THE Easter weekend could have a huge impact on where this season’s Irish trainers’ championship goes with several big prizes up for grabs, topped by the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse on Monday.
Ireland’s two powerhouse jumps stables – those of reigning champion Willie Mullins and challenger Gordon Elliott – have a host of their stable stars in action as they bid to dominate at Fairyhouse in the same way they did when scooping 15 races at the Cheltenham Festival.
We spoke to David Casey, assistant trainer to Willie Mullins, to get his reflections on Cheltenham, hopes for the weekend and the lowdown on some Aintree Grand National hopes.
Willie Mullins saddled seven winners at the Cheltenham Festival this month. Was the yard happy with that return despite finishing second in the leading trainer competition?
It was brilliant. Anybody who goes to Cheltenham is looking for a winner, so to get seven on the board was absolutely fantastic. The horses had been in good form before we went over there and were just hoping they’d prove to be good enough and that we’d have things fall our way on the day – luckily seven of them had it all go right for them. Put it this way, we’d have settled for seven winners at the start of the week!
Gordon Elliott came out on top at Cheltenham and is once again the main threat to your stable claiming the Irish trainers’ championship. How are you all finding the challenge?
It’s a big challenge but we’re not going to change anything to go for the championship. We’ll keep doing what we’ve always been doing and if we get there again it’ll be great; we definitely want to win it. They’ll be trained the same, raced the same and, touch wood, we’ll get there and it’ll be brilliant. If we don’t then well done to Gordon as he’s had a phenomenal season.
There has been much talk about the strength of the Mullins and Elliott stables since Cheltenham. What do you put that down to?
Firstly, we have a lot of wealthy owners who are keeping the horses in Ireland, which is great. And the reason I think they’re keeping them there is the prize-money is very healthy in Ireland at the moment, and healthy in the big races as well. In England the biggest prize-money is geared more towards handicaps which, for me, gives an incentive to get a horse handicapped and ready for one day rather than to allow the horse to progress through to its absolute best.
Footpad has been redirected from Fairyhouse at the weekend to the Grand National meeting at Aintree. What have you made of him this season?
He’s been phenomenal. He was a very high-class hurdler anyway, so you always hope they can at least transfer that form to fences. He’s improved a little bit for fences and I think the only mistake he’s made in four chases was the one at the first down the back in the Arkle when Ruby [Walsh] did fantastic to stay on. Apart from that he’s been a brilliant jumper and he’s done everything asked for him. He’s in really fantastic form at home and if he does go to Aintree in that form then he’ll be very difficult to beat you’d have to think.
Laurina is another who has impressed many this season. What do you think of her and how do you rate her chances in Sunday’s Grade 1 mares’ hurdle at Fairyhouse?
We think she’s special. She’d been doing everything right all season and everything we’ve seen of her at home has been translated perfectly on to the racecourse. She’s a big mare and is one you’d think would go chasing at some stage. The world’s her oyster at this stage so I hope we can keep her sound and allow her to fulfil her potential. Hopefully she’ll show everyone what she’s made of again on Sunday at Fairyhouse.
The Ryanair Gold Cup Novice Chase also takes place on Sunday. What do you make of your team of horses going for the race?
Invitation Only, Up For Review and Kemboy are going to represent us and it’s going to be a tough race for sure. We’re very fortunate to be in a position where we can run horses of this calibre in a race of this nature. It might not always be like that so we make sure we appreciate it and try to do our best by the horses and the owners. I’d like to think our runners will go there and give the best that they can.
How difficult is it to juggle the horses to make sure they go in the right races and are all given the best chance of winning?
Horses can be at different stages of their campaigns so we factor that in. A horse who maybe hasn’t done as much at the start of the season can afford to be given a couple of runs now whereas one who has had a busy campaign might not actually need another run. Then there’s the ground, the health of the horse and many other factors. We find it tends to work itself out in the end, but at this stage of the season if they’re healthy and can run they tend to run.
The Mullins yard appears to have a strong hand in the Irish Grand National. Do you think this can be the year you finally win the race?
We have a very average record in the race! We’ve got a few nice horses in the race this year including Pairofbrowneyes, Pleasant Company and Bellshill. Bellshill has done nothing wrong and was a very good winner of the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse last time. He has a lot of weight, which wouldn’t be ideal, but he’s the classiest horse in the race and, touch wood, he jumps very well. Pairofbrowneyes was impressive on his first run for us at Gowran in the Leinster National and he’s got a nice weight for the race. He’s another good jumper and the trip will be right up his street. Pleasant Company won the Bobbyjo last year and hasn’t been able to perform to his best on heavy ground this season. If it dried out a little bit he’d be in with a chance as he has a lovely racing weight.
Hedgehunter won the Grand National at Aintree for Willie Mullins in 2005. Do you think the yard can win the race again this year?
Total Recall is our main contender. He fell towards the end of the Cheltenham Gold Cup when he seemed to be staying on into the race a little bit and he might have been placed. He’s been in great form all season and he seems very well since Cheltenham. Hopefully we can get him to Aintree in one piece and we’re really looking forward to is as he looks to have a good chance.
And, finally, stable jockey Ruby Walsh is on the sidelines again. How is he and when do you expect him to return to the saddle?
I spoke to him this week and he’s not too bad. The surgeons are very optimistic that he can make it back for Punchestown. The cast is off and he’s in an air-cushioned boot to give him more mobility. Basically, the injury he got when the horse fell was an opening of the old injury rather than a new one. He’s in good spirits and he’s working towards Punchestown.