Elliott v Mullins: key clashes that will decide the championship
For so long the response was "no chance", but now Gordon Elliott is daring to dream about winning his first Irish trainers' championship and with a lead of almost €400,000 heading into the spring festivals at Fairyhouse and Punchestown who could blame him?
Elliott has already accumulated 176 winners this season, just 17 shy of the 193 record Willie Mullins set during the 2012-2013 campaign, and Paddy Power make him a 1-3 shot to train 200 or more winners this season.
Elliott is €397,530 ahead of Mullins and, while Paddy Power have slashed him into 1-6 favourite to take the title for the first time, the two festivals at Fairyhouse and Punchestown have more prize-money on offer than ever before.
There is €500,000 worth of prize-money up for grabs in the BoyleSports Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday, a race neither Mullins or Elliott have won before, but should either of them break their duck this time, it will surely put them in pole position to take the title.
The key races
Ryanair Gold Cup Novice Steeplechase
Verdict: Mullins is responsible for seven of the 24 possibles and has entered JLT Novices' Chase winner Yorkhill, but going right-handed is not ideal for him. That said, if he runs he will be long odds-on. Elliott has three to choose from, with previous course winner Ball D'Arc the pick of his trio.
Irish Stallion Farms EBF Mares' Novice Hurdle
Verdict: Given the host of talented females he has to choose from on his Closutton catwalk, this is a race in which Mullins will certainly hope to make up ground on Elliott. Let's Dance has looked his most exciting mare all season and is entered here. Shattered Love could be the one to lead the charge for Elliott.
BoyleSports Irish Grand National
Verdict: Neither Mullins or Elliott has won Ireland's richest jumps race but, if either broke their duck in 2017, it would put them in the driving seat. Elliott has farmed all the valuable staying handicap chases this season and Paddy Power winner Noble Endeavor heads a 25-strong entry from his Meath stable. The Crafty Butcher would probably be Mullins' number one hope but he is only number 71 on the list at present so might not get in. The reigning champion has 15 entries and the 159-rated Alelchi Inois tops his list.
BoyleSports Champion Chase
Verdict: Prior to his Cheltenham setback, we would have all presumed that this would be a walk in the park for Douvan but lameness has ruled him out of Punchestown. It now looks likely that Mullins will reroute Un De Sceaux here. If it were to come up soft, he would be unstoppable, while Elliott appears unlikely to have a runner.
Herald Novice Hurdle
Verdict: This could be very interesting indeed as Labaik and Melon might renew rivalry. All eyes will once again be on the start to see if the enigmatic grey, who looked as quiet as a lamb in the Supreme preliminaries, will take off. Melon pulled nicely clear of the third at Cheltenham and there should be more to come from him.
Growise Champion Novice Chase
Verdict: Bellshill did best of the Irish in the RSA, taking third behind Might Bite, and he could lead Mullins' charge in this, the third of the Grade 1s on day one at Punchestown. He is unbeaten at the track, winning the Champion Bumper in 2015 and the Grade 1 Irish Daily Mirror Hurdle in 2016, and would be a leading fancy. Elliott could run Diamond King, who would be on a retrieval mission following his Cheltenham flop.
Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle
Verdict: Penhill emerged from the long grass to take the Albert Bartlett in fine style and good ground would make him hard to beat once again. The softer the ground, the better the chance Death Duty has in restoring his reputation. The apple of Elliott's eye was beaten when coming down at the last in the Albert Bartlett but quick ground may have been to blame for that and rain would be a big help.
Coral Punchestown Gold Cup
Verdict: Runner-up to Don Cossack and Carlingford Lough in the last two runnings, could this be third time lucky for Djakadam? Mullins relied on his consistent and high-class eight-year-old to hand him a first Cheltenham Gold Cup last week and will probably rely on him to bag the winner's cheque here. Can he reverse form with Sizing John over this shorter trip? Outlander ran no race at Cheltenham but Elliott could step Empire Of Dirt up in trip having found things happening too quickly in the Ryanair.
Punchestown Champion Bumper
Verdict: Elliott has said all season that Samcro would be heading to Fairyhouse but, if he decided to take this in afterwards, it could be some much-needed prize-money for Elliott's bank. He's looked the best bumper horse this season. Of course, Elliott also has the mighty mare Fayonagh, who stormed home to beat the boys at Cheltenham. Mullins has plenty to choose, but neither Next Destination or Carter McKay were good enough to trouble Fayonagh at Cheltenham.
Ladbrokes Champion Stayers' Hurdle
Verdict: Mullins would appear to hold the key here as Nichols Canyon relished the step up to three miles when storming up the near side rail to land the Stayers' Hurdle at Cheltenham. Shaneshill and Clondaw Warrior are also possibles. This is a race in which Elliott might struggle to make an impact unless, of course, he decides to pitch Apple's Jade in against the boys.
Ryanair Novice Steeplechase
Verdict: Min missed the Racing Post Arkle at Cheltenham due to a bruise but Mullins expects to have him back in time for a tilt at this and, if as expected, Altior does not make the trip over it would come as a big surprise if he did not continue his unbeaten record over fences.
Betdaq Punchestown Champion Hurdle
Verdict: With Tombstone failing to live up to expectations in the Coral Cup, Elliott could be empty-handed here. At his press day a few weeks ago, Mullins seemed to suggest that Annie Power would be fit and ready to run here. If that's the case, she will almost certainly be favourite. County Hurdle hero Arctic Fire is also a possible, while the champion trainer could also call upon Vroum Vroum Mag or Limini if needs be.
Tattersalls Ireland Champion Novice Hurdle
Verdict: Mullins has won this race for three of the last four years with Un Atout (2013), Vautour (2014) and Nichols Canyon (2015) and this could be where Bacardys bids to restore his reputation having been so badly hampered in the Neptune. It would come as little surprise to see Death Duty show up here for Elliott over this shorter trip having been found wanting in the Albert Bartlett.
Irish Stallion Farms EBF Mares' Champion Hurdle
Verdict: Much will depend on whether Apple's Jade show up here or in the Champion Stayers' Hurdle earlier in the week. The gutsy mare would have a big chance in both. If she runs in this, she is likely to once again tackle either Vroum Vroum Mag or Limini, or both, and what a showdown that would be if the championship is still up for grabs at the time.
AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle
Verdict: It is unlikely that star juvenile Defi Du Seuil will make the trip over to Ireland for this and that could see this develop into an Elliott v Mullins battle – Mega Fortune v Bapaume. Just a short head separated the pair in the Triumph Hurdle, so that tells you there is very little between them. Soft ground would certainly boost Mega Fortune's prospects.
Title betting (Paddy Power)