Tony Mullins flew in from Ireland yesterday, spent two hours marooned on the tarmac at Heathrow, and then proceeded to Newbury where the racecourse lay under snow. Perhaps his childhood winters were akin to those of Dylan Thomas: "I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea." Certainly there is no mistaking the extra frisson he would feel, once the covers come off tomorrow, if his horse could win the Totesport Gold Trophy - at the conspicuous expense of his brothers, Willie and Tom. Convivial men as they all are, it must be doubted whether they would find tea sufficient to the occasion.
Between them, they saddle four runners in one of the most valuable handicaps of the winter. Willie saddles Mister Hight and Quatre Heures, and Tom, New Field. For Tony, success for Pedrobob would amply avenge any vandalism ever perpetrated against his snowmen. "The four horses are travelling over together," he said. "It's a very strange coincidence, that we all settled on this race, and we'd all of us love to win it, that's for sure."
Their sibling rivalry is a commonplace of the Irish scene, of course, such is the training dynasty founded by their father, Paddy. Tony likes to cast himself as the underdog, but his brothers are fully aware of what he can do with the right material. Just days ago, he upstaged an odds-on favourite trained by Willie in a Fairyhouse bumper. Willie, of course, has a peerless record in the bumper at the Cheltenham Festival, and all the talk was that Mad Fish might be his best hope this time. But Tony's horse, Aranleigh, beat him by five lengths - the pair about a furlong clear - and was promptly purchased by JP McManus.
"We do have a great rivalry between us, and I enjoy it when I beat them," Mullins said. "It can be a bit frustrating when you get a valuable bumper horse ready, and then Willie or Tom comes up with one to beat you. But I got it right that day. And Aranleigh is certainly the most exciting horse I've ever had. Some of those bumper horses, they're a bit unsound, or a bit nuts, but this one has the most fantastic attitude. He's a huge big horse, but he'd walk after you round the yard without a head collar. He's so relaxed, he's like an old timer."
Aranleigh will next be seen at Cheltenham, assuming that the ground is not firm. "His breeding suggests he'd prefer better ground than they had at Fairyhouse," Mullins said. "If that's true, he must be a hell of a horse. I just wouldn't want to run a 17-hand horse without a bit of cut in the ground. Funnily enough, of all the horses I've seen in Ireland, the only one I'd be afraid of would be Mad Fish himself. He seemed to have our measure on the bend, but when it got down to reality, on that ground, he just seemed to flounder in the straight."
As for Pedrobob, his previous visit to Britain ended in disappointment. Heavily backed for a handicap at the Cheltenham November meeting, he finished only seventh, but bolted up when dropped to two miles at Leopardstown and continues to suggest he has not yet played his full hand. After all, he has few miles on the clock for a nine-year-old, having won six of just 10 races.
"We couldn't get him to eat as a young horse," Mullins explained. "I must have sent him home five times in his first 18 months with me. Eventually he toughened up, and from there on he's been a good horse.
"I actually believe he ran quite well that day at Cheltenham. He had top weight for his first run in a handicap, and to me he didn't run the stinker some people seemed to think. The flat track and true gallop at Newbury should suit him better, and I'd say he has a live chance without being the bet of the year."
Willie, meanwhile, continues to experience difficulty with Hedgehunter, who finished second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup last year but may not make the race this time. His trainer's priority remains the Grand National, in which Hedgehunter has finished first and second in the past two years. "He's just a bit stiff," he said. "I hope it's nothing serious but he will certainly sidestep Cheltenham if he's not right. Aintree is my main focus."
* Today's card at Bangor has been abandoned due to frost and snow.
NB: Supreme Copper