WILLIE Mullins says it’s a brilliant time to be down at Closutton these days, with the season stretched out ahead of his team, and very few injuries recorded as of yet with the array of winter stars yet to be asked big questions.
With 15 jumps trainers’ titles in the bag, there can’t be many bad days to be in Closutton at any time of the year and it’s hard to foresee anything other than another brilliant season for Mullins, who despite the loss of Monkfish through injury and Min through retirement, looks to have as strong as team as ever.
The well-oiled Closutton machine usually starts motoring from mid-November and while it was still surprising the yard had no runners at Down Royal last weekend, this is often the Willie way.
That said, there will be plenty of horses making the trip form Co Carlow to the heart of Co Meath three weeks from today for the Winter Festival at Fairyhouse, and in what could be described as a home meeting for his chief title rival Gordon Elliott, Mullins will hold a significant threat.
“All the horses are coming around to good form,” the champion trainer said on a Zoom call for the Fairyhouse Winter Festival. “We’re going a bit slow at the moment but that’s the end of the summer horses and the winter horses haven’t got ready yet so we’re in between times.
“It’s actually the best time of year to be here because I haven’t made bits of anything yet! All the horses look great and they’re starting to do faster work. I’m delighted with what I’ve seen the last few mornings. It’s just coming along lovely I think.”
On his decision to delay the beginning of the season for most of his star names, Mullins likened himself to Boris Johnson who was in Glasgow this week speaking to world leaders about global warming and climate change.
“The winters keep getting drier,” he said. “We’ve had a spate of dry winters and the gallops are getting dry and the racetracks have been dry and I’m always very fearful of going to war too soon on autumn good ground because it’s quite dry underneath.”
Dream on target
With that in mind, it is interesting that one of the star names that could represent Mullins at Fairyhouse is Klassical Dream, a horse who has run just once in just under two years.
That one run was mighty impressive however, when he was nine lengths too good for stablemate James Du Berlais in the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers’ Hurdle at Punchestown last April, and he could be in line for a mouthwatering clash with Honeysuckle in the the BarOneRacing.com Hatton’s Grace Hurdle.
“He’s in good form and he worked nicely this morning,” Mullins said of the former Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner. “It was eye-opening what he did at Punchestown. He’d been working well at home before that but I found it very hard to believe that he could have done that against Grade 1 horses after 18 months. I was hoping that if he ran in the first four that would be a fantastic comeback.
“The Hatton’s Grace is a great start point. Bar One Racing are great sponsors and this race in particular throws up good horses year after year. A lot will depend on how well Klassical Dream works over the next couple of weeks on whether we’re on time to go to Fairyhouse or not.”
Both Stormy Ireland and Saldier could also provide stiff opposition for Honeysuckle, who goes for a hat-trick in the race.
“Stormy Ireland is a funny little mare,” Mullins said. “Ruth Dudfield rides her out and she tells me that when she’s nearly unmanageable on the gallop, she seems to be at her best. She’s in that sort of form at the moment. One of her best runs ever was in her three-year-old maiden hurdle in Fairyhouse. She won by 58 lengths and it was an extraordinary performance, so she loves the track.
“Saldier, when he got that fall in the Fishery Lane Hurdle at Naas, he broke his jaw and his eye socket. I think it’s taken him all that time to get his confidence back jumping again. Now he’s got it back, hopefully he can improve and I think a longer trip, like the two and a half miles of this race, will be right up his street.”
Mullins has multiple entries for the other Grade 1s on the card and interestingly nominated Arctic Warrior as one to look out for in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle.
The J.P. McManus-owned five-year-old won his maiden hurdle at Sligo but was pulled up in a Grade 3 novice hurdle won by stablemate Purple Mountain at Tipperary last month.
“I think he could be anything. He’s a very tough horse to ride at home and sometimes he does too much on the race track as well. I think he might have done too much in Tipperary and sort of run himself into the ground. He’s inclined to want to get on with things and we just have to decide whether to let him do that or try and settle him.
“I think he gallops and jumps and I don’t think we’ve seen anything like the full ability that he has yet. He certainly shows me a lot at home and if everything goes right for him he’s a horse that will run a very very big race.
Mullins is hoping both Bleu Berry and Robinnia can use their race fitness to advantage in the Drinmore Novice Chase.
“They’ve both been running through the summer and have race fitness so I think they’re entitled to think their chance in the Drinmore,” he said before adding: “I’m also going to run Feigh in the juvenile hurdle. She disappointed the last day when she just pulled too hard. I’m sure Patrick will have something organised for the bumper.”
Looking further on down the season the champion trainer added: “It’s the next few weeks that we put the gun to their head and ask them to do their stuff at home. That’s when things happen, little injuries can come in. At the moment it’s going well and I just hope it continues like that and we’ll get a few quid from Barney O’Hare again!”
Al Boum set for earlier start
Asked about his dual Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Al Boum Photo, Mullins confirmed his intention to run the nine-year-old more often this year.
He said: “I definitely think we’ll take a different route. Last year we got caught a little bit on the hop because of Covid and the horses having long breaks.
“I think it will benefit him now, at his age and everything, to have more runs and be more battle-hardened.
“I’ll try and get him out as soon as I can, definitely by Christmas. I’ll probably go to Tramore again, but I’ll get a run or two into him before that, I think.”
WILLIE Mullins has sent his previous two winners of the Munster National over to Newbury for the Ladbrokes Trophy and he is set to do the same with Ontheropes later this month.
Mullins won both races with Total Recall in 2017, while Cabaret Queen was unplaced at Newbury after winning impressively at Limerick in 2019.Ontheropes, a lightly-raced, Cheveley Park-owned chaser, was impressive in Limerick and unsurprisingly is prominent in most bookmaker’s lists for the Ladbrokes Trophy later this month.
“Ontheropes is on target for the Ladbrokes Trophy,” Mullins told The Irish Field on Thursday. “We’re very happy with his progress since he won at Limerick. I think he has a very similar profile to our last two winners as an improving horse.
“He was breaking his maiden when he won at Limerick so we’d be very hopeful there is a lot more improvement to come from him. Annamix and Brahma Bull are also on target for the race and should join him as well.”
Looking to the big races at home this side of Christmas, Mullins looks set to run both Sharjah and Echoes In Rain in the Morgiana Hurdle, a Grade 1 contest he has won 10 times.
Sharjah provided one of those wins in 2018 and will likely be one of the main players in the race again this season before going on to Leopardstown to defend his Matheson Hurdle title. Echoes In Rain is a Grade 1 winner over the course and distance and is exciting the champion trainer.
“Echoes In Rain is a definite to start off in the Morgiana,” Mullins said. “I think she has a lot of ability and if she can improve again this year, at the same rate she did last year, she could develop into a key contender for the bigger races down the line.
“She can be her own worst enemy as she is quite keen to get on with things and I’d probably be inclined to keep her to the minimum trip for now.”
Entries for the John Durkan Chase are still open and Mullins says “nearly every 150-plus chaser” on his team will be entered in that two-and-a-half-mile contest which he has won for the previous three seasons with the now retired Min.
Mullins also has seven entries for the King George and while he hasn’t had a runner in the Kempton Grade 1 since Vautour finished second to Cue Card in 2015, he says he is likely to be represented this year.
“I’m sure we are (going to run a horse in the King George),” he said. “We seem to have a nice bunch of senior chasers so we’ll divide them up as best we can.”
Allaho is the shortest priced of the Mullins entry and on the impressive Ryanair Chase winner, Mullins said: “He’s a very sharp jumper and a very sharp horse. I haven’t given up on him over two miles. We’ll look to start him off around John Durkan time.
“I know his owners would probably like to go there (King George) given they are British based. If that wasn’t the case, we might be more inclined to stay at home but let’s see how he gets on with his first run.”
THE bookmaker shop business has undoubtedly been among some of the hardest industries hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and given Bar One Racing is one of the biggest players in the sector with over 50 shops, it is a true credit to that company’s owner Barney O’Hare that he has maintained and increased his sponsorship within Irish racing.
Bar One Racing sponsors the whole card on the second day of Fairyhouse’s Winter Festival and have been linked to the meeting since 2006.
“It’s a fantastic meeting,” O’Hare said while looking ahead to this year’s renewal. “We’ve been involved with the Royal Bond since 2006 and a couple of years later the opportunity came up to sponsor all three Grade 1s and we’ve been involved ever since, it’s just been fantastic.
“It’s absolutely massive to have a mare like Honeysuckle so well linked to the meeting and year on year, you get big Cheltenham clues out of this meeting.”
On the recent hit to his business caused by the pandemic, O’Hare added: “It’s been a real struggle. Our retail shops have been very slow coming back because people don’t have the confidence to come back into them. People have got used to leaving their deposits and having their bets on the telephone and the internet.
“It’s changed times and we really don’t know where the future is going to be. We’re just watching to see will business come back or will it be scaled down.”
Fairyhouse general manager Peter Roe reports that ticket sales are going very well for the Winter Festival but that he is well aware of the current situation with regard to Covid infection rates in the country.
Roe said: “Hospitality has been very strong. We’re well ahead of schedule. We’re almost at a sell out situation but we’re very conscious of doing it right.
“Complying with government guidelines means it’s not straightforward and of course we are constantly monitoring the general scheme in the country regarding Covid, and well aware that things can change very fast.
“It will be great to get people back and we’re very much looking forward to doing the best we can.”