Mullins throws magnificent seven at Grade One feature at Punchestown

Footpad heavy favourite to complete unbeaten novice chase season in Ryanair Chase

Paul Townend on Footpad clears the last on the way to winning the Racing Post Novice Steeplechase at Leopardstown at the Christmas festival. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Paul Townend on Footpad clears the last on the way to winning the Racing Post Novice Steeplechase at Leopardstown at the Christmas festival. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

As a display of quality strength in depth, Willie Mullins’s feat in saddling seven of the dozen runners for Punchestown’s Day Three Grade One feature looks outstanding.

It’s not simply numerical dominance of the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle.

All seven are proven Grade One winners already. One of them, Faugheen, is rated among the best hurdlers ever seen in this country. Another, Yorkhill, rates as a five-star racing enigma. And despite such status, bookmakers still reckon their trainer has two better chances.

It’s hard to recall similar dominance of a top-flight jumps contest. Michael Dickinson famously swept the Gold Cup board in 1983 with five runners. On the flat Aidan O’Brien saddled eight in the 2007 Derby but still didn’t win.

Mullins’s great rival Gordon Elliott holds the world record of 13 runners in a single race, the Irish Grand National earlier this month, but that’s a handicap.

In view of their scrap for the trainers’ title it looks significant that Mullins has more than double Elliott’s tally of 15 runners on Thursday. But it’s the major €275,000 pot in particular where Mullins looks to hold the edge. 

Penhill is the reigning Stayers title-holder from Cheltenham when he overcame an 11-month absence to win at the festival for a second year running.

Last year he came up short in attempting the festival double here and Penhill faces a possibly even greater task now than he did at Cheltenham a month ago when circumstances conspired to favour him.

If a hint as to the primary requirement normally needed for success over three miles lies in the race titles then a relatively lackadaisical tempo to the Cheltenham contest ultimately suited Penhill more than most.

It put less of a premium on hard race fitness and more on the sort of speed that allowed Penhill reach a 100 rating during his previous flat career.

The horse owned by the chairman of Brighton Football Club, and renowned gambler, Tony Bloom, deserves to be favourite. But even with the veteran 2015 hero , Jezki, and the Aintree winner, Identity Thief, in the race, Penhill’s biggest danger could be another of his stable-mates, Bacardys.

Dour stayer

After a two-race novice chase career that never took off, last year’s top-flight novice hurdler reverted to flights and was running a stormer at Cheltenham when coming down at the last.

Few were as inconvenienced by the tempo as this dour stayer and while it’s hardly encouraging to come here off a fall, he should strip fresher than a lot of these.

If Yorkhill’s chance looks speculative considering he has a history of going better right-handed, then it is Faugheen’s first start at three miles since his novice days which will be particularly intriguing for many.

The 2015 Champion Hurdle winner returned to action with aplomb here in November’s Morgiana, flopped at Christmas, ran better in the Irish Champion and never fired in the Champion at Cheltenham.

‘The Machine’ is clearly past his pomp and the hope is that time has simply turned him slower and three miles is his best chance of a ninth Grade One career victory.

Similar thinking was behind Hurricane Fly’s 2015 run in this race when second to Jezki. But another aging Champion Hurdle winner, Brave Inca, finished last in a similar attempt in 2009 and never ran again.

The mare La Bague Au Roi is the sole chance of a third cross-channel-trained winner in a row in this race and Identity Thief could be the main threat to team-Mullins after thriving for a step up in trip at Liverpool.

But Mullins looks to have a tight grip on every aspect of the race and Bacardys may prove the ultimate solution.

Dissenters who don’t reckon Footpad’s grip on the Ryanair Chase is even tighter will be few and far between. The Arkle winner takes on his old rival Petit Mouchoir again but, after missing Liverpool with a poor scope, Footpad will be a hot favourite to give Mullins a four-in-a-row in the race.

With Bon Papa a major handicap chase contender, four runners in the Listed hurdle and half a dozen in the concluding bumper, Mullins’s strength-in-depth doesn’t look like being confined to the big race.

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