Faugheen could lead Mullins team into ‘Dublin Racing Festival’

New lucrative €1.5 million weekend is first major festival action of 2018

Faugheen being put through his paces at Willie Mullins’s yard in Closutton, Co Carlow in preparation for a possible appearance at Leopardstown. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Faugheen being put through his paces at Willie Mullins’s yard in Closutton, Co Carlow in preparation for a possible appearance at Leopardstown. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

Jump racing’s Spring festivals can seem a long way away on a mid-January ‘Blue Monday’ but there were feel-good vibes aplenty at Willie Mullins’s yard.

It may be eight weeks to the sport’s ultimate showpiece event at Cheltenham but it’s only 19 days to Leopardstown’s new ‘Dublin Racing Festival’.

There’s a lot riding on the decision to cram the track’s most valuable races into a single lucrative weekend worth €1.5 million in prizemoney over February 3rd-4th.

Fitting seven Grade One races – including the €200,000 Unibet Irish Gold Cup and the BHP Irish Champion Hurdle – into just 24 hours follows the trend for clustering assets into a single shop-window event.  

It inevitably leaves the January programme looking light but that counted for little when the full weight of Horse Racing Ireland’s promotional push to help boost racing’s profile in Dublin in particular visited Mullins’s Co Carlow base on Monday.

It was an early ‘media day’ for Mullins who in the last decade has farmed the major festivals like no other and who is almost as used to pre-Cheltenham hack-packs as he to visiting the winners’ enclosure.  

Rare is the trainer, owner or jockey who kicks against more prizemoney. So promoting the new festival through one of the sport’s most visible faces was a sure thing both in terms of enthusiasm and media attendance.

Mullins may have lost Cheltenham’s leading trainer gong to Gordon Elliott last year. And he may trail his great rival by half a million euro for this season’s champion trainer title. His best horse, Douvan, is tentatively coming back from injury while the memory of Faugheen’s startling Christmas flop remains fresh.

Nevertheless the star power amongst Mullins’s string remains unsurpassed, just what HRI and Leopardstown crave for their new initiative.   

“I can’t see it [the new festival] being anything but a success,” Mullins informed the throng.

 It was a positive public narrative for HRI since it faces increasing private disgruntlement at how an apparently nondescript 2015 legislative twist to employment law has mushroomed into a Labour Court ruling that puts racing outside the agricultural pale.

 The implications of racing staff not having agricultural exemption status has provoked huge concern among trainers generally. On Monday, one remained anonymous but reflected general confusion as to how racing can come under the Department of Agriculture umbrella and yet not be agricultural.

Logistical headaches

 Mullins was keeping his counsel on the matter, possibly since he has enough quandaries to figure out anyway, not least of which is the constant whirl of anticipation in that part of his brain permanently consumed with the Spring festivals.

“Cheltenham, Aintree, Fairyhouse, Punchestown; they’re always at the back of my mind, all the time,” he admitted. If it provoked visions of huge naval-type office charts crammed with pins and precisely identified targets, Mullins countered. “I’m afraid not – just all in the back of my mind!”

The logistical headaches in planning for up to 200 horses – almost all of them bought with the festivals in mind – must be immense, especially since the inherent uncertainty of the job was starkly illustrated when the peerless Faugheen being pulled up as a 2-11 favourite just over a fortnight ago.

“There was no physical evidence of any leg problems or anything like that. So I thought it could be wind, or his lungs, or his heart, or a muscle problem. But we haven’t seen any evidence of that. He’s had an ECG done, had his wind checked, so something must have choked him on the day, or something like that,” Mullins pondered.

“He’ll do some fast work this week, and if he passes that test, we’ll do some more. I’m aiming him there [Leopardstown] anyhow. I’m hoping that if he works well at home, I won’t have any worries,” he added.

Inevitably though there will be an element of uncertainty should Faugheen make the Irish Champion Hurdle on Day One of the new festival. Djakadam also disappointed at Christmas and could make the Irish Gold Cup while Yorkhill could try two miles in the new Coral Dublin Chase.

Mullins said it’s still “slowly-slowly” with Douvan who was originally ruled out for the season last month. That leaves open the intriguing possibility though of the prolific Grade One winner trying to win at the Cheltenham festival for a third time.

Footpad will continue his passage to Cheltenham by taking in the Irish Arkle but Getabird, the new Supreme Novices Hurdle favourite, is likely to bypass the new festival. Mullins’s other top novice hurdle Next Destination will probably do the same.

“Maybe the right thing to do with him would be to go to the other festival!” smiled the trainer, aware he was veering a little off-script by referencing Cheltenham in March.

It was a comment to remind everyone of Cheltenham’s overwhelming precedence in the festival pecking order. The new festival won’t budge that. But going first can help it carve out its own identity.

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