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A Tragic Loss

February 8th, 2024 | Marten's Current Racing Diary

Hi there!

I was going to start this piece with an expression of my disappointment in the aftermath of the weekend’s action at Leopardstown but the news of the tragic death of 25-year-old Keagan Kirkby, who has been part of Paul Nicholls’s team since 2019, in a point-to-point at Charing on Sunday has put everything else into perspective.

This is not the first time that Paul Nicholls has experienced tragedy in his yard. On the evening of Thursday, 28th February, 2013, Dominic Baker, the 21-year-old son of his head lad Clifford, was killed in a road accident when travelling back home from work.

The trainer managed to guide and support his team through that challenging time and he will do so again, but his past experience won’t make his job any easier.

Our heartfelt sympathies go out to Keagan’s family at this truly awful time.

This weekend’s Dublin Racing Festival, with eight Grade 1 races, was intended to showcase Irish jump racing at its best.

However I am not surprised to see Kevin Blake, Tom Segal and Matt Chapman and others express their misgivings over the meeting and, in the view of the latter, whether the eight Grade 1s are worthy of that status.

Of more significance to me is the dominance of Willie Mullins, who won each of the Group 1s with either the favourite or one his supporting players.

I have two questions.

The first is this. Is his domination due to his acquiring the best bloodstock, with the support of his well-heeled owners?

Or, is he a better trainer than anyone else?

Neither question is easy to answer. In the case of the latter it is a shame that we cannot conduct an experiment as they do at competitive level in the game of Bridge, where the teams are assessed having played with the same distribution of cards.

Yes we know some trainers appear to improve horses from other yards, but that does not really apply with Mullins, who seems to source most of his horses from France, where they have been very lightly raced, or the point-to-point field. Of his eight winners this weekend in the Grade 1s, five came from France and three from Irish point-to-points.

I gather his spotters in France waste no time in snapping up a horse that shows sufficient promise in the Provinces in the knowledge that there are owners at home with deep enough pockets to pay what is asked. The same applies to point-to-pointers, with many of them earmarked as being of interest before they even run.

I am not familiar with the way Willie Mullins does things in his yard. It is almost 40 years since I visited Closutton having sold him a store by Orchestra, who became one of his first winners. He does, though, like Martin Pipe, appear to have his own way of doing things. For example he leaves it until the last minute to decide which horses he will declare for a particular race.

There is the amusing story told of Martin Pipe, that when a fellow trainer rang him five minutes before declaration time to ask if he was going to run a horse, he replied: “Oh it’s far too early to answer that.”

In my experience people who excel in any field have an acute attention to detail to accompany a few, let’s say, eccentricities. I am sure that applies here, as with Aidan O’Brien, but then one has to say Willie Mullins could not achieve such excellence without having the raw material to work with and the team to support him.

There is, though, nearly always a horse that prevents a clean sweep and on this occasion Gaelic Warrior let the job down in a match with stable-companion Fact To File. To my eyes Paul Townend wasn’t hard on the horse once he felt his chance had gone, but his unseat at the last looked to me like the action of a horse who was fed up with the game.

He has always lugged right and he did so again at a few of the fences on Sunday, but I expect him to be freshened up in time for the Festival.

Marine Nationale, trained by Barry Connell, also let short-odds players down in the Arkle Chase. He was a little keen in the early stages but this was his second run with a tongue-tie and the manner in which he emptied approaching the last could indicate a respiratory problem.

Bye for now

Marten