In a business increasingly dominated by multi-millionaire owners, Kemboy can strike a blow for the little man
How ironic it will be if Willie Mullins finally cracks the Cheltenham Gold Cup code next Friday with a horse owned by a syndicate, by people like you and me.
Six times Willie has had to lead one of his steeds to the pole in the Cheltenham unsaddling enclosure with 2 on it – a reminder that the main prize had once again eluded the master trainer.
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Each time the jockey had been wearing silks owned by some of horse racing’s richest and most powerful connections, the pink and green of Rich Ricci, beige and black of Andrea and Graham Wylie or the maroon of Gigginstown Stud.
This Friday Mullins will hope that Kemboy, owned by the Supreme Racing Club, can at last end his wait to win jump racing’s most prestigious prize.
There can be 30 or 40 owners of a horse in the Supreme Racing Club, it just depends on who takes up the offer of a share in the horse.
The club also have a huge fancy in the very first race on Tuesday, Aramon, and that horse could have many common owners with Kemboy – or maybe only a few.
“It’s a different model of racing,” says Willie, “rather than putting all your eggs in one basket, so you can have shares in five or ten horses or maybe just one.
“It would be fantastic for horse racing in general if the Supreme Racing Club could win it with Kemboy, there’s a huge mix of people in it and it would be brilliant for our sport if they could do it.”
Kemboy goes with a more than decent chance, having won the Savills Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, a race that has been won over the last decade or so by Gold Cup heroes such as Denman, Synchronised and Bobs Worth.
It will be interesting to see whether Ruby Walsh rides him and rejects Bellshill, the winner of the Irish Gold Cup last month. “Bellshill’s run at Leopardstown in the Irish Gold Cup would give him a great chance in the big one too,” says Mullins.
“It is clear that winners of the Savills Chase at Christmas, the one Kemboy won, have a better record of success when it comes to the Cheltenham Gold Cup than the winners of the Irish Gold Cup, it’s just a funny little stat.
“Then again, Bellshill probably has more scope for improvement than Kemboy and he was very impressive, very impressive, the last day. Bellshill can be a bit of a lazy horse, but his run in the Irish Grand National last year was very good and then he won the Punchestown Gold Cup too.”
Mullins may also run Al Boum Photo and Invitation Only in the big one, but Kemboy and Bellshill are the pair he gives the best chance of ending that run of six second places.
The great trainer remembers those near misses – Florida Pearl (2000), Hedgehunter (2006), Sir des Champs (2013), On his Own (2014) and Djakadam (2015 and 2016), but only of them really annoys him – the very first one.
“The only one I have regrets about is Florida Pearl,” Mullins admits. “Early in his career, we were always trying to keep a lid on him and settle him in his races. It was Martin Molony (former great jockey) who said it to me that maybe we should have let him gallop a bit because he was such a good jumper. And that’s probably the one I wonder about, should we have been a bit more adventurous with him?
“But there was always a stamina doubt about him getting the three and a quarter miles and that finish up the Cheltenham hill. He could win over three miles at Leopardstown and Kempton, but we always worried about that extra distance at Cheltenham.
“Florida Pearl won fantastic races for us and was a game-changer for the stable, he was really the one who put us on the map.
“Yes, everything else I was happy with what we did, there wasn’t much I’d change with any of them. It’s just such a hard job getting these three-mile chasers there fit for the race every year.”
Mullins is a sportsman to his fingertips and it was that quality that he showed in defeat in 2014.
“On His Own was carried across the track by Lord Windermere in a dramatic finish involving five horses, but we didn’t object.
“I didn’t want to win the race in the Stewards Room. We might have done that, and I was told we might have done it, but that was not the way to win the Gold Cup.”
For the first Cheltenham in many years, Mullins goes to the Cotswolds this week with a team stronger in the chasing division than in hurdle races.
In recent seasons, it was always Hurricane Fly, Quevega and Faugheen who were the stable standard bearers, but now the horses going over the bigger jumps seem to hold sway
“It’s true, but it’s not anything we did deliberately,” says the 62 year-old. “We’ve Laurina who we think will take high rank in the Champion Hurdle, but I suppose it’s a reflection of the fact that we’ve got the winners of the Savills chase and the Irish Gold Cup in the yard and anyone would want to be in that position of having such good steeplechasers.”
Indeed the Mullins team for Cheltenham won’t be as strong, numerically, as in previous seasons. Something north of 40 horses will run at the 2019 Festival, when it used to be more than 60.
“A lot of my bumper horses and novice hurdlers and chasers didn’t get many runs this winter because of the crazily dry weather we’ve had and we won’t be bringing them over as a result. If they are still novices now, you’ve the option of putting them away for the rest of this season and letting them campaign as novices next season.”
“I mean, I’ve only one horse entered in the four-mile Novice chase on Tuesday and only two in the Bumper on Wednesday, I’d usually have more, many more.”