Willie top of the pile, but not alone in scoring well

Willie Mullings: 5 Festival Reflections

The ratio of post-Festival reviews to preview nights is likely in line with the ratio of sense to nonsense spoken at said preview evenings though I do include myself in that having attended three such events this year, writes Tony Keenan. Reflecting on the meeting, it is hard to get away from Team Mullins who generated most of the big stories on and off the track but that is the nature of the national hunt scene now so I apologise in advance for such a Closutton-centric piece.


  1. Making the right decision?

When Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh reflect on their Festival and more specifically on how they placed their horses in their respective races, I am sure they will believe played their cards at the correct time. They kept some of their main talents apart and went mob-handed in other races which maximised their chances of having winners; for them this was the right decision.

But there is more than one right decision and it depends on your perspective; owners have a different point-of-view and may want their horses kept apart or perhaps would prefer to go all-in and have multiple runners in the championship races rather than the less prestigious ones. There is the right decision for racing too and this will always be to have the best horses competing against each other, something that palpably hasn’t happened in the Mullins era with the likes of Quevega kept to her own sex and Ruby pointed out quickly after the Champion Hurdle that Annie Power and Faugheen would never race against each other.

This is not to crab Mullins; rather he is working within the parameters racing has set him where an inflated graded race programme and a four-day Festival have allowed him to keep his best horses apart; and, if anything, this will be exacerbated in the future with a five-day Festival as inevitable as it is regrettable. With avoidance of competition, there is a cost however and that is Mullins’ continued failure to win an open Grade 1 chase at the Festival. One could argue the Ryanair has that status but it’s in name only and most racing people rightly look down on the Thursday race with even the sponsor only grudgingly running his best horses in it. Mullins may have been looking on regretfully as Gordon Elliott got the Gold Cup parade through Summerhill last Saturday while Bagnalstown was notably quiet.


  1. Is Ruby Walsh the smartest man in racing?

When you look at the placing of the Mullins horses at Cheltenham, not just this year but previous years too, it is hard not to see Ruby Walsh’s hand behind them; he is the one who seems to get what he wants regardless of ownership concerns and perhaps even those of the trainer – it’s worth pointing out that, unlike Willie Mullins, Ruby has multiple Gold Cup and Champion Chase wins on his CV. That’s not good for the competitive side of the sport as Ruby has commented often about his desire to win as many of these big races as possible but there is something admirable in it.

In contrast to almost every jockey through history, Ruby has got player power; in a way he reminds me of basketball’s LeBron James who not only pulls the strings on the court for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA but does the same with the team’s management too. And though sporting and racing heritage may say this is wrong, it isn’t if Ruby’s is the biggest brain in the room and there’s every chance it might be. Unlike Willie Mullins, who claims not even to watch replays of his horses race, Ruby has an intimate knowledge of both his own mounts and, importantly, the opposition.

He and Willie have a tremendous record with horses switching races; Yorkhill, Black Hercules and Vautour all won last week while Shaneshill ran very well and in the past the likes of Fiveforthree and Champagne Fever have done similar. These are high-risk decisions that will draw flak if they fail but they have the confidence to carry them out. Every owner wants Ruby on their horses and is willing to compromise their own interests to have this but it is not only for his obvious physical gifts at race time but also his highly intelligent, perhaps even genius, input into where they should run.


  1. Vautour-gate

The handling of the decision to switch Vautour to the Ryanair was horrendous and left a sour taste. Clearly every owner has the right to run their horses where they wish – though even that is questionable for owners in the Mullins yard – but there is a responsibility to inform the people about a public horse like Vautour, an animal I believe to be the most talented in training. This is not some 70-rated handicapper switching from a Kempton handicap on Wednesday to a similar race at Wolverhampton on Friday but rather the Gold Cup favourite or second favourite changing target at the last possible moment.

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Punters’ money is not the issue here either as the majority of bets struck on Vautour would have been with the non-runner no-bet proviso, though bettors who played in the Ryanair Chase market in the belief that he wouldn’t run would argue otherwise. This is an information issue and punters lost out in terms of how they were treated – with contempt in case you were wondering – rather than financially.

Rich Ricci has taken most of the heat for this decision and the reason is obvious; no one is going to take the side of multi-millionaire fat cat banker with a hand in the financial crisis against two of racing’s heroes. But the truth is likely that Willie and Ruby made the Vautour call and decided to tell nobody about it: their ability to face down a wealthy owner like Ricci shows the power they have within their own fiefdom.

Of course, both Ruby and Willie could argue that they ride and train for owners and not punters. If I need to explain to you that they ride for both you’re probably reading the wrong website – punters fund racing and so on – and Ruby would do well to remember that the vast majority of those people who he’s waving his whip at as he crosses the line at Cheltenham are punters, as would Willie and other trainers recognise that their owners were or are gamblers on some level. You can’t have the adulation with at least a little of the scorn.


  1. What’s the point in betting Mullins horses ante-post?

I’m as bad a judge as there is of where Mullins horses might run at the Festival; this past meeting I managed to back Long Dog, Shaneshill, Bellshill and Black Hercules (twice) for the wrong races. Betting these horses ante-post is as difficult as it is pointless and the risk/reward ratio seems well out of sync with what it might be with other yards; even when you find yourself on at a big price early that horse may switch late on as so many of them did this year.

Prior to the Festival, I wrote an article about how well the short-priced Mullins horses do at the meeting and that continued in 2016; of the seven Closutton horses sent off 3/1 or shorter, five won which is incredible. The sensible thing here is simply to back them on the morning of the race when the firms are pushing them out to attract business or if you must play early then wait for the non-runner, no-bet concession and play the few that have multiple targets in more than one race.

Another point worth making is that whoever is punting the Mullins horses ‘knows’ how good they are. In other circumstances, I am very sceptical of ‘them’ backing a horse but with this firm the record is there and it also makes sense that they would know where their horses stand relative to one another; not only do they have many of the best horses but they also make extensive use of schooling races. Take Yorkhill in the Neptune as an example. He had good form coming into the race but not so much that he should have been as short as he was relative to talented stablemates like A Toi Phil and Thomas Hobson but not only did he justify the support he did it in some style.


  1. A changing betting landscape?

I lost money betting on Cheltenham which, contrary to what some of the layers might tell you, was not impossible! Punters looking for something at a double figure price and hoping that one or two of those horses would win had a rough meeting as a lot of the shorties won and I was probably guilty of overthinking my betting over the four days.

Rather than years past when the bankers were overbet, the opposite was true in 2016 and there are a few reasons for this. The brilliance of Willie and Ruby plays a big part as does the relative weakness of some of the big English trainers, notably Paul Nicholls. The four-day Festival is a contributing factor too as it has weakened some of the races.

But more than that, there has been a cultural shift in betting where it is dominated by the idea of value. We’ve become conditioned to oppose the front of the market and this message is reinforced no matter where you turn in the racing media. Seemingly every racing page and broadcast mentions the jolly being too short while favourite backers are derided by those who know better. That clearly does a disservice to the true idea of value, the sense that a 1/10 shot can be overpriced if it ‘should’ be 1/25, but for most of us raised on the Pricewise concept it means double-figure odds.

Perhaps the pendulum has swung a little too far the other way and this is only being reinforced by how the bookmakers operate during Cheltenham week. Not only are they betting to nigh-on unprofitable over-rounds but they also offer over-broke place books and a host of money back offers as well as fancied horses being pushed out. It seems they were almost intent in losing last week – a Cheltenham sprat to a long-term mug mackerel, perhaps – and hitting the front end of the market might be the best way to exploit this next year.

- Tony Keenan

p.s. if you enjoyed this post, here are five more takeaways from Cheltenham worth noting.

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12 replies
  1. Rick says:

    As far as I’m concerned if the owner of Vautour cannot get the horse to run in the race he wants, either because he can’t stand up to the pressure or is too easily manipulated by the trainer and mostly the jockey then he should move his horses; maybe spread them around

    We were denied a truly special Gold Cup coz Willie and Ruby are greedy sods who thought they could mop up all the prize money. I bismarcked Djakadam for the meeting and there was no surprise he didn’t win. Mr Ricci should have been told that he wasn’t going to land the Gold Cup with that horse. I hope he enjoys looking at his Ryan Air Chase memento.

    • Chris Worrall says:

      Tony’s not here at the moment, but I’m guessing it’s a mix of Mullins (trainer) and mulling, which Tony has done in his piece.

  2. Tony B says:

    The Mullins Ricci Walsh operation has gone down in my estimation over the Vautour affair.

    Either cowardice or greed were the motivating factors in my opinion.

  3. Mike says:

    Whilst Cheltenham was a meeting to savour and remember I cannot help but think we were all deprived of a truly remarkable Gold Cup with the switching of Valtour to the Ryanair at the seventh hour. Whilst this decision might have been fully justified in the Mullins / Walsh camp it is difficult to come to terms with it if you backed Valtour anti-post for the Gold Cup – waving good bye to our money without a run. Trainers and owners should declare their horses for a certain race and stick to it, and act fairly to the punters who after all are the bedrock of the industry.

    In relation to the Mullins monopoly on all the good races, whilst he is very lucky in acquiring the cream of the crop – and is without doubt an astute and inciteful judge of equine flesh, it is a pity that this destroys the very competitiveness of racing as it is no longer a level playing field as it dissuades other trainers and owners from entering their horses because at best they are only playing for place money.

  4. Martin says:

    Whether you agree or disagree with the points made in this opinion piece, it needs to be posted 2 weeks pre Cheltenham 2017. I’m going to be bookmarking it now under a folder in my favourites….called Cheltenham 2017.

    The question of who the true paymasters of the jockeys are reminded me of the spat between Ruby Walsh/John McCririck on RTE a few years ago.

  5. rick brind says:

    I agree that having an almost total monopoly by the same trainer, jockey, owner combo at the Festival is sad for other teams and connections but M W R have the horses the skill and play by the rules even if at times if this may seem unfair. Okay the downside for punters is often short odds and lack of ‘value’ but punters can play the system too. I was just as happy taking money from the bookies last week with various multiple bets as I was with my 10/1 winner.

  6. Mickey ferri says:

    It was a brilliant meeting that lived up to the hype. Vatours round was my highlight and only goes to show what a brilliant horse he is. Was the change of plan due to the drying ground and the fact that they couldn’t be confident of beating Don cossack on it. Also rich ricci was desperate for vatour to win at Cheltenham. With the likes of Yorkshill coming through the domestic nation will continue foe a while yet but it has been noted the top French breds that the nicholls team have been buying.

  7. Mickey ferri says:

    Also interesting to see the latest obriens triumph win. Could it be jpmcmanus and coolmore could become a major force in nh with Joseph training them. They have plenty of horses to compete with.

  8. john says:

    An interesting article relating to Mr Mullins. Since 2010, Willie has had 12 odds on shots run at the Cheltenham Festival of which 9 (75%) have won. This would have been 10 if it wasn’t for Annie Power falling at the last in 2015 with the race at her mercy. The other 2 losers were Hurricane Fly at 4/6 and Un De Scaux this year again at 4/6.
    If Cheltenham statistics relating to the performance of odds on shots were used, there would be a good case for pinpointing the failure of the Mullins horse, Un De Scaux in the Champion Chase.
    Going back to 2000, there have been 5 odds on favourites to contest the Champion Chase. Only 2 have succeeded. They were the brilliant Master Minded and Sprinter Sacre. Back in 2004, Moscow Flyer fell whilst odds on. In his hat trick bid, Master Minded was also turned over at odds of 4/5, with the other loser being Sizing Europe.
    In my opinion, Un De Scaux is nowhere near the same class as past winners Master Minded or Sprinter Sacre and therefore represented poor value at 4/6.

  9. Martin Colwell says:

    So Festival 2017 back Mullins and Walsh in the non handicaps; Henderson horses in the other races, except Pipe and Jonjo may pick up one or two handicaps and Gordon Elliott will take two or three races. Sorted.

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