Willie Mullins, the trainer who has dominated jump-racing for more than a decade, has a strong chance of scooping the biggest prize of his illustrious career tomorrow - but he won’t be there to watch.
The race in question, of course, is the $2.5 million Longines Turf Handicap, one of the features on Saudi Cup day in Riyadh, and the target of his globetrotting stayer True Self. The 7-year-old has scored five times on the flat after being converted from hurdling around 18 months ago. He has been campaigned in Australia and Hong Kong in recent months, and notched a G3 triumph at Flemington in November in the process.
True Self has a tough task tomorrow, even with the assistance of Frankie Dettori in the saddle, against a powerful line-up headed by Godolphin’s 2018 Melbourne Cup winner Cross Counter, but he is quietly fanced to give good account of himself in the chase for the $1.5m first prize - far greater than anything on offer in jump racing.
“True Self just had an easy morning after working yesterday,” Mullins said. “Ideally we would have preferred to be drawn a bit closer to the inside, but I spoke to Frankie about the track and he has ridden there plenty of times on the dirt and knows the ins and outs of the track very well so that is a plus.
“Everyone seems to be very happy with the turf surface and we’re very much looking forward to being a part of the day.”
Mullins, though, will be back home in Ireland preparing for the highlight of the jumping year, the Cheltenham Festival, which begins on March 10. Mullins has been top trainer for six of the last nine festivals, and has won all the biggest prizes there.
No race represents his awesome record better than the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, and he looks sure to win it again this year, for a remarkable tenth time - if not with hot favourite AppreciateIt, then with one of three other credible candidates in an entry of 35.
Mullins has made bigger entries for the race than the four who were revealed for this year’s race on February 26, but the records suggest he can be at his most dangerous when he is not mob handed.
While 2018 winner Relegate was one of five runners from the stable - all of whom finished in the first seven incidentally - on four occasions his winner was his sole runner in the race. That would have been five but for a certain Envoi Allen, who beat the sole Mullins runner, Blue Sari, narrowly 12 months ago and is potentially as good as any winner in the race’s history.
It remains to be seen how many of the stable’s entries feature in the final line-up, but there is no doubting where the principal hopes lie, for dual Leopardstown winner Appreciate It is one of Ireland’s strongest fancies of the week.
One can see why, for Appreciate It won a Grade 2 in great style last time, and when Mullins opened the gates of his stables in Ireland to the media last week, there was no disguising his admiration for the 6-year-old, who he said “has done everything right in his two runs and will have a big chance”.
Tellingly, Mullins added, “He has a huge cruising speed, which is probably what you need for the race. He’d have to be one of our main hopes.”
Ferny Hollow added himself to the Mullins team with a good win at Fairyhouse last weekend, while fellow Fairyhouse winner Five Bar Brian is said to have “a lot of improvement” in him. Smooth Thurles winner Energumene, still under the radar but carrying the Penhill colours of Brighton owner Tony Bloom, completes the quartet.
Mullins was still riding as a leading amateur when he saddled Wither Or Which for his first Champion Bumper in 1996, so he rode the 5-year-old too. In many respects, it was a different era then - Jimmy Fitzgerald, David Nicholson and Lady Herries saddled the next three home - and the Champion Bumper has gone from strength to strength since then.
So of course has Mullins, although when Florida Pearl won the first running under the Weatherbys’ banner in 1997, he was happy to let Richard Dunwoody take the reins.
While Mullins remains the obvious starting point for anyone studying the race, his domination in the race, and indeed across the rest of the Festival, is increasingly threatened by his great rival Gordon Elliott, who has won two of the last three runnings.
Elliott won first with Fayonagh in 2017 and then again last year with Envoi Allen, who is a warm favourite for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, also on day two, though many believe he would have a live chance in an open Unibet Champion Hurdle the day before.
Elliott will do well to come up with another as promising as Envoi Allen so soon, but he too has a strong entry. The pick of them is widely seen as Farouk D’Alene, who is unbeaten in a point-to-point and two bumpers and did well to worry Fire Attack out of it at Naas last time after the runner-up had gone past him looking sure to win. Darling Daughter, Eskylane and Queens Brook all have each-way claims too.
In recent years, the Champion Bumper has not been quite the Irish benefit it once was, and since the 2010 success of Cue Card, who finished with as many Grade 1s to his name as Florida Pearl, there have been further home wins from Cheltenian, Moon Racer and Ballyandy.
Moon Racer’s trainer, David Pipe, has a strong team once again, albeit one that depends in part upon a mare bought out of the Mullins stable following a debut success in a listed bumper at Market Rasen.
Panic Attack showed a potent blend of speed, stamina and raw potential that day, and, when she lines up alongside new stable-companion Israel Champ, whose Ascot win looks particularly strong, the pair will form a partnership to reckon with. Make Me A Believer, who carried the same Caroline Tisdall colours as Moon Racer when winning at Chepstow in October, was a less anticipated entry from the stable.
Winners of the race from outside the traditional sources are not unheard of, and Roger Teal’s Ocean Wind, bred by Godolphin for the flat, is one worth a second look. Ocean Wind is still a colt, and he’s a 4-year-old - an age group that has been successful only with Cue Card since the race’s early years - but he looked pretty smart when winning a listed race at Newbury.
Flat trainer Teal beating the combined might of Mullins, Elliott and Pipe in a game at which they all excel would make for one of the stories of the week, but it’s not impossible.