Culloty strikes a blow for little guy with inspirational triumph
As Willie Mullins marches relentlessly towards another colossal return for the season, it has been satisfying to see a raft of more modest establishments recently enjoy plenty of success.
At Gowran Park on Saturday, PJ Colville, Bill Harney and Ken Budds were among the winners. Rodger Sweeney and Martin Hassett got on the scoresheet at Thurles on Thursday, with John Woods, Mathew Smith, Peter Maher and Gordon Doyle all on the mark on St Patrick's Day.
Sean O'Brien, Tom Cooper, Harry Kelly, Liam Burke and Liz Doyle are maybe more familiar names to bag wins in the last week, but they still typify a healthy alternative to Mullins' leviathan. The champion trainer has smashed Aidan O'Brien's old record of 155 winners in a jumps season for a second successive campaign. His running tally of 163 is just 30 shy of 2013's final 193.
Mullins again carried all before him at Cheltenham with four wins and six seconds, including the short-head defeat of On His Own in an enthralling Gold Cup. Needless to say, few would begrudge one of the greatest trainers in history an elusive triumph in the showpiece Grade One.
From a romantic point of view, though, the return of the sport's marquee prize to a less vaunted stable was welcome. Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls, Nigel Twiston-Davies and Jonjo O'Neill – similar numerical behemoths to Mullins – had won the previous seven Gold Cups, with Noel Chance, Henrietta Knight, Tom Taaffe and Mouse Morris also on the roll of honour since 2000.
Although hardly training giants, each of that quartet were all well established at the time of their famous successes. Jim Culloty has spent a lot of money developing his stately Mount Corbett base in the Cork village of Churchtown since joining the training ranks in 2006.
He has had the backing of some good owners like Dr Ronan Lambe, but his lot is reflective of how difficult life has become for most trainers since the economy crashed. He has yet to train more than eight winners in a jumps season and trained none five years ago and one two seasons later.
The last comparably sized outfit to secure Gold Cup success was Culloty's fellow old-fashioned, Cork-based point-to-point impresario, the late Fergie Sutherland, who combined with Conor O'Dwyer to achieve everlasting glory with Imperial Call in 1996. Go back another six years and you have Norton's Coin's 100/1 win for Welsh farmer Sirrell Griffiths.
Jump racing has changed in the past 25 years, with the concentration of more power in fewer hands a reality. The wistful notion of any small farmer being able to mastermind a Gold Cup win on the side of a hill if they had the right horse has always belonged in the fantasy realm, but, in contrast to the commercial Flat sector, the prospect of a trainer punching above their weight is part of the allure that spawned the epochal tales of Flemenstar, Danoli, Limestone Lad and Doran's Pride.
Encouragingly, there were elements of both Sutherland's and Griffiths' coups in Culloty's remarkable feat, a shock 20/1 victory for a largely unheralded outfit. The Killarney native's progression had been stalled by a persistent viral infection and a dearth of new clients and horses. He had even branched into sheep farming in an effort to maximise the return from his 300-acre holding. However, Culloty has gradually begun to find a consistent level of stability as a trainer.
Indeed, that his only three runners at the last two Cheltenham Festivals have all won is a more pertinent barometer of his capabilities than something as capricious as a seasonal tally. Like so many Irish handlers, despite having to compete with Mullins on a daily basis, when Culloty has a decent horse, he knows how to prime it for the most important week of the year in the Cotswolds.
Remember, nine trainers contributed to last year's record of 14 Festival wins for the raiders, and this time it was eight – as it was en route to 13 in 2011. That is quite a tribute to the profession, because, right now, the reality of the situation in Ireland is that training racehorses remains a precarious business, with the numbers signing up for licences each year still in sharp decline.
That isn't going to change any time soon, but Lord Windermere's hard-fought and dramatic Gold Cup win might just inspire some of those on the brink of survival to hang on. Jim Culloty can be proud that he is the man responsible for reigniting that little bit of antiquated magic.
UNBEATEN UN DE SCEAUX RECEIVES ENTRY FOR AUTEUIL
Un De Sceaux has been given an entry in a Grade Three hurdle over two-and-a-half miles at Auteuil next Saturday.
Willie Mullins' unbeaten six-year-old skipped Cheltenham after it was decided he hadn't acquired enough experience for a Champion Hurdle tilt. The Aintree Hurdle on Thursday week is also a potential target for Un De Sceaux, which has yet to race on ground faster than soft in five starts for Mullins, though one of his two bumper wins in France came on going described as good to soft.
With Ruby Walsh sidelined, the precocious front-runner will have a new jockey wherever he goes. Mullins has said that he expects Paul Townend to be fit enough to resume either at Cork on Thursday or next weekend after injuring his shoulder at Cheltenham, so the former champion jockey could be in line for the plum mount aboard Closutton's rising star.
ROBIN HOODS PINCHES FINE LINGFIELD WIN FOR VAUGHAN
Ed Vaughan saddled the biggest winner of his career when Robin Hoods Bay denied the gambled-on Windhoek in the Group Three Winter Derby at Lingfield on Saturday.
Vaughan, whose father Michael runs the well-known Rockmills Stud in the north Cork village of Kildorrery, has been training in Newmarket since taking over after his then boss Alec Stewart died in 2004. In 2013, Robins Hood Bay flashed home for second in the same 10-furlong contest, but he made no mistake this time at odds of 10/1 under Luke Morris.
AUSTRALIA THE SECOND BEST I'VE EVER TRAINED – O'BRIEN
AIDAN O'BRIEN expressed his satisfaction after overseeing in excess of 30 horses in after-racing work at the Curragh, including Classic contenders Australia and War Command.
O'Brien traditionally brings his string to the opening fixture of the Irish Flat turf season, and others on show were Oaks favourite Tapestry plus American import Verrazano and Irish Oaks heroine Chicquita, which sold for €6m in November.
Australia heads the ante-post markets on the 2,000 Guineas and Epsom Derby, and he travelled in mid-division under Joseph O'Brien in his group, which also featured Dewhurst winner War Command (Colm O'Donoghue), which could yet head to the French Guineas rather than Newmarket.
O'Brien said of Australia: "Joseph was very happy with him there – he hated the soft ground and Joseph said don't run him on soft. I made that mistake with Camelot.
"He goes straight to the Guineas and physically he has done wonderfully. He is the second best horse I have ever trained and the best was not a Flat horse – the great Istabraq."
TWEET OF THE WEEKEND
Great interview by @JimCulloty on The Late Late, somehow managed to come across intelligent and amusing!! Also, I've a jeep for sale.
– Robbie McNamara compliments the Gold Cup-winning trainer on his 'Late Late Show' contribution on Friday. Culloty, who saddled Spring Heeled to win the Kim Muir for McNamara, had his jeep stolen while he was at Cheltenham.
52 – The yawning gap that still exists between reigning champion jockey Davy Russell and the injured Ruby Walsh following Russell's 54/1 Gowran Park double on Upstager and Bonzo Bing.
30 – Brian Harding's tally for the season after his win on Jack Albert at Market Rasen. The weigh-room's senior statesman in Britain, Harding, a native of Castletownroche, Co Cork, turns 42 in September and has only hit 30 winners once in the last 14 seasons, back in 2005.