Willie Mullings: 5 Festival Reflections

The ratio of post-Festival reviews to preview nights is likely in line with the ratio of sense to nonsense spoken at said preview evenings though I do include myself in that having attended three such events this year, writes Tony Keenan. Reflecting on the meeting, it is hard to get away from Team Mullins who generated most of the big stories on and off the track but that is the nature of the national hunt scene now so I apologise in advance for such a Closutton-centric piece.

 

  1. Making the right decision?

When Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh reflect on their Festival and more specifically on how they placed their horses in their respective races, I am sure they will believe played their cards at the correct time. They kept some of their main talents apart and went mob-handed in other races which maximised their chances of having winners; for them this was the right decision.

But there is more than one right decision and it depends on your perspective; owners have a different point-of-view and may want their horses kept apart or perhaps would prefer to go all-in and have multiple runners in the championship races rather than the less prestigious ones. There is the right decision for racing too and this will always be to have the best horses competing against each other, something that palpably hasn’t happened in the Mullins era with the likes of Quevega kept to her own sex and Ruby pointed out quickly after the Champion Hurdle that Annie Power and Faugheen would never race against each other.

This is not to crab Mullins; rather he is working within the parameters racing has set him where an inflated graded race programme and a four-day Festival have allowed him to keep his best horses apart; and, if anything, this will be exacerbated in the future with a five-day Festival as inevitable as it is regrettable. With avoidance of competition, there is a cost however and that is Mullins’ continued failure to win an open Grade 1 chase at the Festival. One could argue the Ryanair has that status but it’s in name only and most racing people rightly look down on the Thursday race with even the sponsor only grudgingly running his best horses in it. Mullins may have been looking on regretfully as Gordon Elliott got the Gold Cup parade through Summerhill last Saturday while Bagnalstown was notably quiet.

 

  1. Is Ruby Walsh the smartest man in racing?

When you look at the placing of the Mullins horses at Cheltenham, not just this year but previous years too, it is hard not to see Ruby Walsh’s hand behind them; he is the one who seems to get what he wants regardless of ownership concerns and perhaps even those of the trainer – it’s worth pointing out that, unlike Willie Mullins, Ruby has multiple Gold Cup and Champion Chase wins on his CV. That’s not good for the competitive side of the sport as Ruby has commented often about his desire to win as many of these big races as possible but there is something admirable in it.

In contrast to almost every jockey through history, Ruby has got player power; in a way he reminds me of basketball’s LeBron James who not only pulls the strings on the court for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA but does the same with the team’s management too. And though sporting and racing heritage may say this is wrong, it isn’t if Ruby’s is the biggest brain in the room and there’s every chance it might be. Unlike Willie Mullins, who claims not even to watch replays of his horses race, Ruby has an intimate knowledge of both his own mounts and, importantly, the opposition.

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He and Willie have a tremendous record with horses switching races; Yorkhill, Black Hercules and Vautour all won last week while Shaneshill ran very well and in the past the likes of Fiveforthree and Champagne Fever have done similar. These are high-risk decisions that will draw flak if they fail but they have the confidence to carry them out. Every owner wants Ruby on their horses and is willing to compromise their own interests to have this but it is not only for his obvious physical gifts at race time but also his highly intelligent, perhaps even genius, input into where they should run.

 

  1. Vautour-gate

The handling of the decision to switch Vautour to the Ryanair was horrendous and left a sour taste. Clearly every owner has the right to run their horses where they wish – though even that is questionable for owners in the Mullins yard – but there is a responsibility to inform the people about a public horse like Vautour, an animal I believe to be the most talented in training. This is not some 70-rated handicapper switching from a Kempton handicap on Wednesday to a similar race at Wolverhampton on Friday but rather the Gold Cup favourite or second favourite changing target at the last possible moment.

Punters’ money is not the issue here either as the majority of bets struck on Vautour would have been with the non-runner no-bet proviso, though bettors who played in the Ryanair Chase market in the belief that he wouldn’t run would argue otherwise. This is an information issue and punters lost out in terms of how they were treated – with contempt in case you were wondering – rather than financially.

Rich Ricci has taken most of the heat for this decision and the reason is obvious; no one is going to take the side of multi-millionaire fat cat banker with a hand in the financial crisis against two of racing’s heroes. But the truth is likely that Willie and Ruby made the Vautour call and decided to tell nobody about it: their ability to face down a wealthy owner like Ricci shows the power they have within their own fiefdom.

Of course, both Ruby and Willie could argue that they ride and train for owners and not punters. If I need to explain to you that they ride for both you’re probably reading the wrong website – punters fund racing and so on – and Ruby would do well to remember that the vast majority of those people who he’s waving his whip at as he crosses the line at Cheltenham are punters, as would Willie and other trainers recognise that their owners were or are gamblers on some level. You can’t have the adulation with at least a little of the scorn.

 

  1. What’s the point in betting Mullins horses ante-post?

I’m as bad a judge as there is of where Mullins horses might run at the Festival; this past meeting I managed to back Long Dog, Shaneshill, Bellshill and Black Hercules (twice) for the wrong races. Betting these horses ante-post is as difficult as it is pointless and the risk/reward ratio seems well out of sync with what it might be with other yards; even when you find yourself on at a big price early that horse may switch late on as so many of them did this year.

Prior to the Festival, I wrote an article about how well the short-priced Mullins horses do at the meeting and that continued in 2016; of the seven Closutton horses sent off 3/1 or shorter, five won which is incredible. The sensible thing here is simply to back them on the morning of the race when the firms are pushing them out to attract business or if you must play early then wait for the non-runner, no-bet concession and play the few that have multiple targets in more than one race.

Another point worth making is that whoever is punting the Mullins horses ‘knows’ how good they are. In other circumstances, I am very sceptical of ‘them’ backing a horse but with this firm the record is there and it also makes sense that they would know where their horses stand relative to one another; not only do they have many of the best horses but they also make extensive use of schooling races. Take Yorkhill in the Neptune as an example. He had good form coming into the race but not so much that he should have been as short as he was relative to talented stablemates like A Toi Phil and Thomas Hobson but not only did he justify the support he did it in some style.

 

  1. A changing betting landscape?

I lost money betting on Cheltenham which, contrary to what some of the layers might tell you, was not impossible! Punters looking for something at a double figure price and hoping that one or two of those horses would win had a rough meeting as a lot of the shorties won and I was probably guilty of overthinking my betting over the four days.

Rather than years past when the bankers were overbet, the opposite was true in 2016 and there are a few reasons for this. The brilliance of Willie and Ruby plays a big part as does the relative weakness of some of the big English trainers, notably Paul Nicholls. The four-day Festival is a contributing factor too as it has weakened some of the races.

But more than that, there has been a cultural shift in betting where it is dominated by the idea of value. We’ve become conditioned to oppose the front of the market and this message is reinforced no matter where you turn in the racing media. Seemingly every racing page and broadcast mentions the jolly being too short while favourite backers are derided by those who know better. That clearly does a disservice to the true idea of value, the sense that a 1/10 shot can be overpriced if it ‘should’ be 1/25, but for most of us raised on the Pricewise concept it means double-figure odds.

Perhaps the pendulum has swung a little too far the other way and this is only being reinforced by how the bookmakers operate during Cheltenham week. Not only are they betting to nigh-on unprofitable over-rounds but they also offer over-broke place books and a host of money back offers as well as fancied horses being pushed out. It seems they were almost intent in losing last week – a Cheltenham sprat to a long-term mug mackerel, perhaps – and hitting the front end of the market might be the best way to exploit this next year.

Tony Keenan

p.s. if you enjoyed this post, here are five more takeaways from Cheltenham worth noting.

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