Monday Outlook: Gitane yet another Mullins contender
Champion trainer's Cheltenham team looking ridiculously strong
Another weekend and another Willie Mullins-trained contender emerges for the Cheltenham Festival.
There is simply no end to the man's stranglehold on the jumps season. To the outside world, Gitane Du Berlais travelled to Sandown for a tilt at the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase more in hope than expectation.
Although a graded winner on Saturday's Fairyhouse card 12 months ago, the Balko mare won just twice in five hurdle starts for the indomitable champion trainer. She sluiced up on her fencing bow at Limerick over Christmas, but she proved little at long odds-on that day other than reiterating her penchant for deep ground and showing that she can jump fences.
Nonetheless, with suitable opportunities relatively sparse here for Gitane Du Berlais due to the fact that she is not EBF eligible, Mullins decided to cross the water to pitch her into a Grade One on her second start over fences. Remember, that was a task that proved beyond even Vautour.
It turned out to be an inspired piece of placing. Under a resurgent Daryl Jacob, who is retained by the owners Simon Munir and Isaac Soeude, she ran her rivals ragged. In truth, it wasn't a great Grade One, and it became even less of a test when Champagne West exited at the Railway fences.
Still, after fiddling her way over the first, Gitane Du Berlais warmed to her task out in front, eventually surging clear of Irish Saint, from which she received 11lbs. It was a facile victory.
Mullins said that he is leaning toward the JLT rather than the RSA with the five-year-old, on the basis that she tends to race a little freely. Notwithstanding that, two-and-a-half miles takes some getting at Sandown in ground as deep as it was on Saturday.
Gitane Du Berlais did it the hard way, so it's unlikely she would want for stamina over three miles on better ground. Anyway, given her ownership and her new-found status as a Grade One winner, you'd imagine that she will almost certainly travel.
She is entitled to her place on the boat, although more will be required come March. In her and Vroum Vroum Mag, Mullins has two precocious mares to go to war with over fences.
We've discussed the lack of same in other stables here before, so it is great that our most influential handler continues to be such a willing advocate of sending decent quality mares chasing. Long may that continue.
Apart from advancing her own Cheltenham credentials, of course, Gitane Du Berlais enhanced those of Team Mullins. What a jaw-dropping consignment of riches will depart from Closutton - or not, as the case may be. Those four days in the Cotswolds aren't the be all or end all, but Mullins has the luxury of readily ruling the meeting out for some on the basis that it might not suit his long-term strategy.
He swerved the Champion Hurdle last year with Un De Sceaux because he felt it would come a year too soon, and on Saturday he suggested that Morning Run and Lyrical Theatre would wait for Fairyhouse at Easter rather than go to Cheltenham after both delivered fine performances in first and second at the Co Meath venue.
Gitane Du Berlais, while a Listed winner at Aintree in December 2013, is another that didn't travel in March last year, and that hasn't done her any harm. Of course, any trainer can opt to skip the Festival with a contender, and many do. However, that decision requires a lot more soul-searching when you don't have a legion of other heavyweights from which to draw.
Mullins is privileged in that sense, and his domination warrants applauding, regardless of how tough a station the profession is for so many of his colleagues right now. His leviathan was born in the thick of the recession.
That didn't happen simply because he is a great horseman, but because he had the business acumen and diplomacy skills to match his ambition. He saw the opportunity and grabbed it.
Now he continues to grow in strength with every passing week, his number of domestic winners and prize money earned for the campaign basically double that of his nearest rival Gordon Elliott, who is an extremely serious operator in his own right.
In respect of Cheltenham, Mullins has a novices' hurdling delegation comprising Douvan, Nichols Canyon, Alvisio Ville, McKinley, Shaneshill, Black Hercules, Outlander, Dicosimo, Kalkir and Tell Us More.
In the novices' chasing division, Un De Sceaux, Vautour, Valseur Lido, Gitane Du Berlais, Vroum Vroum Mag, Don Poli and Jarry D'Honneur are all in contention for Grade One starting berths. He could run two live ones in each of the novices' Grade Ones and still have spares, and then there are Au Quart De Tour, Bordini and Up For Review, which fill the first three places in the Champion Bumper betting.
For the marquee events, Faugheen and Hurricane Fly will be in the shake-up for the Champion Hurdle, likewise On His Own, Djakadam and Boston Bob in the Gold Cup. Champagne Fever has lost his way a little but he has a fantastic record at the Festival so he would warrant respect in the Champion or Ryanair Chase, with Annie Power sure to take all the beating in the mares' race if she gets there.
The firepower he has at his disposal is just ridiculous, and Nicky Henderson's Festival record of seven wins in 2012 could be annexed. If so, Mullins (right), who has 33 career wins at the four-day gala, would join Fulke Walwyn (40) as the second most successful trainer of all time there behind Henderson (51), leapfrogging Messrs Nicholls and Pipe (34 each) in the process. Stranger things have happened!
Townend scores on the double in Wales
With Ruby Walsh doing the steering on the impressive Morning Run and Daryl Jacob retained for Gitane Du Berlais, Paul Townend was snapped up by Rebecca Curtis for five rides at Ffos Las.
He got beaten into second on the odds-on Captain McGinley and was placed on a 7/2 shot and a 6/1 co-favourite, yet he still departed with a double on 12/1 shot Glenwood Star and the 16/1 outsider Bob Ford in the Welsh Grand National.
We highlighted Irish-based riders' 33pc strike-rate for Curtis this term on Saturday, and her combined bookings of Townend, Davy Russell and Paul Carberry now reads 7-21, so it pays to take note when she summons an Irish champion jockey. Townend was brilliant on Glenwood Star in the novices' hurdle, galvanising him from a pretty hopeless-looking position in fourth after the final flight to get up on the line. He plundered the marathon handicap chase in contrasting fashion, getting Bob Ford into a lovely rhythm in front. In the notoriously bottomless Ffos Las mud, the partnership saw off its nine rivals one by one.
Only Gorgehous Lliege remained in the hunt in the straight, and there was a predictable outcry in some quarters when Callum Whillans pulled him up briefly before the last fence, only to then jump it when his mount had got its breath back. The runner-up's trainer Venetia Williams said yesterday that Whillans should be commended for what he did, and she is absolutely spot on.
Gorgehous Lliege jumped brilliantly but simply fell in a hole after the second-last following its duel with Bob Ford. Whillans had a look over his shoulder, and, seeing nothing coming, decided to give his mount the best possible chance of picking up the second-place prize money by taking a moment. Remember, with the rules as they are in Britain now, if he had kept going and parted company with Gorgehous Lliege at the last, he wouldn't have been able to get back on to cross the line, so it was a fine piece of riding.
Not one horse fell in the race, and there is always going to be an element of attrition about a three-and-a-half-mile chase run in deep ground. For those who find that offensive, there is always Dundalk on a Friday night.
All-Ireland switch to threaten Champions
One of Irish racing's real success stories of 2014 was the inaugural Irish Champions Weekend.
Pretty much everything that could go right did, which - while you would hope that might give it a platform to build on in future - also raised the possibility of a standard being set that might prove hard to emulate. It was the perfect storm.
Well, all of a sudden, the GAA's move to consider switching the All-Ireland football final from the third Sunday in September to the second threatens to make life rather more complicated. Part of the beauty of ICW's slot on the second weekend of the month was that it had it all to itself, something that would change entirely if the GAA's Central Council recommendation of a two-year trial period gets the go-ahead from 2016.
Tweet of the weekend
Paul Nicholls (@PFNicholls)
Nice to be a winning owner with Current Event. Well done Bryony Frost & Rose Loxton.
Paul Nicholls after his hunter chaser was one of seven southern-based winners at Musselburgh yesterday.
The amount of money that Godolphin has pledged to the prize fund for the Irish Stud and Stable Staff Awards, which will be held in Newbridge's Keadeen Hotel on April 14. There are 10 categories, with the new sponsorship set to result in the overall winner netting a €10,000 cash prize and €9,000 for their respective employer.