Ben Linfoot: Are we having a Mare?
Ben Linfoot discusses Willie Mullins' golden hour and argues that a Grade One at the Cheltenham Festival should be a handicap.
Willie Mullins: The eight-times Mares' Hurdle winner had a golden hour on Sunday
Willie Mullins' Golden Hour (and a bit)
"It's been a golden hour for Willie Mullins," remarked commentator Dessie Scahill as Listen Dear sauntered to victory in the Kerry Group E.B.F Mares Novice Chase at 2.52pm on Sunday afternoon.
And it was. His best hour, or 46 minutes, of the season so far, as big guns Djakadam and Douvan, one bull, one peacock, were unleashed one after the other at Punchestown and Cork.
Gordon Elliott, still leading the Irish trainers' championship, had already saddled a couple of winners by the time Djakadam lined up for the John Durkan, but Rich Ricci's dual Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up was about to kick off a statement of intent from Team Mullins.
2.06pm, Punchestown – Djakadam grinds out John Durkan victory
An Irish Grade One that was essentially Mullins versus Gigginstown – it won't be the last time that's the case over the coming months. Mullins won this battle, Djakadam stamping his class only very late in proceedings to see off former stablemate Outlander who reversed earlier Down Royal form with Sub Lieutenant.
There have been murmurings of Djakadam being aimed at the Ryanair and he was cut to as short as 10/1 for that contest in the aftermath of this victory. Yet, while he's capable at this sort of distance, he again left the impression that he would be better suited over further and it would seem unfair if he were to be denied a third crack at the Gold Cup, for which he is now a best-price 10/1 shot, due to an all too familiar Rich switchy.
2.21pm, Cork – Douvan swaggers to Hilly Way success
Exactly a quarter of an hour later Douvan bashed up a posse of inferior rivals on his seasonal reappearance and first run out of novice company in the Kerry Group Hilly Way Chase at Cork.
You get the impression he could beat any horse over any trip right now, such is the ease in which he's accumulated 11 wins from 11 starts in his career, and he's in the betting for the Champion Chase, the Ryanair and the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival.
Yet connections seemed unusually committed to a target in the post-race briefing.
"I think we'll stick to two miles," said Ricci.
"I'm happy enough to stick to that (two miles) this year," said Mullins.
"I think the two-mile route this year is the right one," said Ricci.
"The King George would not be in my plan at the moment," said Mullins.
Ah, at the moment. So he could run in the King George then?
"Next year if we want to, but I'm very happy to stick at around that trip this year," said Mullins.
Next year. It all seems very definitive. Hurrah! No wonder he's 4/9 for the Champion Chase. Incredibly, it's hard to quibble with that price* such is his magnificence.
2.39pm Punchestown – American Tom shoots down Gangster
Ricci and Mullins had only just talked themselves out of going to Kempton with Douvan when American Tom set off for his chasing debut at Punchestown.
Highly-touted as a novice hurdler, he was only seen once last season but showed few signs of rustiness when galloping away from Gigginstown's Gangster under a positive Ruby Walsh ride.
He did jump out to his left noticeably on several occasions, so perhaps he will benefit from going the other way around. All in all, though, this was an encouraging performance and he's now second favourite, behind stablemate Yorkhill, for the JLT Novices' Chase at the Festival.
2.52pm Cork – Listen Dear another super mare?
Another for Mullins just 13 minutes later, if not for Ricci, as the Supreme Horse Racing Club got in on the act with Listen Dear who was maintaining the unbeaten start to her chasing career.
She looked really slick over her fences and was impressive in victory, looking every inch a Mullins mare with a big future.
By Robin Des Champs, the sire of the stable's six-time Cheltenham Festival winner Quevega, Listen Dear completed a 46-minute across-the-cards four-timer for Mullins and also a good week for her owners, the SHRC, who have last weekend's Royal Bond winner Airlie Beach among their number as well.
And a bit…
Mullins had two other winners to take his tally for the day to six; Turcagua, a Rich Ricci novice hurdler – where have they been? – impressively winning from the front on his second start over timber, while Come To Me rounded the afternoon off nicely in the closing bumper.
A golden hour, a golden day. Mullins is kicking into gear. And though his King George challenge appears to be waning if those Douvan quotes are to be believed, a formidable team already looks like being assembled for a certain week in March.
Am I Having a Mare?
Talking of that week in March, we all have our ideas on how we can improve the Cheltenham Festival. Some want three days, some want five. Some want a 'Ryanair Hurdle', some want rid of the Cross Country. Some want sunshine, some want rain. You can't please everyone.
But if I had the keys to the schedule, I would unlock the drawer marked 'Grade One OLBG Mares' Hurdle', chisel away at the bronze naming plate and replace it with the 'Grade Three OLBG Mares' Handicap Hurdle'.
Now, I know replacing a Grade One with a handicap requires a bit of imagination, and I realise that the new programme for mares has been a success, but please, hear me out. I think this is a win-win.
The Mares' Hurdle in its current guise is a Willie Mullins benefit. I don't have a problem with that as such – he has the best mares and he handles them brilliantly – but this is a £60,000 penalty kick for him every year. Even when he misses from the spot, like when Annie Power fell at the last to the disappointment of just about everyone at Prestbury Park that day, his second string, Glens Melody, picked up the pieces.
Prior to that his Quevega made Cheltenham Festival history by winning the race for six consecutive years. It was a Grade Two back in her day, but every year she turned up as a 160+ rated-horse with at least a stone in hand on her best rivals. Is this really what we want to see?
It was the same with Annie Power. It was the same with Vroum Vroum Mag. It'll be the same with Willie Mullins' selected in the race this season. And it'll be the same the season after that. It's not a great situation is it? The Cheltenham Festival should be a severe test, but these are easy pickings for Mullins.
But what if the race were a handicap? What if Willie Mullins' selected had to give a substantial amount of weight to everything in the field? Wouldn't that be a sight to behold? Vroum Vroum Mag trying to give 20 inferior mares two stone. Annie Power the same. You could back them at a price, too, if you thought they could do it. We could see a weight-carrying performance of the ages.
Hang on. Is that a dissenting voice at the back?
"He wouldn't run Annie Power or Vroum Vroum Mag or anything else if they had to give away all that weight!" I hear you cry.
Maybe he wouldn't, Rich. But this is the beauty of the idea. If the thought of letting his Grade A mares give all that weight away was unappealing, there would be another option. An option where they wouldn't concede weight, but where they'd receive weight. He could run them in the Grade Ones against the geldings.
Just imagine. Seeing the likes of Annie Power in races like the Champion Hurdle could become the norm. Vroum Vroum Mag could be fast-tracked to the Gold Cup (or Ryanair, let's not get ahead of ourselves). We might've seen Quevega in a Champion Hurdle or a World Hurdle or both.
Would the mares' hurdle suffer? It might do. I'm sure the genuine Grade One mares, of which there aren't many, certainly not enough to justify having a race confined to the sex, would be steered in the direction of the Champion Hurdle and the World Hurdle.
But would the mares' themselves, as a commodity in the great game, suffer? Certainly not. And the Mares' Hurdle would be a more competitive betting race and, in all likelihood, a more compelling spectacle whether the crème de la crème turned up or not.
I'm not against mares' races at all. I harnessed this idea after thoroughly enjoying the mares' handicap at Cheltenham on Saturday. I marvelled at how a mare like On Demand, who couldn't win a seller on the Flat, almost nicked a prize at the home of jumps racing with a real gutsy effort from the front.
The classier Briery Queen reeled her in up the hill in the end and it was a marvellous spectacle. And I'd rather see that sort of battle at the Festival than a Grade One cruise from a vastly superior rival taking candy from the babies around her.
Super Sam back with a bang
Sam Twiston-Davies has a habit of banging in a big winner at Cheltenham just when he needs one and he did it again on Saturday with Frodon in the Caspian Caviar.
Paul Nicholls' stable jockey hadn't had too much luck since returning from injury, but he got into a great rhythm with Frodon in the feature handicap with the novice jumping impeccably to land the big prize.
It was more finesse than strength in the saddle that was required on Saturday, even if Frodon had to be kept up to his work from the last to the line, but the following day the jockey's fitness levels were tested to the extreme by Dr Richard Newland's West Of The Edge.
Twiston-Davies, flowing with confidence following his Cheltenham success, travelled up to Carlisle for just the one mount, but he made sure the journey was a worthwhile one with a power-packed ride aboard the eight-year-old.
Malcolm Jefferson's Ballyben was a couple of lengths in front before and after the last, trading at 1.17 in-running on Betfair when he looked the likely winner on the climb for home.
But Twiston-Davies was having none of it, switching West Of The Edge to the inside of Ballyben before lifting him home with a really strong drive for the finish.
His enforced break actually looks to have done him some good. And he looks in great shape, mentally and physically, ahead of another big weekend at Ascot where the likes of Irish Saint, Ptit Zig and Diego Du Charmil could give him another Saturday to remember.
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