Monday 23 April 2018

Even the weather is helping Mullins

Our top trainer has a formidable arsenal at his disposal this year, says Ian McClean

My father doesn't bet very often. So it was with some animation he told me last week that he had backed Willie Mullins to be champion trainer at the Festival. Another William, William Hill, the only firm betting on the heat at this stage apparently, was offering 15/8.

However, by the time some complication with the credit card was ironed out, the odds had reduced to 13/8. I couldn't figure out why he remained so upbeat despite missing the price on the back of a technical hiccup. It became clearer when he revealed to me that Ireland's champion trainer is now just 5/4 to lead the Cheltenham Festival.

This is both surprising and unsurprising. Surprising, considering Willie Mullins only became leading Festival trainer for the first time ever last year and that one of his two main rivals (Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson) has been crowned champion in seven of the previous eight seasons. Surprising also considering that no Irish-based trainer prior to that had ever been outright leading trainer at Cheltenham.

Unsurprising, for the reason that Mullins has been in such irresistible form this whole season -- he has clocked his fastest ever century -- and harbours such a wealth of talent in so many departments even his UK adversaries should not feel guilty at just a little of the green-eyed monster. Moreover, while our neighbouring counterparts are walking their box trying to get a fixture in readiness for the Cotswolds in four weeks, the Master of Closutton has gone about his preparation largely unchecked by any such climatic spanners.

While Nicholls and Henderson forfeited Newbury's Super Saturday (sounds like a Sky advert), Mullins is aiming to maximise at probably the most prestigious single jumping race-day on the Irish calendar at Leopardstown this afternoon where amongst a host of quality challengers his yard provides either the favourite or second favourite in all four Grade Ones.

It is unlikely Willie Mullins ever thought Quel Esprit would be quoted an even-money favourite for the race that doubles as both Ireland's most prestigious staying chase, and the pre-eminent stepping stone to the Cheltenham Gold Cup. "Maybe we should kick him up a gear and go for the Hennessy," was the trainer's lukewarm sentiment in early January after his grey had doddled around Thurles against second-rate opposition to continue his confidence rehab. However, if a week is long in politics it was even longer for sponsors Hennessy and hosts Leopardstown last week, as one major protagonist after another was ruled out of their flagship race. The defections of Jessies Dream, Quito De La Roque and Synchronised have sadly robbed the race of its grandeur. It results in Quel Esprit being priced up for the race in the

(four-time winner) Florida Pearl class, in spite of the eight-year-old French-bred boasting only a Grade Three as the pinnacle of his achievement so far over fences in six attempts.

Indeed to understand the influence of the Mullins factor on the market you only need to go back to this card 12 months ago when two of Quel Esprit's market rivals lined up against him in the PJ Moriarty Chase.

The race was as untactical as it was fair in the sense that almost throughout Magnanimity, Bostons Angel and Quel Esprit galloped and jumped in a perfect line, like three legs in a three-legged race. This perfect rhythm pertained until Quel Esprit pitched over at the second last, leaving the other pair to fight out the finish. Fledgling signs of distress were already apparent as Quel Esprit tumbled, and it is almost certain he would have finished third of the three that day. Yet this afternoon the Willie Mullins inmate heads the market, while his rivals trade at 4/1 and 7/1 respectively.

The PJ Moriarty this year has again attracted a small field and Mullins bids to atone for last year's capsize of Quel Esprit by despatching two of his formidable fleet of novice chasers. Lambro and Call The Police make up half the field in a race Mullins has won in three of the last four runnings. It is a race that previously showcased the talent of both Florida Pearl and Alexander Banquet in consecutive years as they began their ascent. For once, an even more high-profile opponent, Last Instalment, leads the market.

In the Grade One hurdles, both Ut De Sivola and Sous Les Cieux bid to consolidate their sky-high reputations on a day that is sublime in its own right, but sublimely critical in helping trainers formulate their battle-plan for the Cotswolds.

Most trainers on that basis bring the best they've got to Leopardstown for that purpose, but despite the intensity of the Mullins challenge today a catalogue of those who have stayed at home in Carlow includes Hurricane Fly, Quevega, Thousand Stars, So Young, Zaidpour, Mikael D'Haguenet, Mourad, Blackstairmountain, Sir Des Champs, Boston Bob, Make Your Mark, Scotsirish, Uncle Junior, Allee Garde . . . and that's before we even begin to broach the section in the catalogue marked Handicaps.

If Henderson and Nicholls know their Shelley, they won't need reminding of the line from Ozymandias, "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair."

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