Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake puts the battle to be top National Hunt trainer in Ireland in the spotlight.

  • Monday 28 October
  • Blog
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Mullins and Elliott circle each other as National Hunt season kicks up a gear

The rivalry between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott has been absolutely riveting to watch in recent seasons and it promises to once again be a major focus point of this campaign.

As recently as the 2014/15 season, the thought that Mullins’s position of dominance could be challenged in the foreseeable future seemed unrealistic, with him securing double the number of winners and almost three times as much prize money as his nearest pursuer in the Irish trainers’ championship. Indeed, the season that followed saw him come within a whisker of winning the British trainers’ championship too.

However, the world of National Hunt racing was turned on its head just over three years ago by the decision of Gigginstown House Stud to take their 60 horses away from Willie Mullins, with Gordon Elliott being the main benefactor. Elliott had already been making relentless headway in terms of his winners/prize money tallies and this move very much opened the door to him launching a previously unthinkable challenge to Mullins’s crown.

What transpired over the course of the 2016/17 and 2017/18 seasons were arguably the greatest battles ever seen between two Irish trainers for a championship. Both titles came down to the wire, with Elliott setting a blistering pace through both campaigns only for Mullins to get his nose in front on the line on both occasions.

Last season saw a change in the dynamic. Elliott had to deal with well-publicised issues with the health of his horses in the opening months of the season which prevented him from building up his usual early lead in the championship. Meanwhile, Mullins had burst out of the blocks in remarkable style, smashing Elliott’s record for the fastest 100 winners in a season and saddling no less than 107 winners by the end of the October. Elliott essentially conceded the championship at this early stage and as if to emphasise that he wasn’t bluffing, he sent out 35 winners in Britain up to the end of October rather than keeping them at home. Despite Mullins’s string having their own health issues during the course of the season, he still surged away to secure the trainers’ championship with over €2m to spare.

Interestingly, this season has seen another change in dynamic between the two, with both of them seeming to have taken a much steadier approach to the summer campaign.

With one more National Hunt meeting remaining in October, Elliott has saddled 68 winners in Ireland to date (compared to 83 in 2016/17, 78 in 2017/18 and 63 during the health issues amongst his string last season. Interestingly, this season has also seen him send over far less raiders to Britain, with him having sent out just 18 winners over there this season compared to 35 at the same stage last season.

Likewise, Mullins has seemingly very much put the brakes on his summer campaign. With one meeting remaining in October, he has had just 58 winners so far this season compared to his record-breaking tally of 107 last season. Mind, this represents a return to what was considered typical for Mullins prior to his accelerated level of activity during the summer months in the last two seasons which was presumably a direct response to Elliott’s challenge.

However, the phoney war is about to come to an end. While last season was a disrupted one for both Mullins and Elliott in terms of the health of their horses, but also in terms of a lack of rain throughout the winter, this season promises to be much more straightforward. The rain we expect at this time of year has very much fallen and as a result, we can expect both Mullins and Elliott to start unleashing their A-team in the coming weeks.

While Elliott will face arguably the biggest challenge of his career in how he adjusts his business to cope with Gigginstown’s decision to gradually wind down their racing interests, he has the benefit of it being a gradual winding down rather than the one fell swoop that Mullins was hit with by them in September 2016. Elliott can be expected to remain very competitive with Mullins in the next couple of seasons, but how well he adjusts to his new reality going forward will shape the Irish National Hunt landscape in the years ahead.

Mullins and Elliott may be the two dominant players in the game right now, but there is plenty of other significant activity in the Irish National Hunt ranks that warrants discussion.

The Gigginstown exit from Mullins’s yard in September 2016 wasn’t the only significant such news around that time, as a month earlier the late Alan Potts removed his horses from Henry De Bromhead’s yard. With the departed having included future Gold Cup winner Sizing John and multiple Grade 1-winning hurdler Supasundae, many might have expected it to result in a downturn in De Bromhead’s fortunes.

Not only were such fears unfounded, the opposite has proven to be the case. De Bromhead’s best-ever seasonal tally of winners in the Potts era was 49, but he has since surged forward, registering a career-best 98 domestic winners last season to finish third in the trainers’ championship. As well as that, the last three seasons have seen him saddle a total of four winners at the Cheltenham Festival, including Special Tiara in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and Balko Des Flos in the Ryanair Chase.

Henry De Bromhead is very much on the charge and will no doubt be aiming to once again secure third position in the trainers' championship this season.

Mind, right now, the trainer in third position when ranked by winners is a new face to the top table of Irish National Hunt racing, that of Gavin Cromwell. Cromwell has long been a well-regarded trainer that did very well with relatively small numbers of horses, but he has clearly expanded his business significantly in recent seasons and that has been reflected in his results. Considering he saddled just eight winners under National Hunt rules in Ireland as recently as the 2017/18 campaign, that he secured 33 such winners last season and has already saddled 45 this season is a remarkable rate of progression.

The victory of Espoir D’Allen very much announced Cromwell’s arrival on the big-race scene when bolting up in the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival last season. While that horse’s unfortunate demise will obviously weaken his hand at the highest level, Cromwell is progressing at such a rate that it will surely only be a matter of time before more Grade 1 talent finds its way into his yard.

All told, the stage is very much set for another exciting Irish National Hunt season. The next few weeks are likely to see a conveyer belt of high-class horses make their seasonal reappearances and I for one can’t wait to see it.

Buckle up, it’s going to be great!

Kevin Blake
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