of the Aces as the major festivals approach.