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Johnny Ward: Mullins has the hunger and the hand to continue championship dominance

Gordon Elliott holds a slim lead in the trainers’ race but it’s all still to play for, writes Johnny Ward.

Envoi Allen: Willie Mullins watches on as
Envoi Allen: Willie Mullins watches on as "the best novice" in Britain and Ireland wins again for Elliott.

ONCE THE LAST course at the Horse Racing Ireland awards night is no longer on the plates, there is a rush to the toilets, the smoking area and the bar.

As I summoned the last of those three at the 2019 renewal, I noted that Eddie O’Leary, Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins were all thinking the same in my general area of the lounge, and could not resist some clumsy comment to make it a bit awkward for three of the most influential men Irish racing has seen. They made the best of it, fashioned pleasantries.

Elliott, Mullins and O’Leary share a couple of traits – insatiable hunger to achieve and an ability many rungs north of average – but are quite different personalities. Add in the fact Mullins and Gigginstown had an acrimonious split in 2016, whatever way it was presented.

Mullins increased his fees and Michael O’Leary, Eddie’s less influential brother when it comes to racing, was not having it. That is the official line.

It may be true. It is up to you to decide whether or not there was more to it. I suspect Mullins, who is very much his own man and would not have achieved what he has were he something different, could see that his operation could still prosper even without O’Leary. Many would have doubted him and when you doubt Willie Mullins you usually lose.

Of all his achievements, including a first (belated) Gold Cup win last year, Mullins’ continued dominance of the Irish trainers’ title since Gigginstown’s departure – which in one swoop damaged him and greatly added to Elliott’s arsenal – has to be near the summit. This was the ultimate triumph out of adversity. And whether he admits it or not, he would have revelled in these victories as Brian Cody, a few miles down the road, would another All-Ireland.

Be it Cody or Mullins, however, last week’s feast is no good to sate the hunger tomorrow.

Going into this week’s action (after Naas), Mullins trailed Elliott in the winners’ table by three. Take out Gigginstown winners and he was hammering his rival 117-76. As an interesting aside, Gavin Cromwell lies third in the tables without Gigginstown and without both JP and Gigginstown, suggesting he could one day challenge the pair.

Patrick Mullins was a predictably compelling guest on Racing TV on Thursday and, analysing a run-of-the-mill card at Clonmel, recalled how his dad rang him on the way to watch a 1/4 chance for the axis at that track last year.

Kalanisi Og, Mullins Jnr reckoned, just had to get around. Not so, thought Mullins Snr, who rang his son en route to the races to have a detailed discussion on the way the wind was blowing, not as a figure of speech, however he felt he could offer anything in the passenger seat of a car.

WP Mullins looks for whatever edge he can get. He made a little slip, I think, after Envoi Allen routed his rivals, including a Mullins runner, at Naas Sunday, saying he was “the best horse in Britain and Ireland, sorry the best novice”. It appeared to be a genuine mistake, but he might not have been wrong either way.

I snapped the great man sizing up Envoi Allen in the post-parade, his expression a cocktail of admiration, disdain, regret and reverence, depending on your bargain with a picture telling a thousand words.

There has been little title talk and Elliott has reverted to type. Going into today’s Thurles combat, the pretender has amassed €2,751,390 in Ireland this season to Mullins’ €2,426,403. It’s a slim advantage but, asked by The42 this morning what his prospects were, he replied: “No chance of winning it.”

The feeling is that Mullins will pull away at Punchestown come the season’s end, but the Dublin Racing Festival at the start of next month could be pivotal. Paddy Power now sponsors the Irish Gold Cup, the old Hennessy, which has a purse of €250,000, but the other scatter of Grade 1s will be critical if Elliott is to win the title for the first time.

In the senior ranks, Mullins has little to fear. Elliott might have Delta Work, who got the better of Kemboy at Leopardstown, but Mullins will have lost no sleep and Al Boum Photo looks picture-perfect for another Gold Cup assault. He has Saldier and Klassical Dream in the hurdling division, in which Apples Jade is the enigma on which Elliott’s hope may yet rely so much.

However, Elliott looks to have better novices. He has the favourite for the Supreme, the Ballymore; the second- and third-favourite for the Albert Bartlett; Battleoverdoyen in the RSA Chase; and, whisper it, Samcro for something or other.

Elliott led perennial champion Mullins by a shade over €400,000 heading to the 2017 Punchestown Festival, but gradually reduced the deficit and after five winners across the final two days, ended up retaining his crown with almost €200,000 in hand.

Mullins had an even bigger deficit to overcome 12 months later, trailing by over €521,000, and Elliott was long odds-on to take the crown for the first time but again ran out of rope. Last year did not even involve the suspense of a contest.

This weekend’s fare could play its own minor part. A couple of graded heats each worth north of €40,000 are up for grabs, with the Sky Bet Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle the feature. Elliott runs Andy Dufresne, another hugely exciting novice.

The most eye-catching booking of the weekend is arguably Patrick Mullins for Elliott aboard Cheb De Kerviniou in the Total Event Rental Amateur National (Q.R.) Handicap Steeplechase (2.10). She should (a) reverse recent form with Biddy The Boss, having been heavily backed, and (b) win, all going to plan.

At Fairyhouse tomorrow, I can’t help but take the hint that Patrick’s uncle, the wily Tom Mullins, sends Takarengo to post for the third time in a couple of weeks. He is intriguing getting weight in the ITM Stallion Trail Hurdle (12.25), especially as he could target a maiden.

Fairyhouse’s feature €100,000 Dan & Joan Moore Memorial Handicap Steeplechase is a smashing renewal, with everything from four each-way places to Us And Them’s sophomore season to the veterans Rock The World and Vaniteux attempting to role back the years. Charlie Stout was cantering at Leopardstown when effectively carried out and is interesting despite being out of the weights at a price.

Mullins and Elliott are both represented in this lucrative handicap. I asked a couple of mates about the title race, with Elliott 5/2 outsider and Mullins 1/4.

“Envoi Allen could run twice at Punchestown,” offered one mischievously.

Another was not messing around. “Willie just wins.”

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Johnny Ward

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