Yes, says Darren Norris
Another weekend dominated by the Willie Mullins juggernaut has increased the possibility of the Closutton maestro eclipsing last year’s record haul of eight victories at a single Cheltenham Festival.
If that remarkable tally is to be exceeded, Mullins needs to emulate the day one success he enjoyed last year. Then Douvan took the Supreme Novices’ Chase, Un De Sceaux claimed the Arkle Trophy before Faugheen led home a Mullins 1-2-3 in the Champion Hurdle.
And even when Annie Power fell with the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle at her mercy, stablemate Glens Melody stepped in to secure a Grade One clean sweep for Mullins.
Repeating that feat should be an impossible task but this is no ordinary trainer and this is no ordinary era.
And when you assess the four Grade Ones individually, odds of 8/1 for all four of the Mullins hotpots to deliver look more than a little tempting.
No trainer other than Mullins has won the Supreme since 2012 and Min looks well capable of following in the hoofprints of Douvan, Vautour and Champagne Fever.
A 14-length winner on his first run for Mullins in Punchestown in December, Min followed up with another victory at the same venue in Grade Two Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle earlier this month. Two things stood out from that display. Firstly, Min took a firm hold of Ruby Walsh early on; suggesting a strongly run race on better ground will see him to better effect. Secondly, when Attribution briefly threatened to make a race of it turning into the straight, Min simply bolted clear to win decisively. He’s hard to look past.
The Arkle Trophy looks a penalty kick for Douvan. Given the assets in his possession, it was quite some statement from Rich Ricci to describe Douvan as potentially the best horse he’s ever owned but then again, it was a pretty impressive statement from the horse at Leopardstown on Sunday.
That 15-length victory in the Irish Arkle might scare some rivals down the JLT route but even if the likes of L’Ami Serge, Sizing John or Ar Mad do line up against Douvan, it’s hard to see anything getting near a talent Mullins described at the weekend as ‘a different species’.
Similar sentiments apply to Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle.
He looked better than ever at the weekend and, realistically, he won’t face anything better at Cheltenham than the two stablemates, Arctic Fire and Nichols Canyon, he dismissed so readily at Leopardstown.
The OLBG Mares’ Hurdle is the final Grade One of day one and Vroum Vroum Mag or, more likely, Annie Power will be short odds to oblige. Annie Power’s fall saved the bookmaking industry millions last year but if she is the superstar connections believe her to be, she’ll surely make it third time lucky at Prestbury Park.
No, says Tommy Lyons
When Glens Melody stepped up to the plate to secure the four-timer in 2015, the depth of the Mullins yard became immediately and abundantly obvious. Extraordinarily, 12 months on the team looks even stronger but let’s not kid ourselves, a repeat would be an even greater feat.
Cheltenham provides the most competitive championship this sport can offer and for every odds-on chance at this meeting, there’s a more appealing one at a gaff-track, on a wintry Tuesday afternoon. How often have we looked at an impressive Festival winner and thought ‘nothing will beat him/her next year’ only for the task to prove too daunting 12 months later? Seldom does the course of national hunt racing run smoothly - and there are still seven weeks until this Festival.
Given the lack of a credible challenger he hasn’t already beaten, Faugheen’s Champion Hurdle credentials are blindingly obvious. Add in stable companions Arctic Fire and Nichols Canyon, and this is the trophy it’s safest to assume will be returning home on a Closutton lorry. It may look like it’s ‘bar a fall’ with Douvan in the Arkle but novice chases are seldom the safest conveyance, and favourites have a poor record in the race. Add credible rivals in the shapes of L’Ami Serge, Vaniteux, and Garde La Victoire.
Even if we put those two races in the Willie Mullins bag, there’s work to be done. Min may be the next Istabraq, but it’s potential, reputation, and his stable’s record in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle which has him so short in the betting.
Mullins has a second string to his bow, in Yorkhill, but Nicky Henderson’ stable is emerging from a lean period, and unbeaten hurdlers Altior and Buveur D’Air give the Seven Barrows yard a strong hand. Add in Gordon Elliott’s highly-regarded Tombstone and Dermot Weld’s Silver Concorde, to name but a few, and you have the makings of a tremendous race, one in which only a genuine star, not a potential one, should be even-money.
And then there’s the mares’ hurdle. Who will Mullins even run in it? Annie Power? Vroum Vroum Mag? Both? Neither?
Where do we stand with Annie Power who, if she turns up, has questions to answer? Even disregarding the imperfect prep, the Festival hasn’t been a lucky meeting for her. She met her Waterloo in the 2014 World Hurdle, and fell at the last in this race last year. Would Vroum Vroum Mag really be an adequate replacement? Sure, Mullins breaks records for fun, but to believe a repeat four-timer is a likelihood is to ignore and depreciate what it took to achieve it in 2015. Simply put, there are no penalty kicks in the Cotswolds, and certainly not four of them!
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