The Cheltenham Festival is just a matter of weeks away, and while there is still time for the key runners to get some much-needed race time under their belts in the lead up to the National Hunt’s most prestigious meeting, one thing already looks certain: Willie Mullins has got the top trainer crown all but sewn up.
Bizarrely, Mullins has never claimed the Champion Trainer trophy in his illustrious career, although it seems the Irishman takes far greater pleasure in winning the big races than sending his charges the length and breadth of the UK on a weekly basis to pick up championship points.
But a good showing at Cheltenham will propel Mullins into the mix given the amount of prize money and prestige on offer, and you only need to look at a selection of the biggest races there to see why the 59-year-old is very much in the hunt.
The opening Tuesday of Cheltenham is Champion Day, and Mullins looks primed with four of his steeds in contention for honours should they run in the races in which they are predicted. The seemingly unstoppable Faugheen will attempt to defend his Champion Hurdle crown and will face competition from another pair of Mullins runners: Arctic Fire, who finished second in this renewal last year, and Nichols Canyon; the only horse to have beaten Faugheen in twelve attempts. Tellingly, it is this trio that head the ante post market.
Then in the Supreme Novices Hurdle it is thought that Min will take his bow, a talented chaser that is in as short as Evens with the bookies at this stage. Mullins’ Yorkhill will also take centre stage in a renewal that the Irish trainer has claimed victory in for the last three consecutive years: Champagne Fever, Vautour and Douvan doing the business. Competition will come from Nicky Henderson in the form of his charges Altior and Buveur D’Air.
It is Douvan that will spearhead the Mullins yard’s assault on the Arkle Trophy, and the unbeaten six-year-old has already been installed as the 1/2 favourite. That’s no surprise given that he is rated by owner Rich Ricci as the best horse he has ever worked with, and with a decent pedigree at Cheltenham that includes that Supreme Novices Hurdle triumph it would take a brave punter to bet against Douvan achieving double delight.
The fourth of Mullins’ big hopes for Champion Day is Annie Power, who is amongst the 45 early entries for the Mares Hurdle. She will be looking for redemption in this renewal, of course, after falling at the last when clear last year, and with 12 victories from 14 starts she will take some stopping. The impressive Vroum Vroum Mag, Morning Run and former Grade One winner Petite Parisienne are also contenders that Mullins is contemplating entering.
The standout race of Ladies Day is notoriously the Queen Mother Champion Chase, and this is shaping up to be a classic in the making with Mullins’ entry Un De Sceaux set to renew battle with his old foes Sprinter Sacre and Dodging Battles.
It is the latter who is the reigning champion, but with Un De Sceaux in place as an odds-on favourite in the ante-post shake-up there is no doubt in bookies’ mind who will be heading into the winners enclosure come about 3:45pm on March 16.
He is unbeaten in 14 starts and was hugely impressive in the Clarence House Chase recently, which he won with gas in the tank to spare to outstrip another fancied filly Sire De Grugy.
St Patrick’s Thursday
The headline act of Thursday’s action is the World Hurdle, and this looks set to be one of the most competitive bumpers among the elite races throughout the week. The eye-catching Vroum Vroum Mag looks set to lead the Mullins charge, although he could yet be switched to the Ryanair Chase earlier in the day.
Thistlecrack is the early favourite for Colin Tizzard’s yard and has looked very fast in his last two outings; one of which included victory over Cole Harden, who was the winner of the 2015 World Hurdle and is in the field once again this time around.
Gold Cup Day
Vroum Vroum Mag may yet compete with another Mullins favourite, Vautour, in the Ryanair Chase. We shall have to await the confirmed fields for more information on that, although the latter is expected to line up in the Gold Cup on Festival Friday.
Arguably the standout fixture at the meeting, the Gold Cup may well see a quartet of outstanding contenders – Vautour, Djakadam and the two Dons (Poli and Cossack) – battle it out for the big prize.
Mullins boasts three of that four (Vautour, Djakadam and Don Poli), and so stands an exceptional chance of taking home Cheltenham’s most lucrative prize. In truth, there seems to be little standing in his way with regards to dominating the festival from start to finish.