Mulligan gets top school report

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There has been nothing wrong with the jumps season so far, but it is about to get even better. On Saturday, two of the brightest and best return to the stage: Viking Flagship at Sandown and Mr Mulligan at Chepstow.

There will be no Tingle Creek - who died earlier this year - to lead out the runners for the Sandown chase that bears his name, but the reappearance of Viking Flagship in this race is becoming a similarly warming tradition.

This is the event that has been used to launch Viking Flagship for the last two years on campaigns that have yielded seven successes at the highest level.

The former champion two-miler was dethroned by Klairon Davis at Cheltenham last season, and Arthur Moore's gelding is among the list of six opponents declared to take on Viking Flagship on Saturday. But David Nicholson's horse took his revenge in the Melling Chase at Aintree and, although some have suggested that the speed to take on the best at two miles has been blunted, no one could question his trademark toughness and durability.

With Mr Mulligan different qualities come to mind. This is the spectacular chestnut with the compellingly beautiful, blond mane and a dramatic front- running style that brought five straight wins last year. With those successes came a more dubious honour, that of being most people's idea of a Cheltenham Festival banker. There, of course, the beautiful dream was disturbed; Mr Mulligan uprooted the first fence and trailed in second behind Nahthen Lad in the Sun Alliance Chase.

The experience has not shaken him and there is plenty of stable confidence that the Cheltenham Gold Cup aspirant can make a winning return.

"The horse is jumping out of his skin," Noel Chance, his trainer, said yesterday. "My only problem is the jockey, but it's a major problem."

Mr Mulligan's regular rider, Richard Johnson, has a broken collar-bone, and the man that Chance wants to replace him, Mick Fitzgerald, may be required to ride for Nick Henderson at Sandown.

Unsurprisingly, Fitzgerald is also lamenting this turn of events. "I'm retained by Mr Henderson, so it looks as though I will be required to be at Sandown," he said yesterday. "It'd be a shame.

"I'm very lucky to have a very good job with Mr Henderson and you can't have your bread buttered on both sides."

What particularly concerns Chance is that time is running out if a new partner is to have a getting-to-know-you session with Mr Mulligan. It is a process that would not have been necessary with Fitzgerald.

"I schooled him before the [abandoned] Feltham Chase at Kempton last Christmas and he jumped well, but you could tell he was a novice. When I schooled him last Sunday he jumped like an old handicapper, very sure- foted, very neat. I could really feel the difference."

Fitzgerald is developing a name as a rider who can be called up to do a reliable job on the big occasion. It is a role that he clearly relishes and one which he has worked for by making himself available for schooling duties across the country.

His diary last week provides a typical profile of his carefully worked schedule. On Wednesday he was in Somerset, exercising a possible Hennessy mount in Paul Nicholls's Belmont King. He eventually rode Chance's Midnight Caller in that race and when he called back at that Lambourn trainer's base for the Mr Mulligan work on Sunday it was only after having performed a similar function in Surrey on the horse that gave him his greatest day, the Grand National winner, Rough Quest.

Having missed the Hennessy, Belmont King, who joined Nicholls from Ireland with a big reputation, will meet Mr Mulligan in Saturday's Rehearsal Chase. "Belmont King will put up a bold show at Chepstow. I think an awful lot of him," Fitzgerald said. "I put Rough Quest over nine fences and he was in very good shape. He was as rapid and accurate as always.

"Richard Dunwoody has been in the enviable position on many occasions of having ridden most of the top prospects for a race and he's able to assess the capabilities of most of the runners. In Saturday's Hennessy he'd ridden most of the field apart from Coome Hill. He's able to weight up options. That's a great position to be in."