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NH season review

Expectations are paramount. Expectations set the bar for standards, they are the barometer by which performance is measured. Rewind to the start of the current National Hunt season that now teeters on the brink of its final phase, barrels now loaded, hammer now cocked, primed to cut through the Grand Nationals and the Punchestown Festival that will take it to conclusion. Compare how the National Hunt world looked last November with how it looks now, expectations versus reality, and marvel at the contrast.

Gigginstown chasers

If you had been told last November that a Gigginstown House Stud horse would sit proudly on top of all ante post lists for the 2013 Cheltenham Gold Cup on April 1st, you probably wouldn’t have felt the need to check the calendar.

Quito De La Roque, you might have thought. One of last season’s leading staying novice chasers, a Grade 1 winner in championship grade by early November, conqueror of Sizing Europe and The Nightingale in the Champion Chase at Down Royal, he was fourth-favourite for the 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup in November, so it was perfectly plausible that events could have conspired to see him assume the favourite’s mantle for the 2013 renewal by April.

First Lieutenant, you might have said, winner of the 2011 Neptune Hurdle, already a dual chase winner by early November, and on track for the RSA Chase. Last Instalment perhaps, impressive winner of his two chases by mid-November. You probably wouldn’t have thought Sir Des Champs.

The Willie Mullins-trained gelding did not jump a fence in public until last December. When he did, however, he impressed with his jumping, winning at Fairyhouse and Limerick before battling on gamely to get the better of Fists Of Fury and Hidden Cyclone in the Grade 1 Dr PJ Moriarty Chase at Leopardstown at the end of January.

He probably would have run in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham had Michael O’Leary’s outfit not had First Lieutenant pencilled in for that contest from a long way out, but he was still highly impressive in beating some really talented rivals in the Jewson Chase over a distance that is probably short of his best. It may be a little bit of an over-reaction to put him in as 6/1 favourite for next year’s Gold Cup at this stage, but he remains unbeaten over hurdles and fences, and he is one of the most exciting steeplechasers in training.

Wily Wylie

When owner Graham Wylie was, out of necessity, deciding on homes for his racehorses at the start of the season, after Howard Johnson’s retirement, his choices of Paul Nicholls in Britain and Willie Mullins in Ireland may not have been wholly original, but they were still inspired.

Four of the nine Wylie horses that ran for Nicholls have won, including Hold Fast and Prospect Wells, while four of his four Willie Mullins-trained horses won. Boston Bob won three of the races he contested and finished second in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at Cheltenham in the other, Felix Yonger won a Grade 2 contest and finished second in the Neptune Hurdle at Cheltenham, Prince De Beauchene won the Bobbyjo Chase and is now favourite for the Grand National, while On His Own won the Thyestes Chase. System working, send more horses.

Mullins dominant

You wouldn’t have been surprised had you been told last November that Willie Mullins would dominate the National Hunt scene, but you might have been surprised by the potency of his dominance.

Potency has been the key to the Mullins operation this season. Not only do his stats excel in terms of number of winners and prize money won, the percentages are also quite staggering. 124 winners from 411 runners in Ireland this term to date gives Mullins a strike rate of 30%, a higher strike rate than any other trainer in the country.

Of course, Willie has been champion trainer before – actually, he has been champion every year since 2007/08, when he finally wrested the trophy from Noel Meade’s clutches – but the quality in-depth of his team this season has been unprecedented.

Including the French Champion Hurdle last June, Mullins has won eight Grade 1 races this season to date with seven different horses, as well as a Galway Plate, a Thyestes Chase and a host of Grade 2 and Grade 3 prizes. He also trained Sir Des Champs to win the Jewson, and Quevega to win the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham for an unprecedented fourth time on the spin.

Last year, Mullins had four winners at Cheltenham and took the leading trainer’s award at the meeting for the first time. This year, he had three winners at Cheltenham, and it was seen in some quarters as a mild disappointment. That is a fair barometer of how far the champion trainer has progressed even in the space of 12 months.

First Gold

This time 12 months ago, Synchronised was a good handicap chaser on soft ground, a Welsh National winner, a Midlands National winner, and a live outsider for the Irish Grand National. Now he is a Gold Cup hero.

There was much consternation in December – most notably among that part of the community that had backed him down to 11/2 favourite for the Welsh National – when Jonjo O’Neill announced that the Sadler’s Wells gelding would run at Leopardstown in the Lexus Chase, not in the Chepstow showpiece. That consternation changed to mild applause and not an insignificant degree of surprise when, on ground that should have been faster than ideal, Synchronised routed his rivals in the Lexus.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is usually the obvious next step for a Lexus Chase winner and – gargantuan step though it was – it was a step that Synchronised took with aplomb, digging deep under a typical AP McCoy no-surrender ride to gobble up the hill and land a first Gold Cup for his owner JP McManus. You never would have known that McCoy had won the race before on Mr Mulligan, or that Jonjo O’Neill had won it as a rider on Alverton and Dawn Run – the sheer joy with which the pair of them embraced this victory made it seem like they were tasting chocolate for the first time.

King Kauto

Kauto Star started the season as an 11-year-old rising 12, without a win since 2010, who had been pulled up in the 2011 Punchestown Gold Cup on his most recent appearance. If he had finished fourth on his seasonal debut in the Betfair Chase at Haydock, and had been gracefully retired, nobody would have been surprised. He didn’t and he wasn’t.

Not only did Kauto Star win the Betfair Chase, beating the reigning Gold Cup and King George champion, half his age, but he also put up the joint-best performance of his career on ratings, outside of his Gold Cup and King George wins. Then he went and won the King George again, becoming the only horse in history to win five of them.

Kauto may have surrendered fairly tamely in the Gold Cup, but that was largely irrelevant to his legacy. His place in steeplechasing folklore is secure: one of the best we have ever seen.

© The Sunday Times, 1st April 2012