In a theme that had largely been contained to National Hunt racing until recently, Willie Mullins saddled nine of the 20 runners in last Sunday’s November Handicap at Naas. Admittedly, that still wasn’t enough for him to win the race – Exchange Rate fared best of them in second behind the Tony Martin-trained Mr Everest – but the Closutton handler is unlikely to be too disheartened when he looks back at the 2018 Flat campaign as a whole.
Mullins has recorded comfortably his best tally of winners (26) in Britain and Ireland this season, a haul that included a near clean sweep of the Ascot Stakes – his runners filled four of the first five places – and 1-2s in both the Doncaster Cup and the Cesarewitch. He has now saddled six winners at Royal Ascot since 2012 and there is a shrinking pool of major staying prizes on the Flat that have eluded his grasp thus far.
As if his record-breaking 61 wins at the Cheltenham Festival weren’t cause enough, Mullins’ dabbling on the Flat has quickly become something to be marvelled at in its own right, and he is arguably out on his own when it comes to the training of dual-purposes horses. That might seem unfair on his colleagues given the calibre of stock that Mullins has at his disposal, not to mention the sheer quantity, but the facts simply do not lie when it comes to Mullins’ ability to get the absolute maximum out of every horse that he trains, in whichever discipline they happen to be competing.
The benchmark that a horse must reach to be classified as smart on the Timeform scale is 110 on the Flat and 145 over jumps. Judged on their peak performance ratings in Britain and Ireland, there have been 45 horses versatile enough to reach that ceiling under both codes since 1990, and nine of them are/were trained by Willie Mullins, including four who are still racing to this day.
The outlier amongst the Mullins horses (highlighted in white) is Nichols Canyon – John Gosden trained him to win his two listed races on the Flat and he never raced in that sphere again after arriving in Ireland in 2014 – but it would be remiss to take anything away from the job that his new trainer did with him over hurdles. Indeed, having shown signs of temperament on the Flat, Nichols Canyon was transformed into one of the most reliable and genuine hurdlers around for Mullins, with his eight Grade 1 wins including the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham and back-to-back renewals of the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown.
Simenon and Thomas Hobson are more typical examples of what Mullins has done with his recruits from other Flat trainers. The former spent three seasons with Andrew Balding before making the switch, winning twice as a two-year-old and showing useful form when third in the November Handicap in 2010. However, those achievements pale in significance compared to the heights he reached for Mullins; he produced his best effort over hurdles when winning a minor event at Cork by 15 lengths in May 2012, before heading to Royal Ascot the following month and winning twice in the space of five days, namely the Ascot Stakes and the Queen Alexandra Stakes.
As if that wasn’t enough, Simenon returned to the Royal meeting 12 months later and almost won the biggest staying prize of them all, the Ascot Gold Cup, with a neck the difference between losing and a hugely unpopular success – the winner, Estimate, was owned by none other than Her Majesty the Queen after all. Happily, Mullins avoided a date with the Tower of London and his stay of execution was made even sweeter by Simenon recording the most prestigious victory of his hurdling career in the Grimes Hurdle at Tipperary in July 2014.
A four-time winner for John Gosden in his early years, Thomas Hobson was off the track for 583 days between the last of those wins and his debut for Mullins in a maiden hurdle at Listowel in June 2015, where he was booked for the runner-up spot when taking a heavy fall at the last. He continued to have problems in the jumping department in 11 subsequent starts over hurdles, despite his CV boasting wins in the Leamington Novices’ Hurdle at Warwick and a valuable handicap hurdle at Fairyhouse, and the decision was quickly made to change tack.
‘He couldn’t jump a twig so we decided we’d try him on the Flat,’ is how owner Rich Ricci justified the switch to the Australian media ahead of last year’s Melbourne Cup, in which Thomas Hobson finished a respectable sixth. His place in that field had been earned with a dominant victory – similar to that of Simenon – in the Ascot Stakes earlier that season, and he continued to go from strength to strength during the campaign just gone, signing off with a first pattern-level success on the Flat in the Doncaster Cup and a close second behind leading stayer Stradivarius in the Long Distance Cup at Ascot.
The quirky Renneti, who has refused to race under both codes, is another of Ricci’s smart dual-purpose performers when on a going day – he is a Group 3 winner on the Flat and Grade 2 winner over jumps – while former Cheltenham Festival winner Limini led home another 1-2 for the stable when winning a valuable handicap on Irish Champions Weekend at Leopardstown in September, after which Mullins summed up his attitude to training in typically understated fashion.
‘We are lucky enough we have these nice stayers and they go on good ground,’ he explained. ‘We just try to make as much of whatever horses we have.’
Mullins has certainly done that with Wicklow Brave, a rare example of a horse who has won at the highest level both on the Flat and over jumps. A different sort to most of Mullins’ other dual-purpose horses in that he started his career in bumpers, Wicklow Brave has won 14 races under Rules in his career so far – including the County Hurdle, Punchestown Champion Hurdle and Irish St Leger – and, just when you thought he couldn’t surprise you anymore, he let down favourite backers when sent off at 7/2-on for a minor event at Galway last month, falling at the fourth flight.
No other horse in our study of 45 can claim to have won top-level contests under both codes, with Alderbrook amongst those who came closest to doing so – he produced a top-class effort when winning the Champion Hurdle on just his second hurdling start for Kim Bailey in 1995 and was only beaten three lengths in the Prix Ganay at Longchamp the following month, when back in the care of Julie Cecil, for whom he had already won the Prix Dollar and Select Stakes in 1994.
Another Champion Hurdle winner Royal Gait (1992) was a dual Group 1 winner on the Flat, but his victories in the Prix du Cadran and Prix Royal Oak came before our 1990 cut-off point, while Kasbah Bliss, who won the Prix du Cadran himself in 2011, could never quite get his head in front at the highest level over obstacles, despite going off the 11/10-on favourite for the World Hurdle in 2009, a race that was ultimately won by the legendary Big Buck’s.
On the subject of legends, Sea Pigeon will always feature prominently in any discussion of the best dual-purpose performers of all time, while Overturn is a more recent example of a horse who captured the public’s imagination with his versatility and sheer appetite for a fight.
The frenzied competition for the lead in big-field handicaps is supposed make it difficult for front-runners, but Overturn had a habit of making the difficult look simple, and there was no plan B needed as he freewheeled to victories in the Scottish Champion Hurdle, Northumberland Plate, Galway Hurdle and Chester Cup, before finding only Rock On Ruby too strong in the 2012 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Rewind the clock two years and it was Khyber Kim, formerly listed placed on the Flat for Henry Candy, who filled the runner-up spot in the Champion Hurdle. That proved to be his only defeat in a campaign that began with victory in the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle, a race that is now well established as a critical staging post for some of the better dual-purpose performers over the years – Grey Shot won the race 20 years ago following wins in the 1996 Goodwood Cup and 1997 Jockey Club Cup, while Detroit City completed the unique Cesarewitch/Greatwood double in the space of four weeks in 2006.
Many of the market leaders for this year’s renewal of the Greatwood can boast very little form of note on the Flat, but there is one talented dual-purpose performer who would be of interest should he stand his ground at the five-day stage, and you won’t be surprised to find out who trains him.
Not only is Uradel trained by Willie Mullins, but the root of the argument for fancying him is embedded deep in the soil at Closutton, with his form tying in closely with that of stablemates Limini and Low Sun.
Indeed, Uradel had Limini behind in yet another 1-2 for the stable when winning the valuable amateur handicap at the Galway Festival in July, and he produced a career best on the Flat when beaten just a neck by Low Sun in the latest renewal of the Cesarewitch. It's hard to believe that he's shown all that he can as a hurdler on the back of that, and a BHA mark of 137 could easily underestimate him come 3pm on the 17th of November, with excuses for his below-par showing last time (unsuited by the way the race developed back down in trip) meaning that he may go off a bigger price than you might expect for one trained by the finest handler of dual-purpose horses in recent times.