Just when we thought, (or some of us did), that it was all getting too boring, the Gods that govern National Hunt racing decided to mix up the pot. After a bit of hubble, bubble, toil and trouble in the Mullins camp, it was Alan King who emerged the favoured son with a red letter day at Cheltenham on Saturday.
Willie Mullins sent three short-priced runners to Doncaster, and Djakadam to Cheltenham, and all four produced disappointing efforts.
The Doncaster disappointments were Up For Review (fourth and beaten 21 lengths at 7/4), Morning Run (third and beaten four and a half lengths at 5/6), and Shaneshill (beaten 15 lengths at 11/8). The trainer later surmised his runners may have caught a chill going over on the ferry. The Cheltenham tumble of Djakadam (5/6) and subsequent injury made it a rare bad away day for Mullins.
It was in some way appropriate that it was at Cheltenham itself that three horses stepped forth and enhanced their reputations ahead of the festival. Yanworth and Thistlecrack were particularly impressive, neither coming off the bridle for easy wins in heavy ground.
Competition to Mullins is sparse at home with only few yards housing the top class horses. In Britain there is a better spread of contenders and if every trainer of a good horse across the water join together and stand against the Mullins might in six weeks’ time, all those short prices could look a bit risky.
No one can match Mullins on their own but the BetBright Cup between Britain and Ireland may be a closer run thing than the betting predicts.
It has often been said King George form is Gold Cup form. Although Smad Place was disappointing at Kempton - right-handed, flat track and ridden with more restraint - he was back to his Hennessy winning form in the Gold Cup trial at Cheltenham on Saturday.
Jumping boldly in the lead, he ballooned the first down the back second time around, where Djakadam fell. He lost the lead coming away from the third last but he shaded Many Clouds over the last (normally the second last) and negotiated the slalom around the omitted final fence to gallop out a 12-length winner from last year’s winner Many Clouds, with Theatre Guide picking up the scraps at 33/1 in third.
The winner has run at the last five Cheltenham Festivals and, while it’s hard to see him winning, he deserves his chance in the Gold Cup. He stays and jumps and is in better form than last year when eighth to Coneygree. He doesn’t look good enough to win but will put up a bold show.
Djakadam was unlucky to fall, his second fall in three runs at the track. The first fence down the back is a tricky one, going away from the stands and on a downhill slope. The error and injury to Djakadam must be another factor which will swing Ruby Walsh in favour of Vautour in the Gold Cup.
Wakanda, predictably outclassed, and O'Faolains Boy were pulled up. The latter was disappointing but had been so before in heavy ground. Remember he beat Smad Place in that RSA Chase two years ago.
The error and injury to Djakadam must be another factor in swinging Walsh in favour of Vautour in the Gold Cup.
Many Clouds, giving 4lbs to Smad Place, looks a little below the form of last year. The Grand National is his aim and he still sets the standard there with Kelso the next stop.
Outside of the big race, the superlatives were flying at Cheltenham. Alan King declared the hugely impressive Neptune Investments Novice Hurdle winner Yanworth as “frightening - in a good way - and he could be very special."
Last year’s Cheltenham bumper was an extremely hot contest. If the winner Moon Racer got back to a racecourse before Cheltenham, he would be interesting. Of those behind him Modus, Wait For Me, Yanworth, Vigil, Supasundae, Theo's Charm, Bellshill and Au Quart De Tour have all shown high class form this season and it is Alan King’s J.P. McManus-owned chestnut that looks the main threat to a Willie Mullins domination of the three novice hurdles.
Alan King declared the hugely impressive Neptune Investments Novice Hurdle winner Yanworth as “frightening - in a good way"
Yanworth is 15/8 favourite for the Neptune and indeed he has done much more on the track than some of the Mullins runners who are shorter prices for their respective races. He is followed in the betting by Bellshill, Yorkhill, A Toi Phil, Long Dog and Tombstone in what is a very competitive contest.
An official mark of 158 sees Yanworth rated 9lb higher than any of the horses lining up in last year's Neptune. He beat Shantou Village easily by seven lengths with Champers And Ice 10 further back in third.
Thistlecrack and Tom Scudamore race away with the galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle
Colin Tizzard was similarly struck with his Thistlecrack after he had sauntered away with the Cleeve Hurdle, winning by 12 lengths, his third win in a row. It was “as good as it gets in my mind,” for Tizzard.
Now at 13/8, the impressive son of Kayf Tara looks to have no flaws and heads the World Hurdle market ahead of the Mullins mares Annie Power and Vroum Vroum Mag, with Alpha Des Obeaux, close to Thistlecrack when falling at Aintree, still an each-way price at 7/1. Ptit Zig produced a better effort back over hurdles.
Paul Nicholls' impressive Newbury winner Clan Des Obeaux was sent off favourite for the juvenile hurdle ahead of Alan King’s Who Dares Wins (13/8) who King later said had been his best chance of a winner on the day.
Suspicion was that the two had gone too hard too early and, although Clan Des Obeaux jumped the last in front, he was overhauled by Nicky Henderson’s Protek Des Flos at 25/1. It did not look the strongest Triumph trial. Wolf Of Windlesham, a winner at the New Year meeting, was tailed off.
Annacotty, now becoming a course specialist, won for the third time when showing fine battling qualities for Ian Popham to hold off Tenor Nivernais in the two-mile and five-furlong Grade 3 handicap chase. They were the only two in the race from a long way out. It was a terrific treble on the day for King.
Alan King’s three winners on the showcase card at Cheltenham were supplemented by Ziga Boy’s win in the Doncaster feature, the Sky Bet Chase, run in a rain and hail storm.
Ziga Boy was always in the front rank and was driven clear early in the straight in decisive fashion by Brendan Powell. He jumped well and was always holding Coologue and Buywise even though they both stayed on well from the last.
Buywise again finished well and couldn’t be faulted. His trainer Evan Williams has a fine Grand National record but Buywise does not stand out as an ideal type for that race.
The somewhat surprising favourite Le Mercurey (6/1), for Paul Nicholls, proved a big disappointment and was pulled up. He looks unlikely to live up to his reputation from last year.
The words Buywise and Grand National did not once look like fitting together in the same sentence
Pass The Hat made one mistake but ran with credit in that race for Arthur Moore, the trainer having earlier landed the two-mile handicap chase with eight-length winner Dandridge for owner Ronnie Bartlett, and ridden by Donagh Meyler. Off a low weight, he beat two good performers in Just Cameron and Gardefort.
Barters Hill maintained his unbeaten record in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2) over three miles but didn’t impress, even allowing for his lazy style, in beating the 28/1 shot Ballydine by three quarters of a length.
He bunny-hopped a few of the hurdles and any waste of energy could prove costly when it comes to Cheltenham. Up For Review was the third of the Mullins runners to be well beaten but he did make a very bad mistake four out.
The classy Nicky Henderson-trained Vaniteux got back to winning ways when beating Arzal in the Lightning Novices' Chase (Grade 2), jumping well and staying on strongly after Shaneshill disappointed in fourth. He looks well capable of being in the money in the Arkle and could pick up the pieces if Douvan erred.
Smart Talk battled well to win the mares’ hurdle where Morning Run was a disappointing favourite for Willie Mullins. There are many decent mares in Britain but none look good enough to threaten the chosen Mullins representative in the Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Limini and Danny Mullins jump the last to win the Grade 3 Coolmore Novice Hurdle
Bridgets Pet sprung a 20/1 shock in the two miles, five-furlong conditions chase when he got the better of the long-absent Morning Assembly by a head. It was a fine run by the runner-up after missing all of last year. He was only over six lengths behind O'Faolains Boy and Smad Place in the RSA Chase in 2014 and tried to give the winner over a stone here.
The winner, a son of Arakan and not bred for the jumping game, could be more than useful in good handicap company.
Limini justified favouritism with the minimum of fuss in the two-mile, two-furlong mares’ novice hurdle and she should jump better on better ground. She sets the standard for the new mares’ novice hurdle at Cheltenham.
Felix Yonger and Ruby Walsh jump the last to win the Grade 2 Tied Cottage Steeplechase from Flemenstar and Andrew Lynch
At Punchestown on Sunday, Flemenstar put up a good fight to halt the Mullins domination in the Tied Cottage but was swept aside by Felix Yonger before the last.
Though Mullins said the winner would go for the Champion Chase, he would need to find a good bit of improvement to trouble the principals and 14/1 is not appealing.
Myska, who had won in the mud at Taunton and was sent off at 8/13, lost her unbeaten record in the two-mile listed novice hurdle won by Gordon Elliott’s Gigginstown representative Ball D'Arc, who had been well behind Min last time at Punchestown. It was an opening race double for Bryan Cooper and the owners after Willie Mullins’ Balko Des Flos (11/8) took the opener.
Myska was found to be coughing following her disappointing showing.
Rathpatrick was a surprise winner for J.P.McManus, at 16/1, in the Pertemps qualifier where Oscar Sam and Mall Dini showed up well.
Bonny Kate impressed under a bold ride from Sean Flanagan to win the Grand National Trial Handicap Chase over three miles and four furlongs. She looks more than useful in handicap grade.
Peter Maher has another good cross-country performer in Ballyboker Bridge who had too much speed late on for the favourite Cantlow in the P.P. Hogan Chase.
Battleford, a British-bred son of Midnight Legend, was another impressive bumper winner for Willie Mullins in the Wylie colours.