Rivals run scared from all-conquering Mullins
It's hard to believe that any yard could dominate the domestic jumps scene the way that Ballydoyle has done on the Flat, but that's where Willie Mullins is at right now.
Incredibly, the perennial champion trainer has taken it to such a level that his Closutton, Co Carlow-based outfit has become even more of an unrelenting behemoth than its uber-commercial Flat counterpart.
Throughout 2013, the stable has so far hoovered up 13 – or 65pc – Irish Grade One races; Aidan O'Brien, albeit in an unusually tame year for him at the top level at home, secured just one of the available 12 Group Ones in the same period.
That's a small sample size, but it's hardly misleading. Since the recession sent the industry into severe contraction, meaningful competition has evaporated, in the sense that Mullins has outperformed the market when most others, including eight-time champion Noel Meade, have seen their horses and ownership base disintegrate.
Granted, Gordon Elliott and Henry de Bromhead have also developed their operations with consistent prowess despite the adverse economic climate. Still, while the winter game will never lose its magic, Mullins now exerts such influence that an element of indifference inevitably creeps in, both from inside and outside the industry.
At Punchestown and Cork over the weekend, he saddled 10 of the 22 favourites. In all, nine of those obliged, plus one other for a final yield of 10. Those 10 included winning SPs of 1/3, 8/13, 4/7, 9/10, 4/5 and 1/5, with Hurricane Fly's 1/16 Morgiana SP the most alarming.
It's hard to fully understand other trainers' collective reluctance to even have a cut at the race for second, which promised prize money of €16,000. Michael Bowe would have preferred to nick a bit of black type for Akatara, but he still came away with €2,400 for fifth, plus a share of the unclaimed €1,600 for sixth place.
Regardless of whether or not Mullins has a runner, one-sided and uncompetitive graded jumps races aren't uncommon here. However, at the highest level he enjoys an even more lop-sided advantage than O'Brien does on the Flat, because the international competition for many of these elite jump contests is simply non-existent.
Given the nature of the race, the pool of Irish horses that would be deserving of a Morgiana entry is obviously small, with the added deterrent of ruining a handicap mark by getting too close to one of Mullins' marquee names.
When Our Conor failed to pass a fitness test, it was left to Jezki to keep Hurricane Fly honest, but then Jessica Harrington opted to save him for the Hatton's Grace at Fairyhouse on December 1 instead. Given that Jezki would have had the benefit of run, yesterday was a fine time have a stab at the ring-rusty champion so the decision not to, given that Harrington described him as being "fine", must be seen as an acceptance that he won't quite cut it over two miles.
He is hardly going to be an elite three-miler either, so it may be that he will now be trained for something like the Aintree Hurdle over two and a half.
As a racing fan, though, it was disappointing he didn't turn up, as a barely cooked Hurricane Fly was ultimately permitted to earn €48,000 for beating horses he could lap on Mullins' gallops any day of the week.
Indeed, when you consider that Quevega, Annie Power and Thousand Stars were all wrapped up back at base, it's fair to say he might have got even more of a workout at home than he did at Punchestown. That really is a frightening thought.
Champagne Fever, the star of the show at Punchestown on Saturday, Analifet and Glens Melody all scored in some style at short odds to get the weekend up and running for Mullins and Ruby Walsh.
Champagne Fever's fencing debut had been eagerly awaited ever since Mullins mooted the idea of skipping hurdles altogether in the Cheltenham winner's enclosure following his dour front-running Champion Bumper victory two years ago.
The decision to wait was rewarded last term with another thrilling Festival success in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, but the gangly grey really lived up to expectations with a polished display on Saturday.
As ever, he travelled keenly under Walsh at the head of affairs. He also fenced cleanly, and wasn't put off by his only notable error when he got in close to the second last. Mullins wouldn't be drawn on a plan beyond the two-mile Grade One at Leopardstown at Christmas, but here's one correspondent who suspects he might have another serious Gold Cup contender on his hands next season.
While there's a lot of water to cross under the bridge between now and March 2015, Champagne Fever looks to have it all. He has the pace to be top-class over two miles as novice hurdler and chaser, has a fantastic jumping technique and a huge heart. Stamina is the one major unknown at this stage, but, as a former point-to-point winner, he shouldn't be short of that.
CYCLONE A BRAVE THIRD BEHIND JONJO'S SPIRIT
John 'Shark' Hanlon's Hidden Cyclone made much of the running to finish a fantastic third under Andrew McNamara in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham on Saturday, but victory went to the Jonjo O'Neill-trained Johns Spirit at odds of 7/1.
With AP McCoy claimed for JP McManus' Tap Night, O'Neill's fellow Co Cork native Richie McLernon got an opportunity to add to last month's course-and-distance success on the improving six-year-old. He took his chance in fantastic style. Stone-last early on, McLernon eventually moved Johns Spirit steadily around the outside to challenge two-out, at which point the fall of Easter Meteor left him in front sooner than he wanted to be.
When Tom O'Brien came with a wet sail up the hill on Colour Squadron, Johns Spirit looked in trouble, but he found enough to hold on to help McLernon erase the memory of his last-gasp defeat aboard Sunnyhillboy in the 2012 Aintree Grand National.
TOWNEND ON SONG IN 258/1 CORK FOUR-TIMER
Paul Townend's lot might be less now that Ruby Walsh is in situ here on a full-time basis, but the 2011 champion jockey very nearly emulated Walsh's five Punchestown winners with four of his own at Cork yesterday.
He took the opening two hurdles for boss Willie Mullins, with JP McManus' Upsie (9/10 favourite) stretching her unbeaten run to five in the conditions race and Valseur Lido (5/2) making a successful bow for Gigginstown Stud in the maiden hurdle. Then he landed the beginners' chase on McManus' Ballyburke (5/1) for Philip Rothwell, before completing a 258/1 quartet on the Noel Meade-trained Protaras (11/2) in the handicap chase.
"I had a four-timer in Punchestown two years ago," Townend said afterwards, "but it's great to do it at my local track. My father and family are here which makes it extra special".
Gigginstown's Real Steel (5/6 favourite) was the day's most facile winner in the maiden hurdle under Brian O'Connell. "He's a future chaser," Philip Fenton said of the dual bumper runner-up. "We'll take our time with him."
HUGHES BOOKED FOR SIMENON'S JAPAN BID
Having saddled Blackstairmountain to a famous win in the Nakayama Grand Jump last spring, Willie Mullins is due back in Japan on Sunday with Simenon. The Melbourne Cup fourth is Japan Cup bound, with Richard Hughes again booked for the 12-furlong feature.
O Runs that Rich Ricci got out of Sanctuaire prior to the classy two-mile chaser suffering a fatal fall while schooling under Ruby Walsh after racing at Punchestown yesterday. The seven-year-old cost £170,000 out of Paul Nicholls' yard in August.
3 Bobby McNally's best placing from two rides for Gordon Elliott at Punchestown on Saturday. McNally has been one of Elliott's right-hand men for some time, but a change in riding arrangements at the Co Meath stable saw him called into riding duty for a first time in over four years.
TWEET OF THE WEEKEND
Glenbeigh Co.Kerry trainer Donie O'Shea struck for small guy 2day when winning Grade C Hurdle in Cork with Coolmilll who he bought for €500
– Denis Coakley, father of apprentice Ross, hails O'Shea's feat after Coolmill won again at the Mallow venue under Joe Holly.