Throughout the Cheltenham (especially) and Aintree spring jumping Festivals, much of the conversation within the media but more importantly among trainers and owners was the manner in which Irish trainers’ horses seemed not just to outrun their handicap marks but almost to transcend them, writes Tony Stafford.
For ages Willie Mullins has been able to take aim at some of the fattest staying Flat-race prizes over here, having a well prepared line-up of Championship-class jumpers primed to run away with races like the Cesarewitch.
No wonder then that much of the build-up to Saturday’s Sky Bet Ebor at York was dominated by the expectation that once again the home trainers were going to be caught with their pants down. Mullins was coming and unleashing a horse that had not seen a racecourse since October.
The world’s greatest jumps trainer is renowned for bringing back former stars from long absences for easy victories and Mt Leinster, a six-year-old by Beat Hollow, told a compelling tale. Starting out life as an average bumper horse and then hurdler, he didn’t exactly set the world on fire. However once Willie’s son Patrick got onto him in qualified riders’ Flat races (amateur and conditionals) and lastly the Kildare Amateur Riders’ Derby his progress was remorseless.
After an initial Flat-race win over a mile and a half he next found the concession of 11lb to the talented and versatile Wonder Laish beyond him. It was his following victory that projected him into a different league. At Listowel he gave 11lb and an easy five-length beating to French importation Cape Gentleman who had already shown winning form at home for Nicolas Clement.
Following that performance he won again at 3 to 1 on to end his season. Meanwhile, Cape Gentleman was running away with the Irish Cesarewitch before embarking on a successful winter over jumps. Last time, in the highly-competitive Galway Hurdle, Cape Gentleman was a creditable third to Mullins’ Saldier, another of those smart jumpers that seem to mop up valuable handicaps at will.
In the event Mt Leinster proved a severe Ebor disappointment, finishing in the rear division; but, never fear, the UK handicappers still managed to extend their reputation for charitable largesse in the Irish quest for the holy grail of the half-million pound Ebor pot with its £300k to the winner.
Few doubt that, as good a champion jockey as was Johnny Murtagh, he is shaping as though he will become an even better trainer. When he brought his four-year-old Sonnyboyliston to Chester for the Group 3 Ormonde Stakes – he was a good third behind Ballydoyle’s Japan and subsequent Goodwood Cup winner, Trueshan – maybe the Ebor was already in his sights.
He might have expected a rise in his horse’s mark of 109 and that seemed the most likely outcome after a comfortable victory back home in Listed company. That is not to understand those compliant handicappers who left him unchanged. Thus on Saturday with those impeccably solid Graded form credentials, he was, remarkably, 3lb lower than when easily winning an admittedly valuable Curragh handicap for Murtagh last autumn.
On Saturday, Sonnyboyliston duly took advantage of that leniency and, having passed Hughie Morrison’s fellow four-year-old Quickthorn, he just managed to resist the gallant runner-up’s late rally by a head. Morrison reckoned the winner may have been getting lonely in the lead and also that had the rain started when predicted on Saturday rather than when the horses were in the paddock for the race it would have helped his horse but would not have inconvenienced the winner.
There are occasions when trainers do not mind their horses being reassessed up to the full value of their victories and Quickthorn was a case in point. He reappeared this term on a mark of 84 – a full 28lb lower than Sonnyboyliston at the end of last year – so needed to do something special to get into the most valuable handicap of the year which was Morrison’s rather wishful ambition.
This process got a big boost when Quickthorn won by a wide margin at Haydock on his return, bolting clear in the heavy ground up the straight. Raised 13lb for that and then another 6lb more for success in the Duke Of Edinburgh Stakes at Royal Ascot it meant he just squeezed in on Saturday, but even so only 6lb lower in the weights than Sonnyboyliston. Great progress then from Quickthorn, but the Irish got the big money again.
When the dust settles Morrison will need a rethink as the guaranteed extra few pounds will put most UK handicaps beyond his reach. The trainer will be targeting long-distance Group races in France where the four-year-old will have more chance of getting his favoured soft ground. Morrison has exploited this division with such as his subsequent Melbourne Cup runner-up Marmelo, the durable and talented Nearly Caught and from an earlier vintage Alcazar, who won a Group 1 for Morrison aged ten.
It’s not just over here that the big Irish teams seem to get plenty of help. One of the balloted out horses for the Ebor was the 2020 Triumph Hurdle winner Burning Victory when she infamously took advantage of Goshen’s last-flight misfortune.
The now five-year-old was number 47 in the Ebor list so never had a chance of getting in but the pragmatic Willie spotted an opportunity at Deauville on Thursday and I will be shocked if at the final stage today (around 11 a.m. BST) she has not stood her ground.
This is a two-mile handicap and with 34 eligible before today she will be in the first half of the divided race for which the winner gets €27,500 plus 45% owners’ premiums, so just short of €40k, well worth the road/ferry fees.
When Burning Victory left France as a three-year-old before switching to Ireland she had a 40 kilogram rating, equivalent to 88 on this side of the Channel. Appropriately Thursday’s race is called the Handicap de la Manche. <The advantages of tote monopoly - €40k and that’s just to the winner for a 0-88, goodness!>.
While being employed exclusively over jumps in Ireland since her arrival she has been back on the level in France this summer. A conditions race over 2m1f at Lyon Parilly in June fitted nicely between runs in a Grade 1 at the Punchestown Festival and seventh place in the previously-mentioned Galway Hurdle.
She won that modest event by five and a half lengths, surely evidence enough that she is better than an 88, as you would expect of a Triumph Hurdle winner benefiting from two years of Mullins’ training. But the French handicappers have left her on her historical mark. You would have thought they might have seen Willie coming. I’m sure Clement’s Fitzcarraldo, whom I had planned to travel over to see in that same race, will have the Mullins mare to beat even though receiving 19lb from her.
I did say I planned to drive over but the old-time there and back in a day via Eurotunnel – my chosen mode of travel in the French Fifteen days – seems so tied up by Covid-flavoured red tape that it is looking increasingly unlikely that I can be there.
You do not need to take a test to enter France, or so I believe, as long as you have the correct number of vaccinations, which obviously I do.
But on returning to the UK you need one form showing you were tested between one and three days prior to that return from France with documentation of where you had been staying. Then two days after arrival it’s another test and not a free NHS job or even so I understand the £60 Boots special but a full-blown £125-a-go test from designated chemists and the like.
One trip I am definitely going to undertake is to toddle down to Brighton to see my friend Jonathan Barnett’s other active horse, the three-year-old Dusky Lord, try to overcome inexperience (one run last year) and an injury absence in a little maiden race.
I loved going to Ascot for the King George and today will be only my second appearance since Burning Victory’s Triumph Hurdle day. Maybe it will be an omen if I can’t make it to France. She was one of the luckiest Festival winners of all time and perhaps the luck might have run out. Alternatively Willie might think why bother to pick up another 40 grand? We live in hope.
Deauville continued apace yesterday and the Prix Morny was a triumph for the Richard Fahey stable with Perfect Power. He had been a desperately unlucky fifth at Goodwood on his latest appearance behind Asymmetric.
Alan King’s sprinter was again in the field and actually took the lead in the last furlong but had no answer to the finishing speed of Perfect Power (a son of Ardad) who held off another finisher, Trident, trained by Andre Fabre and running in the Tabor colours.
The Coolmore owners’ York had been mainly frustrating from the moment St Mark’s Basilica had to be scratched from the Juddmonte International owing to an injury sustained on the home gallops. Late sub Love proved no match in third behind six-length winner Mishriff who starred in a Gosden family revival stunningly shared by the ultra-game Stradivarius, holding Spanish Mission in the Lonsdale Stakes, undoubtedly the thriller of the week.
At least Snowfall was able to maintain her winning sequence in a third Oaks, copying Love last year with wide-margin wins at Epsom, the Curragh (Irish) and York (Yorkshire). Some churlish observers were reading down the distances, 16 to eight to four and discerning something sinister from them.
Aidan O’Brien seemed to be considering Champions weekend in Ireland as a preliminary before her top target in the Arc for which she is the 3-1 favourite. I’m sure “the boys” would be content with another halving to a victory by two lengths on the first Sunday in October. But then again as York showed us last week, a lot that can happen before that.