Massed ranks of Willie Mullins’s title-chasing team set for Scottish National invasion

Top Irish handler closing in on Dermot Weld’s record tally and becoming Ireland’s winning-most trainer

It’s 700 years since a Scots army left Ayr to invade Ireland and the west of Scotland town might get a taste of its own medicine when Willie Mullins leads his championship-chasing squad into the fray there on Saturday.

The spoils of Mullins’s three-pronged war with Paul Nicholls and Dan Skelton for the British trainers’ title won’t ultimately be decided until the British season ends at Sandown next weekend.

But whoever gets the £112,540 (€131,000) first prize for winning the Scottish Grand National will fancy they’re in pole position.

If Mullins is odds-on to be the first Irish based trainer in 70 years to be crowned champion in Britain, he did concede the lead to Skelton on Friday. The latter scored an Ayr hat-trick to put himself almost five grand in front.


That the last Irish-based Scottish National winner was Huntsman all of 155 years ago underlines how Scotland’s biggest race rarely features on the Irish radar. Even when Mullins was in a similar title-chasing position in 2016, he sent only a handful of runners to Ayr.

That very definitely isn’t the case this time with six contenders for the big race and a dozen others massed among the other races on the card.

Nicholls, chasing a record-equalling 15th British title, and who edged out Mullins on the final day eight years ago, is also represented in every race. Skelton isn’t, but with every penny counting the championship’s whippersnapper has three runners at lowly Bangor on Saturday.

All of it makes for an intriguing conclusion to the cross-channel campaign and Mullins, with an 18th domestic title long since in the bag and conducting a mini-Bruce campaign of his own, has described Saturday’s Ayr action as pivotal.

No National Hunt action at home means all hands are on deck with champion jockey Paul Townend riding in seven races and joined by cousins Patrick and Danny Mullins, as well as Brian Hayes, Seán O’Keeffe, and Kieran Callaghan in the big race.

Other Irish interest is with Henry de Bromhead’s Whacker Clan, while Stuart Crawford’s Gold Cup Bailly makes the short trip across the North Channel from Antrim.

Townend caught many on the hop by opting for Spanish Harlem as he tries to add Scotland’s National to last week’s Aintree original aboard I Am Maximus. It leaves Danny Mullins on MacDermott, the clear ante-post favourite earlier this week.

Patrick Mullins teams up with his “project” horse Mr Incredible, who did half a circuit of Aintree last week before losing his rider at The Chair.

Nicholls is a triple-Scottish National winner and Vicente’s success was crucial to his eventual championship defeat of Mullins in 2016. He has topweight Stay Away Fay and Broken Halo this time, while Skelton’s sole hope is Ballygrifincottage.

The Mullins bottom-weight, We’llhavewan, has already had a National tilt of his own this month, only for his jumping to fall apart at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday. Considering that, he wound up running with some credit. Although 5lbs “wrong” at the weights, that is negated by Kieran Callaghan’s claim and a more fluent round of jumping could make him dangerous.

What spells real danger for Nicholls and Skelton is their Irish rival’s obvious intent on emulating Vincent O’Brien in 1954.

In advance of El Fabiolo leading his Sandown team next weekend, Mullins has made half a dozen entries for a run-of-the-mill Ffos Las fixture on Monday, as well as 17 entries on Wednesday spread around the outposts of Ludlow, Perth and Uttoxeter.

If Skelton shapes as having the probable favourite for Saturday’s Scottish Champion Hurdle — a six-figure prize — then C’est Ta Chance and Quai De Bourbon are among the Mullins team in other races that look to give him leading chances.

On the home front, there are just two Closutton runners at Sunday’s Tramore fixture but as well as the British trainers’ championship, each winner counts towards another fast-approaching landmark for the record-breaking trainer.

He is rapidly chasing down Dermot Weld as the winning-most Irish trainer of all time. Weld’s global tally to date of 4,374 was only 15 ahead of Mullins before Friday evening’s action.

Weld will be in action on his doorstep on Saturday as the Curragh has weekend action that includes Sunday’s Newbridge Parishes Community Day.

Having been rained off earlier this month, the Group Three Alleged Stakes highlights Saturday’s action where last year’s Derby third White Birch makes his return to action. Testing ground won’t be a problem for him, but the progressive Maxux might be.

Ryan Moore is on the French Group Three winner Greenland in the feature and will also team up with Chemistry in the following maiden. The son of Kingman was third on his sole start to date at HQ last year.

His opposition includes the Jessica Harrington newcomer Maharajjah, who races in the colours of former trainer Homer Scott.

Sunday’s programme features the historic Lester Piggott Gladness Stakes which has lost its Group Three after failing to meet ratings criteria for the last three years.

The race which in the past teed up legendary Classic careers for the likes of Nijinsky and El Gran Senor has largely become about older horses, although Henry Adams is the sole three-year-old contending this time.

The Ballydoyle colt hated the dirt in the UAE Derby but it will be a very different surface here. Jumbly has won on soft ground in the past and could put her greater experience to good use.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

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