Gordon Elliott goes for a fifth Troytown Chase in succession on Sunday and has a dozen chances, but might Willie Mullins spoil the party with his sole entry?
How things change. In 2013, Gordon Elliott saddled one runner in the Troytown, a 25/1 chance ridden by RP McNally. Jamsie Hall finished 10th, beaten out of sight. Nina Carberry rode the runner-up and AP McCoy the third. Gigginstown House Stud, meanwhile, ran two: a 12/1 chance for the late Dessie Hughes and a 14/1 chance with Paul Nolan. One fell, the other finished eighth.
Since then, Elliott has climbed the ranks at a remarkable rate and it's been thanks to winners like Balbriggan, who landed a few bets to win the following year's renewal as a 4/1 favourite. From the moment that horse crossed the line on Sunday, November 23, 2014, no other trainer has tasted success in the Ladbrokes Troytown Handicap Chase, Elliott's local race.
In 2015, Elliott greedily took up the first two places on the podium, Jack Kennedy - then claiming 5lb - guiding Riverside City to victory over Georges Conn, ridden by the 3lb-claiming Luke Dempsey. A year later, Empire Of Dirt became the first Gigginstown-owned, Elliott-trained winner of the race under Bryan Cooper, while 2017 was the turn of Mala Beach. Elliott again, this time with five of the first ten.
You can be sure, then, that Willie Mullins would love to be the one to end the run. Theirs is a friendly, respectful rivalry, but a rivalry all the same, one given spice when Gigginstown removed their huge squad from Mullins' Closutton base and sent much of it to Cullentra House Stables, home of the rising star whose arsenal is now just as significant.
Mullins, chasing his 13th Irish trainers' title, saddles antepost favourite Minella Beau - a faller when 5/1 favourite as Out Sam won the Cork National last time. Out Sam is trained by you-know-who, and could well challenge for favouritism by the time this race begins in the middle of Sunday afternoon. If the overriding theme throughout the UK National Hunt season is the road to Cheltenham, in Ireland it's Elliott v Mullins.
The Elliott dozen
If you were thinking that backing Elliott's representatives might be the most straightforward route to profit, given all of the above, there is one quite big problem: he has 12 of them, 13 if you count a reserve. Ranking them might be a thankless task, but let's give is a try.
1. Out Sam
Always looked as though he had the ability to win a nice prize and delivered on that promise by winning the Cork National on his return last time out, having been third in a couple of similar contests last season, fancied on both occasions. Only had six runs for Elliott and quite possible he'll derive serious benefit from that win, his first in close to three years, as well as improving for his return as he has tended to do in the past. Up 8lb, he'll have to do exactly that but won't mind the ground and once held a higher (British) mark over hurdles. Big chance.
Won four of his eight starts upon return to Elliott's yard, where he'd started life landing a point-to-point before being sent to Tony Martin's. Made a fine start over fences last season, winning his first two at 28/1 and 14/1, before an excellent, Grade One fourth to Monalee in February when again underestimated in the market. Pulled-up three times since, but two of those were at Grade One level and this more his bag. Does have to concede weight all-round but 7lb claimer helps and has twice won after a lengthy absence. Not ruled out.
Enigmatic seven-year-old who hasn't been seen since pulling up at Punchestown in the spring. Prior to that he'd been brought down early in the Irish National, a couple of weeks after an excellent, not unforeseen third to Missed Approach in the Kim Muir. Probably ought to have won the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas and could be that the subsequent wind surgery, which came prior to Cheltenham, has improved him despite two disappointments since. Remains a maiden over fences but has the ability to end that under what might be ideal conditions.
Another yet to win over fences but did pass the post first at Kilbeggan mid-summer, before a positive sample meant disqualification. His mark went up regardless and it's proven too stiff in three subsequent runs, although his best effort came over this trip and on decent ground which, unlike some of these, he'd appear to need. That makes him of some interest at a big price having been dropped a pound for a mid-pack finish behind Out Sam at Cork - these conditions will suit better.
5. Rogue Angel
Former Irish Grand National winner who capitalised on an excellent mark to make a winning debut for Elliott during summer, a performance he has backed up with two very good runs in three since. Mark has climbed as a result - it's 1lb higher now than when he won the Irish National - and a chance he'll find things happening a bit quick back at the bare three miles on decent ground, as he approaches his 11th birthday.
6. General Principle
Got up late to win the Irish National when last seen in the spring and returns on a 5lb higher mark. That means he's 4lb higher than when seventh (fancied) in this race a year ago, on which occasion he'd had a lovely prep run over hurdles. Has gone well fresh before though and is generally reliable, enough to suggest he'll go close in another staying handicap at some stage this season. Might still be caught out after nearly eight months away.
7. Woods Well
Closely-matched with the Mullins-trained favourite on their Galway form in October, but wouldn't be sure that can be trusted and has previously looked just short of what's required to plunder a pot like this off a high enough mark. Run his race but likely in defeat.
Feather-weighted 10-year-old who, like Poormans Hill (see below), has climbed the handicapping ladder from a ridiculously low mark when starting out for the yard. Latest win came in September under similar conditions to these, but in a vastly less competitive race. Better than he showed on heavy ground at Ayr last time but these are choppier waters than he's used to and looks held, albeit one who could run better than his price.
9. Space Cadet
Absent since signing off last season as if something amiss, pulled up first over hurdles (favourite) and then over fences. Had earlier gone close in the Leinster National just prior to Cheltenham but mark went up as a result and he's higher in the weights now than when a 33/1 sixth, beaten 25 lengths, in last year's renewal of this.
10. Our Father
Sent off at just 8/1 on his first start for the yard last time - nothing to see here, except for the fact he'd been off since January 2015. Viewed through that lens, there was some encouragement from his run behind Spider Web at Limerick and a case can be made off a mark of 129 if you're willing to speculate that he'll improve a bundle for the run. It is, however, six years since this mud-loving, fragile type last won and if Elliott does make it five in a row with Our Father you can chalk it up among his most impressive training feats.
11. Poormans Hill
Another who ran behind Out Sam at Cork and is just 1lb lower, therefore 9lb higher than when winning at Downpatrick in the spring. That was an excellent effort from a horse who joined the yard with a rating of 88 little more than a year ago and was asked to go to the well and back time and again as the handicapper struggled to catch up with him. Reckon he's done it now, though.
12. Ned Stark
Ex-Alan King and was a Grade Two winner for that yard, landing the Towton at Wetherby. Plenty of formlines make him look well-treated off 128, but he's evidently been hard to keep right and was no kind of factor on his first start for the yard over a year ago. Entitled to improve for the switch back to fences and better ground but total guesswork when it comes to his general well-being.
13. Presenting Julio (Reserve)
Two good runs since returning from three months off but fell when held last time out, this is tougher and, if he does get a run, wouldn't be an obvious one from out of the weights.
The ante-post favourite
With Elliott dominating the entries, Mullins has just one - Minella Beau - unless Undressed, the second reserve, gets a run.
How significant that is in a race Mullins last won in 2009 is hard to say, but what's clear is that the Ruby Walsh-ridden Minella Beau holds an excellent chance having been staying on before falling behind Out Sam at Cork.
Dropping back to three miles should suit and he's a good-ground winner over hurdles, while on just his third handicap start there could be much more to come from this seven-year-old who had impressed under Walsh on his debut over fences in August.
Expect him to be dropped out in what's sure to be a well-run race and providing he's none the worse for that fall last time out, there may be none travelling better turning in. Elliott have have a dozen, but Mullins might just have the one.
Rating the rest
Elliott and Mullins combine for 13 of the 25 runners, but that still leaves another 12 and we've ranked them, too.
1. Spider Web
Up 8lb for Munster National success in October, which took his tally to three handicap chase wins in seven, all over the course of the last year. Also finished a good second at Ballinrobe in May while Galway fall, when sent off favourite, came as he moved into things albeit under pressure. At seven, it's hard to know whether he's done improving but the way he travelled last time suggests there is more to come. Three miles and good ground are idea under a rider who has won this race before and while a few of these have significant turnarounds at the weights, none are as progressive.
No great shakes on his return but that was over two miles in a Grade Three and not much more could have been expected. Better judged on his unfortunate sixth in the Irish Grand National when threatening to spring a 25/1 surprise under this rider before hampered late on. Remains on the same mark and enters calculations despite slight concern that this is sharp enough, assuming he's stepped forward for that comeback run.
3. Tout Est Permis
Noel Meade's Gigginstown runner, one who really impressed on soft ground at Galway a month ago when sent beyond two-and-a-half miles for the first time on his debut for the yard. Earned a 10lb hike there but there could be more to come as his stamina is drawn out, with three miles on good ground expected to be well within his compass. Only five and while it's a big ask to win a race like this he's an interesting runner having carried high stable confidence into that effort last time. Looks the type who will have his day.
4. Mine Now
Unexposed as a chaser despite 28 runs over hurdles, and would have an each-way squeak on his best form including a close third at Galway off just 3lb lower in August. Fell when last seen a month ago but very well-handicapped on the pick of his hurdles form, which includes a win in a 29-runner Pertemps qualifier over this sort of trip. Live each-way player away from bigger yards.
5. Young Turk
Unexposed former point winner for top outfit who fell last time at Cork. Was running another good race there and had looked smart on decent ground at Tipperary beforehand. Totally unexposed in handicaps having run in just one, over hurdles, where he finished second off a rating of 119. This demands more of course but mark doesn't look overly harsh and seems to be improving.
6. Magic Of Light
Consistent mare who was last seen winning a decent handicap chase at Punchestown, her stamina proving decisive over a slightly shorter trip. Returns to action with an 8lb higher mark and stronger opposition to contend with but big run may not be beyond her if cheekpieces work again. Gone well fresh and remains progressive, albeit at a lower level.
7. Na Trachtalai Abu
Second to Spider Web at Limerick and 5lb better off now. Combine that with a more patient ride and he could well turn the form around having been running consistently throughout the autumn. That consistency has seen him climb the weights in defeat, however, and hard to defy a mark of 129 in a race like this having won once in 19 starts over fences.
8. Eight Till Late
Unproven over the trip but ran well over just a couple of furlongs shorter at Thurles on Thursday, form which would give him an interesting chance here given that a proven Grade One horse won the race. That said, had previously been campaigned over distances from two to two-and-a-half miles and if he is turned out quickly, he's likely to find this altogether different challenge beyond him having surely been flattered.
9. Grand Partner
Very well-handicapped on hurdles form and while best form there was over shorter trips, he did place off a similar mark to this one when tried at three miles a couple of years ago. Still, didn't look to be crying out for a return to three miles when third at Punchestown a week ago and simply doesn't look as good a chaser, so is hard to fancy.
Ran well to a point at Limerick behind Spider Webb without looking like a winner in waiting. Did run a big race when third in this a couple of years ago but higher in the weights and now 11 years of age, which means he's easy enough to overlook.
11. Mr Diablo
Low-key return after a year and a half off and while it means he's back down to his last winning mark, he looks well short of that level now.
12. Raz De Maree
Game winner of the Welsh National under favourable conditions at Chepstow in January, but that looks to have taken a lot out of this likeable veteran who has been beaten 158 lengths in three starts since. Would want softer ground and another half-mile at the least, too.
It's hard to get away from MINELLA BEAU, as an upwardly-mobile stayer from a top yard who wasn't done with when coming to grief last time. This drop back to three miles will suit more than the winner that day, although Out Sam nevertheless rates a danger.
Of the JP McManus horses, Squouateur is one to keep an eye on as he probably has a race like this in him while the pick of the Gigginstown battalion at the prices could be the top weight, Dounikos. It won't be easy to defy a mark of 150 but his rider claims 7lb and he's capable of a big run after a break.
1. Minella Beau
4. Out Sam
5. Spider Web