The Monday morning after Aintree, a couple of weeks before the Punchestown festival, I spoke to Ruby Walsh.
Nearing the end of an interesting chat, I asked him how many winners did he think Willie Mullins might have at Punchestown?
His response both intrigued and astonished me. He thought long and hard before offering a reply.
“You know,” he said, “it wouldn’t surprise me if Willie won half of the races.” In any normal society it shaped as an answer that belonged in the realms of fantasy.
I think we both knew he was exaggerating, at least to some extent, but amazingly his prediction was to prove eerily accurate.
When the meeting ended a week ago, Mullins had won 16 of the 37 contests. When you factor in that two of those were not open to Mullins runners then effectively he won as near to half of the races as made no difference.
Mullins, and those associated with his stable, have enjoyed the best season imaginable, but all the evidence is that his utter domination means there are real problems going forward.
Mind you it is not as if he has become something of an overnight success.
He was first champion trainer in 2001, but then Noel Meade took over for the next six years, before Mullins regained the championship in 2008.
He has been champion every year since and is now so far clear of his rivals that it almost defies logic.
For instance, he won ten of the 12 Grade 1’s that were available at Punchestown, while talented opposition were basically left to pick up scraps.
Gordon Elliott and Jessica Harrington did manage two winners apiece, but so many top trainers were left with virtually nothing.
You’d imagine Meade is as good a trainer now as he ever was, he certainly has a wealth of experience, but never even got the sniff of a winner at Punchestown.
The end-of-season statistics were hugely revealing. Mullins won 187 races at home, for prize money of €4.2m.
Elliott, a clear second, enjoyed a great campaign, but 92 winners and €1.5m left him miles behind Mullins.
Elliott, Meade (third) and Tony Martin (fourth) managed 185 winners between them, two shy of the Mullins total.
One of the other aspects regarding Punchestown, of course, was the relatively weak British challenge.
But that was perfectly understandable, on the basis that Mullins had won a record-breaking eight races at the Cheltenham festival and if they couldn’t take him on at home then what chance had they in an away game?
The overall standard of horses in Ireland is currently at an all-time high and we have very much enjoyed watching the likes of Faugheen, Vautour, Un De Sceaux and so many others.
But National Hunt racing is becoming increasingly uncompetitive, with so many of the best horses residing in the one place.
Mullins has simply taken it to an entirely new level and, backed by numerous big-hitting owners, promises to get even stronger in the coming seasons.
When he began training that was hardly the plan, but it has evolved in such a manner for an enormously talented man, who is impossible to dislike.
It would be plain ridiculous to even attempt to criticise Mullins for taking excellence to a new level.
But the bottom line is that his opponents haven’t a prayer and there is essentially little or nothing they can do about it.
Take the case of Mouse Morris for example and his travails at Punchestown. Mouse hasn’t had a good season, ending with just 13 winners.
Punchestown, however, almost sent him out on a much more positive note, except for the Mullins shadow.
Mouse ran the 40-1 shot Baily Green in the Grade 1 BoyleSports Champion Chase, taking on three Mullins candidates.
Baily Green ran out of his skin, but was nailed close home and beaten half a length into second by Mullins’ Felix Yonger.
Then Mouse’s Alpha Des Obeaux — he is a star of the future — contested the Grade 1 Champion Novice Hurdle.
This time he had four Mullins horses against him, beat three of them, but was no match for Nichols Canyon.
I associate with plenty of hard-core punters, those who play large, middle of the road and the modest variety, that follow the game literally every day.
The message coming from them through the season was that while it was great to see so many top horses in action much of it was proving less than satisfactory.
Generally speaking, due to the Mullins dominance, betting opportunities, for all shades of punters, were thin on the ground.
Right now National Hunt racing in Ireland is completely lopsided. In lots of ways, it will almost be a relief to embrace the flat, especially for those of us who love that game anyway.
I’m very much looking forward to seeing Aidan O’Brien’s Order Of St George making his seasonal debut in the Group 3 Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial at Leopardstown tomorrow.
He certainly has a bit to prove, having failed to cope with the Jim Bolger trained Parish Boy at Leopardstown back in October.
I gather, however, that he is going especially well at home, so this promises to be rather interesting!
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