Trainers’ championship race could be headed for a photo finish

Mullins and Elliott set to bring an epic campaign to a fitting conclusion at Punchestown

 Willie Mullins: has assembled the usual formidable team for the Leopardstown Festival.  Pat Healy/PA Wire.

Willie Mullins: has assembled the usual formidable team for the Leopardstown Festival. Pat Healy/PA Wire.

 

It may be a measure of our inability to dismiss the work of gods that has Willie Mullins a much shorter price to nab the Irish trainers’ title after this year’s Punchestown Festival than he was 12 months ago.

More likely, it’s just dreary old profit-minding that has bookies who priced him up at 100/30 in 2017 – when he had around €400,000 to make up on Gordon Elliott – to decide he’s a 5/4 shot this time around even though the gap is out to a shade over half a million.

One way or the other, Mullins has long since run out of ways to surprise us. This looks for all the world like a changing of the guard, indeed it positively reeks of finally being Elliott’s time in the sun. And yet it would be not remotely a shock if next Saturday evening arrived with Mullins crowned champion trainer for the 10th season in a row.

A few odds and sods to illustrate the point. The extent to which Punchestown has been an ATM for Mullins over the past decade can get a little dizzying when you start listing numbers but bear with us.

Last year, the €937,045 he picked up at the spring festival in Kildare represented a hardly-credible 20.4 per cent of his earnings for the season. A fifth of a year’s winnings in five days of racing is, frankly, bananas.

He out-earned Elliott by €603,045 across the week even though Elliott had five winners (including two Grade Ones) and actually beat Mullins in terms of prizemoney on the second day. It was, by a distance, Elliott’s best ever showing at Punchestown and still he lost the trainers’ title by almost €200,000.

Over the past 10 years of festivals, Mullins has had 90 winners to Elliott’s 14. Last year, he racked up nine winners across the week even though well-fancied horses like Un De Sceaux, Nicholls Canyon and Penhill all got beaten in Grade Ones.

Maybe the most ominous nugget from last year from Elliott’s point of view is that Mullins managed to comfortably overturn the €400k deficit in a week while winning only one of the four feature races. He also had a short-priced favourite beaten into second three times by his own horses.

Point is, Elliott’s cushion may be bigger this year but he can’t get comfortable in it. The Co Meath trainer won’t feel the gap big enough unless and until he starts picking up Grade Ones of his own. Of the four feature races across the week, Mullins has the favourite for Tuesday’s Champion Chase, Thursday’s Stayers’ Hurdle and Friday’s Champion Hurdle.

He has, in fact, the first three in the betting for all three races. They won’t all run – and if they do, they won’t finish 1-2-3 in each of them – but you can see the possibilities. A 1-2 finish in one of the big four races is worth €220,000. Such a result on any of the days would slice the gap between the pair in a hurry.

Direct clashes

As for direct clashes, they could actually be few and far between in the bigger races. Elliott has no particularly heavy hitters for the feature prizes – unless they send Samcro to the Champion Hurdle on Friday, as Michael O’Leary suggested during the week that they might if Elliott’s tilt at the title race needs a boost.

But otherwise, the head-on clashes will be at a lower level. Novice hurdlers Getabird and Mengli Khan should face off on the opening day, Farclas v Mr Adjudicator ought to be a decent match in the juvenile hurdle on Saturday. If Samcro doesn’t go to the Champion Hurdle and Laurina doesn’t go to the mares’ equivalent, then their meeting in Friday’s novice hurdle could be the juiciest prospect of the whole week.

In the end, chances must be that Elliott’s momentum will carry him across the line. A golden month in which he has retained his leading trainer’s gong at Cheltenham and followed up with Grand Nationals in Ireland and England looks to be going only one way.

Indeed it may well be that the photo finish at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday proves to be the ultimate difference, with Elliott’s General Principle touching off Mullins’s Isleofhopendreams that day and earning a vital €170k more in the process.

A photo finish to separate the two pre-eminent figures in the game at the end of a season where they will most likely finish with a combined total of over €10m in prize-money. Sounds about right.

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