Donn's Articles » Trainers’ championship

Trainers’ championship

Vincent O’Brien won the British National Hunt trainers’ championship in the 1952/53 season.  It was a remarkable achievement, an Irish trainer earning more prize money in Britain during the National Hunt season than any British National Hunt trainer.  More than Peter Cazalet, more than Fred Rimell, more than Neville Crump, more than Fulke Walwyn.

Then he won it again in 1953/54.

They were unusual days, Vincent O’Brien was doing extraordinary things. Cottage Rake had won his three Gold Cups by then, Hatton’s Grace had won his three Champion Hurdles, but the 1952/53 season saw O’Brien push the bar even higher.  He won the Grand National in 1953 with Early Mist, he won it again in 1954 with Royal Tan, and he won it again in 1955 with Quare Times.

1952 was also the year that O’Brien won the first of his 10 Gloucester Hurdles the modern day Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, with Cockatoo, and he won another Gold Cup with Knock Hard in 1953.  Vincent O’Brien dominated National Hunt racing during that era.

It is always difficult to compare eras, it is impossible to compare Willie Mullins’ achievements now with Vincent O’Brien’s then, but there are strong parallels.  Mullins is dominant in Ireland, but he is also prolific in Britain.  Eight winners at the Cheltenham Festival last year was more than any trainer had ever had at one Festival.  Seven more this year saw him crowned top trainer at Cheltenham for the fifth time in six years.

Perennial champion in Ireland, there was talk last season about a possible tilt at the British championship as well, but it never really materialised.  Despite having eight winners at Cheltenham, Mullins didn’t really sustain the challenge, he rested his big horses after Cheltenham and brought them to Punchestown, as he had always done in the past.  Aintree went ahead without a significant input from the Irish champ.

This season, things have been a little different.  While Mullins had runners in Britain during the early part of last season, his forays this season were more frequent and more lucrative. Vautour, Yorkhill, Don Poli, Black Hercules, Thomas Hobson, Un De Sceaux and Vroum Vroum Mag all went to Britain and won valuable prizes before Cheltenham had even started.

Add that to his seven Cheltenham Festival winners, and it gives Mullins a total prize money haul in Britain of just over £1.72 million, which leaves him less than £160,000 behind Paul Nicholls.  That is not an unbridgeable gap.

The main thing that makes it bridgeable is the fact that Mullins has indicated that he would give it a shot.  A lot of the big Willie Mullins horses will be going to Aintree.  Unfortunately Min is out for the season, so he will not be travelling, but a lot of the other big horses will be going.

Annie Power is on track for the Aintree Hurdle, and she could be joined there by Nichols Canyon.  Djakadam will probably run in the Betfred Bowl, and he could be joined there by Vautour, although Vautour could run in the Melling Chase instead.  Douvan could run in the Maghull Chase, Black Hercules and Shaneshill could go in the Manifesto Chase, Augusta Kate will probably run in the mares’ bumper.

To put the £160,000 gap into context, Jezki won £113,072 when he won the Aintree Hurdle last year, Silviniaco Conti won £84,570 when he won the Betfred Bowl, Sizing Granite won £61,897 when he won the Maghull Chase.  Two victories could bridge the gap.  Any more could see Mullins surge ahead.

Of course, Paul Nicholls will also be trying to defend his title, but he just lacks the strength in-depth in the big races that Mullins has.  For example, Nicholls’ only entry in the Aintree Hurdle is Aux Ptits Soins, who finished fifth in the World Hurdle on his last run.  His only entry in the Betfred Bowl is Saphir Du Rheu, who finished sixth in the same World Hurdle.

Nicholls’ trump card in the context of the championship is the Grand National. Mullins’ shortest-priced horse in the National is Boston Bob, currently a 33/1 shot, while Nicholls has Silviniaco Conti.

The Grand National is the most lucrative jumps race in the world, it is worth over a half a million pounds to the winner.  Silviniaco Conti is the 12/1 second favourite to win it at present and, if he or any of his stable companions does, there’s the trainer’s championship right there.  Nicholls would have an unassailable lead.

But if he doesn’t, there is a real chance that Willie Mullins could bridge the £160,000 gap to Nicholls and the 62-year gap to Vincent O’Brien.  It would be another remarkable achievement by the Irish champion.  The bookmakers make him a 2/5 shot, and that appears to be a fair assessment of his prospects at present.

© The Sunday Times, 3rd April 2016