Weekend review: The signs are there that Willie Mullins’ yard is on the mend

Timeform sift through the weekend clues to make racing's eternal puzzle that little bit clearer ahead of the major races over the next few weeks on the road to Cheltenham 2019 ...

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Willie Mullins’ yard has suffered a noticeable dip in form over the past couple of months, certainly compared to the extraordinarily high standards that they have set over the past two decades. (see the red line on the graph below).

Mullins and his son Patrick, along with stable jockey Ruby Walsh, have always appeared unworried, suggesting that the horses may have been needing the run after unseasonably dry weather in the autumn/early-winter prevented many having an outing as early as would normally be the case.

According to Timeform data, 15 per cent of the yard’s horses have won second time out (since September 1).

But there were better signs this weekend, with Mullins’ two runners at Thurles both performing well, building on a gutsy win for Ifyoucatchmenow at Fairyhouse last Tuesday, even if the odds-on maiden, Face the Facts was beaten at Navan on Saturday.

Willie Mullins Trainer Form

Camelia de Cotte is having a great season, already a much better chaser than she was a hurdler, and she progressed again when making all in a Grade 2 on Sunday at Thurles. There’s no obvious race for her at Cheltenham, but she should continue to dominate these mares’ events.

The 10-year-old Total Recall was always likely to find the two and a half miles on the Horse & Jockey Hotel Chase a little sharp, especially on good ground, and he did well to finish as close as he did after a chance-ending mistake at the last.

He’ll appreciate a step back up in trip next time, and may also be happier going left-handed.

Mullins has a bumper list of entries for the Galmoy Hurdle and the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park this Thursday; expect big performances in both races.

2. The English novice hurdlers look below par so far …

Al-Dancer

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In the end of season ratings provided by Timeform, the best novice hurdler is usually a) a two-miler and b) rated in the 160s. Obviously, those ratings usually come from the big end of season events at Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown, but as things stand, the latest crop of novices aren’t leaping off the page.

Mister Fisher showed plenty of resolution to win the Supreme Trial at Haydock on Saturday, but while that was a smart effort under a penalty, the horses he beat aren’t top-notch. He might be a second string for Nicky Henderson, as the yard also has Supreme ante-post favourite Angels Breath, but he doesn’t make much appeal at around 10/1 for the Cheltenham Festival opener.

Of the other British runners, Elixir de Nutz has been seen to good advantage in dominating small fields but will find life much tougher at Cheltenham, while Al Dancer made a mockery of his handicap mark when beating more experienced horses there last time. Along with Getaway Trump, a big performance in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury next month could see him challenging for favouritism.

There’s no Rich Ricci star on the scene, certainly not yet anyway, but Aramon looks the pick of the Mullins runners ahead of Klassical Dream at this stage. The former was a different horse granted a truly-run race last time and looks overpriced at 14/1; he’s certainly achieved more in form terms than Gordon Elliott’s impressive maiden winner Vision d’Honneur who is shorter in the betting.

3. Does Altior romp mean it’s time for Grade 1 handicaps?

Altior-Ascot-Jan-19

Timeform’s report from Saturday’s Clarence House Chase at Ascot, a Grade 1, makes for grim reading. With Un de Sceaux an absentee, Altior duly obliged at 1/10. 

 “…the lack of competition was in keeping with the vast majority of runnings since this race was first staged in 2008, only two of those renewals producing anything like a close finish, raising questions as to whether this race deserves its place in the calendar.”

While watching the winner in full-flight over his fences is poetry in motion, there were probably more listeners for Radio 4’s Poetry Extra programme than there were ITV4 viewers at 15:40 on Saturday.

So what can be done?

Perhaps it’s time for Grade 1 handicaps. At the moment, the British and Irish programme only has handicaps up to Grade 3 level, and very few open handicaps with no upper ceiling, but there’s certainly a case for making certain Grade 2 and Grade 1 races into handicaps.

Had the Clarence House Chase been a straightforward open handicap, then runner-up Fox Norton would have received 8 lb from Altior, while Diego du Charmil would have received 19 lb.

In all likelihood, that wouldn’t have changed the result, but at least it would have created a better spectacle, whilst still allowing Altior to gain another top-level win, and one which would allow him to be given more credit than it’s possible to do for Saturday’s walk in the park.

One to back next time out …

Seddon-wins-at-Musselburgh-2018

Seddon stepped up on the bare form of his novice efforts when third to Ballymoy over 2m 4f at Ascot on Saturday, but arguably didn’t scale the heights he will another day.

The race was falsely-run, and while he was travelling well turning in, it was no surprise that the first two got away from him before he plugged on again late on. A strongly-run handicap over this trip could be ideal, though he might even run well at massive odds in something like the Baring Bingham at Cheltenham if connections decide to step him back up in grade later in the season.

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