Wednesday 17 January 2018

Withdrawals hurt Mullins but Irish raiders still pack a punch

Vroum Vroum Mag is among the big fancies for Cheltenham from Willie Mullins stable. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Vroum Vroum Mag is among the big fancies for Cheltenham from Willie Mullins stable. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

A lot has changed over the past six weeks or so.

Put simply, on the eve of the Cheltenham Festival, Willie Mullins' battalion looks a little more mortal than it did.

The exceptional champion could still carry all before him, which is why he is as short as 1/33 to be leading trainer again. Nonetheless, with Faugheen, Arctic Fire and Killultagh Vic out, he is deprived of three proven course performers.

On the 30th anniversary of his father's immortal Gold Cup triumph with Dawn Run, Djakadam goes for Gold on the back of a fall, Vautour on the back of a defeat, and Annie Power may lead the Champion Hurdle assault, having not run over two miles for over two years.

Could it be that Vroum Vroum Mag and Limini might be Mullins' bankers? That isn't as far-fetched as it would have seemed in January.

If, come next Tuesday, Min were to blow its top in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and Douvan were to do something novicey in the Arkle Trophy, the complexion of the thing could change very quickly.

Mullins has some pretty serious second and third strings, but the point is, this will be jump racing at its unrivalled best on the grandest stage of all - anything can happen.

The broader Irish challenge has also evolved. As of now, Enda Bolger has two market leaders and Gordon Elliott has seven, including the Gold Cup favourite, Don Cossack.

Of the 28 markets, 19 are headed by Irish horses, and there will be all sorts of sub-plots woven in between.

Will Paul Townend, Bryan Cooper, Paddy Brennan or Jonathan Burke steal Ruby Walsh's thunder, or might Cooper or Walsh vacate the seat on the Gold Cup winner?

Can Annie Power, Don Cossack and No More Heroes improve on their indifferent Festival records?

Might Aidan O'Brien get his name on the Cotswold roll of honour for a first time in 16 years?

Imagine, with the introduction of a 28th race, there are now 40pc more Festival races than there were when the mighty Istabraq completed its Champion Hurdle hat-trick in 2000.

In 25 years, we have gone from 18 races to 28, an increase of 55pc.

This corner has long maintained that it is too much and enough for an elite Festival that used to boast such an instantly recognisable programme. But don't take my word for it. Take Anthony McCoy's.

"I'm worried about the Festival becoming diluted," the icon said in a Racing Post interview. "I'm not sure there are enough good horses to go around. Overall, there's too much racing across the season and graded races have been weakened.

"Some of the Festival races already lack strength in depth. For example, bringing in the JLT hasn't helped the Arkle and we now don't have anything worthy of taking on Douvan.

"The mares' novice hurdle doesn't seem to have grabbed people's attention yet, which I think tells you something.

"The more Festival races you bring in, the more you increase options available to the best horses. Is that a good thing? I don't think so." As a jockey, McCoy might have had a more blinkered view. Not anymore. He speaks the truth.

The rich about to get even richer

One of the great Irish horse racing fallacies of our time must be the theory that pumping cash into prize money for the elite races is a silver bullet that will cure the game's ills.

The argument goes that there is a trickle-down effect. Sadly, all the stats and facts suggest otherwise.

Total prize money is being increased for a fifth year in a row by Horse Racing Ireland (HRI).

The numbers of horses in training, field sizes, owners and licence-holders have all continued to slide in that time, but, undeterred, HRI, bereft of any idea other than to throw more money to the shrinking few who share it, are going again.

This year, five of the Curragh's races on Irish Champions Weekend will see their pots swell by €50,000 each, taking the card's value to €2.15m, and Punchestown has revealed that their Festival kitty will swell by €100,000 to €2.6m.

The Curragh has also reaffirmed that this year's Irish Derby will boast a record €1.5m purse, up €250,000.

Godolphin's Jack Hobbs won the Classic in 2015 and eight of the previous nine went to Coolmore, so the superpowers will doubtless be glad of the extra dough (the win purse is up €145,000 to €870,000).

Also to be extended is the initiative of free entry for the winners and placed horses of nominated races.

Given that the 2015 edition attracted the Epsom second and third - neither trained by Aidan O'Brien - maybe there is some merit in that incentive.

Still, if you are offering a prize fund of €1.5m, what does it say for the standing of the country's premier Classic that the most suitable horses need to be lured by free entry to participate?

Anyway, at least we are left in no doubt about which aspect of the industry the powers that be are determined to prioritise.

At a time of such political uncertainty, you wonder if policies that serve the higher echelons so generously will continue to be received so favourably by whomever is left holding the Leinster House purse.

Meanwhile, the media rights arrangement that sees tracks receive in the region of €50,000 for each fixture they hold is about to be extended for five years until 2023.

That will keep tracks in the black and ensure no closures in that timespan. Sadly, history would suggest it won't ensure much else.

Champion Smullen may swap horses

Fran Berry's decision to move to England to ride for Ralph Beckett came as a surprise to most.

To these eyes, it is a fantastic opportunity for Berry. Beckett has trained 80 winners each of the past two seasons and is a multiple Group One and Classic-winning trainer.

With Richard Hughes off the scene and plenty of change at the top of the British jockeys' table these days, Berry's talent and experience will stand him in good stead.

There is rarely much movement in the higher echelons in Ireland - although there might be soon.

Word on the ground is that Pat Smullen could be about to formalise his link with Khalid Abdullah.

The brilliant eight-time champion filled a few gaps for Abdullah in 2015, enjoying a memorable Royal Ascot win on the Michael Stoute-trained Snow Sky and partnering the classy Time Test for Roger Charlton at York.

His association with Abdullah has its roots in his enduring tenure with Dermot Weld, who would be at a huge loss without first call on one of the best riders in the world.

If Smullen were to commit to riding Abdullah's horses in Ireland and the UK, it would surely mean frequent cross-channel trips.

With an older family than Berry, he might stop short of wholesale relocation, but that would still leave Weld without a proper stable jockey, something he values deeply. Interestingly, in Stoute's Midterm, Abdullah owns the Derby favourite.

The Epsom Classic is one that has frustratingly eluded Weld's glorious CV, so it would be a cruel twist were Smullen to emulate Mick Kinane and plunder it without him.

If there is substance to the speculation, the Cheltenham Festival will provide an unlikely opportunity for Weld and Smullen to combine for another famous victory before the change. They are expected to team up for First Figaro in the Champion Bumper.

Tweet of the weekend

Matt Chapman (@MVYeeehaaa)

It's confirmed. Those who have been paid to get @v_pendleton to @CheltenhamRaces have decided she will ride there! Yeeehaaa! #bombshell

The At The Races presenter captures the essence of the Pendleton circus.

Numbers Game

10 Cheltenham Festival titles that Ruby Walsh will own if he tops the pile next week, his 2009 tally of seven his best yet. He and Barry Geraghty have ridden winners at every Festival since 2002, ditto Davy Russell since 2006.

Irish Independent

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