Mullins leads Irish Cheltenham charge

The Irish assault on Prestbury Park is part of what makes the Cheltenham Festival what it is – the highlight of the racing calendar.

The Irish assault on Prestbury Park is part of what makes the Cheltenham Festival what it is – the highlight of the racing calendar.

Thousands upon thousands of visitors will be making the journey across the Irish Sea and they will not be satisfied unless at least one jockey can carry the nation’s flag back into the famous winner’s enclosure.

It is fair to say the Irish challenge on the championship events is not as strong as it has been, with Paul Nicholls seemingly holding all the aces in the totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup this year as he did last.

The Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle is a race which the Irish have dominated having won seven of the last 10 renewals – although three of those victories came courtesy of the brilliant Istabraq.

Even this contest does not look straightforward for the Irish this season with 2007 winner Sublimity currently head of the travelling team and he is as big as 16-1.

The red-hot favourite for the hurdling crown is Nicky Henderson’s Binocular, although the Irish can lay some claim to him as he is owned by powerhouse JP McManus. But that old war horse Brave Inca could also have his say, and you couldn’t rule him out if it comes to a battle up the hill on testing ground.

The Irish challenge on the Ladbrokes World Hurdle looks virtually non-existent, while it is hard to see anything from anywhere on the planet getting near Master Minded in the Seasons Holidays Queen Mother Champion Chase.

There are still a couple of areas where the Irish appear to have very strong claims and the novice hurdling department is certainly one of those – thanks in no little part to champion trainer Willie Mullins.

The Carlow maestro is enjoying a season to remember and despite the blow of losing a race against time t get Hurricane Fly fit, he has some extremely strong candidates for Cheltenham glory.

Cousin Vinny has made the transition from smart bumper performer to top-class hurdler in his stride and was an unlucky loser when falling on his latest outing at Leopardstown.

You get the feeling with this horse that the better the race, the better he will be and the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle looks tailor-made for him.

He also comes into the Ballymore Properties’ Hurdle picture and Kempes, Quiscover Fontaine and Mikael D'Haguenet strengthen the formidable Mullins novice hand further still.

Another event which the Irish, and indeed Mullins, dominate is the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, with Liberman’s 2003 victory the only home win in the last eight years.

Mullins has saddled no less than six winners of the race and this year he has another strong hand with a number of chances.

Following the money can often prove wise in this field but expect whatever Mullins’ son Patrick rides to be near the top of the trainer’s pecking order.

Should the unthinkable happen and none of the Mullins inmates manage to take the prize, Philip Fenton’s Dunguib could well be the one to pick up the pieces, while Paul Nolan’s Shinrock Paddy is also unbeaten and brings winning course form to the table.

Other leading Irish hopes at the meeting include another Mullins inmate in Cooldine who is set to go off nearly favourite for the RSA Chase.

The seven-year-old has not tackled three miles over fences yet his staying-on victory in the Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase last time suggests it should suit him down to the ground.

The raiders are far from out of it in the Irish Independent Arkle either, with Tom Cooper’s Moriarty runner-up Forpadydeplasterer looking a cracking each-way bet.

Chief among the contenders for the JCB Triumph Hurdle is the Christy Roche-trained Lethal Weapon, a useful handicapper on the Flat and unbeaten in three starts over timber. He is open to lots more improvement. Oliver Brady’s Ebadiyan is also not without a chance.

The cross-country chase may not be everybody’s cup of tea but those who follow Enda Bolger have had plenty of reason to enjoy the event over recent years.

The Limerick handler has saddled three of the four winners of the race, with last year’s winner Garde Champetre sure to be popular once again.

His stablemate L’Ami also comes into the mix having run well round the course a couple of times this season.

The handicaps are hard to assess from an Irish perspective in that the raiders are rated differently in Britain to what they are at home, but Tony Martin’s runners are always worth more than a passing glance in races like the County Hurdle.

Martin’s Psycho looked like landing a monster punt in last year’s renewal before flattering to deceive late on and it would be no surprise to see him return for the same race as punters look to recoup their losses.

Ultimately, given his powerful squad, the best bet might just be Mullins to carry off the top trainer award.

And given Ruby Walsh can choose from the pick of Mullins and Nicholls runners, he will surely take some stopping in the leading jockey race.

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