Talking Horses: Willie Mullins says new-look National is just grand

Chris Cook
The Guardian

On the eve of the Horse Welfare Board’s first press conference, intended to introduce itself and its aims to the world, Willie Mullins gave his support to the idea that racing should move with the times and adjust to changing social mores. The hugely successful jumps trainer described himself as a traditionalist but admitted that, despite his scepticism, good had come of significant changes made to the Grand National in the past decade.

Mullins made his comments at his stables on Wednesday, during a discussion of the National Hunt Chase, which became a hot topic at last year’s Festival when turning into an attritional battle, just four of the 18 starters completing the course. As a result, the race has now been reduced in distance by two furlongs and a minimum rating introduced along with other conditions.

Related: Talking Horses: Native River ruled out of Cheltenham Gold Cup

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Naturally, Mullins feels affection for a race he won twice as a jockey, on horses trained by his father, and twice more as a trainer with his son in the saddle. He believes a decision to make the race the last on the Festival’s opening day, and therefore on cut-up ground, had contributed to last year’s problems.

“I thought that where the race was last year, the last race on the Tuesday, with the ground, it was very unfair. It used to be the first race on the second day and to have fresh ground. I’m a traditionalist, I’d like to see it what it was. But maybe racing in general is going to have to adapt to the new way people think about horse welfare.

“Of course I would be disappointed [about changes to the National Hunt Chase] but maybe racing, like every sport, has to move on and acclimatise to how people perceive the sport, perceive how it should be run. The welfare of horses and jockeys is paramount. It’s just a thing we’re going to have to get used to.

“I wouldn’t have agreed with what changes were done to the Grand National. However, now we have a £1m Grand National with [TV] ratings at the roof and it’s a huge spectacle. We lost maybe a lot of the spectacularism of it, the drops and the big jumps, but we have £1m to aim for and a huge race. I’m for change when it’s going to bring the sport forward and welfare obviously has to be a main issue.”

Mullins threw in some words of praise for Annemarie Phelps, a former Olympic rower who became chair of the British Horseracing Authority last year. “I think, having met her, she’ll be very good for racing. She hasn’t got an angle, she’s not a breeder, an owner or a trainer, I think she’s going to bring a real good, fresh approach to the way the BHA is run and racing in general. We wish her the best.”

While a couple of reports have made educated guesses at what the Horse Welfare Board will say at Thursday’s press conference, it appears that its introductory report has not leaked. There is expected to be some commentary on whip use in racing, perhaps calling for stronger punishments for those who break the relevant rules, but not seeking to end its use by jockeys to encourage horses forward.

Quietly, officials have sought to dampen down expectations of dramatic pronouncements from the HWB’s first outing. Rather, it is expected to be a long-term project aimed at sustaining public confidence in racing’s ability to care for its equine participants.

Cheltenham Festival stat of the day, by Paul Ferguson

The last 18 winners of the RSA Novice Chase had contested a Graded race en route to the Festival and this is a negative for both Minella Indo and Allaho, who lack chasing experience but are high in the betting for this year’s contest. Despite boasting smart Grade 1 novice hurdle form, the pair have yet to race outside of beginners events in Ireland over fences. Only two horses in recent years – Florida Pearl and Don Poli – have won the RSA on the back of just two runs and both had won a Graded event last time out. Both were also unbeaten.

The Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide 2020, written by Paul Ferguson, is published this week and available through this link for £15.95.

A Cheltenham Festival stat of the day will appear here from Monday to Friday for the next three weeks.

Thursday’s best bets

We’re on a run of three winning naps and responsibility for turning that into four rests with Mickey Buckman (2.11), a 7-4 shot at Huntingdon. He showed promise when third here in November in a novice hurdle that is working out pretty well.

He again showed ability when a keeping-on fourth in a handicap under a 7lb claimer the next month but fell at Lingfield when last seen and needs to show that hasn’t affected his confidence. If not, he has easily the best form on offer, though Fugitives Drift is just one of several unexposed rivals.

Ibleo (4.41) ought to build on last month’s winning chase debut, when he left his hurdles form behind, and 6-4 is fair.

Hollie Doyle returns from a whip ban at Chelmsford and her best chance might be the 9-2 shot Original Choice (7.00), who ran well above his rating in a conditions race last time and is tried in blinkers rather than the familiar visor.

1.41 Shall We Go Now 2.11 Mickey Buckman (nap) 2.41 Project Mars 3.11 Miss Honey Ryder 3.41 Massini Man 4.11 Miss Heritage 4.41 Ibleo (nb) 

Sign Of War 2.33 Adicci 3.03 Miss Zip 3.33 Juge Et Parti 4.03 Costante Via 4.33 Into The Breach 5.03 Kauto D’Amour 

Three C’s 2.50 Old Harbour 3.20 Young Tiger 3.50 Sandridge Lad 4.20 Velvet Vision 4.50 Motahassen

Time To Reason 6.00 Fen Breeze 6.30 Fighting Temeraire 7.00 Original Choice 7.30 Rulers Kingdom 8.00 Lord Tennyson 8.30 Grandee Daisy

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