Perhaps last weekend’s results across the Irish Sea should have served as a reminder that the search for a Cheltenham banker does not have to circle around Willie Mullins’ stable.
Much – probably too much – has been made of Mullins’ dominance of Irish racing and, depending on your point of view, how good or bad it is for the sport.
But, in a rare weekend of reverses with his challengers in Britain, there was a firm reminder to complacent punters that the home team will put up stern resistance in six weeks’ time.
Prior to the evolution of Min, Bellshill was being hailed as Mullins’ best novice hurdler, but he is no longer favourite for his intended target at the Festival. And that, considering the current strength of the stable, may seem quite remarkable.
Cue Yanworth. If you can win five races, finish fourth in the Champion Bumper and still go relatively unheralded, that’s what Alan King’ six-year-old did before Saturday’s stunning display in the Grade 2 Neptune Hurdle at Cheltenham.
“I don’t think I’ve trained anything like it,” said the Barbury Castle handler. “He’s frightening - in a good way - and he could be very special.”
Were those words uttered by Mullins, the horse would most likely be long odds-on for his intended target, the Neptune Investments Novices Hurdle.
But that’s just a reflection of Mullins’ current status and, perhaps, of King’s.
But King’s memory isn’t short, even if recent results at the Festival haven’t been spectacular.
Any trainer who has won the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, World Hurdle, the Arkle twice, the Ryanair Chase and two Triumph Hurdles, amongst others, is entitled to have a fair idea what a good horse looks like, and, in Yanworth, he likes what he sees.
Admittedly, the horse’s performance and the trainer’s reaction weren’t entirely missed by bookies or punters..
Cut to 7-2 in the immediate aftermath of the race, a weight of support resulted in a further shortening of his odds, to just 2-1.
Is there still some scope in that? Yes, quite probably. Should those odds hold until the day, then certainly there is as there are there are few - if any - questions to answer for the JP McManus-owned six-year-old.
After his debut success in a bumper was followed up at Newbury, he failed to cope with Supasundae in a Listed bumper at Ascot, over a mile and seven furlongs.
Perhaps that should have been the first indicator that he wanted further than two miles.
Not unconsidered at 16-1 for the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham, he travelled with his usual enthusiasm but was a little short on the turn home.
However, he responded generously to pressure and was really devouring the ground on the hill.
In finishing fourth, he reversed previous form with Supasundae and finished six places and more than 13 lengths ahead of Bellshill.
His season ended there, and the new one began with a stroll through the Exeter fog in early November.
His jumping – what could be seen of it – wasn’t foot-perfect there, nor was it when he followed up at Warwick a fortnight later.
It was better in a Grade 2 at Ascot in December, but there was room for improvement at Cheltenham last weekend.
Four outings over hurdles is ample experience going to Cheltenham, and King can concentrate on perfecting the art of jumping over the coming weeks.
Proven over hurdles, on decent ground, over the trip and on the track, there seems no doubt Yanworth is a worthy favourite and, arguably, the banker bet of the meeting.
The Albert Bartlett may be the only one of the all-aged novice hurdles King has won, but, provided Yanworth gets there in top order, it’s going to take something special to deny him adding the Neptune to his impressive Cheltenham portfolio.
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