Mullins and Elliott emphasise big-race dominance in weekend features
Jockey arrangements may have been occupying trainers ahead of Punchestown and Fairyhouse
Another potentially epic championship battle between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott is bubbling up, and the big-race dominance of Ireland’s top two trainers is stamped all over this weekend’s action.
Maybe last season’s tussle was so enthralling for so long – and the momentum swung so wildly so often – that this campaign’s head-to-head has not been the subject of the same overwhelming focus.
After all, it was a final-week haul of almost a million euro at the Punchestown festival that eventually saw Mullins overhaul the young pretender by less than €200,000. So the obvious lesson is that there’s a long way to go to the season climax at the end of April.
Nevertheless, Elliott has resumed his role forcing the pace at the top of the table, and a lead of over €500,000 means Paddy Power make the challenger a 4-6 favourite to beat the champion (11-10) this time.
Elliott is closing in on €3 million for the season already, and has 23 runners in this weekend’s action at Punchestown and Fairyhouse.
Mullins has 14, and, unsurprisingly, it is in the major pots that their influence will be most keenly felt.
Between them they have over half the field for Sunday’s €100,000 Bar One Dan Moore Chase at Fairyhouse – the first six-figure pot of 2018.
Prior to that, though, it is Punchestown’s Grade Two Sky Bet Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle, which has both Mullins and Elliott triple-handed in a seven runner contest that also sees Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud represented by three runners.
The only gatecrasher to the big-gun party is the Tom Mullins-trained Top Othe Ra, while in the earlier Grade Three Novice Chase it is three -apiece again for the leading trainers, and Mall Dini fills the role of interloper.
Rather than concentrating on opposition, it is jockey arrangements that may have been occupying Elliott’s and Mullins’s thoughts ahead of the weekend.
Jack Kennedy sits out Saturday through suspension, so Davy Russell gets a first spin in Mengli Khan in the Moscow Flyer. There will be plenty of attention on the Royal Bond winner, who is still 10-1 for Cheltenham’s Supreme despite dramatically crashing out through a wing at Leopardstown over Christmas.
With Ruby Walsh still out injured, as is Danny Mullins, and Paul Townend missing Punchestown through suspension, Mullins has turned to his son Patrick for his apparent Moscow Flyer number one Getabird. The course winner is 16-1 for the Supreme already, and on the back of Mengli Khan’s Christmas antics he could be the solution to a race won by both Vautour and Douvan in recent years.
David Mullins is on board Invitation Only for his uncle in the featured novice chase, and there was plenty to like the way this one beat Any Second Now on his last start.
Rachael Blackmore is on the 144-rated Arbre de Vie in this, while Robbie Power is on the unexposed Koshari. Rich Ricci’s runner could hardly have won any easier at Thurles before Christmas, and is already one of the favourites for a novice handicap chase on day one of Cheltenham.
It looks significant that Davy Russell is on board The Storyteller in the Grade Three, and the season’s leading jockey is on Eagle Lion in a later maiden hurdle.
Russell is on Doctor Phoenix, one of four chances Elliott has to repeat Ball D’Arc’s 2017 success in Sunday’s Dan Moore Chase. However, it is his great rival who sets a poser with three runners and in particular the pair of Acapella Bourgeois and Polidam. who drop back to the minimum trip.
Acapella Bourgeois was mooted as a Gold Cup contender earlier this season, and his only previous outing at two miles was on his chasing debut when falling at the first.
He has been running free this season so this sort of test could suit. but it is his relatively unexposed stable companion Townshend would may represent value in his first handicap.