Elliott and Mullins Dominant at Cheltenham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheltenham Festival Halftime ‘Pep Talk’ required

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Duke has The Power for Gold Cup Glory

News came last night that Sizing John would not be defending his Gold Cup crown.

As the bombshell dropped, I was in the process of writing how surprisingly rare it is that horses complete back-to-back victories in the ‘Blue Riband’. Keeping these equine stars fit and well is an incredibly difficult task. Getting them on the racecourse year-in year-out is hard enough, but training the equine elite to maintain such a high level of performance is quite something else. Along with Sizing John, the likes of Faugheen, Douvan and Thistlecrack are just a few names that instantly spring to mind.

Though Harrington will clearly be gutted at the untimely injury to her Gold Cup hero, it does mean that jockey Robbie Power will now be reunited with stable companion Our Duke. The partnership landed the Irish National back in April but occasional jumping errors since his return from a back operation have been a source of concern for those siding with the giant chaser, as he heads for his greatest challenge to date at Prestbury Park. Power is surely best placed to get the most from Our Duke, and that may well prove to be enough for a horse that looks tailor-made for the job that lies ahead.

Might Bite heads the market following success in the RSA last year and a somewhat underwhelming victory in the King George. Turning for home at Kempton, the eight-year-old pulled clear of the pack and looked sure to romp to an impressive winning performance. But at the line he had just a length to spare over Double Shuffle with a further two back to Tea For Three. Henderson’s talented chaser may well win the Gold Cup next week, but his inability to focus throughout the race, from the fall of the flag to the finish, may yet prove his downfall. Better horses than Whisper, Double Shuffle and Tea For Three will be waiting to pounce, should he take his eye of the prize.

Native River will ensure that the contenders stamina is fully tested. Richard Johnson will set the fractions, firing the gutsy eight-year-old at every fence as he attempts to mirror a Coneygree style performance. Tizzard’s contender has had this race as his sole target this season, and as such, will arrive a fresh horse. He ran a cracker in finishing third a year ago, when arguably not ridden aggressively enough. Sizing John had the gears, and enough left in the tank to use them. It will be down to Johnson to ensure that the sting is drawn from the chasing pack, in much the same way as Sam Spinner in Thursday’s Stayers’ Hurdle. He looks sure to go close.

Road To Respect won the Brown Advisory Handicap at last year’s Festival, and has continued on a steep upward curve throughout this campaign. He took the Leopardstown Christmas Chase (formerly the Lexus) defeating Balko Des Flos and Outlander, though several leading contenders underperformed that day. Off the track since, the lack of a prep-run is a slight concern. He’s a second-season chaser, clearly on the upgrade, and therefore ticks plenty of boxes for trend followers. Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that he’s ‘the one’ and am far from certain that he’s robust enough for this extended trip with that infamous concluding climb.

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The joker in the pack is the Willie Mullins-trained Killultagh Vic. He looked likely to win the Irish Gold Cup when falling at the last. Such jumping errors must be a huge concern for a horse with so little chasing experience. Despite being a nine-year-old, he’s only had three races over fences. It’s testament to how highly he’s regarded that he’s fourth favourite at 10/1, and he does have a Festival success to his name, having won the Martin Pipe Hurdle back in 2015. Three years have passed, and in that period, he’s only been on the racecourse five times. If he wins we will all marvel at the training prowess of Willie Mullins coupled with the incredible talent of the horse. However, trend followers will say that he can’t win, and I’m prepared to go with them.

One that will outrun his odds is Minella Rocco. Runner-up last year and winner of the four-miler in 2016, this fella thrives at Cheltenham in March. He’ll likely be outpaced at some stage prior to charging up the hill when others cry enough. As Native River’s tank starts to read empty and Might Bite drifts across the track to inspect the Guinness Village, Jonjo’s fella will be making his move. I’m sure he’ll go close.

Gold Cup winners rarely stagger over the finishing line, rather, they charge up the hill devouring the Cheltenham turf, out-staying and over-powering their opponents. In the absence of Sizing John, I’m convinced that Our Duke has what it takes to complete back-to-back victories for Jess Harrington. At 25s, the each-way money will be lumped on Minella Rocco.

Expect the unexpected in this ‘anything could happen’ renewal. Best of luck to those having a punt.

Henderson and Mullins launch Anti-Samcro Assault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of luck to those having a punt.

De Bromhead novice can Sparkle in the Arkle

It’s possible that the Arkle Novices’ Chase could prove the highlight of this year’s Cheltenham Festival.

Both the Stayers’ Hurdle and the Gold Cup have a wonderfully competitive look to them and are likely to provide thrilling finishes. But it’s the Arkle that has Jump racing purists smacking their lips in anticipation.

The front four in the betting have made a seamless transition from hurdles to fences. Footpad has been dominant in Ireland, though defeated a ring-rusty Petit Mouchoir last time at Leopardstown, with the pair expected to be more closely matched at Cheltenham. Sceau Royal has set the standard in the UK and was particularly impressive when slaughtering the opposition in the Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown. And then there’s Saint Calvados – the beast from the south-east (just over the English Channel in France), now under the guidance of Harry Whittington and fresh from three destructive performances over the larger obstacles.

Money has come in recent days for Nicky Henderson’s Brain Power, suggesting that this is not merely a battle of the Fab Four, but possibly a clash of the Famous Five. This fella certainly looks a chaser, though has blotted his copybook of late with mishaps at Sandown and Ascot.

So, which of these can add their name to a stunning roll of honour that includes two-mile chasing goliaths Moscow Flyer and Sprinter Sacre?

Six and seven-year-olds have proved dominant in recent years, though Moscow Flyer and Sizing Europe were both eight, whilst Voy Por Ustedes and Well Chief were just five when landing this prestigious prize.

Of the main protagonists, Saint Calvados is the ‘spotty-faced teenager’, though arguably arrives with enough experience to do himself justice. Three from three over fences, he’s a sizeable unit for a baby, and has been simply sensational in romping to victory at Newbury (twice) and then in the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick. Those wins came in testing ground and there had been a concern as to whether he’d adapt to a sounder surface at Cheltenham. However, the great British weather has done its best to accommodate this French-bred son of Saint Des Saints. He’s sure to be bounding along at the head of affairs, more than likely shadowed by race favourite Footpad. The pair have been electric over obstacles thus far and could provide a spectacular display for an expectant crowd.

Footpad has been foot-perfect throughout the winter and would make it three wins from the last four renewals for Willie Mullins. He forms part of two-pronged assault from owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede along with the Alan King-trained Sceau Royal. This fella was slightly better over hurdles and has the requisite size and scope to excel. He’s demonstrated the ability to stand-off a fence but also the aptitude to ‘shorten-up’ when required. He looks to have a high cruising speed, which was seen to great effect when accounting for Petit Mouchoir last time. There’s the potential for a heated battle at the front end, with the possibility that this may benefit a contender that sits a little off the pace.

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One that looks sure be held up is the Munir/Souede UK entrant, Sceau Royal. This fella isn’t the biggest but has been wonderfully slick over fences this winter. He jumped as well as any novice when simply sensational at Sandown in December. His only defeat over fences came at Cheltenham when runner-up to North Hill Harvey. He was giving the winner 5lbs, though looked in control approaching the last, before being out-battled during the final climb to the finish. He certainly wasn’t stopping that day, but connections would have been a little disappointed that he couldn’t nail the winner late on. Sixth in last year’s Champion Hurdle (Petit Mouchoir third, Footpad fourth, Brain Power eighth), I have a feeling he may find one or two of these possess a little more firepower during that final climb.

Henry De Bromhead saddled Sizing Europe to win in 2010 and has a leading contender in Petit Mouchoir. Brilliant on his chasing debut in October, the seven-year-old then suffered a minor joint injury which kept him off the track for almost four months. He returned at Leopardstown and was thrown in at the deep end when trying to keep tabs on Footpad in the Irish Arkle. Certainly rusty early on, he undoubtedly warmed to the task, jumping well for the main part despite Footpad setting a searching gallop. Fitness surely played a part in the five-length defeat and after the race connections looked thrilled. The question is whether he can improve enough to turn the tables at Prestbury Park.

Nicky Henderson’s attempt at four wins in the last seven renewals rests with Brain Power. He’s failed to finish in two of his three starts over fences and has undergone wind-surgery since his fall at Ascot in January. Something of a ‘bridle horse’, he’s often looked a little weak in a finish. If the operation is successful, he has the talent to be a major player. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised if he powers up the famous hill to victory.

North Hill Harvey remains an interesting contender should the ground at Cheltenham dry-out enough prior to the off. He has a terrific record at Prestbury Park and has won both his chase starts at the track. He probably lacks the gears to beat the main protagonists, though could pick up the pieces as warriors fade up the final hill, or should one or two of the favourites underperform.

This looks a fabulous renewal and I’ve spent many hours considering the likely outcome. Footpad has looked exceptional over the winter, sweeping up the races that tend to point to an Arkle winner. But I was impressed with Petit Mouchoir’s return and will put my trust in De Bomhead’s ability to produce high class two-mile chasers. Best of these in last year’s Champion Hurdle, it’s Petit Mouchoir for me. If testing conditions prevail on the opening day of the Festival, I would fear the relentless power of Saint Calvados. His age and lack of Cheltenham experience are a negative, though he has looked mightily impressive over the winter.

Best of luck to those having a punt. I think we’re set for an absolute thriller.

Weighing up the Festival Handicap eye-catchers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get-on Getabird – the First Festival Banker

With less than a fortnight to go until the Cheltenham Festival, the time has come to start previewing some of the action.

The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle opens the show and is a race that has been kind to Willie Mullins in recent times. With three wins and a trio of runners-up finishes in the last five renewals, the Closutton team are the ones to watch in the Festival opener.

Many of those Mullins winners have carried the silks of the Ricci’s, and this year’s race favourite Getabird is hoping to continue that successful run. He’s a six-year-old, which is handy, as those aged five and six dominate the race. Unbeaten under rules, he’s two from two over hurdles and owes his place at the head of the market to the devastating performance last time at Punchestown in the Grade Two Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle.

Getabird sprinted clear of Mengli Khan that day (was in receipt of 6lbs) causing connections to change focus from the Ballydoyle to the Supreme. He’s slick over the obstacles and clearly has gears. He’s also a beautiful mover, and I’d be stunned if better ground (he’s been winning on heavy) was to cause any concerns. His odds of 13/8 look skinny, but he ticks so many boxes, especially the Mullins/Ricci box.

Mengli Khan is not your typical Gigginstown contender. He learnt his trade on the flat under the guidance of Hugo Palmer. He’s taken a while to get the knack of hurdles, however is now maturing into that sizeable frame. A decent juvenile though some way off the best, he’s improved plenty this winter and may well take another step forward on better ground at Cheltenham. I don’t think he has the gears to cope with Getabird, but he may well be good enough to hit the frame. Gordon Elliott was responsible for last year’s surprise winner Labaik.

Many pundits believe that Amy Murphy’s Kalashnikov is the main danger to the favourite. Three from four over hurdles, this five-year-old (box ticked) suffered his only defeat in testing ground at Sandown. He bounced back to form with an impressive victory at Newbury in the Betfair Hurdle, defeating Bleu Et Rouge by four and-a-bit lengths.

A son of Kalanisi out of an Old Vic mare, he has the size and scope for fences, but therein lies my concern for this contender. He’s a huge unit and can take some time to get stoked up. Though there’s the famous hill to climb, Cheltenham’s Old Course (used on day one and two) is a sharper track than the New, and Kalashnikov may find himself too far back when it counts. He’ll be charging home, but I fancy the bird will have flown.

Summerville Boy defeated Kalashnikov at Sandown in the Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle and is a major player if the ground on the opening day is testing. He’s already suffered two defeats at Cheltenham this winter, though reversed form with one of the adversaries, Western Ryder, in the Sandown race. A fast run two-miles will help this fella, but he needs the ground to be in his favour if he’s to land a telling blow.

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At a decent price I quite fancy Tolworth flop Western Ryder. Prior to the Sandown run, this Warren Greatrex-trained six-year-old had landed a couple of races, including the win at Cheltenham in December (Summerville Boy almost six-lengths back and receiving 6lbs). He clearly likes the track, having finished fifth in last year’s Champion Bumper, despite interference late in the race. He’s already run 11 times under rules, which suggests he’s somewhat exposed. But I fancy that experience will prove useful and at 33s I think he’ll run well.

Like Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson has a cracking record in the opener, though his Claimantakinforgan looks set for a place finish at best. He was third in the Champion Bumper 12 months ago and was two from two over hurdles until disappointing somewhat last time at Musselburgh. He lacks gears and though a decent sort I’d be surprised if he had the ‘Va Va Voom’ for this.

Henry De Bromhead could have an exciting opening day (has Petit Mouchoir in the Arkle), and his Paloma Blue looks capable of running well in this. He travelled like a dream last time at Leopardstown before being outgunned by Samcro late-on. He was a little keen that day and should appreciate a faster run race on a sounder surface. He’s an each-way player.

I’d also give Vision Des Flos a mention, following his return to form last month after having a wind-op. He was a seriously good bumper horse in Ireland but had disappointed in his three starts over hurdles this term. An operation in January coupled with a drop back in trip at Exeter last month seems to have brought about an improved performance. He probably didn’t beat much, but at 33s, Colin Tizzard’s five-year-old is sure to attract each-way money.

I’ve already got a few quid riding on Getabird and I think he’ll win. Mullins has a terrific record in the race and this fella looked special last time. I fancy Mengli Khan will get nearer and I’m also a fan of Paloma Blue. The Irish have a great record in the Supreme, and I can’t see this year’s race being any different. The one UK contender that could break their stranglehold is Western Ryder. I’m hoping he comes here rather than taking in the Ballymore. If he does, I’ll be having a bit of that 33/1. He may be bigger on the day, and there’s a chance that a bookies special may give us an extra place for our each-way cash.

Best of luck to those having a punt in what is sure to be a fabulous curtain-raiser to this wonderful festival.

Cheltenham Festival Shorties – Thrash or Crash

For today’s piece I’ve decided to take a closer look at the Cheltenham Festival ‘shorties’ and assess whether they will thrash the opposition or unexpectedly crash and burn in the cauldron of Prestbury Park.

Year after year horses arrive at the Cotswolds in March with a huge reputation. They’ve often impressed in slowly run affairs, with small fields and usually in deep winter ground. Some duly arrive and conquer, confirming their status as potential stars. But others find Cheltenham an inhospitable place. The ground proves too quick and the opponents run too fast. They feel crowded in the larger fields and the fences are much trickier than those they have encountered before.

You only need to look back to last year’s Festival to see how Cheltenham in March can prove an immense assignment.

Yanworth lined-up as the 2/1 favourite for the Champion Hurdle having won three from three during the winter. Nevertheless, he came-up short when it mattered. Never slick enough over the obstacles, he was then badly outpaced coming downhill. By the time the field had turned for home his race was run.

Douvan was injured during his attempt to land the Champion Chase, but was he also a victim of a soft campaign? He arrived at Cheltenham having defeated 138-rated Realt Mor in a Grade Two at Punchestown. Thrown in at the deep end, in arguably the most intense National Hunt race of the calendar, the 2/9 favourite was forced to go a yard or two faster than at any time during the winter. He stood off way too far at the third and fourth fence, before putting in a short one at the fifth. Those early errors may have caused the physical damage which ultimately led to his demise, though there can be little doubt that chasing Special Tiara on Spring ground played a significant part.

Death Duty looked a non-stayer before coming down at the last in the Albert Bartlett, though during a dominant winter campaign in Ireland had looked sure to appreciate a step-up in trip. He’d ‘kept on well’ to thump Monalee at Navan in December, yet at Cheltenham, when sent-off a 13/8 ‘sure thing’, was run off his feet and had nothing left when faced with the infamous hill. His pedigree shouts stayer! Yet quicker ground and the inevitable stronger pace of a Grade One at The Festival proved insurmountable for the talented young hurdler.

Unowhatimeanharry had swept all aside en-route to last year’s Festival. He’d looked hugely impressive in taking the Long Distance at Newbury, the Long Walk at Ascot and then the Cleeve at Cheltenham. A 5/6 favourite for the Stayers’ at the off, Harry Fry’s hurdler did little wrong, travelling powerfully through the race, but lacked gears on the livelier ground and was beaten into third.

Each year these stories are repeated and without doubt there’ll be several ‘shorties’ turned over in March. The difficulty comes in predicting which of the ‘Festival bankers’ will fail to deliver.

Getabird is already a 7/4 shot for the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. If Samcro heads to the Ballydoyle as anticipated, the Mullins-trained six-year-old will be hugely popular with punters, especially of an Irish persuasion. He’s arguably the sort that we should be taking on. His pair of hurdles victories have come in heavy ground, and as a point-to-point winner, we know he’ll stay much further in time. He could be tapped for toe in a quick-fire Supreme. Nevertheless, at this moment in time I’m a believer rather than a doubter. He’s looked slick and destructively quick in winning those two races. The Mullins/Ricci combo have a tremendous record in the opener and with no Nicky Henderson contender to beat, I’m taking this fella to thrash the opposition much to the delight of the Irish contingent.

The Mullins team have another short-priced favourite for the second race of the meeting - the Arkle Chase. Owned by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, Footpad has been brilliant over the winter, winning all three chase starts and taking to fences like a duck to water. An even-money favourite with most bookies, he’s earned the right to top the market and will be many punters banker of the opening day. Despite a faultless campaign to date, I’m taking Footpad to crash in a renewal that looks hugely competitive.

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Petit Mouchoir, Sceau Royal and Saint Calvados could ensure that this is the race of the festival. A strong pace is guaranteed, and the winner will need to travel powerfully before staying on strongly up the famous hill. You could argue that Sceau Royal’s performance in winning the Henry VIII at Sandown was the most impressive by any novice this winter. I just have a slight concern as to whether he’ll be strong enough when faced with Cheltenham’s stiff finish. Saint Calvados was devastatingly good at Warwick last time, though needs to prove himself on a sounder surface. But it’s Petit Mouchoir that I fancy can turn the tables on Footpad. He should improve a ton for the run at Leopardstown last time. And producing two-mile chasers is Henry De Bromhead’s speciality.

Buveur D’Air is a certainty in the Champion Hurdle. Sure to thrash his challengers, those with plenty of cash can still get on at around 4/9.

I’m taking a huge risk with the next ‘Festival banker’. Samcro will look to maintain his perfect record under rules, with plenty believing that he cannot be beaten. Hugely impressive last time in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, he’s odds-on to take the Ballymore. Spring-heeled at his obstacles, he has gears and is bred to appreciate this trip. Those winter wins have come on heavy ground, but he’s by Germany, a stallion that has produced previous festival winners Faugheen and Captain Cee Bee. He has the credentials, but in On The Blind Side and Next Destination, the opposition looks strong.

The former is trained by Nicky Henderson and is also unbeaten under rules. He was mightily impressive at Sandown in December and is highly thought of by his trainer. The Willie Mullins-trained Next Destination is unbeaten over hurdles and ran well in last year’s Champion Bumper at Cheltenham. He’s accounted for some decent sorts over the winter and looks sure to run a huge race. Samcro has looked awesome thus far, but I fancy the opposition is strong enough for him to be vulnerable here. Despite a huge amount of talent and a colossal reputation, he’s a crash rather than a thrash.

Like Buveur D’Air, Altior cannot be defeated. A two-time Festival winner, he’s in a different league to the rest. Min may be challenging approaching the last, but Altior will no doubt surge clear approaching the line. This fella is sure to thrash all-comers in the Champion Chase.

Though I’m stretching it a little in calling him a ‘shortie’, Might Bite has dominated the Gold Cup market since his King George success at Christmas. Hugely talented, though undoubtedly quirky, Henderson’s young chaser will face by far his toughest assignment at Cheltenham and I fear the infamous hill will prove his downfall. Almost chinned late-on in last year’s RSA, he faces better horses in March and arguably stronger stayers.

Sizing John needs to bounce back to form, but last year’s winner will probably do so. Native River has been aimed at this one race and looks sure to go close. Road To Respect is a Festival winner and has improved a ton during the winter. And there’s no doubting that Minella Rocco will be charging up the hill as others cry ‘enough’. I wouldn’t be at all upset if Might Bite proved me wrong, but for me he’s likely to crash when challenged by talented and more proven stayers.

So there you have it. Some will leave the Cotswolds with huge reputations intact, whilst others head home having found Cheltenham a place where dreams fail to come true.

Monday Musings: A Dublin Flyer!

There was only one place to begin this week’s offering, writes Tony Stafford. Leopardstown provided two days of intoxicating, top-class sport, making a brilliant success of the much-heralded Dublin Racing Festival. Excellent performances were interspersed with some of the most head-scratching results ever in my experience, although in fairness Messrs Mullins (W), Elliott (G) and O’Brien (JP) are well accustomed to such equine alchemy.

At The Races, under the threat of imminent loss of the Irish racing portfolio to Racing UK, packaged its heavy hitters Matt Chapman and Mick Fitzgerald to join home team performers Gary O’Brien and Kevin Blake, bolstered by Ted Walsh yesterday when both UK fixtures were on the other channel.

With Samcro showing almost Golden Cygnet-like potential in the two-mile novice hurdle; Mr Adjudicator running a decent Triumph Hurdle trial in the juvenile race; Footpad looking Arkle material and Total Recall switching back to hurdles off a toadying 125 after his Ladbrokes Gold Cup (ex-Hennessy) victory at Newbury off 147, punters had a chance of some pretty easy profits.

Any two-day fixture which offers seven Mullins winners against only one for Elliott - that one was  Samcro - will have gone a long way to altering the perception that there has been a definitive change in the Irish jumps power-base.

But two results will have had both Goliaths looking over their shoulders in understandable anxiety as the boy Joseph was at it again. I was at Lingfield on Saturday, reasonably enough expecting victory for Joe’s Adam Kirby-ridden Paparazzi in the opener. In my opinion, he got a shocking ride, never in contention and only third under sufferance in a weak affair.

Minutes later, there was Tower Bridge in the McManus colours coming from last to first to win the stayers’ novice hurdle in the Festival weekend’s opening race at 25-1 with a storming late run. Tower Bridge won the last two of three bumpers last summer; ran a stinker first time over jumps at Down Royal before putting up an improved display with a fourth over Saturday’s track over Christmas. You could suggest maybe a two stone improvement this time.

Yesterday’s offering by O’Brien junior was even more extraordinary. Watching the preliminaries, my eye kept getting attracted to the name of Edwulf in the Unibet Irish Gold Cup Chase in which Our Duke, Djakadam and Outlander made up the most likely group. He was as large as 66-1 at one stage, hardly surprising after having run only once this term, when pulling up also as a 66-1 shot in the three-mile Grade 1 Leopardstown Christmas Chase.

Edwulf has a more than interesting history. After a couple of Irish points – he fell in the first of them - he turned up in the Ben Pauling stable and was despatched to the 2015 Punchestown Festival where he was a 39-length seventh, ridden by Derek O’Connor.

Switched the following season to Aidan O’Brien, he was in the process of running away with a novice chase first time out when as a 33-1 shot he fell with the race at his mercy. The McManus talent scouts were soon on the case, and it was in the green and gold that he made a winning hurdling start soon after, comfortably beating 24 maidens at Naas. A fall late on in a Grade 2 novice ended that campaign.

It also curtailed his time at Ballydoyle, as Edwulf was among the initial Joseph intake in the summer of 2016. He began with a third to Min, a convincing Saturday winner, before unseating in a race won by Our Duke. It was pretty much feast or famine after that with a second, a win, another fall and a second chasing victory before, reunited with Mr O’Connor, he came to the closing stages of the four-mile National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham looking the probable winner.

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Sadly, he went wrong after a terrible mistake two out, and O’Connor was forced to pull him up just onto the run-in. The top amateur kept the ride at Christmas and again yesterday, when after shortening to 33-1, he happily cantered round at the back and on the wide outside of his field while the majority of Ireland’s best staying chasers dropped away one by one.

Turning for home he was still apparently going easily, and once Our Duke and Djakadam dropped away and, notably, Killultagh Vic toppled at the last when looking the winner, there was only Elliott’s Outlander to account for, a task he and O’Connor managed with authority. This was yet another six figure prize for the modern-day miracle man.

A generation and a bit earlier Joseph’s dad was sharing Jim Bolger’s unique knowledge with, among others, Willie Mullins and A P McCoy. Willie achieved a couple of bits of sleight of hand of his own - with Total Recall, of course, unbeaten after three runs since leaving Sandra Hughes when she retired - but even more astonishingly with Patricks Park in Saturday’s 40-grand to the winner two-mile handicap chase.

As recently as last October, Patricks Park had the first of only two runs for Matt Sheppard, having been trained previously in Ireland by David Harry Kelly for whom he won a maiden hurdle. Readers of this column and more particularly adherents to the web site which hosts it will be aware of The Geegeez Geegee. It was that estimable horse – sadly now in other ownership - that gave Patricks Park a 33-length hammering at level weights on that Sheppard debut in a handicap chase.  Less than three weeks later, backed from 50’s to 33-1 Patricks Park romped home by 12 lengths over two miles, five furlongs on the soft at Ffos Las, off his mark of 113.

Between late October and New year’s Day he was repatriated to Ireland and, now with Mullins, started 11-8 favourite for an 80-109 handicap hurdle over two miles seven furlongs at Tramore off what appeared a gift mark of 104, but finished unplaced, 33 lengths behind the winner.

On Saturday, in a 20-runner 0-150 handicap chase over two miles and a furlong, he readily came home in front under Rachael Blackmore! How does he do that?

True, there was the disappointment of Faugheen’s inability to stave off the sustained challenge of Supasundae, and Yorkhill ran lamentably behind stablemate Min, but otherwise it was very much Mullins’ and Joseph’s meeting.

As to the imminent switch of allegiance of Irish racing from At The Races to Racing UK, I’m with such as Eddie O’Leary of Gigginstown and JP McManus in wondering what could possibly be the benefit to viewers. Surely, when the major UK Flat racing gets going, some Irish coverage must at best be truncated, and smaller summer fixtures could be lost in the way that even At The Races sometimes has to drop Down Royal. In its present location, everyone can see the good stuff without interruption. It’s decision day tomorrow. Let’s hope common sense prevails and they restore the status quo.

Outlander to continue Leopardstown love-affair

Who’d be a tipster? Things haven’t gone according to plan in recent weeks, so I’ve decided to travel across the Irish Sea (not literally) in search of a winner.

The Dublin Festival at Leopardstown begins on Saturday and it’s Sunday’s Irish Gold Cup that I’ve decided to scrutinize for this week’s preview. It’s a competitive renewal though many will be disappointed not to have Sizing John and Road To Respect in the line-up. The former took this race 12 months ago prior to his successful trip to Prestbury Park, whilst the latter landed the Christmas Chase (formerly the Lexus). They’re arguably Ireland’s top two staying chasers, although many would fancy Our Duke as a potential star.

Established in 1987, the first winner was the classy, if sometimes unpredictable, Forgive ‘n Forget. The 10-year-old had captured the Gold Cup at Cheltenham two years earlier but was often apt to put in an erratic round of jumping. A strong traveller through a race, when he did get it right he proved to be mighty impressive. His victory at Leopardstown in ‘87 was one such occasion.

Jodami completed a hat-trick of wins in the 1990s along with a single victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. And at the turn of the century Florida Pearl matched that success with his own trio of wins. Trained by Willie Mullins, the horse became an Irish chasing goliath. He captured a fourth Irish Gold Cup (then the Hennessy) in his final start at the age of 12. Although never cracking Cheltenham’s Gold Cup, he did manage to land the King George at Kempton in 2001.

Mullins has found it impossible to win Cheltenham’s Gold Cup but has a terrific record in Ireland’s equivalent. He landed three-in-a-row from 2011 to 2013 (bringing his total to nine), with Sir Des Champs taking the latter. Much to the trainer’s frustration, he too came up just short back at Prestbury Park when losing out to Bobs Worth.

The champion trainer has two entries in Sunday’s renewal with a huge disparity in experience. Djakadam has been contesting these top-class events since 2015 and has proved wonderfully consistent. He’s won or been placed in 10 Grade One’s, though his two victories came in the John Durkan at two and-a-half miles. It would be wrong to say he isn’t effective at three miles, but he tends to find one or two a little too strong in a finish. I’d forgive him his last poor performance at Leopardstown over Christmas, when appearing to be suffering the effects of his previous clash with Sizing John. Nevertheless, on all known form he looks set to be placed at best.

Mullins’ second challenger is Killultagh Vic who only has two chase outings to his name. It’s quite incredible that a horse with so little experience and having only had one outing in the past two years (that was over hurdles) can find himself second in the betting. There’s no doubting the nine-year-old is talented, but it probably says more of the doubts surrounding other contenders. I’d be astounded if he wins and of the pair I’d be siding with Djakadam.

Jess Harrington trained Sizing John to win a year ago and has eight-year-old Our Duke primed for the challenge on Sunday. Ireland’s best novice chaser last year, his return in the was a disaster. Found to have a back issue post-race, he’s had an operation and is reportedly ready to put his best hoof forward. His Irish National success last April was mightily impressive, though he still must prove himself at the highest level against more experienced campaigners. He’s favourite for the race and needs to go close if to be considered a contender for Cheltenham’s Gold Cup in March.

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Gigginstown have three entered though only two are likely to challenge. Outlander and Valseur Lido certainly have the ability to go close, though the former is unpredictable whilst the latter is only recently back from injury. Outlander is four from five at Leopardstown and ran another cracker at the track when third in the Christmas Chase. He’s looked as good as ever this winter and I fancy he’ll go close.

I remain to be convinced that Valseur Lido truly sees out the three-miles at this level. When part of the Mullins team, his trainer was convinced that the horse needed ‘a trip’. But he looked a certain winner approaching the last in the Lexus of 2016 before fading. Then off the track for a year, he returned to contest the same race (now known as the Christmas Chase) and again faded late-on. He’s sure to strip fitter this time and now a nine-year-old may well have the stamina required. He’s arguably the most talented horse in the field and will likely be at the head of affairs approaching the last.

Many are singing the praises of Anibale Fly and it’s true he was impressive in winning the Paddy Power Chase at the track over Christmas. This is a much tougher assignment and his novice form leaves him a little shy of Our Duke. He’s only eight and there’s certainly room for further improvement, but I’m not convinced he’s quite up to this.

This track doesn’t play to Minella Rocco’s strengths. It would come as no surprise to see him staying on powerfully to grab a place, but he needs a stiff finish to be seen at his best. This will serve as a warm up for Cheltenham, where I can see him again going close.

I hope Our Duke wins and he may well do so. A talented novice, he’s the horse in the field that has star quality. However, there’s enough doubt for me to look elsewhere. Outlander’s record at the track is exceptional and I take him to land the spoils.

Best of luck to all those having a punt. And enjoy what is set to be a sensational Dublin Festival.

In The Numbers: Mullins versus Elliott (Part Two)

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

- Tony Keenan

A Clarence House Cruise – Un De Sceaux Easy

Un De Sceaux cruised to victory in the Clarence House on Saturday and remains at the head of the market for the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

The Willie Mullins-trained chaser was completing a hat-trick of victories, though will rarely find it easier to win at the highest level. The opposition for such a prestigious event was mediocre at best. Decent handicapper Speredek chased him home, whilst Nicky Henderson’s novice, Brain Power, once again failed to spark over the larger obstacles, before coming down two-out. The victor is without doubt an outstanding chaser, but it’s a shame that the record-breaking achievement should come in such a poor renewal.

Speredek did his best to make a race of it. Ridden boldly from the front by Sean Bowen, he maintained a lead until turning for home. Un De Sceaux swept past approaching the second-last, with Brain Power driven to get involved. The latter had jumped erratically throughout, and hit the fence hard, crumpling on landing. The favourite gradually pulled clear for a seven-length success.

Paul Townend was aboard the winner, in the absence of injured Ruby Walsh, and said of the victory: “I rode my horse to suit him, and the further we went the more confident I was getting. It was hard work, but it was job done today. It's great to get the opportunity to ride these horses. I spoke to Ruby (Walsh) this morning. He's always helpful when he's on the sidelines and I'm grateful to Willie and all the owners. He has a massive heart.”

Mullins looked on from Navan and added: “It looks like he's racing a lot more relaxed nowadays which means we can ride him differently. I was very happy with his jumping. I'd be happy enough to go back for the Ryanair Chase after what he did last year. But let’s see what happens with all the other horses first.”

Nico de Boinville felt Brain Power was struggling with his breathing, and the horse will be tested before further plans are made. Connections were made to sweat, as the horse took some time to rise from the tired looking fall. Henderson has said that he thought the horse ‘jumped and travelled great’, but having watched the race again, I find it hard to concur.

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Despite having the size and scope for fences, he’s no natural. At times he makes an ugly shape over the obstacle, and though he remains a novice, and should therefore be judged as such, he has a long way to go if he’s to become competitive at the highest level.

The winner will head to Cheltenham and attempt to defend his crown in the Ryanair, though he’ll have a hell of a lot more on his plate with the likes of Top Notch, Fox Norton and Waiting Patiently in the line-up.

As Un De Sceaux completed a famous trio of victories in the Clarence House, so The New One was landing a stunning four-in-a-row at Haydock, with yet another gutsy success in the Champion Hurdle Trial. The popular hurdler has made this race his own in recent times, and though victory looked unlikely as Ch’Tibello cruised alongside, the Twiston-Davies stable star refused to accept defeat. He’ll now head for the Stayers’ Hurdle in March, whilst I still give the runner-up an each-way chance in the Champion Hurdle. Skelton’s seven-year-old jumped and travelled beautifully throughout before being ‘out-slugged’ by the ultimate slugger. He’ll be no match for Buveur D’Air, but a place finish is up for grabs.

As ever, the winning trainer was full of praise for a horse he so clearly adores, saying: “We know he's not at his best here in heavy ground, but that is the fourth time he's won it now - surely they must name the race after him. He carried a 6lb penalty too, so if they were off level weights he'd have done it comfortably. He appears to be better than ever at the age of 10, which tells you all you need to know about him.

“He's just so tough, we love him and while he'll get an entry in the Champion Hurdle in case the wheels fall off the others, it will be straight to the Stayers' now. He's never been that impressive in this race, in a way that's probably his best win. I've certainly never won the same race four times, never mind a Grade Two. Quite simply he's the horse of a lifetime.”

The Bird has flown – Mullins youngster sets Supreme standard

Waiting Patiently provided one of the weekend’s most eye-catching performances.

Malcolm Jefferson’s exciting seven-year-old made it five from five over fences, and handed out a thrashing to several quality opponents. He also proved that he’s not simply a soft-ground bully, as he quickened clear of God’s Own, Josses Hill and Smad Place, on ground described as good to soft.

Speaking after the victory, Jefferson’s daughter, Ruth, said: “There’s not a lot of races about for him and we will have to look at the next step up. If the ground is good to soft or soft we will give it a go (Grade One Betfair Ascot Chase, February 17). Smad Place and God’s Own are getting on a little bit, but they do set a nice standard. He has done really well on soft ground and he has looked really well on soft/heavy ground. He has had to run on something a bit quicker today and prove he was as good. I like the way he quickened between the second-last and the last and galloped to the line.”

He’ll now be entered for both the Champion Chase and the Ryanair, and is as short as 10s for the latter. A decision on which option to take will surely depend on ground conditions at the time. Though connections may also be swayed by the name Altior appearing in the Champion Chase line-up.

Kempton’s opener went to Alan King’s smart juvenile hurdler Redicean. The result was never in doubt as he stormed to a 10-length success. His hurdling lacked fluency at times, but there’s no doubting he has a mighty engine. He’ll head for the Triumph Hurdle in March, and although this looks a strong division this season, he’s not without a chance at Cheltenham.

Whilst Nicky Henderson landed a treble at Kempton, it was his Warwick winner, Mr Whipped, who arguably left the most lasting impression. The Leamington Hurdle tends to go to a classy sort, and this fella looks capable of success at the highest level. He travelled powerfully throughout, and though idling after the last, ran out a comfortable winner. He’s now priced at 10/1 for the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham in March.

Nico de Boinville did the steering on Saturday, and was clearly pleased with the performance: “I was very impressed with him because he's still a big, raw baby. After he jumped the last he thought that was the job done and started to ease up a bit, but if something had come to me I think he would have gone on again. He had plenty left in the tank. His form is rock solid.”

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Despite these numerous eye-catching performances, it was Getabird’s victory in Ireland that had the most dramatic effect on the Cheltenham Festival markets. Available at 16/1 on Friday for the Festival opener, Mullins’ young hurdler is now as short as 3/1 in places for the Supreme Novices’ in March.

Mullins has won the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle on numerous occasions, and has been especially successful with those sporting the silks of Susannah and Rich Ricci. Getabird was accurate over his hurdles throughout the contest, and scooted clear from the last for a convincing nine-length victory over the well-touted Mengli Khan.

Patrick Mullins was the lucky pilot, and clearly excited by the performance, when saying: “That was great. He was quite worked up in the parade ring, which isn't like him, and he jumped off as if he was going to run (away with me). But after he jumped the first he kind of backed off a bit and I was actually going a bit slower than I wanted. I wanted to make it a good test as he's a point-to-point winner and Mengli Khan is a Flat horse.

“I was a bit worried when we turned out of the back that we hadn't gone fast enough, but the gears he's shown from the back of the second-last, he didn't have those when I rode him as a bumper horse. That performance was better than I was expecting to be honest. He jumped fantastic - he was rapid - and I'd say he has lots of options now.”

Willie Mullins will be hoping the winner can replicate Douvan and Vautour in following success in the Moscow Flyer with victory in the Supreme. He said of the win: “Patrick getting down to 11st 2lb paid off! He jumped fantastic and way better than on his first run. I was a bit worried whether he would be able to jump at the speed they would be going here. He jumped out, made his own running, and jumped very well. I'm very happy to have won that race with him.

“I don't know what route we're going to go, but you'd have to think as a Supreme Novices' trial that he'd be good enough for that, but he'll certainly be entered for the other races like the Ballymore. Jumping the way he did, that brings the Supreme into the picture. After his first run I was a little bit worried, but certainly the way he was there he'd be well able to jump with any novice. The speed he showed was very good. He got a nice bunch of horses off the bridle. I don't know yet if he'll go straight to Cheltenham. We'll see how he comes out of it.”

Weekend Pointers – Cheltenham Champs from the Aintree also-rans

Decent meetings take place at Warwick, Punchestown, Kempton and Wetherby at the weekend. And there’ll likely be plenty of spring festival pointers, with numerous talented individuals being put through their paces.

One For Arthur was successful at Warwick a year ago, prior to his glorious trip to Aintree and victory in the Grand National. Willoughby Court was also a winner on the card, and went on to take the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

For today’s piece, I thought I’d seek out the potential ‘Cheltenham Champ’ from the ‘Aintree also-rans’.

Warwick’s most prestigious meeting is a good starting point. The Ballymore Leamington Novices’ Hurdle looks a tasty renewal, and often produces a top-class winner. Inglis Drever, The New One and Willoughby Court, are all notable names on the roll of honour. Nicky Henderson’s Mr Whipped heads the market having defeated a fair yardstick in Gowiththeflow at Newbury last time. The son of Beneficial looked to be idling in front that day, and was probably good for a wider winning margin. Clearly talented, it’s impossible to say just how good he is, but he looks a leading contender for this.

Chooseyourweapon may head here, though his trainer Evan Williams has stated a quiet campaign was likely for this son of Flemensfirth. He also has a victory over Gowiththeflow to his name, though he only just got the nod at Chepstow. He’s a raw looking chaser in the making, but is without doubt talented, and I’d fancy him capable of going well on Saturday if taking his chance.

Tikkanbar is the other in the field that looks to have a huge amount of talent. Though lightly raced, this fella is already a seven-year-old, and as such may have a limited amount of improvement in the locker. Nevertheless, his jumping is certainly open to further development, as he won well at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day despite a patchy performance at his obstacles. Testing ground holds no fears, though the proximity of his last run is a slight concern. He looked useful at Prestbury Park.

Kempton’s opener looks a decent juvenile hurdle, assuming the main protagonists arrive. Gumball looked an exciting French recruit for Philip Hobbs, but was thrashed by Apple’s Shakira last time at Cheltenham. The yard was just entering a huge dip in form, and it’s possible that this youngster is a fair bit better than his last run suggests. Nevertheless, he’ll be giving plenty of weight all-round, and this may not be his day. I’d still see him as a horse to follow in the spring.

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Alan King’s Redicean would likely go off a short-priced favourite, but his trainer may well send him to Huntingdon on Friday. He was impressive on hurdling debut at Kempton over Christmas, and is as short as 14s for the Triumph Hurdle in March. King has had numerous classy juveniles over the years, and this could be another.

Also of interest in the field is the Warren Greatrex-trained Aardwolf. A decent performer on the flat for Mark Johnston, he was last seen in a handicap at Pontefract in October. It was soft ground that day, and though he wouldn’t want it too testing, he should cope with conditions at Kempton. He could be a useful recruit to the jumping game. We’ll know more on Saturday.

Chef Des Obeaux is the eye-catching entrant in the three-mile novice hurdle. Henderson’s youngster, by Saddler Maker, will look to build on his Uttoxeter success, and is a horse full of potential. Team Seven Barrows have so much talent at their disposal, but this fella looks a nice one. A strong performance here, would set him up for a crack at the Cheltenham Festival.

Waiting Patiently is set to return to action at Kempton, but will have his work cut-out to protect that unblemished record over fences. Soft ground is essential for this Flemensfirth offspring, and he’ll need a personal best to defeat the likes of Josses Hill, Smad Place and God’s Own.

I’d also expect a huge run in the Lanzarote Hurdle from Nicky Henderson’s Diese Des Bieffes. This young hurdler was beaten by If The Cap Fits last time at Kempton, but this step-up in trip looks sure to suit. Inexperience in such handicaps is always a slight concern, but his mark of 135 could prove a gift.

At Punchestown the showpiece event is the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle. The Willie Mullins-trained Getabird is the youngster with star-appeal, and though Mengli Khan had looked useful prior to his Leopardstown mishap, I fancy the Mullins/Ricci contender will enhance his reputation as a top-class novice. He’s currently available at 16s for the Supreme in March. That certainly looks a tempting price.

New Year Musings: Little to cheer for Mullins’ Major Owners

I wonder how many media interviews or television guest appearances Rich Ricci will be making this New Year, writes Tony Stafford. The snappy suits and engaging banter have been a constant accompaniment to his period as husband of jump racing’s most prominent owner – his wife Susannah – but the tide (as it usually does in racing) has turned against the pair in recent weeks.

The Riccis will have been full of optimism, along with all the owners in Willie Mullins’ super-powerful Closutton stable, before the four days of Leopardstown’s and Limerick’s Christmas fixtures, but the frequent setbacks will have tested Rich’s famed equanimity.

To have 15 runners for only two wins – apart from Min’s disqualification for muscling out Simply Ned in the Grade 1 Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase – was bad enough. But when the losers included Faugheen, for only the second time; Djakadam and odds-on novice Epicuris, a former Group 1 Flat winner in France, it must have been literally too bad to believe.

Faugheen’s so-far unexplained dismal performance in the Ryanair Hurdle at odds of 1-6 topped the lot. Off in front under Paul Townend, Faugheen could never dominate and even before stablemate Cilaos Emery had moved inside him at the third and headed him before the fourth, the usual sparkle was missing.

The fact that he pulled up before two out was an irrelevance, his jockey obviously unable to comprehend such a total capitulation – his chance had gone long before that. After a fine comeback run a month earlier in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown, 22 months after his previous dominant victory at Leopardstown in January 2016, the rising 10-year-old Faugheen was possibly more at risk of a disappointing effort second time back, but like this? Hardly!

Until Friday, the only blemish on Faugheen’s card had been his defeat in the 2015 Morgiana Hurdle, on his return the season after his Champion Hurdle triumph when he beat stablemate Arctic Fire. His unlikely conqueror that day was another Mullins top-notcher, Nicholls Canyon, and there was an eerie portent of things to come when that gallant stayer fell and was killed in Thursday’s three-miler won by former Mullins inmate Apple’s Jade.

Like the Riccis, Nicholls Canyon’s owners Andrea and Graham Wylie have been at the top of the jumps-owning tree ever since their brilliant stayer Inglis Drever won three World Hurdles at Cheltenham. Successful in the initial running of the race in 2005, he missed the following year through injury, but returned to collect twice more in 2007 and 2008.

At that time Wylie, who made his fortune with his Sage computing business in the North-East, often had around 100 horses in training in Co Durham with Howard Johnson, but the trainer’s four-year ban in August 2011 for illegally running a horse after de-nerving it led to Johnson’s announcing his retirement.

Graham Wylie had already altered his approach from having a host of unproven stores and some expensive sales acquisitions joining Johnson’s yard to a more selective policy based on trainers Paul Nicholls and Mullins.

The Wylie fortunes this season have been even bleaker than the Riccis’. Eight of their horses have run a combined 20 times for just a single win for Invitation Only at Navan on December 9. Apart from the numbing loss of Nicholls Canyon, four other Wylie horses appeared over Christmas and the biggest disappointment from the rest was Yorkhill’s fading into a 59-length defeat behind Road to Respect in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase. Such is the Mullins mystique that observers were suggesting Yorkhill could step up to challenge Buveur d’Air as Faugheen’s Champion Hurdle replacement. It seems unlikely in the extreme to me that he could match the brilliant Christmas Hurdle winner.

Wylie’s only connection to Nicholls this winter has been as share-holder with three other prominent stable owners in the useful chaser Copain De Classe, third on his only run this autumn behind the smart Benatar at Ascot.

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Over the four days of Christmas Mullins sent out ten winners from 49 Leopardstown and Limerick contestants. Almost half (24) started favourite and eight of them won. Eight of his odd-on shots were beaten, and as Nicky Henderson found in the years when his best horses were not good enough to win the championship races, from now until Cheltenham will be especially testing.

While even Mullins must be questioning elements of his operation, it gets better and better for Joseph O’Brien. Not content with sending out two 16-1 winners, Hardback and Alighted, for Gigginstown House Stud in consecutive Leopardstown races on Thursday, he won Limerick’s bumper the same afternoon with 11-8 shot High Sparrow  and even contrived a winning Lingfield raid with Art Nouvelle (9-2), guided to a length victory in the 6f handicap by Adam Kirby. That’s a 3,774-1 four-timer, and all within a couple of hours!

If anything, O’Brien junior is even more adventurous than his father and the rapidity with which he is progressing (Melbourne Cup and all) will be worrying for many. It should be no surprise that he is equally good with the jumpers. Both mum and dad were champion Irish jumps trainers before their mid-20’s.

The prize for the most opportunistic win of the Christmas period, though, goes to the underrated Roger Teal, who sent the juvenile Tip Two Win to collect a £46k prize in Doha, Qatar, on Friday.  There had already been plenty of interest in the Dark Angel colt after his Listed win at Doncaster in September and there was no disgrace in his Newmarket second behind the highly-impressive Mark Johnston-trained Frankel colt Elarqam who beat him a couple of lengths at Group 3 level later that month.

Despite those good runs, Tip Two Win did not make the cut for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile race in California, so Teal shrewdly picked out Doha as an end-of-year benefit for owner-breeder Ann Cowley. She bought Tip Two Win’s dam, Freddie’s Girl, for £9,000 at Goff’s Kempton sale and won three races with her when trained by Stef Higgins.

Tip Two Win is her first foal and he has now won three and been placed in the other three of his six races. Roger Teal was quick to report that he’s not for sale. All they have to do now is win a Group 1 and they’ll be home free.

Another set of well-known colours, those now billed as Ann and Alan Potts Limited after the deaths of both Gold Cup-winning owners, have been subject to a number of reverses, not least Gold Cup hero Sizing John’s capitulation in the same Grade 1 that featured the Djakadam and Yorkhill disappointments.

But for me, the run which most clearly summed up racing’s cock-eyed valuation especially of jumps horses came in the two and a half mile bumper at Leopardstown on Thursday. Here the Potts team sent out well-fancied Madison To Monroe but after making the running for the first mile and a half under trainer Jessica Harrington’s daughter, Kate, he soon dropped to the rear and came home 100 lengths behind the winner.

Said victor was Carefully Selected, powerfully ridden by Patrick Mullins in the portion of the Mullins operation, unexposed bumper horses, still bucking the trend. Madison To Monroe had won his only point-to-point back in February. Five got round in that eight-runner affair, after which the Potts team forked out €300,000. It would seem on this evidence that there’s little chance of recouping much of that.