Thursday 18 January 2018

Johnny Ward: Faugheen key to Mullins' machine

With Annie Power gone, star hurdler's well-being critical to other plans

Faugheen and Ruby Walsh clear the last on the way to winning the 2016 Irish Champion Hurdle, his last run before injury. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Faugheen and Ruby Walsh clear the last on the way to winning the 2016 Irish Champion Hurdle, his last run before injury. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

Johnny Ward

Just over a week ago, the first anniversary of one of the most significant days in jumps racing in this era passed without comment.

September was about to greet October of 2016 when the racing world was stunned to learn that Michael O'Leary and Willie Mullins would be finishing up as a partnership. The consequent brouhaha is probably the last thing on O'Leary's mind right now, having on Friday announced that its chief operations officer will leave crisis-hit Ryanair at the end of the month.

The most memorable aspect of that day on a personal level was Mullins' calm and assured manner when I called him for reaction, his apparent relief betrayed like Colm Cooper's on announcing his leaving the Kerry fold, as explained in his autobiography. While arriving at a difficult decision which involves a considerable degree of doubt is a troubling destination, it sure as hell feels better than incessantly agonising over it en route.

Mullins' management of last season recalls Alex Ferguson's in 1995/'96, when he banked on youth after losing some of the best players in England. Fergie duly won the title with kids and Mullins, heavily reliant on novices as injuries and O'Leary's split deprived him of so many seasoned stars, did the same.

Ferguson and Mullins also share a rare ability to manage powerful people with absolute assurance. How Mullins can maximise output while keeping multi-millionaire owners happy never ceases to impress and his diplomatic talents will, without question, be tested this season.

Strategy

And that is because so many hopes, plans and strategy depends on one horse, one which has not run in the guts of two years and which is rising ten: Faugheen. Annie Power's retirement has weakened Mullins' bench in the two-mile division, and it is hard to figure out what will happen with the brilliant 2015 Champion Hurdle winner.

Mullins does not like running his best against each other. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Mullins does not like running his best against each other. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

He has been working away all summer, which is most unusual for one of his type. While Ruby Walsh seemed bullish about the horse when speaking recently, recovering from a stress fracture is far from a formality, and backing him for the Champion Hurdle at the 6/1 on offer may appeal only to the excessively optimistic.

He is an intended runner in the Morgiana, which will attract enormous interest in Ireland and Britain, as Faugheen failure will conceivably have repercussions for Melon and Yorkhill.

Mullins does not like running his best against each other and Melon could stay hurdling or go novice chasing, while Yorkhill is an obvious Champion Hurdle horse.

Then there is Douvan, about which Mullins seems to be rather confident: his stress fracture was deemed of the minor variety after he struggled in the Champion Chase last term. He should be fine - but Mullins will not want him taking on Yorkhill, both without doubt capable of winning a Queen Mother.

Another obvious Queen Mother type, Min, also has to recover from a setback but ought to realise his immense potential. And when it comes to potential, the 61-year-old shall not be complaining.

In particular, his fledgling hurdlers cannot but excite. Stratum, running in the Penhill colours, showed pace and stamina in Galway, Makitorix won by 18 lengths in Listowel, while Sayar remains highly promising after winning both his jumps starts.

And then there are the ones punters know little or nothing about. Min and Melon were hyped before they even ran for the stable and this year's equivalent seems to be Annamix, already as low as 10/1 for the Supreme. Bookmakers know there is no smoke without fire and the whispers are good about Annamix, which is owned by Rich Ricci.

Ricci has sourced another potential hurdling sensation in Salsaretta, 20/1 for the mares' novice hurdle after arriving to Closutton from Francois Nicolle, for whom she was touched off in a Listed juvenile hurdle a year ago. Do not expect that price to last too long.

Supreme Racing Club has Harrie, another French recruit. He will be out around November and, while the plan was hurdles, his trainer on learning that he qualifies for bumpers is expected to go down that avenue with the five-year-old, second in a French hurdle race last year.

Great Field, rated 161 and still only six, is another potential Queen Mother winner for Mullins, part of a remarkable team of youngsters in Muine Bheag.

For him - for us all, by extension - there is so much to look forward to - but so much will hinge on his restoration or otherwise of another of the greats of the National Hunt game.

Reynolds plans sure to delight Galway

IF Mullins is to retain his title, one owner who will play a part is Philip Reynolds, son of ex-Taoiseach Albert. Whilst his highest-profile runners are with Pat Kelly, he has two very talented sorts in Closutton.

One is Tin Soldier, a gambled-on 5/1 chance in last year's Coral Cup which was placed in a Punchestown Grade One. He has a chasing option, but could go for the Stayers Hurdle route depending on the health of Penhill, about which there are doubts after an abortive summer campaign.

Another is Blick Des Obeaux, bought out of France four summers ago and now finally ready to run. "Willie has insisted all along he was worth persevering with."

Reynolds has a pair with Henry de Bromhead, who will be thrilled to have acquired Moon Over Germany: he could make a top-class novice chaser. However, Reynolds' plans for his two best-known steeds will greatly excite Kelly's local track.

With Mall Dini still a maiden and Presenting Percy going novice chasing, Reynolds has taken a very sporting view and is aiming at running one against the other in the high-class Galway beginners' chase run won last year by Nambour on Monday, October 30. Whatever Davy Russell isn't riding, many others will be delighted to get the call-up!

O'Brien on a Roly with 23rd Group One

Roly Poly's win on Saturday brings Aidan O'Brien to 23 Group/Grade Ones for the season, bookmakers paying out on his achieving three more to beat Bobby Frankel's record of 25 in a year. However, the big Flat news of the weekend concerned another Co Wexford man.

Jimmy Fortune announced his retirement from the saddle after a career spanning almost 30 years. An exceptionally strong rider, he is looking forward to starting a property business with his two teenage sons, who tragically lost their mother, Jan, in 2014.

Ride of the week

The title race has captivated racing fans and last week's Dundalk fare featured terrific tussles between Pat Smullen and Colin Keane. After a Smullen four-timer, Keane's edging in front aboard Thunder Crash in the finale on Friday, beating the Smullen-ridden Bold Knight in a photo, was stirring. Keane illustrated incredible composure to drop his hands near the wire when his mount seemed unresponsive to the whip - with Smullen upsides.

Gamble of the week

The Kid Bobby B's head win for Ger Lyons and Keane on Tuesday was all the more delightful if you took the 12/1 available earlier about the 2/1 jolly. And who rode the horse he touched off? You guessed it.

Quote of the week

"I'm definitely getting stronger by the day. I can feel it in everything I do. I'm starting to do all the normal things again, things I couldn't do for weeks."

- Ana O'Brien is aiming to return to riding after being sidelined since her Killarney fall in July.

Tweet of the week

Tony Mullins (@tonymullins84)

Just for the record WP Mullins trained 32 Grade1 winners in the calendar year 2015 and 34 Grade1 in the season 2015/2016

In light of all the chat about O'Brien's bid to break Frankel's record, Tony Mullins is thinking of his brother.

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