For the second year in a row Willie Mullins looks like he will have to pull off one of his greatest training feats by landing the Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle – with defending champion Penhill on his seasonal debut.
The news means punters will be left scratching their heads – just as they did in 2018 – as they try to sort out by far the trickiest of the main events at Cheltenham in March.
Should Ireland’s champion trainer succeed, he will not only repeat a touch of genius in getting Penhill to score on debut twelve months ago, but also emulate the great Martin Pipe who did a similarly audacious act with the David Bridgwater-ridden Cyborgo back in 1996.
I asked Penhill’s owner, the scarily intelligent Tony Bloom, if we were likely to see Penhill before the Festival this season.
Bloom told me: “Penhill will probably go straight to Cheltenham. Can’t wait!”
The only entry Penhill currently holds is for our race, the Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham on March 14.
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He has been off the track since being thrashed thirteen lengths by Faugheen at Punchestown in April of last year.
Prior to that the eight-year-old had landed the Festival showpiece, defeating Supasundae by a couple of lengths in a slowly run affair.
That performance also came on his opening effort of the 2017/18 campaign, as Penhill had been absent that season since Punchestown 2017.
Penhill is clearly fragile but oh-so-talented. There were hopes to send the son of Mount Nelson for the 2017 Melbourne Cup, but those desires had to be scrapped when injury struck in August of that year.
This week Penhill was one of a record number of Irish entries among the 51 possibles for the Sun Racing Stayers’.
Mullins has eleven of the twenty three Irish-trained horses engaged at this stage, including 2015 Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen.
Penhill would be going for a third successive win at the Festival, having won the Albert Bartlett in 2017.
Of course today all eyes are on the super special Champion Chase favourite Altior, who is long odds-on to land the Clarence House Chase at Ascot on ITV4 at 3.35pm.
Altior will be close to a 1-10 shot, and few have have been so short for a Grade 1 in recent years.
Not all the so-called good things have gone in, though, with the great Istabraq beaten at 1-7 at Faiyhouse in 1999.
However, Hurricane Fly won at odds of 1-16 at Punchestown in 2013 and Sprinter Sacre at 1-9 at the same track in the same season.
Not many things irritate me, but I’m deeply passionate about horse racing – despite coming from no background in the game and with no relation ever having been involved – and one thing that truly leaves me seething is when people who are deeply respected in this game say things that simply are not true.
So in the trade racing paper this week once again a journalist who simply can’t stop himself trying to get the whip banned wrote a load of nonsense on the subject.
His argument was based on words from John Francome, the racing legend and former champion jockey.
Now we all love Francome, and I imagine most of you would trust what Francome MBE says over me when it comes to this great sport. But on the whip he is wrong. Factually wrong.
Francome was quoted as saying: “Do away with it (the whip) completely and jockeys will be able to keep horses straighter.”
I suspect the journalist concerned has not travelled to a country where whips are banned to study whipless racing.
But I have. I have watched horse racing in Oslo and did a feature on it for Attheraces. And it was chaos. Far from horses being kept straighter, they were all over the place.
And the reason why was a simple one. Without the aid of a whip, horses have no incentive to either keep running or indeed try that hard. At the end of a race that is, of course, crucial.
You see, over hundreds of years horses have been bred to react to the whip. It’s their signal to perform when asked.
So jockeys not using whips are forced to try different things to get an edge, and that includes spreading out all over the track in desperate search of either better ground or to escape a rival challenging in close proximity.
I can only repeat what I have said before. The whip used in racing is horse friendly.
The rules do not need to be changed. And the idea that thousands of people don’t watch the sport because of the whip is a nonsense.
Racecourse attendances are extremely strong at big meetings when whip bans are most likely, and ITV audiences are on the up. Those trying to get the whip banned should STOP trying to ruin the sport.