Things We Learned » Conquering Japan

Conquering Japan

It is difficult to over-estimate the magnitude of Willie Mullins’ achievement in winning the Nakayama Grand Jump, the second richest jumps race in the world, last Saturday morning with Blackstairmountain.

The very fact that Mullins would even think to try to win the race, a race that had never before been won by a European horse, tells you about his attitude towards frontiers and limits and precedent.

But there was so much more to this than just attitude.  He had to choose the right horse, a horse who had the potential to possess the attributes required to win this unique race, run over two miles and five furlongs on lightning quick ground at a tight flat track but with a couple of startlingly steep inclines and declines, right-handed and left-handed, a stalls start and over unusual obstacles, big and soft.  He had to have an owner in Rich Ricci who was willing to take a punt, he had to have a safe pair of hands in Emmet Mullins who could look after the horse out there, and he had to have a rider in Ruby Walsh who could excel against the locals on their home terrain.

On top of that, he had to train him for the race.  Willie had the prescience to take his horse out to Japan for the Pegasus Jump three weeks earlier, allow him have a spin over two miles of the Nakayama circuit, get used to the ground and the tempo of the race and the fences. Blackstairmountain did warm to his task during the Pegasus but, given how long it took him to begin to negotiate his obstacles with even a modicum of fluency, you can be certain that, without that run in the Pegasus Jump, it would have been a wasted trip.

It wasn’t the first time that a Mullins had traversed international frontiers.  It was in April 1990 that the Paddy Mullins-trained Grabel, ridden by his son and Willie’s brother Tony, went to Kentucky Downs and won the Duelling Grounds International, worth over $300,000 to the winner.

Saturday’s race on the other side of the world obviously wasn’t as high-profile for Irish or British racing enthusiasts as a Champion Hurdle or a Punchestown Gold Cup is but, make no mistake, this was a memorable feat by that champion trainer, an achievement that is up there with all his victories at Cheltenham and Leopardstown and Punchestown and Auteuil.

Ballydoyle Ballysax

Just because an Aidan O’Brien-trained horse won the Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown on Sunday, it doesn’t automatically follow that he is a Derby horse.  Cupid won the Ballysax for Ballydoyle in 1999, and he didn’t race again as a three-year-old before he was sold to Hong Kong.  Balestrini won the Ballysax in 2003 and, only fifth in the Epsom Derby, he didn’t win again.

However, precedent dictates that, even on the balance of probability, Battle Of Marengo has a real chance of being a Derby horse.  The other Aidan O’Brien-trained Ballysax winners – Galileo (dual Derby winner), High Chaparral (dual Derby winner), Yeats (injured when Derby favourite, Coronation Cup winner, triple Gold Cup winner) and Fame And Glory (Epsom Derby second, Irish Derby winner) – most certainly were.

Put that with Battle Of Marengo’s breeding, his willing attitude, his juvenile form, the regard in which he is obviously held at Ballydoyle, and the fact that he was conceding a not inconsequential 5lb penalty to all his rivals on Sunday, and it is correct that he is high in all ante post Derby lists.

Educated guesswork

If you are trying to figure out how this afternoon’s Greenham Stakes or Fred Darling Stakes is going to pan out, have a think about the dearth of knowledge that you have to overcome.

Nine of the 10 fillies in the Fred Darling Stakes are making their seasonal debuts.  Four of the five colts in the Greenham Stakes are making theirs.  We haven’t seen these debutantes or debutants since early November last year at the most recent.  That’s five and a half months ago.

The last time we saw them race, these youngsters were around 20 or 21 or 22 months old.  Now they are around 26 or 27 or 28 months old.  They are about 30% older than they were the last time we saw them race, they are bound to have changed, they are certain to have matured, they are sure to have progressed, and you can be certain that, just to confound matters, they have progressed at different rates.

Now try to convince yourself that, unless you have a line into one or more of the yards involved (and, more often than not, even if you do), it isn’t guesswork, educated guesswork at best.  (But isn’t it all? [sic.])

Early skirmishes

That said, there was lots to take out of the early skirmishes on the flat this week on both sides of the water. At Leopardstown on Sunday, Don’t Bother Me might be under-rated after trying to make all in a race in which it probably paid to race conservatively, while on Monday Stuccodor was visually impressive, and he may continue to be under-rated simply because he should be exposed now, but he seems to continue to improve, and his record with headgear now reads 21111, while Sharp Crisp Air ran a cracker for a debutante in the 10-furlong maiden.

At the Craven meeting this week across the water, Winning Express did well to finish as close as she did in the Nell Gwyn after racing freely and then encountering trouble in-running, while Red Rocker ran a cracker at a big price in defeat from a yard whose debutants invariably improve, and Windhoek should improve again for his victory in the Tattersalls Millions, and could prove to be very useful.

No encore

According to the stats, Auroras Encore should be 160/1 for today’s Scottish Grand National, not 16/1.

No Grand National winner has followed up at Ayr since Red Rum in 1974. Indeed, no Grand National winner since Bindaree has managed to win another race, and Bindaree won just once, 10 runs and 19 months later, after coming back down to a handicap mark that was just 2lb higher than his Aintree winning mark. Auroras Encore is currently 11lb higher than his Aintree winning mark.

As well as that, 10 of the last 11 winners of the Scottish Grand National carried 10st 6lb or less, which doesn’t augur well for the top weight, and the rains that have fallen at Ayr during the week have rendered the ground heavy, not ideal for a top-of-the-ground spring horse.

Now watch him win by seven and a half lengths.

© The Irish Field, 20th April 2013