The American who threatens to dominate the Cheltenham Festival

Rich Ricci (left) with Willie Mullins at Åscot in January. Photo: Steve Davies/Racingfotos.com

It was in 2005 that Rich Ricci first hooked up with Willie Mullins. A friend of Ricci’s, Pat O’Riordan, had horses with Willie’s dad, the legendary trainer Paddy Mullins, and introduced Ricci to the champion trainer. Although he wasn’t champion trainer at the time.

The National Hunt landscape in Ireland in 2005 was very different from the National Hunt landscape that exists today. Willie Mullins had 53 winners during the 2004-05 season, 22 fewer than champion trainer Noel Meade. This season, he has had 161 winners already, 50 more than his closest pursuer, and we haven’t got to Cheltenham yet.

At the time, Rich Ricci, now 51, was a key figure with Barclays Bank in Britain with a passion for racing. An American who cut his teeth in horse racing at Suffolk Downs in Boston, he had developed a passion for National Hunt racing since he had moved to Britain.

Scotsirish was the first horse Ricci bought, although the Zaffaran gelding did not race in the now ubiquitous pink colours of Ricci’s wife Susannah. Scotsirish raced under the banner of the Double R Stables Syndicate – presumably a reference to Ricci’s initials – whose silks were the inverse of Susannah Ricci’s: light green with pink spots instead of pink with light green spots.

Winner of his only point-to-point, Scotsirish was beaten in his bumper (National Hunt flat race) on his racecourse debut at Gowran Park in February 2006, and he was beaten again on his hurdling bow at Cork 11 months later. However, sent off an unconsidered 20-1 shot for another maiden at Leopardstown in January 2008, he duly shocked a few people in getting off the mark over hurdles.

Brief dalliance with flat racing

Scotsirish was an even better chaser than hurdler. He won the Grade 2 Hilly Way Chase at Cork in 2008 and the Grade 2 Normans Grove Chase at Fairyhouse in 2010, as well as the big novices’ handicap chase at the 2008 Punchestown Festival and the big handicap chase at the 2011 Punchestown Festival.

In the meantime, Temlett carried the Double R colours on the flat for a while. He actually made his racecourse debut in the maiden that subsequent dual G1 winner Holy Roman Emperor won, before going on to win three times on the flat and once over hurdles.

But Ricci’s dalliance with flat racing began and ended with Temlett, and the Double R Syndicate’s involvement did not go beyond Scotsirish.  Themoonandsixpence made his debut in Susannah Ricci’s colours at Fairyhouse on December 15, 2007, finishing second in a bumper. Then the following day at Cork, Pomme Tiepy carried the pink silks to victory in a listed novices’ chase.

Pomme Tiepy exploded that season. She won another novices’ chase at Thurles the following month by 25 lengths, then landed a brace of Grade 2 contests, one at Leopardstown, one at Navan, and was sent off the 9-2 second favourite for the 2008 RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. Alas, she got no further than the ninth fence. Even so, Ricci’s enthusiasm remained undimmed.

Mikael D’Haguenet came along later in 2008, won the Grade 1 Barry & Sandra Kelly Memorial Hurdle, won the Grade 2 Slaney Hurdle, won the Grade 2 Moscow Flyer Hurdle, then went to Cheltenham, was sent off as the 5-2 favourite for what was then the Ballymore Properties Hurdle – the modern-day Neptune Hurdle – and promptly won that as well.

Role in the incredible rise of Willie Mullins

It is probable that Willie Mullins did not need a catalyst for his career, that he was building inexorably towards the heights that he has now reached, but if he did need a catalyst, Ricci was it.

The previous season, the 2007-08 season, Mullins had 111 winners, more winners than any other trainer in the country – it was the first time since 1998-99 that Noel Meade had not topped the list – and Mullins has been champion National Hunt trainer in Ireland every year since.  

Last season, he had 187 winners, more than twice as many as his nearest pursuer, Gordon Elliott, and the total amount of prize money that his horses earned was more than the sum of the prize money earned by the trainers who finished second, third and fourth behind him in the championship.

Mullins and Ricci have together pushed the boundaries of National Hunt racing. They have crossed national frontiers.

As well as dominating in Ireland, one of the most competitive racing environments in the world, Mullins habitually plunders some of the top jumps races in France. And, as if France was not far enough away, in 2013 he sent Ricci’s horse Blackstairmountain to Japan and, under the expert guidance of stable jockey Ruby Walsh, the Imperial Ballet gelding landed the Nakayama Grand Jump, the second most valuable jumps horse race in the world. It is second only to the Aintree Grand National, which Mullins won with Hedgehunter in 2005.

60-strong raiding party for the Festival

Mullins has been leading trainer at the Cheltenham Festival – the Olympic Games of National Hunt racing – in four of the last five years.  Last year, he had eight winners at the Festival, more winners than any other trainer had had at any single Cheltenham Festival ever before.  That brought the champion trainer’s total number of Cheltenham Festival winner to 41, the second highest total in history (behind Britain’s Nicky Henderson on 53).

It is probably unreasonable to expect that Mullins can emulate that feat at this year’s Festival, which starts on Tuesday (March 15), but his 2016 Cheltenham team looks at least as strong as his 2015 team, and it is dominated by the Ricci horses. It is regrettable that Faugheen, will miss the Champion Hurdle. He is a massive loss but, even in his absence, the team looks strong.

Annie Power could have run in the Mares’ Hurdle, in the race in which she was robbed of victory by a fall at the final obstacle last year. Instead, however, Ricci paid the £20,000 supplementary fee yesterday to put her into the Champion Hurdle so that, even in the absence of Faugheen, the owner could still go home with the trophy.

That leaves space in the Mares’ Hurdle for Vroum Vroum Mag. She looks at least as good over fences as she is over hurdles, but she ran out an easy winner of a mares’ hurdle at Ascot last time, and she is a worthy favourite for the Cheltenham race.

Limini is favourite for the new Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, the monster that is Douvan is odds-on for the Arkle, Let’s Dance is set for the Triumph Hurdle, and there is a whole host of other high-class horses who are set carry the Ricci silks over Cheltenham’s undulations throughout the week, horses like Long Dog and Thomas Hobson and Arbre De Vie. In total, Mullins will have 60 runners - and there are only 28 races.  

And then, of course, there is the two-pronged Ricci assault on the Gold Cup: last year’s JLT Chase winner Vautour, and last year’s Gold Cup runner-up Djakadam. Both have outstanding chances, and we still don’t know which of the pair Ruby Walsh will ride.

It all kicks off for the Ricci/Mullins axis in the curtain-raiser on Tuesday, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, a race for which Min has been touted since the summer. Two victories in two runs since he joined Mullins has only served to buoy confidence further.

It could be the start of a memorable week.

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