Mullins puts question mark over Esprit's Cheltenham run
The unseasonably fast ground conditions at Cheltenham are likely to deter Willie Mullins from running Quel Esprit in Saturday's December Gold Cup.
One of three Irish-based entries along with Dessie Hughes' Roberto Goldback and Tom Taaffe's Finger Onthe Pulse, the recent impressive Naas winner is a general 10/1 shot for the two-mile-five-furlong handicap. However, with the going at Prestbury Park good to firm in places, officials are watering just to ensure safe jumping ground, so Mullins' mud-lover may not feature when the final declarations are made today.
"I'd be very concerned about the ground over there," Mullins said yesterday. "I know they have put a bit of water on it, but Quel Esprit is a soft ground horse, so it's unlikely to suit him."
As for future plans for the grey seven-year-old -- successful on the two occasions that it has completed the course in five chasing starts -- Mullins added: "I don't have any alternative plan. There's no suitable big handicap for him at Christmas, but maybe I'll find a second-season chase for him somewhere.
"He is the type of horse that could go for races like the Leopardstown Chase and the Thyestes in the new year."
Mullins, who expressed himself happy with Hurricane Fly's progress ahead of the champion hurdler's intended return in the Istabraq Hurdle at Leopardstown on December 29, confirmed that Scotsirish and Uncle Junior would represent him in the Glenfarclas cross-country race at Cheltenham tomorrow.
Uncle Junior, which landed the cross-country race under Mullins' son Patrick in November, will be ridden by the trainer's nephew Emmet, as Patrick switches to Scotsirish, a facile winner of a similar contest for him at Punchestown three weeks ago.
Mullins' horses also featured prominently when the weights for Saturday week's Ladbroke Hurdle were unveiled yesterday. Dare To Doubt, successful on her reappearance at Punchestown, is the shortest price of his five entries at 12/1 for the Ascot handicap and has been allotted 11st, with Final Approach (11st 3lb), Flat Out (10st 13lb), Inspector Clouseau (10st 4lb) and Tawaagg (9st 13lb) his other nominees.
Charles Byrnes, whose Pittoni is set to tackle the International Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday, has stated that he will also run Fists Of Fury on the card's novice chase and Sea Of Thunder in the Grade Two novice hurdle.
Both were ridden by Tony McCoy at Wetherby last month when Fists Of Fury stayed on dourly to win for the Antrim native, while Sea Of Thunder was second to the unbeaten Hazy Tom.
"Fists Of Fury won well at Wetherby, although I am not sure what sort of race it was in terms of the opposition," Byrnes said.
"He will appreciate the better ground at Cheltenham and will get the trip (3m 1f) well.
"Sea Of Thunder probably has a good bit to find. We have also entered him at Hereford the following day and we might keep him for that if the Cheltenham race looks too strong for him."
Meanwhile, live coverage of Irish racing on RTE has been secured in the short-term after the broadcaster, Horse Racing Ireland and the Association of Irish Racecourses announced a two-year deal for 2012 and 2013.
Viewers will be able to enjoy 23 days racing including the major festivals at Punchestown, Galway, Leopardstown and Fairyhouse. News of the deal comes after the racing industry's government funding was cut by a further 2pc in this week's budget.
A drop of €1.1m in the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund, of which 80pc goes to HRI, sees the grant reduced to €56.2m.