Ballyburn team still deliberating Festival target

By Sports Desk February 12, 2024

Willie Mullins is still to decide how he will shuffle some of his novices’ hurdle pack, with Ballyburn looking his ace card to play amongst a team brimming with talent.

The master of Closutton has won the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle a record seven times, while the following day’s Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle has gone his way on six occasions, including last year when scoring with Impaire Et Passe.

The handler is blessed with an array of riches in both races this time around, with many of his Closutton inmates double entered – including high-class pair Ballyburn and Mystical Power, who are dominant in the ante-post lists for both races.

Owned by Ronnie Bartlett in conjunction with football agent David Manasseh, Ballyburn laid down his claim to be Mullins’ Supreme number one with a faultless display at the Dublin Racing Festival.

However, the Irish champion trainer is willing to bide his time before firming up final running plans.

Mullins said: “Ballyburn has been very impressive. He’s in the Supreme and Baring Bingham, pedigree-wise you’d say Baring Bingham but looking at his races you’d say Supreme. His owners haven’t shown a preference and they’d be very happy to go wherever we go. I’ll leave that one open for the time being.

“Mystical Power is another one, owned by JP who is good pals with Ronnie Bartlett and will they want to take each other on?”

“I’ve been very pleased with what he’s shown over two miles as on pedigree I thought he’d want further but he’s shaped more like a two-miler.”

Mystical Power comes with a champion’s pedigree being a son of Galileo out of Champion Hurdle winner Annie Power and having done his early winning last summer, served a reminder of his potential when landing the Grade Two Moscow Flyer last month – a race that has served Mullins well in the past.

He added: “I think he’s a bit like his mother, a later developer. You get some pedigrees, like Quevega and all her progeny who are late developers, so this fellow is improving all the time.

“I was amazed with how much he’d improved in his last bit of work before the Lawlor’s of Naas, but then that was put back a week so I said ‘let’s go for the Moscow Flyer’ and he was very good in that.

“You’d have to think Supreme but we’ve had Moscow Flyer winners go both ways. It’s been a very good race for us as a trial to Cheltenham.

“Asian Master has had his two runs and I imagine he will also probably take his chance in the Supreme Novices’, he’s every right to.”

Mullins saddled a one-two in the Grade One Lawlor’s of Naas last month with Readin Tommy Wrong picking the pocket of Ile Atlantique late on.

And while the Tony Bloom-owned runner-up is pretty much certain to continue campaigning over an intermediate trip, there is the possibility Readin Tommy Wrong will step up to three miles at Prestbury Park.

“Ile Atlantique, my preference all along has been the Baring Bingham, unless something awkward happens he’ll go there,” continued Mullins.

“I thought he put up a tremendous performance in Naas when he was beaten by Readin Tommy Wrong. Ile Atlantique did all the donkey work and Daryl (Jacob) was very cute on Readin Tommy Wrong and just pounced on him.

“Cheltenham will be a different test and we’ll see. I think it’s harsh if people say he’s soft, we can change tactics and ride more of a race. I think it’s very harsh given he did all the work and then he was pounced on by a very good horse.

“Readin Tommy Wrong is in the Baring Bingham but is also in the Albert Bartlett and could go for either race. He has stamina and class so it’s a nice position for Simon (Munir) and Isaac (Souede, owners) to be in.”

Meanwhile, High Class Hero will attempt to prove he is well named when he leads Mullins’ Albert Bartlett squad, which could also include Dublin Racing Festival scorer Dancing City.

He said “When High Class Hero won his race in the autumn, I said to David Casey I’ll pick one race in the spring as a prep for Cheltenham, I don’t want him having a hard race at the Dublin Racing Festival and he found the race at Thurles and he came through it lovely.

“Dancing City had actually been disappointing me and then everything came right, it was obviously a step up in trip and maybe nicer ground were a big help to him. I think he’ll go to the Albert Bartlett with a chance.”

Nicky Henderson’s Sir Gino sets a high bar in the juvenile division, but Mullins looks set to saddle a strong team in opposition in the Triumph Hurdle.

Kargese led home a Closutton one-two-three-four in the Spring Juvenile at Leopardstown, but it is third-placed Majborough who has Mullins enthused.

“Majborough ran a cracker the other day. Every time I see him I think Gold Cup, not Triumph Hurdle, he’s just a magnificent beast,” he said.

“I was surprised when he arrived from France to see what an individual he was. He’s not a typical juvenile hurdler, you’re looking at him and thinking three years down the road.

“Maybe he could be like Douvan and just fully develop as a four and five-year-old. I’ve got some nice juveniles, but he’d be in the top couple of picks.”

A Cheltenham hero of old, Sir Gerhard, is set to bid for his third Festival success in the Stayers’ Hurdle, while Sa Majeste – who claimed the scalp of Noble Yeats at Limerick – could be one of Mullins’ leading players in the handicaps.

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    Nicky Henderson is not giving up hope of Constitution Hill being able to defend his Unibet Champion Hurdle crown and will have his unbeaten superstar “rescoped” again on Friday, after a below-par workout at Kempton Park on Tuesday put his participation in doubt.

    As has become tradition, Henderson took several of his Festival contenders for a spin at the Sunbury circuit, including Constitution Hill, whose only start this season was in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.

    Bookmakers were quick to suspend the betting markets in the wake of the work, and the Seven Barrows trainer told the PA news agency his superstar had scoped badly following it.

    “Unfortunately, in a routine gallop this morning, Constitution Hill was very disappointing and it transpires, after the vet has scoped him, that there is evidence of mucus,” said Henderson.

    “We’re taking a sample of it to a laboratory to analyse it, which will tell us about the significance of it and we should know more after that.

    “Last week, he worked brilliantly and he was scoped 10 days ago, but these things happen, just like it did with him earlier in the year (having to miss Cheltenham on Trials day in January).

    “Horses are like humans, look how many people had the awful cough around Christmas that took ages to get rid of.”

    He went on: “The vets still think it could clear up in a week and all his serious work has been done already, whether he makes it (to Cheltenham) will depend on the severity of it.

    “He was disappointing this morning working with Sir Gino (Triumph Hurdle favourite), who he has worked with in the past. He would normally go easily with him, but this morning he couldn’t, so Nico (de Boinville) realised all was not well and wasn’t hard on him.

    “Obviously, the mucus was affecting him. He’s not coughing, he’s just got a dirty picture, as we say.

    “I’m not saying definitely either way (about Cheltenham) and I’ll keep hoping. As you can imagine, it has come as a bit of a shock.”

    Giving an update later on his X (formerly Twitter) account, Henderson said: “Following up on this morning’s situation with Constitution Hill, the sample from his tracheal wash has shown a small increase in the number of neutrophils which indicates a respiratory infection, which is significant but far from drastic.

    “He will start a course of antibiotics immediately and we plan to rescope him on Friday in order to monitor which way this is going. He would only be having light exercise this week following this morning’s racecourse gallop.

    “Both our own vet and the racecourse veterinary surgeon who scoped him feel we definitely have a chance of correcting this in time and we will be doing everything possible to do so. We have a fortnight to work him and it is possible, so we will keep everybody notified accordingly.

    “He is absolutely fine within himself and we have simply got to get on top of this issue as quickly as possible.”

    Having been the 1-4 favourite for the Champion Hurdle at the start of the day, by the afternoon Constitution Hill was significantly bigger at 5-4 with the sponsors, who make the Willie Mullins-trained State Man their 4-5 favourite. In their non-runner, money back betting market, Coral make State Man 4-7 and Constitution Hill 4-6.

  • Q&A: How worried should we be about Constitution Hill? Q&A: How worried should we be about Constitution Hill?

    The shock news of Constitution Hill’s disappointing workout and subsequent poor scope caused reverberations around the racing world just two weeks ahead of this year’s Cheltenham Festival.

    Here, we look at some of the key questions raised by the dramatic development:

    What problems arise from mucus in a horse’s trachea (windpipe)?

    Mucus is continually being produced by all horses and cleared from the lungs – if it is healthy and clear. However, bacterial or fungal infections lead to excess mucus secretion and any change in colour to yellow, green or even brown makes it thicker and harder to move. This mucopurulent discharge contains a combination of mucus and pus, which can cause difficulty in breathing and reduced exercise performance.

    Is this a regular occurrence?

    “Horses are like humans, look how many people had the awful cough around Christmas that took ages to get rid of,” commented trainer Nicky Henderson. Constitution Hill himself has been affected by a similar setback already this season, when forced to miss the Unibet Hurdle on Cheltenham’s Trials day. On that occasion, Henderson reported back in mid-January: “A routine scope last week wasn’t entirely satisfactory and a follow up this morning shows the issue hasn’t resolved and therefore there would not be time to get him ready for next week. In the meantime, he will continue with light exercise, be rescoped in a fortnight’s time and then start his preparation for March.”

    How long does it take to clear up?

    Obviously, much will depend on how severe the infection is, but an immediate course of antibiotics will be administered and aid any recovery. Henderson said: “Both our own vet and the racecourse veterinary surgeon who scoped him feel we definitely have a chance of correcting this in time and we will be doing everything possible to do so. We have a fortnight to work him and it is possible, so we will keep everybody notified accordingly. He is absolutely fine within himself and we have simply got to get on top of this issue as quickly as possible.”

    Just how big is Constitution Hill for Cheltenham?

    Every sport needs its superstars, and in the shape of Constitution Hill the world of National Hunt racing certainly has one. He is a perfect eight from eight over hurdles and the idea of defeat when he is at his best is more or less unthinkable. Think Frankel, but over jumps.

    How has the Champion Hurdle betting been affected?

    Constitution Hill was as short as 1-4 to retain his crown, while Coral even made him favourite to record the biggest winning distance at this year’s Festival. However, he was eased out to as big as 6-4 at one point with Champion Hurdle sponsors Unibet, who then trimmed him back into 5-4 after a more encouraging update, with State Man their 4-5 favourite. That firm is one of only a few not now offering odds on a non-runner, no bet basis. With that concession, Constitution Hill is 4-6 at best with Coral, Ladbrokes and William Hill – and still as short as 2-5 in places. William Hill spokesperson Lee Phelps said: “We might be non-runner, money back on the race, but we believe there is significant doubt now about Constitution Hill’s participation and even if he does run there have to be concerns, so we’re prepared to take him on.”

    Will any other connections now be tempted to run their horses?

    Bookmakers are taking no chances with the odds of Lossiemouth, but Willie Mullins may still prefer to keep his exciting mare separate from stablemate State Man, especially as last year’s Triumph Hurdle star is such a short-priced favourite for the Mares’ Hurdle. Owner Rich Ricci said after Lossiemouth’s latest Cheltenham success on Trials day: “We’ll go for the Mares’ Hurdle I think, and I think we learned last year that these four-year-olds turning five, it is very hard to run in open company.” Gordon Elliott could consider dropping Irish Point back from the Stayers’ Hurdle, with the Cullentra handler and owners Robcour also having Teahupoo at the head of the betting for that Thursday feature.

  • BHA ‘encouraged’ by parliamentary debate into affordability checks BHA ‘encouraged’ by parliamentary debate into affordability checks

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    It was the first chance for MPs to properly interrogate proposals of the implementation of the supposedly “frictionless” checks after 100,000 people signed an e-petition to trigger the debate.

    Matt Hancock, who has Newmarket within his constituency, Connor McGinn, whose St Helens North constituency includes Haydock, and Philip Davies were among MPs to lay out arguments against the checks during the debate at Westminster Hall, and the BHA’s chief executive Julie Harrington was encouraged by the discussions.

    In a statement issued on Tuesday, Harrington said: “Yesterday’s debate on the impact of affordability checks on British racing has shone a light on a hugely important issue for our sport.

    “It was vital that MPs were given proper parliamentary time to thoroughly interrogate the government’s proposals and we were encouraged by the high turnout for a Westminster Hall debate.

    “Many MPs made valuable contributions to the debate, and we are sure that Sports Minister Stuart Andrew will have listened with interest to the views expressed.

    “From MPs of all parties and all sides of the debate, there was a clear recognition of the need for the government to protect and support British racing when reviewing gambling legislation.

    “If our sport is to remain a healthy industry, supporting jobs in the rural economy and remaining competitive with our international rivals, we hope that government will heed this advice.

    “We were encouraged by Minister Andrew ruling out the use of job titles and postcodes in the implementation of enhanced spending checks and confirming that these changes will at least be subject to a genuine pilot.

    “We will continue to make the case into the heart of government that the impact of these checks both on our industry and racing bettors needs to be carefully considered and look forward to further discussions on this important issue for British racing with the Gambling Commission and DCMS.”

    In Monday’s debate, Andrew said both the government and Gambling Commission had listened to the points raised, although the proposals will proceed, with a pilot of enhanced checks running for “a minimum of four months, during which time the commission will consider all issues that arise”.

    Andrew also underlined the concerns about the possible impact of the checks on racing are being taken “extremely seriously”.

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