Vinny sent out to battle Hurricane

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The Independent Online

The most compelling contest at Leopardstown on Sunday may not be the feature chase, the Hennessy Gold Cup, but the Grade One novices' hurdle earlier in the afternoon. It should go a long way to establishing some sort of pecking order among not merely Ireland's best youngsters, but the cream of the exceptional crop resident at Closutton. Willie Mullins has a good few balls in the air and is happy to keep juggling, but with the Cheltenham Festival just 26 days away, he is going to have to start catching some soon.

All of his better novice hurdlers hold multiple entries at next month's extravaganza in the Cotswolds and Mullins has made no secret of his unwillingness to decide what goes where until he absolutely has to. Three days hence he mounts a factfinding mission by pitting two of his rising stars, Cousin Vinny and Hurricane Fly, against each other.

Sunday's Deloitte-sponsored two and a quarter-miler is the intermediate distance between the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, the perceived most likely target of Hurricane Fly, and the Ballymore Properties Hurdle, Cousin Vinny's probable aim. The pair have met once before, at Fairyhouse in November, when Hurricane Fly, winning his third hurdle race, had Cousin Vinny, making his debut over obstacles, back in third. "They're both in good form, fit and well and healthy," he said yesterday. "I'll be taking in every single bit of information I can between now and Cheltenham to help decide which races to run them in."

The two horses are chalk and cheese in character. Hurricane Fly, Flat-bred by Montjeu, is the more streetwise, with 15 races, including a defeat of the subsequent Champion Stakes winner Literato at Saint-Cloud as a three-year-old, on his CV. Over hurdles, he has won four from five, most recently a 10-length romp at Leopardstown in December.

That day, the five-year-old showed top-class acceleration and an entry in the Champion Hurdle itself is an indication of the regard in which he is held at home. "He's a keen sort," said Mullins, "enjoys his work, his racing, and likes to race from start to finish, though he has been starting to settle better the last couple of times. He's got it all, he's quick over a hurdle, he's got a high cruising speed and plenty of gears.

"We had so many entries in the novice races that we put him in the Champion Hurdle, just to give another option, but there's almost no chance that he'd run in it. Yes, he looked impressive the last day, but the horses he beat weren't Champion Hurdle horses."

As a son of Bob Back, Cousin Vinny is doing the job for which he was bred. The six-year-old was last season's top bumper performer and has made a smooth transition to hurdles, winning twice since his debut defeat. "He's very laid back, a real cool customer," said Mullins. "We had the gun to his head a couple of times last year but even with all that hard training he still dawdles up the gallop like a child's pony. I think that's half of his ability, being able to take it all in his stride and conserve his energy for when it's needed."

Mullins has 33 entries to sort out in the Cheltenham novice races, the Supreme, the Ballymore, the three-mile Albert Bartlett and the Triumph for juveniles, including the third of the high-profile Co Carlow musketeers, Mikael D'Haguenet.

Mulllins heads the Irish trainers' table, with earnings of more than £1m at a strike-rate of 25 per cent. "We're not doing anything different," he said, "but every year you hope that you'll improve your stock and send the graph upward, as a result of the work you've done and experience you've gained in the past. And I've certainly never had horses like the ones we've got this year. They're the best bunch I've ever trained."

Hurricane Fly was one of 29 who remained in the Champion Hurdle yesterday. Of the 28 still in the Gold Cup, Paul Nicholls trains seven, with Tidal Bay and injured Joe Lively notable absentees. Two Gold Cup candidates, Neptune Collonges and Notre Pere, will clash in the big chase at Leopardstown on Sunday.

Before that comes a different type of pointer when Godolphin's Kentucky Derby contender Vineyard Haven faces nine, including his stablemate Desert Party, in the UAE 2,000 Guineas at Nad Al Sheba this evening.