Willie Mullins is looking forward to launching another strong assault on next week’s Punchestown Festival after entries for the first three days of the showpiece meeting were confirmed.
The master of Closutton’s immediate thoughts might be focussed on his attempt to be crowned British champion trainer for the first time at Sandown tomorrow, but he is also preparing a formidable team for the showpiece meeting of the year in Ireland.
Mullins won 16 of the 37 races at last year’s festival and is hopeful he can be leading trainer at the meeting for the 14th time in 16 years.
The headline act on Tuesday’s opening card is the BoyleSports Champion Chase.
Mullins has four entries at this stage, but with Un De Sceaux bound for this weekend’s Celebration Chase and Vautour and Vroum Vroum Mag also pencilled in for Sandown, he could rely on Twinlight.
“Twinlight is very well and will definitely run - it will be his fifth run at the Punchestown Festival,” said Mullins.
Nicky Henderson has left in Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig, although like Un De Sceaux, the former is Sandown-bound.
Mullins is responsible for eight of the 16 entries in Tuesday’s Herald Champion Novice, a race in which Cheltenham and Aintree hero Yorkhill is set to take his chance.
Mullins said: “Yorkhill would look to be my best chance in this race. He seems fine after what might have appeared to have been a hard race at Aintree, and he’ll head my team. We have a number of others engaged but he’s the number one.”
The third and final Grade One on the opening day is the Growise Champion Novice Chase.
Mouse Morris has entered Grand National hero Rule The World, while Mullins can pick from five.
“Outlander will probably run in the Growise Champion Novice Chase,” said Mullins.
“He could well be joined by Roi Des Francs. Shaneshill is not out of it either but it depends whether we decide to stick to hurdles with him or go back over fences.”
Wednesday’s Bibby Financial Services Ireland Punchestown Gold Cup promises to be one of the races of the week, with Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Don Cossack and brilliant Betfred Bowl winner Cue Card set to engage in a mouth-watering rematch.
Don Cossack fell two fences from the finish when Cue Card won the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, while Cue Card came to grief three out in the Gold Cup.
Mullins is responsible for six of the 12 confirmations.
He said: “Djakadam and Don Poli are being lined up for the Gold Cup as things stand.
“Vautour and Sir Des Champs are possibles for Sandown, but if they don’t go there they could come into this race as well.”
Grade One honours are also up for grabs in the three-mile Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle on the same day and Mullins has no less than 11 contenders.
“Bellshill, who won the Champion Bumper at Punchestown last year for us, will probably lead the team in the three-mile novice hurdle,” he added.
“Looking down through my entries, Arkwrisht, Stone Hard and Burgas are all possibles, as are previous course winners Thomas Hobson and Balko Des Flos, so we’ll have a few in that race.”
Bacardys and Battleford feature in the At The Races-sponsored Champion Bumper.
There are another two Grade One prizes on offer on Thursday.
Cheltenham and Aintree winner Thistlecrack is the standout name among 20 possible runners in the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle, while the brilliant Douvan is set to star in a Ryanair Novice Chase that could also feature Kerry Lee’s Kylemore Lough.
Mullins said: “Douvan looks the most likely of mine to go for the Ryanair Novice Chase. He’s in great nick.
“Thousand Stars is a definite runner in the Stayers Hurdle, all going to plan.
“Nichols Canyon is also a possible as are Shaneshill and So Young.”
The trainer also confirmed Friday’s Betdaq Punchestown Champion Hurdle as the “main target” for the great mare Annie Power and went through some of his other plans.
He said: “Although she holds other entries, the Champion Hurdle is Annie Power’s main target. It’ll be just over three weeks since her win at Aintree, so that falls nicely and she came out of the Aintree race well. Sempre Medici will go for the Champion Hurdle as well.
“Petit Mouchoir, who was only beaten a neck in an Aintree Grade One, has come out of that race well and he might move up to two and a half miles in the Champion Novice Hurdle on the Friday.
“We have a lot of good choices for this race and we’ll really have to wait until closer to the day.
“Apple’s Jade is in the Mares Champion Hurdle on the Saturday, but the Champion 4YO Hurdle on the same day is probably the best option for her. She has come out of Aintree well.
“Limini looks to be the obvious one for the Mares Champion Hurdle. She’s in good form, but there are others with chances in this too like Let’s Dance and Myska.
“There’s also a possibility that Vroum Vroum Mag might go there, depending on what happens with her this weekend.
“We’re really looking forward to bringing Uncle Junior again. The La Touche Cup will be his swansong - he’s going to be retired afterwards - but he’s won two of them already and we’d love to see him go out on a high.
“Between the various handicaps and bumpers at the Festival, we hope to have a formidable team next week.”
Mullins meanwhile relies on Un De Sceaux in the bet365 Celebration Chase at Sandown tomorrow after deciding against declaring Douvan and Vautour.
The master of Closutton entered his three brilliant chasers for the two-mile Grade One at the five-day stage for a prize that promises to be key in his race with Paul Nicholls to be crowned this season’s champion National Hunt trainer in Britain.
In a repeat of the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, Un De Sceaux will clash with Nicky Henderson’s stable star Sprinter Sacre.
Un De Sceaux was a red-hot favourite for the feature event on day two of the showpiece meeting, but the resurgent former champion Sprinter Sacre brought the house down after a comprehensive success.
Nicholls will be hopeful of picking up plenty of prize-money after declaring three runners.
Last year’s Champion Chase hero Dodging Bullets appears the stable’s number one hope, but needs to raise his game significantly after being well beaten when defending his crown at Prestbury Park.
The Ditcheat handler also saddles Grand Annual winner Solar Impulse and Ulck Du Lin.
Gary Moore’s pride and joy Sire De Grugy, winner of the Champion Chase and this event in 2014, completes the six-strong field.
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