Donn's Articles » Mullins marches on

Mullins marches on

Even by the lofty standards that Willie Mullins continues to set for himself – and, by extension, for everyone else – this was a good weekend.

Don Poli went to Aintree on Saturday for his seasonal debut and duly beat Many Clouds, last season’s Hennessy Gold Cup winner, last season’s Aintree Grand National winner.  Yorkhill kicked off his hurdling campaign with an impressive victory at Punchestown on Sunday, and Pont Alexandre returned from the wilderness – oh we remember him now all right – and reminded us of the top class horse that he was and is by dancing home in his beginners’ chase. If Punchestown’s meeting had been staged on Tuesday instead of on Sunday, Susannah Ricci’s horse would have been returning from an absence of exactly 1000 days. As training performances go, this one was right up there. (See ‘lofty standards’ above.)

Mullins ran two horses in the feature race at Punchestown on Sunday, the Grade 1 John Durkan Memorial Chase – Djakadam and Valseur Lido – and they finished first and second.

The results only served to further fortify Willie Mullins’ ridiculously strong arsenal of top class staying steeplechasers.  Djakadam was in there already, last season’s Gold Cup runner-up, but this win told you that he had the potential to progress again, that he was fresh and well and ready to go once more after the lung-bursting effort that he put in at Prestbury Park in March.

The champion trainer’s primary objective, of course, is to keep all these horses sound. His second will be to plot routes for each horse back to Cheltenham in March, to carefully choose the stepping stones that will lead each one potentially to the pot of gold.

The races are there.  The Lexus Chase at Leopardstown at Christmas, the King George at Kempton at Christmas, the (race that used to be called the) Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February. That’s just three races, and that isn’t enough for all of Mullins’ staying chasers.

Count them: Vautour, Don Poli, Djakadam, Valseur Lido. Add Sir Des Champs, back from his own spell on the sidelines. Vautour to the King George, Don Poli to the Lexus, that seems to make sense. Christmas might come a little quickly for Djakadam, the trainer seemed to be thinking on Sunday, so maybe keep him for February. There is also the Argento Chase at Cheltenham in January, that has to be an option for Team Closutton this season. If these are problems, mind you, they are problems for which you would give your right arm.

It all makes for an intriguing Gold Cup picture at present, but one which is impossible to work out. It’s an artist putting one brush stroke on a canvas and asking you to guess what it is. Bookmakers cut Djakadam’s Gold Cup odds from 12/1 to no better than 8/1 after Sunday’s performance, and that seems to be an accurate reflection of the degree to which his chance of going one better in March has improved.

Pont to prove

Pont Alexandre was great. It was only a beginners’ chase that he won but, in Balbir Du Mathan, he beat a horse who is full of potential, and that wasn’t the point anyway. Unusually, style here was as important as substance, and the Mullins horse exuded class.

He travelled like a high-class horse, he jumped like a high-class horse and, when Ruby Walsh gave him a squeeze, he picked up like a high-class horse.

It is a while now since Pont Alexandre went to Cheltenham with that old ‘Irish banker’ thing hanging around his neck.  He could only finish third in the 2013 Neptune Hurdle in the end, but it was a defeat that didn’t sit squarely with his trainer.  The Festival that Mullins had that year, leading trainer and everything, and he still kept returning to Pont Alexandre’s defeat. That’s lofty standards for you.

Mullins is frequently lauded for his achievements, but this one was right up there. If Pont Alexandre had been off the track for any longer, he would have had to have re-applied for his passport. Obviously he was showing enough at home to convince his trainer that he should retain the faith, but you needed know-how and patience and skill and more patience as well as faith for this one, and Mullins and his team dug deep into all four barrels.

There was Gold Cup talk after this victory, but we should know by now that, really, Willie Mullins just doesn’t run his novices against established stars. Anyway, it’s not as if he needs another Gold Cup contender.  The RSA Chase is the ideal Cheltenham Festival race for Pont Alexandre. He is obviously fragile, but quotes of 12/1 would be more than fair if you knew that he was going to be sound and healthy and well in March.


Djakadam was very good in winning the John Durkan Chase and, as a six-rising-seven-year-old, there is a big chance that last season’s Gold Cup runner-up can go one better next March.


Pont Alexandre was superb in winning his beginners’ chase and, if he can remain healthy and well, he will be a big player in all the top staying novice chases this season.

© The Times On Line, 8th December 2015