Even as the 2015/16 campaign comes to a conclusion today thoughts already turn to next season and the remarkable array of options open to Rich Ricci and Willie Mullins.
The dynamic duo have a number of decisions to make over the summer. They’re the type of dilemmas any owner or trainer could only dream of but juggling the pack will still be quite the challenge.
What, for instance, should be Vautour’s target at Cheltenham 2017?
The seven-year-old, second in the Champion Chase over two miles here on Tuesday, began the season as a leading Gold Cup contender and finished second in the three-mile King George on St Stephen’s Day.
He was then controversially rerouted from the Gold Cup at the 11th hour and instead cruised to victory in the Ryanair Chase before falling in the Melling Chase at Aintree.
His display on Tuesday suggested two miles is too sharp while the way he toiled in the closing stages of the King George raised questions about his stamina.
That would suggest the Ryanair Chase is the most likely option but given Djakadam, second in the Punchestown Gold Cup on Wednesday, has twice fallen short in the blue riband Ricci and Mullins might just be tempted to aim Vautour at the race they crave most.
Then there’s Douvan. Imperious in winning the Ryanair Novice Chase on Thursday he’s already a warm order for the Champion Chase but is held in such high regard by connections that a Gold Cup tilt can’t be ruled out.
That leads us nicely to Vroum Vroum Mag. An 11th hour replacement for Annie Power, herself a super sub for the injured Faugheen at Cheltenham, Vroum Vroum Mag remains unbeaten after a stunning display in the Grade One Punchestown Champion Hurdle yesterday.
We can take it for granted that Faugheen, Annie Power and Vroum Vroum Mag won’t be lining up in opposition in the Champion Hurdle next March so some big decisions need to be taken.
After Annie Power’s victory at Cheltenham, Mullins pondered sending the mare over fences in a bid to win the Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double, a feat only previously achieved by the iconic Dawn Run.
Yesterday, however, Ricci ruled that option out and admitted there’s a lot of talking to be done.
“Next year we’ve got some choices to make and she’s very good,” he said referring to Annie Power. “Hopefully she comes back well – she hasn’t the last few years but if she comes back well we’ve got some good choices to make.
“I can’t see Annie Power going back over fences. Willie said if I was interested then we would do it but I’m not, my wife certainly isn’t, so if one is to go over fences it could be Vroum Vroum and she can jump a fence.”
Ricci’s assessment met the approval of his jockey.
“Annie Power has never run over fences, and this one has,” Ruby Walsh said. “When you think about it realistically, it’s very late in her career to make a horse like Annie Power go chasing, whereas this one has won a heap of chases.”
Assessing Vroum Vroum Mag’s display yesterday, Ricci added: “That was great. To be able to win a Champion Hurdle with Annie Power and then this – she’s a super-duper sub. We’re very, very fortunate, Willie’s a genius and Ruby gave her a great ride.”
For Mullins victory provided vindication for his decision to scratch Vroum Vroum Mag from Sandown last week once the battle for the British Trainers’ Championship was lost. That late call earned him a £1,000 (€1,276) fine with the stewards accusing Mullins of showing “a wilful disregard for the interests of racegoers and punters”.
Yesterday Mullins spoke of how quickly plans can change and importance of adaptability.
“We hadn’t even got her in the country last week, we were on tour! We won’t mention the S word,” he joked.
“We had her entered in everything, as you would with any good horse, and it’s just the way things fell that she got to run in this race and to show what’s she’s really made of.
“We’re not afraid to change plans and adapt to what suits us on the day.”
That particularly skill will be tested like never before next season. How Ricci and Mullins handle the challenge will be fascinating.
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