Mullins unleashes firepower as Thistlecrack crowned King
Champion trainer strikes with 22 winners over Christmas to eat into Elliott's title lead
IN some respects, it became the battle that dare not speak its name. Those younger racing journalists probably never had to discuss the title battle with Willie Mullins - at least until last season, and even that was when he emerged from left field to take on Paul Nicholls for the British crown.
When the sensational split with Gigginstown was revealed in late September, a leading bookmaker on that very day announced that Mullins was no longer favourite for the Irish champion trainers' race - this would be the equivalent of Celtic being usurped at the top of the market in Scotland during the years that Rangers were in the lower divisions.
It was a tricky one for that bookmaker - clever in that the market was sure to earn it free publicity - to price. And, to highlight that argument, all of the money was for Mullins, with Gordon Elliott pushed out to odds-against from 8/11. Mullins was hammered into 2/7.
As the season developed, Elliott's lead began to lengthen rather than lessen. He entered the Christmas period over €400,000 ahead, having won the Galway Plate, Munster National, Kerry National and Troytown.
After four days of Christmas, the lead was back to €223,113. A sensational Irish haul of 22 winners reminded us all of the firepower Mullins possesses - this despite the absence or death of some of his best horses and the shedding of the five dozen that carried riders in maroon silks.
Lest we forget, here are three names: Vautour, Faugheen, Annie Power. The death of the first-named this winter was a horrible blow for Closutton and it is hard to credit that both Annie Power and Faugheen were being trained for the Morgiana in November - yet neither would see any combat at all in late 2016.
One of the beauties of being a racing journalist is that you can call the best trainer in the world - Aidan O'Brien - and, if he fails to answer, he'll feel compelled to immediately apologise when he calls you back. What a Gaelic games hack would do for such access!
Mullins is like that too, yet he was that bit harder to reach this winter, perhaps reluctant to talk too much about whatever issue had befallen Annie Power and Faugheen - not to mind having to pen the obituary of perhaps his most realistic hope of finally providing him with a Gold Cup winner, Vautour.
In this time, I cannot recall anyone asking Mullins about the battle he had found himself in. There is enormous respect among the Irish racing fraternity for Paddy's son and there was probably an element of fear that such a question might irk the great man.
He was well on his way at Leopardstown when I brought it up, tentatively, after one of the 22 winners. The champion trainer for the past nine seasons was more than happy to 'big up' the duel.
"It adds a different flavour to the season," he said. "Gordon has always been a nice guy and between us there is no rancour or hard feelings."
Elliott, all along, has purposely played down his chance, which - according to Gigginstown's main trainer - has ranged from "none" to "realistically none". In winning the Paddy Power with Noble Endeavor and enjoying a Lexus 1-2 with Outlander and Don Poli - both ex-Mullins steeds - he ensured that he would at least go into the New Year still ahead.
Both of these men are extremely competitive, even if that nature may not always be glaringly apparent. Privately they will be Kevin Keegan in front of the Sky TV cameras when it comes to fighting for this title and it has certainly captured the imagination in Irish racing.
The crowds flocked to Foxrock. Day two recorded the largest attendance and, while one could jump to wrong conclusions, the fact that a certain Douvan was the star attraction that afternoon was surely critical in terms of audience numbers.
Though he was 1/8 and only a fall or worse was going to stop him beating horses not fit to shake his hands, virtuosity still compels. From his few minutes parading pre-race to his reception coming back in, the crowds clamoured to get near Douvan - something none of his rivals was capable of in the race.
Is he the best since Arkle? Of course they are different types and historic comparisons are rendered somewhat obsolete given Darwinian theory. Yet I am convinced nothing around can hold a candle to him over two miles, including the novices this season that will be seniors next term.
His jumping was spectacular, mesmerising, nonchalant. Photographers fought their own private battles to get the most iconic snap of him at a fence - this has become a recurring story.
There were other highlights. Min, by the same stallion as Douvan and representing the same connections, was superb in the novice equivalent of Douvan's race. However, Identity Thief being pulled up makes it difficult to be sure what he achieved.
Eddie Harty's big hope, Coney Island, came up just short in the staying novice chase, which was one of the most gripping events of the four days. Our Duke, a home-bred which was not long after winning a maiden chase, overcame an error-peppered round to score for Jessica Harrington. He will return for the Flogas Novice Chase before running in the RSA Chase. Whisper it to Harrington: she may have a Gold Cup horse on her hands.
The performance of the filly, Meri Devie, in the maiden hurdle seemed pretty special and she could be the best juvenile we have seen so far. The Graded race went to stablemate Bapaume but the suspicion is that the filly has more gears.
The novice hurdles were less memorable, Saturnas taking the Grade One. Of the mares, Vroum Vroum Mag produced a powerful performance stepped up to three miles, and one wonders how she would have fared against Petit Mouchoir in the Ryanair Hurdle.
The grey had trainer Henry de Bromhead making comparisons with Sizing Europe after he destroyed Nichols Canyon - though it was clear that the favourite was not at his best and may now need to go right-handed ideally.
Petit Mouchoir now rates a Champion Hurdle hope, especially given that there is a slight doubt about the main players in the market. It is good for the game that Harrington, Harty and De Bromhead are Irish trainers with realistic aspirations of Grade One success at Cheltenham.
Another who can be given a squeak in the Champion Hurdle is Yanworth, which proved he is just fine at two miles when snaring the Christmas Hurdle. That said, one would have to ask questions about the ride on My Tent Or Yours, with more than a hint of team tactics involved.
That was at Kempton, where Thistlecrack produced a sensational performance - at least in a visual sense - in the King George. That Colin Tizzard ran him as a novice against Cue Card endeared him to racing fans and if Elliott leading in Ireland is something we may not have envisaged, what of Paul Nicholls having to rate Tizzard as a genuine threat to his crown across the water?
Nicholls' remarks after the King George were notable. "He's good, but you know a five-runner King George in a slowish time is a little bit different from what a fast-run Gold Cup with 18 runners will be."
Bring it on.
Sunday Indo Sport