by JAMES HARRISON The record for number of winners in a single Cheltenham Festival must be under threat this year as Willie Mullins assembles a team bulging with talent to send across the Irish Sea. Everywhere you look, Mullins has ante-post favourites for the Festival and it would be no surprise if the record of seven winners in a Festival – set by Nicky Henderson in 2012 – is broken this year.
Mullins has trained 33 Festival winners himself so far in his career, with his best haul coming two years ago with five. He also sent out four winners 12 months ago.
It is conceivable that Mullins could have at least four winners on the opening day of the Festival, such is the strength of his yard. The Irish champion trainer has won the last two runnings of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with Champagne Fever and Vautour, and Douvan has an excellent chance of emulating the exploits of his stablemates. Indeed, Mullins has a strong hand in all of the novice hurdles and it would be no major shock if he completed a clean sweep. In the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle on the second day of the meeting, he has both Nichols Canyon and Outlander to rely on. He also has the Graham Wylie-owned Black Hercules as the ante-post favourite for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle over three miles on the final day.
Many people’s banker bet of the week comes in the Arkle Chase, for which Un De Sceaux is a short-priced favourite. He has looked impressive over fences so far and it would be an upset if he gets turned over. Vautour will be bidding for back-to-back Festival wins and is another novice chaser from the Mullins stable to be at the head of the market, with the JLT being his target.
The Champion Hurdle is the feature race on day one and Ruby Walsh has the agonising decision over whether to pick the favourite Faugheen or the two-time winner Hurricane Fly. Walsh plans to leave it late before making a decision, but whichever horse he discards should not be dismissed. Mullins also has the improving Arctic Fire in the Champion Hurdle field as well.
The Mares’ Hurdle has been won for the last six years by Mullins with Quevega. Bidding to step into her shoes is Annie Power, who looks a class or two above the other runners. Owner Rich Ricci has not completely ruled out a tilt at the World Hurdle, but the Mares’ Hurdle seems the most likely option as Annie Power has not run since winning at the Punchestown Festival last May.
Don Poli’s Cheltenham target has yet to be decided and it could hinge on the plans for other horses owned by the Gigginstown Stud. Either way, he is the ante-post favourite for both races he is entered in – the National Hunt Chase on Tuesday and the RSA Chase on Wednesday. He won the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle last year and Mullins would appear to favour the four-mile National Hunt Chase.
Champagne Fever, who has won the Champion Bumper and the Supreme at the Festival, and was second in last year’s Arkle, has to be respected if he goes for the Champion Chase over two miles given his record at the meeting.
Mullins has won the Bumper, which closes the second day of the Festival, eight times and whatever he runs will be worth a look, with the likes of Bordini and Pylonthepressure his leading contenders.
He has yet to win the Gold Cup, but saw On His Own beaten a short head by Lord Windermere last year. On His Own will again go for the Gold Cup, along with Boston Bob and Djakadam, who would be a very interesting runner.
There are other horses likely to go there with chances, especially in the handicap hurdles, but it’s perhaps interesting that Mullins has yet to win one of the handicap chases at the Festival.
Even so, Mullins has enough strength in depth that becoming the first trainer to reach double figures for winners in a single Festival is not beyond him.