The Irish Outsider – September 4th, 2013
In terms of a single day’s racing, Champion Stakes day at Leopardstown is probably the best meeting of the year and the current Derby favourite Free Eagle will add further intrigue with a likely appearance in a Group 3 on the card.
This fixture will look different in 2014 however, added to the Curragh Leger card to make Irish Champions Weekend, and it should be a success given the relative proximity of the two tracks.
Something will likely be missing from the two-day gala fixture and that is a classy sprint. Ireland has a twelve-strong body of Group 1 races over the year but they are notably narrow in the range of distances they cover with only two – the Phoenix Stakes and St Leger – falling outside the seven to twelve furlong spectrum.
This stands in contrast to France with two Group 1 sprints (including the Maurice De Gheest over the extended six) and especially England with five.
Indeed, Ireland doesn’t even have a Group 2 sprint in the year, something that is sorely lacking, and that would be the place to start with the ultimate aim of getting it upgraded to a top-level contest in time as the UK authorities hope to do with the Champions Day Sprint in October which ironically enough was won by the Irish-trained Maarek last year.
There are those who might argue that Irish sprinters are a laughing-stock but while that stereotype had truth in it five years ago, it is palpably not the case now. British horses may well win more than their share of our Group sprints still but it certainly isn’t the whitewash it was and bizarrely enough the Irish sprinters seem to more than hold their own on their travels.
Certainly there are many good trainers of sprinters in Ireland; notably Eddie Lynam with the Powers, Sole and Slade, as well as Balmont Mast; Mick Halford with Russian Soul this year and Invincible Ash in the past; David Marnane has won a number of big sprint handicaps in England; Aidan O’Brien has had champions like Starspangledbanner; Maarek and Gordon Lord Byron with more minor yards.
Not having at least a Group 2 sprint in the Irish pattern has been something of a self-fulfilling prophecy but the trainers have been overcoming that lately and it would be boost to them to have a good prize to stay at home for and lessen the necessity for travel. Where to host it would be another question, but the Curragh would have to be preferable to Leopardstown as its sprint track is fairer; the draw is often referenced in analysis of sprints at the track but it’s largely a fair course and would produce much less chaos than around the turn at Leopardstown.
It was hardly a shock during the week to read that Willie Mullins intends to have many more runners in the UK this year and indeed my response was what took him so long? Mullins has taken a horse to Japan in the last year yet rarely runs more than a handful in England before the Cheltenham Festival and it seems that sheer depth of numbers he has in his yard has overwhelmed the Irish programme; it looks a move born of necessity rather than a desire for a great challenge.
Running multiple horses in Irish races is seemingly something that Mullins wants to avoid which is no surprise given he is an excellent placer of his horses.
Certainly the availability of Ruby Walsh to ride all these horses has played a part in this move. There may be more to the Walsh/Nicholls split than meets the eye but what was behind it we may never know; I suspect the key factor may have been the obvious one – that Nicholls didn’t have enough top horses anymore – rather than any desire from the notoriously competitive Ruby to have more’ family time.’
It will be interesting to see what sort of horses Mullins brings to Britain; will it be novices or older horses? Handicappers or graded types? It could well be that he brings the lot over as he has the lot, dominant as he is in every division.
Perhaps he will leave the younger horses at home for the moment but there may come a point when there simply is no option but to travel with them; if you look at just his novice hurdlers around the minimum trip last year, they included Champagne Fever, Un Atout, Pique Sous, Mozoltov, Un De Sceaux and Tennis Cap and that’s not even to mention the juveniles, mares and the ones that want further.
Having the option of the classy handicaps in England is sure to open up options; they offer big prizes for horses that hitherto have been difficult to place while owners are sure to happier going for a punt in competitive races than trying to get on in a tin-pot Irish conditions race with four other runners. One can see the whole Irish and English handicap marks issue flaring up again however if the Mullins horses start to win early; the handicappers in the different jurisdictions use different methodologies to come to their marks.
As for the UK trainers, I can’t think they’re too pleased, Nicky Henderson has done well in England that last two seasons but Mullins really is a behemoth, landing nearly four times the prize-money of his nearest rival in Ireland last term, so the home trainers should be afraid, very afraid.