Fair crack for Mullins' entries
There was a modicum of relief for many Irish handlers yesterday when the weights for the 11 Cheltenham festival handicaps were revealed, though not everything escaped the wrath of the British handicapper Phil Smith.
The treatment of Irish horses by Smith has been a bone of contention in recent years, with arbitrary hikes proving a deterrent for numerous trainers. This time, the British assessor appears to have been slightly more lenient, with increases of up to five pounds the most common penalty for the 196 Irish nominees.
However, Dessie Hughes, Tony Martin and Noel Meade may feel hard done by, with each of the trio responsible for at least two horses that will need to race off much higher marks than would be the case at home.
Martin's Montan, a winner at Fairyhouse in January and entered in both the Coral Cup and Martin Pipe conditional jockeys' race, is one of the worst off, having been raised a stone by Smith.
Willie Mullins has less cause for complaint. His impressive MCR Hurdle winner Final Approach, which is in the two aforementioned handicaps and the County Hurdle, is up just five pounds on his Irish rating, while both Smith and his Irish counterpart Noel O'Brien are of a like mind in relation to Mullins' Call The Police.
That one, second to Final Approach in the MCR before hosing up in a conditions race at Punchestown, has a mark of 140 at home and abroad. The Accordion gelding is entered in the Coral Cup and the conditional jockeys' race.
Following the announcement of the weights, Mullins' Blackstairmountain was the subject of good support for the County Hurdle.
With just a one-pound penalty, the Punchestown Grade One winner is set to carry 10st 9lb, and has been trimmed into 12/1 joint-favouritism for the two-miler by a number of firms.
Entries for all 27 races at the festival are now known, with the contenders for the three remaining contests, the Mares' Hurdle, the Champion Bumper and the Foxhunters' Chase, also published yesterday. Mullins' Quevega, a dual winner of the mares' event, is among seven Irish-trained hopefuls for this year's race.
She is as low as 10/11 with Paddy Power to make a winning reappearance in the Grade Two, and could be joined in the last race on the opening day by Prunella Dobbs' classy Our Girl Salley, which is unbeaten in three this term.
Mullins also has a strong hand in the bumper, a race he has already won six times.
Samain and Lovethehigherlaw, two of his more popular ante-post prospects, are not among the 59 entries, but the champion trainer has seven of the 18 Irish-based entrants.
Also expected to travel is John 'Shark' Hanlon's Star Neuville, an impressive winner at Leopardstown in December under Brian Hayes.
In the Foxhunters', the 2010 runner-up Kilty Storm will bid to go one better this time. Whyso Mayo, the Ray Hurley-trained 14-year-old that won the race in 2006, is once again among the entries.
In other news, Paul Nolan confirmed that he will skip Cheltenham with Joncol as he attempts to get last season's Hennessy Gold Cup hero back to peak form in time for the Punchestown festival.
While 27 Irish-trained horses remain in the Aintree Grand National following yesterday's forfeit stage. Edward O'Grady's Tranquil Sea, a Grade One winner in December, was among those to defect from the April 9 showpiece.