Toney Keenan celebrates the wonder that is Willie Mullins
Coneygree and the Bradstocks were the story of the Festival but from an Irish perspective it was all about Willie Mullins and his record-breaking eight winners. Though other Irish trainers had decent meetings – Gordon Elliott had a winner and five placed horses, many of the Noel Meade horses ran well in defeat – the words hegemony and domination spring to mind. The record of the Mullins favourites is particularly eye-catching with form figures of:111F31173P and he won two of the races were he had the beaten market leader. The rest of the jollies ran:8023PRO717322710734 and even allowing that many of those were in handicaps the Mullins record is striking.
Many of the Mullins hotpots were the wrong price in form terms, much shorter than they should have been on what they achieved. For every Un De Sceaux and Annie Power that merited short odds based on how far clear they were of their opponents, there were two bankers that looked very tightly priced. Douvan was rated 155 but had three opponents within 6lbs of him, Faugheen was a 169 horse but three of his rivals were on at least 167. The 156-rated Don Poli faced four 150-plus rivals in the RSA while Vautour was only the fourth best horse on ratings in the JLT. In the Albert Bartlett, Black Hercules on 146 was against twelve other novice hurdlers raced 140 or more and Djakadam clearly had lots to find on the ratings in the Gold Cup.
Yet of this group of six underpriced horses, four won, another ran second and only one disappointed. As a punter I’m hard-wired to take such horses on, especially when you are getting a quarter the odds in conditions races along with price boosts but they just kept winning, far more than the law of averages said they should. It reminded me of the Dermot Weld horses at Galway, constantly overbet but always winning, but it is one thing to sweep the boards in an Irish mid-summer meeting when many of the big flat yards aren’t trying that hard, quite another to do it in the crucible of the Festival.
It was as if Mullins or those connected to the stable just simple knew more than the general public and while his horses appeared anti-value, they were winning. I’m not suggesting that these horses were working against each other as part of their preparation as no trainer wants to run the race in the weeks leading up to the real event but such is the depth of talent in the yard, Mullins is able to gauge what he has on his hands accurately and he also has so many very good but not great horses that he can run against potential rivals to see where he stands. It reminded me of the trainer’s reaction when less-fancied stablemates beat both Tell Us More and Alvisio Ville in Grade 1 novice hurdles in the lead-up to the meeting and Mullins seemed at a loss afterwards to explain what had happened; in fact he spent more time talking about the beaten horses than the victors.What he had seen on the gallops had clearly deceived him in these cases but at Cheltenham everything came right in that regard.
Nor was this peaking of his best horses a surprise. Rich Ricci commented in a pre-Cheltenham interview that they had planned to aim his horses around the spring festivals rather than the big races during the season and indeed his colours won only one Grade 1 prior to Cheltenham this season, Faugheen in the Christmas Hurdle. It’s only logical to expect this to continue into the Aintree, Fairyhouse and especially Punchestown meetings that could mean lots of shortpriced winners that are never the most interesting punting material.
This is not the say the meeting didn’t present challenges for Mullins. His bumper horses – he ran six in the Champion Bumper – were roundly disappointing, the best of them finishing tenth, and they will likely need to improve to figure in the best novice hurdles next year.That said, he could always raid France for some top prospects. A greater concern may be getting all his good novice chasers to progress to open company. As yet, he is without a winner of the Champion Chase or Gold Cup – Paul Nicholls has won those races nine times – and there will be no excuses accepted next year with Vautour, Don Poli, Un De Sceaux and Djakadam in training at Closutton.
Aside from Mullins, one of features of the meeting for Irish horses was our dominance of the handicap hurdles. Leaving aside the Fred Winter and the Pertemps which are unique races, the former confined to juveniles and Ireland had a poor crop, the latter requiring qualification, our record in the conventional races was amazing. From nine of the twenty-five runners in the Coral Cup, we had second and fourth where we had the first six in the County Hurdle from half the twenty-four strong field. The Martin Pipe was similar with the first four from six of the twenty-one runners.
To my eye, this could be a handicapping issue and while it’s great to have
the chance to back Irish horses at decent prices in such races, it is unlikely to continue as the Irish runners looked let in very lightly; they surely couldn’t be that far clear of the home team. Irish trainers moan about their horses being badly treated in the UK but the opposite is true of handicap hurdlers even when they are raised by the English handicapper. Oftentimes, the Irish horses just look to have achieved far more for their mark than the English opposition. Take an animal like Sort It Out, the County Hurdle runner-up. He was rated 134 in the UK, the same as Ireland, but he had won three good handicaps at home, much better races than the English horses he faced running off similar marks. Even though he never travelled in the race, his ability relative to this mark allowed him to finish second. This may well be addressed at the handicap weights next year.
On the subject of punting, we face a much-changed betting landscape at the Festival. I’ve written before about antepost punting being dead but while this may not apply to other races during the year, it certainly does at the Festival
Mullins has so many very good but not great horses that he can run against rivals to see where he stands