By Barry Doyle
Local trainer Willie Mullins had a severe dose of the Monday blues this week with the news that Faugheen & Min will miss the Cheltenham festival. This blow added to the list of seasonal woes for the Irish Champion Trainer.
Twelve months ago the general discussion was about Willie Mullins’s domination. Questions were asked. Was the Mullins juggernaut healthy for the sport? Could Willie win the 4 Championship races at the Cheltenham festival? Would he break his previous record of 8 festival winners? Well Willie ended up with 7 winners just short of the record but looking at Cheltenham 2017, it has a much different feel to it.
Gigginstown removed 60 horses from Closutton in September which was a hammer blow. The loss of star hurdlers Petit Mouchoir & Apple’s Jade together with Chasers Valseur Lido, Don Poli & Outander was always going to leave a dint in the ship.
The Vautour tragedy in November along with the recent well being of Annie Power, Faugheen & Min has all contributed to a miserable season for team Mullins.
However this all said, things can’t get much worse. It’s just 5 weeks to the festival but you can expect Mullins to bring a bigger fight than ever, re- shuffle the pack & produce a few surprises along the way.
One of the big debates since Mondays bad news broke is who will Willie now run in the Champion hurdle? It can be almost near impossible to predict where Willies runners will turn up at the best of times but that’s all part of the intrigue & fun.
Neptune winner YORKHILL was sent novice chasing this season & has been aimed at the JLT over 2m 5f , the likelihood of reverting back over smaller obstacles is slim. Graham Wylie would have to cough up a large supplementary fee & that looks unlikely.
Skybet did open up a market on Yorkhill & where he will run at the festival. They bet Evens – the JLT, 7/4- the Champion Hurdle & 3/1 – the Arkle. Without being extremely boring that Evens does look too big. History tells us winning races at Cheltenham is priority over winning Grade 1s at Cheltenham for team Mullins. Facing Altior over 2 miles over fences would be a tough ask & I just don’t see hurdles happening this year.
Another possibility for Champion hurdle supplementary is UN DE SCEAUX. If we got soft ground don’t be surprised to see this scenario present itself. Douvan is untouchable at 2 miles over fences so there’s absolutely no point going there. So unlike Yorkhill, Eddie O’Connell’s Un De Sceaux is in limbo.
He’s not good enough to win a Queen Mother & there’s enough question marks to know if 2m 5f (Ryanair) would suit his free going nature. In an open year this could be the opportunity the O’Connells never thought they’d have at winning the Champion hurdle.
VROUM VROUM MAG. I love this mare ! she’s a monster been trained for & tried at 3 miles so far this season. That doesn’t look the way it’ll continue. Branded the “Super Sub” versatility has been her problem, she’s like the John O’Shea of Closutton you can play her in any position. Fences/hurdles, 2mile/ 3 miles, good ground/ soft ground she can do the lot.
If you think Vroum Vroum is not fast enough for 2 miles then I think your wrong. Willie will turn the screw on this one over the next few weeks I expect a finer tuned Vroum Vroum Mag to turn up at the festival & like Annie Power last year, getting 7Ibs off the boys would make her a major player. I’d love to see her run in the Champion hurdle, She’s 10/1 NRNB.
Looking towards this weekend’s action, We’ll gain plenty of festival clues and know a lot more come Sunday evening I’m sure. It’s Betfair hurdle day in Newbury on Saturday & Irish Gold cup day at Leopardstown on Sunday.
I’m going to turn my attentions Leopardstown on Sunday. We’ve four (Grade 1’s) on the card, Irish Gold Cup , Spring Juvenile , Deloitte Novice Hurdle & Flogas Novice Chase.
Lets start with the SPRING JUVENILE HURDLE – Willie Mullins trained Meri Devie is priced up as 7/4 here & that looks too short a price. We’ve seen last year and in previous seasons between the timeline of Christmas and the Spring Juveniles sometimes struggle to hold their form. This looks a deep contest with a few unexposed types.
If I had to pick one here, I did like Gordon Elliott trained DINARIA DES OBEAUX on her debut at Cork. How good her maiden was is up for question ? She did do it very easy, looked a scopey sort & the early money was for her Wednesday night.
DELOITTE NOVICE HURDLE – Willie Mullins fires a few bullets, expect him to gain one back on Elliott here & SATURNAS can deliver the goods. I loved this lads debut at Naas & I’m still confused as to why Ruby rejected to ride him twice in the Royal Bond & Champion Novice at Christmas. The ground was quicker at Fairyhouse (Royal bond) & Penhill did have good ground perhaps? I can’t think of any other reason maybe I’m missing something.
Saturnas looks professional & the extra 2 furlongs will suit. The biggest danger here comes from his own stable in Invitation Only. He disappointed last time out but he does have a fair engine & was highly regarded in bumpers. He’ll try make it a stamina test.
THE IRISH GOLD CUP – Good old Don Poli heads the betting for the main event at 5/2 & this to me shows how weak the 3 mile chase division is in Ireland right now. The Gold Cup winner 2017 is most likey going to be trained in England. Unless, unless , SIZING JOHN can step up to the mark over 3 miles this Sunday & throw himself into the mix.
Known as Douvans shadow as a novice hurdler and Chaser he is no undoubtedly talented & represents decent value at 7/1 here. Less exposed than anything else here makes appeal. Going on his last two runs you’d think a step up to 3 miles would be a help & not a hindrance. Minella Rocco is the NB here if he gets his jumping in order.
FLOGAS NOVICE CHASE – Bellshill looks to be being brought nicely to the boil for the spring festivals. I’d like to see more of him over fences before ploughing into him at 5/4 in a competitive field on ground he’s hasn’t excelled.
There’s a horse called NAMBOUR could go under the radar here. We haven’t seen the best of this fellow and I don’t expect him to be rated less than 155 (OR) over fences by the end of the season. He’s 140 now so whether Sunday is the day is a separate question but at 20/1 Mouse Morris has often popped up when you least expect.
Barry’s weekend bets –
SIZING JOHN (7/1) 1pt EW (Irish Gold Cup Sunday 12th Feb)
SATURNAS (5/2) 2pt Win (Deloitte Novice hurdle Sunday 12th Feb)