Nichols Canyon ensures another Morgiana triumph for Mullins
Champion trainer seves notice of winter intentions with clinical Grade One victory
Ruby Walsh and Nichols Canyon after winning the StanJames.com Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Winter’s first real bite meant Nichols Canyon’s Stan James Morgiana Hurdle victory on Sunday was shrouded in fog.
But it was clear to many how Punchestown’s Grade One feature could finally have signposted the start of the winter campaign proper for Ireland’s champion trainer.
Forced to rule out both Faugheen and Annie Power out of the Morgiana, Mullins had no less a ‘supersub’ than last year’s winner to promote through the ranks and the 8-13 favourite routed his five opponents in style to the tune of a dozen lengths.
Earlier Ruby Walsh had landed the Grade Two Florida Pearl Novice Chase on A Toi Phil, one of the 60 horses famously removed from Mullins by Michael O’Leary in September.
It was a move which, along with a comparatively underwhelming autumn, provoked an unfamiliar uncertainty about the fortunes of Irish jump racing’s dominant figure.
His nearest rivals, Gordon Elliott and Henry De Bromhead, benefitted most from Gigginstown’s switch of horses, De Bromhead landing the first Grade One of the new season with another ex-Mullins runner, Valseur Lido, and Elliott opening up a significant lead in the trainer’s table.
But with ground conditions finally turning soft, and a cold snap leaving no mistake about the start of winter, there was a sense of normal service being resumed as the season’s second top-flight prize of the season fell to Mullins for a sixth year in a row.
“I hope so anyway,” said the man pursuing a tenth trainer’s title in succession but with almost half a million Euro to make up on Elliott.
“We’ve been trying to get them out but it’s just the way the season has developed that we haven’t been able to. It’s great to have a supersub like him though to come in.”
It was certainly a reminder to his rivals of the immense strength in depth at Closutton that Nichols Canyon could step up so spectacularly, burning off his market rival, Jer’s Girl, after the second last to win with a swagger not normally associated with such a workmanlike talent.
It’s why despite winning a two-mile Grade One with such authority that the most significant ante-post response was to cut him to 6-1 for World Hurdle glory over three miles in March.
“Jer’s Girl decided to take him on early and he’s just outstayed her. He jumps fantastically which is why he’s always competitive at two miles but he’s got lots of stamina so I would imagine he will step up in trip,” said the trainer who added he hopes the setbacks to Faugheen and Annie Power are “minor”.
A step up in trip could also be in line for the runner-up whose jockeys Barry Geraghty reported: “She just got tired but has run a nice race.”
In conditions which left most of the track obscured, forcing improvised camera shots from the track manager’s car speeding around the infield, perhaps the full extent of A Toi Phil’s ability was concealed but it was still obvious at the end that the horse could be a prime RSA contender in March.
Before that Fairyhouse’s Drinmore in a fortnight is a likely Grade One target and Walsh was impressed: “We always thought a fair bit of him when he was at Willie’s, so hopefully he’ll go on from this.”
Gordon Elliott is in charge of A Toi Phil now and he had the 1-2 with Jetstream Jack finishing runner-up.
He said: “I’d say he doesn’t want bottomless heavy ground. Ruby said that’s as soft as he’d want it. When he got the gap going to the second last he quickened though and was gone. Apart from that you’ve seen as much as I’ve seen!”