Willie Mullins in the driving seat as National Hunt season hits top gear
For the last two seasons, it has been GORDON ELLIOTT that set a blistering pace in the Irish National Hunt trainer’s championship. In each of those campaigns he had secured 83 and 78 wins in Ireland by the end of October. However, this season has seen a very different story unfold.
A combination of Gordon having well publicised issues with the health of his horses in the opening weeks of the season and WILLIE MULLINS putting his foot on the accelerator from the outset of the campaign has seen Mullins take a commanding lead. Such has been the speed of Mullins’s start that he has already smashed Elliott’s record for the fastest 100 winners in a season in Ireland and up to the end of October has already secured a remarkable 107 winners.
To give some context as to how unusual this is for Mullins, last season saw him make by far his fastest-ever start to a season when saddling 86 winners up to the end of October and quite clearly he has left that tally for dead this season.
Given that Mullins has historically been much stronger in the second half of the season than the first half, that he already has a near €700,000 lead over Elliott suggests that the trainer’s championship is very much his to lose. Indeed, it has been interesting to see Elliott being much more aggressive with his campaigning of horses in Great Britain thus far this season. Elliott made his name on that circuit in the early stages of his training career, but had more so focused on the domestic scene in recent seasons.
That is has already saddled 35 winners at a remarkable strike rate of 44% in Great Britain thus far this season perhaps indicates that in his mind, the title race in Ireland is already lost.
However, while Mullins is very much in the driving seat in the trainer’s championship, in real terms the National Hunt season in Ireland has yet to truly kick into gear. The weather has been remarkably dry for many months now and as a result, most trainers in Ireland are behind where they would usually be with their best horses. While there is rain due to arrive later this week, it remains to be seen whether it will come in time to allow some of the bigger guns to be unleashed in the first Grade 1 action of the season at Down Royal at the weekend.
Whether it happens this weekend or after that, the stage is set for what promises to be another electric National Hunt season both in Ireland and Great Britain. The trainer’s championship may already may all but decided, but the battle between Mullins and Elliott at Grade 1 level throughout the season is sure to be fierce.
Samcro staying over hurdles is the right call
There had been much speculation ever since last season whether the Gordon Elliott’s emerging superstar SAMCRO would be sent chasing or remain over hurdles this season. On Monday, Gordon Elliott confirmed via his Betfair column that Samcro would be staying over hurdles. It was hard not to get the impression from interviews with Elliott in recent weeks that his personal inclination was to stay hurdling and it seems the O’Leary’s ended up agreeing with him.
The news was greeted with disappointment in some quarters, but in my opinion, it is very much the right call. In a nutshell, the Champion Hurdle division has been lacking in depth for a couple of seasons now and Buveur D’Air has ruthlessly capitalised on that by winning the last two renewals. However, as two-time Champion Hurdle winners go, he isn’t the most intimidating of rivals. Melon is a solid proposition that could potentially find a bit more improvement this season, but the main potential in the division looks to be in Laurina and Summerville Boy who will both need to improve notably to establish themselves as Champion Hurdle contenders.
Of course, Samcro will need to improve himself if he is to win a Champion Hurdle, but he doesn’t have to progress as much as most and all the talent seems to be there. As exciting as it is when a horse with his ability goes novice chasing, one can’t help but think that some connections have left Championship races over hurdles behind them by being too quick to send their top-class hurdling prospects over fences. Samcro is likely to end up over fences at some stage, but trying to win a Champion Hurdle with him before then makes perfect sense.