Although there have naturally been a few hiccups along the way, champion Irish jumps trainer Willie Mullins still has an immensely strong team assembled ahead of his latest assault on the Cheltenham Festival.
A glance at the ante-post markets for the major races spread over the four-day jumps racing extravaganza that begins on March 10 reveals that Mullins has favourite or fancied runners for nearly every event. The notable exception is the Cheltenham Gold Cup, for which his highest-placed representative in the current betting is 16/1 shot Boston Bob.
Elsewhere, though, Mullins is dominant. The opening event of the meeting, the Grade 1 Supreme Novices Hurdle, sees the yard’s Douvan vying for favouritism with Nicky Henderson’s exciting L’Ami Serge at odds of 5/1. Douvan, winner of a hurdle last June for previous connections in France, gained rave reviews when hacking up on debut for his new owner Mrs Susannah Ricci. That win suggested that Douvan could be yet another top talent to have arrived at Mullins’ County Carlow yard.
If things go according to the betting, Mullins may well have landed both opening races of the 2015 Cheltenham Festival as his very smart Un De Sceaux dominates the market for the second race on day one, the Grade 1 Arkle Trophy. Unbeaten in seven starts over hurdles for his handler since joining the yard in March 2013, Un de Sceaux was around 15 lengths clear and cantering at the third last on his chasing bow at Thurles in November when crashing out of the race under Ruby Walsh.
He soon made amends, though, generally jumping well and once again making all in his customary fashion to land his first win over the larger obstacles at Fairyhouse in December. He is currently one of the shortest priced ante-post favourites of the whole festival meeting, being no bigger than 5/2 (3.35 on Betfair) to land the Arkle Trophy.
The Champion Hurdle is, of course, the big highlight on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival. Mullins sent out his great old warrior Hurricane Fly to land the race in 2011 and 2013, and the 11-year-old may well give it another whirl back at the scene of his greatest racecourse successes. Great horse though he is, Hurricane Fly now sits in second place in the pecking order behind the younger Faugheen in Ascot’s Grade 2 Coral Hurdle, and in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton where he easily accounted for the very useful Purple Bay by eight lengths.
Bookmakers are taking no chances with Faugheen, who they perceive to be one of the main Irish bankers of the meeting, and he is currently a top-priced 5/4 favourite – ahead of top British hope the New One (5/2) – to land a third Champion Hurdle in the last five years for the Mullins yard.
As if that wasn’t enough for the opening day, Mullins is also poised to maintain his stranglehold on the Grade 1 OLBG Mares’ Hurdle that he won for the previous six seasons with supermare Quevega, who retired after Punchestown last season. Annie Power is the mare who looks set to carry the torch for the yard in this race, and having found only More of That too good for her when runner-up in the World Hurdle at last year’s fixture – the only defeat of her career thus far – she has obvious credentials.
Most observers believe that Annie Power (6/4) is going to take plenty of beating in the Mares’ Hurdle and could potentially be a fourth winner of the opening day for the Mullins team. That would be almost unprecedented at this very highest level of the sport. And that’s without taking into consideration any of his candidates for the two handicap chases on the card.
Douvan, who heads the market for the Supreme Novices Hurdle the day before, is also amongst the market principals for the opening race on the second day of the meeting, the Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle, alongside his stable companion Shaneshill. But most pundits expect that it will be Shaneshill who will run in the Wednesday event and Douvan will indeed run the day before.
Shaneshill, runner-up to Silver Concorde in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham last season, went on to land the Punchestown version and gain his revenge on his old rival. He made a winning hurdles debut at Fairyhouse in November before suffering a shock defeat when runner-up to No More Heroes in the Grade 2 Navan Novices Hurdle. However, he still heads the Cheltenham ante-post list at a top price of 10/1 for what is one of the more open contests (on paper) of the meeting.
The Mullins yard has such amazing strength in depth in the bumper division that the prospects of the yard landing the Champion Bumper – the final race on the second day of the Festival – appear very bright indeed. At present, amongst a host of previous winners for the stable, Up For Review (10/1) is the shortest priced representative and is currently ante-post favourite for the two-mile contest.
A winning point-to-pointer, Up For Review runs in the colours of Andrea and Graham Wylie and could hardly have been any more impressive when winning what had appeared a very competitive Leopardstown bumper at the showcase Christmas meeting.
Vautour, winner of last season’s Supreme Novices Hurdle, will bid to get day three of the Cheltenham Festival off to a flying start for the Mullins team when he tackles the two-and-a-half mile Grade 1 JLT Novices Chase. He beat Clarcam by eight lengths on his novice chasing bow at Navan in November, but then suffered a reverse when comprehensively outpointed by Gordon Elliott’s charge in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown on Boxing Day.
That defeat shattered the air of invincibility around Vautour and has resulted in bookmakers tempting in punters – offering 9/2 (from 11/4) about him landing the ‘JLT’, the same price as Paul Nicholls’ exciting prospect Ptit Zig. Mullins, though, also has the option of running the talented Valseur Lido (6/1), winner of the Grade 1 Drinmore Novices Chase in November, and could very possibly be double-handed in his assault on the race.
Champagne Fever, beaten in a photo-finish to last term’s Arkle Trophy, is a likely runner for the yard in the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase on day three, having apparently had his stamina limitations exposed when running out of gas in the home straight at Kempton on Boxing Day. However, the grey had travelled tremendously well for much of that contest so the ‘Ryanair’ trip looks ideal. At odds of up to 10/1, he could be amongst the best value Mullins runners of the big meeting.
Although she is expected to run in the Mares’Hurdle, Annie Power, last year’s World Hurdle runner-up, remains prominent in the betting for this year’s renewal at odds of up to 12/1. Should anything happen to the expected favourite More of That in the run up to the big race, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Mullins might reroute the talented seven-year-old to the race that in 2014 saw her taste the only defeat of her life.
Kalkir (12/1) could be the main hope for the Mullins yard in the JCB Triumph Hurdle, the first race on the final day of the fixture. Meanwhile, Black Hercules, a smart bumper horse of the last term, looks the likely stable representative in the three-mile Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle. Last season the stable’s On His Own lost out in the Cheltenham Gold Cup by just a nose to Lord Windermere. The gelding bounced back to form when finding only Road to Riches too good for him in the Grade 1 Lexus Chase at Leopardstown at Christmas.
Connections will be hopeful that the current 20/1 shot might go one better this time – the yard may also run Boston Bob (16/1) – and round off what promises to be an amazing meeting for Mullins and his team.