I wonder how many media interviews or television guest appearances Rich Ricci will be making this New Year, writes Tony Stafford. The snappy suits and engaging banter have been a constant accompaniment to his period as husband of jump racing’s most prominent owner – his wife Susannah – but the tide (as it usually does in racing) has turned against the pair in recent weeks.
The Riccis will have been full of optimism, along with all the owners in Willie Mullins’ super-powerful Closutton stable, before the four days of Leopardstown’s and Limerick’s Christmas fixtures, but the frequent setbacks will have tested Rich’s famed equanimity.
To have 15 runners for only two wins – apart from Min’s disqualification for muscling out Simply Ned in the Grade 1 Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase – was bad enough. But when the losers included Faugheen, for only the second time; Djakadam and odds-on novice Epicuris, a former Group 1 Flat winner in France, it must have been literally too bad to believe.
Faugheen’s so-far unexplained dismal performance in the Ryanair Hurdle at odds of 1-6 topped the lot. Off in front under Paul Townend, Faugheen could never dominate and even before stablemate Cilaos Emery had moved inside him at the third and headed him before the fourth, the usual sparkle was missing.
The fact that he pulled up before two out was an irrelevance, his jockey obviously unable to comprehend such a total capitulation – his chance had gone long before that. After a fine comeback run a month earlier in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown, 22 months after his previous dominant victory at Leopardstown in January 2016, the rising 10-year-old Faugheen was possibly more at risk of a disappointing effort second time back, but like this? Hardly!
Until Friday, the only blemish on Faugheen’s card had been his defeat in the 2015 Morgiana Hurdle, on his return the season after his Champion Hurdle triumph when he beat stablemate Arctic Fire. His unlikely conqueror that day was another Mullins top-notcher, Nicholls Canyon, and there was an eerie portent of things to come when that gallant stayer fell and was killed in Thursday’s three-miler won by former Mullins inmate Apple’s Jade.
Like the Riccis, Nicholls Canyon’s owners Andrea and Graham Wylie have been at the top of the jumps-owning tree ever since their brilliant stayer Inglis Drever won three World Hurdles at Cheltenham. Successful in the initial running of the race in 2005, he missed the following year through injury, but returned to collect twice more in 2007 and 2008.
At that time Wylie, who made his fortune with his Sage computing business in the North-East, often had around 100 horses in training in Co Durham with Howard Johnson, but the trainer’s four-year ban in August 2011 for illegally running a horse after de-nerving it led to Johnson’s announcing his retirement.
Graham Wylie had already altered his approach from having a host of unproven stores and some expensive sales acquisitions joining Johnson’s yard to a more selective policy based on trainers Paul Nicholls and Mullins.
The Wylie fortunes this season have been even bleaker than the Riccis’. Eight of their horses have run a combined 20 times for just a single win for Invitation Only at Navan on December 9. Apart from the numbing loss of Nicholls Canyon, four other Wylie horses appeared over Christmas and the biggest disappointment from the rest was Yorkhill’s fading into a 59-length defeat behind Road to Respect in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase. Such is the Mullins mystique that observers were suggesting Yorkhill could step up to challenge Buveur d’Air as Faugheen’s Champion Hurdle replacement. It seems unlikely in the extreme to me that he could match the brilliant Christmas Hurdle winner.
Wylie’s only connection to Nicholls this winter has been as share-holder with three other prominent stable owners in the useful chaser Copain De Classe, third on his only run this autumn behind the smart Benatar at Ascot.
Over the four days of Christmas Mullins sent out ten winners from 49 Leopardstown and Limerick contestants. Almost half (24) started favourite and eight of them won. Eight of his odd-on shots were beaten, and as Nicky Henderson found in the years when his best horses were not good enough to win the championship races, from now until Cheltenham will be especially testing.
While even Mullins must be questioning elements of his operation, it gets better and better for Joseph O’Brien. Not content with sending out two 16-1 winners, Hardback and Alighted, for Gigginstown House Stud in consecutive Leopardstown races on Thursday, he won Limerick’s bumper the same afternoon with 11-8 shot High Sparrow and even contrived a winning Lingfield raid with Art Nouvelle (9-2), guided to a length victory in the 6f handicap by Adam Kirby. That’s a 3,774-1 four-timer, and all within a couple of hours!
If anything, O’Brien junior is even more adventurous than his father and the rapidity with which he is progressing (Melbourne Cup and all) will be worrying for many. It should be no surprise that he is equally good with the jumpers. Both mum and dad were champion Irish jumps trainers before their mid-20’s.
The prize for the most opportunistic win of the Christmas period, though, goes to the underrated Roger Teal, who sent the juvenile Tip Two Win to collect a £46k prize in Doha, Qatar, on Friday. There had already been plenty of interest in the Dark Angel colt after his Listed win at Doncaster in September and there was no disgrace in his Newmarket second behind the highly-impressive Mark Johnston-trained Frankel colt Elarqam who beat him a couple of lengths at Group 3 level later that month.
Despite those good runs, Tip Two Win did not make the cut for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile race in California, so Teal shrewdly picked out Doha as an end-of-year benefit for owner-breeder Ann Cowley. She bought Tip Two Win’s dam, Freddie’s Girl, for £9,000 at Goff’s Kempton sale and won three races with her when trained by Stef Higgins.
Tip Two Win is her first foal and he has now won three and been placed in the other three of his six races. Roger Teal was quick to report that he’s not for sale. All they have to do now is win a Group 1 and they’ll be home free.
Another set of well-known colours, those now billed as Ann and Alan Potts Limited after the deaths of both Gold Cup-winning owners, have been subject to a number of reverses, not least Gold Cup hero Sizing John’s capitulation in the same Grade 1 that featured the Djakadam and Yorkhill disappointments.
But for me, the run which most clearly summed up racing’s cock-eyed valuation especially of jumps horses came in the two and a half mile bumper at Leopardstown on Thursday. Here the Potts team sent out well-fancied Madison To Monroe but after making the running for the first mile and a half under trainer Jessica Harrington’s daughter, Kate, he soon dropped to the rear and came home 100 lengths behind the winner.
Said victor was Carefully Selected, powerfully ridden by Patrick Mullins in the portion of the Mullins operation, unexposed bumper horses, still bucking the trend. Madison To Monroe had won his only point-to-point back in February. Five got round in that eight-runner affair, after which the Potts team forked out €300,000. It would seem on this evidence that there’s little chance of recouping much of that.