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Willie Mullins

It was mildly surprising that, when the declarations for today’s Stan James Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown came through on Friday morning, neither Faugheen nor Annie Power was among them.  We expected at least one. 

But neither of the Willie Mullins horses was ready to run.  Faugheen had a bruised foot which just didn’t come back right on time.  Annie Power worked moderately during the week, so her trainer decided to give her more time.  Even Vroum Vroum Mag, who was an option, who was also among the original entries, was missing.  Mullins said that she did a really good piece of work during the week, but that she did not eat up afterwards, so he is leaving her for another day too.

You could get frustrated and jump up and down and think that the universe is against you, but that would not be Willie Mullins’ way.  He’ll just tip his Trilby and smile and get on with things.

Horses are fragile animals.  They get bruised feet, they get head colds, they have off days.  It is difficult to plan with certainty. 

You could take a chance and run anyway.  You could chance that Faugheen’s bruised foot would not affect him during the race, or that Annie Power would come alive once she got to the racecourse, or that Vroum Vroum Mag just wasn’t hungry after her piece of work but, again, that would not be the Mullins way.  It is the decisions not to run as much as the decisions to run that make him the trainer that he is.

It has been a trying time for the champion trainer.  First there was the loss of the 60 Gigginstown House horses, then there was the double-blow of the loss of Avant Tout and Vautour in the same weekend.  One lost on the racetrack, the other in his paddock; one a young steeplechaser with bundles of potential, the other a brilliant National Hunt racehorse who could have been more brilliant still.

And when the Gigginstown House horses are not racing for you, they are racing against you.  Valseur Lido won the Champion Chase at Down Royal three weeks ago for Henry de Bromhead, A Toi Phil won his beginners’ chase at Down Royal for Gordon Elliott, Outlander would probably have won the Clonmel Oil Chase at Clonmel on Thursday for Gordon Elliott had he not fallen at the last.  Apple’s Jade was beaten at Down Royal, but she remains a hugely exciting young hurdler, she is sure to bounce back.  All Gigginstown House horses, all formerly trained by Willie Mullins, all now with new trainers.

This has spawned inevitable talk of the trainers’ championship, that perhaps Mullins’ position as the undisputed champ is under threat.  This, and the flying start that Gordon Elliott has made to the 2016/17 term.

Elliott is having a remarkable season so far.  He won the Galway Plate with Lord Scoundrel, he won the Kerry National with Wrath Of Titans and he won the Munster National with Tiger Roll.  They are three of the most competitive staying handicap chases of this part of the season. 

Not only that, but when Baltazar D’Allier won his maiden hurdle at Naas last Saturday, he brought up Elliott’s 100th win of the season.  It was the fastest 100 ever recorded by an Irish National Hunt trainer. 

His flying start leaves Elliott over €400,000 ahead of Mullins in the trainers’ championship, €1.6 million to €1.2 million.  Hence the title-threat talk.  Elliott himself says that he has no chance, but it doesn’t stop the talk.

Historically, however, it is only at around about this time of year that Team Mullins begins to waken from its summer slumber.  It is typically a ground thing: the serious work doesn’t appear to go ahead at Closutton before the ground eases.  The big horses are held in a holding pattern, then, as soon as the rains arrive, the team springs to life.

The early part of this season has not been very different to the early part of other recent seasons for Willie Mullins.  Last year, he had 10 winners in September and 10 winners in October.  In 2014 he had eight winners in September and 10 winners in October.  This year, he has had seven winners in September and six winners in October, and this on the back of an unusually dry autumn. 

This weekend, Morgiana Hurdle weekend, has traditionally been a springboard into the season for the Mullins team.  And there are signs of a build up already.  Last weekend, Mullins had five runners: one of them won and three of the other four finished in the first three, including Footpad, who was beaten a head in the Grade 1 Prix Renaud du Vivier at Auteuil. 

At Fairyhouse on Wednesday, he had three runners: a winner and two seconds.  At Clonmel on Thursday, he had three runners: three winners.

On this day last year, Mullins ran three horses in the Morgiana Hurdle and they filled the first three places.  Perhaps they didn’t finish in the order in which bookmakers and punters expected them to finish.  It was, after all, the only occasion on which Faugheen has ever been beaten.  But he was beaten by his stable companion Nichols Canyon and, between them, the Mullins Three took home almost all of the prize money.

It is a similar story today.  Mullins fields three against a JP McManus two.  It is going to be more difficult for the Mullins triumvirate today, Jer’s Girl and Ivanovich Gorbatov provide sterner opposition on the face of it than that provided by last year’s McManus duo of Thomas Edison and Plinth.  And there is no Faugheen today.  That said, it tells all you need to know about the magnitude of your strength in-depth when Nichols Canyon, last year’s winner and the odds-on favourite for this year’s renewal, is effectively your third choice.

It will be intriguing to watch the movements in the trainers’ championship as the season develops, Mullins v Elliott with Henry de Bromhead and Noel Meade and Joseph O’Brien and Jessica Harrington hunting them up.  However, Willie Mullins is still odds-on to win the championship again, and that looks about right.


© The Sunday Times, 20th November 2016