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Tony Mullins on Kilcruit and a Princess Zoe Update

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Kilcruit’s chance in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper is obvious now of course, but he was a 50-1 chance in the autumn, even though his former trainer Tony Mullins had told At The Races viewers what a prospect he was before he had ever raced.

Mullins, who was speaking at a preview night for Cheltenham 2020, left nobody in doubt about the regard in which he held Kilcruit, and while he was beaten at Clonmel a few weeks later he has more than lived up to the hype since he was sold to join older brother Willie.

Indeed you would be hard pressed to nominate a more impressive Cheltenham trial all season than that put up at Leopardstown last month by the six-year-old, who heads a confirmed entry of 18 for a Weatherbys Champion Bumper in which Mullins will be bidding for a remarkable eleventh success, with a team bolstered further this week by the arrival of the Cheveley Park Stud-owned second favourite Sir Gerhard.

Incredibly, in a team of fewer than 20 riding out at this time last year, Tony Mullins had both Kilcruit, who was home-bred by his mother Maureen, as well as future Group 1 winner Princess Zoe, recently arrived from Germany with a mark of just 64.

He was in no doubt then that Kilcruit was special, but even he was taken aback by the ease of last month’s Grade 2 win at Leopardstown win - a victory achieved with such apparent nonchalance that it left him drawing comparisons with two of Ireland’s greats - Golden Cygnet, who was such an effortless winner of the 1978 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle before taking a fatal fall at Ayr after taking the measure of Sea Pigeon and Night Nurse, and Montelado, an impressive winner of both the Champion Bumper and the Supreme Novices’ in the early 1990s.

Mullins said: “He’s looked dynamic in those two bumpers for Willie. The pace they went at Leopardstown might have played into his hands and Patrick gave him a beautiful ride, but it looked like Golden Cygnet stuff.

“I don’t know yet if he’s a Golden Cygnet or a Montelado, and he still has to prove that he’s the best of an era, but he’s a top-class horse and the best around.”

Mullins got to run Kilcruit just the once before he was sold, and his confidence in the horse was undimmed by defeat.

He recalled: “I knew he was a top-class horse from the first time I worked him. He was quite immature last year but I knew that within a year he’d be top-class.

“I maybe shouldn't have gone to Clonmel with him first time out, but with all that was going on it was the only place to go and it was actually the last race before lockdown. There’s nothing wrong with Conmel, but on the day it didn’t suit a young horse who had been doing everything so classily.”

Kilcruit might have gone anywhere when he was sold afterwards, but Mullins is delighted he has stayed in the family, now carrying the same Masterson colours as Supreme Novices’ favourite Appreciate It, who was second in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper 12 months ago.

He said: “He was bred and owned by my mother, who I would say also owned the mother, the grandmother and the great grandmother too, and he’s named after a small town very near to where we were all brought up.

“Willie had an interest in him because of that, and after I nominated him as a top-class horse he came to me and bought him because that’s what we do - we sell. But he was there for anybody to buy, and it was no secret how good he was because I’d said on television that he was top-class.”

Having nurtured Kilcruit through his early career Mullins might have harboured a touch of jealousy at seeing his sibling enjoying the fruits of his work, but he has been delighted by what his brother has achieved already and he believes there is much more to come.

In any case, softening the loss he still has Princess Zoe, who took him on such an extraordinary journey after Kilcruit had left, with wins at The Curragh and at Galway (three, including two at the Festival) on the way to that glorious Group 1 win in the Prix Du Cadran on Arc weekend.

That success, where she was handled with remarkable confidence by apprentice Joey Sheridan, was for some the highlight of the entire racing year, but it left Mullins wishing he had been even bolder and determined to aim his horse of a lifetime at the Arc itself this year.

He said: “I have no doubt she’d have won the Arc last year. She was improving so fast, but it would have been crazy to have gone straight from a Listed race at Galway to the Prix de l’Arc and so I didn’t enter her. To think that a 64-rated filly might win an Arc just 15 or 16 weeks later was ludicrous, but I’m telling you now - and I’m not just blowing smoke - I’m sick I didn’t enter her.

“Everyone has her down as a two-and-a-half mile mare, but she’s a mile-and-a-half mare and we’ll prove it this year. I think she can do the same over shorter distances as she did in the Cadran and then I can prove she’s not just a slogger trained by a National Hunt trainer. She’s a bloody classy mare.”

A trip to Riyadh last month was contemplated, and at one time there had been talk of Princess Zoe going hurdling, but the Saudi expedition was shelved owing to ground concerns and hurdling is unlikely now that she is a Group 1 winner, even though the owners are massive National Hunt fans.

So for now the aim is very much for the top middle-distance races, and Mullins has already mapped out a plan for the mare, who is a terrific advertisement for the Irish St Leger winner Jukebox Jury, now back in Ireland at the Burgage Stud after six years at stud in Germany, where he had also been a Group 1 winner.

He said: “We are looking at starting her off in the Alleged Stakes at The Curragh in April, which is only a mile and a quarter. I can’t be sure that’s a winnable distance for her, but it will give us an idea of where we should go next. I’d love to win there, but it might be a little bit too tight for her and I don’t mind if she gets beat there.

“We are also looking at a mile-and-six race at Navan, but if it came up firm there I’d have nowhere else to run her and it would be straight into Royal Ascot, where we are still dancing between the Hardwicke Stakes and the Gold Cup, in case I’m wrong and she’s not sharp enough for middle distances.”

The main target though is back at Longchamp in the first weekend of October, and Princess Zoe won’t be there looking to repeat last year’s Cadran success.

“She won a Group 1 over the longer distance but that’s not her trip and we just have to prove it now to those who think she’s just a plodder,” Mullins said. “If the cards fall right I believe she has a chance of winning the Arc.”