Ferny Hollow makes light of 791-day absence to make sparkling Naas return

Champion jockey Paul Townend reaches 100 winners for season after riding to Sunday double for Willie Mullins

Ferny Hollow presented Willie Mullins with yet another Cheltenham decision after making light of a 791-day absence by winning at Naas on Sunday.

The 2020 festival-winner has been plagued with injury problems throughout his career but got cut to 6-1 by some firms for the upcoming Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase after his latest return to action.

The 2-5 favourite sauntered to success in the Grade Three Newlands Chase, giving jockey Paul Townend his 100th winner of the season, and presenting Mullins with a quandary.

Already holding a trump card for the two-mile crown in the odds-on El Fabiolo, the champion trainer initially suggested Ferny Hollow might be excused an immediate hike into the championship level – but didn’t rule it out either.


Not unreasonably, considering Ferny Hollow has reached nine wins with only eight career starts under his belt, Mullins won’t be making a call of any sort until he has watched the talented but fragile star trot up sound in the morning.

“I think he’s still young enough to put in a career best over fences. He just has to overcome this first run and come back sound and we’ll see where we go,” he said.

“He settled lovely and even though he’s free going, once you settle him in, he listens and responds to you. We were happy to use those tactics and hoped that if he got around safe and sound that he’d be the fastest horse in the straight which he was.

“He’s entered in Cheltenham. It may be a big ask on his second run, but we’ll have a look. It may come a bit soon. It will be all about how he comes out of the race in the next week, and we’ll probably look for easier options for the time being,” Mullins considered.

Despite the non-championship opposition, and favoured by the race conditions, there was a swagger to Ferny Hollow’s performance that underlined both frustration around his fragility and excitement at what he might yet achieve.

Much of racing is hanging on the outcomes of Mullins’s various deliberations as to how best he chooses to deploy a massive festival team throughout Cheltenham’s four days.

Famously inclined to leave such calls until the last possible moment, he caught many on the hop on Saturday by committing JP McManus’s Fact To File to the Brown Advisory in just over a fortnight.

“I think we’re happy to go for the Brown Advisory,” he said. “Let’s get practice at the track and over those sorts of trips. It’s easy to come back or change afterwards. I think this year we’ll ask him the big question and see what happens.”

Such unusual early decisiveness quickly saw Fact To File moved to odds-on by some firms.

However, anyone hoping for more of the same in relation to other horses with various festival options, none more so than the star novice hurdler, Ballyburn, are likely to be disappointed.

“I’m not making any other decisions for the time being,” confirmed Mullins on Sunday where he also scored at Naas with the Townend ridden newcomer Tounsivator in a maiden hurdle.

With Jack Kennedy suspended, Townend moved to the century mark after Sunday’s action, cutting the gap on Kennedy in the race for the jockey’s title to just eight.

Gavin Cromwell also has a festival decision to make with Bottler’secret who made a winning debut over jumps in Sunday’s other Grade Three, the Winning Fair Juvenile Hurdle.

After the likely favourite Wodhooh was taken out in the morning, Bottler’secret started 6-5 and smoothly beat three opponents under jockey Sean Flanagan.

“It would have been nice if we’d got more experience into him. I thought we’re getting on in the year and we’d pitch him in at the deep end. If he didn’t win, he’d be a novice next year.

“He’s in the Triumph but I don’t know if he’ll go there. If he had a bit more experience he would, but it is what it is at this stage,” Cromwell said.

The winner was cut to 12-1 for the Triumph Hurdle.

Cromwell’s Limerick Lace landed last year’s Listed Nas Na Riogh Novice Handicap Chase and the JP McManus colours were also successful in 2017 with Edwulf.

The champion owner ran four in Sunday’s €45,000 renewal and it was bottomweight Battle It Out who emerged on top by 13 lengths.

Charlie O’Dwyer did the steering for his father, Conor, who commented: “They went a good gallop all the way, a proper test which he wants. He’s still only a frame and is a lovely horse to look forward to next year.”

If he gets into the weights, Eric McNamara’s Noble Birth will take his chance in the Pertemps Final at Cheltenham after landing Sunday’s qualifier in good style from the favourite Cleatus Poolaw.

Owner-trainer Barry Connell labelled William Munny the best bumper horse in the country after making it two from two in the Naas finale.

Off a funereal early pace, the Finny Maguire ridden winner quickened impressively, leaving Connell astonished only at his 13-2 SP. The businessman ruled William Munny out of going to Cheltenham but said Punchestown will be his target.

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Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column