Irish racing expert Andy Holding has analysed Willie Mullins' formidable Cheltenham Festival team.
Having enjoyed a record-breaking Cheltenham Festival last year with eight winners and the monopolies commission threatening to intervene, we take a look at the powerhouse that is Willie Mullins and some of the likely targets for his stars at this seasons four-day jamboree.
SUPREME NOVICES’ HURDLE
MIN – Looks like being the main stable representative at this stage based on the ante-post market, although will need to do more on his next assignment in the Moscow Flyer Hurdle to justify such skinny odds than he did by landing a modest Punchestown maiden hurdle in a slow time.
YORKHILL – Showed plenty of speed to land the Tolworth at Sandown last time, but the fact that he was equally impressive over 2m 4f the time before gives his trainer a slight dilemma with regards to his best trip. One more run before the festival – likely to be in the Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown – will shed further light.
DOUVAN – Last season’s champion novice hurdler has made a seamless switch to fences and he already looks untouchable in this discipline based on his two victories so far to date. Clocked an amazing time for a novice when beating three smart rivals at Leopardstown over Christmas and given that he’s likely to scare most of the opposition off, odds of 8/11 look generous even with two months to go.
FAUGHEEN – Although surprisingly lost his unbeaten record to stable mate Nichols Canyon in the Morgiana on his seasonal return, last year’s Champion still remains a warm order to retain his crown and still looks the one to beat based on his scintillating display when back on track in the Christmas Hurdle.
NICHOLS CANYON – Seemed to beat Faugheen on merit in the Morgiana and shown plenty of grit and determination when overcoming a persistent challenge from Identity Thief last time out. A run in the Irish Champion should set this game, little warrior up for a re-match with his stable mate.
ARCTIC FIRE – Despite blowing out when experimenting with 3m last time, connections insist that he will still be heading down the 2m route and bid to try and go one place better than last year.
ANNIE POWER – Almost certain to come here in a bid to atone for the last-flight fall in last year’s renewal.
VROUM VROUM MAG – Totally dominant in most mares’ chase races on home soil and unlikely to run here if Annie Power (same ownership) turns up in one piece.
MORNING RUN – Very smart mare but ran as though not quite seeing out the trip at Leopardstown recently, so there has to be a slight question mark over her participation.
PONT ALEXANDRE – As Willie Mullins tends to run his potential Gold Cup prospects for next season in the RSA, it would be a surprise if this classy individual lines up here.
BLACK HERCULES – Jumped immaculately when easily accounting for stable mate Sambremont at Navan on chase debut, but would seem more of a RSA-type based on his overall profile at this stage.
SAMBREMONT – Although well beaten by Black Hercules on chase debut, 2m 4f that day would have been well short of his best and shapes like the type that will be well suited by extreme distances. Will get an entry in this race.
KILLULTAGH VIC – Last year’s Martin Pipe Hurdle hero made a bright start to his chase career with a smooth victory at Fairyhouse – jumping well and posting a smart speed figure. Showed the pace to win over 2m that day and accounted for Thistlecrack over 3m last season, so unlikely to down this route with the more likely target being the RSA.
ROI DES FRANCS – Well backed to win last season’s Martin Pipe Hurdle but found himself short of speed over the 2m 5f trip and looks more of a stayer based on his two runs so far over fences. Represents connections that like to have runners in this event and looks a likely type for this sort of test at this stage.
NEPTUNE NOVICES' HURDLE
BELLSHILL – Not short of pace - as his run in last season’s Aintree bumper proves - but has been impressive on both his two starts over hurdles so far this term and looks the yard’s chief 2m 4f novice on all known form.
YORKHILL – Runs in same ownership as Bellshill so it’s unlikely the pair will clash here.
LONG DOG – Well placed to win two Grade 1’s, but whether he’s in the same class as Bellshill is open to debate and the ground will be the determining factor which race connections decide, if at all.
THOMAS HOBSON – Clocked a smart time when making all the running at Punchestown on latest start (ran last circuit 2.8 seconds faster than Min on same card), but whether he jumps well enough to win a Grade 1 event is open to question and yard haven’t really talked him up much as a Cheltenham horse either.
PONT ALEXANDRE – Looked good when making a winning comeback after two years off the track at Punchestown recently and this former Grade 1 winner over hurdles is likely to end up the stable’s number one choice for this contest with a trouble-free passage to the festival.
QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE
UN DE SCEAUX – Remains on target for this prize despite an untimely blip at Leopardstown on his seasonal reappearance but bookmakers will be fully aware he’s now tipped up twice in six starts over fences and he’s one the old enemy will want and try and get.
16/1 the field and with nothing that has given us the ‘wow’ factor as of yet, the master trainer will no doubt be unleashing some of his more likely types in the next month or so.
JLT NOVES' CHASE
Fresh off unleashing Vautour to scintillating effect in last season’s renewal, all eyes will be focusing on SHANESHILL delivering the goods for the Co Carlow handler, particularly as this race is now a Grade 1 affair. Although likely to get multiple entries, this seems the logical port of call for the son of King’s Theatre and other than showing a tendency to dive at one or two of his fences, he has similar qualities to his brilliant stable companion.
Despite Mullins being unequivocal in his recent Racing Post column that VAUTOUR still remains on target for the Gold Cup, if there were a vox pop involving most racing judges, the large majority would suggest this was the ideal race for last season’s brilliant JLT hero. Although he seemed to stay the 3m well enough in the King George, there has to be a slight doubt over his ability to see out the extra two furlongs over a stiff track and it will probably all boil down to what the ground is riding like during the Festival before connections make their final decision.
MARES NOVICES' HURDLE
MYSKA – This race was nominated as a likely target after winning on these shores at Taunton last time and this scopey mare is a must for the shortlist.
LIMINI – Hasn’t run since making a winning Irish debut back in May last year and doesn’t have any imminent entries so hard to know what the plans are with this potentially useful mare.
LISTEN DEAR – Wildly impressive when spread-eagling her field in a monster time figure at Down Royal back in November and would be an interesting contender should she be given the green light (same ownership as Myska)
APPLE’S JADE – Yet to be confirmed as a definite Triumph runner, but clocked a smart time when landing a Grade 2 on her Irish debut and we will probably know more after another run in a respected trial.
LET’S DANCE – Was backed as if defeat was out of the question to make a winning Irish debut but bumped into a fair tool in the shape of Ivanovich Gorbatov – who is now a clear favourite for the Triumph. Entered in the Grade 1 at Chepstow this weekend and his performance there is likely to shed more light.
ALBERT BARTLETT NOVICES' HURDLE
UP FOR REVIEW has improved out of all recognition since stepping up in trip and rubber-stamped his name down as a likely candidate for this gruelling affair with big win on the numbers at Punchestown last time out.
DJAKADAM – All roads lead back to the Blue Riband for last year’s runner-up following his win in the John Durkan, with the Irish Hennessy the most likely prep-race on route.
DON POLI – Isn’t as easy on the eye as stablemates Vautour and Djakadam but is tough as an old boot and stay all day, so should be tailor-made for the demands of this race.
VAUTOUR – Despite all the right noises coming from the yard that this will be his race, given how well he scored over the Ryanair trip at last year’s festival, it’s a case of keeping all ante-post bets ‘with a run’ with this fella until a definitive decision is made nearer the time.