‘Akidwould ride him’
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.
Clodagh Casey, daughter of David Casey pats Clondaw Warrior after he won at Fairyhouse.