Wednesday 19 December 2018

Irish contenders primed for Festival

Mullins and Harrington boast strong hands as Cheltenham plans start to become clearer

Jessica Harrington says of Sizing John: “We don’t want to put too much pressure on him. I want him to do it on the day, not the day before. I don’t want him leaving anything behind”
Jessica Harrington says of Sizing John: “We don’t want to put too much pressure on him. I want him to do it on the day, not the day before. I don’t want him leaving anything behind”

Fergus McDonnell

Before winter's hand appeared to be loosening its icy grip, only to impart a parting slap which may sting for a few days yet, we were treated to a peek inside two of the leading stables as they go through their final Cheltenham preparations.

Willie Mullins and Jessica Harrington will bring contrasting teams to the Cotswolds - Mullins holding a considerable numerical advantage - but there's little if anything to choose between the strings in terms of quality.

And if the Irish assault may be considered a 'pest from the west' for English ambitions at the Festival, both trainers are well aware that horse racing, like economic activity or indeed the weather, is cyclical.

The current relative dominance enjoyed by Irish-trained horses is in sharp contrast to the days when to get one winner was considered an achievement, and although underlying conditions have changed, hopefully for the long term, the day may come again when pickings are slim.

"When you look at what horses are making now, it's incredible," said Mullins when asked about the value of the 40 horses on show last Monday. "That's what I think . . . that Cheltenham has elevated the jumps game to a different level than it was. And I see the new clients coming in and buying jumpers. I think that's hugely encouraging.

"The people who are buying jump horses now are not buying them to breed - it's purely sport and racing. It's a hobby. And to have new clients coming in at the top in jump racing is great for the game. I worry will there be jump racing there for my grandchildren? But that gives me encouragement that the game is on a way sounder footing and will be in the future."

Harrington had hoped, before the weather decided otherwise, to give her Gold Cup hero of 2017, Sizing John, a gallop at Leopardstown tomorrow or on Tuesday, but even without that, she is happy that he will travel across the Irish Sea in good form.

"We're on song with him and that's all we can do, get him there in one piece and hope for the best. He seems to be in good form. He's shaking his head and he's doing his bits and pieces. We don't want to put too much pressure on him. I want him to do it on the day, not the day before. I don't want him leaving anything behind."

And what does she think of the opposition? "I hate every single one of them," she laughs. "It is probably an open Gold Cup and it's going to be a very competitive race if all the horses they say are going to show up, show up.

"The only one who hasn't blotted his copy book is Might Bite. He looks a younger, improving horse, but there are a lot of horses there with a chance and it just depends on who performs on the day.

Sizing John's victory, with her first runner in the race, completed the Big Three of Cheltenham crowns for Harrington - Champion Chase, Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup - and Supasundae will have more than a passing interest in the Stayers' Hurdle next week.

"Yes, I like that actually. I'd kind of like to win the Stayers' to make it the Big Four. I suppose you look back and you think it's great, but when it's actually happening you don't take it in."

But can he turn the tables on Yanworth? "I think so, because when he went to Aintree last year, he'd had some quite hard races. I was so cross with him at Christmas last year . . . he ran in a handicap hurdle and didn't do anything . . . and I was so cross with him I ran him three days later at Punchestown and he won.

"And then he had two quite hard graded races just purely because I knew if I was going to go for the Coral Cup with him I needed to get him used to jumping a bit quicker. So that was fine, he had four races between Christmas and Cheltenham and then he went to Aintree and he was a tired horse. I think he did well considering he was off the bridle all the way. He did well to stay on and he put it up to Yanworth jumping the last so I think, I hope, he can turn the tables on him. And the great thing is he won't have to either make his running or be up there, he can be dropped in a little bit and he'll pick up.

"Supasundae is very laid-back. He's a much better horse this year than he was last year. Last year you had to force him to go down towards the gallops, this year, all of a sudden he's doing it easily within himself and he's travelling much better in his races. He's actually jumping much better, so whether he's just got that confidence, I'm not sure, but he's definitely a lot better this year."

From having her first Gold Cup runner last year, Harrington has two with live chances this time around - Our Duke taking his chance alongside Sizing John. And when was the decision taken to run last year's Irish Grand National winner in the blue riband?

"When he won the Grade One at Christmas at Leopardstown last year. The owners said 'no, we don't want to go to Cheltenham this year, we'll go for the Gold Cup next year.' Their decision. And then he went and won the Irish Grand National. He had a bad start to the season and we discovered he had that problem with the kissing spine. And now he looks in good order."

These last days before the biggest National Hunt event of the season must be nervous times for trainers who have specifically planned some horses' campaigns since the autumn, or even earlier.

But Mullins dismisses the notion that his horses might be wrapped in cotton wool until they arrive safely on the starting line.

"We have our routine, we'll be doing our bits of work, but normal bits of work. We have our routine and we'll try to follow that. There'll be no more wrapping in cotton wool, that's done away with. We don't have much cotton wool around here."

Neither is there any room for superstitions. Faugheen wore number 13 in last Monday's gallop for the assembled media; Mullins didn't even raise an eyebrow.

"I gave up being superstitious. I was with my mother one day and I was counting magpies - I was only a child and we were going racing - and next thing I got to 'eight for a wake' and the car turned over on an icy road. So I'm never going to be superstitious again."

The scientific approach has worked very well for both trainers, and if Mother Nature permits, chances are it will pay dividends again.

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