Mullins holding key to crack World Hurdle renewal

Mullins holding key to crack World Hurdle renewal

Having broken the record for the most Cheltenham Festival winners in a single year at 2015’s meeting, Willie Mullins is gearing up for another dominant performance in 2016.

The Irish supremo has a stacked team of talent waiting to descend upon Cleeve Hill come Tuesday 15th March and it is no surprise to find a Mullins-trained runner topping the market in more than ten of the festival's 28 races.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Champion Hurdle remains the only one of the four Championship races at the festival that Mullins has laid claim to. This year, Un De Sceaux will bid for Queen Mother Champion Chase glory while the likes of Djakadam will carry hopes in the Gold Cup.

The staying hurdles division remains intriguingly wide open and how Mullins chooses to play his cards ought to shape the World Hurdle.

Annie Power had to settle for second best when she ran in the race in 2014 and, after her final flight misfortune in last season's OLGB Mares' Hurdle, she will surely go back in search of compensation in that race.

With her owner, Rich Ricci, also counting Vroum Vroum Mag amongst his battalion of jumps stars, it could be that she is the primary Mullins threat in the World Hurdle.

Vroum Vroum Mag is something of a curious case.

After arriving at Mullins' base in Closutton, she spent last season jumping fences and started this campaign in winning fashion at Clonmel over the larger obstacles.

Mullins then threw in a curve ball as he reverted to hurdles for an effortless win at Clonmel just before Christmas. The most significant run of her eight-race winning sequence since joining Mullins arguably came at Ascot in the Mares' Hurdle over 2m7f. The ease with which Vroum Vroum Mag travelled and finished out the race in testing conditions suggested three miles would be well within her compass. Second guessing Mullins is often a fruitless task but with Annie Power on course to have her first run of the season at Cheltenham, the Mares' Hurdle is her logical target. With the non-runner no bet concessions now in place, Vroum Vroum Mag will be appealing to plenty in the World Hurdle market.

Should she appear in that race, she could prove to be the biggest threat to Colin Tizzard's Thistlecrack, who is this season's brightest star in the staying hurdles division. Big-race success at Newbury and Ascot prior to Christmas have made Thistlecrack the number one contender for the crown won by Cole Harden last March.

Given what we witnessed from Vroum Vroum Mag at Ascot, a clash between the pair would lend the World Hurdle plenty of spice, with the pair giving the impression they should present a decent bar for the others to aim at. Warren Greatrex's Cole Harden has not been able to scale the heights of last season as yet, but spring ground should help his case.

Paul Nicholls has earmarked the World Hurdle for last season's Coral Cup winner, Aux Ptits Soins, but he has yet to appear this season.

If Thistlecrack and Vroum Vroum Mag get to the starting tapes on Thursday 17th March, their clash will give the World Hurdle the billing it deserves.

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Cheltenham Countdown

The countdown to the 2016 Cheltenham Festival is on and we’ll be posting big-race previews every week as we build up to the biggest four days in the National Hunt calendar.

Ante-post markets for the Cheltenham Festival are dominated by Willie Mullins-trained runners and the first of the four-day bonanza looks set to be dominated by the Closutton handler, who saddles no less than four red-hot favourites.

Min, Douvan, Faugheen and Annie Power (or Vroum Vroum Mag) could all have the bookies running for cover and the Mullins’ machine can inflict further damage on the layers when Un De Sceaux lines up for the Queen Mother Champion Chase the following day.

Mullins looks likely to launch a three-pronged attack on Friday’s Gold Cup with Djakadam, Don Poli and Vautour all major players for the showpiece event.