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Cheltenham Festival Pointers – Let Leopardstown Shine A Light

It should come as no surprise to see that Cheltenham Festival winners tend to take-in high profile meetings at elite tracks en-route to glory in March.

The better racecourses usually hold the more prestigious events, attracting better prize money and thereby tempting leading trainers to send their yards most talented inmates. The Hennessy meeting at Newbury; Betfair Chase Day at Haydock; Christmas at both Kempton and Leopardstown, and Cheltenham’s Trials Day, are just some of those significant events that attract the best that jump racing has to offer.

I had a quick look at where last year’s Festival winners ‘warmed-up’ for the big event, and the usual suspects sat proudly at the top of the pile. Leopardstown led the way, providing four winners, followed by Cheltenham, Kempton, Punchestown and Ascot with three apiece. Smaller tracks cannot be ignored, but more often than not, future Festival heroes will complete their preparation at the likes of Punchestown rather than Plumpton.

And it’s an Irish racecourse that I wish to focus on for today’s Cheltenham Festival piece. Leopardstown host several top-class meetings throughout the winter, with leading trainers such as Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins battling over prestigious and extremely valuable prizes. Their Christmas Festival often shines a light on those with a bright future.

Races include the Lexus Chase, won in previous years by Best Mate, Denman, Synchronised and Bobs Worth. The Ryanair Hurdle (often known as the December Festival Hurdle) is another Christmas highlight, which is targeted by those with outstanding two-mile hurdlers. It has a roll of honour that includes, Istabraq, Brave Inca and Hurricane Fly. And there’s the Racing Post Novices’ Chase which has produced wonderful two-mile chasers, including, Native Upmanship, Moscow Flyer, Sizing Europe, and in 2015 Douvan.

The length of time from Leopardstown at Christmas until the Cheltenham Festival in March clearly makes the meeting an unlikely event for final preparation’s, though it has been known. Timing plays a major part in all sport, and having a horse ‘cherry-ripe’ for the Festival is a crucial factor in having any hope of success. That’s sure to be in the minds of connections as they send their best hopes to Leopardstown in early February.

It’s this particular meeting that has provided so many pointers to Cheltenham success in recent years. With several prestigious races on the card, the timing of the event (usually five weeks prior to The Festival) fits in perfectly with those trainers targeting Jump racing’s Olympics.

The Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle usually attracts the best four-year-old’s in Ireland, with an eye on the Triumph Hurdle in March. The race doesn’t always go to plan for the ‘leading lights’, but a Festival winner is likely to be lurking among the contenders. Four of the last five Triumph winners have prepped in this, though only one of those won the Leopardstown race.

Our Conor was that exceptional juvenile, and he romped to victory in Ireland before destroying the best youngsters at Cheltenham in March 2013. His 15-length success was extraordinary, and he looked set to become a star of the sport. Tragedy struck the following March, when a fall in the Champion Hurdle cost him his life.

Last year Ivanovich Gorbatov flopped in unsuitable heavy ground at Leopardstown, but proved a different beast when arriving at Prestbury Park. He defeated Apple’s Jade, Footpad and Let’s Dance in lifting the Triumph Hurdle, under a classy ride from Barry Geraghty.

Tiger Roll finished second to Guitar Pete in the Leopardstown event of 2014, but improved plenty to reverse the form at Cheltenham a month later. And in 2012 it was Countrywide Flame that could only manage third at Leopardstown, before once again reversing Irish form in capturing the main event at Cheltenham. Unaccompanied only just failed in her bid to win the Triumph, when second to Zarkandar in 2011, a month after winning the juvenile hurdle at Leopardstown.

Mega Fortune and Bapaume came first and second in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle a couple of weeks back, and will head to Cheltenham as leading contenders for the Triumph Hurdle. Soft ground possibly suited Gordon Elliott’s runner, though the stiff finish in March will also be in his favour. Bapaume got the better of their encounter at Christmas on a sounder surface, and they look closely matched.

Along with strong recent Triumph clues, Leopardstown in February is host to the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, so often another strong Festival pointer, especially for the Supreme and Neptune. In its time the race has been won by Istabraq, Like-A-Butterfly, Brave Inca, Champagne Fever and Vautour.

The 2016 renewal failed to produce a Cheltenham Festival winner, though Tombstone and Petit Mouchoir ran well in the Supreme, and are now contenders in a wide-open renewal of the Champion Hurdle. In 2015, Nichols Canyon defeated Windsor Park in the Deloitte, but when the two met at Cheltenham it was the latter that gained revenge when winning the Neptune Novices’ with Nichols Canyon back in third.

Vautour and Champagne Fever won the prestigious Leopardstown event in 2014 and 2013, before going on to Supreme Novices’ glory. Willie Mullins was responsible for the first and second home this time around. Bacardys finished powerfully to get the better of the classy looking Bunk Off Early. The former has the potential to go close in the Neptune, whilst the latter is likely to head for the Supreme Novices’.

The Flogas Novice Chase is another that has provided plenty of Festival clues over the years, though has been less fruitful in the last couple of years. In 2013, Lord Windermere came third before going on to take the RSA. Bostons Angel won both in 2011, and Weapon’s Amnesty finished runner-up at Leopardstown before winning the RSA of 2010. In 2009, the winner and runner-up went on to Cheltenham Festival glory, when Cooldine, having won in Ireland went to the Cotswolds to capture the RSA, with Forpadydeplasterer taking the Arkle.

This year’s Flogas looked a classy affair, and though Our Duke will not be heading over to Cheltenham, there’s every chance that Disko will prove a tough nut to crack in either the JLT or the RSA.

Finally, a mention for the Foxhunters at Cheltenham, with the Leopardstown Hunter Chase providing the winner on so many occasions. Indeed, the last five renewals have delivered the last five Festival winners. On The Fringe is a dual winner at Prestbury Park, and the way he ran a couple of weeks back behind Foxrock gives hope of a hat-trick. Prior to him, Tammys Hill and Salsify (twice) completed the double.

Studying the results from Leopardstown’s February meeting has proved fruitful in recent years, and I’ll be hoping that 2017 follows a similar pattern.

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – Flash Gordon’s a Handicap Cert

Involved in an epic duel for the Irish Trainers Championship, Gordon Elliott is having a season to remember.

With a stable full of talent, he’s been capturing prestigious prizes throughout the winter, and now has his sights set on the spring festivals. Victories have certainly not been confined to handicaps, but it is a sphere that he excels, and when looking forward to Cheltenham in March, a decent Elliott handicap haul seems likely.

Diamond King did the business at Prestbury Park last March, when winning the Coral Cup at odds of 12/1. Given a cool ride by Davy Russell, he swept to the front at the last to win comfortably. Elliott also struck with Festival regular, Cause Of Causes. Winning for the second time at Cheltenham’s showpiece, he’s a horse to follow at the ‘Home Of Jump Racing’. On this occasion, it was victory in the Fulke Walwyn Handicap Chase. He didn’t just win it, he romped to a 12-length success at an attractive price of 9/2. He could turn up in the Cross Country this time, and had a spin round on Trials Day at the end of January.

Taglietelle, Bless The Wings and Noble Endeavor all went close to adding valuable handicap prizes at the Festival in 2015, and in 2014 Bayan and especially Cause Of Causes, were unlucky not to hit the bullseye for Elliott and his team.

There’s little doubt that Ireland’s current leading trainer will be sending a battalion across the Irish Sea for an assault on graded races as well as handicaps. Outlander is fancied to go well in the Gold Cup, and over the weekend Mega Fortune looked every inch a realistic contender for the Triumph Hurdle.

Arguably the yard’s leading Cheltenham hope is Death Duty, who looks likely to head for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. We’ve not seen him since early January, but he’s looked one of Ireland’s best novice hurdlers over the winter. Apple’s Jade is another with a leading chance to scoop a major pot in the Cotswolds. She’s top class, and is likely to contest the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, where she’ll probably clash with Vroum Vroum Mag.

But back to the handicaps, and a host of potential challengers for honours. It was interesting to see A Toi Phil back among the ‘big boys’ at Leopardstown. There’s no doubting that this fella is a touch below top-class, but he remains reasonably handicapped going forward. Better ground at Cheltenham will not be ideal, but he coped well enough when winning a valuable handicap at Leopardstown last month. The stiff finish at Prestbury Park may well make a trip around two and a half miles ideal.

Another novice chaser that looks to be on a fair mark is Ball D’Arc. He won at Fairyhouse in January, and has now had eight runs over fences since September 2016. The Grand Annual looks a realistic proposition, and he is currently best-priced 16s for the festival finale.

Mick Jazz lowered the colours of highly touted Cilaos Emery last time at Punchestown, and rather than a shot at the Supreme, Elliott hinted at the County Hurdle for this progressive son of Blue Bresil. The stallion is responsible for Le Prezien and Ibis Du Rheu, the latter a winner at The Festival last year. He looked particularly tough and gutsy last time out, and should Elliott let him take his chance in the County, he would surely have a great chance.

Another pair of novice hurdlers that I’ll be keeping a close eye on are The Storyteller and Runfordave. I fancy both are just short of Grade 1 standard, but should they line-up in something such as the Coral Cup, they’d be just the type to go close. Neither is short of speed, and both have been pitched against the best over the winter. They both hold entries in the Albert Bartlett, but may be just short of the class needed to capture that one.

It will come as no surprise to see Gordon Elliott having his most successful Cheltenham Festival to date, but as ever it’s finding the winners that is the difficult part. He has a powerful team at all levels, and though there’s no Don Cossack this time round, that shouldn’t stop the Co. Meath trainer from having a fabulous four days.

Festival Markets In Motion

There’s likely to be a fair amount of movement in the Gold Cup and Ryanair markets over the weekend, with top-class action on either side of the Irish Sea.

At Newbury on Saturday we have the Grade 2 Denman Chase. Run at a shade under three miles, the race was established in 2000 and won by the Paul Nicholls trained See More Business. He was then a 10-year-old and had already captured the Gold Cup and the King George (twice). Nicholls has a fabulous record in the event, having won half of the 16 contested.

His winners in 2006 and 2007 are modern day greats of the sport, in Denman and Kauto Star. Both went on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup a month after victory here. Kauto was of course famed for his incredible record in the King George, whilst Denman became a Newbury hero, winning the Hennessy Gold Cup in 2007 and 2009.

A theme of Gold Cup and King George winners capturing this event has carried on in recent years, with Long Run, Silviniaco Conti and Coneygree adding their names to a stunning roll of honour.

A small field is likely to assemble for Saturday’s renewal, with a clash of rising stars eagerly anticipated. Native River certainly enjoyed his last visit to the track, when winning the Hennessy in November. He also won a novice chase over course and distance in 2016, and is currently second-favourite for the Gold Cup in March.

Richard Johnson has partnered the seven-year-old during this successful period, and his aggressive riding style has proved ideal on a horse that finds plenty for pressure. Earlier in the week, the champion jockey said: “What he’s done this year in the Hennessy and Welsh National has been fantastic - he’s been a really dour stayer but a class act at same time. Hopefully, it’s a stepping stone to the Gold Cup.”

The main threat on Saturday appears to be the recent Peter Marsh winner Bristol De Mai. That devastating success at Haydock prompted Twiston-Davies to target the Gold Cup, and he will hope to build on that stunning display at Newbury. Testing ground brings out the best in the six-year-old, and he is likely to have his optimum conditions this weekend.

Daryl Jacob believes that Saturday’s race will show whether the talented grey is truly Gold Cup calibre. Speaking to Racing UK, the jockey said of his mount: “We’ve been quietly excited by this horse for a long time now and I think Saturday will tell us exactly where we are with him. He was a very, very good at Haydock. I went into the race quite confident he could put up that performance. He beat some really good handicappers and you’ve seen what Otago Trail has since done at Sandown.”

Speaking of the main challenger, Jacob said: “It’s a tough order against Native River; what he’s done so far this year has been exceptional. I thought his performance in the Welsh National was top drawer - going out there with top weight and basically grinding them into submission. For him to go out there and do it the way he did makes him one of the main dangers in the Gold Cup. If we are going to be a live contender we’ve got to be getting close to him.”

Paul Nicholls will hope that he can add to his incredible haul, with the French-bred seven-year-old Le Mercurey. He’s always looked a horse capable of a huge performance, though so far over fences has fallen just short of the best in the division. He chased home Many Clouds at Aintree back in December, and cannot be discounted, though the market leaders certainly appear a cut-above.

There’s four Grade 1s at Leopardstown on Sunday, with the Irish Gold Cup Chase the feature. A prestigious event in its own right, the race is often used by those testing Gold Cup credentials. Jodami and Imperial Call won this before heading to victory at Prestbury Park. Florida Pearl and Beef Or Salmon were prolific winners of the Leopardstown feature, but both failed in attempts to capture the main prize at Cheltenham. The latter came fourth to Best Mate in 2004, whilst Florida Pearl came closer when runner-up to Looks Like Trouble in 2000.

Carlingford Lough has won the last two renewals, but has proved disappointing at Cheltenham. He’s back to defend his crown, though is likely to face stiff opposition from several less exposed types. Don Poli looked rejuvenated when second in the Lexus Chase at Christmas, and Gordon Elliott will be hoping for more of the same. Third in last year’s Gold Cup at Cheltenham, the target appears to be the Grand National, though a strong run here would likely see him head to the Cotswolds in March.

Minella Rocco and Sizing John are two progressive types, and could yet become serious Cheltenham Festival contenders. This race has been the target for Minella Rocco for some time, and it is hoped that it will prove a springboard towards a tilt at the Gold Cup in March. Last week, Frank Berry, the racing manager to owner JP McManus, said of Jonjo’s chaser: “The Gold Cup is wide open but it's still a hard race. He's going to Leopardstown and we'll learn a lot more from that. That'll be a big day for him. If he puts up a good performance, it'll make it easier to decide if he goes for the Gold Cup or the National.”

Sizing John looked likely to head for the Ryanair at Cheltenham, but plans are fluid, and Jess Harrington is taking a leap into the unknown with her young chaser. He certainly wasn’t stopping when winning the Kinloch Brae last time at two and a half miles. A race Don Cossack won before his successful trip to Prestbury Park 12 months ago. Clearly tired of chasing Douvan around the circuit, the step-up in trip was inevitable. “He's been good, I'm very happy with him. As for Cheltenham, we'll just have to see. The logical race would be the Ryanair, but we'll just see what happens on Sunday, and leave our options open for the rest of the season.”

Mullins vs Elliott: More Numbers!

Gordon is threatening Willie's hitherto monopoly

Gordon is threatening Willie's hitherto monopoly

Gordon Elliott was interviewed on AtTheRaces recently and in the midst of his conversation with Gary O’Brien the topic of the possibility of his winning the Irish Trainers Championship came up, writes Tony Keenan. ‘Absolutely no chance’ was his answer, a political response no doubt, and one that plenty of our politicians with their limited understanding of probability would be proud of.

The betting markets say otherwise with Elliott an 11/10 shot and Willie Mullins at 4/6, and the pretender surely knows them - or at least has people around him who can tell him. Taking out the over-round, those odds express the view that Mullins has a 56% chance of retaining his title while Elliott has a 44% of winning a first one.

Let’s consider where the respective trainers are in the current season. As of Tuesday, January 24th, Elliott has €2,857,825 in prize-money while Mullins has €2,543,063. Henry De Bromhead is also having a big season and will shatter his previous highs in prize money and winners but for the moment we are concerned with the big two. It’s worth considering what has been needed to win the title in the last few years and how both Mullins and Elliott have done in those campaigns.

 

Mullins Prize money Season Elliott Prize money
€4,489, 105 2015/16 €2,568,750
€4,225,253 2014/15 €1,546,070
€3,908,059 2013/14 €1,134,160
€2,997,713 2012/13 €1,042,995

 

Elliott has been runner-up in each to the last four seasons though his challenge never got closer than the €1,920,355 he was behind last time; it was hardly a meaningful competition with the result a foregone conclusion. But already he has surpassed his 2015/16 figure which has in turn taken some available prize-money away from Mullins; the lofty €4 million figures Mullins won the in the past two seasons may not now be necessary to claim the prize.

Both trainers have their respective strengths and weaknesses, races they do well in and races they struggle in, though struggle is a relative term when you are talking about this level of domination.

 

Elliott and Mullins by Race Type, 2016/17 Season

Mullins Race Type Elliott
10/60 Handicaps 27/280
26/76 Graded/Listed Races 16/76
50/118 Maidens 50/304
17/44 Bumpers 28/97
22/54 Other 20/98
125/352 Total 141/855

 

The sheer scope of the Elliott operation is what stands out; he has had more than double the number of runners that Mullins has had. What is perhaps more amazing is the number of individual horses he has run, 235 and counting as I write. Even in the midst of the Mullins hegemony in the past five years, he never had more than 195 individual runners in a season (that came in 2013/14) while there is a distinct possibility that Elliott goes over 300 for the campaign, a previously unthinkable figure.

One area where Mullins has been notably quiet this season has been handicaps and while he won two feature races at Galway with Clondaw Warrior and Westerner Lady in the summer, his last handicap winner came on the 17th of October at Roscommon with Dreambaby. It’s not so much a case that Mullins has been doing badly in handicaps – his strikerate of 16.7% is well ahead of Elliott’s 9.6% - but rather that he hasn’t been trying particularly hard.

For instance, he took potentially well-treated novices like Haymount and Bellow Mome out of Sunday’s Leopardstown Chase at the five-day stage, a race which Elliott won with a similar type in A Toi Phil. His method of training – his horses are aimed at winning maidens and going on from there – is hardly conducive to landing handicaps and while he will likely run such horses in handicap company as the season goes on, particularly at Punchestown, there is a chance that the bird will have flown. Elliott, of course, is having an A-plus season in valuable handicap chases, winning the Galway Plate, the Kerry and Munster Nationals, the Troytown, Paddy Power, and Dan Moore along with the Leopardstown Chase.

How Mullins responds to the Elliott challenge will be interesting. Will he adapt, or stick to proven methods? Adapting is not as easy as it seems with many trainers over the years trying and failing to change what they are good at, but then Mullins is not your typical trainer. It’s actually less interesting to consider what Elliott will do as the answer seems simple: he will run his horses out, again and again, as he has done throughout his career.

Certainly when it comes to races at the end of the season, he seems the one that is more likely to engage in pot-hunting, giving a horse an extra run that it otherwise may not have had, though Mullins did do some of that last year when trying to win the UK trainers' championship.

Another area where Mullins has pulled back markedly is with his runners this season in the UK. In fact, Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek was his sole runner. That’s a big shift from the last two seasons as you can see below.

I’ve included both the Mullins and Elliott runners in each campaign from the start of the season through to the end of January. Elliott’s numbers have continued to rise whereas Mullins’s have fallen off a cliff – apparently the owner wanted Vroum Vroum Mag to run at Kempton on December 26th but was overruled – though the former’s may need a little context as he is inclined to have runners at the UK gaff tracks that would struggle to win in Ireland. That said, the likes of Apple’s Jade, Balthazar D’Allier and Ucello Conti ran in the UK before the turn of the year.

 

Mullins and Elliott – UK Raiders by Season (to end of January)

Mullins Season Elliott
1/1 2016/17 23/128
9/36 2015/16 24/102
3/20 2014/15 29/83

 

This places Cheltenham in a really unusual spot in 2017. It could be a case that a big Cheltenham for one of the pair proves detrimental to their chances of winning at home and it’s rather like the football fan that has to choose between winning a Premier League and a European Cup. Sensible arguments can be made for both though Elliott having won a Gold Cup but not a trainers' championship might be worth considering.

We’ve been told that Mullins has filled all the boxes that were left empty by the Gigginstown departures but he won’t have replaced like with like; the new inmates will have been younger horses that generally don’t compete in the really valuable races as they take time to mature out of bumpers and novice races. The loss of a horse like Vautour would be tough on any yard but where Mullins had reinforcements previously there is not quite the depth among the experienced horses now.

Elliott on the other hand got a number of ‘ready-made’ horses from Mullins (amongst other trainers) and he has done well with Apple’s Jade, Outlander and Don Poli. Also, Elliott was quite shrewd in some of his purchases in the horses-in-training sales. He acquired Mick Jazz (£27,000), Ned Stark (£70,000), Turn Over Sivola (£15,000) and Rightdownthemiddle (£35,000) before the season proper and they’re horses with the sort of lofty marks that get them into the valuable races; they won’t all turn out well but it would hardly be shocking if one landed a big prize this season and that could be the winning and losing of the championship.

Those big prizes will be the key to deciding the prize. As of Tuesday January 24th there is a little over €10 million of prizemoney remaining in the season and the breakdown by race type follows. It’s best to consider the ‘big 25’ as there are 25 such races left that are worth at least €100,000.

They comprise the Irish Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup at Leopardstown, the two Grade 1s at Fairyhouse, all the Grade 1s at Punchestown and seven handicaps, two over hurdles and five over fences. All but one of those handicap chases are over trips of three miles plus with the Irish National the jewel in a crown with a massive prize fund of €500,000. It has been Elliott who has dominated these races all season - though neither has won an Irish National as yet - Bless The Wings going close for Elliott last year.

 

Remaining Prizemoney

Race Type Races Left Prizemoney Percentage
Maiden Hurdles 64 €819,500 8.02%
Conditions Hurdles 20 €358,500 3.51%
Graded Hurdles 29 €2,000,500 19.62%
Handicap Hurdles 71 €1,538,500 15.05%
Beginners Chases 22 €311,000 3.04%
Novice Chases 6 €105,000 1.03%
Graded Novice Chases 12 €773,500 7.57%
Conditions Chases 10 €199,500 1.95%
Graded Chases 12 €975,000 9.54%
Handicap Chases 50 €1,997,000 19.54%
Hunter Chases 14 €189,000 1.85%
Bumpers 53 €948,500 9.28%

 

As this stage, I find making a prediction on the outcome of this race impossible. I’ve vacillated on it all season; when the Gigginstown horses initially left Mullins I thought it was great for Elliott but would hardly signal the end of the Mullins domination. Then there was Elliott’s six-timer on Troytown day which swung things in his favour before Mullins went on the rampage over Christmas.

In January however, he has cooled off again as Elliott has won big handicap chases on back-to-back weekends. Compared with the uncompetitive seasons we’ve had recently, it’s been fascinating viewing and one that could well go down to the last day of Punchestown.

Sit back and enjoy!

- Tony Keenan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don Gone! – Elliott Calls Time on Cossack Career

Kempton may have captured most of the headlines for obvious reasons, but for me, the major news from yesterday was that of the retirement of Gold Cup winner Don Cossack.

Gordon Elliott’s top-class staying chaser had been off the track since his devastating performance at Cheltenham last March. Hopes were high of a return, and only in December Elliott said of his Gold Cup hero: “He’s been coming along nicely over the past few months. In addition to cantering away, he swims twice a day and it's so far so good with him. It's still a case of taking one day at a time, but if things continue to go well the plan will be to give him one run before the Gold Cup.”

Sadly, yesterday the County Meath trainer revealed that the horse had met with a further setback, and the decision was made to call it a day. On his Betfair blog Elliott announced: “It's a real sickener for Gigginstown, myself, Bryan Cooper and the whole yard. We knew it was never certain we would get him back to the racecourse and even after that, to get him back to his best, but we were hopeful and he was on track for a run at Gowran Park next month.”

Elliott went on: “He's a horse of a lifetime and he owes us nothing. I said all season that if he had any sort of setback at all we would not abuse him and retire him straight away. He's won Grade Ones at Cheltenham, Aintree, Punchestown, Fairyhouse and Down Royal. He was the top-rated horse in Britain and Ireland for the last two seasons running, and we'd have loved to see him take on Thistlecrack in the Gold Cup. It was one of the highlights of my career when Don Cossack won the Gold Cup for us last year and he retires a champion.”

It’s been a tough week for lovers of the Gold Cup, with the news that Coneygree will also miss the race in March. On Monday, Sara Bradstock appeared to admit that time had run out for the Gold Cup winner of 2015, when saying: “We're not going to enter him. If everything changed and suddenly everything looked perfect, his x-rays and him, we could supplement him, but I'm not going to enter him because I'm 90 per cent certain he will not run.”

She added: “It's all too quick. It's only two months from now and he's still only walking and we're not going to be there in top form. He'll definitely have some spring target and could go to Aintree or Punchestown unless something else goes wrong. We just need to do this right.”

For Jump racing fans, all of this is of course hugely disappointing. The best races need the best horses in opposition, and unfortunately this year’s Gold Cup now looks a little threadbare. Colin Tizzard’s grip on the ‘Blue Riband’ now looks tighter than ever, with Thistlecrack a shade of odds-on across the board. His stablemate, Native River, is generally a 5/1 shot, and another from the Tizzard yard, Alary, continues to be supported, despite never yet stepping hoof on a British track.

The French recruit was a top-class performer in France. A huge chestnut gelding, with an eye-catching white flash down his face, he was last seen going down by half-a-length in a Grade 1 at Auteuil. He’s only a six-year-old, and that appeared to be his best run to date. Tizzard has made no secret of how much he thinks of the youngster, and he remains an intriguing ‘dark horse’ for the main event in March.

Magnificent Martaline – A Leading French Stallion

The career of talented chaser Dynaste came to an end at the weekend, following a slightly disappointing run in the Veterans’ Handicap Chase at Sandown.

The popular 11-year-old grey had been one of David Pipe’s stable stars for almost half a dozen years. The racecourse highlight came when winning the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival back in 2014. He followed that performance with a second-place finish in the Betfred Bowl at Aintree, and later that year was runner-up to Silviniaco Conti in the King George at Kempton.

Though an attractive looking grey, Dynaste could not compete in the looks department with his talented father Martaline. The truly gorgeous French stallion is virtually white from nose to tail. A strikingly powerful colt, he stands at Haras De Montaigu, a beautifully picturesque stud in North-West France.

A classy horse on the flat, Martaline was at his best as a four-year-old in 2003, when runner-up in the Group 2 Grand Prix De Chantilly before winning the Prix Maurice De Nieuil at Longchamp. That victory came at 1m6f, when he defeated an outstanding stayer in Westerner. He was victorious or placed in 12 of his 22 career starts. It’s also interesting to note, that his most disappointing performances came on heavy ground.

As a leading French National Hunt stallion in recent years, he has produced numerous talented jumpers for trainers on both sides of the English Channel.

Agrapart was a high-profile success for the French sire recently, when taking the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. Trained by Nick Williams, the six-year-old clearly thrived in testing conditions, when getting up late to beat L’Ami Serge, with Cole Harden seven lengths back in third. He’s likely to head for the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, though he looks a chaser in the making, and certainly has the action over hurdles to suggest that he’ll suit a fence.

Another with a Cheltenham success to his name this season, is the Colin Tizzard trained Viconte Du Noyer. Owned by the Potts’, he’d previously been trained in Ireland by Henry De Bromhead, and was winning the Grade 3 Betvictor Handicap Chase on his first run for the new yard. He failed to take to the Grand National fences next time at Aintree and then ran below par in testing ground at the Welsh National. His win at Cheltenham suggested there’s plenty more to come, so I wouldn’t be losing faith in this fella. Better ground may well be essential, and he’s worth a second luck with conditions to suit.

One from the bloodline that does enjoy Aintree’s National fences, is the Gordon Elliott trained Ucello Conti. He was fourth in the Becher Chase in December, having been sixth in the Grand National last April. It’s tough to say whether he truly stayed the trip that day on soft ground, but he’s likely to be back for another crack this year, and on a more attractive looking handicap mark.

Noel Meade also looks to have a talented chaser on his hands with the six-year-old grey gelding Disko. He seemed to appreciate better ground when running a cracker at Leopardstown over Christmas. His third-place finish in the Grade 1 three-mile novice chase was a personal best, and he’d be a live contender at Cheltenham in March, for either the JLT or the RSA. He’s not short of speed. Meade’s last Cheltenham Festival winner was another son of Martaline, with Very Wood landing the Albert Bartlett of 2014 at huge odds.

Another from the Martaline production line, who is rapidly going the right way, is Tim Vaughan’s hurdler, Theligny. Despite four victories and three second place finishes from his eight outings over hurdles, the six-year-old remains on a fair handicap mark. He was impressive at Newbury last time, when showing a terrific attitude in holding off the Rebecca Curtis trained Geordie Des Champs. That came at two and a half miles, and the target may well be the Martin Pipe Conditional at The Festival, with classy claimer Alan Johns likely to be on-board.

As an 18-year-old, Martaline continues to prove an extremely popular stallion. A strike-rate of 31% this season for his offspring, shows just how potent he is. It would be no surprise to see many more of his progeny travelling across the Channel in the coming years.

Tizzard top in Tolworth

Finian’s Oscar ran out a comfortable winner of the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown.

In the absence of Nicky Henderson’s Kayf Grace, Saturday’s renewal looked to be a head-to-head between Tizzard’s exciting youngster, and the Paul Nicholls trained Capitaine. The pair battled for favouritism, and then continued the tussle on the track. In truth, the result rarely looked in doubt. Approaching two flights from home, Tom O’Brien made his move, and Finian’s Oscar swept clear. Capitaine tried to go with him, but a poor jump at the second last put paid to his chances.

Tizzard said of the impressive winner: “He’s a real professional horse. He's a gorgeous young horse, but we were worried we’d not done enough with him. He's only won a point to point and a novices' hurdle at Hereford, but the way he did it at Hereford, why waste him in a little race when you can have a go at this? He looked in control most of the way and he soon went five lengths clear. He stuttered into the last and I thought ‘is he going to stop’, but as soon as Tom got busy, he went on again.”

Of plans leading to The Festival in March, Tizzard added: “He probably will run again. I think the easiest option is to go two and a half, but he's got the speed for two and he stays.”

Bookies were taking no chances, and slashed his odds to 5/1 for the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle. He’s generally a 10/1 shot for the shorter Supreme Novices’. With the ground likely to run quicker at Cheltenham in March, the chances are that he will head for the Neptune. The trip should prove ideal, though whether his performance on Saturday warrants such euphoria is questionable.

Capitaine floundered somewhat in the ground, having previously run below par at Haydock in testing conditions. It was also a surprise to see Sam Twiston-Davies riding such a patient race, after the horse had performed so well from the front at Ascot the time before. He’s a gelding that lacks gears, and was caught short when O’Brien kicked for home on the winner. Messire Des Obeaux, and numerous runners from Ireland, are likely to prove a far more serious test for Tizzard’s young novice in March.

One that looks likely to swerve the clash is the impressive Irish hurdler, Death Duty. He was in action at Naas yesterday, taking the Grade 1 Lawlor’s Hotel Novice Hurdle. His task was made easier by the last flight fall of Augusta Kate. Willie Mullins’ mare was launching a strong challenge, and had every chance, when Ruby was forced to go long at the last. The mare crumpled on landing, leaving Death Duty in glorious isolation, galloping home to win by nine lengths.

Of the victory, Gordon Elliott said: “To be honest, I thought they didn't go fast enough. Our lad is just an out-and-out stayer. They were upsides when the mare fell, so it's hard to say but the one thing you know about our horse is that he would have kept pulling out. Jack thought he had it covered. He has his job done again and that will be it now until Cheltenham.”

Doubts remain over the festival target, though Elliott appeared to be favouring the longer race when saying: “There is a long way to go between now and Cheltenham, but if the race was tomorrow, I'd be saying the Albert Bartlett, definitely. He's a proper, big three-mile chaser. At this stage, of all the good horses I've had, none of them were ever as good as hurdlers, but that doesn't mean they'll do it as chasers. I'd say he's a fair one.”

Mullins was philosophical in defeat, when saying of Augusta Kate: “She trotted up fine. I'm sure she'll be a little bit sore in the morning. She was running a good race and Ruby felt he had a little bit left, but there was still a lot of racing to do. The winner is a fair machine, so we're just happy our mare was running a good race. Whether she'd have won or not is another day's work.”

Festival targets remain a mystery, with Mullins adding: “We'll see how she comes out of the race and go from there.”

There’s no doubt that she was running a huge race when coming down at the last, and is now generally a 5/1 chance for the Mares Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. Mullins already has the favourite for that particular race in Airlie Beach, and it would come as no surprise should one of them take their chance against the boys in the Neptune.

For now, it’s Death Duty and Finian’s Oscar that have enhanced their reputation, with the Cheltenham Festival looming large on the horizon.

Robin to Rock at Newbury

The Grade 1 Challow Novices’ Hurdle is the centrepiece of Newbury’s card on Saturday.

Run at just over two miles and four furlongs, the race has a short yet illustrious roll of honour. Classy types have taken this, and gone on to take high order over hurdles and fences.

Large Action was successful in 1993, before finishing third in the Champion Hurdle a few months later. Trained by Oliver Sherwood, he went one place better the following year, when chasing home Alderbrook at the Festival. Cornish Rebel won the Challow in 2003, and went on to become an outstanding staying chaser. Third in the RSA at Cheltenham in 2005, he came second in a Scottish National, third in a Welsh National and third in the Hennessy Gold Cup.

A horse that went on to become one of the great staying chasers, took this in 2006, though the race was run at Cheltenham. Denman finished runner-up in the Neptune that season, but returned to the Cheltenham Festival to win the RSA and of course the Gold Cup. His demolition of Kauto Star was one of the most incredible performances I have ever witnessed. His victories in the Hennessy were no less impressive. He was a true warrior on the track, a mighty racehorse.

Wichita Lineman took the Challow the year after Denman. He too went on to festival success when winning the stayers novice hurdle at Cheltenham. His most memorable win came over fences at Prestbury Park, when taking the William Hill Trophy Handicap Chase, thanks to an incredible ride from AP McCoy. Only the ‘Champ’ could have got the horse home in front that day.

Further top-class winners of the Challow Novices’ Hurdle include; Diamond Harry, Reve de Sivola, Fingal Bay, Taquin du Seuil, and last year Barters Hill.

This year’s renewal has attracted a similar array of talented looking contenders, though the final line-up is still uncertain. Gordon Elliott has a talented team engaged, though it would come as no surprise should none arrive. Death Duty for Gigginstown and Baltazar D’Allier owned by JP McManus are the two outstanding challengers. The former has arguably been the most impressive Irish novice hurdler so far this winter. Should he travel over, he’ll take all the beating.

One that does look certain to make the start is the Dan Skelton trained Robin Roe. Sensational at Aintree on his hurdling debut, he has an eye-catching pedigree, being by Robin Des Champs out of a Flemensfirth mare. He’s a gorgeous looking gelding, built for fences. It’s always unwise to go overboard on the back of such little evidence, but he does look to have huge potential.

Alan King is set to run Messire Des Obeaux, who last time gave 7lbs and a beating to the useful Ballyandy. He got the better of Nicky Henderson’s Cultivator on that occasion, and the two are set to clash again. They appear closely matched and set a solid standard, though maybe lack star quality.

Geordie Des Champs has been kept busy by trainer Rebecca Curtis, and is three from three so far over hurdles. Like Robin Roe, he is by Robin Des Champs and is likely to make a lovely chaser. He showed plenty of guts last time, winning under a double-penalty at Warwick. Owned by JP McManus, this fella looks sure to go close.

Colin Tizzard has been sweeping all before him, and should Elegant Escape take his place at the start, he’d be impossible to dismiss. His jumping was somewhat patchy last time, when battling bravely to win at Ascot. He’s undoubtedly talented, but this marks a huge step up in class. I’d expect him to run well, but likely come-up a little short at this level.

In the likely absence of Gordon Elliott’s best performers, I hope and expect that Robin Roe will prove too good, though his lack of experience is a slight concern. I believe that the battle-hardened Geordie Des Champs is his main danger.

Power Struggle Continues as Elliott Captures Lexus

The last few days have done much to ignite the trainers’ championships either side of the Irish Sea.

In Ireland, Team Mullins have been in astounding form. On Monday, a trio of victories at Leopardstown was matched by a treble at Limerick. On Tuesday, the Closutton guys bagged a stunning five-timer at Leopardstown. And yesterday a further four victories were added to the incredible haul. Douvan, Min, Vroum Vroum Mag and Bellshill, have been among the high-profile winners, as Mullins unleashed the ‘big guns’.

With such a flurry of success, it was vital that Gordon Elliott struck back, and this he certainly did when winning the valuable Paddy Power Chase on Tuesday, and yesterday capturing the Grade 1 Lexus Chase in a truly thrilling renewal. With the combined winnings of almost €200,000, Elliott has managed to maintain his advantage at the head of the Trainers’ Championship.

In the Lexus, it came as something of a surprise when Elliott scooped first and second with Outlander and Don Poli. The former was trying three miles over fences for only the second time, whilst the latter was returning from a truly stinking effort at Down Royal. The Mullins trained Djakadam was sent off favourite, and held a prominent position throughout. But as the leaders quickened turning for home, Walsh needed to get serious to keep the favourite in touch.

At the last, a trio of Gigginstown horses appeared to have the race between them, with Bryan Cooper on Valseur Lido making a race winning move. But somewhat surprisingly, he wilted in the heat of battle, leaving Don Poli, Outlander and the staying-on Djakadam tussling for major honours. And it was Outlander that found most for pressure, pulling clear for a two-length success.

The trainer was understandably thrilled with both when saying: “Don Poli was brilliant, David was brilliant, Outlander was good and Jack was great. I feel a bit sorry for Bryan, who had to make the decision, but he'll be back. We've been out hunting with Don Poli and took the headgear off to try and sweeten him up today and it looked to have worked, then Jack was riding Outlander to be placed and coming to the last I started to get excited.”

Elliott went on: “I thought Outlander's last run was his career-best and, sure, he improved again today, didn't he? It was touch and go whether he ran here, but with the ground drying out we decided to come. He was only beaten about a length by Djakadam at Punchestown the last day, and one jump made the difference between winning and losing. I suppose the obvious race is to come back here for the Irish Gold Cup. I'm delighted with Don Poli, and I'd say the Grand National is the plan with him.”

Interestingly, with the trainers’ title in mind, Mullins spoke of sending Djakadam straight to Cheltenham, thereby missing the valuable Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February. Elliott currently leads the title race by almost 300,000 euros. And his firepower in valuable handicaps, both over hurdles and fences, coupled with the dramatic ascent of Outlander, give renewed hope that he may well take this title-tussle to the brink.

If Elliott versus Mullins continues to thrill, then the Tizzard v Nicholls dual also took a twist or two over the Christmas period.

It’s fair to say that the depth of talent at Ditcheat continues to give them the edge. With 99 wins from more than 300 runs, Nicholls probably has the numbers to cling to his title. Yet Colin Tizzard remains a huge threat, thanks in the main to his three outstanding chasers, Cue Card, Native River and Thistlecrack. With the Welsh National and King George VI Chase secured, the gap at the top of the title table was reduced to just £200,000.

Whilst Tizzard had a Christmas full of joy, Mr Mix at Wincanton was Team Ditcheat’s lone winner from nearing 20 runners. Frodon and Present Man were also-rans in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton. Marracudja was kicked aside by Altior in the Wayward Lad Chase, and though Silviniaco ran a cracker in the King George, he never looked like winning. At Chepstow, Vicente was a distant sixth in the Welsh National.

The season ending festivals will play a huge part in the outcome of this year’s championship, and you’d have to say that it’s Team Tizzard that appear to hold the stronger hand. It’s an enthralling season on so many fronts, but these training power tussles, are arguably proving to be the most captivating narrative of all. The dominant forces of Mullins and Nicholls find themselves in a mighty scrap, and neither make a habit of coming off second best.

Henderson Holds Powerful Hand At Ascot

It may be small on history, but the Ladbroke Handicap Hurdle at Ascot is certainly big on popularity.

The valuable event, now known as the Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle, is a Grade 3 run over two miles. It came into being back in 2001, with Nicky Henderson the most successful trainer having picked up the pot on three occasions. It’s a race that the Irish have started to target, with Gordon Elliott striking gold twice in the last four years.

Victories are spread between four, five and six-year-olds, with just one seven-year-old success. The race tends to go to unexposed types and is noted for going to horses with strong recent form. Every winner of the Ladbroke had won or finished placed on its previous outing.

And like last week’s Caspian Caviar, this is handicap that can be won by those carrying plenty of weight. In its short history, two have lumped top-weight to victory, whilst 12 months ago, Jolly’s Cracked It carried 11st 3lbs in the thrilling dead-heat finish with Sternrubin.

This is one Saturday handicap that has eluded champion trainer Paul Nicholls. He’s had plenty of cracks at it, and Ptit Zig came pretty close when runner-up in 2013 off top-weight. Discounting Nicholls would of course be folly, as Frodon’s success proved last weekend.

With a strong record in the race, it’s no surprise that Nicky Henderson’s Consul De Thaix is towards the head of the market. The four-year-old is certainly unexposed, with just four runs to his name. And he has the requisite strong recent performance, thanks to a second-place finish in his seasonal debut at Sandown. He stayed on powerfully on that occasion, though had to be stoked up plenty early enough to get on terms with the leaders. It’ll be quick on Saturday, and he’ll need to travel better if he’s to land a winning blow.

Stable companion Brain Power got the better of him at Sandown and is set to re-oppose tomorrow. He’ll be worse off at the weights, but travelled like a dream to win last time. He looked to have idled a little in front, and I’d be far from certain that those placings will be reversed. He ran a cracker in a Grade 1 at the Punchestown Festival back in April, and is a big imposing sort. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t run a huge race.

Henderson also runs top-weight Hargam. He was disappointing last time at Cheltenham, but better ground will certainly help. Though classy, he is not the biggest, and he may again struggle to haul 11st 12lbs in such a competitive handicap.

Nicholls goes with Diego Du Charmil and Modus, with the latter arguably his best hope. The former was well beaten by Sternrubin at the track in October. He was sent off favourite that day, and was incredibly disappointing. It’s a tough one to forgive, especially as he appeared badly outpaced from some way out.

Modus finished third in the same race and was undoubtedly suited by the sounder surface. He then ran another cracker in the Greatwood at Cheltenham, and is clearly in good heart. Barry Geraghty takes the ride, and he had plenty to choose from. He looks likely to go close, but is up 5lbs for that effort at Prestbury Park, and that’s enough to put me off.

Jolly’s Cracked It and Sternrubin are back to try and defend their crowns. The former returns from injury and therefore lacks a prep-run. Nevertheless, he has gone well fresh in the past, and has a terrific record at Ascot. He’s a seven-year-old, which on the trends is a negative, though he has relatively few miles on the clock. He’s been well-backed throughout the week, and may well go off favourite. He’s 6lbs higher than last year, and it’s a tough ask on his return, but he’s a huge rugged sort, and cannot be discounted.

Sternrubin is another that loves the track, and remains on a competitive handicap mark. He could only finish fifth last time at Cheltenham, which strictly speaking knocks him out of contention on trends. He’s also a little more exposed than most, even though he’s only a five-year-old. Trends say no, but I fancy this fella will go close again.

Dan Skelton hit the big-time with victory in this in 2013, and Willow’s Saviour is back for another try. A spell on the sidelines, followed by a season over fences, means that he arrives here a trend busting nine-year-old. Yet those two years off the track leave him with few miles on the clock, and he is two from two at the track. I fancy he’ll run a big race.

And what of the Irish challenge?

Tony Martin and Noel Meade have entries that are prominent in the betting. Martin has Pyromaniac, Quick Jack and Golden Spear, with any of the three capable of going well. Quick Jack is a hardy dual-purpose performer, and though high enough in the handicap, has the 7lb claimer James Slevin in the plate. He seems to have been around forever, yet it’s surprising that he’s only run nine times over hurdles, and has an impressive 33% strike-rate.

Pyromaniac was down the field in this race back in 2014. Another that mixes flat and jumps to great effect, he also looks plenty high enough in the handicap, and is tough to fancy. The one that sneaks in carrying 10 stone, is Golden Spear. The five-year-old is yet to make a real impact over hurdles, with one win from six outings. But the same cannot be said over the flat, where he was last seen winning the November Handicap at Leopardstown. He’d previously run a cracker in the Cesarewitch at Newmarket. He’s an interesting contender, and is as short as 7/1 in some places.

Despite having to carry plenty of weight, I’m keen on the chances of Brain Power after his impressive performance at Sandown. I would also expect Sternrubin and Jolly’s Cracked It to go close again, though Willow’s Saviour is my each-way fancy. Best of luck to those having a punt.

Mullins Moving Through The Gears

Gordon Elliott continues to set the pace at the head of the Irish Trainer’s Championship, with 119 wins and prize-money of just over €2m. Willie Mullins remains hot on his trail, with 82 winners and slightly more than €1.5m in prize money. Henry de Bromhead is the best of the rest, though trailing well behind the leading pair.

Last Sunday at Fairyhouse, it was Mullins that struck first, with victory in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, claiming the €50,000 pot. Airlie Beach is a rapidly improving mare, and yet to be defeated in seven starts under rules. She’s by the St Leger winner Shantou, which suggests a step-up in trip would bring about further improvement.

Gordon Elliott wasted no time in hitting back, when winning the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace Hurdle. Apple’s Jade fought off the Mullins trained, and previously undefeated Vroum Vroum Mag, in a thrilling finish. The runner-up had been given plenty to do by Ruby Walsh, but appeared to be arriving with a winning effort at the last, only to be denied by a short-head. The result not only emphasised the thrilling nature of this season’s Irish trainers title, but also served to prove the strength of the current crop of mares competing over hurdles.

The victory for Apple’s Jade was only Elliott’s second success of the two-day Fairyhouse meeting, compared to three wins and three seconds for Mullins. Indeed, there’s signs that the Mullins machine is just starting to go through the gears. A double at Limerick last Friday, followed on from a double at Thurles the previous day. So far in December, the master of Closutton is operating at almost a 50% strike rate.

Navan takes place on Saturday, with more decent prize money to be had. Mullins holds a strong hand in the valuable novice chase, with Briar Hill set to return. Elliott then has a whole battalion set to launch an assault on the Foxrock Handicap Chase.

But it’s on Sunday when things really get exciting. Both have solid claims in the stayers’ novice hurdle at Cork, prior to Douvan’s anticipated return in the Hilly Way Chase. The Arkle winner and short-priced favourite for the Champion Chase in March, is one of the most exciting horses around. Mullins then has yet another classy pair entered in the valuable mares’ novice chase.

At Punchestown, the Grade 1 John Durkan Chase is the most valuable event of the weekend, and Mullins will be hoping that Gold Cup runner-up Djakadam can repeat last year’s stunning success. On that occasion, he hammered Valseur Lido and Gilgamboa. On Sunday, he’s likely to face a fast improving Sub Lieutenant from Henry de Bromhead’s yard, and the classy, though rarely foot perfect Outlander, trained by Gordon Elliott. The winner will be 50,000 euros the richer.

The continuing rivalry between Mullins and Elliott is sure to be one of the major talking points during this winter’s National Hunt campaign. Add to the mix, Ricci versus Gigginstown and Walsh versus Cooper, and we have ourselves a thrilling narrative that is sure to produce one enthralling chapter after another.

Gordon Elliott was quick out of the blocks, but Mullins knows there’s plenty of twists in the road between now and the end of the season. Signs are, that the race has now truly begun.

Monday Musings: Aftertime Acca’s

Native River scores Hennessy glory

Native River scores Hennessy glory

Do you like a multiple bet, say a Placepot, a Jackpot, or a single trainer combination wager? I was talking last Monday about Gordon Elliott and his rather high number of runners and having seen events at Navan yesterday, I think I’ve got a system, writes Tony Stafford.

If I’d played it yesterday, it would have yielded a profit of around 93 times my outlay, so, better late than never, here goes.

Take all Elliott’s horses – except where Willie Mullins has an odds-on novice chase newcomer certainty, as was the case with Min at Navan, and link all his other runners in a win accumulator. Wisely Gordon kept the opposition to Min to a min(imum), just a single 12-1 shot who finished seventh, but he won, as the system predicts, all the other six contests.

Admittedly, you needed to make a substantial stake, but as with the Jackpot attempts you and certainly I made in the old days, around 440 units is not out of the way.

That final number was arrived at helpfully with two singles and a two, while you would have needed five in the 30-runner opener (against another Mullins odds-on shot – thought he would beat that!), a four and just the 11 (yes ELEVEN!) to solve the featured Ladbrokes Troytown Chase.

So for 5 x 1 x 4 x 11 x 2 x 1 we would have got it. The successful horses were in turn 11-1, 11-10, 7-1, 12-1 (with Elliott’s 7-2 favourite 4th, that’s why you need the cover because he can win with anything!), 5-1 and 13-8 in the bumper. That’s 41,276-1 for the accumulator, 93 times the 440 unit investment.

Four of the six winners, from 16 and 25 overall, were owned by Gigginstown House Stud. I remember months before the recent exodus of Mr O’Leary’s hordes from Mullins, Gordon was interviewed about some new raw recruits joining his stable. The inference from him was that they were to be in a virtual holding phase before going to their eventual destinations. It seems they were already there, along with the new bunch arriving from Willie.

For all the polarised nature of Irish jump racing, there is still a macabre thrill when one of the big boys gets beaten (as long as you aren’t backing him), but increasingly in Elliott’s case it’s often Gordon beating himself. One of the triumphs of present-day commentators is the ability to identify the multiple caps worn by the same owners’ jockeys and for that Des Scahill deserves praise.

Elliott’s winners yesterday collected €152,000, and a good few more of them for the places, but that was less than the other man of the moment in jumping, Colin Tizzard, won for his owners with his Newbury treble on Saturday.

He had runners in six of the races, five singles and two in the last Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup - won in great style by the six-year-old Native River, who was backed down to 7-2 favouritism and given a brilliantly aggressive ride by Richard Johnson. His treble, which also included Thistlecrack, brought a collective £155,000.

At various times Native River looked likely to be overhauled by better-travelling, more conservatively-ridden rivals, but the combination of the horse’s constitution, the trainer’s brilliant stable form and the rider’s determination to win the race for the first time proved crucial.

It’s probably old age, but while sitting on one of the benches just outside the paddock, which face the weighing room, I noticed something about that jockey that had never previously caught my eye.

I do confess that had I not been watching a wonderful film featuring Eddie Redmayne and Michelle Williams, playing respectively Colin Clark (son of Lord Clark of Civilisation; brother of politician, Alan) and Marilyn Monroe, a couple of nights earlier, I definitely would not have been so inclined.

Young Colin, it seems, had a week-long dalliance with Marilyn when she came over to play in the film, The Prince and the Showgirl, alongside and under the direction of Sir Laurence Olivier. In one scene, the car in which they are leaving Pinewood Studios, passes some actors, among whom a famous British comedian of the 50’s and early 60’s comes briefly into view.

From that minute, the subconscious took over, and as the champion jumps jockey of last and this season entered my vision on Saturday, that clinched it. It’s …… ……!  Naturally I daren’t reveal who it was, and if anyone starts calling him ……, they’ll have me to answer to.

*

The sales are winding down to their annual conclusion with five days of mares starting today following four of foals and one of yearlings last week.

Believe it or believe it not, last year I happened to be at the sale when a friend and very experienced one-time racehorse owner who still plays at the odd house valuation, tagged along with me to the Juddmonte pavilion.

The owners of Frankel, Kingman and most memorably this autumn, Breeders’ Cup Classic hero Arrogate, always provide the highlight of the mares’ sale, their classy cast-offs providing smart pedigrees for smaller breeders around the world to augment their stock in many cases making foundation mares.

In all, 58 of their home-breds will go through the ring, withdrawals apart, so the Juddmonte hospitality will be at full swing. Their mares sell tomorrow and Thursday and to get to the refreshments, you need to pass through Someries Paddock, just behind the main sales restaurant.

There could be no better man to meet and greet the needy and greedy who gravitate to the tent than the genial Lord Teddy Grimthorpe. Nobody in racing spends more time smiling than Teddy, which is just as well for the almost-unemployed valuer friend of mine, whose days as an owner are long gone, but who has been salivating in anticipation since New Year’s Day..

Last year I think my man - like the model for Richard Johnson he must remain nameless - was fairly frugal in his consumption as he’s not a drinker, but the beef on the bone and several desserts found the way onto his plate. I think he plans a more serious assault this week.

It looks as though I’ll only make it there today, with a couple of longer trips elsewhere scheduled for later in the week. I hope Juddmonte mares sell for fortunes, and that everyone has a lovely time.

- Tony Stafford

Gigginstown and Mullins Split

News of Allardyce losing the England job was tough to comprehend, but was the Gigginstown split from Mullins truly that unexpected?

Of the parting, Mullins told At The Races: “We're parting company - it's basically over fees, I imagine. I put up my fees for the first time in 10 years and Gigginstown chose not to pay them. That's it, we're just parting company. I'm not willing to try to maintain the standards I have (without putting the fees up), so that's the way it is.”

Ireland’s Champion Trainer continued his candid assessment by saying: “Everyone that comes into my yard is treated the same. I see enough people going to the wall in Ireland all the time. We've evolved our methods of training, which obviously costs a lot, and we're not prepared to sacrifice that. They've been very good to us over the years, they've bought some fantastic horses and there's a fantastic team of horses going to whoever is going to get them, I don't know where they are going to go.”

“It's only been in the last few hours this has come about. I wish them the best, it's the way it is, we move on. They'll be very hard horses to replace. Even with all the money in the world, lots of people try to buy horses like that, but sometimes they just happen. We've put together a fantastic team with Eddie O'Leary and ourselves but that's it. It's there now and the team is there for someone else to train.”

In the region of 60 horses will therefore be heading to pastures new, with the likelihood that Mullins’ major rival in Ireland, Gordon Elliott, will be the main beneficiary. There’s little doubt that Elliott training the Gold Cup winner for Gigginstown, would have made this type of decision easier for the O’Leary’s to take. Elliott is now proven at the highest level and O’Leary can be confident that such a switch will not be to the detriment of the horses involved.

And many of those horses are highly talented. With details yet to be confirmed, it does appear that Elliott will be getting Don Poli. He may have failed to win the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, but he did win the Grade 1 Lexus Chase at Leopardstown, and at the age of seven is still open to further improvement. With doubts remaining over the fitness of Don Cossack, the arrival of a replacement ‘Don’ will prove a huge tonic for Elliott and his team.

Several talented youngsters are also expected to head to the County Meath trainer. The sensational filly, Apple’s Jade, proved devastating at both Aintree and Punchestown before her summer break. Such was her level of performance that Mullins commented: “She has to be the best juvenile I’ve trained.” Another campaign over hurdles is likely, though she is bred for fences and certainly has the scope to excel over the larger obstacles.

Blow By Blow is another with the potential for stardom. He took the Grade 1 Bumper at the Punchestown Festival, beating the classy Moon Racer in the process. He looks sure to become a talented novice hurdler, before inevitably making his mark over fences. By successful Jumps sire Robin Des Champs, he’s out of a Roselier mare, which suggests he’ll be all the better for a trip.

Other outstanding types that Mullins is sure to miss include Grade 1 novice chaser Outlander, who fell at the Cheltenham Festival prior to solid performances at Fairyhouse and Punchestown. Valseur Lido is another that will be missed at Closutton. He was second to Vautour in the Ryanair Chase, on unsuitably quick ground, and was also a Grade 1 winner as a novice chaser.

Two other youngsters likely to make an impact when switched to fences are Bello Conti and Petit Mouchoir. Both were towards the top of pile in the novice hurdle division last winter, and Mullins would have been looking forward to sending them over the larger obstacles.

Gigginstown released an official statement on the matter to RTE Sport, which said: “As Gigginstown House Stud has been unable to reach agreement with Willie Mullins on an increase in training fees, we have agreed, with considerable regret, to move the Gigginstown horses to alternative trainers for the coming 2016/17 season.”

The statement continued: “Gigginstown wishes to sincerely thank Willie and all the team at Closutton for the many Grade One races we have won together over the past seven years. We hope that an agreement can be reached at some time in the future which will allow Willie to resume buying and training more graded winners for us. While we part at this time with regret, we wish Willie and all the team at Closutton continued success.”

Of course Mullins still has powerful owners onside, with the likes of the Andrea and Graham Wylie investing heavily, and Rich and Susannah Ricci’s ever increasing battalion of stars. Nevertheless, this news comes as a blow for the team at Closutton, and is sure to have a huge impact on the outcome of this season’s Irish Trainers’ Championship. There’s also added spice with the prospect of numerous winter confrontations between Mullins/Ricci and Elliott/Gigginstown horses.

I’m also of the opinion that power sharing under Mullins was becoming increasingly problematic for Michael O’Leary. Rich Ricci carries a lot of weight within the Closutton operation, and seems happy to leave much of the decision making to his trainer, whilst there were occasions when an undercurrent of friction was clearly visible between O’Leary and Mullins. Valseur Lido’s Cheltenham Festival target proved a prickly issue, with the trainer steadfast in his belief that the horse should be stepped-up in trip, yet a clash with Vautour proved inevitable with O’Leary’s refusal to bow to trainer pressure.

Gigginstown are very much the major player within the Elliott yard, and the trainer will be able to place their horses without taking into account the wishes of other powerful owners. Financial reasons may be cited as the cause of the split, but this divorce was always on the cards.

Ireland’s ‘Longshanks’ heads to Perth

On the outskirts of Perth in Scotland, lies the beautiful Scone Palace, and within its historic grounds the picturesque Perth Racecourse.

A two-day meeting begins today, and brings to a close the 2016 season. The racecourse opened in 1908 and is the most northern of courses in the UK. There are records of intermittent racing taking place in Perth from as early as 1613. But in the early 1900s, Lord Mansfield offered his land as a permanent home, for the great sport of Kings to be enjoyed on a regular basis.

A right-handed track of some 10 furlongs in distance, it’s a pretty flat and tight circuit, suiting horses with tactical speed. There’s a lengthy run-in from the last on the chase course, which can often see the picture of a race change quite dramatically.

Scone Palace itself has something of a dramatic and colourful history. An important religious gathering place for the Picts (some of Scotland’s earliest inhabitants), it became the site of an early Christian church and home of the famous Stone of Destiny. Numerous Scottish Kings were crowned at the stone in Scone Palace, including Macbeth and Robert The Bruce. Charles II was the last to be crowned at Scone, when he accepted the Scottish crown in 1651.

For those that thrive on a piece of England versus Scotland history, the famous Stone of Scone was stolen by the English in 1296, when the infamous Edward I (‘Longshanks’ from the historically accurate movie, Braveheart) took the stone back to Westminster Abbey. A ruthless ruler, Edward I would stop at nothing in his pursuit of power, crushing those that stood in his way.

Seven hundred years later, the Stone was restored back to the people of Scotland and placed in Edinburgh Castle. The Stone of Destiny had last been used for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Any trip to Perth races has to be accompanied by a spin around the Palace and grounds, to delve into the rich and vibrant history of the place.

Once back on the racecourse for the serious business, it would come as no surprise to see an Irish raiding party, creating their own piece of Scottish history. Less ruthless than ‘Longshanks’ but just as effective, it’s almost inevitable that a race meeting at Perth will prove profitable for Gordon Elliott and his team. His last visit to the Scottish track on the September 6 gleaned two winners and three placed finishes. Rarely does Elliott leave Scotland empty handed, and he’ll be hoping that the trend continues at Perth’s final meeting.

He’s once again set to team-up with Champion Jockey Richard Johnson, and with six runners today it’s hard to believe he won’t be stood in the winners’ enclosure at some point. Possibly the highlight of the meeting for Elliott could come on Thursday, should his promising young novice hurdler Carrig Cathal take up an entry and look to add to his recent Listowel success. He’s handed out defeats to several from the Mullins camp in recent months. The five-year-old gelding will be stepping up in trip, but is out of a Supreme Leader mare, and ought to be well suited.

Elliott has been known to run decent sorts here in the past. His Cheltenham Festival Albert Bartlett runner-up Fagan, was successful here 12 months ago in the closing bumper. The Irish trainer is in the midst of preparing his high-profile contenders for the start of the Jumps campaign, including of course his Gold Cup winner Don Cossack, who it is hoped, will be fit to defend the ‘Blue Riband’ next March.

Another trainer that enjoys his forays north of the border, is Cotswold’s Nigel Twiston-Davies. He regularly sends classy sorts to the track for their seasonal debut. Blaklion and Double Ross have won here in recent years, and this week Ballyandy is likely to start his career as a novice hurdler. The Champion Bumper winner could well line-up against David Pipe’s Moon Racer on Thursday over two miles. It’s a mouth-watering prospect, which would see the two high class bumper horses clashing on their hurdling debuts.

Whether it’s raiders from Ireland or England that prove successful this week, the winner on this occasion will also be Scotland, and in particular Perth Racecourse. The track’s seasonal finale looks set to be a cracker.

Gordon’s a Game Changer

Gordon Elliott has had an outstanding season, capped by the triumph of Don Cossack in the Gold Cup.

The Cheltenham Festival proved a huge success for the County Meath trainer, with wins for Diamond King and Cause Of Causes adding to that of the ‘Don’. Prize money is now in excess of €2.3m, and he has proved the only trainer in Ireland to get within spitting distance of Mr Mullins. He now turns his attention to Aintree, a meeting that proved extremely rewarding last year.

It was at the Grand National meeting 12 months that Don Cossack truly announced himself as one of the leading staying chasers. He put in a devastating performance to win the Grade 1 Betfred Melling Chase. He put 26 lengths between himself and the runner-up Cue Card, though Tizzard’s fella was admittedly not at his best.

There was also a cracking double on the opening day with victories for Clarcam and Taglietelle. The former impressed when winning the Grade 1 Manifesto Novices’ Chase whilst the latter lumped plenty of weight to victory in the Grade 3 three-mile handicap hurdle. Elliott looks set to launch a sizable raiding party from across the Irish Sea, with plenty of horses capable of striking gold.

Hopes on the opening day lie with the talented yet frustrating chaser Bright New Dawn. On the face of it he looks to have plenty on his plate in the Betfred Red Rum Handicap Chase. He has to give weight to all bar one of his rivals, and odds of 14/1 look a fair reflection of his chances. He ran a stinker at the Cheltenham Festival, though bounced back to some kind of form when winning last time at Clonmel. This two-mile contest on lively ground may prove a little on the sharp side, though if he’s on a ‘going day’ it would come as no surprise to see him go very close.

The opener on day two sees Elliott represented by another carrying the famous Gigginstown silks. Tycoon Prince has not been sighted since chasing home Bellshill at Navan back in December. Better ground and a wind operation may well prove key to his performance, and he is known to be highly thought of by the yard. He won three of his four bumpers before the switch to hurdles, and though his future lies over fences, he has the opportunity to sign off in style in this 2m4f handicap hurdle.

The same connections are responsible for Ball D’Arc in the Grade 1 Top Novices’ Hurdle. He’s hard to fancy in what’s likely to be a tasty renewal. The Supreme winner Altior skips the race but Nicky Henderson looks set to run Buveur D’Air with Alan King looking at this for Yanworth in the hope of dodging a rematch with Yorkhill.

Elliott looks likely to let Clarcam take his chance in the Melling Chase with Vautour a possible opponent. As mentioned earlier in the piece, Clarcam was successful at the meeting 12 months ago, and though his form has been incredibly disappointing so far this winter, I still find it incredible that he is priced up at 50/1. Take Vautour out of the field and you are left with a handful of exposed performers. If running to his best, Elliott’s horse is more than capable of finishing second.

One that arrives at Aintree in tip-top shape is his novice hurdler Fagan. A 33/1 runner-up in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham, he looks set to run in a competitive looking Sefton Novices’ Hurdle. The grey has been a model of consistency throughout his brief career, with top two finishes in his last eight appearances. As long as Cheltenham didn’t take too much out of him, he looks sure to run another cracker.

Another that performed admirably at Cheltenham was Gigginstown’s classy novice hurdler Tombstone. He lacked the gears to land a blow on the front three in the Supreme Novices’ though stayed on well to snatch fourth. He’ll be stepping up in trip to tackle the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle on Saturday, and the extra half mile should suit. He certainly has place claims.

One Elliott contender that I’m certainly interested in is The Game Changer, who looks set to contest the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase. He showed his liking for Aintree when second at last year’s National meeting, and after a long break ran a race full of promise in the Arkle. The hill at Cheltenham would not have suited this strong traveller, who needs to be produced late in his races. He’ll run a big race at Aintree.

Whether Prince Of Scars is allowed to run is questionable. He’s entered in the Stayers’ Hurdle and has looked a hugely talented horse, though seemingly best on testing ground. He defeated Alpha Des Obeaux last time, and that form received a huge boost at Cheltenham. If he was to turn up he has to be considered a major contender, though nothing will beat Thistlecrack.

So finally to the main event, and Elliott’s Grand National hope Ucello Conti. Formerly trained in France, the eight-year-old has run three times since the switch to Ireland. Elliott won the race with Silver Birch in 2007, and almost won the Irish version just over a week ago with Bless The Wings.

This fella had plenty of chase experience in France and has run well to be placed in two hugely competitive staying events over the winter in Ireland. Some have questioned his ability to get the national trip, having faded late on in both the Paddy Power Handicap Chase at Leopardstown and the Thyestes Chase at Gowran. However, those runs came on very testing ground, and with a more conservative ride on a sounder surface, he looks a real contender.

He carries the familiar Munir and Souede colours having been owned in France by Simon Munir. Much will depend on how he settles, having occasionally looked a little keen. Clearly if he gets ‘buzzy’ during the preliminaries his chances will be compromised.

“He lost his way and became disappointing, and the last roll of the dice was to go to see if Gordon Elliott could rekindle him a bit”, said racing manager Anthony Bromley. “Gordon had him over a year before he got him on the track. He's been a bit of a surprise package. Daryl Jacob rides and this horse is a half-brother to Silviniaco Conti.” Jacob of course won the race on Neptune Collonges back in 2012.

With an incredibly tight battle for the Trainer’s Championship continuing to play out, it’s likely that Mullins and Nicholls will glean much of the attention during the three days. However, Gordon Elliott has rapidly become a potent force in National Hunt racing, and he looks set to play a leading role in yet another major spring festival.