Willie Mullins reported a clean bill of health for all his Cheltenham runners at a media day yesterday although, as expected, there was no great light shed on potential targets for many of his prospects that have a number of potential engagements at present.
We did get an indication that the Closutton maestro, who has trained 29 festival winners so far, might be likelier to go for the three-mile World Hurdle with Annie Power, while Un De Sceaux will probably be spared the exertions of a Champion Hurdle.
Both were described as “horses for the future” by the champion trainer and, as he said on numerous occasions during his lengthy conversation with the media yesterday, “when you have a good one, you mind it”.
Hurricane Fly is an example of the merits of a softly-softly approach, having missed out on two festivals in the course of his remarkable career. That hasn’t prevented the hurdling giant from setting a world record of Grade 1 successes that currently stands at 19.
It probably accounts for why Mullins reckons that his stable star has improved once more, despite being 10.
“It’s a good sign of a horse to win a tactical race and then come out the next day when there’s a better gallop and win that as well” said Mullins.
“I’ve been telling everyone all season he’s better this year. You don’t expect a horse of his age (to improve), especially a horse by Montjeu… a lot of them don’t train on over the years (but) this fella still retains his fight and his aggressiveness, the qualities that probably make him stand out from the other horses.”
Quevega is looking to break a record of her own, having won the Mares’ Hurdle for a fifth consecutive time last March. That equalled the feat of Golden Miller, who did it in the Gold Cup. Quevega is a short-priced favourite to make it six in 19 days’ time.
She has had a couple of days off after Mullins felt she might be moving stiffly, but returns to work this morning and the trainer couldn’t be happier. Indeed he contemplated going against her normal Cheltenham routine by giving her a prep run yesterday.
“It’s not a worry that she had a few days off as she was ahead of schedule. So much so that I was actually considering running her (at Punchestown). Usually, she’s about three-quarters right for Cheltenham but I thought this year we’d have her a bit tighter, so I’m not worried at all. It’s never a bad thing to give a mare a few days off anyway.”
As for Un De Sceaux, Mullins was pleased that his charge was looking better after his weekend exertions.
“He’s a young talent that I don’t want to abuse. He’s done everything we’ve asked him. To me Un De Sceaux could be the future so we’ll play it as we find it.”
He will leave it “very late” to decide whether Annie Power goes in the Champion, World or Mares’ Hurdle. He did give an insight into what he was thinking though.
“Has she ever met a real Champion Hurdle horse? Every time we’ve gone a longer trip it’s been good. You’ve got to ask yourself what else is running in these races. They’re all things that come into the mix and then hope it all falls into place.
“You’re looking at four or five horses that are going to be very hard to beat in the Champion Hurdle, one or two that are going to be hard to beat in the Stayers’ Hurdle, and a very hard horse to beat in the Mares’ Hurdle.”
Of the others, the Arkle is the likeliest target for Champagne Fever “for now”, with Felix Yonger being aimed at the JLT Novice Chase and Ballycasey for the RSA. These are “steers” rather than set-in-stone plans, one hastens to add.
“I haven’t even drawn up a list of probables yet” he concedes. “We’ve had plenty of quality over the last few years but we have to have more quality this year. It doesn’t look like we’re going to have a Gold Cup runner this year (due to injuries suffered by Sir Des Champs and Rubi Ball), which is disappointing, but we’ve a fancied horse in most of the other races.”
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