Min a crowd-puller in every way that will test Ruby's skills
Published 11/01/2016 | 02:30
Min completed his Cheltenham Festival preparations with an emphatic triumph at Punchestown on Saturday.
Chances are that is the sort of sentence that will crop up frequently over the next month or so in relation to Willie Mullins's battalion. From here on in, it will be largely a case of fine-tuning.
In the case of Min, the finishing touches will take place at home, where he reportedly doesn't display the tendency to pull that he has done in his two Irish runs. He might be good enough to win the Supreme Novices' Hurdle regardless, but, if he gets as lit up at Cheltenham as he did on Saturday, he will need to be pretty exceptional to win.
Min was more than just a little free. Essentially, he tanked with Ruby Walsh, and that is a real concern for an inexperienced horse, as the Festival could blow his mind.
If he reacts the way he did on Saturday, he won't get the same easy lead, so it could all end in tears.
Walsh, on the assumption that he won't be getting off him, probably has two options, because trying to ride a normal race on Min will likely lead to another futile wrestling match. He will surely either try to bury him in and put him to sleep, or bounce him out and hope that he spits the bit out. I'd venture that the latter tactic will be deployed. If Min is as good as he looks, then they will back him to burn everything off if he gallops some way sensibly in front. It is the tactic they settled on at a similar remove with Vautour, which is significant.
Second guessing the indomitable champion trainer is a hazardous pursuit, but Yorkhill might be the one to join Min in the two-miler, as he travels surprisingly comfortably for a horse with his profile and a pedigree that screams stamina. Crucially, he is now a Grade One winner over flights at the trip, and I'd be amazed if Graham Wylie didn't let something tackle Min.
Wylie's Bellshill looks a natural fit for the Neptune. Also now a Grade One winner at this intermediate trip, he races nicely behind the bridle, while his Up For Review is bound for the Albert Bartlett over three miles. Long Dog, owned by Rich Ricci (below), will surely swerve the Supreme in favour of the Neptune. Like Nichols Canyon last year, he is a dual Grade One winner going to the Festival that doesn't get a lot of credit.
Continuing to underestimate him could prove costly, so deciding between him and a horse like Bellshill won't be easy for Walsh, who doesn't get off many Ricci horses. Presumably, Ricci's Annie Power or Vroum Vroum Mag will run in the mares' hurdle.
Douvan is Arkle-bound, Shaneshill is an obvious JLT contender and Pont Alexandre appeals as an RSA horse, likewise Killultagh Vic which would also have the gears for the JLT. Patrick Mullins will have options in the four-miler, with Black Hercules quite possibly the pick of them.
Again, Walsh may have tough decisions to make with the novice chasers, but chances are there will be more learning in the meantime.
Of the Gigginstown Stud team in Closutton, which exists to some degree like an independent principality within the yard, Gangster could be an Albert Bartlett horse and Outlander maybe a JLT contender.
Valseur Lido may end up in the Ryanair Chase if his Lexus-winning stable-mate Don Poli tackles the Gold Cup alongside fellow Gigginstown representatives Don Cossack and Road To Riches, while I'd still hazard that Djakadam and Vautour will contest the grand finale.
Clearly, events in the meantime might yet clarify that matter, while there is only one race for Un De Sceaux. Then there are Mullins's elite hurdlers. Faugheen is his leading Champion Hurdle hope, and Mullins has indicated that he will take in the BHP Irish Champion Hurdle en route.
That could lead to a enthralling rematch with Nichols Canyon. Arctic Fire - which looked out of place in the three-miler at Christmas, might also go there - but it is Nichols Canyon's fate that will be the most interesting.
Notwithstanding that we are back in the realm of underestimating Nichols Canyon, should Faugheen settle the score, is there a curveball to be thrown here? Might Wylie countenance a tilt at the World Hurdle? This is a race that doesn't have the same aura but with which the astute owner has such a storied link courtesy of his first really good horse, the former Howard Johnson-trained Inglis Drever.
A stayer on the Flat, Nichols Canyon has won two Grade Ones over two-and-a-half, and his stamina has been to the fore in two thrilling triumphs this term. He could be vulnerable over two miles on good ground at Cheltenham, and the three-mile division is flimsy.
It isn't a prospect that you'd expect to hear mooted ahead of the re-match at Leopardstown in a fortnight's time. If Faugheen were to re-establish his superiority, though, it is something that might yet be explored very seriously.
Burke makes Welsh visit pay
Portrait King covered his travelling expenses by snaring place money when last of six finishers in Saturday's Coral Welsh National.
The gruelling Chepstow feature was won by Mountainous, which produced an unlikely turn of foot in the bottomless ground to put the race to bed from two-out.
Jamie Moore's mount was a 13th winner from 68 runners for rookie handler Kerry Lee. He was also the first horse since Bonanza Boy in 1989 to win a second Welsh National, the trainer's father Richard holding the licence when Mountainous prevailed in 2013.
Jonathan Burke made an early exit from Red Devil Lads, but his foray to ride for Rebecca Curtis earned its reward when Racing Pulse readily won the novices' handicap chase. Burke's fellow high-flying Co Cork native Aidan Coleman then scored on Venetia Williams' Otago Trail, while two other Rebel County ex-pats recorded notable wins at Kempton.
Noel Fehily matched his final tally for last season of 85 when the David Dennis-trained Seven Kingdoms dotted up on its hurdle bow. Coleman is the only other jockey apart from Richard Johnson to have topped 100 winners this season, and Fehily remains in pole position to emulate him and clock what would be his second century.
Jerry McGrath, from Waterfall, then enjoyed a popular victory in the Listed chase on Triolo D'Alene for Nicky Henderson. The talented 2012 Cheltenham Festival-winning conditional jockey's career is back on an upward curve, and he was polished in guiding the 2013 Hennessy Gold Cup winner to an emphatic return from a lay-off.
No sponsor for showpiece event
The race known for 25 years as the Hennessy Gold Cup will be run without a sponsor this year.
It was announced last May that the distillery had terminated its association with the Leopardstown Grade One, and it was recently confirmed the three-mile chase will be run next month without a promoter.
For a race with such an illustrious history, that is an exasperating state of affairs.
Tweet of the weekend
Ross O'Sullivan (@rosullivan82)
Great start to 2016 today with a winner in the @RED_MILLSfeed Conyngham Cup and 3rd @punchestownrace
The fledgling Co Kildare handler's first runners of the new year continued his solid form this season - over half of his 21 runners have managed to win or been placed - thanks to an inspired Derek O'Connor steer on Baie Des Iles in Saturday's 162-year-old handicap.
1 Paul Nicholls' Grade One haul for the season after Adrien Du Pont belatedly got him off the mark for the campaign under Nick Scholfield in the Future Champions Finale Hurdle at Chepstow on Saturday.