Mullins and the Irish among Cheltenham favourites

The bookies are steeling themselves for potentially massive losses on the opening day of the Cheltenham festival, which kicks off today.

Mullins and the Irish among Cheltenham favourites

With Paddy Power estimating that a whopping €120m will be wagered with Irish bookies over the course of the week, huge damage could be done today as a win for the four big favourites — Irving, Champagne Fever, Hurricane Fly and Foxrock — would leave bookies facing an uphill struggle to recoup losses for the remainder of the festival.

Around 15,000 Irish punters are expected at Britain’s premier jump racing event.

Ryanair has added over 50 extra flights to Birmingham, Bristol and East Midlands during the four-day festival, even going so far as to give away some tickets through its Twitter account. Aer Lingus also confirmed it is carrying extra passengers for the event.

Willie Mullins is certainly the man to watch, with the Carlow-based trainer long odds-on to take the leading trainer award over the four days.

On the opening day alone, Mullins saddles Hurricane Fly, currently 5/2 favourite for the feature Stan James Champion Hurdle; second-favourite Vautour, with Valseur Lido and Wicklow Brave in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle; favourite Champagne Fever in the Racing Post Arkle Trophy Chase; 4/6 hotpot Quevega and Glens Melody in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, and Suntiep in the Terry Biddlecombe National Hunt Chase.

The man himself expressed hope that some of his horses would come out on top over the course of the festival.

“I never dreamt that I would be favourite to take the leading trainer’s award. I just hope that a few of the good [ones] go in. We don’t expect but hope to come over here and have a winner. People obviously think we are going to have a few — I hope they are right.”

Having vowed to refund all stakes on horses placed second, third and fourth in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Paddy Power said it would be keeping a particularly close eye on Paul Nicholls-trained Irving.

The offer means that favourite Irving is more popular than other big losers, and a win for Nicholls’ hurdler will see the bookie having to not only pay out on a well-backed winner, but also have to give punters their money back on the second, third and fourth- place finishers.

Mullins could also break records tomorrow as his Quevega bids to win her sixth consecutive OLBG Mares’ Hurdle. The mare would be the first horse in history to win six races at the Cheltenham Festival.

On Wednesday, Sire de Grugy is the favourite for the big race of the day, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, though the Irish are expected to mount a strong challenge through Sizing Europe, Special Tiara, and Mullins’ Arvika Legionnaire.

On Thursday, all eyes will be on the clash of Mullins’ unbeaten mare, Annie Power, and Big Buck’s as he bids for a fifth World Hurdle title.

Also on Thursday, Michael O’Leary will be mob-handed as he bids to win his company-sponsored Ryanair Chase with Last Instalment, First Lieutenant and Rathlin.

Friday will see the centrepiece of the festival with the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Reigning champion Bobs Worth, trained by Nicky Henderson, is fancied to take the crown again this year though in a somewhat open race.

The Irish came out on top at the festival last year with Irish trainers saddling 14 winners in 27 races, breaking the previous record of 13 winners set in 2011.

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