The equine side of racing over Christmas has already been well-covered elsewhere on the site, from the merit of performances to potential future targets to eye-catchers, so perhaps the human angle is worth addressing now, specifically two key trainers and how they fared over the four days.
If there was a prize for Most Improved Trainer over the past few years, Henry De Bromhead would be in the running, having bounced back quickly from the loss of the Potts horses back in 2016. Across Leopardstown and Limerick, De Bromhead had seven winners, two coming in Grade 1s, narrowly denied another with Monalee in the Savills Chase, and it is notable that both those top-level winners came from his novice team of last season.
In 2018/19, 73 of the trainer’s 105 UK and Irish winners came from novices and with such depth of talent, even allowing for a normal attrition with injury and what not, the group was likely to produce a handful of good horses. It was hardly a surprise to see A Plus Tard progress after a dominant Festival handicap win last year but Notebook was less obvious; a 135-rated hurdler, he is now the Arkle favourite.
They were not the only potential stars from that crop of horses; Christmas absentees Honeysuckle and Chris’s Dream have already made their mark in open company while Minella Indo may yet do so.
De Bromhead is not going to go backwards by standing still either, the trainer trying something new with Aspire Tower. Not known for juvenile hurdlers thus far in his career, he went without a single runner in such races between 2011 and 2015 but Havingagoodtime was a fair sort in that division last term and he now has the Triumph Hurdle favourite. Onwards and upwards, it seems.
Willie Mullins hardly had a bad Christmas with nine winners in all but there were some significant reverses, chiefly Laurina and Klassical Dream. On balance however, the stable remains strong in the open grade with Sharjah and Saldier in the Champion Hurdle, Chacun Pour Soi and Cilaos Emery in the Champion Chase, Min in the Ryanair, Al Boum Photo and Kemboy in the Gold Cup.
His novice chase team is healthy enough with the likes of Faugheen, Melon and Cash Back but the novice hurdlers and bumper horses are a different story. At the time of writing, no Mullins horse trades shorter than 20/1 for a Cheltenham novice hurdle while there were plenty of disappointments in this sphere over Christmas from Unexcepted to Blue Sari to Jon Snow to The Big Getaway, albeit some going with more promise than others.
The question of the best Mullins novice hurdler in most years would be a multiple choice offering with many possible answers but this season seems more like fill in the blanks. Comparing his record this season with the five that went before seems to support this.
Willie Mullins in Irish Maiden Hurdles
|Last 5 Seasons||225||576||39.1%||387||67.2%||0.95|
Willie Mullins in Irish Bumpers
|Last 5 Seasons||188||557||33.8%||339||60.9%||0.91|
The fall in strikerate in maiden hurdles this campaign, both win and place, is stark and the figures since the start of November, what we might call the starts of the jumps season proper, are a touch lower again. Things aren’t quite so bad in bumpers – at least using the bigger sample provided by placed runners – but there has still been a drop off.
One can only guess at the reasons. It could be as simple as a lesser crop of younger horses, relative to previous seasons at least. Last season was a strange one for the Mullins bumper horses as not many of them ran from January on as the ground was too quick with Blue Sari his sole runner in the Champion Bumper.
He acquitted himself well for one so inexperienced but from a broader stable strength perspective Mullins would surely have preferred to have more runners in the race; if he had five runners there, one might get injured, another may not progress, but he still would have had three battle-tested novice hurdlers to go to war with. Without that depth the margin for error is smaller.
There had been an expectation that Mullins would have a lot of bumper horses to run as soon as the winter came, not just those from this season but the overflow from 2018/19, and the trainer alluded to this in a stable tour or two back in November. But that strength hasn’t materialised yet.
In the same vein, new horses making their debut for the yard have been relatively thin on the ground. Of the 12 horses he ran in maiden hurdles or bumpers, only two (Ramillies and Hybery) were having their first run for him though Echoes In Rain also fit that profile in the Grade 2 juvenile hurdle. Perhaps those new horses aren’t there but it seems more likely they haven’t run yet.
There is also the sense that a few of the younger horses are needing the run more than is normally the case; Asterion Forlonge looked an entirely different proposition at Naas on Sunday to the horse that struggled to win a bumper at Thurles in November, Monkfish another that improved markedly for his seasonal debut.
Whereas Gordon Elliott is a trainer that seems particularly strong at this time of the year, Mullins has tended to focus his attention more on the spring starting with the Dublin Racing Festival onto Cheltenham and Fairyhouse and finally Punchestown and things are far from doom and gloom; of the 15 Grade 1 races run in Ireland, he has won four of them, each with an older horse (Saldier, Min, Faugheen and Sharjah).
That means there are still 22 Grade 1s at home still to come and 12 of those are at his beloved Punchestown, the open races there typically worth more than those run at the other major tracks. He seems sure to have a strong hand in those but whether the younger horses can step up to the mark in the interim remains to be seen.