MULLINS UNDERPERFORMANCE RAISES CHELTENHAM CONCERNS
Ask a racing fan to describe the current Irish jumps season and ‘weird’ seems to be the most common response. A January of good ground and small fields is a little strange but perhaps weirdest of all is the apparent lack of form of Willie Mullins, his being the one yard that never seems to go cold.
Christmas was ok/not great for Mullins, his 10 winners over the period best of all Irish trainers but a long way off the 22 wins over Christmas 2016. Since the start of December his win strike rate is 19.9% with a place strike rate of 42.5% both of which are below his norms. Taking the 2017/18 campaign as a whole, he returned a win strike rate of 26.6% and a place strike rate of 49.4%.
He is underperforming the betting market a little too. From December 1st to today, the Betfair SP market suggests he should have had 35.6 winners whereas in actuality he has had 29 for an actual/expected of 0.81. While hardly massive underachievement relative to expectation, it is not firing on all cylinders either.
The trainer himself seems unconcerned by this, commenting in a recent Irish Times interview: ‘It’s just been a difficult year. We haven’t had a winter season yet. This affects everyone…but it’s probably more noticeable with the top yards because they have more runners.’
Certainly Mullins has put forward no reason for how things are currently going but sometimes the post-race enquiries/reports that have been made by/to the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board following recent disappointing runs can be informative.
Since December 26th there have been 16 such reports from the IHRB with the most common reason for a bad run being ‘post-race normal’ which doesn’t tell us much. There have been some disappointing runs where the reports made sense: Elite Charboniere was ‘blowing hard post-race’ following his Leopardstown run on December 28th but he as off a 313-day break then while Dento Des Obeaux burst a blood vessel at Clonmel on January 10th.
The two that might raise an eyebrow were Dorrells Pierji at Limerick on December 29th and Come To Me at Naas on January 6th both of whom were ‘coughing’ after their runs. Both were also notably strong in the betting on those occasions and the current lack of stable form – if there is one – hasn’t stopped the market speaking in their favour.
Fasola Tido and Face The Facts are just two more Mullins runners that have disappointed having been well-backed over the past week or so. Many punters have adopted as an article of faith that ‘Mullins + a short price = winners’ and have plenty of success to show for it but for the moment that may not quite be the case.
One contributing factor to this might well be the strength (or lack thereof) in his novice teams. For years, Mullins has been elite with both novice hurdlers and chasers but that hasn’t really been the case this season.
The Champion Bumper is always the place to start when looking for the best novice hurdlers of the following season and Mullins dominated that race in 2018 with five of the first seven home. Things haven’t gone entirely to plan since though. Relegate disappointed on hurdling debut before winning second time up and seems to be waiting on softer ground at the moment while Carefully Selected, as yet unraced over hurdles, has the same issue though at least he has had recent entries.
Tornado Flyer won well enough on debut but jumped like Rob Gronkowski runs these days at Naas and has plenty to prove. Neither Blackbow nor Colreevy have had any entries recently. The injury to Quick Grabim which ruled him out of Cheltenham didn’t help either.
Things have arguably been even worse with the novice chasers and perhaps the horses simply aren’t there for them to run. The yard won plenty of good summer novice races with the likes of Camellia De Cotte and Cadmium (both of whom are tellingly still on the go) but since then there has been little in the way of new talent.
Since the start of October, Mullins has run only nine ‘new’ novice chasers; by ‘new’ I mean horses that were having their first run over fences. That cohort comprised Voix Du Reve, Timi Roli, Dolciano Dici, Getabird, Duc De Genievres, Real Steel, Redhotfillypeppers, Pravalaguna and Ballyward, a talented group but probably lacking a true star and hardly the deepest.
Bad injury luck has played a role with both Next Destination and Draconien out for the season, those two horses perhaps the yard’s best prospects at staying and speed trips respectively. There doesn’t appear to be much to step up to replace them either with Mullins having only four total entries in two the Grade 1 novice chases at the Dublin Racing Festival with Cilaos Emery the one of those that hasn’t run over fences yet.
Some of this might be the last after-effect of the Mullins-Gigginstown break-up. That was back in September 2016 and the yard would surely have been getting a group of well-bred and/or expensive bumper horses for that winter and the following spring. Those horses, had they followed the typical Gigginstown trajectory, would now be in their novice chase seasons and while their boxes may have been filled soon after, it doesn’t seem to have been with chase prospects.
Should a classy novice or two emerge from the yard in the next few weeks and help boost the stable form, there is also the question about whether or not it will run at Cheltenham. The window for Festival prep run is narrowing all the time and going back to 2008, Mullins has run just nine horses in a Cheltenham novice race after only one previous outing over obstacles.
The first of those won – Fiveforthree in the 2008 Ballymore – but only Melon in the 2017 Supreme has gone there with a meaningful chance since. He has not run a novice chaser at the Festival off one run in that period so this could be the first year since 2011 when he doesn’t win at least one novice chase at the meeting. That would indeed by weird.
RUNNERS TO NOTE
The weekend just passed was hardly the most exciting of the year, January racing in general suffering on the quality front since the development of the Dublin Racing Festival. A couple of runners did catch the eye at Navan on Saturday though.
Emily Moon was only sixth in the maiden hurdle but shaped well as a mare against geldings, keen through the early stages forcing an overly-strong pace which is supported by Timeform returning a race finishing speed of 95.2%. She managed to be right there until two out and has the option of reverting to her own sex.
That race was the fastest of the three two-and-a-half mile hurdles on the card with the handicap hurdle won by Agusta Gold run much slower but Jimmy Breekie was the one that looked better than the result in third. He got shuffled back prior to the straight before being tight for room between the final two hurdles, none of which was ideal with the slow pace, and closed all the way to the line.
Though a nine-year-old, the application of a tongue-tie seems to have drawn some improvement from him and he was off a break too here having failed to get home in a strong race at the same track over further in November.
Already Recommended (scale 1-5 points):
Unibet Irish Gold Cup, Leopardstown February 3rd
1pt win BELLSHILL ( 7-1 general )