Although Ireland's champion trainer Willie Mullins is, like his British counterpart Paul Nicholls, well clear of his rivals on the prize-money table, his progress through the season so far has not been so overtly high-profile. But 75 winners at a strike rate of 27 per cent and earnings of nearly £1m is hardly serving his owners badly and Mullins has plenty ready to prime for the glittering prizes yet to come.
He had news yesterday of some of his stars of last term, and not all of it positive. Some of the residents of Closutton stables, near Bagenalstown in Co Carlow, have been a bit chesty lately, including the Champion Hurdle candidate Hurricane Fly. The five-year-old had been ante-post favourite for the Cheltenham crown until he was beaten into third by Solwhit on his return and now is not certain to meet his reputation-redeeming engagement at Leopardstown a fortnight today.
"He's basically in great form," said Mullins, "but he gave a cough or two during the week. He had one bit of work last week but none this week as I thought he was a bit under the weather. I want to get him to Leopardstown but I'm minding him rather than trying desperately to get him there."
Mullins' best staying chaser, Cooldine, will definitely stay at home for his festive fun, heading for the Co Dublin track. The seven-year-old has not run since taking the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival and his reappearance will be in the Lexus Chase rather than crossing swords with Kauto Star in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
There is another race against time for Mullins to get Mikael D'Haguenet, who won all six of his novice hurdles last season, ready for his eagerly awaited debut over fences at the Leopardstown meeting after some minor setbacks. The five-year-old's victories last term included the longer of the two Grade One novice contests at Cheltenham, and at Cork yesterday his stablemate Quel Esprit galloped to 8-1 clear favouritism for next year's edition. The grey swept away from his rivals for a three-length success in the Grade Three three-miler.
Mullins also took the Hilly Way Chase at Cork with Golden Silver, a third consecutive success for the yard after Our Ben and Scotsirish in the Grade Two two-mile contest, but at Navan had to settle for runner-up spots with the chasing debutant Cousin Vinny and novice hurdler Rhyl Accord, both short-priced favourites.
Cousin Vinny, winner of the Cheltenham Bumper the season before last, jumped well and lost little in defeat behind the more experienced Roberto Goldback. Rhyl Accord was left flat-footed by Shinrock Paddy for the day's feature, the Barbara & Sandra Kelly Memorial Novices' Hurdle. The five-year-old, who scored by 15 lengths and has the same Cheltenham target as Quel Esprit, provided a second Grade One prize in a week for trainer Paul Nolan and rider Alain Cawley, after Joncol at Punchestown.
Roberto Godback, trained by Jessica Harrington, has the RSA Chase as his long-term target, but although the former top-class staying hurdler Mighty Man, who made a successful bow over fences at Hereford yesterday, was also mentioned in betting dispatches for the race, he may end up back over smaller obstacles in the spring. Mighty Man's career has been constantly compromised by leg trouble, but at his best he was one of the best, with two Liverpool Hurdles to his credit. His innate talent was just as obvious over fences as he put in a fast, accurate round yesterday. "My only worry was the ground," said his trainer, Henry Daly, "as he doesn't like it soft. He'll run in another novice chase and then we'll make a plan. But I should think we'll end up back at the Liverpool Hurdle."
Early yesterday Britain's raiders at the Flat year's last hurrah in Hong Kong were out of luck. Spanish Moon, trained by Sir Michael Stoute, did best, caught in the last strides by the French challenger Daryakana in the Vase, and later Luca Cumani's Presvis took third behind another French raider, Vison D'Etat, in the Cup.
Both the Sprint and the Mile went to local heroes; the former was won by Sacred Kingdom and the latter by Good Ba Ba, who became the first horse to take the prestigous international contest three times.
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Westlin' Winds (1.05 Plumpton)
Easy winner of his first hurdle race on ground similarly testing to today's and, lightly raced on the Flat, is likely to be open to improvement. Can set up an across-the-codes double for the Charlie Egerton stable.
Tamarind Hill (2.50 Wolverhampton)
Did well to finish a close second last time, after being chopped for room and forced wide, and is favourably weighted to go one better.
*ONE TO WATCH
Compensation must surely await Kilcrea Asla (T R George), who was travelling conspicuously well when he came down five fences from home at Doncaster on Saturday.
*WHERE THE MONEY'S GOING
Possol is down to 25-1 in the early Grand National market after continuing his progress towards Aintree with a handicap-guarding success over hurdles at Doncaster.
*Chris McGrath's Nap
El Dancer (1.35 Plumpton).