Things We Learned » Mullins magic

Mullins magic

Now that the dust has started to settle a little, there is the chance to put Willie Mullins’ achievement last week into some sort of context. By any barometer, it was phenomenal. If the 2015 Cheltenham Festival was the 1984 Olympic Games, Willie Mullins was Carl Lewis.

The figures are astonishing. Fifty-four runs, eight wins, including six at Grade 1 level. The 1-2 in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the 1-3 in the JLT Chase, the 1-4-5-6 in the County Hurdle, the 1-3 in the Martin Pipe Hurdle, the 1-4 in the RSA Chase and, of course, that famous 1-2-3 in the Champion Hurdle. Moreover, with an eye on the future, Mullins was responsible for four of the winners of the seven Grade 1 novice hurdles and chases.

The fact that he had eight winners, more than any other trainer ever at one Cheltenham Festival, has been well-documented. When Nicky Henderson sent out seven winners at the 2011 Festival, two more than Paul Nicholls’ five in 2009, it was legitimate to expect that that total would not be bettered for a long time. You could never have thought that it would by eclipsed just three years later.

Mullins had lots of runners, of course, more than ever before, but that is an achievement in itself, that so many of the Closutton horses were good enough to get to run at the Cheltenham Festival. And even with that depth of runners, having winners is still not easy. Nicky Henderson had two winners from his 31 runners, representing a strike rate of almost 6.5%, which in itself is not a bad strike rate at Cheltenham. Paul Nicholls had three winners from his 27 runners, representing a strike rate of over 11%. Yet Mullins’ eight from 54 represented a strike rate of almost 15%.

Of course, there are more races at the Festival these days than there used to be but, even as a proportion of the total, it is a monster achievement. It is not so long ago that two or three winners was enough to claim or share the trainer’s title for the week. Indeed, no trainer had more than three winners in any year between 1980 and 1996. Eight winners represents almost 30% of the total. It is quite unbelievable that one trainer should be responsible for almost 30% of the winners at Cheltenham Festival.

This has not happened overnight. Diaidh ar ndiaidh a thógtar na caisleáin. Mullins has been leading trainer at Cheltenham now four times in the last five years. His eight winners last week brings his Cheltenham Festival tally to 41, which brings him from fifth place in the all-time list, past Martin Pipe, past Paul Nicholls, past Fulke Walwyn, into second, behind only Nicky Henderson, who is now on 53.

Finally, according to Timeform, of Willie Mullins’ 54 runners at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, 25 of them equaled or surpassed their best ever previous performance. Talk about getting horses to peak on the big day. Perhaps that was the champion trainer’s greatest feat of the week.

Irish trainers excel

Because of the extent to which Willie Mullins dominated, other Irish trainers’ performances went a little under the radar.

Enda Bolger sent out just two runners for the week: On The Fringe, who finally won the Foxhunter, this time by 17 lengths, and Quantitativeeasing, who would surely have gone close in the Cross-Country Chase had he not been taken out by the French at the second last obstacle.

Rivage D’Or, winner of the Cross-Country, was Tony Martin’s only winner for the week, but he had several horses run really well: Gallant Oscar in the three-mile handicap chase, Buddy Bolero in the Kim Muir, Quick Jack in the County Hurdle. Similarly, Cause Of Causes’ win in the National Hunt Chase was Gordon Elliott’s only winner for the week, but Taglietelle, Don Cossack, Bless The Wings, No More Heroes and Noble Endeavor all ran big races in defeat. Dermot Weld had three runners, and he won the Neptune Hurdle with one of them.

Noel Meade was probably disappointed that he didn’t have a winner, given the strength of the Cheltenham team that he had assembled, but his big horses ran big races. Apache Stronghold was second in the JLT, Wounded Warrior was third in the RSA Chase, Ned Buntline was fourth in the Grand Annual and Snow Falcon out-ran his odds by a long way to finish a close-up fifth in the Neptune Hurdle, while Road To Riches ran the race of his life to finish third in the Gold Cup.

Likewise, Henry de Bromhead didn’t have a winner, but Sizing John and Special Tiara ran massive races from the front rank to finish third in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the Champion Chase respectively, while Grand Jesture finished second in the three-mile handicap chase and Supasundae did well to last as long as he did in the front group in the bumper given how freely he raced through the early stages of the race.

Eddie Harty had just one runner: Sort It Out, second in the County Hurdle. Matthew Smith had just one runner: Rawnaq, third in the two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase. Andrew Lynch had just one runner: Zabana, beaten a neck in the Coral Cup. Michael Hourigan had just one runner: The Job Is Right, third in the National Hunt Chase. Mags Mullins had just one runner: Martello Tower, back of the net. There is strength in-depth among Irish National Hunt horses these days that is probably unprecedented.

What ifs and maybes

As with any Festival, as with any race meeting really, there were lots of ifs and whys and maybes.

Like, what if the rain had come on Monday night instead of Thursday night, and Coneygree had run in the RSA Chase on Wednesday instead of in the Gold Cup on Friday? Would he have beaten Don Poli, or would he have finished second to Don Poli and gone down as just another beaten horse in the RSA Chase? Would Djakadam then have won the Gold Cup?

What if Un Atout hadn’t bitten Champagne Fever on the lip on the way over, what if the Stowaway gelding had taken his chance in the Champion Chase? Would he have won a Champion Chase in which Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy disappointed? Would he have beaten Dodging Bullets, given that Dodging Bullets beat the 11-year-old Somersby by a length and a quarter?

What if Willie Mullins had taken a leaf out of the Bradstock Book of Horse Placing, and run Un De Sceaux in the Champion Chase and Vautour in the Arkle? Given that Un De Sceaux was 1.6secs faster in the Arkle than Dodging Bullets was over the same course and distance the following day in the Champion Chase, on ostensibly faster ground, would Un De Sceaux then have won the Champion Chase? And would Apache Stronghold then have got home by a short head from Valseur Lido in the JLT?

Or what if Alan King had stuck to the original plan, and run Uxizandre in the Champion Chase? Would he have won it, given how good he was in the Ryanair? Would AP McCoy have registered his final Cheltenham Festival victory in the Champion Chase instead of in the Ryanair Chase?

What if there hadn’t been a false start in the Imperial Cup at Sandown on the Saturday before the Festival? Would Wicklow Brave have won it as easily as he won the County Hurdle on Friday? And if he had, would he still have danced in in the County Hurdle carrying his penalty, and netted a £100,000 bonus for Wicklow Bloodstock?

What if Don Cossack hadn’t nodded on landing over the sixth last fence in the Ryanair Chase? Would he then have retained his good position into the home straight, thereby avoiding the scrimmaging at the second last fence that finally ended any chance he had of winning the race?

What if Don Poli had run in the National Hunt Chase and Valseur Lido had run in the RSA Chase? What if No More Heroes had got the gap on the stands rail in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle? What if Zarkandar hadn’t dismantled the second last flight in the World Hurdle?

What if Annie Power had kicked the final flight out of her way, as she usually does, instead of landing on top of it on Tuesday afternoon? Would there have been bookmakers on Wednesday morning?

We will never know for certain.

Irish horses in handicaps

Much has been made of the fact that Irish horses did so well in the handicaps on Friday. Irish-trained horses filled the first six places in the County Hurdle and the first four places in the Martin Pipe Hurdle. However, it is important to avoid a knee-jerk conclusion. It is always dangerous to base a deduction on a piece of research that has a sample size of two.

The reality is that, as above, this is a golden era for Irish-trained National Hunt horses. Irish horses filled the first three places in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the Champion Hurdle, the JLT Chase and the Albert Bartlett Hurdle, and they filled first and third places in the Neptune Hurdle. So it should not be a surprise that they did well in the handicaps as well.

Indeed, on the information that we have available from the short term that is the four-day Cheltenham Festival, the logical conclusion is that Irish horses actually under-performed in the handicaps.

In the 14 Grade 1 races run at the Cheltenham Festival, Irish-trained horses provided eight of the winners and 14 of the 28 placed horses. That’s 57% of the winners and 50% of the placed horses.

In the 11 handicaps, Irish horses provided three of the winners and 14 of the 33 placed horses. That’s just 27% of the winners and 42% of the placed horses. So still well below the expected level of performance if you take their performance in the Grade 1 races as a guide.

Lucky 15 for 2016

No More Heroes, RSA Chase, 14/1

Don Poli, Gold Cup, 6/1

Josses Hill, Champion Chase, 25/1

Vroum Vroum Mag, Mares’ Chase, N/O

© The Irish Field, 21st March 2015