Seen any groundhogs your way? In racing the New Year began much as the old one had ended. At Cheltenham’s New Year’s Day fixture, the Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle feature race ended with Danny Mullins driving to victory Stormy Ireland, a horse trained across the water by his uncle Willie Mullins, after their only serious rival Brewin’upastorm had fallen at the last. Six days earlier, at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, it had been the same story with Tornado Flyer, ridden by Danny and trained by Willie, capturing the £142,000 prize for the celebrated King George VI Chase after his closest rival had capsized at the final obstacle. But while Stormy Ireland had been fairly well supported at 4-1, Tornado Flyer was a 28-1 shot.
Few in their right mind would have been attracted to back an animal with a record of P35225435 through his nine previous starts in lesser contests. Tornado Flyer hadn’t won a single race since December 2019 and his only Grade One victory ever had been in a ‘bumper’ with no obstacles. Danny Mullins’s apt post-race comment was: ‘When you’re riding for Willie, you’ve always got a chance, no matter what price they are.’ But for an English racing community desperately hoping that they can this year find some equine talent to repel the Irish raiders after the 23-5 drubbing at last year’s Cheltenham Festival it was salt in the wound. It looks as though even the potential discards in the leading Irish yards can come over and win our top races.
Look a little deeper into the King George and there can be some consolation. Being told on ITV that Danny Mullins has earned the soubriquet of ‘the thinking jockey’, 20 times champion jockey Sir Anthony McCoy muttered: ‘I wouldn‘t do that too often, Danny.’ And in the big race at Kempton two top riders had probably overdone the thinking. Pre-race analysts suggested that previous winner Frodon, ridden by Bryony Frost, might well be allowed to dominate the race from the front, which suits him best, because so many of the others were ‘hold up’ horses, best kept at the rear to come with a rattle at the business end of the race. Rachael Blackmore, riding the Gold Cup winner Minella Indo, must have been listening because she kept challenging Frodon for the lead with her mount to upset his rhythm. Having anticipated her tactics, Bryony countered by going even faster than usual early on. The result was that Frodon and Minella Indo ran the legs off each other and left the race to others. Keeping it simple remains the best rule for jockeys.
It has been a year of long-odds winners. When the German contestant Torquator Tasso won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in October, the French pari-mutuel paid out winning punters at 72-1 and some English bookmakers gave 80-1. Only two previous winners of the race had started at longer odds. But the most enjoyable long-priced victory of 2021 came in the Boylesports Irish Grand National, the richest jumps race in Ireland, won by Freewheelin Dylan at the remarkable price of 150-1. Trained just four miles from the Fairyhouse track by Dermot McLoughlin, and ridden by hardworking jockey Ricky Doyle — often seen mucking out and driving horseboxes for his boss Conor O’Dwyer — Freewheelin Dylan is owned by Sheila Mangan, head groom in small trainer McLoughlin’s yard. She backed Freewheelin Dylan initially at 66-1: ‘I thought that was a hell of a price. Then he went out to 100-1 and I thought: “What is wrong with people?” Then he went 150-1 and I said: “Ah, for feck’s sake, I have to have a bit of that as well!” It must have been quite some party when Covid regulations permitted them to have it.
For those who like the idea of finding long-priced winners Covid may even have been a blessing. For the past two centuries starting prices have been determined by the one prevailing at the off among on-course bookies. When Covid protocols kept bookies off the course, the SP was fixed instead by figures from off-course betting firms and Freewheelin Dylan was the tenth 100-1 plus winner in Ireland in ten months with the record set by the 300-1 victory by He Knows No Fear at Leopardstown.
I could do with a long-priced winner or two myself. Lady Luck has not been even glancing my way lately. At Christmas I incurred a £65 motoring fine ferrying Mrs Oakley’s much-favoured mince pies to grandchildren living in an area of London where local traffic regulations had changed since my last visit. I missed a 12-1 winner because my phone couldn’t get a signal out dog walking and on New Year’s Day our freezer, groaning with unconsumed goodies after a Covid-cancelled Christmas, chose to die. It can’t get much worse, I thought. But it did. Only after I pressed the confirm button did I realise that I had placed £75 instead of the intended £5 on Milton Harris’s horse in the concluding bumper at Cheltenham. It finished sixth.