Punters turned off by absence of competition
Willie Mullins, as expected, broke Aidan O'Brien's 17-year-old record of 155 winners in a jumps season at Fairyhouse on Saturday.
With two short-priced favourites in the first two races, it looked likely that the Closutton maestro would have acquired the two winners required to dethrone his Ballydoyle counterpart ahead of Prince De Beauchene's attempt to justify odds-on status in the Bobbyjo Chase. By the time of the Bobbyjo, the record was indeed his, though Dogora had been thwarted by the Charles O'Brien-trained Stocktons Wing in the Grade Two Winning Fair Hurdle.
Instead, after Glens Melody (4/6 favourite) had done her bit, the honour fell to the well-backed Away We Go (6/1) in the handicap hurdle. On the day, it was as though Mullins couldn't but break the record. Paul Townend did the steering on both winners, as he did when Prince De Beauchene fell short in the At The Races-sponsored Bobbyjo and when Marasonnien came undone later on.
That brought the number of beaten favourites that the champion trainer had saddled since Hennessy Gold Cup day two weeks ago to 12, and Mikael D'Haguenet yesterday became the ninth since then to fail at odds-on. Yet in a season that Mullins also clocked the fastest ton at Navan on December 16, he has still claimed the record with three months to spare.
That he could afford such a concentrated number of beaten favourites (he still won two of those races with 'second strings') is an indication of the almost obscene influence he exerts on the jumps scene right now. When O'Brien signed off in 1996, his record was derived from a total of 769 for a 20pc strike rate, a figure that pales alongside Mullins' 159-456 for 35pc.
Without meaning to deflect in any way from the enormity of the feat, it is important to put it into context, as Mullins, to his eternal credit, exists in a glorious vacuum all of his own. Horse Racing Ireland's industry statistics for 2012 revealed that the number of horses in training had dropped a further 6pc on 2011, down 24pc to 9,238 from a 2007 high of 12,188, with total owners down 12pc to 3,779 and 33pc from its high of 2008.
Aided by the patronage of wealthy individuals such as Rich Ricci, Michael O'Leary, Alan Potts and Graham Wylie, Mullins is outperforming the market at will. Crucially, though, despite the plummeting industry figures, which show that the number of licensed trainers is at 2003 levels, the number of fixtures scheduled for 2013 is at an all-time high of 349.
Even if you subtract Dundalk's 14 winter meetings, you are left with nearly 11pc more fixtures than were held in 2003. When you put it all together, Mullins currently has a virtual monopoly of power in an otherwise rapidly contracting sector, a situation that is exacerbated by the increased opportunities available to him, his owners and their horses.
The upshot is that Irish jump racing has, in general terms, become critically uncompetitive – to an even greater extent than its Flat counterpart, courtesy of O'Brien's reign at Ballydoyle. Along with a lack of faith in the integrity of our racing and its regulatory systems, such a lack of competition turns off punters. Attendance and betting figures confirm as much, with the on-course layers' 2012 take plummeting to €76m from a 2007 high of €205m.
Of course, there are broader issues in relation to that 63pc wipe-out, but the on-course numbers are telling because, in spite of their downward spiral, racecourses are only too happy to hold vast amounts of fixtures. The reason for that is the crude amount of media rights money – approximately €50,000 – that each track receives for simply holding a meeting. As such, there is no incentive to enhance the quality of races by cutting fixtures. The opposite is in fact true, as tracks become dependent on the media stream due to falling attendances.
With the media rights contract due for renewal in 2014, the tender process is already under way. A good starting point might be for the stakeholders to agree that the future prosperity of racing in this country is dependent on the tail not wagging the dog any longer.
On His Own heads National lists after Beauchene loss
Prince De Beauchene was eased in most ante-post lists to a top price of 12/1 for the Grand National after failing to cope with Roi Du Mee's game challenge in the Bobbyjo Chase.
Gordon Elliott's eight-year-old has been a revelation this term, his two-length win in this €40,000 Grade Two a fifth in six starts. He has entries in the Ryanair at Cheltenham and the National, for which he is now as low as 16/1 from 80/1, but Elliott said there is no concrete plan.
Seabass, last year's Aintree third, posted a solid effort in third, and the main consequence of the race, which Hedgehunter won en route to National glory in 2005, in terms of the April 6 feature is that Mullins' On His Own is the clear favourite at 8/1.
Ryanair looks sensible option for Lieutenant
In Sir Des Champs and First Lieutenant, Gigginstown has the two main Irish contenders for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and Mouse Morris has confirmed that he would like to run First Lieutenant in the big race on March 15. "My preference with the ground drying out would be the Gold Cup," he said over the weekend. "He runs above himself at Cheltenham and he has done nothing wrong this year. He's just not got his head in front."
Notwithstanding that he was unlucky to be mugged by Tidal Bay in the Lexus and Mouse's renown for priming one for the big day, all the evidence suggests that the Ryanair is the more sensible choice. First Lieutenant hasn't won since November 2011, he was held by Bobs Worth in the RSA and Hennessy Gold Cup last year and, for all that he didn't get time to respond in the Lexus, a proper Gold Cup horse would surely have put the race to bed after hitting the front.
As it was, everything fell his way, yet he still came out of the Grade One without having ever won beyond two miles and five. Even if he does excel again at the Festival, he is unlikely to be good enough to win Gold, but he could give the Ryanair a rattle.
Contrasting fortunes for Cork jockeys at Kempton
Saturday's £98k handicap chase at Kempton saw Noel Fehily produce a gem of a ride to get Opening Batsman home by two lengths from the Ruby Walsh-ridden Rolling Aces.
The first novice to win the race in 10 years, Opening Batsman was dropped out down the inside by the Castletownkenneigh native early on. From there, the breaks came his way, and the partnership never left the rail as Harry Fry found himself relegating his mentor Paul Nicholls to the runner-up berth as he bagged the biggest victory of his first season training.
However, the talented Fermoy-born 5lb claimer Maurice Linehan is facing a couple of months on the sidelines. His Jonjo O'Neill-trained mount Mister Hyde crashed out at the first, leaving him with two broken vertebrae and a broken sternum.
407 The cumulative profit to a single unit stake on Rory Cleary's first ever treble at Dundalk on Friday. A popular member of the weigh room who managed just three winners in a whole year during a miserable 2010 campaign, Cleary has now ridden five winners from 20 rides since the turn of the year.
Upping the ante
Conor Murphy, who scooped £1m courtesy of a £50 five-horse accumulator made up of his then-employer Nicky Henderson's horses at Cheltenham last March, saddled his first winner since taking out a training licence in America on Saturday. The Enniskeane, Co Cork native, who is based in Kentucky, got off the mark with British export Gallant Eagle in a modest claimer at Ohio's Beulah Park.
For anyone considering a similar bet this year, here are what we consider five of Willie Mullins' best Festival prospects: Hurricane Fly (Champion Hurdle), Pont Alexandre (Neptune Hurdle), Tennis Cap (Coral Cup), Back In Focus (National Hunt Chase) and Sir Des Champs (Gold Cup). At the best available odds, the acca pays 11,059/1, with a €552,950 profit for a €50 stake.
@tashfehily – @noelfehily fehily's on fire! It must be my cooking. Well done!! Xx
– Noel Fehily's wife Natasha congratulates him on a fine weekend's work.