One of the more fatuous myths peddled about Flat racing – some of which, alarmingly, are now being insinuated into its calendar – is that it lacks the competitive diversity of jumping.
If you were feeling charitable, you could trace this misapprehension to the contrast between such occasional National Hunt romances as Norton's Coin, the 100-1 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner trained by a Welsh sheep farmer, and the empires established on the Flat by the owners of prepotent stallions. Alternatively, you could simply recognise it as dangerous, condescending nonsense.
More than ever, the best young jumping prospects are being expensively corralled by the same powerhouses. Small Irish stables, profiting from the apparent unpredictability of the jumping gene pool, produce young horses to win a bumper or point-to-point, and have them sold before they are even hosed down.
Admittedly, the racing public is fortunate that the two dominant trainers in Britain just now – Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson – should both lend substance to the theory that jumps professionals are more accessible than their peers on the Flat. In reality, this is just another arrant myth, almost entirely contingent on the 19th-century public relations of Sir Michael Stoute.
The fact is that it's rather childish to espouse either one code or the other as some kind of cause. Both have their good, bad and ugly; and both have their perennial fascination. And if you nowadays tend to see the same men, in the same shooting coats, dominating the National Hunt scene, you can hardly complain when it introduces you to one so plainly flavoured by genius as Willie Mullins.
For you can forget the present duopoly in Britain, between Ditcheat and Seven Barrows. The way Mullins bestrides the sport in Ireland now represents the consummation of everything previously achieved by one of its great dynasties. What's more, he is marvellously immune to vanity. It is amazing for a man so to dominate his peers, in so competitive an environment, and never prompt even a whispered syllable of resentment or malice.
Today our hero is not just the inevitable pivot of the rescheduled card at Leopardstown, but also undertakes an early reconnaissance of the sort of prizes and perils that await at Cheltenham next month. He sends two raiders over to Newbury for the Totesport Trophy, and if Henderson's three runners together suggest that this time he is picking on someone his own size, you could hardly be surprised were he to land yet another knockout punch.
Final Approach arrives after winning a similar race at Leopardstown last month, beating a stablemate named Call The Police. The latter had made just two starts over hurdles. It was his first appearance in 13 months, and his first for Mullins. Very few trainers would have had the nerve to run a horse with that kind of profile, in a race like that. And who else, you wonder, could have been vindicated in doing so?
Final Approach was himself the veteran of just three hurdle races, so he retains every right to improve again. At 20-1, however, there is tempting value in his escort from Co Carlow. Sweet My Lord fell twice in three novice hurdles last season, but has looked a lot more fluent this term and definitely has an engine. Critically, his failure to stay a longer trip on his reappearance may have deceived the handicapper as to his limitations. Certainly, 10st 6lb can only represent a vague assessment of his ability, while Katie Walsh is a very acceptable booking, having won a similar stampede for the stable last year, on Thousand Stars in the County Hurdle.
There is still less evidence about Solix, who has been imported from France, but those who have backed him so heavily ante-post are certainly making some bold assumptions in his favour. He will have to be some horse to win under top weight, and the same holds true for Salden Licht, albeit his easy Exeter success is working out really well. All in all, it might conceivably prove Champion Hurdle form even to finish second to Sweet My Lord, giving him 20lb.
Back at Leopardstown, Mullins must overcome a rare reverse in the loss of Cooldine for the rest of the season. The horse needs a wind operation, and Mullins must duly rely only on Kempes in the Hennessy Gold Cup, which might not be such a bad thing, his limited exposure at this distance qualifying him as one of very few in the race with scope to progress.
Mullins will already have saddled two of his outstanding novice talents in their respective disciplines, Mikael d'Haguenet and Zaidpour. Both disappointed at the Christmas meeting here, but very pardonably, barely a fortnight previously after generous efforts at Fairyhouse. Once again Mullins could himself end up setting Mikael d'Haguenet his stiffest challenge, Quel Esprit having jumped superbly in his first chase. Zaidpour, meanwhile, meets some pretty smart rivals, and if he can win with any authority he will ensure the first race of the Festival next month will also be one of the best.
For now Zaidpour can be backed at 7-1 for the Stan James Supreme Novices' Hurdle, with Cue Card still 5-2 favourite. Yes, that Cue Card – the one trained on a family farm in Dorset. It can still happen. At the same time, Snow Fairy herself only went back to her breeders because nobody would offer more than €1,800 for her as a yearling. Flat or jumps, it's always the same. It's always about the story – not the way the book is bound.
Henderson hits the 2,000 mark with Punchestowns
The way his stable has been going, it felt more like his 2,000th winner since New Year's Day. It turns out, however, that Nicky Henderson has needed 32 seasons to reach that landmark – and, having again pledged abstinence through the shortest month, he couldn't even share a toast raised across the sport when Punchestowns won at Kempton yesterday.
The fact that he saddled 37 of the 2,000 at the Cheltenham Festival qualifies Henderson as the most prolific of all current trainers there. Remarkably, however, his standing has never been more formidable than now. Certainly, he has responded impressively to a devastating experience in 2009, when one of his horses failed a drugs test. Whether measured by quality or quantity, he is unmistakably a trainer in his pomp.
It was fitting that he should reach the milestone at a track that has often showcased the flair and speed that characterise so many of the better horses at Seven Barrows. Punchestowns, admittedly, did not quite conform to type. He jumped well under pressure, but odds-on punters were sweating as Pasco went clear in the back straight. It was only as the leader tired that Barry Geraghty, having briefly appeared to abandon hope, was able to drive Punchestowns back into contention. Ultimately he won by 11 lengths, but he was singularly unimpressive and Henderson acknowledged that he probably lacks the gears for the Ryanair Chase. He might yet wait for Aintree.
Today Henderson goes to Newbury with a chaser who has just made his big breakthrough. Riverside Theatre completed a one-two for the stable behind Long Run in the King George VI Chase. He has not had long to regroup, and does have a history of excelling fresh. But perhaps this is one best left to the trainer. After all, this Henderson fellow does seem to be getting the hang of things.
Turf Account: Chris McGrath
Malin Bay (4.30 Ayr)
Stable is having a tough season, but this one looks eligible to contribute to a revival after staying on for third on his reappearance, over an inadequate trip at Newcastle last month. That was his first handicap and he can defy the same rating, now that he is restored to a more suitable distance.
Quicuyo (3.20 Ayr)
Has wasted little time clicking for his impressive new trainer, and confirmed his love of this course when fitted with a tongue-tie and bolting up last month. The runner-up has won since, and he can improve past his revised mark.
One to watch
Hector's Choice (Richard Lee) has had problems but has relatively few miles on the clock as a result, and suggested his new stable may be finding the key to him when third to Peplum in his chasing debut at Ludlow on Wednesday, just flattening out late on what was his first start beyond two miles.
Where the money's going
So Young, who looked yet another rising star for Willie Mullins when winning easily at Punchestown on Wednesday, is 7-1 from 8-1 with William Hill for the Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival next month.