W P Mullins – nine letters that have come to represent a National Hunt stable of phenomenal talent. For trainers and owners competing at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, seeing his name in the racecard might well induce a sense of foreboding.
Such is the strength in depth available to the master of Closutton that defeating one of his charges is rarely good enough to scoop the pot. Annie Power’s dramatic exit at the final flight in last year’s OLBG Mares’ Hurdle may have saved the betting industry from a monstrous payout, yet the prize still returned to Bagenalstown courtesy of second string Glens Melody.
Such is the strength in depth available to the master of Closutton that defeating one of his charges is rarely good enough to scoop the pot
This season has witnessed more of the same. At Navan on February 14, Black Hercules and Tell Us More crashed out in their respective Grade 2 novice chases, each looking the likely winner. Yet Mullins still claimed victory in both contests, thanks to his back-up team.
The previous weekend, the Grade 1 Gain Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown – a signpost for the Triumph Hurdle – saw a Mullins 1-2-3, with Footpad, the longest-priced of his three runners, defeating two better-fancied stablemates. It’s so elementary, apparently.
Glancing at the Irish jumps trainers’ table, the challenge facing his colleagues is obvious. At the time of writing, Mullins sits on top of the pile with 150 winners, operating at a stunning strike-rate of 35%, banking €3.2 million. Gordon Elliott, in second, has 99 winners and a 15% strike-rate, with €2m in prize-money. It is a two-horse race.
So where has the opposition gone? Of those who finished in the top ten with Mullins a decade ago, only Jessica Harrington is better off in 2015-16. Noel Meade, once Ireland’s dominant force, has 26 victories to his name. Edward O’Grady, Paul Nolan (see View From Ireland), Michael Hourigan, Arthur Moore and Tom Taaffe – all Grade 1-winning trainers – have sent out fewer than 40 winners between them. Charlie Swan, unable to make training pay sufficiently, relinquished his licence last year, while Dessie Hughes passed away in 2014.
With Rich Ricci’s exclusive patronage providing the Mullins yard with a seemingly steady flow of champions and Graham Wylie putting all his eggs in the Mullins basket, plus massive support from Gigginstown, the juggernaut looks unstoppable.
Perhaps Henry de Bromhead, who heads the chasing pack behind Mullins and Elliott, can make further strides in the next few years. The man who guided Sizing Europe to eight top-level successes has a number of arrows to fire at Cheltenham’s Grade 1 contests this year including Supasundae, Special Tiara and Identity Thief.
In this month’s Talking To with Tim Richards, de Bromhead says he would like to continue to improve the quality of horses in his care but remains cautious on the subject of a title challenge.
“I don’t think a 60-box yard would enable us to compete for a championship,” he says. “In any case, I am a bit of a control freak, so I like to know what’s going on; as the string gets bigger and bigger, that gets harder and harder. I am very happy with our numbers although, of course, we are trying to improve the quality all the time.
“You are always tweaking things and you always need to sex things up, but the number we have is just about right. If we can maintain our results for the rest of my career I’d be very happy.”
Someone not content with recent results is Paul Rooney, who with wife Clare has quickly established a large string of jumpers plus a number of Flat horses.
The owners split from Donald McCain at the start of the current campaign and now have their horses shared around a number of top stables in Britain and Ireland.
“Winning is everything,” Paul Rooney tells Julian Muscat (The Big Interview). “I want to be involved in the big races.
“Three or four years ago someone asked me what I wanted from racing and I replied I wanted a Grand National winner, a Gold Cup winner and a Derby winner. Why not? I know that to win just one of those would be amazing, but if you’re in this game you’ve got to dream. My dream is to have top horses.”