Gordon Elliott continues to set the pace at the head of the Irish Trainer’s Championship, with 119 wins and prize-money of just over €2m. Willie Mullins remains hot on his trail, with 82 winners and slightly more than €1.5m in prize money. Henry de Bromhead is the best of the rest, though trailing well behind the leading pair.
Last Sunday at Fairyhouse, it was Mullins that struck first, with victory in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, claiming the €50,000 pot. Airlie Beach is a rapidly improving mare, and yet to be defeated in seven starts under rules. She’s by the St Leger winner Shantou, which suggests a step-up in trip would bring about further improvement.
Gordon Elliott wasted no time in hitting back, when winning the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace Hurdle. Apple’s Jade fought off the Mullins trained, and previously undefeated Vroum Vroum Mag, in a thrilling finish. The runner-up had been given plenty to do by Ruby Walsh, but appeared to be arriving with a winning effort at the last, only to be denied by a short-head. The result not only emphasised the thrilling nature of this season’s Irish trainers title, but also served to prove the strength of the current crop of mares competing over hurdles.
The victory for Apple’s Jade was only Elliott’s second success of the two-day Fairyhouse meeting, compared to three wins and three seconds for Mullins. Indeed, there’s signs that the Mullins machine is just starting to go through the gears. A double at Limerick last Friday, followed on from a double at Thurles the previous day. So far in December, the master of Closutton is operating at almost a 50% strike rate.
Navan takes place on Saturday, with more decent prize money to be had. Mullins holds a strong hand in the valuable novice chase, with Briar Hill set to return. Elliott then has a whole battalion set to launch an assault on the Foxrock Handicap Chase.
But it’s on Sunday when things really get exciting. Both have solid claims in the stayers’ novice hurdle at Cork, prior to Douvan’s anticipated return in the Hilly Way Chase. The Arkle winner and short-priced favourite for the Champion Chase in March, is one of the most exciting horses around. Mullins then has yet another classy pair entered in the valuable mares’ novice chase.
At Punchestown, the Grade 1 John Durkan Chase is the most valuable event of the weekend, and Mullins will be hoping that Gold Cup runner-up Djakadam can repeat last year’s stunning success. On that occasion, he hammered Valseur Lido and Gilgamboa. On Sunday, he’s likely to face a fast improving Sub Lieutenant from Henry de Bromhead’s yard, and the classy, though rarely foot perfect Outlander, trained by Gordon Elliott. The winner will be 50,000 euros the richer.
The continuing rivalry between Mullins and Elliott is sure to be one of the major talking points during this winter’s National Hunt campaign. Add to the mix, Ricci versus Gigginstown and Walsh versus Cooper, and we have ourselves a thrilling narrative that is sure to produce one enthralling chapter after another.
Gordon Elliott was quick out of the blocks, but Mullins knows there’s plenty of twists in the road between now and the end of the season. Signs are, that the race has now truly begun.