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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.

Jim Dreaper – Ireland’s ‘Mr National’

Jump racing’s ‘National’ season is now upon us and it’s the Irish that get things started on Easter Monday at Fairyhouse.

Run over a trip of 3m5f, the winner of the Boylesports Irish Grand National will scoop prize-money of €152,000. The ground is currently classed as yielding, but with an unsettled forecast the chances are that conditions will be testing by Monday.

As with many marathon races certain trends appear strong and give hope to the punter in hunting down the likely winner. Weight has proved a crucial factor with only two horses in the last 20 years carrying more than 11 stone to victory. Bobbyjo was one of those, and 12 months later he was winning the Grand National at Aintree. The classy Commanche Court was the other, and he was talented enough to place in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

In the last 12 renewals only one winner has carried more than 10st 8lbs. Of course this weight carrying trend is great for punters if half the field can be instantly eliminated from their thoughts, however, last year’s renewal saw only two horses carrying 11 stone or more, leaving a stonking 26 potential winners.

The age of those victorious also gives further hope in narrowing down the field. The race has been won by seven and eight-year-olds on seven occasions in the past decade. That stat supports the recent trend that winners tend to be unexposed, indeed a novice cannot be overlooked with 18 successful since the mid-70s, including the last two; Thunder And Roses and Shutthefrontdoor.

That leads us rather neatly to Jonjo O’Neill, the most successful trainer in recent years with a pair of victories from the last nine renewals. He looks to have targeted this year’s race with the promising novice chaser, the seven-year-old Another Hero. Having said that relative inexperience should not prove an issue, this fella only has two chase outings to his name. Shutthefrontdoor had four runs over fences before coming here and winning in 2014. I think it’s a tall order to win this off the back of just two chases, and I’m against him.

The current market leader is Noel Meade’s young mare Bonny Kate. Mares have won two of the last six Irish Nationals, and this six-year-old has won three of her five chase starts. She won at the track back in November and took the Grand National Trial at Punchestown in fine style. She appears to be improving at a fair rate of knots, and has the right sort of profile for this.

Jim Dreaper is fast becoming ‘Mr National’ with his reputation for staying chasers. Notre Pere took the Welsh version back in 2008 and Goonyella has been flying the flag in recent years with a victory in the Midlands National and a runner-up spot in the Scottish National.

Dreaper’s Sizing Coal came third in last year’s Irish National and this year he has another live contender in Venetien De Mai. He’s another progressive youngster and won the Leinster National at Naas last time. He was very strong at the finish that day, and this step up in trip is likely to suit. He’s won or been placed in eight of his nine outings under rules and looks a strong contender.

It’s hard to ignore Gigginstown in any Irish staying chase. Thunder And Roses won for connections last year and they once again have plenty of live hopes for Monday’s race. Sandra Hughes could again run last year’s winner along with the progressive Sub Lieutenant. The latter put in a personal best last time at Naas, and has been mixing it with the best novice chasers in Ireland during the winter. He’s run two solid races at Fairyhouse already this season and looks another with the right sort of profile.

Finally I need to mention one of the elder statesmen, in a race where I’ve been banging on about novices and unexposed types. Gordon Elliott has a great record with staying chasers, and the well- being of his yard was advertised at Cheltenham last week. He sends a handful to Fairyhouse for this and all should come under careful consideration. One that catches the eye at a decent price is the old warrior Bless The Wings.

Though he is now an 11-year-old, he has had a relatively easy campaign over the winter running for the main part in cross-country events. He came close to winning at the Cheltenham Festival, and looks to be running as good as ever. He won over course and distance back in November, and we shouldn’t forget that Elliott’s Aintree’s National winner Silver Birch had run a number of cross-country events in the lead up to his famous victory.

Finding the winner of Monday’s renewal is just as tough as ever, but I’ll be siding with a couple of Irish trainers that know a thing or two about producing useful staying chasers. Jim Dreaper’s Venetien De Mai gets the nod along with a bit each-way of Gordon Elliott’s Bless The Wings.

The best of luck to those having a punt.

Equine Stars Shine At Memorable Cheltenham Festival

It promised to be one of the best Cheltenham Festival’s, and duly delivered in stunning style.

Numerous top class horses provided thrilling performances and there proved to be a fair sprinkling of drama along the way. The first bombshell arrived several hours before any action had taken place on Tuesday, when Rich Ricci speaking on The Morning Line revealed that Vautour would not be taking part in the Gold Cup, but instead would take up the easier option of the Ryanair Chase.

Channel 4s finest appeared stunned into silence, barely breaking off at all to question the decision or digest the magnitude of the news, before seamlessly moving on to the next item. ‘The Gold Cup or nothing’ promise made by Mr Ricci in the lead up to Cheltenham would certainly have left something of a bitter taste for many out of pocket punters.

Nevertheless, the real action began on Tuesday afternoon with ground conditions described as good to soft, soft in places. Rich Ricci, Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh were expected to run riot on day one, with Min favourite for connections in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. The main opposition to the favourite came in the form of the Nicky Henderson trained Altior. Seven Barrows were due a change of luck in the Festival opener, having hit the woodwork so often in recent years.

So it came to pass, with Altior streaking clear to win by seven lengths. In a fast run race, he stayed on powerfully up the famous hill. The finishing time was as dazzling as his performance. Henderson has had many outstanding two mile hurdlers through the yard, and this fella looks set to take high order.

Henderson and Mullins went head to head half an hour later, when Vaniteux did his utmost to keep tabs on the sensational Douvan. Ruby had just started to let out a little rein as the pair approached two out, with Nico de Boinville sending out distress signals in his attempts to stay in touch. With pressure applied, Vaniteux duly blundered and unseated his jockey. It was a shame for the horse, as he certainly deserved better for his efforts. Douvan went on to win by seven lengths, with Sizing John staying on for second place.

Henderson’s horse remains a hugely talented chaser, and there are more races to be won. Douvan looks every bit as talented as stable companion Vautour. He does things so effortlessly, seemingly always travelling well within himself. The Champion Chase looks the most likely target for next season, and he has already been installed as a short-priced favourite.

A third outstanding performance on the opening day came in the Champion Hurdle. Many had doubted whether Annie Power could challenge the geldings despite a lack of quality in the race. I certainly had my doubts, but was made to look rather silly when she absolutely romped home. Dominant from the off, Ruby gave her a positive ride making the most of the mares allowance and her undoubted tried and tested stamina. The boys never stood a chance.

Ruby spoke after breaking the course record, saying: “Willie asked me the other day what I was going to do and I'd looked up Dawn Run the other night and I said I was going to ride her like she's Dawn Run. If they catch me, they catch me. She's put in a brilliant performance and it was brilliant of Rich and Susannah to supplement her. She's a cracking mare.” Future clashes with Faugheen are a truly mouth-watering prospect.

Wednesday opened with another exciting clash as Yanworth took on another Mullins inmate in the striking looking Yorkhill. Alan King’s gelding went off favourite, but was no match for the stunning son of Presenting. When Ruby asked for an effort turning for home, the answer was instantaneous. Yorkhill has the stature, the gears, and is adaptable with regards to ground conditions. Ruby hinted at the Arkle for next season, but in truth this fella is probably just as capable of winning the RSA Chase. He looks a superstar in the making. To Yanworth’s great credit, he battled all the way to the line with the two pulling well clear of the remainder.

Yorkhill’s performance was truly stunning, but the outstanding performance of the day was yet to come.

The favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase was the Willie Mullins trained Un De Sceaux. Many believed he only had to stand up to win, having yet to taste defeat when successfully completing a race. Few dared to dream that Sprinter Sacre could land a blow on the favourite, despite being one of the greatest chasers the sport has ever produced.

When Un De Sceaux breezed into the lead at the top of the hill, the outcome looked inevitable. Henderson’s mighty chaser had looked a little outpaced, and though still in third appeared unlikely to be able to respond to the move. We waited for the favourite to pull clear, but no sooner had we anticipated Un De Sceaux cruising clear, than we witnessed Sprinter back on the bridle tanking alongside, before powering into the lead himself.

He’d put the race to bed turning for home, as long as the huge tank didn’t run empty. To my eyes, he looked all-out at the finish, but it didn’t matter. I and several around me had screamed him home, and as the realisation of his victory sunk in, I looked around me to see many open-mouthed racefans, visibly stunned at what they had just witnessed.

Horse, jockey and trainer received the adulation they so richly deserved. Henderson deserves all the plaudits for how he has nursed this wonderful horse back to something like his best. His performance will go down as one of the greatest comebacks in Cheltenham Festival history. The horse becomes a Prestbury Park legend. This is what Jump racing is all about.

From one superstar to another when Vautour duly won Thursday’s Ryanair Chase. Travelling like a dream and jumping like a stag he brushed aside the persistent challenge of Road To Riches to win by six lengths. It was a dominant performance on ground that would have been ideal. Would he have won the Gold Cup? We will likely get the answer to that question next March.

Vautour was simply sensational, and it is hard to believe that his performance could be eclipsed later the same day. Nevertheless, it certainly was when Thistlecrack stormed to victory in the World Hurdle. The Tizzard’s all-conquering gelding pulled seven lengths clear of the talented Alpha Des Obeaux, with the rest of the field an astounding 22 lengths further back. Colin Tizzard has a monster on his hands, and the Gold Cup is likely to be on the radar in the not-too distant future.

Already an eight-year-old, it would come as no surprise if he was fast-tracked to the blue riband in the same manner as Coneygree last year. Much will depend on how he takes to fences, but few could deny that he has the potential to reach the very top.

On Friday the Tizzard’s would have hoped for a similar performance from stable star Cue Card. They almost got it, as when he hit the floor three from home he looked to be travelling as powerfully as anything. His demise left Don Cossack in front, and he stayed on tenaciously to defeat Djakadam. It was a mighty performance from Gordon Elliott’s stunning looking chaser. His jumping was solid throughout, and both he and the runner-up kept up a relentless gallop all the way to the finish. The pace proved too hot for Don Poli as he stayed on best of the rest for a distant third.

The Cheltenham Festival always delivers, and as ever we now have a number of outstanding champions, along with numerous talented newcomers with the potential for stardom. Mullins dominated as we had expected, but he failed to land several major pots, and again fell short in the Gold Cup. Henderson, Tizzard and Elliott fought off a Mullins onslaught, though the undisputed winner over the four days was Jump Racing itself. The sport continues to produce thrilling action and heart-stopping drama. How fortunate we are to play a part.

Elliott Hoping That ‘Don’ Juan Of Many

Gordon Elliott remains the main challenger to Mr Mullins over in Ireland, though prize money of £2 million still leaves the County Meath trainer a cool million adrift of the Closutton crew.

Much of Elliott’s firepower comes from the association with Gigginstown House Stud. Don Cossack, No More Heroes and the recent Christmas Hurdle winner Prince Of Scars are just three that have struck at Grade 1 level in recent months.

Two of the three are strongly fancied to win at Cheltenham next month, and the trainer spoke of the forthcoming Festival in the Racing & Football Outlook, when saying: “There is nothing better than doing well there and I think we have the making of a strong team, but you need the luck as well as the horse. The next few weeks are a nervous time as we try to keep everything on track.”

Of ‘The Don’ Elliott said: “He is now as strong as he has ever been and we are all very excited about his chances in the Gold Cup. He will be better on quicker ground, which he is very likely to get, and I couldn't be happier with him. We have talked about putting some headgear on him at Cheltenham, but we won't make our minds up until much nearer the time as the ground will be important to the decision.”

Though Don Cossack remains the apple of his trainer’s eye, it is No More Heroes who is arguably the most likely to strike gold at Prestbury Park. He is a short priced favourite to take the RSA Chase having impressed in his three victories over fences; two of which were Grade 1 wins.

He was probably a little unfortunate not to take the Albert Bartlett last March, when squeezed for room on the rail, forcing him to be switched to renew his challenge after the last. The ground was very demanding that day, and his wins this winter have also been in testing ground. However, being by Presenting, it is likely that he will act perfectly well on a sounder surface. Jockey Bryan Cooper believes he’s a class act, and confidence appears high that he can go very close.

Elliott struck a double at Navan on Sunday after a relatively quiet spell. Clearly the yard is now aiming their major assets at the festivals, and it’s therefore no surprise that February has only yielded half a dozen winners. One or two that failed to hit the target in recent weeks may still be worth keeping a close eye on when those festivals arrive.

Taglietelle ran a race of great promise when third to Cup Final in the Pertemps Qualifier at Musselburgh just over a week ago. Elliott’s seven-year-old was a close fourth in the Coral Cup last March before winning at Aintree a month later. He’s not the biggest, and he’ll be towards the top end of the handicap, but he’s ultra-consistent and will enjoy the likely sounder surface.

Another that may well improve for better ground is the yard’s classy novice hurdler Tombstone. On the face of it, he was probably slightly disappointing last time when weak in the finish of the Deloitte Novice Hurdle. He looked the likely winner approaching the last, only to be shrugged aside by Bleu Et Rouge. Despite the defeat, he has now finished runner-up in two of Ireland’s most prestigious Grade 1 novice hurdles, and should he improve for better ground, as many by Robin Des Champs do, he could well go close at Cheltenham. Elliott favours the Supreme, for which he is currently a fair each-way price.

Finally I’d like to throw Noble Endeavor out there as a Gordon Elliott dark horse. It’s fair to say that he has yet to set the World alight since being switched to fences. His second place finish at Navan on Sunday was slightly more promising, though he never looked likely to win. His jumping remains patchy, but I’m hoping that better ground will help and he looks a fair prospect in whichever race Elliott decides to take on. I hope it proves to be JLT, though the four miler is also thought to be under consideration. He was only just edged out at Cheltenham last March, when chinned on the line by Killultagh Vic in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle. That’s serious form, if he can just tighten up on that jumping.

It’s already been a wonderful season for Gordon Elliott, and he will head into the latter part of the campaign full of hope, with several outstanding horses in his care. Luck as always will play a part, but he’ll travel to Cheltenham with his strongest team to date, and every chance of lifting a major prize or two.

Attrition Rate in Irish National Hunt

Killultagh Vic a High Profile Casualty

Killultagh Vic a High Profile Casualty

Killultagh Vic was the first high-profile Irish horse to miss Cheltenham with injury but you can be sure he won’t be the last, writes Tony Keenan. We are in that horrible space between the conclusion of most of the trials and the start of the Festival where owners, trainers and, yes, punters live in terror of hearing that their horse will miss the meeting with a late setback.

It makes sense that injuries should occur at this time. No more than a human athlete getting ready for a career-defining event, the revs are being cranked up to the max in preparation and it is inevitable that a gasket or two will blow in the process. Some trainers has succeeded more than others in avoiding – or preventing – the last-minute injury; Willie Mullins stands out in terms of getting his Cheltenham horses to end point and punters can rightly have faith in backing one of his runners ante-post at a short price in the relatively safe assumption that they will get to post. But other handlers have not been so fortunate (though perhaps fortunate is the wrong word as it is surely a skill to keep horses sound).

Predicting which trainers’ runners will make or miss Cheltenham by looking at data is difficult if not impossible and it makes more sense to look at a more global sense of how successful they are in keeping their horses sound from season to season. In the table below, I’ve focussed on the top 15 Irish trainers in terms of winners sent out in the six seasons from 2009/10 to 2014/15, leaving out those who are no longer training, i.e. Dessie Hughes and Charlie Swan.

I found every horse they had in that period that acquired an Irish official rating of 130 or more and went through their racing career in totality regardless of whether it began before 2009 or continued beyond 2015. I was looking for how many ‘full seasons’ they had in their careers and I took a very loose definition of what a full season was: a season in which a horse ran twice or more in the Irish National Hunt campaign which takes the Punchestown Festival as its start and end point.

To my mind, this is quite a lenient definition of a full season – many owners would want their horses to run far more regularly – but I was giving trainers the benefit of the doubt and I didn’t penalise for a horse only running once in their first season as trainers often want to start them off slowly. With the number of full seasons and missed seasons I worked out a figure called ‘attrition rate’ which expresses as a percentage how often a trainer’s horses miss a season in relation to their career as a whole.

Take Tony Martin as an example. In the period covered, he has 131 full seasons from his 130-plus rated horses and six missed seasons; I add the two together to get a total season figure which is 137 and then divide the missed season number into it to leave an attrition rate of 4.4%. As a back-up figure, I also added in how many runs a trainer’s horses averaged per season over that period.

This methodology is far from perfect. Firstly, it looks only at horses rated 130 or more, but the data was so overwhelming that were I to look at them all I’d struggle to have it finished for Cheltenham 2017! It also supposes that every National Hunt horse threads the same campaign trail, starting its season in the autumn and running through to the late spring/early summer. This is not the case with summer jumpers and many horses will have a winter break to avoid the worst of ground.

Using my method, horses could miss two calendar years but only one racing season. Monksland, say, missed 730 days between December 2012 and December 2014 but raced three times in the 2012/13 season and the same in 2014/15 campaign so is only penalised for being absent in 2013/14.

Furthermore, trainers are not penalised for horses having a short career of a season or two but they are hit for getting a horse back off an absence of a season or two for just one run, despite the fact that this could be a major achievement if that horse has had serious problems. Despite all this, I think there is enough in the data to make it interesting to look at, if not necessarily of vast predictive value.

Trainer Horses Rated 130 Plus Attrition Rate Average Season Runs
C. Byrnes 19 15.9% 5.4
C. Murphy 13 10.3% 4.5
N. Meade 53 8.8% 5.0
W. Mullins 171 7.0% 4.2
R. Tyner 6 6.7% 4.7
M. Hourigan 16 6.5% 7.3
M. Morris 17 5.6% 6.0
T. Martin 39 4.4% 5.4
G. Elliott 58 4.3% 6.1
H. De Bromhead 36 4.1% 4.7
P. Nolan 22 3.2% 5.2
E. Doyle 7 2.6% 6.3
J. Hanlon 8 2.4% 5.6
E. O’Grady 27 1.6% 5.4
J. Harrington 31 1.6% 6.1

 

We’ll start with Willie Mullins as we generally do. He has a highish attrition rate and the lowest average season runs so comes out quite badly on these numbers though I doubt Rich Ricci, Graham Wylie et al will be moving their horses in light of them! In fairness, he has improved recently with most of his absentees coming in the early part of the period covered though it must be said that he has quite a few horses that are in danger of missing this campaign, the likes of Abyssial, Jarry D’Honneur, Champagne Fever and Analifet all on the easy list at the moment.

Charles Byrnes has a very high attrition rate, 5.6% higher than the next highest, so perhaps landing gambles takes its toll! His achievement in bringing the nine-year-old Solwhit back to win at Cheltenham and Aintree in 2013 was a notable one but it seems significant that so many of his best horses have missed chunks of time, the likes of Mounthenry, Pittoni, Trifolium, Weapons Amnesty and Our Vinnie all having stop-start careers.

Colm Murphy is another that comes out poorly on the numbers, having not only a high attrition rate but also a low average runs per season, though the reason behind this could be one discussed in a previous article of mine on fall/unseat rate where he came out as one of the highest in the country. Falls and unseats will clearly cause plenty of injuries.

One trainer who does quite well is Gordon Elliott, his horses generally sound and running often, and it needs to be pointed out that he gets quite a few stable switchers. That can be viewed positively or negatively; either someone else has done all the hard work or you have to rectify another trainer’s mistakes.

Noel Meade is having a torrid season in terms of injuries, with Road To Riches having a curtailed campaign and Apache Stronghold out for the year. His attrition rate, third overall, would suggest this is not uncommon. One thing to admire with Meade is that no one else comes close in terms of openness around his horses’ health and he must be praised for that.

In terms of positives, Jessica Harrington stands out as having a low attrition rate and a high average number of runs. I would put this down to two things: she tends to mix flat and jumps campaigns, the former clearly less attritional than the latter; and she will often give her horses mid-winter breaks to avoid the worst of ground, something she frequently references in stable tours.

Edward O’Grady has the name of being hard on his horses but the numbers suggest otherwise, coming in the equal of Harrington in attrition rate. Henry De Bromhead has relatively a low attrition rate too, albeit with not many average season runs, and tends to do well in keeping older horses sweet. Sizing Europe is the daddy of them all but the likes of Sizing Australia and Darwins Fox are further feathers in de Bromhead’s cap.

Finally, mention must go to Michael Hourigan. His attrition rate percentage is only average but he is brilliant in terms of getting runs into his horses, his average of 7.3 a full run per season better than anyone else. I won’t say his horses are always in form but at least they’re out there competing and it is notable that eight of his 16 horses rated 130 plus raced at least 30 times. There are some real heroes in there like Dancing Tornado and Church Island and of course A New Story who ran an amazing 110 times, often over staying trips, and was still racing at fifteen.

- Tony Keenan