As the setting for a spring carnival, this place has had to deal with some awkward incongruities over recent days. The going has been borrowed from midwinter, and the Stygian economic ambience reflected in diminished crowds and betting turnover. Fortunately, however, the horses themselves have managed to nourish an exemplary spirit of renaissance.
On the first two days of the Festival, Hurricane Fly and Dunguib successively intimated a changing of the guard in the jumping elite. And that theme is elaborated today when Willie Mullins, trainer of Hurricane Fly, again measures an unprecedented strength in depth among the younger horses in his care.
Hurricane Fly himself missed Cheltenham but Mullins still managed to win novice championships there over both hurdles and fences. His stable has proved even more formidable on home soil. Four more prizes yesterday, including both Grade Ones, took its score for the meeting to eight, while the big races today also seem feasibly within its reach.
Indeed, Mullins has so many emerging talents that he is obliged to run two of the best, Mikael D'Haguenet and Cousin Vinny, against each other in the Land Rover Champion Novice Hurdle. Cousin Vinny was one of the yard's few disappointments at Cheltenham, apparently unsettled by his journey, but had previously been considered as a potential match for Hurricane Fly. Mikael D'Haguenet, in contrast, was viewed as something of a mud-wrestler before showing quality on better ground at Cheltenham. Certainly, he seems the more obvious choice today, with Cousin Vinny having never previously tried this distance.
It already seems difficult to envisage the best of the present hurdlers resisting the next generation, but Punjabi has the chance to demand renewed respect in the Rabobank Champion Hurdle. After all, he has won Grade One races on both his previous visits here, and reached a startling new peak at Cheltenham. But his hold on the crown none the less seems precarious, with the going more likely to suit a pair of menacing improvers in Solwhit and Mullins's brilliant mare, Quevega.
Solwhit has come a long way very quickly, having won his first race over hurdles at this meeting last year and beaten Fiveforthree himself at Aintree last time. But he has not had long to get over a hard race that day, while the close third, United, had previously been annihilated by Quevega at Cheltenham. Quevega can make her stamina and mares' allowance count.
Mullins is finishing the campaign with all the momentum that has sustained his march to the trainers' championship here, and already he has much to anticipate next winter. Certainly there will be few novice chasers around as exciting as Fiveforthree, who outclassed his rivals for the Ladbrokes World Series Hurdle. Ridden more patiently than at Aintree by Ruby Walsh, the grey closed easily from the rear before galloping seven lengths clear of Pettifour. It is easy to envisage him leading the next wave, behind Cooldine, as Mullins plots the downfall of Kauto Star and Denman.
"Considering that was only his fifth run over hurdles, he really could be anything," Mullins said. "He's a lovely prospect for fences next season, though after such a light campaign I might first take him to the French Champion Hurdle in June."
Fiveforthree had won over hurdles at Cheltenham, in his novice season, but did not resurface until February. "He just had niggly little problems," Mullins explained. "This time last year I didn't think he could grow into the size of horse he is now, so perhaps it was all part and parcel of maturing."
Walsh chose to ride Deutschland in the Cathal Ryan Memorial Novice Chase, and duly found himself watching David Casey win on the stable's other runner, Barker. Barker was switched by his owner to Mullins in midwinter and the dividends have been remarkable. He has now been beaten only by Aran Concerto – at Fairyhouse – in four starts since, here bounding home by 15 lengths after Forpadydeplasterer erred at the last. "His jumping is spectacular, and took him into the race," Mullins observed. "He's an improving horse." The idea did not come across as a novelty.
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