Robin Oakley

Who’s afraid of Willie Mullins

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Who’s afraid of Willie Mullins? Pretty well every other trainer and certainly the bookies who made his French import Ocastle Des Mottes a 7-2 hot favourite for the Betfair Hurdle – which is the richest event of its kind run in Britain – at Newbury on Saturday. You can see why. The ever-courteous Mullins holds the record for the most winners trained in a season by an English or Irish trainer at 245 and the most Grade One victories in a season at 34. No one has trained more than his 94 winners at the Cheltenham Festival.

On Cheltenham Trials Day a fortnight before, being more concerned with the then oncoming Dublin Racing Festival, Willie sent over just two horses. His Lossiemouth produced the performance of the day in winning the mares’ race and Capodanno, well down the pecking order at Closutton, was untroubled in winning the Grade Two Cotswold Chase.

‘He’s a character like all good horses but we’re in control of him now and he’s behaving our way, not his’

Then came the Dublin Festival where – despite the best efforts of Gordon Elliott, Henry de Bromhead and his other domestic rivals – Willie Mullins achieved the remarkable feat of winning all eight Grade One races over the two days. As I write, horses he trains are favourites for 16 of the 28 races at the Cheltenham Festival, including the Gold Cup with last year’s impressive winner Galopin Des Champs.

There is no shadow of doubt that he is a brilliant trainer, with an unmatched team of spotters keeping the equine talent coming. But racing is a numbers game in which success breeds success and in those eight Grade One races at the Dublin Festival more than half of the 52 runners – 30 to be precise – had arrived at the course from Willie Mullins’s yard. His skill has brought him to a highly favourable position with the richest owners queuing to send him expensive horses. But for those of us who look for a little value in the betting market he is no friend and Ocastle Des Mottes was a case in point.

Ocastle had won a couple of hurdles in France before joining Willie and for some reason the English handicapper had set him 6lb less to carry at Newbury than he would have done making a start in an Irish race. But when you talk to trainers like Venetia Williams, who bring over plenty of French-bred horses, they tell you that they can take time to settle in and to adjust to the British style of racing. Ocastle Des Mottes ran a respectable race (having been re-shod beforehand) but tired over the last two furlongs and finished eighth. Of Mullins’s other two entrants, Alvaniy was pulled up on the home turn and Onlyamatteroftime was second-last of the 19 finishers. Willie is amazing but he is not unbeatable.

The Betfair Hurdle was won by the Nicky Henderson-trained Iberico Lord and I apologise to the lady on the second-floor balcony who was clearly disturbed by the extravagantly noisy behaviour of an excited correspondent behind her yelling him home. It was though his second victory this season in a major handicap hurdle and for those brave enough to stick with the Twelve to Follow I recommended back in November it was our 11th victory out of 22 runners. Eight of the 12 have won races and we are showing a very healthy profit.

Nico de Boinville, not long back from a collarbone injury, kept his nerve around the inside, not getting flustered when Iberico found the early pace too much and passing 14 rivals up the straight with a perfectly timed run. ‘I like riding round here,’ said Nico. ‘It’s my local track. I grew up 15 minutes away. I enjoy the puzzle of riding around here in big handicaps.’

I have kept my eye on the J.P. McManus-owned winner ever since I saw Nicky and his wife turn up at a humdrum Stratford meeting to watch him the season before and it was very much a Henderson day at Newbury, with the talented Shishkin running a perfect prep for the Cheltenham Gold Cup in winning the Grade Two Betfair Denman Chase. His previous two runs had been the wrong kind of newsmakers: at Ascot he refused to start and then at Kempton, looking as though he was going to win the King George chase, he stumbled after two out and unseated Nico.

At Newbury he jumped well and looked like a horse who was very much up for it. Said Nicky: ‘The Gold Cup has to be the objective, I don’t think three and a quarter miles will frighten him. I’ve been impressed with Galopin Des Champos but after him I think there’s an opening.’

Significantly he added: ‘He’s a character like all good horses but we’re in control of him now and he’s behaving our way, not his.’

Shishkin has talent and he likes Cheltenham, having won the Supreme Hurdle and the Arkle Chase there over lesser distances. Galopin Des Champs will take some beating and no ten-year-old has won the Gold Cup since Cool Dawn in 1998 but at 8-1 Shishkin is a fair each-way bet.