It is now a matter of hours until the 2016 Cheltenham Festival takes place next Tuesday. On opening day last year, the bookmakers were running for cover as Irish super-trainer, Willie Mullins swept all before him with a quadruple of winners – and ended the four-day meeting with eight successes, surpassing Nicky Henderson’s tally of seven, back in 2012.
A similar feat looks likely next week, with the County Carlow handler possessing short-priced favourites in four of the opening five races on Tuesday. Such is the strength of the Mullins’ team that several odds layers are not even prepared to open a book on the Cheltenham Top Trainer market – and those that have, are offering very prohibitive prices.
Mullins can count on some of the game’s most wealthy owners to bolster his training ranks, so another festival domination looks inevitable – but how many winners could he potentially get? Here we will look at his army of horses in greater detail.
Despite the untimely injuries to reigning champ, Faugheen and Arctic Fire, Willie Mullins still holds a very strong hand in the Champion Hurdle with Nichols Canyon and the likely supplement of ante-post favourite, Annie Power. The latter had a recent outing to confirm her fitness last month, and looks to be a solid replacement for owner, Rich Ricci to replace the current holder of the hurdling crown.
Un De Sceaux surely holds all the aces in the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Ladies’ Day as the rapid eight year-old looks to add to his Arkle win from last year. A winner of every completed start under rules, Un De Sceaux’s real dangers surely come from what lies ahead as opposed to his rivals behind.
Barring a change of heart, the World Hurdle is unlikely to offer any threat from the Mullins’ yard, but Annie Power, Nichols Canyon and Vroum Vroum Mag all hold entries in case of unexpected withdrawals or going changes.
With a potential string of up to eight runners for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Willie Mullins looks to have his strongest hand yet in his quest to claim the sport’s blue riband staying chase event. Stable jockey, Ruby Walsh will have the headache of deciding whether to ride Vautour – provided he maintains his engagement – or last season’s runner-up Djakadam – and whatever he decides will make strong waves in the betting market, and point punters in the direction of the stable’s leading light.
After Vautour and Douvan scooped the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle for the last two years, it is the turn of Min to try and make it a treble of success for Messrs Mullins and Ricci. The form of his two runs looks rock solid, and it will surely take an exceptional performance to lower his colours. Vroum Vroum Mag is a likely short-priced favourite in an attempt to follow in the footsteps of Quevega and Glens Melody in the Mares’ Hurdle, while whoever Mullins decides to choose between Long Dog, Yorkhill, A Toi Phil or Bellshill could potentially offer stiff opposition to Yanworth in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle.
Unexposed Great Field is amongst a plethora of options in the Coral Cup and County Hurdle, while Voix Du Reve is an interesting single entry for the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle. Limini has already been handed the ‘banker of the meeting’ tag by Rich Ricci in the Mares’ Novice Hurdle, while Gangster could be one of note for the Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle.
Douvan looks relatively bomb proof judging on his novice chasing form this season, and the emerging superstar can be judged as a virtual certainty to claim the Arkle chase. The four-mile National Hunt chase event offers another multitude of options for Ireland’s number one trainer, with the likes of Outlander, Pont Alexandre, Roi Des Francs and Black Hercules all as potential contenders. The quartet are also entered for the RSA, but all would face a tough task overcoming More of That and No More Heroes on bare form lines.
The same four all hold current entries for the JLT Novice Chase – and if the current ante-post betting is to be believed – Outlander is the most likely runner. The eight year-old is unbeaten in three chase starts – including a Grade 1 event at Leopardstown in early February.
Vautour is the current favourite for the Ryanair Chase, but with his likely defection to the Gold Cup, Mullins’ main hope could rest with Valseur Lido. After travelling so sweetly before succumbing at the final fence at Leopardstown’s Irish Gold Cup, The Gigginstown Stud owned seven year-old could make amends for the race sponsors.
It is highly unlikely that all of the horses mentioned above will claim the spoils in their respective races next week, but it is fair to suggest that Willie Mullins is bringing his strongest team yet to the Cotswolds, and could even surpass his exploits of twelve months previous. Will Willie dominate at Cheltenham? We have only a few hours to wait.