After winning the last two champion trainer titles at the Cheltenham festival, Willie Mullins is readying his troops for another assault on the Cotswolds with a hat-trick of titles looking a certainty.
Day one of the festival looks set to be a Mullins showcase as there is a possibility he will saddle five favourites for the seven races. The opening race, the Supreme Novices Hurdle features the exciting Douvan, who Mullins proclaimed is ” as nice a horse as we ever had going to Cheltenham. He is a fair machine”. The five year old is unbeaten in two starts and had his form franked by Sizing John, who went on to win a Grade 1 after being brushed aside by Douvan.
Many punter’s banker of the meeting is Un De Sceaux in the Arkle which looks to be a formality barring a fall and could provide Mullins and Ruby Walsh with their second winner in as many races.
Wins for Douvan and Un De Sceaux would see the on course bookmakers send Muliins’ stable star Faugheen off a very strong favourite for the highlight of the first day of the festival, the Champion Hurdle. The ante-post favourite is already even money for the two mile feature after keeping his unbeaten record intact with a facile victory in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton last time out. His winning course form from last year’s Neptune Novices Hurdle and big reputation will see the bookmakers inundated with bets by off time. The twenty two time Grade 1 winner Hurricane Fly will also line up for the Closutton handler but remarkably is his second string in a race of this nature.
Annie Power is set to return from injury to take her place in the Mares Hurdle and would enhance Mullins’ unprecedented record in the race with six wins courtesy of Quevega. After finishing second in the World Hurdle last year, Annie Power will now face a lesser opposition with only Aurore d’Estruval her real danger.
There are lingering doubts over whether the promising Don Poli will line up in the four mile chase on day one with Mullins understood to be leaning towards the race but his owners(Gigginstown House Stud) looking at the RSA Chase. The six year old beat subsuquent Grade One winner Apache Stronghold at Leopardstown and retained jockey Bryan Cooper remains confident he will continue his good course record after winning the Conditional Jockeys Hurdle in 2014.
Aside from day one, Mullins looks to have some good chances in the novice hurdles through Black Hercules and Nichols Canyon who look set to contest the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle and the Neptune Novices Hurdle respectively. The latter lowered the colours of his well hyped stablemate Alvisio Ville in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle last time out in taking fashion and looks to have a good chance going from the front at Cheltenham.
Champagne Fever will represent Mullins and Rich Ricci in the now wide open Champion Chase and the admirable grey will have a great chance to defeat Sprinter Sacre and the reigning champion Sire De Grugy in a race that could be one of the best races to watch at the festival. The Ryanair Chase lacks real depth and it is likely the Irish Champion trainer will send the perennially disappointing Ballycasey to take his chance over a trip that will better suit him.
The JLT Novices Chase is filled with potential and none more so than Vautour, who gave Mullins the opening winner of the festival last year and after a disappointing run behind Gordon Elliott’s Clarcam at Christmas, he bounced back to form by thrashing Real Steel at Leopardstown.
As per usual, Mullins holds the key to the Champion Bumper with five of the first ten in the betting hailing from the Closutton yard. Bordini has been well punted in the ante post markets for this race and Au Quart de Tour has become the talking horse for this race but one thing is for sure, this writer will be very disappointed if the Bumper is not won by Willie Mullins.
While all the analysts and pundits are searching for the outstanding value and longshots, it makes more sense to look towards the top of the market where Willie Mullins has a live chance to dominate the “Greatest show on turf”.