Matt Tombs returns to Cheltenham Tips with a thought-provoking piece on Willie Mullins, and horses which he feels are being targeted at the wrong races at the Cheltenham Festival 2016.
One of the consequences of, firstly, there being so many more races at the Festival and, secondly, the best horses being concentrated in fewer hands – is that it is much more likely that horses will run in the ‘wrong’ races. When there were, for example, just 2 level weights novice chases, (the Arkle & RSA,) and it was rare for the leading owners to have more than the odd top class novice, the target for almost every horse was pretty obvious.
There was the occasional horse like 2007 Arkle winner My Way De Solzen, who had won the World Hurdle the previous year. With no JLT then, there was much debate about which race, (Arkle, RSA or Ryanair), that he’d run in. Alan King made a brilliant decision to run in the Arkle as to most of us that looked the least likely of the 3.
The additional races and the desire of many leading connections to split their horses up, makes it much more likely that horses will end up in the ‘wrong’ race now and so might underperform. The good news for punters is that if the market perception is that they won’t be aimed at the ‘right’ race – once non runner, no bet is available they will often be too big a price for that ‘right’ race. It’s not unknown for there to be a late change of plan…
Inevitably many such runners are trained by Willie Mullins for whom the perming of his team is much more complex than for anyone else. Here are 4 of Willie’s army that might be in the ‘wrong’ race, (and might provide NRNB value in the ‘right’ race):
Annie Power (Rich & Susannah Ricci) – Champion Hurdle
This isn’t a case of a horse trying to avoid one with the same, or similar, connections. In this case it’s an odd looking substitution – and I’m still struggling to get my head round Annie Power running in the Champion Hurdle. Willie enters every horse for every conceivable race – but she didn’t get entered for the Champion, (she’s being supplemented). She wasn’t omitted from the entries to avoid Faugheen – she wasn’t thought to be a Champion Hurdle mare. Then with Faugheen sadly getting injured, she was suddenly targeted at the race.
She has never run at shorter than 2m3½f in open company – when beating Zarkander at Ascot in November 2013. She’s run only against mares at long odds-on since the 2014 World Hurdle. Her last run against the geldings at around 2m was when beating Defy Logic in February 2013 in a novice. She has no form at around 2m that gives her any sort of chance in the Champion Hurdle. You just have to believe she’s got that speed and back the Mullins magic.
The Ricci’s do like to have a runner in all the big races (see below) and split their horses up to achieve that. Perhaps that’s the reason she’s being aimed at the Champion, but the vibes were last season that Annie Power had lost a bit of her basic toe and they were considering campaigning her more in staying races.
She wore a hood on her comeback at Punchestown over 2m4f, in an attempt to get her to settle with the World Hurdle in mind, but that will presumably come off now in the Champion. It’ll be great if she contests 1 of the 2 hurdles championships rather than the egg and spoon mares race, but I’d be surprised if she could win the Champion Hurdle on a sound surface – even what will probably be the weakest Champion Hurdle for many years. I can only think that connections believe that, following the Punchestown run, that she wouldn’t settle in the World Hurdle – if she did she’d have a great chance of beating Thistlecrack.
As Willie says, the Aintree Hurdle over 2m4f, against the geldings who will mainly have run at Cheltenham, looks the ‘right target’ but the lure of the Festival is irresistible. With Arctic Fire now absent as well it’s such a weak Champion Hurdle you can understand any connections wanting to have a go. But of the Aintree Hurdle, World Hurdle and Champion Hurdle – the Champion looks the least suitable for Annie Power.
Outlander (Gigginstown) – JLT
The vibes and exchanges suggest that he’s heading for the JLT. His 3 chase starts have been at intermediate trips so that might be no surprise to some. However, I think he’d be much better off in the RSA and that he’s only heading for the JLT because the owners have No More Heroes for the RSA. (In this case I doubt it has anything to do with Willie Mullins as Willie doesn’t have anything shorter in the RSA market than the 25/1 available about Outlander.)
Outlander would have stamina to prove if contesting the RSA but that’s not unusual in an RSA winner and he shapes as if he’s been crying out for a step up in trip. He won the Grade 1 Flogas over 2m5½f at Leopardstown last time. That’s been the best trial for the RSA producing 4 of the last 7 winners. By contrast, none of the 5 JLT winners had contested it – they’ve generally been running over shorter.
He looked short of pace in the Neptune last season and at Fairyhouse & Punchestown later in the spring. David Mullins suggested he’d be an RSA type after his Christmas win at Limerick. Willie was diplomatic after the Flogas, but said Outlander “stays and gallops which is what you want in a good horse.” That’s my description of an RSA horse not a JLT one. If he were owned by anyone else he’d almost certainly be going for the RSA and I think he’ll find one or two too quick for him in the JLT.
Thomas Hobson (Rich & Susannah Ricci) – Albert Bartlett
As mentioned, the Ricci’s like to have a runner in all 3 Grade 1 all-aged novice hurdles and usually shuffle their pack accordingly. Min goes for the Supreme and Long Dog looks set for the Neptune. That leaves the Albert Bartlett and the vibes are that Thomas Hobson is going to run, following his Grade 2 win over 2m5f at Warwick.
That looked a good race beforehand and stable mate Open Eagle has franked the form since. The problem is that the Albert Bartlett is a really tough race and Thomas Hobson doesn’t look like the sort of out and out stayer that wins it. He’s a smart flat horse that looked to get tired, (rather than idling to my eye,) at Warwick and his jumping fell apart late on, (had jumped much better than his previous runs up until that point).
It’s possible that he’ll swap with Long Dog and I’d be just as concerned about the latter getting home in the Albert Bartlett. Both would surely be much better off in the Neptune. If Thomas Hobson lines up in the Albert Bartlett, he’d look the classic lay in running, as he’ll probably travel well and then not get home.
Bleu Et Rouge (JP McManus) – Supreme
Bleu Et Rouge’s target is probably the least certain of the 4 – he could contest either the Supreme or the Neptune. The only reason I can see for running him in the Supreme is that he was too keen in the 2m Future Champions at Christmas and the faster pace of the Supreme might help. However, that keenness was probably down to inexperience and he settled better next time when stepped up to 2m2f in the Deloitte.
He looked to outstay Tombstone in the Deloitte. How much that was Bleu Et Rouge being a real stayer at the trip and how much was Tombstone not getting home on the ground – is up for debate. It’s early days to be having a strong view about the ideal trip for a horse like Bleu Et Rouge, who has had just 2 runs in Bumpers (in France) and 3 races over hurdles – but he doesn’t look like a 2 miler on the visuals.
If he were owned by anyone else, you’d imagine that he’d be running in the Neptune – but JP McManus owns red-hot favourite Yanworth. Unlike some of the other leading owners, McManus has historically been happy to run his best novices against each other – eg when My Tent Or Yours and Jezki took each other on in the 2013 Supreme when he had no Neptune runner. It’s therefore possible Bleu Et Rouge will take Yanworth on in the Neptune. However, the vibes are that he might go for the Supreme and I suspect he is more one that will come into his own stepped up in trip, (perhaps next season).
It may be that the talent Willie has means that he can run horses in a Festival race other than the one that suits best – and still win. There are limits even for Willie though and if these 4 turn up in the races I’ve outlined then I think they are likely to go off prices that would make them well worth taking on. By contrast, once NRNB is available for the remaining Festival races, I’ll be looking at backing some of them in what I think is the ‘right’ race.