The Irish Outsider – November 27th 2013
A quiet weekend for Willie Mullins then with just the four winners at odds of 8/13, 4/5, 4/6 and 3/1, so the questions about the competitiveness of Irish national hunt racing should be quelled until the Hatton’s Grace meeting at least.
There has been plenty of comment on how boring this has all becomes – sporting dynasties tend prompt similar responses such as Stephen Hendry in snooker or Michael Schumacher in formula 1 racing – so how do you solve a problem like Mullins, if indeed there is a problem?
I’m yet to be convinced that there is and even if there is I have only some thoughts and not solutions.
The race that really prompted the whole ‘Mullins is too good’ debate was the Morgiana Hurdle in which Hurricane Fly won at 1/16 and the trainer had four of the five runners, the other a 106-rated 50/1 shot. This reaction seems knee-jerk however; the race has been a good one in recent years, Hurricane Fly met with his sole Irish defeat in 2009 and could well have been beaten last year had Go Native stayed on his feet.
This year’s renewal too was set to be a hot one before Our Conor and, at the last-minute and probably erroneously on connections’ part, Jezki were taken out.
It is not as if champions like Hurricane Fly winning at short prices are anything unusual in Irish jumps racing either. When I started following racing in the early 2000s, it was the norm with horses like Limestone Lad, Solerina and Moscow Flyer. While in his pomp, the last-named ran 16 times over fences between October 2001 and April 2005, winning 12 of them from 13 completions, and was sent off at odds-against just once.
Perhaps memory is deceiving me, but I don’t recall an outcry of moaning every time he ran, rather, he was feted. Is it okay to have such a horse cleaning up all around him as long as he isn’t trained by Mullins?
In sport, as in life, nothing lasts forever, and periods of dominance are cyclical. Mullins may be in the ascendancy now but others have held the same position in the past and not maintained it. It is the quality of his dominance that concerns people however; in 2012/13, he had 193 winners in the national hunt season, smashing Aidan O’Brien’s previous record of 155. If anything, his hegemony is becoming more marked.
Mullins possesses an extreme concentration of talent and the numbers bear this out. Of the top 100 Irish hurdlers by the ratings, Mullins trains 35 of them (and 26 of the top 50) with the next best being Gordon Elliott with eight. With the chasers, he doesn’t have quite so many but it is still 20 of the top 100 with Henry De Bromhead closest with seven.
The problem arises with what you do with such strength in-depth. Whereas the average trainer with a handful of good horses simply targets them at good races, Mullins doesn’t do this as they’d have to race against each other so instead has to find softer contests for them. Take a mare like Glens Melody for example; if she were trained by anyone other than Mullins, it is unlikely she is going for the Punchestown conditions hurdle she won at 8/13 earlier in the month but because he also has the likes of Annie Power, amongst others, she goes there.
Owners of course play a big part. There is practically no one in the game, with the exceptions of JP McManus and Michael O’Leary, who can outspend the splendidly-named Rich Ricci, the chief executive of Barclays Capital. There is something deeply ironic about the fact that Mullins, the prime example of capitalism in training where only the fittest survive, has had his gained and retained his position with the backing of such an exponent of market forces. But then again, capitalism is the least worst system we have.
Graham Wylie is a different case and his actions in the aftermath of the disgrace of Howard Johnson have been disappointing. After years of open support of Northern racing, he upped sticks and moved all his horses to Mullins and Paul Nicholls, the most obvious of new yards, despite having a clear alternative in Donald McCain, the rich getting richer. Obviously it is any owner’s prerogative to do whatever he wishes but it was unusual in light of his previous comments. This is a choice taken by any owner of putting one into training with Mullins negates the chance of landing a touch, unless backing one from 11/10 into 4/6 is your thing.
There are some sports that aim for parity; the NFL is the most obvious example with its core belief of ‘Any Given Sunday’ seen every weekend by punters on the sport where unfathomable results are the norm. Such was the dominance of seven-footer Lew Alcindor in college basketball in the 1960s that the authorities actually banned his signature move, the slam dunk, between 1967 and 1976, a law that became known as the ‘Lew Alcindor Rule.’
The Irish racing authorities are not known for levelling the playing field however and on the contrary tend to pander to the interests of big players. One possible solution is reducing the number of graded races and this applies across the board in flat racing and in the UK too. In general, there are too many graded races, too many opportunities for the top horses to swerve each other.
Rather than work against this however, the authorities seem to actively promote it; when the upgrades and downgrades of races come out each year, there are invariably more of the former than the latter with the recently upgraded three-mile hurdle at Leopardstown at Christmas a good example of an unmerited Grade 1. Limiting the number of such races however would be one in the eye for breeders however, with all their false black-type, and Irish authorities, both in government and in racing, have been notoriously unwilling to offend this group.
In all of this, it is worth remembering that Willie Mullins isn’t perfect though there may be times during the season when he might need a touch of memento mori after another big win, the Roman tradition of a slave reminding a victorious general of his mortality. The knock on the trainer is that for all his Cheltenham success and there have been 29 winners in all, he has struggled in the open championship races, registering only two wins in such races, both coming from Hurricane Fly.
Perhaps getting some of his many novice race Festival winners, 19 in total, to progress to open company could be his next trick.