Neill Dennehy returns to the Horse Racing Tavern with a look at the Willie Mullins stable, which is looking stronger and stronger each week in the run up to the Cheltenham Festival in four weeks.
Michael O’Leary, JP McManus, Graham Wylie, Alan Potts and the recently prominent Rich Ricci, a list of owners even Paul Nicholls would envy such is the extent of their collective buying power. Some are more established than others, but they are all current owners in Willie Mullins Closutton yard. They say one can often judge an owner by his patrons, if that is the case Mullins is clearly doing something right. In terms of raw numbers, this season looks set to be his most successful yet with 100 winners clocked by early February. A few onlookers thought that Aidan O’Brien’s record time for attaining a century of winners in an Irish National Hunt season had just gone, but then they were reminded that the season started in May rather than October. No matter, while one record may be unattainable for now at least, these are still halcyon days for the Co. Carlow handler. Willie’s late father Paddy Mullins had a celebrated training career the highlights of which were a Champion Hurdle, a Gold Cup and an Irish Oaks amongst others. One of the best amateur riders of his generation, Willie and his brother Tom who has also trained with success are making a good fist of living up to their father’s legacy. Mullins took time to establish himself as the dominant force in Irish National Hunt racing, only winning his first title relatively recently, although more concerned with quality than numbers, he is once again easing towards retaining the Irish Champion Trainer’s crown he has not relinquished since he won it first in 2008.
His nearest pursuer is his old friend Noel Meade who himself built up a sequence of Irish Trainer’s championships in the mid-noughties, a proud man and a fierce competitor, his yard has been hit hard by the recession as syndicates involving people in the construction industry have broken up, the backbone of his operation have gone with them and horses are commonly seen running in his own colours these days. Meade currently has about half as many horses in training as he did a few years ago, he certainly has a few classy inmates in his care this season and it is clear that the residual class is still there and that his training prowess remains undimmed, but it seems now that he cannot compete with his long-time friend. Although there has never seemed to be any animosity between the two, Meade was used to being top dog in the Irish National Hunt ranks for a considerable period of time he cannot be enjoying this present state of affairs. Noel Meade is an amiable character, but anyone who is sceptical about the above analysis should look up some of Sir Henry Cecil’s quotes about how he felt about losing during his wilderness years, also, an extract from Paul Carberry’s book which deals with the aftermath of Harchibald’s first Champion Hurdle defeat speaks to the idea that Meade is a fierce competitor, it is a good insight.
Amongst all of this, the old cliché about being wary of wide margin winners arises, whilst it would be churlish to deride the magnificent achievements of the Mullins stable in recent years, it would be remiss not to point out that Irish racing isn’t perhaps quite as competitive as it was a few years ago. But then, how can it be? Ireland is in the throes of a brutal period of austerity that is likely to get worse before it gets any better. The state is spending something in the region of 2o billion euro more than it is taking in every year and it is only the loans from the European Central Bank that are keeping the show on the road. Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that the best Irish pointers are now largely for export to Britain just like in the bad old days. Irish owners do not have pockets deep enough for the classy, precocious ready made from France either and so while those left that can afford to purchase expensive bloodstock congregate around the Mullins stable, there is little left for the rest.
The Mullins stable is a veritable superpower in Irish racing and taking everything into account, it probably stands to reason. The yard has excellent buyers with connections in both the Irish point field and the French Provinces, top notch facilities and a talented, dedicated staff as well as certainly the best, if not the two best jockeys. The Mullins operation is a prime example of how a trainer can maximise his advantages and put himself in a position to dominate not just the present, but into the future. There will be challenges, Meade will doubtlessly rebuff his efforts to be champion again one day and up and coming trainers like Gordon Elliot and Colm Murphy as well as established handlers like Jessica Harrington could all provide more resistance in better economic times.
The Question now for Willie Mullins with domestic dominance established is ‘where to next’? A point worth raising is that at present he has won only one of the four championship events at Cheltenham. He may have taken over from Edward O’Grady as Ireland’s winning most trainer at the festival last season, but his record in the big four races in comparison to the likes of Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson comes up some way short with just the Champion Hurdle in the bag. There is still plenty of time to ameliorate this statistic as Mullins is relatively young in terms of training and his graph is still firmly on an upward curve. However a trainer of Mullins’ ambition and talent must have his eyes firmly fixed on becoming the greatest Irish National Hunt trainer of the modern era, to do that, he will have to win a Gold Cup, and not just one, Tom Dreaper has 5, Vincent O’Brien 4 and Dan Moore 2. It is a tall order in what is probably a more competitive era, but in his mind’s eye one would hazard a guess that Mullins could see it happening such is his relentless progress. As a side note, it would be interesting to see what he could do with a classy stayer on the level, a kind of dual purpose animal like Rite of Passage if you will, Dermot Weld has carved something of a niche for himself in this area and the likes of Pipe and Henderson do it well also. Having already won an Ebor with Sesenta, it could be something the Irish Champion will revisit.
On present achievements alone, Willie Mullins would be more than entitled to quote that infamous John McEnroe line ‘How much is enough?’ but true greatness is an exacting standard, but for a man of Mullins talent and the human and equine talent around him it is where his aim should be. We could be looking into an era of unprecedented dominance in Irish National Hunt Racing, the career of Willie Mullins will be judged by its own graph.
The Hennessey meeting at Leopardstown is usually a good place to survey Ireland’s best prospects for the upcoming Cheltenham festival. A characteristic of the last few years has been that many of the most prominent of our equine stars have been in the care of Willie Mullins. There have been a few suggestions in recent weeks that some of his horses haven’t quite been running up to their best, but the trainer speaking after Quel Esprit’s Hennessey victory was quick to put all of that to bed stating that his horses were running to their level and that they had just bumped into a few that were too good of late. At this stage of his career, it takes more than a few short ones being turned over in Thurles on a February afternoon to ruffle the multiple Irish Champion trainer.
Of the runners with Cheltenham credentials today, one could say that the results were a bit mixed, but disappointing would be too strong a word. Lambro ran with credit behind Gigginstown’s potential superstar Last Installment and seemed to run like he would improve again for a step up in trip.The inexperienced Call the Police also acquitted himself very well in the same race and should continue to improve with the Powers Gold Cup at Fairyhouse looking an ideal target for both. Sous les Cieux showed himself in need of a greater test of stamina at Grade 1 level in failing to reel in surprise 50/1 winner Beneficent over 2m2f, his trainer was far from despondent with his effort and he could well be a factor in the Neptune Investment Hurdle over 2m5f although the stable would appear to have a better candidate in Boston Bob. Ut de Sivola ran appallingly in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle, in short, it was too bad to be true and obviously he is best not judged on that effort, but such a run so close to Cheltenham is worrying and it is very much back to the drawing board, but doubtlessly they can have him better than that for some big spring targets on both sides of the Irish sea.
It was left to Quel Esprit to save the day as the strong travelling grey ran away from Roberto Goldback to land Ireland’s most prestigious staying chase by 2 lengths. Quel Esprit was prominent throughout and virtually made all and at times ran a little free, he is probably worth more than the 2 length margin of victory. On the plus side, such positive tactics allowed him a clear sight of his fences and this win put to bed most of the concerns surrounding his jumping. Quel Esprit has always been looked on as a good jumper by connections, but throughout his novice season he was struck by ill-fortune in his fencing and perhaps also suffered for being a little too brave. He led to three out in last season’s RSA still going well when falling and he was also carried out in the Grade 1 at the Punchestown festival won by Quito de la Roque. In contrast, he jumped brilliantly in the Grade 2 novice he took at Limerick at Christmas and he jumped around the stiff fences today like an old handicapper and it seems that he and his bold jumping are now best judged on those efforts.
His trainer has stated that a crack at the Gold Cup is now in order and as a Hennessey winner he is certainly entitled to line up. He is after all Mullins’ only Grade 1 calibre open company chaser at the moment and an anxiousness to be represented in the Gold Cup amongst trainer and connections is understandable. Quel Esprit’s ability to handle good ground, his cruising speed and his slick jumping will all stand him in good stead to run well in a Gold Cup, but in truth, his run today his held down heavily form wise by the proximity of Roberto Goldback (2 lengths) and even more worryingly Treacle (5 1/2 lengths) back in third. The Hennessey marks him down as an early 160’s horse and while he certainly has the scope to improve on that, it is doubtful whether he would be able to make that leap forward quickly enough to be seriously competitive with Long Run and Kauto Star in just over a month. He is only just turned 8 and is short of experience over fences with only a few minor, confidence boosting victories to his name this season, however, with another year on his back he could be a major contender.
A young horse with perhaps even greater potential than Quel Esprit was absent from Leopardstown today having done his winning elsewhere earlier in the campaign. The Graham Wylie owned Boston Bob is fast becoming many shrewd judges’ idea of a Cheltenham banker at a working man’s price. Having hacked up in his Irish debut at Navan, he returned to the stiff county Meath venue to put Gordon Elliot’s much vaunted point, bumper and graded hurdle winner Mount Benbulban to sleep in the course’s 2m4f grade 1 for novices. He then carried on to Leopardstown where he carried a grade 1 penalty in heavy ground and disposed of good horses like Lyreen Legend and Gigginstownstable mate Make your Mark by 2 1/4 lengths and 9 ¼ lengths respectively. The Mullins yard was split as to who would come out on top that day and giving that kind of weight away on heavy ground allied with the esteem in which Make your Mark is held in suggests that Boston Bob is an animal of huge potential who will probably be seen to better effect again over fences next season being an ex-pointer. However it looks like the son of Bob Back can make plenty of hay between now and next autumn as Ruby Walsh seems to reckon good ground will not be a problem to him. The Neptune appears to be his likely festival target as it is a race the trainer seems to like and he certainly appears to be the best credentialed Irish candidate.
Many Irish race watchers spoke of another Mullins inmate So Young in the same glowing terms as they do of Boston Bob at this stage last season, however at that time, he had only a Leopardstown wide margin maiden hurdle win to his name. Always regarded as more of a hurdling type, this smart recruit from the French Provinces went off a short price in last season’s Neptune Investments Hurdle on the back of reports of some sparkling work with the then newly crowned Champion Hurdler Hurricane Fly. He ran creditably but failed to pick up in the style expected to finish a never nearer third and re opposed his Cheltenham conqueror First Lieutenant at the Punchestown Festival where once again he was hotly fancied but appeared to break down during the race. He reappeared this season and took a few handy scalps in conditions hurdles the most noteworthy of which was most recently at Navan. He will hold entries in both the Champion and Stayers Hurdles and while his from leaves him someway short of the principles in both races, he is clearly a horse who is very well thought have and who could still have his best days in front of him. At first sight, he looks an ideal candidate for the Aintree hurdle as do several of his stable mates.
The Mullins battalions seem somewhat overstocked with candidates who appear to relish hurdle races of 2m4f plus. Along with So Young, horses like Zaidpour, Mikael D’Hageunet , Mourad and Champion Hurdle fourth Thousand stars all appear to have a propensity to step on each other’s toes this spring and it is probable that a few of them may cross swords at some point. Zaidpour appears to be the one who is most likely to stay at home due to his strong preference for soft or heavy ground. A good victory over top quality mare Voler la Vedette has been the highlight of his season to date and it is possible that connections may look to France in search of his favoured ground if the weather starts to dry up in Ireland. There is a case to be made that Mourad may be starting to regress slightly at the age of seven and while he is worth another shot at Cheltenham’s World Hurdle, on a line through Voler la Vedette, as much as the mare has improved for settling better, it is more likely than not that the Aga Khan bred is somewhat on the downgrade. He may struggle for options as he needs good ground to revive his fortunes. He hasn’t yet run a bad race at Cheltenham.
Thousand Stars is a horse capable of pitching up in any hurdle race in Britain, Ireland or France and running with credit. The French Champion hurdle Winner looks most likely to take in the Champion again en route to his main targets of the Aintree hurdle where he ran a cracker last season and an attempt at a repeat victory in the French Champion Hurdle. Having run away with the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown earlier this season, he was reeled in by Dermot weld’s smart mare Unaccompanied in the Istabraq Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting giving significant weight away and subsequently ran a rare bad race behind a reappearing Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion Hurdle. He is almost sure to bounce back and continue to be a pest to more fancied rivals throughout the rest of the season.
Mikael D’hageunet has been something of an enigma since he tipped up in the Drinmore when about to take Jessie’s Dream on his fencing bow. He was a machine of a novice hurdler winning a Neptune Hurdle at the Cheltenham festival and the scalps of subsequent fencing luminaries like Lexus winner Pandorama and Hennessey victor Diamond Harry in a six month spell where he carried all before him. After a year away with niggling injuries, his chasing career had to be aborted with his novice season having been something of a disaster where he failed to win and often didn’t complete. He took a nasty spill when he looked to be going well in the RSA and Willie Mullins may regret not having got a nice confidence booster into him after the Drinmore. Mikael D’hageunet ended last season with a sighter in behind Quevega over hurdles at Punchestown and started back this season disappointingly on the surface having been crushed by much improved mare Voler la Vedette going down by 7 ¼ lengths. The fact that Fully Funded finished 3 ¼ lengths in front of him that day worried many, but he seems to have recovered to some extent easily beating the likes of Rick, Head of the Posse and the returning Western Leader in conditions hurdle races. He has accounted easily for these rivals and while it is good to see him back on the right track, that kind of form is a world away from what would be required to even be competitive in a World Hurdle. Mikael D’hageunet is racing with gusto again, but it remains to be seen whether he can return to his old level, the balance of probabilities suggests that he won’t thus his availability at big prices for Cheltenham.
There are many others with viable claims at the festival, not least Sir Des Champs who will be a force in whichever of the staying novice chase events he contests. The course and thequicker ground should hold no fears for last season’s Martin Pipe winner and he is expected to jump better and travel more professionally off of a faster pace. He is probably Mullin’s best novice chaser as while Backstairmountain is a good horse in his own right, he is not the type to win a potentially vintage renewal of the Arkle run at an end to end gallop. His Grade 1 form with Notus de la Tour is good for what it was but it is far removed from what is required here. He is best forgiven his last run on ground that was unsuitably soft.
Scotsirish looks to have a great chance in the Cross Country race which is usually run at a crawl. He is still capable of getting within 10 lengths of the best 2 mile chasers on a going day and that potent turn of speed should serve him well in this sphere having proved he stayed the trip well last weekend at Punchestown. He appears to have taken well to the rigours of the cross country discipline and barring accident Rich Ricci’s first ever horse should add to his tally of festival winners, stable mate Uncle Junior could well follow him home. Alee Garde who has some smart novice chase form to his name behind some of Ireland’s best prospects has the stamina and that touch of class that should see him go close in the 4 miler for amateur riders or perhaps maybe a bit later in the season an Irish National. Meanwhile, Sweet My Lord (Coral Cup) owned by racing enthusiast and RTE news reader Colm Murray and last season’s MCR and County Hurdle winner Final Approach both hold decent claims in the handicaps. There is a strong history of classy horses running off of high marks in the County, sometimes as high as the 160’s and it would aid Final Approach’s cause no end if Paul Nicholls were to run the classy Celestial Halo off of 165 giving Willie Mullins’ gelding a more manageable racing weight.
Hurricane Fly and Quevega will almost certainly show up, do what they nearly always do and win. There is little to be said about either of them that hasn’t been said before such has been their continued excellence. Connections of the mighty mare have opted to stick to the tried and tested route of the mares race again and that is their prerogative, it is comfortable and it works well, the racing public is gone beyond doubting her ability which she showcased when trouncing a good field in the Stayers Hurdle at Punchestown last season. Mullins has perfected the art of peaking her for the spring and it has gotten to the stage where backers would be more worried if they saw her run before Cheltenham. Likewise with Hurricane Fly, the public seems to trust Willie Mullins implicitly in his handling of his stable star. He wasn’t firing at home; he didn’t run, as simple as that and the 11/4 available early in the New Year is looking very good now, the only hope for ante-post layers appears that to be that injury may intervene to prevent him from taking part such is his apparent superiority. From the moment he slammed subsequent Supreme Novices winner Go Native in the Grade 1 novice at Leopardstown in Christmas 08’, he has been something of a public horse. The way he galloped through the line that day full of running marked him as out of the ordinary and he has not disappointed. Good enough to finish in front of subsequent Champion Stakes winner Literato as a 2yo on the flat, this 8yo son of Montjeu’s longevity given his various injury niggles is amazing when put in context. He is obviously possessing of a great constitution and an exuberance that has caused him to sometimes overwork at home and injure himself, this trait along with a battler’s head carriage in a finish suggest a really genuine horse. Hurricane Fly, a great combination of speed, class and guts, a rare beast indeed. There will be a few punters curtailing their week if he is beaten.
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Photo Credits: telegraph.co.uk