Mullins and Elliott to dominate Fairyhouse’s Easter festival
HRI boss dismisses competition concerns as two trainers saddle all nine in Ryanair Gold Cup
Ruby Walsh on Bellshill clears the last hurdle on the way to winning The Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle at Punchestown Festival in 2016. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
A fortnight after supplying 15 of the 17 Irish-trained winners at Cheltenham, the extent of the Willie Mullins-Gordon Elliott domestic duopoly looks set to be stamped all over Fairyhouse’s Easter festival.
Irish jump racing’s dominant figures are fighting out another epic battle for the trainer’s championship and the country’s richest jumps race – Easter Monday’s €500,000 Boylesports Irish Grand National – could prove crucial to that outcome.
Mullins trails Elliott by almost exactly half a million euro and although he is yet to win the €270,000 to the winner feature, Mullins has the two market leaders this time in Bellshill and Pairofbrowneyes.
However Elliott, who is also yet to win the Fairyhouse highlight, and is seeking a first trainer’s championship, dwarfs his rival’s four National starters with a massive team of 13 runners among the final field of 30 declared on Good Friday.
They include eight of the 10 declarations made by Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud team as the Ryanair boss pursues a fourth Irish National victory.
Perhaps an even more graphic illustration of the strength in depth among the Mullins and Elliott operations comes prior to National in Easter Sunday’s Fairyhouse feature.
All nine runners in the Grade One Ryanair Gold Cup are trained by them with Mullins set to saddle five runners. Elliott’s quartet includes two of the horses that helped him to Cheltenham’s Leading Trainer Award – Shattered Love and The Storyteller.
On Friday, Horse Racing Ireland’s chief executive Brian Kavanagh dismissed suggestions such dominance threatens competition. Instead he pointed to the abilities of both Mullins and Elliott, describing them as “probably the two best National Hunt trainers in the world”.
Referencing the Ryanair Gold Cup in particular, Kavanagh called it a very competitive renewal and pondered if two Cheltenham festival winners had ever before lined up in a race which used to be known as the Powers Gold Cup.
“It reflects how competitive racing is in Ireland. And it’s a tribute to the trainers in question. We put on the races. We try and put on good prizemoney, and try to attract the best horses in training in Ireland,” he said.
“They are nine high-quality horses and a high-quality race is in store. If there’s a concentration of these horses with a small number of trainers that is, to some extent, a different debate to be had.
“You’d like to see as many trainers as possible competing in these Grade One races. But that’s not to say the trainers and owners in the race aren’t entitled to run.
“The Irish National and the Ryanair Gold Cup are the same races now as they were 20 or 25 years ago. All these horses have been bought and bred somewhere and been through the system. The question of who owns or trains them is a different question,” Kavanagh added.
The question of how testing ground conditions might be for Monday’s National will focus a lot of minds over the weekend with heavy rain forecast for Sunday night in particular.
There is €410,000 in total up for grabs for the first three places in the National although a trio of six-figure pots up for grabs on Sunday means it too will be significant in terms of the trainers championship.
Elliott needs just six more victories to become the first to saddle 200 winners in an Irish National Hunt season. His most pressing question, however, is likely to be gauging how Shattered Love has emerged from her Cheltenham heroics.
She took full advantage of the mares sex allowance to win the JLT with authority but it’s a big ask to travel to and from Cheltenham and then show her best just 17 days afterwards.
What’s in her favour is that most of her principal opposition are in the same boat, including the apparent Mullins number one, Invitation Only, who never landed a blow in that JLT.
Mullins is seeking a first win in this race too and had originally been aiming the Arkle hero Footpad at it. With him absent, and with that invaluable 7lb allowance on her side, Shattered Love can scoop a third top-flight prize of the season.
Laurina will be the name on everyone’s lips in the Grade One Mares Novice Hurdle Final.
Future Gold Cup predictions are already floating around Laurina’s head after her facile Cheltenham success and there will be a lot of exploded expectations if she doesn’t win impressively.
Gigginstown’s ex-Mullins runner Blow By Blow also makes a quick return to action after his own remarkable Cheltenham success in the Martin Pipe Hurdle.
Blow By Blow returned to something like his top-flight bumper pomp by leading for most of the race and powering clear up the hill. A repeat of that level of performance should make him hard to beat in the Grade Two novice hurdle.
Barry Geraghty rides Lord Scoundrel for Elliott in the Irish National but will be in Cork on Sunday for rides including the likely conditions hurdle winner, Bleu Et Rouge.