Willie Mullins aiming to bridge 155-year gap in Scottish National as he pursues trainers’ title

Paul Townend and Jack Kennedy resume their race for Ireland’s jockeys’ championship at Naas

Willie Mullins’s attempt to emulate the legendary Vincent O’Brien all of 70 years ago and win the British trainers’ title from Ireland could revolve around bridging an even longer gap in Saturday’s Coral Scottish Grand National at Ayr.

It is all of 155 years since a horse trained in this country won Scotland’s biggest race which over the decades has rarely figured on the radar of most top Irish handlers.

However, with Mullins intent on pressing home his current advantage at the top of the cross-channel trainer’s championship, he has half a dozen hopefuls left in it after Monday’s latest acceptance stage that could have a shot at emulating Huntsman in 1869.

They include MacDermott who has been supported down to 6-1 favouritism with the big-race sponsor as well as the mercurial Mr Incredible who exited at the Chair in Saturday’s Aintree National. He was cut to 8-1 on Monday while the other Mullins entries are We’llhavewan, Ontheropes, Spanish Harlem and Klarc Kent.


A maximum field of 30 will come from the 36 entries left in that also include Irish-based horses such as Henry de Bromhead’s Whacker Clan, the Liz Doyle-trained Flash De Touzine, John McConnell’s Bodhisattva and the Stuart Crawford pair, Gold Cup Bailly and The Flier Begley.

However, it is the three-pronged battle for the trainer’s title that will dominate the run in to the cross-channel season’s finale at Sandown on Saturday week.

Victory for I Am Maximus in the Aintree National, and the £500,000Stg first prize, took Mullins to a narrow lead over both Dan Skelton and Paul Nicholls with a total prize money haul in Britain to date of £2,874,693 (just over €3.3 million.)

First prize for Saturday’s big race is worth £112,540 (over €131,000) but with every penny counting, the Irishman has left entries in all eight races on Saturday’s lucrative Ayr fixture including four in the Scottish Champion Hurdle.

Mullins has forecast that he will be visiting some unlikely cross-channel outposts over the coming days although Nicholls has predicted the outcome could come down to Sandown next week.

“If you’re still in touch going into Sandown there’s some great prize money there and from my point of view, I’d love to see it dry up. It’s looking a much better weather forecast from Tuesday and we’d love to see it dry up everywhere, Ayr included,” he said on Monday.

Chasing a record-equalling 15th title, Nicholls has Saturday’s topweight Stay Away Fay and two others in the Scottish National mix. He is trailing Mullins by £75,000. His former assistant, Skelton, is under £53,000 behind and has two left in the Ayr feature.

“We won’t give up. Dan’s got plenty to run as well and is thinking the same as me. I said to Dan on Saturday ‘we’re going to have to come up with a plan here’ and he said, ‘the only plan we can have is hope there’s a ferry strike next week’, which is about right!”

“We’ll keep trying, I think Dan is more mortified than I am as he thought he had a great chance and of course Saturday completely put the dampeners on it. But he won’t give up and I won’t give up,” he added.

Nicholls pipped Mullins to the title on the final day in 2016 and if the Irishman is odds-on to emerge on top this time, his old rival is taking encouragement from the past.

“Eight years ago, going into the last two weeks of the season I think we were £180,000 behind Willie and we were 8-1 against to win.

“We had a great time, Sandown was a brilliant day for us, and we won the Scottish National with Vicente, so we need some luck like that again and need to win some big races,” said Nicholls.

Races of any kind will also be valuable in a different championship race as Paul Townend and Jack Kennedy continue their battle for Ireland’s jockeys’ title at Naas on Tuesday.

Kennedy currently leads his rival by 116 winners to 112 and has another numerical advantage at Naas with half a dozen rides compared to Townend’s three.

The latter does include a pair of Mullins hopefuls in maiden hurdles and both Dr Eggman and Icaare Desbois are likely to prove popular in betting markets.

Townend also takes an outside spin on Coillte Aris in a handicap hurdle. He rode the mare here earlier this month and the champion’s presence on her again looks significant.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column