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Weekend Preview: Invitation needed for Mullins

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In the week of the latest entry stage for jump racing’s biggest prize, the Gold Cup, Jamie Lynch skirts around the issue of the headline act before outlining a potential Gold Cup horse of the future, one that Willie Mullins really could do with.

In-play betting. The betting for the Gold Cup, with Might Bite no shorter than 7/2 with most firms, shows that this issue is back in play: the issue of idling that hung heavy around Might Bite’s neck last spring, but lay idle in some interpretations of his ‘unimpressive’ win in the King George, has again become the talk of the town, given traction by the trainer only this week.

Assessment of any horse or any race involves systematic selectivity but, sometimes, the case for the prosecution is the same as the defence. When charged with making hard work of beating Double Shuffle at Kempton, Might Bite can ask for previous offences to be taken into account, particularly the Prestbury parachute he released up the RSA run-in.

It’s about expectations with Might Bite. ‘Expect the unexpected’ is the strapline that comes with being billed as chasing’s bad boy, but when he does what could be reasonably expected, by idling his way to a King George and a fifth straight win, the irrational response is that we were all expecting a bit more.         

It’s the tallest bell tower in Europe, one of the seven wonders of the medieval world, constructed of the finest white marble, and has a history as a military base during World War II, as well as the scene of Galileo’s experiment which disproved Aristotle’s theory of gravity. But all that is overlooked about the Torre di Pisa because it leans.

It’s not a perfect parallel, but there’s a lesson in there about the dangers of focusing on the design flaw rather than the merit and record, regards Might Bite’s towering position in the Gold Cup field.

Nicky Henderson is in a towering position when it comes to the championship races at the Festival, with Buveur d’Air having one hand on a second Champion Hurdle and Altior the king-in-waiting in the Champion Chase, in support of Might Bite’s dallyingly-dynamic dance towards the Gold Cup. Henderson has some big pieces on the Cheltenham chessboard, something of a role-reversal with Willie Mullins for the time of year.

Faugheen’s falter and Douvan’s delay has slimmed down his heavy-hitters, meaning Mullins has only two ante-post favourites at Cheltenham, when it has been more like double figures at the same stage of recent seasons. Footpad has a foothold on the Arkle, and Un de Sceaux is all systems go to defend the Ryanair, but apart from those two, along with a wave of bumper horses being unwrapped, Mullins isn’t cornering markets like he used to.

He has nominated five at this week’s forfeit stage for the Gold Cup, but none are shorter than 20/1 in the betting, and two of them – Total Recall and Acapella Bourgeois – are horses he’s inherited only this season. Djakadam has been close to the bull several times, but his standards have slipped so far this season, and the next generation of staying chasers aren’t particularly presenting themselves at Closutton.

This coughing and stuttering conveyor belt is, perhaps, the aftershock of the split with Gigginstown. The majority of Gigginstown horses are sourced and shaped as staying chasers, and losing that specific share of the market has hit hard. Prior to that parting, at the start of the 2016/17 season, Mullins had won the 2015 RSA with Don Poli and finished second in the 2016 Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown with Outlander, both Gigginstown slow-burners. Mullins didn’t even have a runner in the same Punchestown Grade 1 last spring, but the beige-and-black colours of Graham Wylie have, in part, in placings, helped to remedy the situation in the RSA, Shaneshill second in 2016 and Bellshill third in it last year.     

And if Mullins has got a staying starlet this season, amongst the novice chasers, then it might just be Invitation Only, in the same silks.

Gold Cup-entry Acapella Bourgeois was turned over at odds-on by stablemate Polidam at Navan in early-December, in a handicap which all the data says is strong form. The relevance for Invitation Only is that he won a maiden chase on the same card, likewise over 2½m, in a time that compares very well, and it was all his own work, from the front. That was a coming-of-age day for him, quite a while in the coming.

Having won a point for Sean Doyle, teacher of Holywell and The Last Samuri amongst others, Invitation Only blitzed through his first three races for Willie Mullins (two bumpers and a novice hurdle) in the style seemingly expected of him, odds-on each time, the hype machine working overdrive. He was then even-money favourite to beat Death Duty and Monalee in the Grade 2 Navan Novice Hurdle, but didn’t fire fully there nor – after a break - at the Fairyhouse Easter Festival, when 11/10 in another Grade 2, and an early fall on his chasing debut starting out this campaign threatened to derail his career completely, before getting back on track and then some at Navan where he dealt with Any Second Now every bit as decisively as Monalee had done at Punchestown.

Willie Mullins is unleashing Getabird in the Moscow Flyer at Punchestown on Saturday, seeking to boost his novice hurdle team, but an hour earlier, on the same card, could be equally important to the Festival squad if Invitation Only is given the go-ahead for the Grade 3 novice chase. There’s a gap in the RSA market, as well as a gap on Mullins’ fighting frontier, and the application is by Invitation Only.

 

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LEICESTER 2:40

Tuesday 23 January
1. ANTARTICA DE THAIX (FR) 159
Sam Twiston-Davies silk Sam Twiston-Davies
Paul Nicholls
2. LASTBUTNOTLEAST (IRE) 151p
Will Kennedy silk Will Kennedy
Donald McCain hot trainer
3. GOT AWAY (FR) 150p
Leighton Aspell silk Leighton Aspell
Oliver Sherwood
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