Mullins’ battalion attacks Scottish Grand National with eye on title

<span>Willie Mullins back at his Closutton yard this week in between the two Nationals.</span><span>Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho/Shutterstock</span>
Willie Mullins back at his Closutton yard this week in between the two Nationals.Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho/Shutterstock

In the spring of 1869, Queen Victoria was approaching the halfway mark of what would eventually be a 64-year reign, Sir Henry Morton Stanley was preparing to head for Africa to seek out Dr Livingstone, and a horse called Huntsman won the third running of the Scottish Grand National at Bogside, a now-defunct racecourse on the banks of the River Irvine in Ayrshire. More than a century-and-a-half later, Huntsman is still the last horse trained in Ireland to win Scotland’s biggest race of the year.

The Scottish National is, admittedly, just one among a whole host of targets for Irish trainers at this time of year, at Aintree, the Irish National meeting at Fairyhouse and then Punchestown at the end of the month. But it is still something of a surprise that it has remained such an immovable object in the face of growing Irish supremacy in jumps racing in recent decades.

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Only rarely, though, has it come up against an irresistible force like Willie Mullins, the most relentlessly successful jumps trainer that the sport has known. Fresh from his second win in the Grand National at Aintree with I Am Maximus last weekend, Mullins will saddle six of the 26 runners in the Scottish equivalent at Ayr on Saturday, as he aims to extend his lead in the UK trainers’ championship which ends at Sandown next week. The 155-year blank for Ireland is up against Mullins with the bit between his teeth. Something, somewhere is surely going to give.

Eight years ago, in similar circumstances, it was Mullins’s challenge that fell short. He arrived at Ayr in April 2016 as the long odds-on favourite to become the first Irish trainer to win the UK championship since Vincent O’Brien in 1954, and with the 8-1 joint-favourite for the Scottish National in Measureofmydreams, his sole runner in a 28-strong field. Paul Nicholls, his only rival for the title, had one runner too, the 14-1 shot, Vicente.

Measureofmydreams unseated at the third, Vicente ran out the winner and Nicholls, an 8-1 chance for the championship earlier in the day, surged back into the lead before securing what was, at the time, his 10th title in 11 years a week later. It was, he said at the time, “far and away” the toughest fight of his career.

At the time, that near-miss in 2016 was something of a high-water mark for Mullins in his attempts to emulate both Vincent O’Brien and his namesake Aidan, the perennial Irish champion on the Flat, who has won the UK trainers’ championship six times. A high-profile split with leading owner Michael O’Leary a few months later saw 60 horses leave the yard, and for a few seasons, Mullins had his work cut out just to hang on to the domestic title.

He is now pre-eminent once again both at home and abroad, having recently become the first trainer to saddle 100 winners at the Cheltenham Festival.

No matter how many achievements they have on their record already, however, a ferocious competitor like Mullins will always find room for one more. And this time around, he seems to be leaving rather less to chance. Mullins had four runners on the Grand National card at Ayr in 2016, in three of the eight events. On Saturday, he has at least one declared runner in all eight races, and 18 on the card as a whole.

Mullins is also facing not one rival, but two. Dan Skelton, who led the British resistance to Irish-trained runners at the Cheltenham Festival with four winners, is Mullins closest pursuer in the prize money table, with a gap of just under £31,000 to close before racing on Friday. Nicholls, meanwhile, is a further £88,000 adrift of Skelton, though he has two runners to Skelton’s one in the Scottish National, which has a first prize of £112,500.

Mullins is no better than 1-3 with the bookmakers to add another nugget of racing history to an already remarkable record. Skelton can be backed at 9-2 to win a first title of his own, while Nicholls is as big as 12-1 for a 15th title, which would equal Martin Pipe’s all-time record.

Skelton has an entry in six of the eight races at Ayr on Saturday, while Nicholls, like Mullins, has a runner declared in all eight. They could well trade punches throughout the afternoon but Mullins, thanks to his six-strong challenge for the feature event, is the only one in an obvious position to deliver a knock-out blow. And having swung and missed back in 2016, it will be quite the surprise if he fails to connect this time around.

Mr Incredible has class to land Scottish National

With £200,000 in the prize fund, the Scottish Grand National is the most valuable race still to be run over jumps this season and the quirky but talented Mr Incredible (3.35) could help Mullins to take a significant step towards his first UK trainers’ title.

The eight-year-old struggled to get involved in last week’s Grand National after a slow start before unseating his rider at the Chair. He finished a close second in the Midlands Grand National in March when returning from 11 months on the sidelines, however, and on that form, along with his third in the Kim Muir at Cheltenham in 2023, Mr Incredible’s early price of around 12-1 looks more than fair.

Ayr 1.15 Bryony Frost got a great tune out of Sans Bruit at Aintree nine days ago and Paul Nicholls’s runner should be able cope with a 10lb rise in the weights.

Newbury 1.30 Arrest started favourite for last year’s Derby and while that owed more than a little to Frankie Dettori’s presence in the saddle, he went on to finish second in the St Leger and looks set for a strong campaign in staying events.

Ayr 1.50 The step up to three miles saw further improvement from the lightly-raced Deeper Blue at Newbury last month and he is just 3lb higher here.

Newbury 2.05 Folgaria, a new recruit to Marco Botti’s yard after an unbeaten juvenile season for his brother, Stefano, in Italy, has little to find on ratings and is potentially over-priced at around 9-2.

Ayr 2.25 Having finished a close second in the County Hurdle at Cheltenham, Dan Skelton’s L’Eau Du Sud is a worthy favourite at around 4-1 to go one better here.

Newbury 2.40 As a gelding, Zoum Zoum is ineligible for the Classics but should defend his unbeaten record in what would normally be seen as a trial for the 2,000 Guineas.

Ayr 1.15 Sans Bruit 1.50 Deeper Blue 2.25 L’Eau Du Sud 3.00 Coco Mademoiselle 3.35 Mr Incredible (nb) 4.10 Young Jack 4.45 Quai De Bourbon 5.20 C’Est Ta Chance

Newbury 1.30 Arrest 2.05 Folgaria 2.40 Zoum Zoum 3.15 Noble Order (nap) 3.50 Economics 4.25 Clockwatcher 5.00 God Of Thunder

Thirsk 3.45 Indication Ember 4.20 Kendall Roy 4.55 Never So Brave 5.30 Baradar 6.05 King’s Crown 6.35 Hurstwood 7.05 Fairbanks 7.40 Langholm

Brighton 4.06 Conquistador 4.40 Fondest Dream 5.15 Heer’s Sadie 5.45 Upepo 6.15 Sunset In Paris 6.45 Forever Proud 7.20 Freetodream 7.50 Uncle Dick

Nottingham 4.50 God’s Window 5.25 High Opinion 5.55 The Dragon King 6.25 Seattle Time 6.55 Clansman 7.30 Giselles Defence 8.00 Wichahpi

Ayr 3.00 Skelton will fancy his chances of adding another £20,000 to his prize money total here with Coco Mademoiselle.

Newbury 3.15 Noble Order had any amount in hand when successful on his first run for Archie Watson and looks good for the follow-up off a 6lb higher mark.