Willie Mullins celebrates his weekend of winners at the Dublin Racing Festival.Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho/Shutterstock
By most headlines, this weekend’s seventh edition of the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown was a triumph, both for the sport in Ireland as a whole and, of course, for its leading trainer, Willie Mullins, in particular.
The 2023 record attendance of 34,591, which was a remarkable 40% jump on 2022, was broken again, with 36,020 racegoers over the two days, and the estimated percentage traveling from Britain leaving significant sums in local hotels , restaurants and pubs also increased, from 27% to 38%.
Related: Willie Mullins lands second four-timer during the Dublin Racing Festival weekend
It remains to be seen to what extent at least some of the visiting fans chose Dublin in February over Cheltenham in March. But those who are able to compare the experience and atmosphere of the two show jumping festivals may have left Leopardstown feeling that next month’s DRF has most of the excitement and enthusiasm of its counterpart, but without the booze-fueled, warlike undercurrent that is rarely felt. too far from the surface at Cheltenham.
Mullins, meanwhile, will go into the Festival with probably his strongest hand ever to play, and the fortunate problem, especially in the novice events, of having to decide how many of his leading contenders to bet in each race.
In some ways, Mullins’ total dominance of the weekend’s biggest events wasn’t a huge surprise. He saddled 29 of the 48 class one runners and seven favourites, five of whom started on equal terms. Of these, only the Gaelic Warrior, who was soundly beaten by his stable companion, Fact To File, in a two-runner chase, failed to make it.
All the setbacks, if any, came on the first day, when Il Etait Temps – 6-1, by far the highest among Mullins winners – benefited from a disappointing run by Barry Connell’s Marine Nationale in Arkle Novice, Ireland . Chase and two more Mullins-trained favorites were defeated by stable companions. By the time El Fabiolo and State Man completed the eight-timer, it felt very much like a formality.
Mullins has of course long ago established himself as the most successful show jumping coach the sport has ever seen, but it was only a few years ago that his preeminence seemed to be seriously threatened by Gordon Elliott. Backed by the majority of the 60 horses that owner Michael O’Leary had removed from the Mullins yard, Elliott took the Irish Trainers’ Championship several times all the way to the final festival of the year at Punchestown, but could not quite get over the line, including in 2016/17, when he started Punchestown as a 1-5 title contender.
Seven years later, O’Leary is back as owner at Mullins – two of the weekend’s beaten favorites were in fact in his colors – and Elliott cut a somewhat forlorn figure at Leopardstown as his six runners in the main squad. events were all defeated. Farren Glory, the shortest of the six at 4-1 for the two-mile beginners’ hurdle, finished ninth out of 10, while Found A Fifty, 10-1 for Ireland’s Arkle, was crushed in the final by Mullins’ Il Etait Temps . steps.
Amid all the well-earned pleasure and satisfaction of a job well done, however, it’s hard not to wonder if even Mullins himself might be a little perturbed by the lack of competition. A long run of odds-on favourites, whether successful or not, is bad news for betting turnover, and by extension for betting compliance, which is an important consideration when the Irish government decides how much money it will give to the industry each year to give.
Elliott, meanwhile, was also painfully aware that 29 of his horses would go under the hammer at Tattersalls Ireland on Monday afternoon, after Andy and Gemma Brown, who owned horses under the Caldwell Construction banner, decided – to general surprise – to sell their entire series after two of their runners suffered fatal injuries in the space of a fortnight.
A number of the horses that went under the hammer on Monday – totaling €5.29m (£4.52m) – would otherwise have been in action at Leopardstown this weekend, including Caldwell Potter, the €740,000 top lot ( £632,000). and new record setter for a National Hunt horse sold at auction, which was sold to race for a syndicate that includes Sir Alex Ferguson and lost Grade One winner Hermes Allen in a fatal fall at Sandown on Saturday.
In total, Elliott managed to purchase four of the 29 horses outright, while several more are likely to remain in the yard for their new owners. However, The Brown’s unexpected decision to retire is a setback Elliott can’t really afford as he tries to gain ground on Mullins.
Zeggeveld 1.40 Trailblazer 2.10 Schmilsson 2.40 Galice Macalo 3.10 Sawpit Sienna 3.40 Bebside Banter 4.10 Coup De Gold 4.40 Rumble B
Ludlow 1.50 Swift Hawk 2.20 Jackpot Cash 2.50 Ballybegg (nb) 3.20 Bonttay 3.50 Famoso 4.20 Tea Clipper 4.50 Queshi Bridge
Kempton 5.30 Fiddler’s Elbow 6.00 Lessay 6.30 Neapolitan 7.00 Greatgadian (nap) 7.30 Heerathetrack 8.00 Astrophysics 8.30 Nivelle’s Magic
However, as far as Ireland’s likely superiority at Cheltenham next month is concerned, the situation remains largely unchanged. Caldwell Potter will join the Nicholls stable as a 20-1 prospect for the Supreme Novice Hurdle, having won a Grade One at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting last time out, but could prove to be more of a long-term chaser, according to the bloodstock agent Anthony Bromley, who purchased the six-year-old on behalf of his new owners.
There are fourteen Grade One races at Cheltenham next month, and Mullins alone is the likely favorite for seven. Only two market leaders for Grade Ones are trained in Britain: Nicky Henderson’s Constitution Hill, in the Champion Hurdle, and his stablemate Sir Gino, in the Triumph. Looking further ahead, the Irish stables also host 61 of the 94 entries for the Grand National, which were published on Tuesday, along with a new, earlier start time for the big race of 4pm. Another difficult and demoralizing spring may be on the horizon for the British show jumping stables.