Un De Sceaux makes Mullins' day
Closutton colossus strikes fear of god into Festival rivals with ominous Ascot double
It is hard to pinpoint precisely when the murmurings of Willie Mullins' chance of winning the British trainer's title first began. Beginning as an outer space idea, it gradually moved into orbit before rapidly descending to earth since the turn of this year and rooting itself firmly in the ground at Ascot yesterday.
2016's farming of UK prizes by Closutton's colossus began with the Grade 1 Tolworth at Sandown, travelled to Warwick to pick up another brace of graded events last Saturday, before arriving in Berkshire yesterday to claim the two main prizes on the showpiece Clarence House (former Victor Chandler) card and netting a further £100,000 in win prize-money in the process.
Furthermore, yesterday's heist was delivered courtesy of a mare Vroom Vroom Mag, now unbeaten in eight starts for Mullins, and a gelding Un De Sceaux, unbeaten in all 14 starts where he has stood up. With Cheltenham in mind it must strike the fear of God into the heart of all UK trainers to hear Mullins remark, after Un De Sceaux's cosy dismissal of previous Champion Chase winner Sire De Grugy, that his now more tractable former tearaway would "improve a lot for that" given that, to all intents, yesterday's contest was de facto Un De Sceaux's first outing of the year as he had to forfeit his intended comeback in the Tingle Creek and fluffed his lines at Leopardstown over Christmas.
The inaugural running of the formerly-titled Victor Chandler chase back in the '80s produced one of those iconic winter warming finishes where Desert Orchid scrapped it out nail-bitingly with Panto Prince.
Many travelled to Ascot anticipating another cliff-hanger between two of the top modern speedsters in the land over the minimum trip. The flag-wavers included a party of 12 from the O'Connell's (owners of Un De Sceaux), trumped entirely by a posse of 22 supporting the Prestons and Sire De Grugy. Wrapped in owner-coloured scarves, the scene for all the world resembled two sets of rival fans heading for the terraces.
The reality of the race however failed to match up to the anticipation as last year's Arkle winner Un De Sceaux continued his upward trajectory in a manner that brought his performance to the highest level yet on a racecourse. Ruby Walsh commented how the French-bred is "not an easy talent to keep under wraps" but yesterday's winning display was Un De Sceaux at his most tractable yet on a racecourse, with the jockey able to exert the control that at times before was absent owing to the natural exuberance of the eight-year-old. Perhaps, like all of us, the gelding is settling down as he gets older, but the combination of more restrained control and dead-eye jumping was all too much for arch-rival Sire De Grugy whose trainer Gary Moore admitted afterwards "had the sting taken out of us". Indeed, so hard did Sire De Grugy try to collar Un De Sceaux throughout, he almost forfeited second for his pains, holding on only by the minimum margin for the runner-up slot from his own stable companion Traffic Fluide.
Interestingly, Walsh thought afterwards that the fall at Leopardstown might have helped to concentrate Un De Sceaux's mind yesterday. The jockey declared: "He was definitely looking at his fences a bit more today than he did at Leopardstown, which is probably no harm. A good round of jumping like that will give him confidence. Today was important, with such a good horse you want to be winning these big races and with it going wrong in Leopardstown it is great to come and do that."
As a dress rehearsal for March it doesn't come much slicker and Un De Sceaux's price of 8/11 for the Festival's Wednesday feature tells you all you need to know about expectations the next time we see him.
Un De Sceaux wasn't the only Mullins inmate to reserve a Personal Best for Ascot. Vroom Vroom Mag lived up to her name by upping a gear on what she had previously achieved on the book to effortlessly dispose of her rivals and witness her price collapse to 3/1 second favourite for the World Hurdle as a result.
Some may continue to nit-pick and point to the fact the English mares didn't run their race yesterday for various reasons - Irish mare Jennie's Jewel finished a clear second - but the arguments against the seven year-old mare collecting a grade one sometime in the near future are becoming increasingly threadbare. Owner Rich Ricci said: "I was very nervous as it is a big weekend for us, I wasn't worried about the trip, Ruby didn't have to ask her a lot, but it is the first time I have seen her pushed and for her to come off the bridle. I'm a bit worried Jennies Jewel was second, actually, but he just asked her for a bit of a push really. She has got the World Hurdle and the Mares' Hurdle, so it puts us in a very good mind for Cheltenham."
The owner is in the enviable position of having Annie Power in the wings to boot. He continued: "A lot depends on whether Annie Power gets another run. If we can get her another run before Cheltenham she will be hard to beat in the World Hurdle off her rating. But the problem is can we get a run into her? I'm not sure we can."
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