Having already rattled off a century of winners in record time, Willie Mullins has this season taken his domination of Irish National Hunt racing to another level.
Champion trainer seven times, including in each of the last six seasons, the master of Closutton has a dazzling array of talent at his disposal, so much so that Mullins has a tough task as he aims to split his aces.
It is fair comment to suggest his contemporaries do not feel much sympathy.
Other trainers can only look on with envy as Mullins assembles squads five or six deep at the top level in virtually every division, with his strength in the novice ranks particularly frightening this term.
Multiple Mullins entries in some of Ireland’s top races have tended to frighten away the opposition, which was never more evident than in the recent Navan Novice Hurdle.
The Grade One contest attracted just four declared runners and after Noel Meade withdrew the injured Apache Stronghold and his stable companion Very Wood, it turned into a match between the Mullins-trained Champion Bumper winner Briar Hill and Eoin Griffin’s Azorian.
Briar Hill was unsurprisingly a long odds-on favourite and in the end, got the job done with relative ease.
Mullins said afterwards: “This is definitely the best crop of novice hurdlers I’ve ever had. They are all fit and healthy and hopefully we can keep them like that.”
Briar Hill’s triumph was a third top-level victory of the season for Mullins.
The brilliant Hurricane Fly beat just four opponents, three of those stable companions, when securing a record-breaking 17th Grade One triumph in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown last month.
Arvika Ligeonniere then met stablemate and Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up Sir Des Champs in a three-runner John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase.
The early fall of Sir Des Champs left Arvika Ligeonniere to easily dispatch of the only other participant, Rubi Light.
Meade himself is an eight-times champion trainer, but he and the likes of Dessie Hughes, Henry de Bromhead, Jessica Harrington and rising star Gordon Elliott are a long way behind Mullins in terms of firepower.
As well as his astonishing record on home turf, Mullins is the winning-most Irish-based trainer at the Cheltenham Festival, so the attraction for some of the sport’s leading and most wealthy owners is clear.
Mullins also stated at the start of the campaign he intended to make his British raids more frequent and it has already proved a successful venture, with brilliant mare Annie Power downing Zarkandar in the Ascot Hurdle.
The festive period is crucial for most trainers, particularly the big boys, and Mullins is no different.
While the slender champion trainer tucks into his turkey on Christmas day, his thoughts will undoubtedly be dominated by the four fantastic days that follow at Leopardstown.
Mullins is dusting down some of his big guns as he prepares an assault on some fantastic prizes. Remarkably, he is just 25-1 to win all of the seven Grade Ones on offer.
Hurricane Fly heads the team as he looks for a third victory in the Ryanair Hurdle on December 29, with younger stars Our Conor and Jezki lying in wait.
Mullins pointed to the nine-year-old’s Morgiana Hurdle win as probably his least impressive since he arrived in Ireland five years ago, but he anticipates considerable improvement.
“It’s some achievement for the horse to win a record 17 Grade One races considering he missed a lot of the early part of his career with injury,” said Mullins.
“Keeping him sound is always our main concern and, because of that, he always goes first on the gallop to make sure he gets the best of the ground each day.
“Paul (Townend) rides him all the time. He’s got a great pair of hands and has been very good for the horse. He can be very keen as he’s so competitive if another horse is alongside him. That’s another reason why we let him go in front at home.
“He’s stronger and heavier this year and I didn’t realise how much he needed the run at Punchestown. He came in from grass full of condition, and I’d expect big improvement. He’ll strip a lot fitter at Christmas. We will follow the same path as last year, with everything geared towards Cheltenham in March.
“Each year since we’ve had him we are trying to find another one like him but you can’t buy those horses with all the money in the world.”
Annie Power is an intriguing case.
Unbeaten in eight career starts, the five-year-old won over the intermediate distance of two and a half miles at Ascot, but has the pace to go back to two miles if connections wished.
That, however, seems unlikely given Hurricane Fly is currently the top dog in that division and Annie Power may instead test her powers at three miles in the woodiesdiy.com Christmas Hurdle a day earlier.
Mullins said: “I was hugely impressed by her at Ascot. We asked a big question of her and she answered it. It was some achievement for basically a novice mare.
“If she can make normal improvement then I don’t know how far she can go. She has lots of stamina and I’ll try to keep her away from Hurricane Fly.”
Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up Sir Des Champs is bound for the Lexus Chase (December 28), with Mullins also considering running his fascinating French recruit Rubi Ball.
The eight-year-old is starting off his Irish career late in life, but was a multiple Grade One winner in his homeland and is expected to build on his narrow defeat over hurdles at Thurles last month.
“He was a little disappointing at Thurles but the ground was too good for him there and he jumped a bit left,” said Mullins.
“He’s probably better going the other way. He schooled well over hurdles but didn’t have much respect for them at Thurles. I had thought of him as a staying hurdler but he could run in the Lexus. All his best form in France was on heavy ground.”
Dual Cheltenham Festival winner and Arkle favourite Champagne Fever heads for the Racing Post Novice Chase on December 26, with Arvika Ligeonniere likely to serve it up to Sizing Europe in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase a day later.
Ballycasey could possibly step up to three miles in the Topaz Novice Chase (December 29), while Triumph Hurdle favourite Analifet is set to bid for her fourth consecutive victory over timber at the showpiece meeting.
“Ballycasey schooled brilliantly with Katie Walsh after racing at Punchestown and I was absolutely thrilled with him at Navan in his beginners’ chase,” said Mullins.
“Analifet has come out of the race at Fairyhouse very well, and I’d imagine she will go for the Grade Two juvenile hurdle. She looks a lot more mature for her age than most juveniles.”
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