MIN has one of the shortest names in racing, but he has one of the tallest reputations these days, and he enhanced it again yesterday with a fairly bloodless victory in the Grade Two Sky Bet Moscow Flyer Novices’ Hurdle at Punchestown.
A little keen behind Tongie over the first two flights of hurdles, he stood well off the third flight and landed in front, so Ruby Walsh just let him roll along. He rolled along impressively too, he immediately went about six lengths clear, he jumped fluently and accurately, and he won as easily as he liked, coming right away from his rivals on the run-in.
Min was sent off the 1-7 favourite, and it is legitimate to expect a 1-7 favourite to win easily, but you could not have hoped for a more impressive performance from Willie Mullins’ horse. His jumping was just about foot-perfect, he travelled supremely well and, when the two Gigginstown House horses closed up on him around the home turn, Ruby just let out one noose of rein and he sprang away from them again to win easily, clocking an impressive time.
“He was taking a fair grip and he was pinging his hurdles,” said Ruby Walsh. “He just jumped and galloped and kept galloping. He’s raw and immature, he has a good bit of learning to do, but he obviously has a lot of natural ability.”
This is the race that Mullins has used in the last two years as a springboard to victory in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with Vautour and Douvan, and it was no surprise that sponsors Sky Bet shortened Min’s odds for the Cheltenham Festival curtain-raiser from an already short-looking 5-2 to an even shorter-looking 7-4. That said there is no knowing what heights Susannah Ricci’s horse could scale.
There will be decisions to be made now. Such is the depth of talent that Mullins has among his novice hurdlers, one of his main issues in March will be determining his Cheltenham targets. It is a nice head-scratcher, play Rooney up front or in the middle or wide on the right, but it is still a head-scratcher.
Fortunately, Mullins is quite good at this one. Last year, he had the 1-2 in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in Douvan and Shaneshill, he had the runner-up in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle in Milsean and he had the third in the Neptune Hurdle in Nichols Canyon.
In 2014, the champion trainer had the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner in Vautour and the Neptune 1-3 with Faugheen and Rathvinden. In 2013 he had the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle 1-4 with Champagne Fever and Un Atout, and the third in both the Neptune Hurdle and the Albert Bartlett Hurdle with Pont Alexandre and Inish Island respectively. So, in the nine renewals of the three Grade One novices’ hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival in the past three years, Mullins has won four of them and has had at least one horse placed in eight of them.
Yorkhill and Bellshill and Up For Review will probably be kept apart, owned, as they are, by Andrea and Graham Wylie. It looks like the Albert Bartlett Hurdle over three miles is the most likely target for Up For Review, given how impressive he was in winning the Dorans Pride Hurdle over three miles at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve.
The next two are more difficult. Bellshill was a top bumper horse last season. Second in the Grade Two bumper at Aintree, winner of the Grade One Champion Bumper at Punchestown, he has impressed in winning his three races over hurdles this term to date by an aggregate of 26 lengths. He has won a maiden over two miles, a Grade Two over two and a half and the Grade One Lawlor’s Hotel Hurdle at Naas last Sunday, also over two-and-a-half, so the natural inclination is to think Neptune Hurdle over two miles and five furlongs. But he does not lack pace.
Yorkhill does not lack pace either. The Presenting gelding was impressive in winning the Grade One Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown last Saturday over two miles, but he had won his maiden at Punchestown in early December over two and a half miles on heavy ground. He could join Min in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, but he could easily run in the Neptune.
Mullins also has Long Dog, winner of the Grade One Future Champions Novices’ Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas, and Gangster, impressive winner of a Grade Three novices’ hurdle over three miles at Fairyhouse last month, and Petit Mouchoir and Pylonthepressure and Open Eagle. Cheltenham targets will not be confirmed for a little while yet.
The Irish novice hurdlers looks strong in general. The Gordon Elliott-trained Tombstone, impressive winner of his maiden at Fairyhouse in late November, looked a little unlucky in Long Dog’s race at Leopardstown over Christmas, while the Henry de Bromhead-trained Supasundae, a talented bumper horse last season, jumped with a lot more fluency in winning his maiden hurdle at Leoaprdstown over Christmas than he had on his hurdling bow at Gowran Park.
There are tenuous collateral lines of form between the Irish and British novice hurdlers. Yorkhill beat a good novice of Nicky Henderson’s, O O Seven, in the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown, but Open Eagle was well beaten by another Nicky Henderson horse in Altior in a good novices’ hurdle at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day.
And remember that, last season, British-trained horses filled the first four places in the Cheltenham bumper with Moon Racer, Modus, Wait For Me and Yanworth, and the Ben Pauling-trained Barters Hill beat Bellshill in the Aintree bumper. The clash between each nation’s novices this season will be fascinating.