Crown of Britain's champion jumps trainer not beyond Willie Mullins and his stellar stable
Unstoppable champion has the firepower to emulate Vincent O'Brien
Faugheen's barnstorming victory in the BHP Irish Champion Hurdle capped another stunning weekend of results for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh.
Each of the two failed to win just two of the various races that they competed in over the two days. Crucially, their incredible domination of Grade Ones continues to gather momentum.
Last season, Mullins recorded a world record 30 Grade One successes in a season, and then set another by clocking out with 33 in the calendar year. This year, the dream team has conspired to win all three of the Grade Ones run in Ireland to date, every time with a long odds-on shot.
They have also secured both scheduled Grade Ones in England, again with odds-on shots, though neither man contested the Chepstow juvenile hurdle that was rescheduled after the postponement of the Welsh National card.
Vroum Vroum Mag got the combination's Ascot venture off to a smooth start at prohibitive odds in Saturday's Grade Two mares' hurdle. She won as well as she was entitled to from fellow raider Jennies Jewel, and will now tackle either the equivalent race at Cheltenham or the World Hurdle.
Rich Ricci indicated that Annie Power would go for the World Hurdle if they can get a run into her first, which would leave Vroum Vroum Mag to tackle the lesser Grade One. If Annie Power goes to Prestbury Park without a race, though, she might be allowed to take the easier option.
Un De Sceaux will only ever have one target at Cheltenham in March. He's now odds-on across the board for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, having slammed Sire De Grugy in the Clarence House Chase to confirm his status as the rising star of the two-mile ranks.
A first win for an Irish-based horse in the race since it became a Grade One in 2007, it was Un De Sceaux's initial victory outside of novice company. He could hardly have been more impressive. There were unanswered questions in the wake of his Leopardstown fall, but he responded in resounding fashion.
Un De Sceaux's gung-ho style means that he might always be prone to doing something like he has done on his reappearance in each of the last two seasons, but the efficient manner with which he fenced on Saturday would suggest that he learned from his latest spill.
Walsh, in particular, was exquisite on Un De Sceaux, filling him with confidence at every fence. There has never been a better steeplechase jockey, and any aspiring rider would do well to sit and study re-runs of his quiet technique here. Repeatedly.
Riding a horse like Un De Sceaux should be a hair-raising experience, especially on the back of a fall, but Walsh was so composed and rode him with such assured conviction that to watch them in isolation you would think he was on an old school master, not a borderline tearaway that had turned head over heels last time out.
With nine winners from 32 runners for a massive 28pc strike rate, Mullins has farmed £411,031 in cross-channel prize money this term. He has been slashed to joint favouritism at 10/11 with Paul Nicholls to emulate Vincent O'Brien (1953 and 1954) by becoming just the second Irish-based handler to be crowned champion jumps trainer in Britain.
Mullins is over £750,000 behind Nicholls in 17th place as of now, but you couldn't say with any certainty that he won't give it a serious rattle.
He is an absolute genius who is capable of anything right now, and, while fortunes at Cheltenham in March will obviously be crucial, if he or Nicholls were to win the £1m Grand National, it could prove the deciding factor.
By the by, in light of Mullins's incredible firepower, it seems quite generous of bookmakers to be offering odds of 13/8 about Irish horses outscoring their British counterparts at Cheltenham in March. Mullins might do that all by himself.
Championship aspirations won't be figuring on the respective radars of Charles O'Brien, Colm Murphy or Liam Burke. Each man plundered victories in €100,000 handicaps last week, offering some much-needed variety to the narrative of the season. Each of the trio has seen their numbers plummet, and, in the cases of Murphy and Burke in particular, life as a trainer has become very difficult. This correspondent isn't acquainted with O'Brien in person.
However, I would be familiar with Murphy and Burke (below). Both are the sort of salt-of-the-earth, self-made men who have seen their operations and endeavours decimated in recent years, as the middle and lower tiers of the jumps industry has been squeezed relentlessly.
They are the type of invaluable rural employers whose existence has been under threat. More to the point, they're proven as skilled in their field, Burke chiefly as a constant source of point-to-point stock but also as a conventional handler who has masterminded some memorable victories on the track.
Murphy built his reputation chiefly on the back of his repeated success in major races. From limited resources, his CV includes two individual championship events at the Cheltenham Festival, which happens to be twice as many as the champion trainer has to date.
Through the exploits of Brave Inca, Big Zeb, Quito De La Roque, Voler La Vedette and Feathered Lady, Murphy established beyond all doubt that he is up there with the very best in terms of training prowess. These are the sort of people whose enterprise helped to make Irish jump racing great, so it would be great to see more of them thrive once again.
Gurteen makes Min look good
Gurteen ensured that a rare blank day for Willie Mullins at Navan on Saturday still had a silver lining.
Robert Tyner's six-year-old son of Golan has been beaten just once in four starts since making his point-to-point debut in November. That defeat came when Mullins's Supreme Novices' Hurdle favourite Min kicked him out of the way by 14 lengths at Punchestown.
Gurteen went on to win a Leopardstown bumper, and he has now added a maiden hurdle, courtesy of an utterly impressive triumph under Philip Enright at Navan. He toyed with the useful De Plotting Shed in the straight, and looks a serious long-term prospect for Tyner's Kinsale yard.
Tyner suggested that he would now find a winners' somewhere for Gurteen. Mullins went on the record to express dissatisfaction with the staging of what he deemed to be a low-quality card, but it proved a welcome opportunity for some less formidable outfits.
While Henry de Bromhead, Tony Martin and Gordon Elliott were other well-endowed stables to get among the winners, Liz Doyle, Harry Kelly and Vincent Halley joined Tyner in departing with a winner.
Tramore falls to the elements
Tramore's substitute fixture that had been scheduled for Tuesday was cancelled yesterday due to waterlogging. The beleaguered venue lost its lucrative New Year's Day card, which fell again in the meantime. Tuesday's fixture was meant to be in lieu of that, but it remains unclear as to whether they will try for another replacement.
Johnson hits 3,000 winners at Ascot
Plenty was made of Ruby Walsh's 2,500th winner at Gowran Park on Thursday and with good reason.
It seems the figure comprises winners of every description everywhere, so it is a notable feat. As a rule, though, the tallies for those landmarks are confined to races in a single discipline won in Ireland and Britain.
Walsh has a few left to go on that basis, but he is one of only three jump jockeys to have ridden 2,000 winners or more. AP McCoy stands alone in topping 4,000, and Richard Johnson is now the second to hit the 3,000-mark (wins in Ireland and Britain) after his success on Duke Des Champs at Ascot on Saturday.
Tweet of the weekend
Chris Broad (@agentbroad)
Great news about racing to resume at Hereford in October, let's just hope Willie Mullins horse box can't find the course.
The British-based jockeys' agent jokes about the champion trainer's all-encompassing prowess after it was announced the popular track at Hereford is to resume racing after a four-year closure.
51 The number of senior champion jockeys' titles shared by seven of the 18 jockeys scheduled to participate in The Kube fund-raiser at Killashee Hotel in Naas on Saturday night. The event is being held in aid of the Robbie McNamara fund, and AP McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Davy Russell, Jamie Codd, Patrick Mullins, Pat Smullen and Joseph O'Brien are the champions on duty.