Monday Musings: A Cakewalk for Willie

We knew when he won the Grand National it would be tight, writes Tony Stafford. The differential between Willie Mullins, devouring his first (of many, no doubt) UK trainers' titles and runner-up Dan Skelton, was in the end just the GBP344,717, more than enough to see off Kerry Lee, whose 18 winners at a fine strike-rate of 24% earned in total GBP309k. She was 43rd in the table with some very big names finishing considerably south of her.

I read somewhere that it was remarkable that Mullins could achieve his feat with so few runners in the UK. If you talk of total numbers fair enough, but apart from the money - expertly plucked out of the vagaries of the programme book where he has such an advantage - his numbers weren't as great as you could imagine. Let's start with strike-rate, just 18%, lower than Paul Nicholls - third overall, and GBP95k behind Sketon, but Paul's 169 wins came at a rate of 23%.

Nicky Henderson, who belatedly enjoyed his own time in the spotlight thanks to Jonbon's destruction of Willie's El Fabiolo in the Celebration Chase, with Edwardstone just behind, perhaps surprisingly bettered last season's tally of 90, by one, achieved at 21%. Mullins sent over 115 individual horses to the UK - I kid you not! They were mostly targeted at the best of the best, running until the last week's blitz, for the best money on offer.

His 28 winners in all were provided by 26 individual horses.

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Only nine trainers raced as many individual animals through the season. Top with 210 was Skelton, winning 120 races. Fergal O'Brien ran 171, winning 107 but still at a better strike-rate of 20% compared with Willie's 18%.

Then it was Nicholls, 169, Donald McCain 167 and Henderson who, for all his peak-season travails, still had 144 to run. The only others to run more were Olly Murphy, 135; Lucinda Russell, 130; Jonjo O'Neill 126, and Ben Pauling 123. Murphy ought to be eternally grateful to Sure Touch, the horse, who with three successive wins, culminating in defeat of a Mullins raider at Perth signalled his own growing status among the training community as well as helping to clinch the ton.

I've gone on over the past two weeks about the relative risk/reward situation with the Grand National under the latest mollified fences but also the mechanism that means hardly anything other than the top Irish stables can get a horse into the contest. Not much risk, but plenty of reward! I've just identified the nine UK-based trainers with the strongest and most effective teams in the land.

Between them in the now-denuded 34-runner Grand National, they had two of the seven UK runners, the Irish having the remainder. Half of their interest went at the first fence when last year's Lucinda Russell-trained winner Corach Rambler unseated Derek Fox. Dan Skelton's Galia Des Liteaux ran a creditable eighth.

Contrastingly, the top four Irish NH trainers supplied 20 of the 32 (two were taken out in the morning). Mullins had eight including the eight-year-old winner I Am Maximus; Gordon Elliott, also with more than a century of UK runners in the season just concluded, had seven; Henry De Bromhead three and Gavin Cromwell two. That's 63% of the field.

Further scrutiny showed that two each of the Mullins and Elliott runners started at 100/1 or more and none finished the course. The effect, if not intentionally, was to minimise the potential danger to the pair's leading contenders by excluding others (maybe even trained here!). Of course, it's nice to get hold of owners' tickets on a day like that.

The simple fact is that without the 500 grand collected by I Am Maximus, not only would Mullins not have beaten Dan Skelton, he might well not have bothered to bring a proportion of the runners that came principally to Aintree and Sandown, leaving it more a traditional last-day Skelton/Nicholls tussle. Now he's won it though, the appetite will be there to win it again. All the middle to major prizes will now be on his agenda, and I've even heard in the last few days that a satellite yard in the UK might be in the planning.

He did comment that when he asks his owners to fund the travel of his horses across the water, he invariably gets their blessing. How much easier to be based in the middle of the country somewhere like Ian Williams, close to the Midlands motorway hub. Trainers here, say in Newmarket, metaphorically have to get down on their knees and beg to send a horse further than York!

It will be interesting when he does expand his operations from Ireland or if indeed he does take another yard here. The one time that I can remember such an inferiority complex - I was still very young when Vincent O'Brien used to take home Grand Nationals and Gold Cups to order - was in the days of Arkle and Flyingbolt. Actually, it was more the home trainers afeared of the Tom Dreaper pair.

For all Arkle's greatness, he was still only rated 1lb superior to Flyingbolt, who was the more versatile of the pair, and the Irish handicapper even used to make separate handicaps for some of the biggest races with and without the pair. The implications for jump racing over here if Mullins was to target mundane day-to-day cards is frightening. Three odds-on shots per meeting would be unappetising, the rest having to trail around like half the fields in Irish novice events to ensure competitive starting marks.

But then he has the owners, most of whom are active here anyway. I've no doubt he could easily assemble a team almost as numerically strong as is the case back home. Prospective owners would flock to him, but he could afford to put stringent requirements on them.

Maybe with Nicky Henderson as his assistant? Sorry, that's silly. Without the Grand National, Nicky would have been close to Mullins this time around and with 142 according to Horses In Training in his care, the future after Saturday's revival, is bright enough with such as Constitution Hill, Jonbon, Sir Gino and the rest to keep him cool through the summer.

What must Nick Skelton, father of Dan and new parent Harry Skelton, be thinking? His project in Warwickshire has developed to the extent that his son has mastered his former boss Paul Nicholls as well as Henderson and yet he must accept only second place. Harry is a former champion jockey: Dan sorely needs to join him as a champion.

It's a reminder of the days when Adrian Maguire expected to step up after his tussles with Richard Dunwoody for a first UK title only to be confronted by the comet that was Tony McCoy. Last time I saw him he was riding out at Ballydoyle for Aidan O'Brien, but I gather he has moved on since. McCoy, Aidan and Willie Mullins all started their careers around the same time three decades ago with Jim Bolger.

Many since have made a similar journey, some with great success, but none will match the achievements of this Holy Trinity. Bolger has made an impact on the flat of course, with his homebreds. Two, Poetic Flare and Dawn Approach, won the 2000 Guineas and I expect to see another Irish-trained colt win next Saturday's race.

City of Troy made a marked impression on me (and everyone else I'm sure) when coming over twice last year to Newmarket, for the Superlative Stakes on the July Course and the Dewhurst Stakes over seven-eighths of the 2000 Guineas mile in October. His two flawless performances had many thinking back to Frankel and I hope he will deserve to be regarded in the same breath as that great unbeaten champion after Saturday. The biggest boost to his chance, apart from the Coolmore, Aidan O'Brien, Ryan Moore connection, is that his sire Justify is proving as potentially good in the breeding shed with his first crops around the world as he was as an unbeaten colt in the USA.

Only the second Triple Crown winner there since the 1970's, he should build stamina as well as lightning speed into his horses having won the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes. The form of City Of Troy's two wins over here is solidified by Haatem, winner in between them of Goodwood's Group 2 Richmond Stakes and, this April, the Craven Stakes over the full 2000 Guineas distance, but slaughtered each time by the Guineas favourite. He is regarded as inferior to his Richard Hannon stable-mate Rosallion, who won the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere at the Arc meeting last year.

It could be tough, but that's how the greatest reputations are made.

- TS

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