PAT KEANE: Now is the time to tread carefully at Cheltenham

Djakadam

It really would be the ultimate irony should Willie Mullins finally land the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Djakadam next Friday, writes Pat Keane.

This has been a campaign which has seen so much go wrong for the Mullins team, as he heads to the Cotswolds with a much-depleted squad.

The season could hardly have started worse, with the much-publicised loss of those 60 Gigginstown-owned horses and then the death of the brilliant Vautour in a freak accident at Mullins’ Closutton base.

And on top of the loss of Vautour, Mullins has to go to war next week without three of his biggest guns in Faugheen, Annie Power and Min.

He still has a strong hand, of course, and most trainers would kill to be in his position, but everything is relative.

For most of my punting career - for the want of a better description - Cheltenham has been a minefield and it has, more often than not, been difficult to show a profit.

Indeed, I remember getting off the boat, coming back from Cheltenham, in the mid to late 70’s without the price of a packet of crisps, after doing in the entire tank in the space of a lunatic three days.

The amazing rise in the quality of horses now trained in Ireland, however, has changed to such a degree that Cheltenham has become a festival where you are actually stunned if you fail to make it pay. So much of that, though, is down to the Mullins factor and he has basically made winning at Cheltenham almost routine.

Just look at his record, for instance, over the last four years.

In 2013, he had five winners, four the next year, followed by a record eight in 2015 and seven last year. That is a staggering 24 in total and essentially took all of the pain out of punting for the majority of the Irish.There is no way, basically, that the selective Irish player could have failed to make a profit over that period of time.

Feast your eyes on some of what Mullins gave us. I mean in 2015, Vautour was returned at 7-2 when taking the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Faugheen 6-4 when winning the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle.

Among Mullins’ winners two years ago were Douvan (2-1), Vautour (6-4) and Faugheen (4-5). That Faugheen success came in the Champion Hurdle and was there ever a better value odds-on shot?

Last year you had more decent priced Mullins beauties in Black Hercules (4-1), Yorkhill (3-1) and Annie Power (5-2).

The bottom line is that when you were with at least some of these horses, at good odds, then winning essentially became almost easy. Mullins and his lieutenants did all of the hard graft and many of us reaped a rich dividend.

I have a horrible feeling, however, that this coming four-day battle is not going to be as easy to solve as the most recent bonanzas.

Circumstances have simply contrived to ensure that Mullins is nowhere near as powerful as he might have been.

The man who has looked after us so well for so long will travel with just one good thing - Douvan - in the Champion Chase and, likely to go off maybe as short as 1-4, you can keep that.

The other so-called good thing is Nicky Henderson’s Altior, in the Arkle Trophy, but he will be as short as Douvan and no good to anyone either.

And what we are left with after that is a whole series of real puzzles. The Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle shape as contests that are seriously wide open.

Djakadam has twice taken second in the Gold Cup and been put away for this since Christmas. He enjoyed a leisurely pop around after racing at Leopardstown last Sunday - all we learned is that he’s alive and kicking - but one does sense growing confidence in his ability to finally deliver.

This is surely the last-chance saloon for Djakadam, with no Don Cossack, Coneygree or Thistlecrack in the field.

It is great to see the capable Mark Walsh getting the call up from J P McManus to partner Yanworth in the Champion Hurdle, but this moderate renewal is set to take some solving. Literally everywhere you look there are so many questions to be answered, starting with Mullins’ Melon in Tuesday’s opener, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

We know his Irish form is worthless, but this is Mullins we are talking about and it will be fascinating to see how he travels in the market.

Do you want to be with or against Mullins’ enigmatic Yorkhill in the JLT Novices’ Chase? I watched him jump those eight fences at Leopardstown after racing on Sunday and he left you almost totally confused. The manner in which he went across the first three obstacles indicated Yorkhill might have no business even heading to Cheltenham.But then he seemed to learn, almost instantly, that such silly behaviour was entirely unacceptable and, to my eyes, was electric over the next five.

There are so many other imponderables, none more so than how will the ground ride by the time Un De Sceaux heads down to post for Wednesday’s Ryanair Chase.

The 7-2 that was on offer this week would have to be regarded as real value, if one was sure the surface was going to be on the soft side, or worse.

Then there is Gordon Elliot’s Mega Fortune in Friday’s JCB Triumph Hurdle. He could be backed this week as high as 7-1, but the softer the ground the better his prospects and you cannot come out to play until knowing for sure.

Can we win next week? I suspect it is going to be far harder than recent years and am hoping for the best, but fearing the worst. Should it go woefully wrong then the first thing we will do is to buy a box of crisps!


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