For years the hardest place in the world to tip a winner was Cheltenham. For years the hardest place in the world to back a winner was Cheltenham.
But Willie Mullins changed all of that. Arguably, the greatest National Hunt trainer this country has ever produced made tipping for the festival a pleasure and, for us punters, winning almost easy.
The first rule of thumb for a long time now, when attempting to unravel the puzzles Cheltenham has to offer, is to have Mr Mullins very much on your side.
If Mullins has a good meeting, as he invariably does, then a reasonably successful four days for punters is virtually inevitable.
But a word of warning, as we race towards the latest extravaganza, following Mullins this time round is absolutely no guarantee of success.
Thankfully, Cheltenham looks sure to go ahead now, after the BHA arrived in the real world on Monday night, finally realising that, as Ruby Walsh put it in his column in this paper a week ago, “flu is flu.’’
Let’s move on rapidly, because you would struggle to find a more boring story than a few runny noses and sniffles, better known as equine flu.
Anyway, back to Mullins and the team he is likely to send to Cheltenham. I believe it isn’t anywhere near as strong as in other years, fully aware they are words that may well come back to haunt me.
Two years ago, he had six winners, after drawing a blank for the first two days. Walsh and himself set the world to rights when combining for four winners on the Thursday.
Last year, Mullins had seven winners, drawing a blank on the final day. When he bangs them in on such a regular basis then it is literally impossible for most punters, at least those of the selective variety, to fail to have a winning meeting.
But there is a different feel to 2019. Mullins has had a good season and looks sure to be crowned champion yet again, but there have been times when his horses have lacked consistency and he does not seem to possess the depth of power as in other years.
For instance, as of now, his horses are favourite for just two races at Cheltenham and one of them is Min (5-1) in the Ryanair Chase.
Min is far from certain to run in that contest and may challenge Altior instead in the two-mile Champion Chase.
His other market leader is Benie Des Dieux, who is 2-1 to repeat last year’s success in the Mares’ Hurdle on the Tuesday.
But Benie Des Dieux hasn’t been seen since scoring impressively at the Punchestown festival in late April.
At this stage last year, she had already run and won twice, taking chases at Carlisle in December and at Naas in early February.
Glance down through the betting for every race at Cheltenham and what you will find, at least in some cases, is Mullins horses with basically each-way chances.
Last week here we wrote about his Klassical Dream, in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and he remains an 8-1 shot for that. We also wrote about Laurina and she is very much an each-way shout in the Champion Hurdle.
Then there is Mullins’ Ballyward in the National Hunt Chase, Penhill in the Stayers’ Hurdle and a trio of possibilities for the Gold Cup, Kemboy, Bellshill and Al Boum Photo.
After that you are essentially struggling to find others, although I’m sure there will a handicapper or two that will be at least competitive.
But Mullins doesn’t have any juvenile hurdlers of note, has done uncharacteristically badly throughout the campaign with his bumper horses and is very weak in the novice departments, both over fences and hurdles.
A number of things have gone wrong to create such a situation. His Next Destination had RSA Chase contender written all over him when third to Samcro in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham last year.
Such thinking was more than confirmed when he returned to Ireland to beat the high-class Delta Work in a three-mile Grade 1 at Punchestown. But Next Destination, of course, is out for the season.
In the Cheltenham Bumper last year, Mullins saddled four of the first five home. Relegate, Carefully Selected and Tornado Flyer gave him a 1-2-3 respectively, with his Blackbow in fifth.
Relegate has run four times since, has had her limitations exposed and is not a realistic Cheltenham candidate, while Tornado Flyer, easy winner on his debut over jumps at Punchestown, has since run no race when tailed off and pulled up at Naas.
That leaves the very promising pair, Carefully Selected and Blackbow, but neither has been seen so far this season.
Logic tells us then that relying on Mullins next month, as we have done so often in the past, may not be the way to proceed.
Mind you it would be mighty ironic if he was to finally win the Gold Cup. Six times, he has saddled the runner up and, if there is any justice, will, at some stage, add the missing piece to his massive CV jigsaw.
A WINNER in waiting has to be the Jessica Harrington-trained five-year-old, Discordantly. I must confess to fancying him to go close in a 20-runner maiden hurdle at Punchestown on Sunday last.
I wanted to back the horse each-way at 4-1, on the basis it was largely a bet to nothing, as it was difficult to see him out of the first three. By the time I was able to get on, however, the 4-1 had disappeared and so left it go. It wasn’t very nice when he loomed up at the last, looking all over a winner.
Any punter will tell you there is no more sickening feeling in the game than chickening out of backing a nice-priced winner.
In the end, though, Discordantly was outbattled and beaten two and a half lengths into second by main market rival, the Martin Brassil-trained Take Revenge.
When Discordantly gets soft ground, if we ever see that again in this country, he can do the business.
I FANCY trying to grab a few quid courtesy of the Noel Meade-trained Future Proof in the opening maiden hurdle at Gowran Park today.
A winner on the flat for Ger Lyons, Future Proof has now run three times over flights and been improving steadily.
His latest outing saw him finish three parts of a length second behind Band Of Outlaws at Limerick at Christmas and that form has been well advertised in the meantime. This shapes as a good opportunity, even if Future Proof has 19 rivals to beat.