Mullins making his Festival juggling act look incredibly easy
A return of one winner from five runners at two meetings on Saturday rendered Willie Mullins' latest cross-channel foray a fairly limited success.
Glens Melody obliged for David Casey in the Listed mares' race at Warwick. The 7/4 favourite had to work, but, after a futile excursion to Sandown a week earlier, it was a commendable turn.
Rathvinden was travelling well when he crashed three-out in the Grade Two novices' hurdle, before Vesper Bell then unseated Casey with a circuit to go in the Classic Chase. Casey doesn't get too many chances for Mullins these days, so he'll have been disappointed with two ignominious exits.
At Kempton, Twinlight made some bad errors under Ruby Walsh and did nothing to refute the theory that he doesn't stay two-and-a-half miles. He may be too high in the ratings for the Grand Annual, but he could emerge as a live Champion Chase outsider via Punchestown's Tied Cottage.
Upazo ran respectably in the Tolworth Hurdle, finishing 11 lengths behind the Nicky Henderson duo of Royal Boy and Josses Hill in third. If nothing else, Walsh and Mullins might now have a slightly better handle on where their best novices stand in relation to their British counterparts.
With eight weeks to Cheltenham, few horses heading there will run more than once. Mullins has some conundrums to sort in that time, yet the way he balances such a glittering array of horses to keep owners happy is surely one of his greatest triumphs.
Influential owners like JP McManus, Rich Ricci, Graham Wylie, Alan Potts and Michael O'Leary are doubtless going to have their own views on where their horses should run, but Mullins usually has the final say.
After Sir Des Champs won the Jewson Chase two years ago, there was a sense that the champion trainer's preferred choice would have been the RSA.
However, Gigginstown had First Lieutenant in that, and Mullins was content to know that he had a potential Gold Cup horse on his hands, even if he might have preferred a stab at the Grade One. Such instances are rare, and his powers of diplomacy will be tested come March, as ever.
Yesterday's facile Navan scorer Un De Sceaux is a good an example of the sort of minefield he must navigate. The six-year-old has a serious engine, but, with Hurricane Fly in the yard, he has avoided the premium Champion Hurdle trials, going through the motions in two three-runner heats.
Mullins admitted yesterday: "I don't think we really learned any more about him today." Having run just twice over flights last spring, maybe Un De Sceaux would have gone the low-key route anyway, but his owner Edward O'Connell would also have been within his rights to request slightly more ambitious campaigning. Presumably he hasn't, doubtless accepting that a date with the likes of Hurricane Fly, Our Conor and Jezki can wait while his six-year-old gains more experience.
Mullins said his relentless French-bred might tackle the Red Mills Hurdle next, and the chances are that will be another bloodless outing ahead of an intriguing Champion Hurdle bid in March. Of course, Glens Melody and Annie Power are obvious options for the mares' hurdle, but that is Quevega's domain. History is at stake for the brilliant five-time Festival heroine, so you couldn't blame Mullins if he opts not to make life any more difficult for her than is absolutely necessary.
Annie Power is the ultimate dilemma horse. Mullins has been circumspect in relation to her target, and, for all that punters might want a steer, that is understandable. She is so talented that the Champion, World and mares' hurdles are all options, so he will see how things unfold.
Boston Bob is another serious World Hurdle candidate, and then there is a raft of novices to sort. Ricci's Vautour had been clear favourite for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle prior to his win at Punchestown on Saturday, prompting Mullins to suggest he might be more of a Neptune horse. That would be fine if he didn't also have the Neptune market-leader Faugheen for the same owner, as well as Wylie's Briar Hill and Ronnie Bartlett's Rathvinden.
There isn't a licensed trainer in the country that doesn't long for such a predicament, though you suspect few would exhibit the sort of deft discretion Mullins does in handling the process. Most would tell you that training the horses is the easy bit. Managing owners' expectations can be less so.
JACOB ON BORROWED TIME IN NICHOLLS JOB
Daryl Jacob's role as Paul Nicholls' stable jockey looks precariously balanced after it was revealed he has been passed over for the plum mount on Big Buck's in favour of Sam Twiston-Davies.
Nicholls further fuelled the debate by suggesting that Jacob didn't want to ride the best staying hurdler of all time on his return from injury later this month. There had been widespread speculation for weeks that Jacob wouldn't get the gig, with 21-year-old Twiston-Davies, AP McCoy and Noel Fehily thought to be in the running.
Fehily, who is to keep the ride on Nicholls' Silviniaco Conti in the Gold Cup and would probably be available, was due to stand in for Ruby Walsh on Big Buck's at Newbury in 2010 before he broke his wrist (handing the ride to McCoy). However, Nicholls and owner Andy Stewart opted for youth over experience this time, which surely undermines Wexford native Jacob's position even more.
Nicholls' defence of the decision yesterday was bizarre, apparently blaming Jacob for not wanting the ride. "He has never given me the impression that he was mad keen to ride Big Buck's," he said. "If he had then he could have been on the horse in the Cleeve Hurdle. End of story."
Big Buck's only embarked on his stunning hurdling career when his erratic fencing saw him unseat Sam Thomas at the last in the 2008 Hennessy Gold Cup. He hasn't been beaten in 18 starts since prior to his lay-off since December 2012, but Thomas never regained Nicholls' trust.
Jacob's role was qualified by Nicholls as that of his "main jockey", not his "retained jockey". Fact of the matter is, he is, in essence, a stable jockey that doesn't ride the stable's best chaser, hurdler or novice hurdler -- Nicholls stating that Irving is Nick Scholfield's ride. It is what you might describe as an unequal marriage. End of story?
MEADE STARS RACING
TO MAKE CHELTENHAM
Noel Meade has reiterated that World Hurdle contender Monksland "is in full work", though the former champion trainer isn't sure that he will get a run into him ahead of Cheltenham. Monksland was ruled out of the Prestbury Park Grade One at the 11th hour last year due to injury, and hasn't run since winning at Leopardstown in December 2012.
Meade, who took the beginners' chase with Mullaghanoe River (Paul Carberry, 2/1) at Punchestown on Saturday, also suggested classy novice hurdler Apache Stronghold might head for the Cotswolds without another run. He missed an intended start in December due to an abscess in his foot.
"Apache Stronghold is very sore and must have been cast in his box. Hopefully he should be ready for Cheltenham," Meade offered.
Tweet of the weekend
All six horses trading at 10/1 or less for the Champion Hurdle are Irish-bred while four are Irish-trained! #BuySmartBuyIrish #CheltFest
An account dedicated to promoting the Irish thoroughbred highlights the pre-eminence of our stock at the head of the betting for the two-mile hurdling crown.
100 Anniversary Gowran Park is celebrating. In the Kilkenny venue's centenary year, the €100,000 Goffs Thyestes Chase will mark its 60th anniversary on Thursday week.
37 Age of Leighton Aspell, who had a big-race double at Warwick on Saturday aboard Deputy Dan and Shotgun Paddy. Kildare-born Aspell retired in July 2007 for 18 months with two Welsh Nationals and a Grade One juvenile hurdle at Punchestown to his name. He has had at least 32 winners in each of the five seasons since his comeback, and is now one shy of his first half-century since 2007. Like McCoy, Carberry and Fehily, age certainly isn't stopping him.