Hard to look beyond Mullins for top trainer at Punchestown

Min and stable companion Un De Sceaux look to dominate Day One feature renewal

Trainer Willie Mullins with Burrows Saint after his runner took the BoyleSports Irish Grand National Chase. File photograph: PA Wire

Trainer Willie Mullins with Burrows Saint after his runner took the BoyleSports Irish Grand National Chase. File photograph: PA Wire

 

Willie Mullins begins the 2019 Punchestown festival with a 17th Leading Trainer prize at Ireland’s richest National Hunt festival already all but assured. Even a betting industry able to throw up a market on practically anything seems to draw the line when it comes to Mullins and the coming five days.

The champion trainer’s record 18 winners last year represented almost half of the festival’s races. They included a 9,802/1 six-timer on Day Two alone. It helped bring Mullins’s haul since 2010 to a staggering 108 winners in all. Those record 18 smashed his 2015 tally of 16 winners which included 10 of the dozen Grade One prizes. He was runner-up in the other two.

For the last two years Mullins has begun Punchestown in pursuit of Gordon Elliott for the trainers championship, on both occasions eventually overhauling his great rival.

This week he starts the pursuit of the lion’s share of more than €3.2 million in prize money on the back of a superb campaign that has seen him finally break his duck in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and last week’s Irish Grand National.

It means an unbridgeable lead of more than €1,000,000 in prize money on Elliott in the trainer’s title. There’s also the prospect of smashing through the €5 million mark for the season in Ireland, as well as sweeping past the 200-winner mark this term. So rather than futile betting on who’s going to be top trainer this week, a lot of the layers attention might wind up concentrated on getting the “right one” beaten when it comes to Mullins’s multiple big-race entries.

Wednesday’s Gold Cup is dominated by the Mullins trio of Al Boum Photo, Kemboy and Bellshill. It’s hardly a solitary example of stable strength in depth. Half of the six runners in Tuesday’s Day One €300,000 feature, the Boylesports Champion Chase, are trained by Mullins, including Min whose two closest rivals in the betting are his stable companions.

Mullins has four of the six runners in the first Grade One of the week, the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle, where Klassical Dream is likely to start odds on to follow up his Supreme success at Cheltenham.

Four runners in the €60,000 handicap hurdle are among a dozen-strong Mullins team in all on Day One with the €140,000 purchase The West Awaits lurking as first reserve to get into the bumper.

Even by the exalted standards of the man who is the most successful trainer in festival history at Cheltenham it represents an intimidating show of strength for his opposition over the coming days.

“The horses seem in great form. All my jockeys are sound and . . . riding well. So with a bit of rain forecast what more could you ask for?” said Mullins. “A lot of my horses have had light campaigns so I’ll be keen to run them where I can.”

A year ago Un De Sceuax was a hugely popular fourth winner of the week’s top two-mile event and the 11-year-old stalwart is back for another crack at it now that ground conditions are a suitable “yielding”.

Paul Townend, who will be crowned champion jockey for the second time in his career this Saturday, takes the ride on Un De Sceaux given that Ruby Walsh has opted for Min.

Freed from the shadow of his old rival Altior, Min put up a superlative performance at Liverpool earlier this month, beating Politologue by 20 lengths in what looked a career-best performance.

He drops half a mile in trip, but that shouldn’t be an issue for this free-running sort who didn’t take at all to restraining tactics at Cheltenham.

Even though Min eventually won easily at Aintree there’s always the worry that such a performance might take time to get over in less than four weeks. However, a career-high rating of 172 is still tough to argue with.

Un De Sceaux didn’t look to fire on a cylinders at Cheltenham when beaten by Frodon in the Ryanair. But before that he made the record-breaking Altior stretch out in a memorable Tingle Creek at Sandown. A repeat of that effort will make the veteran no back number in a race where the third Mullins starter, Great Field, looks to have plenty to prove after falling on his last two starts.

As for the three others in the field, they all look to have uphill tasks on known evidence, much of which involves chasing home their Mullins-trained rivals elsewhere. Trying to beat them at the Punchestown festival may represent an even greater challenge.

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