Cheltenham's reigning heroes are far from finished
Mid-season report suggests that it's too early to write off last year's Festival champions
In a way, Sunday's inaugural Grade One Lawlor's Hotel Novices' Hurdle epitomised the domestic season to date. Even when Willie Mullins' first string wasn't good enough - nor indeed his second - the champion trainer's Closutton leviathan still emerged on top.
At odds of 33/1, McKinley plundered Mullins his seventh Grade One.
It was the third time that fancied runners had been outdone by stablemates at the top table this term. There have been 14 Grade Ones run so far, so Mullins has claimed 50pc of the spoils. At the same juncture last year, that figure read 36pc after five wins, as seven other trainers got in on the act.
This time, just four others have, with Noel Meade and Sandra Hughes claiming two each with Road To Riches and Lieutenant Colonel, Gordon Elliott claiming a pair with Don Cossack and Clarcam, and Henry De Bromhead bagging one with Sizing John.
While it has been a massively entertaining and at times unpredictable campaign, the loot has been thinly spread, partly due to the increasing influence of a handful of heavyweight owners such as Gigginstown Stud, which has been responsible for nine of the 14 winners: three of Mullins' and all of Meade, Hughes and Elliott's.
There is good and bad in that, of course. Already, 13 of the 27 ante-post Cheltenham Festival markets are headed by Irish-trained horses.
We have players in each of the marquee events, with the likes of Road To Riches, Lieutenant Colonel and Special Tiara coming a little out of left-field. Tony Martin, Robert Tyner and Liz Doyle are other handlers who have excelled, while the riding exploits of Bryan Cooper, Mark Walsh and Jonathan Burke have created a real impact.
Here we look at how the land lies for some of the equine performers in 2015. With one exception, it is a distinctly Irish report card.
Five not to give up on
1. Lord Windermere (J Culloty)
Plenty have written off Lord Windermere as a middling Gold Cup winner, and his two outings this term have done little to rebut that theory. However, he ran better than his finishing position suggests in the Lexus, keeping on after travelling and jumping well. More can be expected in the Hennessy, but history tells us that he won't peak until March.
2. Jezki (J Harrington)
Denied by Hurricane Fly in an epic Christmas duel. Deep ground at Leopardstown suits his nemesis, which was again granted a beautiful tow into the race. A little like Lord Windermere, Jezki didn't get full credit for his famous victory last March, but it won't be until then that we see the best of him again. Hurricane Fly is odds-on to prevail in the Irish Champion, but it is not for nothing that Jezki is eight points shorter for Cheltenham.
3. Apache Stronghold (N Meade)
Despite a rare blunder at the fourth-last fence, he travelled smoothly into the straight at Leopardstown and edged ahead up the run in, before Don Poli's stamina won out. Meade is pondering a tilt at the Irish Arkle, possibly to avoid another clash with Valseur Lido in the DR PJ Moriarty. However, the intermediate trip probably suits best, so a plan prioritising the Powers Gold Cup over Easter might be appropriate.
4. Vautour (W Mullins)
Vautour had his first off day last time. He put down five-out and genuflected badly on landing. On just his second outing over fences, it is a positive that he found a leg. Granted, his confidence was affected, but he will learn from the experience. While Clarcam got away, Vautour had the tenacity to fend off Ted Veale from an unlikely position. That alone was commendable.
5. Silver Concorde (D Weld)
The Cheltenham Bumper hero isn't bred to jump and hurdled accordingly on his Leopardstown debut. In a muddling race, Davy Russell had to sit on the pace with the Dansili gelding, which never got into a rhythm. You would still have expected him to win after leading before the last, but Blair Perrone proved sharper. He can do better.
Five to follow
1. Douvan (W Mullins)
Our novice hurdling division is full of quality, but Douvan's potential is immense. A ready French winner in June, he dotted up on his Irish bow at Gowran Park, with the subsequent Grade One winner Sizing John thrashed by 12 lengths. He steps up to Grade Two company at Punchestown on Saturday.
2. Un De Sceaux (W Mullins)
With Vautour, Clarcam and Gilgamboa all likely starters, the Irish Arkle should be unmissable. Throw Un De Sceaux (left) into it and it will be even more enthralling. His aggressive style makes for compelling viewing, though it's hard to know what Mullins will do with him, as he has been campaigned strategically. The mind boggles at the prospect of him tackling a first Grade One on January 25.
3. Carrigmoorna Rock (R Tyner)
A year after winning a point-to-point, Carrigmoorna Rock has emerged as a serious contender. Sublime over two miles in a Newbury Listed race, she then came alive on the run to the last over half-a-mile further in a Leopardstown Grade Three. She could be pitched in against Annie Power and Co at Cheltenham, but the mares' novices' Grade One at Fairyhouse over Easter looks ideal.
4. Road To Riches (N Meade)
Following a superlative Galway Plate rout in July, he is now a dual Grade One hero, with a nuanced Lexus display proving that he is tactically versatile. Best fresh, he goes straight to Cheltenham next. The extended trip is an unknown and he has never run in the Cotswolds. Still, Imperial Call overcame those disadvantages in 1996, so it can be done.
5. Special Tiara (H De Bromhead)
The notion of Special Tiara as a Champion Chase contender isn't fanciful. Last year, after an early blunder, he only wilted up the hill when sixth to Sire De Grugy, to which he got much closer at Sandown. At Kempton, he destroyed Balder Succes with an exhibition of jumping from the front. On a decent surface, he is a player.
Five with lots to prove
1. On The Fringe (E Bolger)
JP McManus' hunter chaser has become frustrating. He finds little for pressure, most recently floundering at Down Royal in a race he won last year. Not one to trust.
2. The Tullow Tank (S Hughes)
The most disappointing horse of the season. He seemed to take to fences at first, but his two latest efforts in elite company were dismal. He doesn't seem to have the scope or the attitude for the job. Pity.
3. Sizing Europe (H De Bromhead)
Inclusion here is solely due to his advancing years. At 13, the old warrior has nothing to prove, thwarting an undercooked Road To Riches on his Gowran Park return. At Clonmel next time, though, he laboured badly. Maybe drier ground would help if he were to go to Ascot next week, but it's not easy to compete at his level as a veteran.
4. Champagne Fever (W Mullins)
An old favourite that is increasingly unreliable. He has won just two of his last seven races since April 2013, neither of which required him to dig deep. Granted, he has mostly run well, but it isn't encouraging when a horse develops a myriad ways of getting beaten. A return to an intermediate distance looks likely after his King George failure.
5. Sprinter Sacre (N Henderson)
The nine-year-old may not recapture his old performance levels, as it's nearly two years since he peaked at Cheltenham. He then struggled at Punchestown and ran abysmally at Kempton, so he needs a miracle. No doubt, he could be good enough for Ascot on Saturday week, but, when every last sinew is strained come March, he might not cope.