Saturday 22 April 2017

Cheltenham outlook: Predicting Mullins' plans has become a right 'mare'

Some of Willie Mullins’ hopefuls exercising at Cheltenham yesterday. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Some of Willie Mullins’ hopefuls exercising at Cheltenham yesterday. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Johnny Ward

On Limini for the OLBG Mares' Hurdle, I had all but given up on my ante-post wager by Wednesday last.

It was then that connections had their last chance to supplement her for the Stan James Champion Hurdle tomorrow. The betting on the exchanges - the most accurate guide to pretty much everything - suggested that her being added to the race was a formality, even approaching the noon deadline.

Then the bombshell: Limini would not be supplemented. Quotes from her trainer were scant, Willie Mullins saying it was agreed that the fee was not worth it. This, said Ted Walsh, was simply code for: I can't see her winning the race.

Vroum Vroum Mag had been left in the Champion Hurdle last Wednesday, in which Mullins only had outsiders Footpad and Wicklow Brave as alternatives. Two plus two - Vroum Vroum Mag going there - yesterday became five as she was declared to take on Limini.

Read more: Ruby Walsh to ride Limini over Vroum Vroum Mag in Cheltenham

Punters and racing diehards have long bemoaned Mullins and Rich Ricci not running their best against each other, yet here they were doing just that when it seemed an affront to logic. So presumably Ruby Walsh would ride Vroum Vroum Mag?

Knockings

Wrong again. Mullins left it until last knockings to confirm his riding plans and Ruby has been booked to steer Limini. Already, friends of mine have speculated that he could still ride Vroum Vroum Mag!

It's said Aidan O'Brien developed reticence about revealing horses' likely targets after a bloke wrote into the 'Irish Field' claiming he'd gone back on his word. This may be hogwash but certain trainers are hurt by negative publicity.

It is also said that Rich Ricci was bruised by the battering he got for the last-moment Gold Cup-to-Ryanair change of plan 12 months ago with Vautour. As for Mullins, it probably didn't bother him much if at all: he has enough to be worrying about (those with two more legs).

Mullins will recall his father Paddy's disdain for difficult owners and his professing that horses were much easier to deal with than humans. It is becoming increasingly apparent that Willie will use every minute he has to make what he considers to be the correct decision and, given that he sees things differently to everyone else on the planet, one can only respect that he can and will change his mind. He will pick up something in a gallop that nobody would. He will do consequent U-turns. Punters need to accept that and move on with their lives.

'Dirt' set to stay in Ryanair

Last September, the successful axis of Mullins and Gigginstown became no more. Both parties stressed it was amicable and blamed an increase in training fees - which made sense, as Gigginstown tends or certainly tended to seek set prices for training.

Just like Paddy Mullins was disgusted to have to give in to Dawn Run's owner Charmian Hill and jock off his son Tony in the Gold Cup, Willie prefers to make his own calls for his horses. When he left Jim Bolger's after a youthful stint, he surmised that he could probably never work for anyone but himself.

Noel Meade had to accede to the O'Leary brothers' insistence 12 months ago that Road To Riches would run in the Ryanair, not the Timico Gold Cup. Gordon Elliott clearly wishes that Empire Of Dirt tackles the Gold Cup on Friday but Eddie O'Leary wants him to run in the race that brother Michael has always sponsored but never won.

Eddie is sceptical about stamina, while Elliott is not and Colm Murphy, who used to train Empire Of Dirt, also reckons the horse will get the Gold Cup trip. However, the owners will have the final say and that is exactly how it should be.

Poor Jack Kennedy expected to ride Tombstone (Champion Hurdle) and Don Poli (Gold Cup) but may have no ride in either. Such is racing.

Times of never-ending blows

People seem to easily forget how jumps horses are at once remarkably powerful and utterly fragile, susceptible to serious injury at any time. Over the past two days alone, three strongly-fancied Cheltenham aspirants - Finian's Oscar, The Storyteller and Movewiththetimes - bit the dust, though the main thing is none suffered but a minor setback.

Long-time jolly Thistlecrack will not run in the Gold Cup; nor will any placed horse from the past two renewals other than Djakadam. Gigginstown has lost four Gold Cup horses to injury this season.

Neither of the past two Champion Hurdle winners will run tomorrow and, as was pointed out yesterday, what odds would you have gotten on Willie Mullins' main Champion Hurdle hope being a 20/1 rag?

Bookmakers go 'non-runner, no bet' pretty long in advance of Cheltenham nowadays and it is easy to see why more and more punters are keeping their gun in the holster.

Understudies get rewarded

Ollie Campbell and Tony Ward were among the best out-halves Ireland ever had; the problem was they were around at the same time. Mark Walsh and Paul Townend, so gifted, must gorge on the scraps left by Geraghty and Ruby respectively.

You never hear either complain; this week shows why. Walsh has a lively chance of winning the top jockey award with Geraghty injured, while tomorrow alone sees Townend likely steer Bunk Off Early and Vroum Vroum Mag in Grade Ones, as well as Wicklow Brave. Both men also know that, of all sports, loyalty actually means something in horse-racing.

Robbie not keen on Jezki

Robbie McNamara, who may run Quick Grabim on Wednesday in the Weatherby Champion Bumper, knew a thing or two about riding at Cheltenham until he was paralysed from the waist down nearly two years ago. Asked on Saturday at a Dromina, Co Cork preview night about Jezki's Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle chance, he quipped: "If he wins that race I'll get up and walk."

As far as I and the racing fraternity are concerned, Robbie McNamara walks on water. Have a lucky week.

Upping the ante

MY ante-post book for Cheltenham took a major dent yesterday as Movewiththetimes, which I had backed at 25/1 each-way, was ruled out of the first race of the four days.

My other ante-post duds were both Triumph entries - Housesofparliament and Meri Devie - and trainer of the latter, Willie Mullins, will likely run Bapaume and Dandy Mag.

Dandy Mag looks of note at 25/1. He is a half-brother to the brilliant Vroum Vroum Mag and he could not have done much more than win on his hurdling debut at Gowran, the form of which does not look too bad.

If you can get an unexposed Mullins horse at 25/1 in any race, it tends to be worth a second glance. This diminutive sort was praised by Patrick Mullins in today's complimentary Cheltenham magazine. Have a play. BET: Dandy Mag to win Triumph, 1pt e/w 25/1

Irish Independent

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