‘Akid­would ride him’

Irish Examiner - Racing - - CHELTENHAM PREVIEW 2017 - Dar­ren Nor­ris

This time last year Wil­lie Mullins looked an un­stop­pable force. Al­ready well on his way to be­ing crowned Ir­ish cham­pion trainer for a ninth suc­ces­sive time, seven wins at the Cheltenham Fes­ti­val made him a big threat to Paul Ni­cholls for the Bri­tish crown.

Mullins’ bid to be­come the first Ir­ish-based han­dler to win the Bri­tish cham­pion trainer ac­co­lade since the great Vin­cent O’Brien in the 1953/54 sea­son ul­ti­mately fell ag­o­nis­ingly short but the fact he got so close show­cased just how for­mi­da­ble he had be­come.

No­body then could have en­vis­aged the tur­moil that lay in wait.

The first cut was the deep­est.

In Septem­ber came the bomb­shell news that Mullins would no longer be train­ing for Michael O’Leary’s Gig­gin­stown House Stud due to a row over an in­crease in fees. Mullins was down 60 horses be­fore the sea­son had re­ally started.

Novem­ber brought more woe as three-time fes­ti­val win­ner Vau­tour was killed in a freak ac­ci­dent on the same day as Avant Tout was fa­tally in­jured run­ning in Naas.

Nei­ther Faugh­een nor An­nie Power have seen a race­course this sea­son and nei­ther will be on show at Prest­bury Park this week. Nor will Min.

Gor­don El­liott has taken full ad­van­tage and is now odds-on to re­place Mullins as Ire­land’s cham­pion trainer.

David Casey rode for Mullins for 22 years be­fore his re­tire­ment from the sad­dle in 2015 when he be­came his as­sis­tant trainer.

No­body is bet­ter placed to talk about the chal­lenges this sea­son has pre­sented for his boss.

“It’s been tough,” he con- cedes. “We don’t have the vol­ume of horses we had or we don’t have the same qual­ity so, to be suc­cess­ful, you just have to work that bit harder. We’d be de­lighted if we still had those other horses but we don’t so you move on. You can’t dwell on it.”

A weaker team doesn’t, how­ever, mean a weak team.

“We’ve got a cou­ple of good fan­cies, Dou­van, Yorkhill; we’re strong in the mares’ race. In the mares’ novice hur­dle, we’ve got a good chance with Let’s Dance and Air­lie Beach. Melon is the favourite in the first race so we’ve still got good chances.”

The un­doubted star is the im­pe­ri­ous Dou­van, one of the bankers in the week in the Cham­pion Chase.

“We’re very lucky to have him,” Casey says. “He’s very spe­cial. He’s done noth­ing wrong in his ca­reer and, hope­fully, the next time will be the same. Every­body’s happy with him. He’s a gen­tle­man of a horse, a kid would ride him. He’s just a spe­cial tal­ent, we think he’s prob­a­bly the best horse we ever had and, hope­fully, he’ll go on and prove that.”

The only prob­lem Dou­van poses is by virtue of his bril­liance. No horse can live with him in work.

“We don’t re­ally send good horses to work with him be­cause he’d kill them,” Casey ex­plains.

“We’d never work the same horse with him more than twice. We don’t have any­thing that could live with him.”

In the view of many, El­liott’s best fes­ti­val prospect is Death Duty in the Al­bert Bartlett. How­ever, Casey be­lieves that Au­gusta Kate, who fell two out when up­side Death Duty at Naas in Jan­uary, can turn the ta­bles on the marker leader.

“I think she’d have beaten Death Duty in Naas, she stays very well. She was still land­ing in front be­fore she fell, she’s schooled well since, she’s a hell of a mare, the trip will be no prob­lem. I wouldn’t look any fur­ther than her. She’ll give him all he wants of it.”

Of course, the race that Mullins craves most is the Gold Cup. He’s fin­ished run­ner-up on no less than six oc­ca­sions. Three years ago, Casey came ag­o­nis­ingly close to land­ing the Holy Grail as On His Own went down by a short head to Lord Win­der­mere.

Djakadam has fin­ished sec­ond the last two years and Casey is con­fi­dent he can make it third time lucky this year.

“Djakadam has the most solid form. His last two Gold Cup runs were very good, he was third in the Lexus when he ran too keen and on a dif­fer­ent day Ruby (Walsh) would ride the race dif­fer­ently. He’s had a much bet­ter prepa­ra­tion this year than he did last year. He got a cut, he got eight stiches last year (after fall­ing in his prep run) and he had to stand in for a long time so I think this will be his year.”

It’s bullish talk, partly driven by the be­lief Djakadam’s mar­ket ri­vals this year are not as strong as those he faced in 2015 and 2016.

“I think Cue Card has no chance,” Casey says. “I think he left his race in Hay­dock at the start of the sea­son when he took on Coney­gree at the fifth last. He looked like he won easy but I think he had a gru­eller of a race at Hay­dock and it has told on him all sea­son and I think it will tell on him again in the Gold Cup.

“Na­tive River was a good win­ner of the Hen­nessy off 155. He didn’t have to im­prove to win the Welsh Na­tional, he ran off ex­actly the same mark, beat Raz De Ma­ree a length and a half,

and he then won a noth­ing race at New­bury. He was im­pres­sive but Bris­tol De Mai ran two-stone be­low his best.”

It’s a con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ment and given the hard­ships Mullins has en­dured this sea­son few would be­grudge his long

sought golden mo­ment.

Pic­ture: Cody Glenn/Sports­file

Clodagh Casey, daugh­ter of David Casey pats Clon­daw War­rior after he won at Fairy­house.

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