Tony Keenan won­ders if any­one can knock the Ir­ish mae­stro off top spot this Jumps sea­son

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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.

Wil­lie Mullins

Joseph O’Brien

Gor­don El­liott

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