Mullins v Nicolle as Klassical Dream faces off against local heroine L'Autonomie

Saturday: 4.00 Auteuil
Grande Course de Haies d'Auteuil (Grade 1) | 5yo+ | 3m1½f | Sky

Covid restrictions have prevented Willie Mullins from targeting this meeting for the last two years, but Klassical Dream arrives at Auteuil for the race known as the French Champion Hurdle with a higher rating than any of the trainer's five previous winners.

Largely in the absence of top-flight opposition from abroad, L'Autonomie has compiled an extraordinary record at the top of the French hurdling tree, with 15 Graded successes from 22 attempts, while rising young stars Hermes Baie and Theleme add extra depth to the home defence.

What makes the race even more intriguing is how many of the principals race prominently, with Mullins admitting that if Klassical Dream is in the mood to get on with things, Paul Townend can only hope to channel that aggression rather than curb it, as when taking the Grade 1 at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting by the scruff of the neck.

That said, he looked a lot more tractable when landing a second Ladbrokes Stayers' Hurdle at Punchestown last month.

"He is, I imagine, the best of ours and he's a very, very good horse if things go right for him on the day," said Mullins. "But he is a very difficult ride.

"He was probably too far out of it [when fifth] at Cheltenham. Sometimes he sets the tone and the jockey doesn't have much say in how things happen after that."

Rule Supreme became Mullins' second winner of the Grande Course in 2004 (Nobody Told Me was the first in 2003) when switching codes from chasing and both Kemboy – the mount of Rachael Blackmore and another potential pace angle in the race – and Tornado Flyer attempt to do the same.

"I felt Kemboy might not be the right horse to go to the Grand Steeple with and he'll like the trip better in the Champion Hurdle," said Mullins. "He'll like the obstacles as well and he's a very forward-going horse. He probably likes goodish ground so it will depend whether you get downpours."

Of Tornado Flyer, he added: "He won the King George and has been a little disappointing since. We felt this trip would suit him and I'm not worried about the ground for him.

"Danny Mullins gets on very well with him. He has the ability if he fires on the day but sometimes his spring form isn't as good as his early form in the winter."

L'Autonomie suffered defeat at the hands of her younger stablemate Hermes Baie in the Prix Leon Rambaud over half a mile shy of this trip in April.

Trainer Francois Nicolle said: "We were disappointed with L'Autonomie but she scoped very dirty afterwards. All her tests are good now and she has worked normally so I expect to see the real L'Autonomie here."

The imposing Hermes Baie put two indifferent performances behind him last time under a more positive ride from Bertrand Lestrade. 

"He has worked very well and it will be very interesting to see if he is as good as I think he is," said Nicolle. "He has enormous potential but he can become disinterested and it remains to be seen if he is really better than L'Autonomie, who will have no excuses."

L'Autonomie according to the man who knows her best, Angelo Zuliani

L'Autonomie undoubtedly possesses the greatest raw talent in the field and for the majority of her career has been head and shoulders above her domestic opposition.

That is not to say she is in any way a push-button ride; her natural exuberance can be a challenge and she can jump out to her right when denied the security of the outer rail.

21-year-old Angelo Zuliani was a virtual unknown when he struck up the partnership with L'Autonomie and their careers have taken off in tandem.

"The first time I rode her I was 18 years old and I have been incredibly lucky to get on a horse like her so young," says Zuliani, whose younger brother Lucas is also attached to the Nicolle yard.

"I don't underestimate the opposition but there is more chance that she beats herself than she is beaten by one of the others. I don't think the distance makes any difference to her. If she is in the zone she could win over 3,600 metres or 6,000 metres. She just needs to be in her own bubble but paying attention to what I ask of her."

Zuliani's carefully framed answers reveal that the now seven-year-old is a much calmer horse to deal with than two years ago, while her victory in the Grande Course 12 months ago was further evidence of her progress.

"She has an enormous engine and is just very, very good. She also has the mind of a champion.

"There has been a lot of work in the mornings getting her to understand what was required. She had all the attributes physically but for a while it was quite delicate channelling that talent."

Zuliani added: "Gradually we have got her to understand and while she will never be a perfect, easy ride, it’s not nearly as big a problem as before."