Irish confident of another bumper harvest

Greg Wood on the Cheltenham raider most likely to assume a banker's role
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Perhaps it is the name, with its fairground undertones, or maybe some stiff British sense of correctness objects to the notion of a National Hunt race without obstacles. Whatever the reason, though, it is undeniable that on this side of the Irish Sea, no one seems to take bumpers too seriously.

In fact, one of the few times when British backers treat a National Hunt Flat race with due respect is when the pressing need arises to recoup some losses at the end of the second afternoon at Cheltenham. Since there will be upwards of 20 runners to consider, this is generally far too late to develop an interest, but this year at least few backers will look beyond the first two runners in the betting. Even at 13 days' distance, these seem sure to be Andanito and Wither Or Which.

It is a classic head-to-head between Britain and Ireland. Andanito, unbeaten in three starts, is trained in Sussex, and by an aristo, Lady Herries, to boot. Wither or Which will travel from County Carlow to represent Willie Mullins, the son of Dawn Run's trainer, Paddy, and among this thousands of fellow travellers, Wither or Which will out-rank all but Danoli when withdrawals are made from the betting bank.

In Ireland, National Hunt Flat races to not suffer the after-thought status of their British counterpart. "People here prepare for them much more," Willie Mullins says. "But in England they're often just schooling races."

The Irish know a good bumper horse when they see one, and everyone who was at Leopardstown on the last day of 1995 left the course convinced that they had seen a very fine specimen indeed. The 17-runner field included several well-regarded animals, but Wither or Which, who was ridden by his trainer, led from the off and was never in the slightest danger of being caught. At the line, his nearest pursuer was 20 lengths adrift.

This performance did not surprise his pilot. "I knew as soon as I sat on him that he could be one of the best horses I've trained," Mullins says. "I just didn't know whether to believe it. But he can away in some work at Navan before the race, and that gave me the confidence to go on right from the start. I didn't take any prisoners."

Before long, the form started to work out as robustly as an aerobics champion. One opponent, beaten 30 lengths at Leopardstown, ran the next day and won easily. Within a few days, another of the also-rans had done the same. The majority of Ireland's punters are very glad that Andanito will also be at Cheltenham. He will make the market ideally for their latest hero.

And hero he certainly is, with many predicting a champion's status for Wither or Which before he has even jumped a flight of hurdles in public. The description "new Arkle" was being dusted off before he even passed the post at Leopardstown. Mullins, wisely, is more cautious. "He's very good, but I don't think he's that type of horse."

We have, of course, heard all this several times before, most recently when Tiananmen Square was supposed to win the 1992 Festival Bumper by the length of the straight. It was of little consolation to his impoverished fan club that another Irish runner, Montelado, did so instead. The possibility of defeat, however, will be entertained only when it becomes a reality.

Mullins has already visited the winners' enclosure at Cheltenham, both as a jockey, when twice successful in the National Hunt Chase, and a trainer, thanks to Tourist Attraction's success in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle last year. His father's achievements with Dawn Run, meanwhile, are commemorated on the walls of most of the pubs in Ireland. Such will be the weight of money behind Wither or Which that victory will see photographs of Mullins jnr mounted alongside.

"We've had a bit of luck there" is Willie's modest assessment. If Wither or Which's supporters are to be believed, luck will have very little to do with it on Wednesday week.