Racing: Mullins has grand aim for Hedgehunter

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The Independent Online

You can take the racehorse out of racing, but the reverse does not seem to apply on the evidence of startling events at the Closutton yard of Willie Mullins in Co Carlow yesterday.

As the stable's inmates exercised around the two-ring woodchip circus which comprises Mullins's gallops, old fighting instincts were aroused in two retired soldiers observing activities in a nearby pen.

After a while it became too much for Florida Pearl and Alexander Banquet, who vaulted the tape containing them and galloped four circuits of the main track before deciding they had had enough. You began to understand why this is the most competitive of Irish yards.

It is such an attitude which has garnered several Cheltenham Festival victories for Mullins, as well as success in the most publicly notable race of the all, the Grand National.

Hedgehunter, the mighty one of last April, was out in the yard yesterday, well built and shiny, the epitome of good health. He was in just the sort of beautiful condition which means you should never back him at the racecourse.

For when Hedgehunter looks good, his prospects are the reverse. When the nine-year-old has the emaciated appearance of a creature ready for a rescue centre, it is time for punters to step in. "He's best when he looks as though he needs three months at grass," Mullins said. "He's best when he looks like a greyhound."

Certainly, Hedgehunter has never looked better than Aintree 2005, when he scampered 14 lengths clear to distance the recollection of 12 months earlier when he collapsed at the final fence in what appeared to be his final slumber.

"Last year showed that he was a true National horse," Mullins said. "It showed that he had removed that horrible fall from his memory bank. It was the sign of a horse that could go back there year after year. Some horses jump brilliantly, go back the following year, and they hate the place. They take one look at it and they want out."

Hedgehunter faces obstacles even more formidable than the Liverpool spruce mountains themselves if he is to complete back-to-back National victories. That distinction belongs to only the lonely, Red Rum (in 1973 and 1974) the sole horse in living memory to complete such a double. "Statistics are against us," Mullins conceded.

The question of Hedgehunter's prospective Liverpool weight is not uppermost in Mullins's mind. He knows his horse is going to be clobbered. Yet the National, "the Bespoke Handicap", in the words of official handicapper Phil Smith is the one race in which he may be well treated.

If a prominent figure from the highest reaches of staying chasers arrives at the race - something such as Kicking King, Beef Or Salmon or even perhaps Ollie Magern - Hedgehunter may end up with a similar weight to last April's. Certainly it seems unlikely he will go up from his current rating 16lb higher than when he set off on the dangerous tour of Merseyside in the spring.

"There would be a big possibility that he would go over hurdles again," Mullins said. "Time-wise the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February would also be perfect for him and I think he's entitled to run in any of the top staying chases. He jumps and he stays well enough.

"He'd take his chance in the Hennessy and we'll see where we are after that, but he'd be entered for the Cheltenham Gold Cup as well."

But the grail remains the same. The race which has a unique hold on the nation. "When you get into racing you think about Gold Cups and Champion Hurdles," Mullins said. "But, from the time you understand what racing is all about, the first race you want to win is the Grand National."