Tuesday 12 December 2017

Irish National could decide title tussle

Gordon Elliott and Jack Kennedy with the trophy after A Toi Phil’s victory in the Coral.ie Leopardstown Chase. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Gordon Elliott and Jack Kennedy with the trophy after A Toi Phil’s victory in the Coral.ie Leopardstown Chase. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Johnny Ward

It is coincidental that he was weaned in a county where winning titles is less of a big deal than failure to do so. There are parallels, however, in Willie Mullins' quest for a tenth successive trainers' gong and Kilkenny's failed push for five in a row and so on.

Last week, Mullins was only half-joking when he suggested that being challenged by Gordon Elliott was not terribly enjoyable for him.

Mullins can be brooding, apt to allow time to conjure an answer he will not regret. He does not want to make a big deal of a title tussle as compelling as it was unexpected, but you can be sure he would be gutted not to make it ten without reply, as Brian Cody must have felt when Lar Corbett lorded it in 2010.

All the while Elliott propagates a palpable untruth: he has "absolutely no chance". Sporting managers - if not Cody - can spin such for effect. Players react differently; happily for Elliott, horses don't read the news.

Mullins had Rolly Baby in the €100,000 handicap chase yesterday and he moved like a winner. As the horse hit the marathon runner's wall, so did Stellar Notion, and there was an element of inevitability that Elliott's A Toi Phil would pounce.

Interestingly, Gigginstown's campaigning of its horses is essentially as clean as can be. There have been seven handicap chases in Ireland this term with six-figure purses. Elliott has won every won of them, six of them for Gigginstown.

This was put to him after A Toi Phil's triumph and he said: "There are a few more left yet." He wasn't asked about the title but it is becoming apparent that the 'six-pointer' will be the Irish National.

Everything is in place for this to be box-office stuff, it not quite War Admiral versus Sea Biscuit. The purse of half a million is not much good for smaller owners - running a horse costs over €5,000 - but it will be pivotal in the title race's outcome.

Paddy Mullins won the race four times but his most famous son has drawn a blank. Elliott has not managed to snare it either but given the incredible monopoly he enjoys on the Grade A handicap chase circuit this year, bookies would nearly be reluctant to offer odds-against about him crossing Fairyhouse off the list.

In the Troytown, won by Empire Of Dirt, Elliott had 11 runners. He had a septet in yesterday's event won by A Toi Phil which, of course, was with Mullins last season.

After yesterday, about €325,000 separates the pair. When it comes to Grade One horses, Mullins still has an arsenal about which his rival can summon envy. Douvan can win whatever he contests; Faugheen, Annie Power and Vroum Vroum Mag will be vital for prize-money come Punchestown, if all are well.

Upbeat

Mullins sounded upbeat on Faugheen yesterday and victory for the son of Germany in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle next Sunday would ensure €64,900.

Elliott, however, has the numbers: he has had roughly double the runners that his great rival has had this season. He also has established senior Grade One horses in Outlander, Don Poli and Apple's Jade.

When I proposed recently that some of his would-be British raiders might be kept at home towards the end of the campaign, he countered: "Don't even ask me about that!"

Read into that what you will but he knows he cannot beat Mullins in the 20 remaining Grade Ones. Every little race will help but one - the Irish National - could be decisive.

Meanwhile, reading into the ride that Denis O'Regan gave the Tony Martin-trained Blackwater Bridge at Navan on Saturday produced some different opinions in the press-room. The comments in running give some indication as to his performance.

"Waited with in rear, last at halfway, not fluent 7th, lost touch briefly next, took closer order still in rear 3 out, went 4th from next going well, no impression on leaders after last where not fluent, ridden into never threatening 3rd on line".

I had taken little notice of it until yesterday, when it was at one point the talk of the Leopardstown press-room. A bit like Barry Geraghty on Noble Emperor at Limerick last season, two erudite analysts may find no harmony in coming to a conclusion about what happened.

O'Regan showed aboard Toe The Line yesterday that he is deceptive. She looked to be much too far off the pace but scored easily. Blackwater Bridge also seemed to be hopelessly out of his ground coming into the straight but had closed nicely between the third- and second-last.

O'Regan took an age to go after the horse. When he did, the response befitted a gelding rated 87 who has never finished in the first two.

I do not think anything untoward was at play. Nor did the stewards: connections were not called in. However, It was impossible not to recall Bobbie's Diamond's Fairyhouse run last term.

O'Regan rode for Martin that day too. How the stewards did not interview either was incredible.

Coming one day after the Turf Club's much-trumpeted new running and riding rule came into play, the Blackwater Bridge episode was depressing. By asking O'Regan in, there is no presumption of guilt.

By not asking him anything, the stewards showed that the rule may have changed but their laissez-faire modus operandi hasn't.

RIDE OF THE WEEK

Damien Melia made all on 20/1 Grey Danube on Friday at Dundalk. What composure for a 7lb claimer without a winner in the guts of three years.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"I met one of the owners during the week and he told me they couldn't sell her on Donedeal a year ago."

Ruby Walsh after the Thurles Grade Two win of Westerner Lady, her tenth in her career. That worked out rather well.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

The New One , what can I say , tough as they come! What a pleasure to have around the yard! #allheart.

Sam Twiston Davies (@samtwiston) enjoyed Saturday's Haydock win.

GAMBLE OF THE WEEK

All The Chimneys, trained by Willie Austin in Cloughjordan, cruised to a Navan win on Saturday at 5/4, having been as big on Friday as 5s (15c Rule 4).

Faugheen return nears as bookies run for cover

FAUGHEEN will return to action on Sunday if he comes through his work satisfactorily this week.

The 2015 Champion Hurdle winner will tackle the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown – a race he was sensational in 12 months ago, his last public appearance.

A bruised foot ruled out his comeback in the Morgiana in November and his work has generally been underwhelming since. However, trainer Willie Mullins was upbeat, saying: “All being well he’ll run. He’s in good form; he’ll do a good bit of work during the week, I hope. As long as he’s able to do that we’ll let him take his chance.”

Faugheen is now at 7/4 and as short as 5/4 for the Stan James Champion Hurdle in March.

Faugheen is unlikely to take on Apple’s Jade – which beat another Mullins runner in Vroum Vroum Mag when last seen – on Sunday. Gordon Elliott is pursuing other options with her but is delighted with both the filly and Don Poli, which will go for the Stan James Irish Gold Cup on January 12.

“I couldn’t be happier with him,” Elliott said. “He was out hunting there on Thursday.”

Elliott believes that his Goffs Thyestes candidate Prince Of Scars is well treated but he would prefer a different weather forecast between now and Thursday, when Gowran stages its main race of the season.

“He’ll run as long as the ground is not too quick, but I’d be much happier if there were rain coming,” Elliott admitted.

He will likely take on the Mullins-trained The Crafty Butcher if that one gets in. Little rain is expected and the chase track was soft yesterday.

Meanwhile, Edelpour, bought out of Dermot Weld’s by Barry Connell on Champions Weekend for €450,000 in 2015, will not run any time soon. Trainer Alan Fleming said: “He is going to be a different project. We’ll give him a bit of time as he’s grown a lot. He may run in the summer.”

Irish Independent

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