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The Elliott Express Keeps Rolling On

Gordon Elliott’s outstanding season continued with success in Saturday’s Grand National, thanks to his diminutive equine star, Tiger Roll.

The eight-year-old is a three-time winner at the Cheltenham Festival and arrived at Aintree having recently captured the Cross-Country at Prestbury Park. The trainer had used the same prep for Silver Birch, before capturing his first National in 2007. And just last year, Cause Of Causes romped home in the Cross-Country prior to a runner-up finish in the ‘big one’ at Aintree.

And so, it was no surprise that the tried and tested plan was put into operation again. With Cheltenham conquered, the question for many was whether Aintree’s prodigious fences would prove too much of an obstacle for a horse lacking somewhat in stature.

Such concerns proved unfounded, with Davy Russell given a dream ride aboard a foot-perfect staying chaser. Positioned just behind the leaders for much of the marathon contest, Russell made a forward move heading for the second-last fence, taking up the running from long-time leader Pleasant Company. At the last, he appeared to make the winning manoeuvre, stretching some five-lengths clear by the elbow. In true dramatic Grand National fashion, Tiger Roll’s petrol tank began to run empty and Pleasant Company finished with a rare old rattle. At the line, just a head separated the pair.

The front duo were 11-lengths clear of third-placed Bless The Wings, also trained by Gordon Elliott. Whilst Anibale Fly ran a cracker under the burden of 11-8 to finish a neck further back in fourth.

Elliott was clearly thrilled to win his second Grand National and said: “I was nervous. I thought I had it, but you're so nervous watching it. I said I didn't appreciate it first-time round. I'm definitely going to appreciate it now. It's great for my family and everyone at home. He's an unbelievable horse. I was really worried about the ground. All the way round I couldn't believe how he was going. It's unbelievable for Davy Russell. He's lost his mother and I'm sure his father Gerry is very proud at home watching.

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“Coming after the Cheltenham we had, we didn't dare dream this. We only beat him (Mullins) last week in the Irish National and now we've beaten him again, I can't believe it. Having to beat Willie is tough, he's an amazing man and sets the standards, one of the greatest of all time and to be training at the same time as him is unbelievable.”

Of being beaten a head, in the world’s most famous race, Mullins said: “That’s twice Gordon has done that to me, he did it in the Irish National too. He (Pleasant Company) seemed to get a little bit tired and then get a second wind. I never actually thought he’d got back up, but he ran a fantastic race. He jumped from fence to fence and you couldn’t ask for any better. He was only beaten a head and at the last fence I thought we were going to be beaten eight or 10 lengths. I’m really proud of him, he jumped fantastic and he’s one for next year.”

Gigginstown were winning the Aintree showpiece for the second time in three years, and following a successful Cheltenham Festival, Michael O’Leary looked rather pleased: “We were panicking at the line. It was a well-judged ride by Davy. It’s a phenomenal training feat by Gordon. We bought him for the Triumph, which he won. But then to win the Cross-Country, the four-miler and now the world’s greatest steeplechase is phenomenal. It’s beyond my wildest dreams.”

Mullins and Elliott continue to battle for the trainers’ crown in Ireland, with the latter currently more than €500,000 ahead. However, the situation was similar going into the Punchestown Festival a year ago. On that occasion it was Willie Mullins who finished the stronger, with numerous victories and placed finishes, including a success for Wicklow Brave in the Champion Hurdle which proved pivotal.

In little more than a week the pair will again lock horns for the season finale, with the title in the balance. Elliott has edged-out his rival several times so far this winter and will hope to do the same for one final historic success.

Meade can land Irish National with ‘well-in’ Moulin

Before we get stuck-in to the world’s most famous horserace at Aintree, we must first call in at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday for the Irish Grand National.

The country’s richest steeplechase has again attracted a strong and competitive looking field, with Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott likely to throw plenty of darts at the financially desirable target. The pair are once again locked in a titanic battle for the Trainers’ crown, and victory at Fairyhouse would be of huge benefit to either team.

It’s hard to believe that neither have yet landed the prestigious prize, though it’s surely only a matter of time before that omission from the pairs CV is rectified.

The race has tended to go to talented young chasers in recent times, with those aged seven and eight winning 10 of the last dozen. Novice chaser Our Duke romped to victory a year ago and in doing so scored a rare success for an Irish National favourite. Only two have prevailed in the last 10 renewals; a period that has seen winners at odds of 33/1 (three), 25/1 and 50/1.

Elliott’s association with Gigginstown is a huge advantage, with O’Leary’s Maroon silks crossing the line first in three of the last 10. The team are once again mob-handed, with Elliott’s trio of Folsom Blue, Monbeg Notorious and Dounikos the shortest priced. The latter pair fit the profile of young progressive chaser, both are seven-year-olds with limited chasing miles on the clock.

Monbeg Notorious has three victories from his five chase starts and was an impressive winner of the valuable Thyestes Handicap a couple of runs back. That came off a mark of 137 and he now stands on a lofty 152. The inclusion of Outlander ensures a race weight of under 11 stone, nevertheless, that handicap mark looks on the high side. He does look a thorough stayer and is certainly not without a chance.

Dounikos flopped in the RSA Chase and will need a dramatic return to form. He looked badly outpaced at Cheltenham and ultimately outstayed before being pulled-up. The fractions during an Irish National are sure to be less demanding, but I’m no longer convinced that this fella needs a trip. And having fluffed his lines just a couple of weeks back, he’s far from certain to make the start.

Folsom Blue is a regular in this type of event and landed the Grand National Trial at Punchestown in February. He’s up 9lb for that success and is hardly a progressive type at the age of 11. With handicap mark blown, I can’t see him figuring on Monday.

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A stronger Gigginstown contender may prove to be Joseph O’Brien’s Arkwrisht. He was fourth in the Cork National back in November, when looking to have a huge chance before tiring late on. Prior to that, he’d looked unfortunate when runner-up in the Kerry National in September. He’s off a 1lb lower mark than at Cork and will probably be played slightly later this time. He looks to have been aimed at this, arriving fresh off the back of just one run in the past four months.

The Willie Mullins-trained Bellshill heads the market and has always promised plenty. He won the Bobbyjo Chase in February on his seasonal return but is lumbered with a sizeable handicap mark of 158. He was hammered by Whisper and Might Bite in last year’s RSA, having previously been badly beaten by Disko and Our Duke in the Flogas Chase. He may have improved since that novice campaign, though he’ll need to have done to win off his current mark. I’m not convinced.

The Master of Closutton also has his recent recruit, Pairofbrowneyes, tussling for favouritism. Stepped up in trip under Mullins for his stable debut, he was quite impressive in winning the Leinster National at Gowran Park. He beat a fair yardstick that day, in the Gordon Elliott-trained Space Cadet. He’s also taken a hefty hike in the handicap, though is less exposed at this new trip.

Mall Dini ran a cracker in the Kim Muir at Cheltenham a few weeks back, when having travelled wonderfully well through the race, he only just failed to reel in Missed Approach. Prior to that he’d run with great promise in Ireland, finishing fourth to Presenting Percy over course and distance. Though by no means generous, his mark of 143 has remained the same throughout the winter, and he looks to be improving. Much will depend on how he has recovered from the Cheltenham effort. Despite not yet winning over fences in 10 starts, I fancy this eight-year-old is a major player.

Finally, a mention for the Noel Meade-trained Moulin A Vent. This unexposed novice certainly has the talent to go close, though his jumping can be erratic at times. His best performance this winter came in December, when comfortably accounting for Monbeg Notorious in a novice chase at Fairyhouse. That form was reversed at Navan in February, when a series of errors proved his undoing. His handicap mark of 145 could prove generous if he can get the jumping right, and at 33/1 it’s probably worth taking a punt on this talented youngster.

Hugely competitive as ever, Monbeg Notorious looks to be Gordon Elliott’s best hope of success. But the pair I fancy to go close are Mall Dini and Moulin A Vent. The latter must brush up on his jumping, but if he does, he could be thrown-in off this handicap mark.

Best of luck to those having a punt on this Irish showpiece.

Tizzard Strikes Gold at thrilling Cheltenham Festival

There were many outstanding performances during last week’s Cheltenham Festival, though there’s no doubting testing conditions proved a gamechanger for some.

Summerville Boy and Kalashnikov had fought through the mud in the Tolworth Hurdle back in January and were well suited by the heavy ground encountered in the Festival opener. As at Sandown, it was Tom George’s six-year-old that came off best, though he needed every yard to get his head in front. A haphazard jumping display almost cost him, but he stayed on powerfully up the famous hill to deny Kalashnikov by a neck.

Mengli Khan travelled powerfully and on better ground may well have finished ahead of the front two. There’s plenty more to come from Gordon Elliott’s youngster, and he may be the one to take out of the race. Getabird was a major disappointment, having pulled his way to the front he travelled far too keenly and faded out of contention after the second-last. He’s not been the easiest to train, and I’m convinced that he’s far better than he showed here. It would come as no surprise should he bounce back to form at Punchestown in April, where he’ll likely clash again with Mengli Khan.

Ground conditions were also ideal for Footpad as he romped to victory in the Arkle Chase. His task was made far easier by a rare poor riding performance from Davy Russell aboard Petit Mouchoir and an inspired one from Ruby Walsh. De Bromhead’s chaser had little chance of seeing out the trip having set-off like an equine Usain Bolt, whilst the Mullins-trained favourite was ridden with restraint and delivered with a perfectly timed challenge. This isn’t to say that Footpad was a lucky winner. He’s a class act and looks capable of mixing-it with all bar Altior at the minimum trip. Though I’d be surprised if Mullins didn’t move him up in distance next season. He looks a natural successor to Un De Sceaux.

Buveur D’Air clung on to his crown and fought off Melon to win the Champion Hurdle. Conditions wouldn’t have favoured the favourite. Slick jumping at pace has proved his forte, along with a potent finishing kick. On this occasion he was forced into a slug-fest with a Mullins youngster who clearly has more to offer than many had anticipated. Melon is no mug, though I fancy on better ground the Champ would have too many gears for the youngster. It’s hard to assess how the pair will match-up in a year’s time. There’s the possibility of further progress from the Closutton inmate, though the team may also consider sending him over fences. He has the size and scope to make a chaser and could easily become an Arkle contender.

Another that could be heading for next season’s Arkle Chase is the wonderfully talented Samcro. Second-guessing future targets for this fella won’t be easy. Seemingly blessed with the speed that would make him a realistic Champion Hurdle contender, connections seemingly insist that his future lies as a staying chaser. There’s certainly plenty of stamina on the dam’s side, though his sire, Germany, was responsible for the mighty Faugheen.

Samcro proved far too quick for the opposition in the Ballymore. Having powered through the race, he swept past the field turning for home, with only Black Op capable of putting up any sort of resistance. The Tom George-trained seven-year-old managed to get within three-lengths at the finish, though never looked like landing a serious blow. The runner-up looks a cracking prospect and should improve plenty for fences. Next Destination was badly outpaced coming downhill towards the second-last, yet flew up the hill to finish third. He’s likely to be sent chasing and looks an RSA type.

Presenting Percy was next to impress, though I’ll reserve judgment as to his potential as a serious player in next year’s Gold Cup. Monalee finished second though looked a non-stayer. Al Boum Photo came down at the second-last when looking to lay down a challenge, though I doubt he’d have got to the winner. Nevertheless, Presenting Percy has now to step into the ring against top-level experienced chasers. Our Duke’s performance later in the week illustrated the unique demands of a high-class Gold Cup. Presenting P has been installed as a 6/1 joint-favourite for next year’s ‘blue riband’ and I fancy that’s a slight over-reaction to his RSA romp. Native River remains available at 8s.

Wednesday’s Champion Chase finally delivered the Douvan/Altior clash that so many Jump racing fans had been waiting for. Mullins also threw Min into the mix, attempting to wrestle the prize away from Nicky Henderson’s stable star. For much of the race Douvan looked back to his sublime best, jumping like a stag at the head of affairs. But just as we started to get excited he guessed at the fourth-last and was down.

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Altior was struggling in the testing ground and turning for home looked in trouble, with Min travelling much the stronger. But rarely has a horse surged up the famous hill like Altior. He put seven-lengths between himself and the runner-up in a simply astounding finishing burst. Min wasn’t stopping, but the winner is a freak. That he should arrive on the scene so soon after the glorious Sprinter Sacre must be a dream come true for Nicky Henderson.

Gordon Elliott had a sensational Festival, as did owner’s Gigginstown House Stud. Day three proved a cracker for both, with a talented mare, Shattered Love, landing the opening JLT Novices’ Chase. She’s regally bred, being by Yeats out of a Bustino mare, yet has the perfect physique for this game. She’s a huge beast, and powered clear up the final hill, despite taking a chunk of the final fence with her. Now five from six over the larger obstacles, she did fiddle a few, but given this type of testing ground is clearly hugely talented.

Gigginstown supremo, Michael O’Leary, then landed his own race, the Ryanair Chase. Balko Des Flos travelled supremely well throughout and proved far too hot to handle. The seven-year-old drew clear of last year’s winner, Un De Sceaux, to win by a little over four-lengths. There’d been concerns over the suitability of the ground, but in the event, he simply cruised his way through the mud. This was a power-packed performance from a horse on a steep upward curve.

Many had hoped for a similar display from Sam Spinner in the Stayers’ Hurdle, but a pedestrian pace played to those with a finishing kick and it was Penhill that found more than Supasundae. The winner is without doubt a talented horse, but this was a disappointing race for those that had hoped for a pulsating battle.

Elliott and Gigginstown were at it again at the start of day four, when Farclas landed the Triumph Hurdle. He toughed it out to beat fellow Irish raider Mr Adjudicator. Apple’s Shakira ran well but was probably undone by the testing conditions. Stormy Ireland was another that ran with huge credit, before tiring and coming down at the last. She could take some catching on better ground.

Colin Tizzard’s Kilbricken Storm caused an upset to win the Albert Bartlett, though the lightly raced Santini looks the horse to take out of the race. Henderson’s six-year-old should make a terrific chaser next season.

It became a day to remember for Tizzard and his team, when Native River pulled out all the stops to defeat Might Bite in the Gold Cup. The pair proved a class apart as they duelled throughout the race. Turning for home, Henderson’s King George winner appeared to be travelling the better. But it was Richard Johnson who managed to get a little extra from the gutsy Native River up the final climb to the finish. The runner-up lost little in defeat and, on a better surface, may well have come out on top. Nevertheless, this was Tizzard’s day, and in Johnson and Native River he’s uncovered a match made in heaven.

In a Festival where Mullins and Elliott proved dominant, the Brits turned to Henderson and Tizzard for a small piece of solace. There were grounds for concern throughout, but once again Cheltenham delivered.

Elliott and Mullins Dominant at Cheltenham

Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott continue to boss affairs at Cheltenham, bagging five races between them on day three. It was Mullins who took the Stayers’ Hurdle courtesy of last year’s Albert Bartlett winner, Penhill.

Off the track since that success 12 months ago, Mullins had the seven-year-old tuned to perfection and aided by a ponderous pace he was able to out-kick Supasundae up the infamous hill. Sam Spinner had been sent off the short-priced favourite, with the responsibility of setting a searching yet controlled pace, resting in the hands of Joe Colliver. Such a task had proved too much for more experienced jockeys during this Festival (Davy Russell-Petit Mouchoir) and sadly for his trainer and connections it appeared the case once again, as virtually the whole field queued up waiting to land a blow as they turned for home.

From the pack Penhill and Supasundae came to the fore and battled out the finish, with the former possessing the gears to land the prize. It was a terrific training performance from Mullins, and after the race he spoke of the frailty of the seven-year-old that had prevented the team from getting a run into him prior to the meeting. Jess Harrington’s Supasundae ran a cracker but found one with a little too much zip at the finish. Despite the rather pedestrian pace of the race, The New One and Yanworth failed to see-out the trip. Sam Spinner battled on bravely for fifth and there’ll be many more opportunities for this gutsy six-year-old.

Willie Mullins went on to land a double on the day, with the talented young mare Laurina romping to victory in the Mares’ Novice Hurdle. She cruised through the race before powering up the Cheltenham hill to win by just shy of 20-lengths.

Gordon Elliott added another treble to the one on Wednesday, with Shattered Love arguably the star turn as she powered to victory in the JLT Novices’ Chase. He again proved the master of the handicaps winning the Pertemps and the Brown Advisory, with Davy Russell in the saddle on both occasions. Russell gave The Storyteller the ride of the week, as he weaved his way through the field to challenge approaching the last. And when his mount drifted across the track, seemingly unimpressed with the whip, the jock was quick to get at him under hands and heels, driving him to a thrilling victory.

Elliott now lies one adrift of Mullins over the three days, with six winners. The pair have captured 13 of the 21 races thus far and have plenty more leading contenders for the final day of the Festival. Indeed, the pair account for more than half of the field in the opener, the Triumph Hurdle. Mullins runs four, including the talented filly Stormy Island. She won her debut in Ireland by more than 50-lengths, though has another talented filly to beat, in the Nicky Henderson-trained Apple’s Shakira.

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Elliott and Mullins then have the joint-favourites for the ultra-competitive County Hurdle, though it’s a Mullins 14/1 shot, Whiskey Sour, that takes my fancy.

Nicky Henderson appears to hold all the aces in the Albert Bartlett, with Santini and Chef Des Obeaux expected to go close.

Mullins arrives mob-handed as he goes in search of his first Gold Cup success. Djakadam has another crack, though it’s Killultagh Vic that looks to have the best chance for the Closutton team. Hugely talented, yet frighteningly inexperienced, this nine-year-old won at the Festival back in 2015 and has only run five times since. He fell at the last when looking the likely winner of the Irish Gold Cup last time. It looks a tall order for both horse and trainer, though the same could have been said for Penhill as he attempted to win the Stayers’ Hurdle on seasonal debut.

Mr Mullins appears capable of almost anything during these four-day gatherings at Prestbury Park.

Cheltenham Festival Halftime ‘Pep Talk’ required

We’ve reached the halfway point in this year’s Cheltenham Festival, and from a personal point of view, I’m in need of a much-improved second half performance.

I’ve taken on far too many favourites for my own good, and whilst many punters will be dancing with joy, I’m left wishing I’d played the obvious, rather than over-complicating matters.

The usual suspects have proved dominant, with Mullins, Elliott and Henderson capturing nine of the 14 races thus far. Mullins landed an opening day hat-trick, though Getabird proved disappointing in the opener. The team made amends, when Footpad cruised to victory in the Arkle Chase. Ruby rode an intelligent race, sitting some way off the crazy pace set by Davy Russell on Petit Mouchoir. Aidan Coleman kept him company aboard Saint Calvados, and the pair were cooked some way from the finish. Footpad is without doubt a classy chaser, though his task in winning this was made that much easier by the inept tactics of others.

It was inevitable that Ruby would side with Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle, hopeful of one last hurrah from the great champion. Sadly, time waits for no man, or horse, and the ex-champ faded turning for home. Stable companion Melon was left to tackle the new champion Buveur D’Air, and the pair locked horns in a thrilling duel from the second-last to the line. Henderson’s returning hero was headed just after the last but rallied bravely to wrestle the prize away from the young pretender. The Gordon Elliott-trained Mick Jazz filled the frame, though he was three-lengths adrift of the main protagonists.

Gordon Elliott’s classy mare, Apple’s Jade, was surprisingly beaten into third in the Mares’ Hurdle, with the Mullins-trained Benie Des Dieux staying on powerfully for the win. But there was no such shock in the opener on day two, when Elliott’s latest stable-star, Samcro, lived up to the hype in landing the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Travelling powerfully throughout, the six-year-old cruised to the front on the turn for home, quickly putting distance between himself and the field. Only the Tom George-trained Black Op put up any kind of resistance, finishing just shy of three-lengths off the favourite.

Samcro is likely to be sent chasing next term yet appears to have the tactical speed to become an elite hurdler. Numerous Ballymore winners have dropped back in trip to become Champion Hurdle contenders. Several have been successful. From the same sire as Faugheen, Samcro cruised through this race, as he had when winning at two miles in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle a month earlier. He’s owned by Gigginstown, who tend to target the Gold Cup with their most talented horses. Nevertheless, a conversation will be had in the close-season and it will be interesting to see what path is taken in the short term.

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There’s no doubting the future target for the impressive RSA winner, Presenting Percy. Not unlike Samcro, this fella cruised through the race, before being unleashed by Davy Russell approaching the penultimate fence. The race was quickly put to bed and by the time he hit the line he’d stretched seven lengths clear of Monalee. Prior to this victory he’d found Our Duke a little too hot to handle at Gowran Park, suggesting Jess Harrington’s chaser will play a huge part in the Gold Cup on Friday. Nevertheless, this fella looks a powerful stayer and is sure to be aimed at the 2019 ‘Blue Riband’. Sadly, Ruby Walsh was again injured in a fall from Al Boum Photo, and may well have ridden for the last time this season.

Later in the afternoon, Nicky Henderson made it two from two in the Championship races, when Altior followed Buveur D’Air into the winners’ enclosure. Douvan was returning from a year off the track, and looked exceptionally well, jumping beautifully at the head of affairs. Much to everyone’s disappointment, he came down in the back straight, seemingly leaving Min and Altior to play out the finish. Henderson’s charge needed to be urged along at various times during the race and turning for home Min looked a huge danger. But rarely have I seen a horse more impressive from the last at Cheltenham. This fella simply devours the infamous hill, and he powered clear of his Irish rival to win by seven lengths. Altior is peerless at the minimum trip and I got to wondering how he would do if targeted at next year’s Gold Cup. He’ll possibly take in the Melling Chase at Aintree next (at 2m4f), a race won by Sprinter Sacre in 2013. Should Might Bite fail in his bid to capture the Gold Cup this week, Mr Henderson may be tempted to move this awesome racehorse up in distance.

Gordon Elliott took two of the last three, making it a treble on the day. Tiger Roll was an impressive winner of the Cross Country, further enhancing his Festival reputation. Cause Of Causes had been sent off favourite but floundered in testing conditions. It was no surprise to see Willie Mullins capture the Bumper, taking the Closutton team to five winners for the Festival thus far.

Mullins and Elliott have the favourite in five of today’s races as they look to press home the Irish dominance.

Henderson and Mullins launch Anti-Samcro Assault

Often won by a future star of the sport, the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (formerly the Neptune) gets the action underway on day two of the Festival.

Istabraq took the race at the age of five back in 1997. He’d already announced himself as a horse of huge potential by winning the Royal Bond, the Future Champions and the Deloitte Novice Hurdle. What followed was a period of utter dominance from one of the all-time great hurdlers. He won a hat-trick of Champion Hurdles and won the Irish version four years in a row.

Hardy Eustace had also landed the Royal Bond prior to winning this event at Cheltenham (then known as the Royal & SunAlliance) in 2003. Like Istabraq before, the success proved a launchpad for a period of two-mile dominance. He won thrilling renewals of the Champion Hurdle in 2004 and 05, gaining a reputation as a front-running warrior.

Nicanor defeated Denman in the 2006 renewal and Massini’s Maguire got the better of dear old Tidal Bay in 2007. The pair had Imperial Commander behind them in seventh that day. First Lieutenant edged out Rock On Ruby in 2011, with the latter returning 12 months later to win the Champion Hurdle. Simonsig and The New One followed, before ‘the machine’ Faugheen romped to victory in 2014. He too returned a year later to win the Champion Hurdle and but for injury would surely have become the dominant force of two-mile hurdling.

Yorkhill has become something of an enigma over the winter, but he too followed his 2016 victory in this with further Festival success last year, when winning the JLT Novices’ Chase. Both he and Faugheen are likely to return to Prestbury Park next week in search of further Cheltenham glory.

But what of the Ballymore? And are we likely to witness the crowning of a new Jump racing star?

One horse that has the industry and its viewing public as excited as any other, is the undefeated Gordon Elliott-trained Samcro. Touted as the new sensation, the six-year-old is three from three over hurdles, including a devastating performance in winning the Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown in February. That victory came at two miles, though connections were adamant that the horse needed further and would head for the Ballymore. He has a high cruising speed and had far too many gears for a classy looking field last time. He’s looked stunning thus far, though there’s a couple in this that should give him his sternest test.

Willie Mullins has won four of the last ten and has a leading contender in Next Destination. Also three from three over hurdles, he’s another strong traveller though perhaps lacks the acceleration of Samcro. He does, however, look a powerful stayer and is likely to be storming up the hill, probably attempting to peg-back a slicker, swifter Samcro. He too has impressed over the winter, beating many of the best novice hurdlers in Ireland. He’s a major player.

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Elliott and Mullins lead the way in the Emerald Isle and it’s therefore a thrill to see a Nicky Henderson-trained On The Blind Side taking on the Irish raiders. Undefeated under rules, and also three from three over hurdles, this son of Stowaway was mightily impressive when last seen at Sandown in December. He was giving a couple of decent horses 5lbs that day and thumped them out of sight. It’s a slight concern that he’s not had a prep-run, though Henderson had said that he was happy to go straight to the Festival. Expect him to be niggled along as they come down the hill, but I fancy he’ll be powering up the famous climb to the finish as he attempts to overhaul Samcro.

Willie Mullins has another contender in five-year-old Duc Des Genievres. Rumour has it that this youngster may be aimed at the Albert Bartlett, though I’d be surprised if they send such a young and inexperienced horse to one of the Festival’s most gruelling events. This fella has a huge amount of potential, having finished third to Next Destination and runner-up to Samcro in his two starts in Ireland. The Deloitte trip was clearly too short, but he ran a cracker when third in the Grade One Lawlor’s at Naas having been off the track for seven months. This is undoubtedly the race he should be heading for, and I fancy he’ll put in a huge performance. At 14/1, he looks an obvious each-way proposition.

Kim Bailey’s Vinndication is yet another undefeated challenger. He’s a lovely looking son of Vinnie Roe and will likely make a smashing chaser in time. He possibly needs testing ground to be seen at his best, and I’m not sure he’ll have the gears to challenge the leading contenders. That’s just an assumption of course, as there’s no doubting he’s a talented sort. He defeated Western Ryder last time at Huntingdon, and that looks strong form. He’s not easy to dismiss, but I just fancy there’ll be quicker horses in the race and he’ll be tapped for toe late on.

Black Op is another that looks certain to make a cracking chaser. French Holly was the last seven-year-old to win this race in 1998, though this fella could put up a huge challenge. He’s a smasher to look at and travelled beautifully last time at Cheltenham when chinned late-on by another beauty in the Henderson-trained Santini. The pair pulled miles clear of the remainder and look to have exciting futures. Black Op is a powerful galloper who really sticks his neck out. He’ll run well, though again may lack the gears of a few of these.

Of those at a bigger price I remain interested in Western Ryder. I tipped him up each-way for the Supreme and I think that race is an easier option. This renewal has greater depth, yet I would still be tempted to have a little on him each-way, with better ground likely to suit and his fondness of the track already proven.

I wouldn’t be upset if Samcro romped home and it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. Nevertheless, I’m taking On The Blind Side to finish the race stronger and nail the favourite up the famous hill. Despite Samcro’s reputation, I’m convinced that this race will be competitive, with several talented types taking their chance.

Best of luck to those having a punt.

Weighing up the Festival Handicap eye-catchers

The Cheltenham Festival handicap weights were announced yesterday. The Irish landed seven out of 10 last year, including all three on the final day of the meeting. I thought for today’s piece I’d take an early glance and try and pinpoint a few eye-catchers.

Singlefarmpayment came within a whisker of winning the Ultima Handicap Chase 12 months ago and runs off just a 3lb higher mark (145) this time. He was in the process of running a huge race in the Ladbroke Trophy when coming down three-out, and in his most recent outing again blundered badly before being pulled up in the Cotswold Chase. That had all the hallmarks of a warm-up run with this race in mind. He has a cracking record at Cheltenham, and if he cuts out the mistakes looks sure to go close.

The Irish haven’t got the best of records in this, but Gordon Elliott had a sensational Festival last year, and has numerous chasers primed for the trip. Monbeg Notorious and The Storyteller are a pair of novices that have been going well throughout the winter. The former has been allotted a mark of 152 having won three of his five chase starts. There’s no reason why a sounder surface shouldn’t be ideal, being a seven-year-old by Milan, out of a Presenting mare.

The Storyteller struggled in Grade One company last time, though was only seven-lengths behind Monalee at the finish. His pedigree (by Shantou out of a Bob Back mare) suggests he’ll appreciate a trip, and a mark of 147 looks interesting. He’s always looked a talented sort and there’s a chance that better ground may see a marked improvement in performance.

Coo Star Sivola has finished third and fourth on his two previous visits to the Festival. If he rocks-up here off a mark of 142 he’s sure to go close.

The Irish ended a lean spell in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase, when Tully East landed the spoils last year. The upper handicap limit has been raised from 140 to 145 for this year’s race, with De Plotting Shed given 143 and installed as favourite. His first run over fences was a cracker back in October when he chased home Presenting Percy. That fella is now the RSA favourite off a mark of 157. Better ground, coupled with this intermediate trip, look ideal for this Gordon Elliott chaser.

Any Second Now is another Irish raider of interest. He gets in off the top mark of 145, having spent much of the winter trying to keep tabs on Footpad over an insufficient minimum trip. He did finish a creditable second to Invitation Only back in December when running over this distance, and I fancy he has more to give.

I’m also a fan of Mount Mews, who is yet to fulfil his huge potential. He’s a giant son of Presenting out of a Bob Back mare and was last seen struggling to land a blow on Black Corton in the Reynoldstown at Ascot. Better ground and this trip look ideal, but his mark of 140 leaves Ruth Jefferson sweating as to whether he’ll get in.

The Pertemps Final, like all the Festival handicaps, will prove hugely competitive. A pair that interest me are Calett Mad for Nigel Twiston-Davies and Sort It Out for Eddie Harty. The former reverted to hurdling this winter with a fair degree of success. He won at Cheltenham in October before disappointing behind On The Blind Side in November. He then had a wind-op before a return to the track at the end of January. Beaten some way in an Albert Bartlett trial, his sights appeared to have been lowered when impressing in a Pertemps qualifier at Musselburgh.

In March 2015, Sort It Out finished second in the County Hurdle at the Festival. He was then stepped-up in trip to win at the Punchestown Festival, defeating some decent types in the process. He missed the 2016/17 season and returned over fences this winter, when campaigned at the minimum trip. Never sighted in four outings, he was suddenly switched to hurdles in February when making eye-catching late headway in a Pertemps qualifier at Punchestown. He’s been given a mark of 141, and though now an exposed looking nine-year-old, he’s the type of JP McManus contender that warrants close inspection. The bookies are taking no chances as he’s currently priced up at 16s or less. Nevertheless, that makes him a decent each-way proposition.

Tully East is expected to head for the Brown Advisory Chase on the Thursday of the meeting, and having won at the Festival last year, looks likely to be sent off favourite. He’s off a mark of 148, which is plenty high enough when comparing to Road To Respect (A Gold Cup contender) who won last year’s renewal off 145.

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The Paul Nicholls-trained Le Prezien would interest me more if arriving here. He’s run several crackers at the track over the winter and has been dropped a couple of pounds to 150 following his defeat in December, when stumbling badly at a crucial point in the Caspian Caviar Chase. Nicholls also has Romain De Senam entered off a mark of 142. He’ll need decent ground and is not certain to make the cut.

Another of interest is Foxtail Hill for Nigel Twiston-Davies. He won at the track in October and having since battled through ground he hates, is now back on an attractive mark of 143.

Gordon Elliott’s Squouateur is currently priced up as favourite for the Kim Muir, though may well miss the cut. Mall Dini is again interesting, having finished a close fifth in this 12 months ago (on the same mark of 143). He won the Pertemps in 2016 and as a returning Festival winner he must be considered a serious contender.

Cogry remains on a fair handicap mark of 138 and could run well for Nigel Twiston-Davies. He beat Singlefarmpayment at the course back in October and clearly enjoys the stiff finish. He’s proven over further and is adaptable with regards to ground conditions.

I also feel the need to mention Road To Riches, who is entered here off a mark of 142. Twice placed at the Festival, he’s now an 11-year-old and clearly past his best. If he arrives here, and if he gets an interesting jockey booking, and if the ground runs decent, then he would become a tempting each-way punt. There’s a lot of ifs, but he’s worth looking out for.

The Irish love the County Hurdle, with Willie Mullins having a particularly good record. The Closutton master has nabbed four of the last eight and has this year’s favourite, Max Dynamite. The eight-year-old hasn’t been seen over obstacles since finishing down the field in the Galway Hurdle last August. He’s only won once over the birch in eight career starts and though this is Mullins were talking about, I find myself looking elsewhere.

Of more interest is the young novice Whiskey Sour, also trained by Mullins. He’s two from three over hurdles and was last seen finishing fourth to Samcro at Leopardstown. He’s not good enough to win a Supreme or a Ballymore, and a mark of 141 makes him an attractive prospect for this handicap. He comfortably accounted for the Galway Hurdle runner-up, Swamp Fox, last summer and will therefore likely appreciate better ground at Cheltenham.

I’d also be interested in the Paul Nicholls-trained Divin Bere and Nick Williams’ Flying Tiger. The pair fought out last year’s Fred Winter and look reasonably handicapped at 141 and 140. Ground looks key to the Nicholls runner, whilst Flying Tiger has performed well in all conditions over the winter.

Gigginstown have a strong record in the Martin Pipe. Gordon Elliott’s Champagne Classic won last year and in 2014 Don Poli landed the prize. Sir Des Champs also won for connections in 2011 and I fancy Hardline could run a huge race if taking up this option. His pedigree suggests he’ll cope with a step-up in trip despite having performed well over the minimum throughout the winter. He’s four from nine over hurdles and his mark of 140 looks tasty enough to me.

Finally, the Grand Annual appears to be a race target for Don’t Touch It, trained by Jess Harrington (won last years with Rock The World). He’s yet to spark this winter but is expected to improve plenty for better ground.
Vaniteux is also of interest, having seen his handicap drop from 158 to 151. He moved to David Pipe at the start of this campaign, and it’s likely that this race has always been on the radar. He needs decent ground to perform at his best. If he has conditions to suit, he should go close.

Monday Musings: Festival Clues and Hat-Trick Heroes

As we get to within three weeks of Cheltenham, all the evidence gleaned from the past weekend is being filtered into the Festival mincer, even though the likelihood is that the terrain in the Cotswolds will not equate anywhere near to what we’ve been witnessing, writes Tony Stafford.

What can trainers do, though? We had a Grand National favourite in Blaklion taken back to Haydock for the Betfred Trial under 11st 12lb in proper gluey Haydock heavy ground, a race in which he was placed last year. Last week his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, declared him in the Red Rum bracket as an Aintree horse. Why then, after a valiant if slightly lack-lustre second place, 54 lengths adrift of Yala Enki, is he allowed out as far as 16-1 for the big race?

Trainers either give their horses the run, or keep them ticking over with the risk of being under-prepared for their big day. Blaklion will be happier on the almost guaranteed better ground around the Grand National course and I’m sure his breeder Mary Morrison will be hoping that her pride and joy will bring home the rather handsome joint of bacon this time.

Another horse actually is held even dearer to Mary’s heart – and is stabled within yards of her back door in East Ilsley. That’s Cousin Khee, now 11, and winner of nine races in Raymond Tooth’s colours before switching full allegiance back to the Morrisons, having originally been owned by family members, for whom they won a junior bumper.

Last week at Southwell, given an extreme trip on the Fibresand which clearly suits the Hughie Morrison team, he strode home well clear maintaining a tradition of longevity in the stable inmates over many years. Flat, jumps, turf and all weather come alike to both trainer and veteran racehorse.

With so many talented handlers about, it’s harder than ever to win races. Two of the best of the younger brigade, Gordon Elliott and Dan Skelton, were at it again yesterday, each clocking hat-tricks in consecutive races at Navan and Market Rasen respectively, with Elliott also weighing in with an earlier impressive winner to make it four on the day.

Time may show that Diamond Cauchois, the wide-margin victor of the four-runner Boyne Hurdle over two miles, five furlongs, is more a mudlark than authentic all-round top performer, but something lurks in the back of my mind telling me that he could prove considerably more than that.

The time of yesterday’s race was alarmingly slow, even by the consistently above-standard recordings of all the races. But the way in which Diamond Cauchois and Davy Russell stretched away from Bapaume after the Ricci hope looked to be going the better was compelling.

Bapaume was rated 153 going into the race and, based on his third over three miles behind Apple’s Jade before being understandably outclassed despite being backed from 20-1 to 9’s behind Supersundae and Faugheen back over the minimum, his chance looked decent enough. Conversely, strong money for the winner, evens to 4-6, suggested that Elliott believed they could beat the Mullins horse, who was conceding 5lb after his Grade 1 win in the big four-year-old hurdle at Punchestown last April.

I didn’t see the race live yesterday, but looking at the closing stages this morning, it seemed momentarily that Bapaume was coming to win when Russell’s mount stepped up a gear and shrugged off his rival in a few strides. It was left to the Elliott second string, Lieutenant Colonel, to run on late for second as Bapaume cracked, leaving Diamond Cauchois to draw nine lengths clear.

This seven-year-old, by Buveur d’Air’s French-based and –raced sire, Crillon, has a colourful past. He won one of four races in his home country – at Dax in May 2015 – before being bought for €12,000 by Sue Bramall. Am I alone in thinking the practice for British and Irish handicappers to allot handicap figures on French provincial form is risky? It was in this case, the 108 from which he made his Irish debut at Thurles proving the recipe for a 16-1 touch.

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Bramall gave him three subsequent unsuccessful runs in Ireland, before sending him for a summer’s jumping in France where his best effort was a fourth place from three more appearances. After this, a second place was the peak performance from his next six runs returning to Ireland before the run that attracted the attention of Elliott and the Danny & Eamon partnership in whose colours he now competes.

That came almost a year ago – March 9th 2017 – when he ran home the six-length winner of a two miles, seven furlongs handicap hurdle at Naas from a mark of 119. The most notable aspect was the identity of the runner-up, Raz De Maree, unseated when I backed him next time out in the Grand National, but the emphatic winner of the Coral Welsh Grand National in a stirring finish of teenagers at Chepstow last month.

Within a couple of months, Diamond Cauchois was in the ring at Goffs UK’s Doncaster May sales and changed hands for £68,000, decent business indeed for Mrs Bramall. Overall, though, on the evidence of yesterday and three previous runs – one easy win and two good thirds – for Elliott, he could prove a bargain. I hope he turns out at Cheltenham, as I’ll be bumping into his owners that week. The “something that lurks” could easily be for him to win one of the major staying chases one day. He’s still only seven after all.

Dan Skelton does not have quite the Gigginstown-backed quality that Elliott can call upon, but he has the numbers; and two Saturday wins, one each at Wincanton and Haydock as well as that Market Rasen hat-trick brought him onto a scarcely-believable 138 for the season.

The one I was most interested in was Solomon Grey, still lightly-raced but improving fast and a hard-fought winner of the day’s featured handicap hurdle. Again on my early-morning viewing, when he went past the four-year-old Oxford Blu coming to the last, it looked a formality with the rest well beaten. Then, having gone almost three lengths to the good, he had to hang on grimly as Oxford Blu and Richard Johnson battled back to within a neck.

I’ve been aware of the Cheltenham intentions of this red, blue and white liveried gelding, bought privately (and shrewdly) from Sir Mark Prescott’s noted jumping nursery, for some time. He’s with Olly Murphy, still less than a year into his training career after several years fruitfully spent as Gordon Elliott’s assistant.

Mr Geegeez himself warned me to watch out for when Oxford Blu went handicapping after his runs in juvenile hurdles and he could hardly have been more prophetic. I didn’t discern too much confidence before yesterday though – possibly after Swaffham Bulbeck’s disappointing showing at Haydock in the Victor Ludorum the previous day.

The striking thing about this run was the polished economy of his jumping, and the way he was able to run past almost the entire field from the start of the back straight to the home turn without any obvious energy from the rider. From that point he and the winner stretched easily away from some decent handicappers.

In his Sir Mark days, Oxford Blu clearly appreciated a trip, winning over two and a quarter miles, adding to an earlier 10-furlong Tapeta success at Newcastle (and a close second at Chelmsford to a horse which has recording the first of subsequent unbeaten run of five). He showed off that stamina yesterday in his finishing effort, and it is not difficult to imagine that when confronted by better ground and the Cheltenham hill in the Fred Winter he will prove equal to the examination. We’ll all be cheering him home either way.

Grand National Weights – A Tiger and a Lion catch the eye

The Grand National weights were announced last night, with recent Cotswold Chase winner Definitly Red top of the pile on 11-10.

Mightily impressive at Cheltenham last time, he was pulled-up early last year when impeded at Bechers. Though clearly talented, he’s not the biggest, and carting top-weight looks a tall order.

Bristol De Mai was allotted a pound less, but trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies said the seven-year-old will not be running. Instead, he is likely to contest the Betway Bowl on the opening day of the Aintree meeting.

Gigginstown supremo Michael O’Leary has had plenty to say about the handicapper’s decision-making process and the treatment of his Irish raiders. The team have numerous entries as they look to add to the success of Rule The World in 2016. Outlander tops the Gigginstown contingent on 11-08 but is unlikely to head to Aintree, with Punchestown the preferred option. Sub Lieutenant and Valseur Lido come next, though it’s Tiger Roll at 10-09 and Thunder And Roses at 10-01 that catch the eye. The former heads to Cheltenham for the Cross Country next month having been an impressive winner of the four-miler at Prestbury Park last year. The latter was fourth in the Irish National last April and looks to be fairly treated on that performance.

Minella Rocco will head for the Gold Cup before Jonjo O’Neill decides on an Aintree bid. He’s been given 11-07, which looks fair enough for a horse that finished second in last year’s ‘blue riband’ at Prestbury Park. Jonjo was hardly exuding confidence when saying: “He’ll go for the Gold Cup first and we'll see what happens. You'd think he would make a decent National horse, but he's been a bit disappointing really and is not as economical as you would like. He's good when he's good, but you need a bit more consistency for the National.”

Nigel Twiston-Davies was more bullish over race favourite Blaklion (given 11-06) when saying: “It would have helped if they had compressed the weights as usual, but it's not a huge weight range these days and Red Rum won with 12st. Quite a lot of horses, like Neptune Collonges and Many Clouds more recently, have won with big weights too. He’ll be ridden differently. I don't think stamina is an issue. He kicked on a mile out last year and was beaten only eight lengths. There's no blame on Noel [Fehily], but if he didn't kick on that early maybe that eight lengths could be found.”

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Gordon Elliott has a strong team entered, with Noble Endeavor, Cause Of Causes and the aforementioned Tiger Roll catching the eye. The former is yet to be seen this season but will have a prep run prior to a National challenge. C Of C was runner-up 12 months ago and will again head to Cheltenham prior to Aintree. “You’d have to imagine Cause Of Causes is the principal one,” said the County Meath handler. “He looks like he has a lovely weight again and I thought he ran well on his first run back. He seems to come alive in the spring and I’d imagine he'll go the cross-country route at Cheltenham.”

The Last Samuri again showed his love of the course when running a cracker behind Blaklion in the Becher Chase in December. He’s been given a chance with 11-04, with his trainer Kim Bailey saying: “His weight is what we were expecting given his rating. If the weights stay as they are and don't rise, I think he would have more of a chance. I have been very happy with him since Cheltenham and he will have a prep race somewhere between now and Aintree. We have got several options, but there are no firm plans as we will have to see what the weather does first.”

Willie Mullins has a leading contender in Ladbroke Trophy winner Total Recall. Opinion varies as to the strength of that performance and it’s tough to judge whether 11-01 is a fair weight or not. Nevertheless, he’s currently second-favourite for the race and is without doubt a progressive sort. Patrick Mullins was representing his father and said: “It'll be hard for him with more than 11st, but he has an improving profile which makes him very interesting. He's a fantastic jumper, he handles big handicaps, and he should stay.”

Evan Williams has produced several National contenders in recent times, including Aintree regular State Of Play. Despite being a quirky character, I can’t help being drawn to Buywise who has been allotted 10-04. Down the field behind Rule The World when last tried in 2016, he’s since run a cracker last April at Cheltenham in the Ultima Chase and cruised to victory in a Veterans’ Chase at Sandown. Two-time National winning jockey Leighton Aspell has been aboard on his last two outings. Should the pair hook-up at Aintree, they’d be an interesting each-way proposition at big odds.

Others that caught the eye included Abolitionist (10-04), Three Faces West (10-03) and Final Nudge (10-02). The field is sure to alter plenty between now and five-day confirmations on April 9. The final declarations are made at 10am April 12. A maximum field of 40 go to post.

Repeat Offenders – Festival Favourites Aim To Be Back On Track

We may well see Altior back on a racecourse this weekend, with Nicky Henderson targeting The Game Spirit Chase at Newbury.

His imminent comeback is perfectly timed, following on as it does from a terrific performance in Ireland from his chief two-mile rival Min. It’s easy to forget how brilliant Altior is, but look again at his Supreme Novices’ victory of 2016, or last year’s Game Spirit romp. Some were less impressed by the Arkle Chase success, despite him storming clear from the last fence. And he was again at his destructive best when powering clear of Special Tiara in the Celebration Chase at Sandown.

Two from two at The Festival, he’ll hopefully return to Prestbury Park in March, and if back to his best, will make it a trio of victories at Jump racing’s most celebrated gathering.

Altior’s return got me thinking of others that will travel to Cheltenham in search of further Festival glory. Course form, especially a victory or prominent finish in a previous March gathering, is often a useful reference point for punters hoping to make a few quid during the four-day extravaganza.

Many horses find it difficult to handle Cheltenham’s undulations and that punishing uphill finish. The chase courses are especially testing with tricky downhill fences encountered as the tempo of a race intensifies. Cue Card’s ‘Groundhog Day’ moment at the third last in the past two Gold Cup’s is testament to the challenging nature of the track.

An ability to cope with the course is certainly essential, but returning heroes are often those that enjoy the spring conditions and a touch of sun on their backs. Some can slip off the radar after a winter toiling through the mud. Yet given a sounder surface they return rejuvenated to their happy hunting ground.

Cause Of Causes epitomises the phenomenon and must be followed whatever the target in March. Following his win in last year’s Cross Country Chase (his third Festival success), a thrilled Gordon Elliott said of his equine warrior: “He seems to come well at Cheltenham every year. He's an absolute superstar and we love him to bits.” It’s possible Elliott will send him in search of a repeat success in the ‘country’ before another crack at his main target, the Grand National.

Elliott has another Festival favourite in the yard, that may also line-up in the Cross Country. Tiger Roll was mightily impressive in winning last year’s National Hunt Chase (four-miler), three years after landing the Triumph Hurdle. The race will be remembered more for the drama surrounding Edwulf, though the way Tiger Roll ‘tanked’ his way through the marathon event was unforgettable. Hugely talented when in the mood, he clearly enjoys springtime in the Cotswolds.

Though yet to taste Festival success, I had to give a mention to the Tom George-trained Singlefarmpayment. Favourite to take last year’s Ultima Handicap Chase, he was chinned on the line by Un Temps Pour Tout (himself a dual-Festival winner). He’s likely to return for another crack and usually puts in a bold display at the Gloucestershire course. His six visits have gleaned two victories and a pair of second-place finishes. His handicap mark is just a touch higher than 12 months ago, and everything points to another productive Prestbury Park performance.

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Several elite horses are simply so talented that they will inevitably become multi-festival winners, assuming they stay fit and well. Altior has already achieved ‘Cheltenham Star’ status, with Buveur D’Air and Apple’s Jade more than likely to add their names to the list of dual-Cheltenham Festival heroes in March. Un De Sceaux is another among that elite group that has already proved himself repeatedly at Jump racing’s Olympics.

Less flamboyant yet still likely to put their best foot forward in search of another Festival victory are Willoughby Court, Presenting Percy and Minella Rocco.

It was something of a surprise to see him defeat the ill-fated Neon Wolf in last year’s Neptune Novices’ Hurdle (now Ballymore), but Willoughby Court has maintained that form over fences and is now favourite for the JLT at the festival. Slightly disappointing last time when trying to give Yanworth 5lbs in testing conditions, he’d previously defeated the same rival on level terms on a sounder surface. Ben Pauling’s yard have just started firing again after a lean spell, and this fella looks sure to go close in March.

Presenting Percy landed the Pertemps Final a year ago and will return to Prestbury Park as a leading contender for the RSA Chase. He’s two from three over fences this term and proved his well-being last time when impressive over hurdles at Gowran Park. He’ll have tough opposition to overcome, including the likes of Monalee, Yanworth and Al Boum Photo. Nevertheless, this talented stayer showed his love of the track last year and should go close again.

Jonjo’s Minella Rocco will again arrive at Cheltenham as a relatively unconsidered contender for the Gold Cup. Yet punters should surely take note of his previous Festival outings and act accordingly. He took the National Hunt Chase in 2016, defeating Native River. And in last year’s Gold Cup he was a fast-finishing runner-up to an in-form Sizing John. He proved to be my only antepost success, having had a few quid on him each-way at 33s. With better ground and that stamina-sapping hill playing to his strengths, I see no reason why this year’s renewal should be any different. If anything, the race looks more open this time around. He’s currently available at 25/1.

Finally, I need to mention the Nigel Twiston-Davies trained Blaklion. I’m not on my own in fancying this fella for the Gold Cup (Twitter’s @TenEmbassy a huge fan), but the yard is yet to commit. I doubt he has the talent to win, but like Minella R, he’ll be charging up the famous hill and could be one for a place at a tasty price. He’s an RSA winner, and I’m reminded of Lord Windermere’s success some years back when an unconsidered outsider. I’m on at fancy odds, so let’s just hope that Big Nige takes the plunge.

A winter of discontent is not always a sign of decline. For those punters hoping to make money from the Cheltenham Festival, blinkers should be removed, and full consideration given to previous festival performances. Spring ground and the ability to act on a unique racecourse can often spark a return to form.

In The Numbers: Mullins versus Elliott (Part Two)

There are 1.525 million reasons to be excited about the Dublin Racing Festival and the Irish jumps trainers are certainly pumped for next weekend judged by their public comments, writes Tony Keenan.

The marketing/propaganda for this meeting has been heavy if understandable though it hasn’t been enough to attract much in the way of a UK challenge. Still, on the domestic front, no trainers will be focussed more on the fixture than Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, the pair having five of the eight Grade 1 favourites at the time of writing, though that may change when the five-day declarations come out.

With Fairyhouse and Punchestown (those meetings have €1.496 million and €3.074 million in prizemoney respectively) to come, the Dublin Racing Festival won’t decide the trainers’ championship, but it still looks set to play a big part.

Let’s begin with the championship betting market to start to get the story so far. Paddy Power has been offering odds on this since the end of Punchestown 2017 with the key price moves listed below (and thanks to them for supplying this information).

 

Willie Mullins Date Gordon Elliott
2/7 30/4/17 5/2
1/12 25/9/17 6/1
1/3 26/11/17 9/4
8/15 3/12/17 6/4
10/11 29/12/17 (morning) 1/1
6/4 29/12/17 (evening) 8/15
15/8 27/1/18 2/5

 

So Mullins went through the summer smoking hot, winning the top trainer prize at Galway amongst other things, and looked to have his hands on the trophy at the end of September. From there Elliott gradually got back into things – the importance of the months of October and November will be discussed later – with a major odds shift after his Hatton’s Grace Day Grade 1 treble when he was cut into 6/4. The last day of the Christmas Festival was huge too with Faugheen injured, seemingly done for the season, and Elliott beating him with Mick Jazz. Since then last season’s runner-up continued to shorten with Monbeg Notorious doing his bit in the Thyestes last Thursday.

It’s worth looking at the current prizemoney table at this point and bear in mind that all figures in this article are correct up to Saturday, January 27th. The final standings in 2016/17 were Mullins €4,580,200 and Elliott €4,380,705 though with the usual prizemoney inflation it could take a bigger figure to win this season.

Trainer Winners Runners Strikerate Win Prizemoney Total Prizemoney
G. Elliott 151 854 17.7% €2,188,775 €3,149,113
W. Mullins 146 470 31.0% €1,859,600 €2,551,830

 

This is pretty standard stuff in terms of trainer methodologies, Elliott using quantity, Mullins using quality, the former dominating number of runners, the latter much better in strikerate. One interesting point is their average prizemoney per win with (win prizemoney divided by winners) with Elliott on €14,495 and Mullins on €12,736. The perception would be that the figures would be the other way though some might believe this is a product of Elliott winning lots of valuable handicaps; he has won some of those races but as we will see it is actually his record in graded races that is inflating his high average prizemoney figure.

So Elliott is €597,283 clear at this point and it is worth returning to how far he led by at various points last season; he was around half a million ahead after the 2016 Troytown at Navan (a card where he had six winners), roughly €300,000 clear after Christmas the same year. His current total shows how much better he is doing relative to last season and it is worth considering when he did the damage, looking at both campaigns month-by-month below, the figures referring to winners then runners.

 

W. Mullins Month G. Elliott
15/40 May 10/102
7/28 June 9/71
16/43 July 11/76
22/72 August 16/93
17/48 September 11/62
9/35 October 21/77
18/47 November 33/133
24/100 December 26/158
18/57 January 15/83

 

I thought Mullins would break every record around after his summer season, even suggesting the first 200-winner Irish jumps season was likely, but that was well off. The key period here was October/November with Elliott having 54 winners to 27 for Mullins and at that point the champion simply couldn’t compete with the volume of his younger rival. This stage of the season is a traditional changeover point with summer horses wrapping up and winter horses getting going but Mullins seems to have been slow getting them to the track. That may not be a bad thing for their careers overall – not rushing a horse to do something before it is ready makes sense – but it could prove costly for the 2017/18 championship. I do think though that Elliott is a trainer that always looks for a reason to run whereas Mullins tends the other way.

Elliott’s November win total of 33 was actually his most ever in a calendar month with 31 his next best in the same month the previous year. For context, Mullins’s best two months all-time are 44 winners in December 2016 and 34 in November 2014, the former an outlier among outliers. I mentioned above that Mullins has found it hard to compete with Elliott’s sheer numbers but again this needs context. There is an excellent feature on IrishRacing.com where they list the number of individual horses each trainer has run in a season.

Mullins is on 194 individual runners for 2017/18 when his most ever was 195 in 2013/14 (his totals the last three seasons were 184, 191 and 177). So as of the end of January, Mullins has already run basically as many individual horses as ever before and the season still has three months to go. It hasn’t so much been a case that Mullins hasn’t had enough horses to run but rather he hasn’t gotten them to the track often enough to rack up prizemoney; consider his total runs of 470 against Elliott’s 854. In Elliott’s case, he has run 272, 195 and 141 individual horses over the last three seasons and is at 263 for the current season.

It is also worth considering the luck factor in terms of how trainers are doing over the season as a whole. When doing some work on the Cheltenham Festival last year, I came up with a couple of methods of seeing which trainers were lucky or unlucky based on the number of seconds and placed horses they were having. It is a simple calculation where total seconds are subtracted from total winners to see if there are major discrepancies and also looking at the ratio of winners to placed horses (all runners finishing second, third or fourth) with the idea being that the further the ratio is below 3.00 the more fortunate a trainer has been as this 3.00 would the expected figure with there being three places for every winner in a race.

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Trainer Winners Seconds Difference Total Places (2nd, 3rd and 4th) Winners to Places Ratio
G. Elliott 151 134 -17 321 2.13
W. Mullins 146 85 -61 178 1.22

 

These figures would suggest that Elliott’s numbers are more sustainable that those of Mullins. Mullins has a big differential between his total of winners and runners-up while his winner/place ratio is also particularly low. Moving beyond pure numbers for a moment, it also worth looking at the each trainer’s top ten horses in terms of prizemoney won.

 

Willie Mullins Gordon Elliott
1. Rathvinden 1. Potters Point
2. Fabulous Saga 2. Apple’s Jade
3. Next Destination 3. Shattered Love
4. Lagostovegas 4. Outlander
5. Robin Des Foret 5. A Toi Phil
6. Footpad 6. Mengli Khan
7. Total Recall 7. Doctor Phoenix
8. Whiskey Sour 8. Death Duty
9. Shaneshill 9. Monbeg Notorious
10. Mystic Theatre 10. Dinaria Des Obeaux

 

Of the Mullins ten, seven ran during the summer: Rathvinden, Fabulous Saga, Lagostovegas, Robin Des Foret, Whiskey Sour, Shaneshill and Mystic Theatre. Some of those have continued to run well during the winter, others have barely run at all but it is hardly an outlandish argument to suggest that you can’t win a trainers’ championship with summer horses. There are a few reasons for this: most of the summer horses will have had their run of form at this point and are now higher in the handicap competing against better horses on softer ground but most importantly they are typically not good enough to win graded races when the winter horses come out. Elliott, on the other hand, has only one summer horse in his top ten (Potters Point) and you have to go to number 16 on his top prizemoney horses to find his next summer jumper which is Morgan.

There is a perception that Elliott is more of a handicap trainer than one for graded races but in 2017/18 this has not proved entirely true if we look at the record of each trainer in different types of races.

 

W. Mullins Race Type G. Elliott
8/80 Handicaps 37/281
24/86 Graded/Listed 24/89
56/161 Maidens 52/295
32/79 Bumpers 19/90
26/64 Other 19/99

 

Elliott does have the edge in handicaps which is unsurprising though it is worth pointing out that he was won only five of the valuable handicaps to four won by Mullins (by valuable handicaps I mean those worth more than the equivalent of £20,000 to the winner which basically means our graded handicaps). It is their very similar record in non-handicaps that stands out with Elliott actually leading in terms of winners. He is also ahead in terms of Grade 1 victories with a total of seven to Mullins’s four. That is particularly impressive as Elliott’s Irish Grade 1 totals over last five seasons are, working backwards: 7, 4, 3, 2, 2. In that same period, Mullins has figures of 14, 20, 21, 15 and 19 so he is well behind where he might typically be at this point of the season. The one area where Mullins does hold sway is in bumpers which I’ll return to in wrapping up.

So is there any way back for Mullins in 2017/18? It seems unlikely based on what we have seen above. I think he would need to hit every marker with his stars to have any chance; Faugheen would need to win Champion Hurdles at Leopardstown and Punchestown, Yorkhill would need to get his head right, Douvan would need to come back to his best, Djakadam would need to find an extra couple of pounds to take him from perennial placer to Gold Cup winner. Perhaps one or even two of these scenarios will unfold but it is a big price that everything will come together.

2018/19 might be more interesting however. As referenced above, Mullins has a distinct advantage in the bumper division this season and that edge may only bear fruit in seasons to come. The departure of Gigginstown obviously hurt Mullins last season and it took a lot of ready-made horses from the yard. Mullins surely went about replacing those horses quickly but the problem is that in most cases you aren’t replacing like for like; instead, a mature horse like Apple’s Jade was being replaced by a young bumper horse that needs time. So what we might call a Gigginstown gap year may have developed.

Mullins has come back strong with his bumper horses this season and one of the most interesting things about them is their ownership profile. Of his 32 bumper winners, there have been 26 individual horses, some of them winning more than once, and 24 different owners. Supreme Racing had three of the group, Rich Ricci had only one while there was not a Graham Wylie horse among them. By my research – which could be wrong as I was simply using the ownership statistics on the Racing Post website – 13 of them were new to the yard.

There were a lot of syndicates and partnerships, a few single person owners, but not many that seem likely to reach double figures in terms of horses in training. This seems a massive change in the ownership profile at Closutton which was once dominated by the triumvirate of Gigginstown, Ricci and Wylie but now seems to have many more smaller interests involved. What this means for Mullins I don’t know and how many more horses these people are willing to put in training will depend on their own financial circumstances though they have certainly made the sort of start that might encourage them to go in again.

- Tony Keenan

Permian Death – A Time For Reflection

Sioux Nation established himself as the leading juvenile with victory in a cracking renewal of the Phoenix Stakes at the Curragh.

It’s a race that Ballydoyle have dominated, with this success bringing up an incredible 16 for trainer Aidan O’Brien. Gordon Elliott’s Beckford was defending an unbeaten record, and lost little in defeat, going down by just half a length. The winner had captured the Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot on quick ground, and again had conditions to suit. He swept to the front a furlong from home, before holding off the strong finishing runner-up.

Sioux Nation is a substantial unit, and clearly impressed jockey Ryan Moore, who said: “I loved him at Ascot, but I think he's got to have fast ground. At Ascot he took me into the race really easy and he did the same today. I think he's a very exciting colt. He’s bigger than Caravaggio, and I think and hope he's got a big future.”

O’Brien was similarly impressed, saying: “I think his turn of foot won it, he travels very well and quickens very well. Though he's a big horse, he's got a lot of speed. The ground would be a help and you probably wouldn't want to run him on soft. He's by Scat Daddy, like Caravaggio. I don't know if we'll stretch him to seven this year, if we did we could come here for the National Stakes and if we didn't he could go for the Middle Park (at Newmarket).”

It proved to be a weekend of vastly contrasting fortunes, with the disturbing scenes in America of three-year-old Permian breaking a leg as he crossed the line in the Secretariat Stakes at Arlington. Sending out distress signals turning for home, Mark Johnston’s gutsy colt quickly became tailed off from his five competitors. He’d clearly been feeling something, and the problem became clear as a crumpled at the post, sending jockey William Buick to the turf.

This was the three-year-old’s eighth outing in four months. And though it is impossible to say whether such a hectic campaign could have played any part in his demise, it’s surely worth debating the amount of racing the young horse had experienced between April 14 and August 12.

This subject is sure to stir a passionate response from all sides, and people will leap to the defence of trainers and their connections, who know a lot more about their horses than I. Nevertheless, the physicality of a horse is such, that great strain is placed on those four fragile limbs. Permian had been running at trips around a mile and a half throughout this campaign, and had been asked for maximum effort in thrilling finishes on five of those eight occasions. The ground at Arlington on Saturday could not have run quicker. Rattling firm ground is not uncommon in the summer sport, but is obviously an added strain on those flimsy legs.

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Of course, this tragedy could have happened to a horse on debut, or to one with relatively few miles on the clock. But it’s the intensity of the packed Permian campaign, over a relatively short period of time, that would surely have put strain on muscles, tendons and young bones. Studies at the University Of Melbourne in 2016 found that a high percentage of catastrophic injuries came about due to an accumulation of damage, rather than one singular injury. The make-up of the thoroughbred is such, that our sport will always be prone to such tragedies, and therefore apportioning blame is not the answer.

Johnston was clearly upset with some criticism he received on Facebook and Twitter, when saying: “Social media was fantastic for seeing all of the condolences coming in but there were also bastards blaming us for giving him one run too many. He wasn't even the horse who'd had the most runs in the race, and yet people latch on to him as if he'd had a huge number of runs. Aidan O'Brien's horse who finished second [Taj Mahal] had more runs than Permian, as Aidan's commonly do, because he, like me, believes in racing them.

“He was out there for everyone to see. We didn't hide him away and run him once every three months. That's what made him special in such a short space of time, and we really imagined he'd be racing on again as a four-year-old, and maybe even five.”

Johnston’s comment regarding Taj Mahal is slightly misleading. He is correct in saying that O’Brien’s colt has more career starts than Permian, but he had one fewer outing this term. And though Ballydoyle’s fella has run in good company, it would be hard to argue that he had been involved in so many epic finishes as Johnston’s gritty hero.

There’s no doubting that Mark Johnston and his team will be devastated at the loss of one of their yard. And our thoughts also go to William Buick who took a shuddering fall from the stricken horse. The racing fraternity will no doubt come under further scrutiny from the likes of Animal Aid and PETA, and as such must have as many answers as possible to tough questions raised. If those answers are not forthcoming, then research should be funded to make the sport as safe as possible for those brave creatures that run for our enjoyment and entertainment.

Much has been done to improve the image of our sport, and this work must continue, with horse welfare at the forefront. The Attached piece from Melbourne University is worth a read; Close to the bone

Phoenix Nights – Party Time for Elliott?

A pair of juvenile events are the highlight of this weekend’s action.

The Group Three Sweet Solero takes place at Newmarket, with several classy fillies on show. And 24 hours later at the Curragh, we have the Group One Phoenix Stakes, so often won by a leading Irish juvenile.

Numerous winners of the Newmarket event have returned to win the Group One Fillies’ Mile later in the campaign, highlighting the quality of filly this race attracts. Certify and White Moonstone completed the double for Godolphin in 2010 and 2012. The John Gosden-trained Rainbow View was another to complete the feat in 2008. In 2002 James Fanshawe’s Soviet Song announced herself as a talented filly, winning both and being installed as favourite for the 2003 Guineas. She became one of the greats, winning the Falmouth, Sussex and Matron Stakes as a four-year-old.

Godolphin look to add to their impressive Sweet Solero record, in the form of race favourite Poetic Charm. She’s trained locally by Charlie Appleby, and made a winning debut when defeating Ballydoyle’s Sizzling at Newmarket. She ran green that day, yet won cosily under a hands and heels ride. She’s beautifully bred, being a half-sister to Teofilo, and looks a potentially high-class filly.

The Richard Fahey-trained Dance Diva was put firmly in her place last time at Ascot by the classy Nyaleti, and now steps up in trip. She did stay-on steadily that day, and had been three from three prior to the loss. Nevertheless, that was a bruising defeat, and it’s likely she’ll find one or two a little too good for her once again.

Mayyasah was an impressive winner on debut at Newbury. The Al Shaqab owned filly displayed an eye-catching change of gear to scoot clear in the six-furlong maiden, and looked as if a step-up in trip would suit. This is a much tougher contest, but she looks to be a leading contender.

As does Irish raider Mamba Noire, who possibly sports the most impressive form. Though only winning once in five starts, she has twice chased home Clemmie, including a close third in the Group Two Duchess Of Cambridge at Newmarket. She got within half a length of Nyaleti that day, and that performance now looks particularly impressive. She was staying on strongly, and this seven-furlong trip should prove ideal. Nations Alexander was third in the Duchess of 2016 before returning to win this. Mamba Noire will hope to do the same.

Poetic Charm looks the obvious choice for this, though it’s possibly a race to watch with interest, rather than get heavily involved from a punting aspect. Mamba Noire looks to be the main danger.

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We are likely to see something special in Ireland on Sunday. The Phoenix Stakes is usually contested by the leading Irish juveniles, and was won last year by Caravaggio. In 2015 it was Air Force Blue that won impressively, before taking the National Stakes and the Dewhurst. Those performances saw him start 2016 as favourite for the 2000 Guineas. Sadly, as many of us recall, he was to prove a major disappointment as a three-year-old, and was retired after a string of poor performances.

Aidan O’Brien has an incredible record in this race, having won 15 of the last 19 renewals. Such dominance of a Group One event is simply mind-boggling. But that powerful record is likely to come under serious threat on Sunday from a most unlikely source. Jumps trainer Gordon Elliott looks sure to have the race favourite with his undefeated Beckford. The son of Bated Breath took the Railway Stakes in July, though will clearly need to take another step forward to land this. He’s undoubtedly quick, and is sure to be given a positive ride in an attempt to hold off the Ballydoyle masses.

At the time of writing, we are still unsure as to who takes him on. U S Navy Flag is among the contenders, and was a decent second in the July Stakes last time at Newmarket. He was no match that day for Cardsharp, who has since lost in testing ground at Goodwood. The colt has only won once in six starts, and though he’s clearly talented, his record suggests he’s far from star material.

I’m a fan of Sioux Nation, and should the ground be on the quick side, I’d fancy him to run a huge race. Fast enough to win the Norfolk at Royal Ascot, he’s by Scat Daddy out of an Oasis Dream mare, and should be well suited to six-furlongs at the Curragh. If he runs, I’ll be a follower.

The last British trainer to make a successful raid was Mark Johnston back in 1997. Tom Dascombe is set to send Frozen Angel across the Irish Sea, and he should not be discounted. The son of Dark Angel is a class act, as he showed when only just missing out at Maisons-Laffitte last time. He has a bit to find with Sioux Nation on the Royal Ascot run, but is clearly a talented sprinter and could easily find himself in the shake-up.

If he runs, I’ll be having a small punt on Sioux Nation. If he fails to turn up we may well see a very happy National Hunt trainer celebrating a sensational success.

Olly Murphy: The Story So Far

On the 4th July 2017, a remarkable story began. Shortly before four o'clock on a glorious summer day, a 25 year old by the name of Olly Murphy saddled his first ever runner, Dove Mountain, at Brighton in a lowly 0-55 handicap. The horse won, easily, to obvious celebration from young Olly and his team.

That was Tuesday and, by Sunday evening, Murphy had his second winner, this time the hurdler, Gold Class. Gold Class was one of two horses he saddled in the race, the other - Banff - finishing second.

On 11th July, just a week after Murphy sent out his first runner/winner, he had three horses entered. Although none of the trio won, two - Skilled and Sky Of Stars - finished second, the former 'bumping into one' in the shape of the very well handicapped Bestwork. Still, this was a strong start: two wins, three second places and two unplaced from his first seven runners.

A few more quiet days and then it was Sunday again, the 16th July. A brace of entries at Southwell and a third at local course, Stratford, would provide Murphy with a double which should have been a treble. Pershing, hitherto a 28-race maiden, and Sky Of Stars, a dozen races without a win to that point, both got off the mark; but it was a case of what might have been as a rare misjudged ride from the ultra-reliable Richard Johnson probably cost Varene De Vauzelle victory, and a notable trio for the new boy.

Back on the level the following day, Sevilla ran well to finish fourth, meaning that, after a fortnight with a license, Olly Murphy had racked up four winners, four seconds and just three unplaced efforts from eleven runners. The three out of the frame all came in flat races, with the National Hunt octet all finishing on the exacta ticket.

By now, the media had stood up and taken notice. The Guardian ran a story on Murphy; Racing UK broadcast a feature on the young handler; and Betfair signed him up as a content provider. Little old geegeez.co.uk also flagged his punting utility and suggested Murphy was worthy of blind support in coming weeks in this post.

So far, so good: a dream start as the trainer himself had put it.

But it was going to get better...

Two more flat runners on Thursday would yield another unplaced animal, the previous scorer Dove Mountain, but also a second flat winner, courtesy of Jazz Legend, dropped back a furlong after defeat on his maiden run for the yard. Five winners and four seconds from 13 runners.

By this point, like every other syndicate manager in the country no doubt, I had begun to ponder the prospect of stabling a horse at Warren Chase Stables, the Wilmcote base from which Murphy operates. By the end of the weekend, I was soul-searching more deeply about what exactly was happening here, and how sustainable it might be.

That was because, yesterday, Murphy won all four races in which he entered horses. Knight Commander bolted up in a novices' handicap hurdle at Newton Abbot to start the ball rolling. All roads then led to Stratford, five miles from Warren Chase, where a Murphy quartet contested three races. Cliffside Park ran in the seller and, though nudged out of favouritism, won "like an odds on favourite should", at 11/8.

Skilled, who jumps fences like me, made it a treble despite hitting almost every obstacle on the way round. He can't go up much for this effort, but would have won twenty lengths if lifting his hooves with more alacrity.

It was then left to a pair of relatively unfancied horses to round out the remarkable four-timer, Hongkong Adventure and Mizen Master (you clearly don't need to spell to name racehorses). The former was preferred of the pair, at no shorter than 6/1, while the latter was largely unconsidered at 10's behind a solid jolly from the Dan Skelton yard that traded at 5/4.

The Skelton horse, Wynford, undoubtedly ran his race, finishing a game four length second; but he was no match for Mizen Master, who just kept galloping.

That quartet parlayed at 154/1, a £1 yankee paying £459.16 if you landed on the right one of the pair in the last leg; and I know of a number of geegeez subscribers who emailed or tweeted to say they were on, thanks to either last week's post or the Trainer Snippets / Trainer Statistics reports. Nice job.

**

So here we are, not three weeks after the debut runner of Olly Murphy Racing, and already the rising star has saddled nine winners from 18 runners, a 50% clip. Moreover, from a dozen National Hunt starts, just one horse has failed to make the frame.

I'm a cynical, but generally reasonable, old buzzard so when I see stats like this I want to know how, and why. After all, the beaten trainers - the likes of Dan Skelton and Nigel Twiston-Davies - are established master practitioners in their field.

Having initially ruminated on far more nefarious possibilities (shame on me), I found my answer where all such answers should lie: in the form book.

Olly Murphy is the son of Aiden Murphy, bloodstock agent, and Anabel Murphy, racehorse trainer. Mum trains a quarter mile away, next door. At this stage I can only guess - and I really wish I knew/could corroborate - the relationship between Olly and John Joseph Murphy. My guess is that JJ is his uncle. What I do know, as it has been well documented, is that Olly spent four years as assistant trainer to the winning machine Gordon Elliott, a role he occupied until April of this year.

That is a comprehensive and excellent grounding, and it is important context for the form profiles of a number of the Warren Chase runners which follow. Let us first consider the winners:

Dove Mountain

Enjoyed four wins in the care of Gordon Elliott before switching to Anabel Murphy at the turn of the year. Six runs yielded a second, third and fourth - and a slipping of the rating from 60 to 55 - before Olly's breakthrough winner on 4th July.

Gold Class

Formerly trained by Robert Alan Hennessy in Ireland, for whom he was 0 from 20, though having run with relative credit on a few occasions. Off the track since October last year, he won by six lengths at 16/1 on debut for his new yard.

Pershing

Another former inmate of Hennessy's, this time a 28 race maiden (!) including a handful of flat runs for Brian Meehan and Marco Botti in 2013/14. Rated as high as 116 over hurdles for Hennessy, this fellow had clearly hinted at ability but looked to have lost his way until being freshened by his new surroundings. He too was off since October 2016 and won by eight lengths for new connections.

Sky Of Stars

Average on the flat - rated 70 - for Richard Hannon, briefly, and then William Knight, he had four runs in novice and maiden hurdles for Anabel Murphy before being awarded a timber-topping handicap mark of 90. Followed up a debut second for Olly with a narrow verdict five days later, prior to being re-assessed. He went up to 94 for the second place and, tomorrow, will receive his revised perch for the win, likely just a couple of pounds higher.

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Jazz Legend

Rated as high as 85 as a juvenile when in the care of James Given, brief stints with Robert Cowell, Mandy Rowland and, most recently, Anabel Murphy had seen his mark plummet to 50. After a moderate, but still career best, all weather effort - for which he's impeccably bred, being by Scat Daddy out of a Candy Ride mare - Jazz Legend hit the right notes at Leicester in a basement handicap on his second run for the yard.

Knight Commander

Another ex-William Knight horse, Knight Commander was a 15 race maiden on the flat with a fair rating of 77 at his peak (dropping to 65 on his final start for Knight). Then moved to Anabel Murphy where three middling runs in juvenile hurdles paved the way for an opening handicap figure of 95 and a switch to Olly Murphy. Knight Commander won by 16 lengths on handicap debut and will very likely turn out under a penalty before the middle of next week (entered at Uttoxeter on Friday).

Cliffside Park

Probably the smartest horse with form in the yard, this chap was previously with Elizabeth Doyle in Ireland, where he'd earned a career high rating of 128. Still rated 122 in this seller, he was entitled to win if not suffering a recurrence of the burst blood vessel issue that has troubled him. Win he did and, in similar races where he can boss his field without coming off the bridle, he may go in again. Punters must be aware of the likelihood of his finishing position being binary, however.

Skilled

With Gordon Elliott (won two) until mid- to late 2016, then moved to Anabel Murphy. Four runs moved the hurdle rating from 111 to 100 and the flat mark from 74 to 67. Second to very well handicapped horse (Bestwork, winner of three of last four starts) on stable/chase debut before, as mentioned above, winning in spite of uprooting most of the birch en route. Remains well handicapped if he can improve his jumping.

Mizen Master

Six race (five flat, one hurdles) maiden for John Joseph Murphy before acquiring an opening mark of 104 after two non-descript runs for Anabel Murphy. Won on handicap debut for Olly Murphy, beating 5/4 favourite Wynford - a last time out winner - by 4.5 lengths, with 17 lengths back to the third placed horse, who was 7/2 second market choice. Another likely to get entries before being re-assessed.

**

So those are the winners, with some interesting patterns emerging. But what of the non-winners to date? Murphy has saddled 14 different horses thus far, nine of them winning. These are the back stories of the quintet yet to savour triumph from the barns at Warren Chase:

Enchanted Moment

Eleven race maiden for Chris Wall, she was well beaten in a low grade handicap a fortnight ago, and is entered on Wednesday at Leicester. The handicapper has left her on 54 after she lost all chance at the start that last day, an effort through which it is easy to draw a line. She remains potentially well-handicapped.

Banff

Seven race maiden on the flat for John Joseph Murphy, he had three runs in maiden and juvenile hurdle company for Anabel Murphy before making his handicap bow for Olly Murphy off 100. Beaten only by stable mate Gold Class two weeks ago and has entries at the end of this week off the same peg.

Varene De Vauzelle

21 race maiden for James Ewart and Michael Hourigan before moving yards in the spring. Victim of the annual poor ride from ultra-reliable Richard Johnson when just held at Southwell last week, and looks sure to be bumped up from his hurdle mark of 89 when re-assessed tomorrow.

Sevilla

Thirteen race maiden for John Joseph Murphy (seven runs) and Anabel Murphy (six) before finishing fourth on debut for Olly. Had three hurdle runs for Anabel but not yet awarded a mark in that sphere. It was a claimer in which he was beaten last week and it is a selling handicap for which he is entered on Wednesday. Capable of winning at that level but perhaps no higher.

Hongkong Adventure

Four race flat maiden for Rae Guest, before three lacklustre runs in juvenile/maiden hurdle company for Anabel Murphy. Handicap / yard debut yesterday for Olly off 105 when better fancied of two for the trainer but trailed home well beaten. Plenty of horses don't act around the tight turns of Stratford and he may be forgiven on that basis. Worth another try at least, given lesser fancied stablemate won the race well.

**

There are some strong patterns emerging, not least of which is that Olly Murphy looks to be a very good trainer in the making. There is more to the early part of this story than that, however, and the sub-plot deserves an airing.

Of Olly's nine winners, six have been inherited from mum, Anabel. Indeed she managed to secure a handicap hurdle mark for three of the winners and two of the non-winners to date.

Trying to ascertain the ability of a new trainer on a small sample size is not easy, but there are grounds for feeling that at least a subset of the Warren Chase winners to date were, if not penalty kicks then at least clinically converted one-on-one's.

This, by now, will not be news to forensic form students as the new kid on the block notched first a debut winner, then a double (which should have been a treble) and most recently an incredible four-timer.

There are reportedly four 'summer' horses still to run, three of which appear on the website as Mullaghboy (four 'nothing' runs for Stuart Crawford to date), Wood Pigeon (seven runs for JJ Murphy, two for Anabel Murphy, now rated 100 over hurdles; should be competitive on soft ground at around three miles), and The Geegeez Geegee.

It is the last named which holds the most interest for me. Firstly, he has been acquired from a very (very!) good trainer in Anthony Honeyball, so it will be fascinating to see if TGG can be freshened/improved from there. And secondly, as the name suggests, he was formerly owned by a syndicate of geegeez.co.uk readers, and myself, who know the animal inside out.

The reason for my acute interest in Olly is that, as stated, I'm giving serious thought to syndicating a horse with him - as I'm sure are countless others. It is important to me that I understand the modus operandi of trainers who look after my/our horses, hence the deep dive.

It has been an enthralling exercise, and one after which I'm more inclined to want to support this new name. To be clear, I don't believe the Murphy's have done anything wrong - the fingerprint is very quickly discernible to anyone who cares to look - and I admire the orchestration with which this training career has begun.

Moreover, the improved showing from the likes of Gold Class, Pershing and Varene De Vauzelle demonstrate that much of the Elliott magic has rubbed off on his protégé, and that Olly Murphy may well be fast-tracking to the top table of the winter game if his summer 'pre-season friendly' results are anything to go by.

This will be a space that continues to be well worth watching...

Matt

Clear as Mud – Juvenile Colts

It comes as no surprise to see Ballydoyle fillies at the head of the juvenile division, and Ireland’s leading thoroughbred outfit also have a few colts making the right kind of noises with 2018 Classics in mind.

There’s little doubt that the picture is less clear with the juvenile boys, with outstanding performances few and far between. Gustav Klimt won the Group Two Superlative Stakes at Newmarket for Aidan O’Brien, though the performance could hardly be described as impressive. Yet another from the Galileo conveyor belt, he was inconvenienced in running and had to be switched before staying on well to win. He nabbed Nebo on the line, and that fella had previously finished down the field in the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot. The form looks ordinary, and that Gustav is now clear favourite for next year’s 2000 Guineas says plenty of the dearth of talent seen on the racetrack thus far.

Royal Ascot form is also taking some reading after Rajasinghe’s defeat to Cardsharp at Newmarket. The former had won the Coventry Stakes, but was unable to land a blow on Cardsharp, who clearly appreciated a step-up in trip, having finished third at the royal meeting in the Norfolk. He in-turn had finished behind De Bruyne Horse in the Woodcote Stakes at Epsom, but that colt could only finish eighth in the Coventry behind Rajasinghe. Confused? You should be.

Hannon’s De Bruyne Horse then went to Ireland, and was beaten by Beckford at the Curragh. Gordon Elliott is better known for training three-mile chasers, but his talented juvenile is causing something of a sensation. He’s arguably the best of the youngsters to date, though how he performs in the Phoenix Stakes will tell us more. He’s by Bated Breath out of a Danehill Dancer mare, which suggests he’ll probably become a sprinter, though he just about has enough stamina on the dam side to make a miler. He defeated Jim Bolger’s Verbal Dexterity last time, though his colt’s pedigree is somewhat underwhelming.

I’m not convinced that we’ve yet seen a future star, though Royal Ascot’s Norfolk Stakes may prove the strongest form to date. The aforementioned Cardsharp, was third to Sioux Nation and Santry that day, and the latter pair both look decent prospects.

Aidan O’Brien’s Sioux Nation was desperate for the quicker ground at Ascot, and improved a ton accordingly. The son of Scat Daddy, out of an Oasis Dream mare, has entries in all the leading events during the remainder of the season. And I fancy that there’s plenty more to come from him.

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Santry was fancied to go close in the Norfolk, and did not disappoint. Declan Carroll’s youngster could well come over for the Gimcrack at York, though his targets are not so dependent on ground conditions.

Two races in Ireland over the coming months that look sure to bring some clarity to the Colt juvenile picture, are the Phoenix Stakes and the National Stakes. It’s no surprise that Ballydoyle dominate both, with Caravaggio taking the former in 2016 and Churchill winning the latter.

Another juvenile event that continues to produce thoroughbreds of the highest calibre, is the Dewhurst Stakes from Newmarket, which takes place towards the end of the season. Frankel, Dawn Approach and Churchill are three recent winners.

It’s quite clear to me, that though the juvenile fillies picture is starting to take shape, the colts equivalent has some way to go. Those that enjoy an antepost flutter on the following year’s Classics should probably hold-fire.