'Stronger' Fly heads Mullins juggernaut
If Willie Mullins' recent form surge wasn't confirmation enough that he once again has the firepower and wherewithal to exert an inordinate influence on the season ahead, a wealth of entries at Punchestown this weekend ought to do it.
From his last 10 runners, the perennial champion trainer has plundered six wins and three second places. With a running tally of 67, he already has more than twice the number of winners of his two closest championship pursuers – Gordon Elliott and Henry de Bromhead – but even that dominance can't explain away next Sunday's Grade One.
Mullins is responsible for seven of the nine entries for the Stan James Morgiana Hurdle, an €80,000 two-miler that hasn't attracted a solitary, speculative cross-channel possibility at the five-day stage.
Hurricane Fly, last year's winner – which Mullins has reiterated is "stronger than ever" after his summer at grass – and the unbeaten mare Annie Power are his marquee contenders, but Blood Cotil, Un De Sceaux, Mikael D'Haguenet, Midnight Game and Marito are no mugs.
While that's not to say that Mullins will definitely win the Morgiana, Jessica Harrington's classy recent Down Royal scorer Jezki is the only horse not residing in his Closutton stables in Co Carlow capable of spoiling the party.
Sensing his colleagues' reluctance to take on Mullins' two-time Champion Hurdler Hurricane Fly on his intended reappearance, Michael Bowe has given the mare Akatara an entry.
Bowe ran Akatara in the Morgiana in 2011, when she picked up a handy €3,200 for fourth behind Mullins' Thousand Stars.
If he's lucky, he might get some valuable black type for his prospective broodmare this time, though – with all due respect – that would be a poor reflection of the race, further undermining its status as an elite Grade One. Akatara is rated 106, all of 69lb – nearly 5st – inferior to 'The Fly'.
In truth, the Morgiana has struggled to provide much in the way of meaningful competition in recent years – despite the best efforts of Punchestown's executive. In 2012, despite there being a paltry three runners, it was on the verge of throwing up a decent spectacle until Go Native crashed out at the final flight, leaving Hurricane Fly to come home in a canter from Captain Cee Bee.
Mullins' recent winners Balnaslow, Felix Yonger and Passage Vendome are among those that could tackle Paul Nolan's exciting Naas victor Defy Logic in the card's Grade Two novice chase over two miles. Elliott's similarly smart Don Cossack is also in that, although he is more likely to tackle the equivalent two-mile-six-furlong race.
Surprisingly, Mullins has nothing in the longer contest, a Grade Two named after his former star Florida Pearl that he won 12 months ago with Back In Focus.
However, he has a glut of heavyweight entries on Saturday's programme at the Kildare venue, including the Supreme Novice Hurdle hero Champagne Fever in the beginners' chase.
He could also have a fistful on duty at Cheltenham on Friday and Saturday. A couple of months ago, Mullins suggested that he would target meetings like the three-day Open more frequently in an effort to find the best opportunities for his equine legions.
As of now, he could saddle up to seven across the first two days, but he won't be represented in Saturday's Paddy Power Gold Cup after scratching his four in that.
Noel Meade's Texas Jack, John 'Shark' Hanlon's Hidden Cyclone, Tony Martin's Gift Of Dgab and Mark McNiff's Sean Airgead are the four remaining Irish-trained contenders in Prestbury Park's prestigious handicap chase.
Meanwhile, Nicky Henderson is leaning towards letting Finian's Rainbow take his chance off top-weight in the race.
His participation is likely to have big repercussions as David Pipe suggested he was not keen on letting ante-post favourite Dynaste carry top-weight if the former Champion Chaser did not run.
Trainer Steve Gollings has secured the services of Bryan Cooper for Conquisto. With Tony McCoy likely to be required for owner JP McManus, Lincolnshire-based Gollings is delighted to have rising star Cooper in the saddle.
Martin Keighley has expressed his delight with Champion Court. The eight-year-old has a real affinity with Cheltenham, winning three times and finishing second twice from nine runs at Prestbury Park, as well as performing with credit on a number of other occasions.
Nigel Twiston-Davies is set to rely upon Astracad as he seeks a third win in the race after Imperial Commander (2008) and Little Josh (2010).
A consistent seven-year-old, Astracad was fifth to Paddy Power talking horse Johns Spirit at Cheltenham last month and was most recently second to Conquisto in the Old Roan Chase at Aintree.