The Shunter continues to thrive and surprise trainer Emmet Mullins as he nears his next big-race assignment at Aintree.
The prolific eight-year-old steps into Grade One company in Thursday’s SSS Super Alloys Manifesto Novices’ Chase, having already landed a huge pot for connections in last month’s Paddy Power Plate Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
The Shunter bagged a £100,000 bonus with that victory, which came after he had put himself in line for it when taking Kelso’s Morebattle Hurdle 12 days earlier.
He had already won a big prize at Cheltenham in November, in the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle, after moving to Mullins’ County Carlow yard last summer from previous trainer John Clifford.
As The Shunter prepares for his next major challenge in Britain, Mullins reports him to be taking his exertions remarkably well.
“Yes, you wouldn’t know at home (he’s been so busy),” he said.
“He’s thriving at the moment – he looks in great order, and heavier than he did going to Kelso before the journey started.”
The Shunter has proved hugely adaptable as well as durable – winning over both hurdles and fences, at trips varying between two miles and two miles and five furlongs and on both soft and good ground.
“We haven’t come across anything like him (before) – nor did we think (to start with) he was as good as he is,” added Mullins.
“He just keeps improving. I would argue his most impressive performance was his last run at Cheltenham.
“Hurdles or fences – either is not too much of an issue. Arguably he could be a bit better over hurdles.
“But I’d say his ideal conditions are two and half miles on nice ground – and after that hurdles or fences, we don’t really mind.
“He just seems to be in such a rich vein of form.”
The Shunter has improved three stones in nine months for Mullins, and must therefore venture out of handicap company to take on a field of Britain’s top novices.
Mullins added: “He doesn’t show a whole lot at home – and he doesn’t actually do a whole lot of work at home.
“So, I’m only seeing what everyone else is seeing on the track – and I’m happy enough to do that.
“I’m not going to force his hand at home. If he doesn’t want to show it to me, that’s OK.
“I can wait like everyone else to see him (do it on the track). Once he keeps winning, I’m happy.
“We’ve got our big handicap pots out of him – and he’s kind of gone up too far up in the handicap to be flying that route (any more).
“He keeps surprising us. Our handicap mark says we should be there – we’re probably stretching a bit going straight into Grade One company.
“But he owes us nothing – and whatever he can do is a bonus from here.”
Leading the home defence against The Shunter is the Nicky Henderson-trained Fusil Raffles, second to stablemate Chantry House in the Marsh Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham.
Henderson said: “This is his trip, I’m pretty sure.
“He ran a great race at Cheltenham. Envoi Allen helped us a fair bit by declining to come round all the way, and did leave the door open, but you’ve got to be there to take your chance when you’re offered it.
“Chantry House beat Fusil Raffles, but ‘Fusil’ is very good in his own right – and over two and a half, this is the place for him.”
Paul Nicholls is equally hopeful about the chance of Hitman, who arrives on Merseyside a fresh horse after missing Cheltenham.
The Ditcheat trainer said in his Betfair blog: “He’s a proper young chaser who was still travelling strongly when he came down in the Grade One Scilly Isles at Sandown and then enjoyed a nice, confidence-boosting victory at Newbury early in March.
“As he’s only just five and lacks experience, we decided to bypass Cheltenham and wait for this race over a trip of two and a half miles – which is ideal.”
The David Pipe-trained Umbrigado has won the last three of his four outings over fences, most recently the Greatwood Gold Cup at Newbury.
Pipe said: “He was very good the last day at Newbury – and although this will be different, with a small but select field, the track and trip should suit him, and he definitely deserves to go there.
“He ran well the time before last at Wetherby and he showed that he stays two and a half miles last time at Newbury on better ground. He seems to be much better over a fence.
“We decided not to go to Cheltenham with him, because it was close enough after Newbury. His owners (John White and Anne Underhill) have had great success at both Cheltenham and Aintree, but we opted for Aintree because he ran well enough there before.
“He has always been a horse we thought a lot of, and the last two performances have demonstrated that. He is going to have to improve again, but he seems to be on an upward curve.”
Pipe also has a leading contender for Grade One honours in the shape of Triumph Hurdle runner-up Adagio.
Already a winner at the top level in Chepstow’s Finale Hurdle, the four-year-old proved best of the British runners in the juvenile championship – and faces five rivals in the Doom Bar Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle.
Pipe said: “He was perhaps a little bit of a forgotten horse in the Triumph, but he ran an absolute cracker.
“He has won around Cheltenham, and a quick track like Warwick, so I think he is versatile regarding ground and track.
“I wasn’t sure at the start whether he would be good enough to be up to Triumph Hurdle standard, but he has proved me wrong by the performances at Chepstow and at Cheltenham.”
The one to beat, however, could be Monmiral – who like Hitman did not run at Cheltenham.
The French import is unbeaten in three starts for Nicholls, who said: “He’s a good example of my belief that everything in the season shouldn’t revolve around Cheltenham. We don’t buy and train horses just for the Festival.
“We don’t have to take horses there – we were not tempted by the Triumph Hurdle, and it was always the plan that Monmiral would head instead to Aintree after he won impressively on both starts for us.
“The form of his latest success at Haydock has been well and truly franked by the second and the third. While he has only ever raced on soft ground, I feel that good to soft on Thursday will be fine for him.”