Spotlight back on Envoi Allen in a vintage-looking Durkan Chase

With the classy Allaho, carrying the same Cheveley Park colours, in the field there’s likely to be no hiding place

Now charged with steering Envoi Allen, Rachael Blackmore knows the Allaho threat better than anyone having ridden him in the Ryanair at Cheltenham.  Photograph: Mark Cranham/Inpho

Now charged with steering Envoi Allen, Rachael Blackmore knows the Allaho threat better than anyone having ridden him in the Ryanair at Cheltenham. Photograph: Mark Cranham/Inpho

 

It has taken until December but the full power of the Willie Mullins machine will be felt for the first time this season over the weekend.

A total of 27 declarations over four tracks in Ireland and Britain include two of the top three-rated National Hunt horses in training – Chacun Pour Soi and Allaho.

The latter lines up in Sunday’s Grade One John Durkan Chase at Punchestown in which Mullins is overwhelmingly dominant numerically with seven of the 10 runners.

As Paul Townend is still on the sidelines, and Sean O’Keeffe on duty at Cork, it is all hands to the jockey-pumps and Bryony Frost will travel to ride the Mullins outsider Franco De Port in the big race.

Like Allaho., Chacun Our Soi will be ridden by Patrick Mullins when he returns to action in Saturday’s Betfair Tingle Creek at Sandown.

Perhaps just as significant is the re-emergence of some of the potential next crop of superstars from the most powerful operation in the sport.

Twenty minutes after the Durkan, last season’s leading novice Energumene will take the first step towards trying to finally end Mullins’s hoodoo in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham in March.

His appearance in the Kerry Group Hilly Way at Cork is one of eight races live in RTÉ2’s double-header on Sunday.

Viewers will also be able to see the eagerly awaited return of Ferny Hollow in his first start since beating no less than Bob Olinger over a year ago.

He goes over fences at Punchestown while just after noon on Sunday the top bumper performer Kilcruit starts his hurdling career in Cork.

It is an awesome display of strength in depth that signals how something like proper winter ground conditions has prompted the man who has been champion trainer for the last 13 seasons to resume normal service.

That he is already clear at the top of this season’s trainer’s championship with mostly B-list runners indicates the scale of the task his rivals face now the brakes are being left off the Mullins ‘A Team’.

Despite everything though, and including the appearance of no less than Tiger Roll on Aintree’s Saturday card, enduring public fascination with Envoi Allen makes him the single biggest draw of a hugely significant Grade One weekend.

The horse once acclaimed as jump racing’s next great champion saw his unbeaten record vanish with a spectacular fall at Cheltenham last year and he then injured himself at Punchestown.

Winning return

Both reverses removed any delusions of invulnerability. However there was enough in Envoi Allen’s smooth winning return at Down Royal over a month ago to allow dreams of potential greatness to persist.

That potential means the horse rated no more than the 29th best performer in the Anglo-Irish jumps classification is assured of the spotlight in his first venture into open company in a vintage-looking Durkan.

It isn’t on ratings that Envoi Allen is likely to start favourite for such a star-studded contest that not only features his Grand National-winning stable companion Minella Times but a rare piece of sporting ambition that makes his job even harder.

A sport that has many of its leading performers ducking and diving meaningful competition on the road to Cheltenham – and arguably even at the festival– sees Envoi Allen’s closest market rival Allaho carrying the same Cheveley Park colours.

Although the Newmarket-based team has invested heavily in jumpers they are a comparative diversion from the day to day business of running one of Europe’s most significant breeding operations.

Perhaps that underpins their apparent readiness to pitch two of their star performers against each other but it is a welcome display of competitive pluck nonetheless.

Should everyone line up it will represent Envoi Allen’s biggest test to date. If the bubble of expectation around him can survive this test then the reputation surrounding him will contain a lot more than just hype.

He is armed with a run already this season and only one of his rivals, Fakir d’Oudairies, can boast the same.

In contrast all seven Mullins runners are starting their seasons, including the prolific Grade One performer Kemboy, although there’s little doubt Allaho is a standout in the entire field on figures.

Top rivals

A superb trailblazing Ryanair victory at Cheltenham indicates this two and a half mile trip is ideal and Allaho officially has 11lbs in hand of Envoi Allen.

His dominant running style suggests there’s going to be no hiding place and most of those in his wake will be stable companions.

Rachael Blackmore knows the Allaho threat better than anyone having ridden him in the Ryanair and subsequently when chasing home Chaucn Pour Soi over two miles.

Now charged with steering a path for Envoi Allen against proper top rivals Blackmore’s tactical choices add another intriguing layer to a mouth-watering prospect.

Envoi Allen has Christmas Grade One options over two miles and at three miles, including the King George at Kempton.

The Durkan’s intermediate trip looks an ideal testing ground for Henry De Bromhead to get a clearer idea of where the horse’s future lies.

If he can win in the manner his reputation suggests he might then the racing world will again look to be at Envoi Allen’s feet. But with Allaho in the field there’s likely to be no hiding place.

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