Ben Linfoot: Mulling Mullins
Ben Linfoot ponders whether Yorkhill and Min may switch their perceived Cheltenham Festival targets in this week's column.
This time last year Black Hercules was a hot favourite for the National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
Willie Mullins' novice chaser had recently won the Hampton Novices' Chase at Warwick, giving weight and a beating to Definitly Red over three miles in soft ground. He was quoted for the RSA Chase and the four-miler afterwards and it was widely thought he'd appear in one of the two stamina-sapping races, for which the latter was a heavy favourite.
Perhaps there was an exceptional circumstance to this line of thought. Patrick Mullins had purchased him as a point-to-point horse and punters and bookmakers alike put two and two together and came up with the National Hunt Chase – a race that's confined to amateur riders.
It was thought this would be Patrick's ride, but if there's one person more important in Willie Mullins' yard than his own son, especially in the weeks leading up to the Cheltenham Festival, it's Ruby Walsh.
Walsh lines up his Cheltenham Festival mounts like a cross-legged child does presents by the tree on Christmas Eve. The one in the corner marked 'Patrick' didn't look right and his name was firmly scrubbed out and replaced with 'Ruby's JLT ride'. This all worked out okay.
The switch was a big surprise, however. A horse that was favourite for the four-mile race had already shown he had the necessary tools to thrive over the distance and the RSA looked a more likely second option.
Dropping back to the two-and-a-half miles in the JLT caught everyone on the hop, not least the bookmakers who were laying him at 50/1, but it wasn't the first great Willie Mullins switcheroo and it won't be the last.
Indeed, it was far from the most controversial switch from the Mullins camp at last year's Festival. Vautour was famously declared for the Ryanair Chase when it was widely thought he was going for the Gold Cup, while Yorkhill went up in trip in the Neptune instead of running over two miles in the Sky Bet Supreme, allowing Walsh to ride both him and Min.
The common theme here is, of course, all those late switches won.
For all the in-stable politics between high-profile owners and making sure Walsh has as many winning chances as possible, if Mullins does have a late change of heart it usually pays dividends.
So what could the big Mullins switch be this season?
Djakadam for the Ryanair? Unlikely, seeing as he's his only serious Gold Cup contender.
Faugheen for the Stayers' Hurdle? Again, unlikely, given the solid support for him in the Champion Hurdle market ahead of his return this weekend.
Douvan for the Gold Cup? No chance – if there's one thing Mullins loves more than a surprising late switch it's a Cheltenham banker and Douvan is Ruby's main present, dwarfing all the other gifts by a considerable margin.
But there is one late change I could easily see happening and that is Yorkhill rerouting from the JLT to the Arkle. I say rerouting, but there has been no suggestion from the Mullins camp he'll definitely be aimed at the JLT. He's just a hot favourite for the race, even more so following his win at Leopardstown on Sunday, and as short as 11/8 in places which looks crazily short.
His performance at the weekend earned mixed reviews. On the face of it, he only beat Jett, a 132-rated hurdler, by a length-and-a-quarter. But he did it very easily, in the style of a top-notcher, with the 148-rated Gangster beaten nearly eight lengths in third.
Jett, a half-brother to Jezki, could easily have improved on just his second completed chase start, on the best ground he's ever faced.
But watching Yorkhill, I just thought Arkle (race, not horse). He was keen, travelled supremely well, made some fiddly mistakes at some of his fences as if he wasn't quite going as fast as he'd like and, all in all, just looked like a speedy horse that would appreciate running at two miles.
Perhaps Mullins will feel the same, perhaps he won't. In the aftermath of the race on Sunday he suggested an even longer trip for Yorkhill if anything. But his late switches come following long periods of reflection, not in the aftermath of races. And the Arkle has been mentioned in dispatches.
After Yorkhill won the Grade One Mersey Novices' Hurdle at Aintree last year, Mullins said: "Ruby came in [at Cheltenham] and said he'd win the Arkle with his mouth open, so that's a tip for next year."
Then at Fairyhouse in December, following his chasing debut, Mullins said: "I thought he looked very much at home over fences and he has huge scope. We would have no difficulty stepping up in trip, but he's very good at two miles."
He even said at an Irish Champion Hurdle press conference on Monday that 'he could be a Champion Hurdler in time,' which is a bizarre quote about a novice chaser that isn't even entered in the Champion Hurdle. But at least it shows again that Mullins is thinking two miles.
The thing is with the Arkle, it looks more and more like a re-run of last year's Sky Bet Supreme. And we know that Altior, who hasn't put a hoof wrong over fences, won that race by seven lengths.
We also know Mullins places his horses in the races they are most likely to win. Is Min likely to beat Altior? I'm not sure. On last year's Supreme run you'd give him little chance. But we know he can beat Buveur D'air, second favourite for the JLT behind Yorkhill, as he did, in the Supreme, by a length and a half.
Is Yorkhill more likely to beat Altior than Min is? On last year's Cheltenham Festival showings, you'd have to say yes. It could count for a lot.
So if Yorkhill dropped back for the Arkle, Ruby would need a JLT mount. That could be Bellshill, as for all he's favourite for the RSA, he's done all of his running, and winning, over fences over two-and-a-half miles.
But that would leave Ruby without a high-profile RSA mount and Bellshill did win a Grade One over three miles over hurdles. Let's presume the market has got this one right and Bellshill does go down the RSA route.
After his debut over hurdles, Mullins said: "That was 2m2f there but, looking at him, he would have no problem over 2m or going up to 2m4f."
After the Supreme he said: "Altior was a worthy winner, we have no excuses. Min ran his race and that's as good as we are."
And after he won the Grade One Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas Mullins said: "He looks Arkle material, although he could go out in trip."
This is all conjecture. Of course it is. But punters should well remember that Mullins hasn't confirmed anything for anything yet and there are some seriously short prices about some of his big guns for the Festival.
And if you think something is too short, then perceived value lies elsewhere. The best quotes about Yorkhill for the Arkle and Min for the JLT could, for me, considerably underestimate their chances of lining up and winning those contests.
But it all comes with the caveat emptor: trying to second guess Willie Mullins can be a costly business.
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