Tony Keenan wonders if anyone can knock the Irish maestro off top spot this Jumps season
Tony Keenan wonders who can stop Willie Mullins
If you’re anything like me, National Hunt racing will have been left on the shelf since April and now needs to be dusted off and revised. There are those among us who feel the need to take one side or other of the Flat versus Jumps divide but as someone who just likes betting on good racing the summer has been all about action on the level rather than moaning about the absence of the jumpers.
At this point then a refresher course is needed about what went on in the 2016/17 National Hunt season and more importantly how it might project into 2017/18. The numbers from the most recent trainers’ championship are an excellent place to start as they offer a broad picture of the Irish scene.
While Willie Mullins retained his status as Champion Trainer (decided by prizemoney) in a battle that went to the final day of the season at Punchestown, it was actually Gordon Elliott who trained the most winners with 193 followed by Mullins on 180. There was a seismic gap back to the next group after the Big Two with Henry De Bromhead on 68,Noel Meade on 57, Jessica Harrington 48 and Joseph O’Brien on 38. Significantly, no other Irish trainer managed more than 20 winners which is far cry from even five seasons back when the likes of Dessie Hughes, Tony Martin, Edward O’Grady and Christy Roche were all good for tallies in the twenties and thirties.
Outside of the Big Two and the Next Four, the middle portion of Irish trainers has become squeezed and the nostalgic part of me believes this has been for the worse; variety and competition coming from different corners always served to make the action on the track better.If anything, I expect this pattern to become more marked in 2017/18 as the numbers from the early part of the campaign, the summer season if you like, suggest.
Already at the time of writing Mullins has had 84 winners with Elliott on 67, Joseph O’Brien on 48 and De Bromhead and Meade on 33 and 28 respectively. Mullins has had a notably higher total of
winners at this point in the season than ever before, perhaps remembering how difficult he found clawing back Elliott’s lead last time, and this has inevitably forced the other main trainers to follow suit when in the past they might have been quieter at that time of the year. Whereas once the summer season provided a window for the smaller trainers, now it simply seems another battle ground for the major operations.
It seems scarcely credible that Mullins broke his previous high of prizemoney earned in 2016/17 considering all the went wrong; not only did he lose the support of Gigginstown but injuries/fatalities marred the entire season, notably with the likes of Annie Power, Faugheen and Vautour. Some of the record is owed the inevitable inflation in prizemoney but it was ultimately the depth of his squad that got the job done as he seemed to lack a real signature horse during the winter.We are used to seeing his stars rack up a sequence during the winter and rock up to Cheltenham with an aura of invincibility but that wasn’t really the case this time around with Yorkhill, Douvan and Un De Sceaux possible exceptions. In many ways, his season resembles the most recent Flat campaign of Aidan O’Brien; devoid of a superstar perhaps but overwhelming in terms of depth.
Mullins can hardly be as unlucky again this time with injuries and an eleventh consecutive Champion Trainer award seems highly likely. Faugheen remains his stable star in the eyes of many though quite how a horse that has raced just once since December 2015 can command so much attention is a little baffling;perhaps it is simply a by-product of the yard lacking a true star last term. As always with Mullins, the bingo aspect to his ante-post plans remains a huge punting peril and we would do well not to expend too much energy on them at least at this early stage. A race like the Champion Hurdle where the trainer has seven of the top ten in the betting currently is a case in point and there are so many potential pitfalls with backing his runners early;not only does he have a great number of versatile horses but his own penchant for changing his mind further muddies the waters.
Gordon Elliott seems certain to become Champion Trainer at some point in the future but there is a suspicion that his window may have closed briefly in the short-term.His record in high value handicap chases last year was spectacular but is surely unsustainable even if he continues to go mob-handed at such races; the prizemoney from winning events like the Galway Plate and Paddy Power Chase added a lot to his tally. The winter part of his 2017/18 campaign started badly too with his classy four-year-old hurdler Mega Fortune having to be put down after a fall at Limerick on his return on Munster National day but it should be remembered that Elliott had to go through all of last season without his best horse, 2016 Gold Cup winner Don Cossack.
In general, Elliott is not a man to be underestimated with the huge improvements he has made season-to-season throughout his career and while he failed to become Champion Trainer last time around he did equal the record of Mullins in training 193 winners in a season. There are also some grounds for thinking he could do even better now and that is his record in bumper races last term. Where Mullins only trained 21 bumper winners in the 2016/17, well down on previous figures and his lowest total since 2006/7, Elliott sent out 45 such winners which was just one behind Mullins’ best total of 46. It may take time for those bumper winners to bear fruit as all will still be novices this season but they provide plenty of depth for coming years. Dual Champion Bumper winner Fayonagh is the obvious standout with Samcro another with star potential while I’d also keep an eye on Minella for-dollars who did a notably fast time-figure when winning at Navan just after the Cheltenham Festival.
Henry De Bromhead had a turbulent 2016/17 season with the campaign proving an object lesson in the benefits of moving horses from yard to yard; not only did he improve a number of horses take came into his stable but many of the Potts animals that left took a leap forward for their new trainers. It was Gigginstown and Roger Brookhouse who gave the Waterford trainer his best days last season, the likes of Petit Mouchoir, Sub Lieutenant, Champagne West and Some Plan all winning big races though it has to be noted that he had a Gold Cup winner in his midst for seasons in Sizing John but never realised that three miles was his best trip.
It was of course Jessica Harrington who unlocked that Sizing John’s potential up
in trip and along with Our Duke she trained two of the signature horses of last sesaon; a clash between that pair is eagerly awaited and that is before you throw any of the other top novices and established chasers of 2016/17 into the mix. Her spring of big winners at Cheltenham, Fairyhouse, Aintree and Punchestown provided some of the best moments of last season while Noel Meade too had a fine time in March and April, Road To Respect and Disko both winning Grade 1 prizes at a time when the yard’s runners can tail off.
While the likes of De Bromhead, Harrington and Meade are interesting to write about there is no real avenue for any of that group to make a jump to challenge the Mullins/Elliott duopoly. The same cannot be said of Joseph O’Brien who might be the most fascinating figure in Irish Jumps racing at present.His 2016/17 season was underwhelming considering the hype surrounding it and the fact that he had won a Group 1 on the flat the previous summer but the fact is that he simply didn’t have many ready-made jumpers, most of his stock younger types with novice status. A year later, that isn’t the case now and it could be significant that he has already trained 48 winners in the 2017/18 season.
Some would argue that those are empty numbers achieved in summer races and there is an element of truth in that; O’Brien does seem particularly adept at race planning and finding soft contests for his runners. But as I pointed out at the start of this article, the summer season in Ireland has gotten more competitive this year and this is a trainer who won the Galway Hurdle with Tigris River, a hurdler that wouldn’t look out of place in graded races particularly over further than two miles.The likes of Le Richebourg and Land of hope and glory are other good prospects and the influence of JP McManus should not be underestimated here. Elliott may have Gigginstown and Mullins Ricci et al but McManus remains a powerful force in the Irish scene and if he decides to back O’Brien wholesale, then he is well able to take another leap forward over the winter.