Monday 18 December 2017

Power broker keeps us all guessing

Strength of Willie Mullins' yard has led to frustration

Trainer Willie Mullins
Trainer Willie Mullins

John O'Brien

IN the normal course of events the ultra-smooth victory of Aklan at Navan last Sunday would have caused more of a splash on the racing pages. There would have been talk of a bright future, speculation about a likely tilt at one of the top novice hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival, faint hopes already surfacing that a long-term successor to the still talented but ageing Hurricane Fly might have been unearthed.

On the surface what the five-year-old achieved was nothing special. His main market rival departed early and it's highly unlikely any of his other 21 rivals will turn out to be above the ordinary. Yet it was impossible not to be impressed by the manner of Aklan's nine-length victory. The way he travelled through the race, the slickness of his jumping, the effortlessness of his final surge to the line: all in the style of a horse you suspect will go on to much better things.

The reason Aklan's winning debut over hurdles caused only a minor ripple wasn't difficult to understand. The former John Oxx inmate is now under the care of Willie Mullins and to establish a place in the Mullins' pecking order for the Festival, let alone a dominant position in one of the ante-post markets, Aklan will have to do much more. Such is the trainer's strength in depth that it is debatable whether Aklan makes it to Cheltenham at all.

Right now, Mullins is busy assembling what, even by his own standards, will arguably be the most powerful team an Irish trainer has ever sent to the Festival. The tendon injury suffered by Sir Des Champs has thieved him of a contender for his first Gold Cup victory, but in most of the Festival's other top races he is either mob-handed or holds a trump card.

As things stand, a Mullins-trained horse sits at the top of the market in five races across the opening two days of the Festival. In the Arkle Chase he has the top two in the betting, Champagne Fever and Felix Yonger, and decent prospects in at least three other races. Throw in the handicaps and the usual three or four darts he flings at the Bumper and it would be no surprise to see Mullins equal or surpass last year's total of five winners.

Of course, none of this can happen without hours of painstaking planning and the odd unwelcome headache. Having such a deep well of talent is all very well, but trying to keep them apart on what is a fairly tight racing calendar is a supreme test of a trainer's ability to place his horses as well as his diplomatic skills with owners. So far at least Mullins is managing it with aplomb.

In the way he is dominating the better races and the emphasis he places on the end-of-season Festivals, Mullins has helped redefine the shape and texture of the Irish racing season. There is a certain view now that the opening half is little more than an accounting period before Cheltenham finally heralds the first true Championship skirmishes. If there is a semblance of truth in that assertion, it seems harsh to cast any blame in Mullins' direction. It is tantamount to finding fault for simply being too good at his job.

It might be frustrating for the ordinary racegoer to see so many of Mullins' stable stars avoid each other on the track, but as a business decision it makes sense. And while there has been little overt criticism of the way Mullins campaigns his horses, you could detect a slight note of irritation in the trainer's voice when he addressed the topic during an interview with At The Races last week.

"It annoys me when people give out about small-runner fields and too many races where horses can avoid one another," Mullins said. "But if they're taking each other on every weekend it's not good either. Then you've nothing to look forward to when you come to Cheltenham, Fairyhouse or Punchestown."

The thing is, though, that question is relevant too when it comes to the major Festivals and trying to shed light, ever a tricky business, is becoming even harder. Targeting the more valuable races in England this season, for example, allowed Mullins the luxury of keeping his talented mare, Annie Power, away from the likes of Hurricane Fly at home, but Cheltenham looms now and there are hard decisions to be made.

Whether Annie Power is blessed with the raw speed needed to win a Champion Hurdle is open to debate, but there can't be a genuine racing fan alive who wouldn't wish to see that question being put to the test. The fly in the ointment is the fact that Annie Power seems likely to stay three miles and the temptation to tackle Big Buck's, now 11, in the World Hurdle might be too hard to resist.

The chances are we will be kept guessing right up to the eve of the Festival itself. Mullins is invariably a gracious and open interviewee, but these are hard questions with no immediate answers. At Punchestown last week, Matt Chapman made a valiant effort to get clarity from Annie Power's owner, Rich Ricci. The mare, Ricci explained, had been diverted from an intended chasing campaign to stay hurdling. Surely, Chapman countered, that meant only one thing: a tilt at the Champion Hurdle?

"Look, I'd be less than honest if I said we didn't keep her over hurdles to run in the Champion Hurdle," Ricci responded. "I'd be silly. And we did. We kept her over hurdles to see if she was a Champion Hurdle horse and she's answering all those questions. But we have to see how it all plays out. Certainly, that was the intent at the beginning of the season and she's done nothing to disprove us. That doesn't mean we'll run there, there's still a lot to play for. But yes, absolutely, you want to win the big ones."

Before you rush into an ante-post wager for the Champion Hurdle at 10/1, however, you should bear Ruby Walsh's words in mind after he dismounted from the mare in the winners' enclosure at Cheltenham on New Year's Day. "Where she will run at the Festival," Walsh said, "is a decision for Willie and Willie alone." On that basis, you would clearly favour the World Hurdle.

In theory, the decision is Ricci's to make, although Mullins is known to exert huge influence in the way his horses are campaigned. At last year's Festival, for instance, it was noticeable that Bryan Cooper stood in for the injured Davy Russell on the Gigginstown horses until it came to the Gold Cup when Mullins insisted on having the best available rider on Sir Des Champs. By virtue of age and experience, that was deemed to be Tony McCoy rather than Cooper.

In truth, we can only make hopeful stabs here. Such is the modern Cheltenham experience, the ante-post markets fraught with risk, only seriously to be negotiated on a "non-runner no-bet" basis. Mullins could run just one in the Champion Hurdle or he could just as easily field three, assuming Un De Sceaux continues his rapid ascent if and when he turns up at Gowran next month. The exciting Faugheen looks a potential banker but in which race remains to be seen.

Here's another thing, too. While all the speculation revolves around these eye-catching stable stars, it's easy to overlook other talented horses in the Mullins stable. Right now, the forgotten horse is Briar Hill. For sure, there have been better renewals of the Festival Bumper but Briar Hill won in impressive fashion last year and, while he has been workmanlike over hurdles this season, he remains unbeaten and is one to keep a steady eye on when he makes his anticipated Cheltenham return in March.

Now if only we could figure out in which race that is likely to be.

Irish Independent

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