Derby deal delights as Mullins masters muddy Punchestown


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The Independent Online

The barometer may be set fair for its most venerable prize, given a spectacular vote of confidence from the sponsors of the Derby yesterday, but otherwise the Turf seemed to lie in a soggy, midwinter time-warp. The steeplechases scheduled at Punchestown were abandoned, and the remaining hurdle and bumper races run in conditions bordering on the farcical. An inspection will be required this morning to pass the course for a card that features the outstanding mare, Quevega.

It is hoped to salvage the abandoned chases on Saturday, albeit the going may become still more gruelling once it stops raining. When yesterday's truncated programme finally got under way, the runners splashed through turf so wet that the commentator usually found himself with just one or two frontrunners whose silks had not become uniformly brown.

Even so the results confirmed Willie Mullins as the man for all seasons, as the champion trainer won both the Grade One races that went ahead.

He saddled three runners in the novice hurdle over three miles, all in the pink colours (at least to start with) of Rich and Susannah Ricci, and they duly filled the frame. Admittedly they did so in an unexpected order, Marasonnien coping best with the bog under Paul Townend and Vesper Bell relegating the favourite, Sous Les Cieux, to third. But the market called it right for the same interests in the Champion Bumper, where their Cheltenham winner, Champagne Fever, started 11-4 favourite and made all the running.

Mullins' son, Patrick, may have guaranteed himself the run of the race but did so at a businesslike gallop that demanded tremendous courage and stamina from the grey. Though wandering in the closing stages, clearly all out, Champagne Fever held on grimly by over seven lengths from the British raider, Melodic Rendezvous, who proved no less brave in his pursuit. Connections intend to send the winner straight over fences next season.

If yesterday was a fairly damp squib, in principle there remains scope for real fireworks today in the Ladbrokes World Series Hurdle. Quevega proved as classy as ever in winning the mares' hurdle at Cheltenham last month, for the fourth year running, and now goes for a hat-trick in this race. But her rivals this time include a genuine danger in Voler La Vedette, whose own performance at Cheltenham, pushing Big Buck's as hard as has any rival since he began his record-breaking spree, confirmed her as much improved since finishing fourth in this last year. Their male rivals are headed by Get Me Out Of Here, who takes an experimental step up in distance.

If the standing water has disappeared from the steeplechase track, the card's other Grade One gives Menorah the chance to follow up his recent success at Aintree in the Ryanair Novice Chase. But First Lieutenant will certainly appreciate a test of stamina at the trip, dropping back down to two miles after finishing second in the RSA Chase.

Conditions were also pretty vile at Epsom yesterday, but a golden sunbeam came in the announcement that Investec has committed to a 10-year extension of its Derby backing. The biggest sponsorship deal in British Turf history, agreed in the fourth of five years in the original deal, will restore the 2012 Derby as its richest prize.

Turf account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Door Boy (3.30 Perth) Won this last year and shaped well until fading late on in his first start since – also his debut for this stable – at Haydock last month.

Next best

Jeu De Vivre (3.10 Beverley) Forget poor run on her Fibresand debut – loves the soft and stays, so this is ideal test.

Where the money's going

The Ballydoyle big guns remain in demand with William Hill for the first Classics: Camelot is now 11-10 from 5-4 and Maybe 13-8 from 7-4 for the Qipco 2,000 and 1,000 Guineas respectively.