Formbook makes case for Min a compelling one, says Darren Norris
It speaks volumes about the unrivalled strength in depth of Willie Mullins’ Cheltenham team that he could lose the two favourites for the Champion Hurdle yet still train the first two in the revised market.
The absence of Faugheen and Arctic Fire from Tuesday’s feature race is obviously a blow but the likelihood is come the end of day one Mullins will be well on course to being named the Festival’s top trainer for a fifth time in the last six years.
Remarkably, Mullins-trained horses head the market for four of the first five races of the meeting. In all, eight of the ante-post favourites for the week’s 28 races will come from Closutton.
Conventional logic dictates they won’t all win but the challenge is to work out who will deliver and who will falter.
There doesn’t appear to be the same level of confidence from the Mullins camp about Min in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle as that there was with Douvan last year but the case for him still looks compelling.
Gurteen, beaten 14 lengths by Min at Punchestown in December, has since won twice. Ball D’Arc, third behind Min on the same track a month later, has also visited the winner’s enclosure. The conclusion is simple: Min’s form is rock solid.
It’s also worth noting that Altior and Buveur D’Air, two of Min’s principal market rivals, are trained by Nicky Henderson and he has not saddled a Supreme winner since Flown in 1992.
He may have to wait at least another 12 months.
Douvan won’t be a betting proposition for most in the Arkle Trophy but he does look the biggest certainty of the week. Mullins described him as “a different species” after his most 15-length victory in the Frank Ward Solicitors Irish Arkle at Leopardstown and it’s impossible to make a credible argument against him.
Similar sentiments apply in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle where Vroum Vroum Mag, unbeaten in eight starts since joining the Mullins stable, looks a different level to her rivals.
In Faugheen’s absence, the Champion Hurdle picture looks far less clear. If supplemented, Annie Power will go off favourite but there’s enough negatives to make her worth opposing at prohibitive odds.
Firstly, the Champion Hurdle was not part of her plan and will be a far stiffer test than that she’d have faced in the Mares’ Hurdle. Secondly, she lacks match practice with her sole run this season, a win at Punchestown last month, little more than a piece of work. Thirdly, she’s zero from two at Cheltenham. Perhaps her class will get her home in front but she does look the most vulnerable of Mullins’ hotpots.
Un De Sceaux is the headline act of day two and it would be quite the spectacle if Sprinter Sacre could put it up to him. However, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion only a fall will deny the favourite.
Limini is the day three Mullins hotpot but her jumping doesn’t entirely convince and it may pay to look elsewhere.
Bloody Mary looks an interesting alternative at 12/1. Victorious in six of her seven starts in France, the five-year-old made a good start to life in Britain when winning at Taunton last month and fits into the could-be-anything category.
Mares’ Novice Hurdle at Limini’s mercy, says Tommy Lyons
Limini may not be the most convincing jumper but she has glaringly obvious claims in the inaugural running of the Mares’ Novice Hurdle, and rates the best of the Mullins hotpots this week.
The Peintre Celebre filly recorded three consecutive successes on the level in France before joining the Mullins team, and made her debut for the Closutton yard in a maiden hurdle at Punchestown in May.
Although not entirely fluent and despite conceding age and jumping experience to her rivals, she proved half a length and more too good for Sandymount Duke and co, in a race which has worked out particularly well.
The runner-up subsequently secured four on the bounce, while third-placed Ballyoisin ran away with a maiden hurdle at Navan on his only subsequent start.
Fourth-placed Archive also won next time, as did fifth-placed Ordinary World. Allowing for sixth-placed Shadagann’s two successes on the level, you have to go to the seventh finisher, beaten 32.5 lengths, to find the first runner not to give the form a boost through victory.
And, most importantly, Limini herself showed the form in a positive light when making a successful return, in a Grade Three Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse in late January, winning in a canter.
Quite clearly, the Mares’ Novice Hurdle in another step up, but the best of her rivals have not reached an unattainable level.
The five-year-old has so much scope for improvement, it’ll be desperately disappointing if she does not take this en route to much better things.
Of the bankers, Min has most to prove.
It’s not that he can’t win the Supreme Novices Hurdle, more the fact he hasn’t done enough in two outings to date to suggest he will follow in the footprints of Champagne Fever, Vautour and Douvan.
A talking horse before he ever made his debut for the stable, he has been impressive in two ordinary races in Ireland, and certainly has the scope to take a huge step forward.
But this is a hot renewal of the Supreme Novices Hurdle and if he is to extend his unbeaten record over hurdles, he won’t be afforded any mistakes.
He has looked keen in each of his two spins over hurdles and perhaps the most impressive facet of the performances was the manner in which he picked up despite the free-going tendencies.
That tells us there is a terrific engine under the bonnet, but we also know, from the history of the race, that the Supreme will be run at a helter-skelter pace and the ability to find plenty from the bottom of the hill is a prerequisite.
The Nicky Henderson-trained Altior brings plenty of experience and a good attitude, while Buveur D’Air has an abundance of potential.
Add in the possibility that Min’s stable companion, Tolworth Hurdle winner Yorkhill, could be in the line-up, along with Tombstone, Supasundae and former Cheltenham Bumper winner Silver Concorde and it becomes quite clear this is a race that will take winning.
Is Min really a 7-4 chance, when Vautour and Douvan returned 7-2 and 2-1 in renewals with less depth? At that price, he must be opposed.