Sir Des Champs presents credentials
Sir Des Champs ridden by Davy Russell on the way to winning the the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Saturday. photograph: pa
The Co Carlow townland of Closutton is a pretty isolated spot so presumably not too many people would be inconvenienced by any “Quarantine” that might be applied around Willie Mullins’s yard for the next 29 days until Cheltenham starts: because Irish hopes of a successful 2013 festival are increasingly dependent on keeping the yard inmates healthy.
Saturday’s Grade One Leopardstown hat-trick for Mullins – headlined by Sir Des Champs confirming his Cheltenham Gold Cup credentials in the Hennessy – is just the latest manifestation of an overarching dominance of Ireland’s jumps scene by the champion trainer unmatched in modern times.
The only possible comparison is with Mullins’s counterpart on the flat, Aidan O’Brien, himself a former title-holder over jumps, whose success is bank-rolled by the overwhelming might of Coolmore Stud. Mullins might not be dealing in the same sort of money but the impact is similar.
And even with Istabraq in his pomp, O’Brien never endured the nervous Cheltenham countdown with a depth of talent like Mullins has. Maybe Vincent O’Brien did back in the 1940s; maybe Tom Dreaper in the 1960s – maybe.
Sir Des Champs was yesterday reported unscathed after a Hennessy defeat of Flemenstar that thrilled a 10,658 Saturday crowd, partially boosted six per cent on 2012 by rugby international weekend visitors, but also by recognition that it was something of a last-chance-saloon for Ireland to identify a genuine Gold Cup standard-bearer.
Sir Des Champs accomplished that job with aplomb and will join his Gigginstown Stud contemporary First Lieutenant in pursuit of steeplechasing’s blue riband and a first Irish success since Michael O’Leary’s War Of Attrition won seven years ago. “It looks like there’s more improvement,” Mullins said. “Every year he improves in the spring. He’s been to Cheltenham twice and he loves the place. He loves that hill, so I’m hoping he can show what he did the last two years, that he keeps improving coming into March.”
Saturday’s victory was a staggering ninth for Mullins in the Hennessy but a first for Gigginstown’s number one jockey Davy Russell who is eagerly anticipating the Gold Cup. “I would hope he will improve again on drier ground,” he said. “He was a bit more sure of himself there and showed a bit more pace. I wouldn’t have any reservations about the trip at Cheltenham and I wouldn’t imagine I’d ride him any different.”
Given a clear run at the festival, Sir Des Champs will join an astonishing Mullins team in terms of both quality and quantity. Hurricane Fly is favourite to regain his Champion Hurdle crown and only Bob’s Worth heads Sir Des Champs in ante-post betting for the Gold Cup.
Plans are less clear for Flemenstar, who got to within less than a length of the winner after the last, but was ultimately well held.
Peter Casey and his son Francis indicated a preference afterwards for dropping right back to two miles and a clash with Sprinter Scare in the Champion Chase. However, owner Steven Curran was adamant yesterday Flemenstar had not run up to form.
“He wasn’t himself. Andrew (Lynch) said he had to push him into the jumps, which he never has had to before,” he said. “He didn’t carry Andrew at all and we cannot put a finger on it, there was no life in him. He didn’t sparkle. We’ll have him tested over the next few days and maybe we will find he had got an infection, or there was something amiss.
Saturday also confirmed Mullins’s stranglehold on the novice scene in Ireland, in both codes, with Champagne Fever’s all-the-way bounce back to form in the Deloitte and Boston Bob earning 5 to 1 quotes for the RSA after nutting Texas Jack in the last stride of the PJ Moriarty. Paul Townend rode both of those, and a fourth Mullins winner on the day in Tennis Cap, the latest instalment of a season that is turning into the Mullins show.
Only for the fact it was the first race on the card, there might have even been some incredulity that he had to settle for place money in the Grade One Spring Juvenile Hurdle as Our Conor maintained his unbeaten record over flights in style. Dessie Hughes’ four year old is as low as 6 to 1 for the Triumph Hurdle after landing a race that last year supplied the first two for the juvenile championship at Cheltenham.
“He is the real deal and is definitely stronger. I was still surprised the way he won, he hardly came off the bridle,” Hughes reported.
The Foxhunters champion Salsify had been beaten twice already this season by Tammys Hill but reversed that form in a dramatic clash on Saturday.