Questioning the value of Willie Mullins’ Cheltenham team to the Festival is a eyebrow-raising thing to do, but let’s have a crack.
The Irish champion trainer, recent king of Prestbury Park and all-round thoroughly lovely bloke, is set to dominate this year’s Festival once again. In Rich Ricci, he has the pre-eminent owner of the National Hunt era; in Ruby Walsh, he has the undisputed favourite of the punters each March and his team of buyers is evidently second to none.
A glance at the markets provided by the bookies show a Mullins horse as clear favourite for near enough every race priced up. In some cases, the Mullins horse is odds-on, in many others it is fantastically short given how far away the meeting remains and in some races — not least the Champion Hurdle — we have Faugheen as the odds-on favourite with the next two in the betting also stablemates!
In itself, I’ve no problem whatsoever in one man’s dominance but as a punter I find myself conflicted by the lack of rivalry and meaningful opposition. The essence of sport is in rivalry, and one of racing’s great appeals is the multi-layered rivalry of jockeys, or horses themselves and indeed of trainers. Rivals improve each other.
Mullins is so far in front it is difficult to pinpoint his most likely rival. Perhaps even more worrying is the tendency for so dominant a yard to resist the temptation to committing to specific Festival targets.
Vautour, for example, is likely to head to the Ryanair, but might also go for the Gold Cup or possibly even the Champion Chase. Attempting to steer a betting path through the races with these question marks hanging over us is a futile challenge at this stage and may well remain that way for the best part of the next two months.
And when it comes to the “new races”, the intermediate distance races, especially for the novices, what hope have we? We’re often betting 2/1 that we can even identify the correct race for some of these horses, let alone calculate their chances!
Let’s be clear – this is not Willie Mullins’ fault! He’s doing absolutely the right thing for his owners and for his horses and, perhaps even, for the punters as well who hate more than anything the prospect of doing their dough before they even get to the races. But with too many possibilities, too many uncertainties, too many good horses for too similar a set of races, only the bravest or most fool-hardy of punters would dare to get involved in betting at this stage of the season.
Last year, the BBC showed a documentary called Britain At The Bookies. One of the most entertaining blokes in the second episode was a punter who swore that the secret to picking winning horses was the size of their hooves. How we laughed. Fast forward six months or so and Kerry Lee’s terrific staying chaser, Mountainous, has just won the Welsh National. The Racing Post revisited the idea of hoof-size as a guide to picking winners in gruelling conditions. How we stopped laughing.
The indisputable truth, however, is that the Lee family horses love this time time of year, and the wetter the better. Just as we might once have looked for Venetia Williams’s giants to slog through the mud throughout deepest, darkest winter, now we keep our eyes firmly peeled for Lee.
Perhaps it’s dangerous to attribute a “type” to her yard, but they’re often big, they rarely lack for staying ability and they don’t mind a bit of the wet stuff. Watching from the warmth and comfort of my living room on Saturday afternoon it was impossible not to celebrate the very essence of winter jump racing as Mountainous slugged it out in the driving rain at Chepstow.
The marketing guys who crave a pretty product free of endurance may disagree, but for some of us it was days like last Saturday and horses like Mountainous who first fired our love of the game.
Speaking of those marketing guys, we’ve just had news that Ascot have upped their prize money for the Royal meeting. Well done Ascot, I say, without a hint of irony.
They’re an independent track and they have the most high-profile race meeting in the world so they can do as they choose and choose they have. I salute them.
At the same time, I can’t help but wonder what the small-trainer on the other side of the UK to Ascot thinks when he worries about making ends meet.
Royal Ascot caters for the elite and in every sport the elite must be cherished, but so too must the grass roots on whom everything else is founded. I simply don’t buy the grumbles about prize money.
Across the piece, prize money is increasing and income to racecourses — especially through picture and data rights — is on the rise. The distribution of this money must be looked at to ensure those at every level are fairly rewarded. It’s not the quantum, it’s the distribution—as my Maths teacher might once have said, had I been listening.