Mullins sets pace for rivals to follow
There were 4,000 paying customers at Punchestown last week to witness Hurricane Fly's record-breaking 17th Grade One success and there's a chance yet that Willie Mullins' nine-year-old might be accorded the accolades he deserves. Too many soft victories against moderate opposition is the charge most frequently laid against him, but forgive us for wondering whether the same could have been said about Istabraq and yet the former champion was universally adored, not a caveat in sight.
As regards Mullins, there is almost zero dissent. The man is an unqualified genius in his chosen field. Of the 14 races run in Ireland last Sunday, Mullins trained the winners of half of them and few of the biggest contests pass now where he isn't mob-handed or has the clear favourite. Last April, he won Japan's richest race with Blackstairmountain and today he is back there again, saddling Simenon in the Japan Cup, casting his all-conquering gaze over fresh pastures.
Inevitably, as the seasonal frost starts biting into the ground, Mullins' stranglehold on the Irish jumps season raises questions. The game has become boring, they say. In danger of losing the romantic allure that sets it apart from other money-rich pursuits. When the talented Jezki was withdrawn from the Morgiana last week, some suggested it was another example of connections ducking tough assignments, wrapping their charges in cotton wool with the big spring prizes in mind.
Those questions are worth asking, but does the theory really stack up? First off, the practice of good horses being lightly campaigned is hardly a new phenomenon. In seven years jumping, Istabraq only saw a racecourse on 29 occasions and had just one prep run in his ill-fated bid for a fourth Champion Hurdle in 2002. Danoli, admittedly fragile, raced just 32 times in nine seasons. Even the mighty Arkle, 35 races in seven years, was never over-burdened by his trainer Tom Dreaper.
The idea too that the small owner is being interminably squeezed out is only true up to a point. When you think about it, the notion of the small man holding sway, so beloved of jump racing enthusiasts, is fanciful enough to begin with. Flemenstar, for a time, kept the flame flickering. Before that Danoli and Limestone Lad spring instantly to mind. After that, though, you have to start working the memory. The truth is such stories have always been rare which, you suppose, is what makes them so precious in the first place.
The comparison between Mullins' dominance and that of Aidan O'Brien on the Flat is instructive though. Go back 10 years when Ballydoyle was tightening its grip on the Irish racing scene and the same stories appeared. There was one season where O'Brien farmed so many two-year-old races that there were genuine fears that he would kill all competition off indefinitely. If anything, Ballydoyle's grip may have loosened ever so slightly.
That may, partly, be due to shifting priorities within the stable, but much of it can be attributed to O'Brien's rivals accepting the challenge. Jim Bolger gambled with Galileo and came roaring back. John Oxx found Sea The Stars. Dermot Weld stayed in there. A new generation, led by Mick Halford and Ger Lyons, showed their appetite for hard work and hauled themselves onto the first rung of the ladder.
Jump racing should heed that lesson. Mullins' dominance doesn't have to be suffocating. Instead, it could be the rising tide that lifts all boats.