Wednesday 24 January 2018

Mullins switches focus to ending National famine

Willie Mullins. Photo: Sportsfile
Willie Mullins. Photo: Sportsfile

Thomas Kelly

Willie Mullins has never won the Ladbrokes Irish Grand National, but the champion trainer will be hoping to end that famine in the Fairyhouse showpiece on April 1.

Fresh from being crowned leading trainer at the Cheltenham Festival and having dominated the Irish National Hunt scene all season, winning the big race for the first time would be the icing on the cake.

His strength in depth is phenomenal with the likes of Cheltenham winner Back In Focus, Boston Bob and Quel Esprit all under consideration. JP McManus is also likely to be strongly represented with Alfie Sherrin, Competitive Edge, Lost Glory and Alderwood in the frame.

Liz Doyle's Rich Revival, Gordon Elliott's pair of Realt Mor and Romanesco, the Dessie Hughes-trained duo of White Star Line and Tofino Bay and Tony Martin's Dedigout are all entered.

Last year's winner, Lion Na Bearnai, won't be lining up in the Fairyhouse showpiece and faces a race against time to be fit for the the Aintree Grand National on April 6 – for which 16 horses were taken out at the latest stage.

Jonjo O'Neill's Albertas Run, the Colm Murphy-trained Quito De La Roque and David Pipe's The Package are among those which will not be running in the famous race.

Lion Na Bearnai's trainer Tom Gibney has had no end of problems with his 11-year-old since his victory at Fairyhouse last Easter and his participation remains in some doubt. Gibney has targeted the Aintree version this season, but one thing after another has hampered him and he has only run once, in the Hennessy at Newbury on December 1.

"He's good, he's still heading for Aintree, just about, but things have not gone to plan and he's missed a lot of time," Gibney said. "He's done a couple of bits of work recently and is coming together, but whether we get there I don't know.

"It's been little things, mine were sick in October and we thought he was okay for the Hennessy but it turned out he wasn't so then he needed more time off.

"Then he had trouble with a hind leg, it gives him trouble once a year every year, it's a weak spot.

"That was before the Bobbyjo, which was supposed to be his prep race and then there was a bit of ringworm in the yard. He's had everything bar the plague.

"He's not fully fit and it hasn't been perfect. I'd say, at the minute, it's 50-50 whether he makes Aintree."

Roi Du Mee, Midnight Chase, Calgary Bay and Planet Of Sound are some of the others which no longer have the Aintree engagement.

Colm Murphy decided against running Quito De La Roque, but a trip to Merseyside could still be on the cards.

"The weights are going to go up and he would end up with nearly top-weight, so he'll probably run in the (Betfred) Bowl instead," said Murphy.

Meanwhile, trainers are already issuing challenges for the Punchestown Festival, which begins on April 23.

Harry Fry would like another crack at Hurricane Fly with Rock On Ruby in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle. The trainer is making no excuses for his stable star's two-and-a-half-length defeat in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, but is keen to renew rivalry.

"We thought he'd be quite tired, but he's come out of the race well – he was staying on again after the last – so he seems in good order," Fry said. "On good ground, we really fancy our chances of serving it up to Hurricane Fly."

More surprising, perhaps, is Peter Casey's plan to tackle Sprinter Sacre with Flemenstar if he runs well at Aintree. The eight-year-old missed Cheltenham, but is expected to take on Ryanair winner Cue Card over two and a half miles in the Melling Chase.

"If all goes well there, he'll probably go to Punchestown for the two-mile race," said Casey. "The two-mile race was what we wanted to run in at Cheltenham."

Irish Independent

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