Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake takes a close look at what is set to become another thrilling battle between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott in the quest to be crowned champion trainer in Ireland.

  • Sunday 14 January
  • Blog
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Elliott mounting even stronger challenge for Irish Trainers’ Title

The backend of the last Irish National Hunt season was lit up by the dramatic contest for the title of Champion Trainer. Having led the way from the early stages of the season, Gordon Elliott looked likely to hold on to do the unthinkable by taking the crown from Willie Mullins, but Mullins had a typically-strong Punchestown Festival and forced his head back in front with just a handful of races remaining in the campaign. It really was a sensational conclusion to the season.

While Elliott’s performance last season represented another chunk of improvement in what has been a career marked by relentless progression up the ranks, the common view was that while Elliott’s achievements could not questioned, many felt that Mullins had a “black swan” season in that he lost 60 horses owned by Gigginstown and had to do without the likes of Vautour, Faugheen and Annie Power. However, while Mullins undoubtedly had a very testing year in that regard, it is a testament to his powers of recovery that his overall seasonal performance didn’t suffer. Indeed, as is shown by these statistics, despite all of the setbacks he suffered during the campaign he still managed to secure his best-ever seasonal tally of prize money.

Season    Runs  Wins  Prize Money
2012/13    595    193    € 3,908,059
2013/14    670    185    € 3,817,779
2014/15    554    187    € 4,225,253
2015/16    557    185    € 4,489,105
2016/17    571    180    € 4,580,200

Considering that Mullins’s tallies suffered in 2015/16 due to him putting an unusual amount of focus on having winners in Great Britain at the backend of the season in pursuit of the British trainers’ title and that they were depleted in 2016/17 due to the aforementioned series of setbacks he had to deal with, there was every reason to believe that 2017/18 could see Mullins raise his personal bar of achievement even higher. This notion was only strengthened by the strong impression gleamed from many in the Mullins camp that the close call they had in the Irish trainers’ championship had served to refuel the competitive fires in the team and drive them all on to even greater levels of performance this season.

That theory was certainly supported by Mullins’s performance in the opening months of this season. Traditionally a relatively slow starter, Mullins had saddled 77 winners by the end of September which compared ominously well with his equivalent tallies in the previous five seasons of 49, 50, 45, 45 and 58. Indeed, on October 12th, Paddy Power (the only firm that keeps a regularly-updated book on the Irish trainers’ championship) had shortened him into 1/12 to defend his championship crown.

However, if the close call that Mullins had last season served to light a fire under him, one wouldn’t need a degree in psychology to have seen just how much it hurt Gordon Elliott to be pipped at the post. This is a man whose still relatively young training career has been defined by relentless drive and ambition, so for him to have had what would have been arguably the greatest achievement of his career taken away from him in such agonising style was only going to ever make him more determined to seize the title from Mullins.

What has transpired thus far this season has been thrilling to observe. As was the theme last season, Mullins has been more about quality than quantity, maintaining his metronomic 30%+ strike rate and cleaning up plenty of valuable Graded races. Meanwhile, Elliott has had almost double the number of runners that Mullins has had and while he hasn’t had quite as much success in valuable handicaps as he had at this stage of last season, he is making up for with increased levels of success in Graded races.

Indeed, the changing profile of their rivalry is perhaps best illustrated by their relative performances at the biggest domestic meetings of the season thus far. On the Hatton’s Grace card at Fairyhouse in December, Elliott became the first-ever trainer to saddle all three Grade 1 winners on that card and Mullins drew a blank on the day. The results of the Graded races over the Christmas period in Ireland also made for intriguing reading. Of the seven Grade 1 races, Elliott won three of them while Mullins won two. Of the five other Graded races during that period, they won two apiece.

This change in dynamic is also reflected in the current standings in the trainers’ championship. This time last year, Elliott’s tally stood at €2,857,825 and he led Mullins by €314,762, yet Paddy Power still have Mullins as their 4/6 favourite. As of right now, Elliott is on €2,947,105 and leads by €488,746. While Paddy Power had made Mullins the 1/12 favourite just two months ago, it is now Elliott that heads the market at 4/6.
There may well be over three months to go in the season, but after the drama that their battle served up last season, it would be far from premature for this narrative to be come to prominence once again. Indeed, it is surprising that there hasn’t been more chat about it in the media and that so few bookmakers/exchanges are running markets on it.

The battle lines are drawn and this promises to be another enthralling clash between two remarkable trainers.

Kevin Blake
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