Sport Horse Racing

Friday 24 January 2020

Mullins rolling out big guns in title bid

Champion trainer has an array of options as he vies for British crown

Secret Brief, with William Buick up (left), gets the better of Bravo Zolo (Ryan Moore) to win the Lincoln at Doncaster Photo: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire
Secret Brief, with William Buick up (left), gets the better of Bravo Zolo (Ryan Moore) to win the Lincoln at Doncaster Photo: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire
Trainer Willie Mullins Photo: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE

Richard Forristal

There we were thinking that an entry of 17 at Aintree on Thursday illustrated Willie Mullins' intent to make the British champion trainer's title his own. Ha!

He only went and made 39 entries for Friday's card. Over the past four seasons, the rampant champion trainer has totalled just 27 runners across all the Aintree fixtures.

Of course, entries don't equate to winners or even runners, but he clearly means business. If Mullins is going to be denied by Paul Nicholls in what might prove to be his best ever chance of securing an historic triumph in the cross-channel championship, he is going to go out with all guns blazing.

At various stages this term, the perennial holder of the Irish crown sought to play down the prospect of his emulating the incredible feats of Vincent O'Brien. Not any more.

The original Ballydoyle genius was a visionary who plundered successive British championships in 1953 and 1954 from his modest Churchtown base in north Co Cork. In those two years, he claimed the Grand National with Early Mist and Royal Tan and completed a famous hat-trick with Quare Times in 1955.

They were inspirational achievements, which, combined with O'Brien's earlier successes in the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle - Knock Hard's 1953 Gold Cup victory was his final win in either of the sport's two elite events - were the foundations of a colossal legacy that fostered the environment in which Irish racing now thrives in the highest echelons.


Were it not for O'Brien's foresight and expertise in the aftermath of World War II, the Coolmore empire and the emergence of Ireland as a nation capable of punching far above its weight on the international Flat scene would never have happened, nor the manner in which Irish handlers - led by Mullins - now routinely dominate at the highest level at the Cheltenham Festival. "MV" exists in an utterly exclusive realm.

Mullins is keenly aware of what's at stake. On the Flat, in 1963, 1964 and 1965, the legendary Paddy Prendergast preceded O'Brien (1966 and 1977) as champion in Britain, while Aidan O'Brien would add four more to the Ballydoyle haul between 2001 and 2008.

Without meaning in any way whatsoever to degrade those incredible exploits, the more commercial side to the Flat and the enormous sums that can be won in the marquee events relative to the paltry day-to-day fare means that its title lends itself to being won by a trainer with a handful of exceptionally good horses.

When O'Brien won it in 2002, for example, he saddled just eight individual winners there, but he won three Classics and seven Group Ones.

In contrast, Nicholls leads the current jumps championship, having saddled just two Grade One winners; he could conceivably win it without adding to those.

It is a simply gargantuan task for an Irish trainer to be in the position that Mullins now finds himself in. He has already had 13 individual runners for 17 wins in Britain, and it was refreshing to hear him confirm what many had suspected by declaring his intent to essentially throw everything he can at the title challenge.

As a rule, racing's title races can be a bit of a sideshow, but, every now and then, they have the potential to enthral. Think Richard Dunwoody versus Adrian Maguire in 1994, or the fractious duels between Nicholls and Martin Pipe in 2004 and 2005.

The next three weeks could be epic, and a welcome consequence of Mullins' concerted assault on the championship is that it will give others increased chances at home.

At Fairyhouse over Easter, with Mullins' heavy duty battalion at ease in Closutton, the two Grade Ones went the way of trainers that had never before saddled a top-ranking winner. Of the 22 races over the three days, there were 18 different winning trainers, with four handlers saddling two winners, including Kerry Lee.

Much as we'd like to see the prize money stay at home, British runners add hugely to levels of competition and intrigue, and it is vital that they feel that they can come here and be competitive.

The prize money is good enough to entice them, but Mullins' remarkable domination has naturally been a deterrent at times.

Emily Gray also secured a fine prize for Kim Bailey, so you would hope now that there will be an added incentive for English handlers to send plenty of runners to Punchestown.

Last year, Mullins won 10 of the 12 Grade Ones and 16 races in all at the Kildare festival. If he is to go to war with Nicholls now, notwithstanding the depth of talent that he has at his disposal, chances are that a few more big pots will be there for the taking come Punchestown. That is no bad thing.

In the meantime, Aintree and Sandown await. If Mullins can add to Hedgehunter's 2005 National win and end the raiders' nine-year drought, he will surely replicate O'Brien's 1950s exploits and become the second Irishman to top the pile. Annie Power and Vautour will lead the march on Liverpool, with Vautour's target unconfirmed.

Might Mullins send him back over three miles in the Bowl, or will he tackle the Melling Chase, in which Un De Sceaux is engaged. Maybe the Celebration Chase at the Sandown season-finale would suit Un De Sceaux better, while the two-mile-six-furlong Grade Two on that card that was last year worth £29,000 as a Listed race could be right up Djakadam's street. And what of the mighty Douvan?

With Black Hercules sidelined due to a hind leg injury, there must be a temptation to try the sensational Arkle hero over two-and-a-half miles in the Manifesto Novices's Chase.

That may also pave the way for Shaneshill to contest the three-mile Mildmay.

Or, maybe not. Idle speculation in relation to Mullins's running plans tends to be just that, so let's just wait and see what his strategy is as he strives to carve his name into the annals of time.

Lough vacates National space

The team vying for a first Irish win in the Crabbies Grand National since 2007 won't include John Kiely's Carlingford Lough.

Frank Berry has stated that JP McManus' two-time winner of Leopardstown's Gold Cup will likely wait for the equivalent Bibby Financial Services-sponsored Grade One at Punchestown.

Enda Bolger's Gilgamboa, Tony Martin's Gallant Oscar and Gordon Elliott's Cause Of Causes will likely be declared alongside the Charlie Longsdon-trained Pendra and Shutthefrontdoor, which will be seeking to give McManus and Jonjo O'Neill their second win together in the Liverpool showpiece.

Cause Of Causes needs a total of 17 above him to come out, though Roi Du Mee and Ucello Conti are sure of a place for Elliott, whose win as a rookie with Silver Birch was a third National win in a row for the raiders before our luck turned.

Nina Carberry has been pencilled in for Mick Channon's Knock House should he get in, while Ruby Walsh will ride one of On His Own, Boston Bob, Ballycasey or Sir Des Champs after Mullins indicated that Turban would instead run in the Topham.

Jim Dreaper's Goonyella and Pat Fahy's Morning Assembly are others expected to line up, likewise Mouse Morris's First Lieutenant and Rule The World.

Morris enjoyed a memorable success on Easter Monday, and it would be some feat if he were to complete the National double with a maiden over fences, which is what Rule The World is.

Smashing time had by Burke at Navan

Henry de Bromhead's Home Farm has a live chance of making the National cut as number 46 on the list and the Waterford handler warmed up for Aintree by saddling Smashing to take Road To Riches' scalp at Navan on Saturday.

Jonathan Burke, who had pulled up Smashing in the Ryanair Chase in which Road To Riches became embroiled in such a bruising battle with Vautour, gave the winner a peach of a ride from the front in the two-and-a-half-mile Grade Two.

Given his Cheltenham exertions, Road To Riches lost little in a half-length defeat to the proven mudlark, and both could clash again in the Punchestown's Gold Cup.

Tweet of the weekend

Colman Sweeney (@colmansweeney)

Round of applause there for Barry Cash people ... caught the boys napping!! @LimerickRaces #velocityboy #stoleitfromthestart

From a 50-metre high cherry picker in his guise as a camera operator, the former top-class amateur commends Cash's role for catching his colleagues napping yesterday.

Numbers Game

100 - Win percentage of Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh's two partnerships at Limerick. Bellow Mome (4/1) knuckled down to defy the Barry Geraghty-ridden odds-on A Great View in the novices' hurdle, before Avant Tout (8/15 fav) did likewise to fend off Lord Scoundrel in the Grade Two chase. Local handler Pat Neville also scored with his only runner, the 6/1 shot Rightville Boy, which ran out a decisive winner of the handicap chase under Andrew Lynch.

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