Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake sets the scene heading into the Punchestown Festival, suggesting it could be a long week if your name isn't Willie Mullins. Kevin also analyses the prep of former Ballydoyle horses running in the 2000 and 1000 Guineas.

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WILLIE MULLINS SET TO DOMINATE THE PUNCHESTOWN FESTIVAL

Willie Mullins has had something of a strange season. He is set to train over 200 winners in Ireland for the second campaign in succession and may well register his highest-ever seasonal tally of prize money, yet it is a campaign that he is likely to look back on with frustration.

Injuries to the likes of Douvan, Draconien, Great Field and Next Destination coupled with unusually quick ground for much of the winter led to Mullins getting far less runs into his star performers than he usually would. There was also a lingering concern about the health of the Mullins horses from before Christmas all the way up the Cheltenham Festival.

However, all the patience that Mullins showed with his better horses during those difficult few months looks set to be about to pay off in spectacular style. Mullins has tended to peak his best horses for the Cheltenham Festival and the other spring festivals in the past, but the unique circumstances of this season have resulted in him arriving to the Punchestown Festival with a notably fresh squad of horses.

The performances of his horses from Cheltenham to Aintree and onto Fairyhouse have given the impression of a team that are very much coming to the boil and they could well peak this week at Punchestown.

This thought should strike fear into Mullins’ rivals, as even in more typical seasons, Mullins has tended to be unstoppable at the Punchestown Festival. Two notable examples of this were in 2015 where he saddled 16 winners (including 10 Grade 1s) and secured just under €1.1m in prize money over the course of the five days.

Last year he saddled 18 winners (including nine Grade 1s) and earned an unbelievable tally of just over €1.75m in prize money there. While those figures set the bar incredibly high, given the way this season has panned out, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Mullins surpassed those remarkable levels and raised the bar even higher.

It could be a very long week for those trying to get the better of him.

BALLYDOYLE GUINEAS PREPARATION

The first Classics of the season at Newmarket are just around the corner and as has become the norm, Aidan O’Brien will saddle leading contenders for both the 2000 Guineas and 1000 Guineas. O’Brien’s runners will have a variety of profiles, but one specific angle that makes for very interesting analysis is the preparation his Guineas runners have had over the years.

Aidan O’Brien’s first runner in the 1000 Guineas was Shahtoush in 1998 and since then he has had a total of 39 runners in the race. Those runners had an average SP of just over 10/1 and yielded four victories (10.3% strike rate), namely Virginia Waters in 2005, Homecoming Queen in 2012, Minding in 2016 and Winter in 2017, with Shahtoush, Toroca, Together, Maybe, Moth, Ballydoyle, Alice Springs, Rhododendron and Happily finishing in the first three.

Analysis of his record in the race becomes much more interesting when one breaks it down into the type of preparation those runners had prior to running at Newmarket. Twenty-three of those 39 runners (59%) had a prep race prior to the 1000 Guineas and despite having an average starting price of over 15/1, it is an eye-catching fact that this group produced three of his four winners and five of his nine-placed fillies in the race.

Magna Grecia wins the Vertem Futurity Trophy Stakes
Aidan O'Brien's Magna Grecia (centre) is the current favourite for the 2000 Guineas

The surprising flipside to that statistic is how the fillies that O’Brien sent to the 1000 Guineas without a prep race fared. Despite having a significantly shorter average SP of 5.3/1, the exceptional Minding was the only one of those 16 fillies that won and only four of them hit the frame.

However, similar statistics for O’Brien’s runners in the 2000 Guineas produce completely contrasting results. In total, he has had 45 runners in the race that have yielded nine winners (20%). Of those 45 runners, 39 of them (86.7%) went straight to Newmarket without a prep race and all nine of his winners of the race were amongst that group.

Strangely, O’Brien has had remarkably few horses that finished second or third in the 2000 Guineas, with just three of those being found amongst his 45 runners in the race. It is quite an illustrious group too, being made up of Giant’s Causeway, Hawk Wing and Australia. They would go on to win 10 Group 1 races between them later in their careers.

Incidentally, Giant’s Causeway was the only one of the three to have a prep race for the Guineas.

All told, the patterns laid out in history are clear. With O’Brien’s runners in the 1000 Guineas, his fillies that have had a prep race have significantly outperformed those that ran in it on their seasonal reappearance. What makes this so interesting and significant is that these results have been in complete contrast with the expectations of the betting markets.

These statistics would raise obvious warning flags about O’Brien’s two main hopes for this year’s race in Fairyland and Just Wonderful given that they will contest the race on their seasonal reappearance. Unusually for O’Brien, none of his remaining entries in the race have the benefit of a prep race.

In the case of the 2000 Guineas, it’s a case of nothing to see here. Both O’Brien’s leading contenders in Magna Grecia and Ten Sovereigns will make their seasonal reappearances in it, but history has shown that this should be no semblance of an impediment to 2000 Guineas success for them.

While both the first two Classics lack a real stand-out contender, there are plenty of stable performers in both fields that have star potential. They should prove to be fascinating contests.

Kevin Blake
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