Cheltenham Festival primed for another Willie Mullins masterclass

WILY WYLIE -- Graham Wylie (right), who is one of the high-profile owners to have top horses in training with Irish champion Willie Mullins. He is pictured here at a golf event with Worksop player Lee Westwood (centre).
WILY WYLIE -- Graham Wylie (right), who is one of the high-profile owners to have top horses in training with Irish champion Willie Mullins. He is pictured here at a golf event with Worksop player Lee Westwood (centre).

Now that the festive break is well and truly behind us and we are ensconced in our back-to-work routines, racing fans have only one word on their minds -- Cheltenham.

The chilly prospect of the second half of winter is tempered by the warming thought that it’s downhill fast until the second Tuesday in March when the tapes go up, the Prestbury Park roar clears the air and the Festival is off and running once more.

With only eight weeks to go, most Festival-bound horses will be given just one more outing, if any, before their training regimes revolve exclusively around Cheltenham. For Willie Mullins, champion trainer of Ireland, that means a lot of horses, a lot of preparatory plans to juggle. But if the evidence of 2015 is anything to go by, he can handle it!

In a remarkable feat, curiously under-played in some quarters, Mullins broke all records at last year’s Festival when saddling eight winners of the 27 races, not to mention four seconds and five thirds. Only a cursory glance at the firepower he is lining up for the 2016 extravaganza suggests an even greater return is possible.

A repeat of his 1-2-3 in the Champion Hurdle is on the cards, courtesy of FAUGHEEN, NICHOLS CANYON and ARCTIC FIRE -- and not necessarily in that order. The Gold Cup has so far eluded the Closutton tentacles, but Mullins could even celebrate the first three here too if VAUTOUR takes his chance alongside DJAKADAM, last year’s runner-up, and the battle-hardened DON POLI.

Trailblazing frontrunner UN DE SCEAUX is already a best-priced even-money to be crowned the new 2m champion chaser, while ANNIE POWER is no shorter to make amends for her stunning last-flight fall last year when she had the Mares’ Hurdle at her mercy.

Mullins’s 2015 vintage is backed up by an array of talented novices. Over fences, the deadly DOUVAN has a Festival double in his sights in the Arkle, while the trainer has expertly nurtured PONT ALEXANDRE back to his best for a tilt at the RSA. Over hurdles, MIN is the new talking horse, sure to be touted as the latest first-race banker in the Supreme, while the likes of YORKHILL, BELLSHILL, LONG DOG and UP FOR REVIEW show why the 20/1 for Mullins to train the winners of all three novice hurdle events was snapped up very quickly over Christmas. He might even throw in the Triumph Hurdle too if APPLE’S JADE confirms the promise of her victorious debut.

Add the handicap hurdles, where Mullins commands increasingly impressive statistics, and it is clear that the 59-year-old boasts all the ammunition to boss the best week of the racing year again. And we haven’t even mentioned the Bumper, which he landed five times between 1996 and 2005.

It’s all a far cry from 1995 when the likeable County Carlow man bagged his first Festival victor with TOURIST ATTRACTION, a 25/1 shocker in the Supreme. Twelve more years elapsed before he found the winner’s enclosure again, courtesy of 40/1 outsider EBAZIYAN in the same race. Nowadays, such prices about Mullins animals are unheard of. The quality of his string has improved beyond compare, and if he creates a new record of nine winners this year, he will have cracked his personal half-century at the Festival.

Against such a backdrop, it has been so depressing to read a couple of opinion-pieces in the racing media casting insulting shadows over Mullins’s achievements. Suggesting that his domination is bad for racing and strangling competition as if, like some Victorian benefactor, he must sprinkle his equine stardust among the rest of the training fraternity.

Not only is the criticism illogical and an affront to the Mullins genius, it is also drivel that will be derided by most punters and racegoers, whose two main priorities are to find a winner and/or to see a good horse. Mullins supplies both. Many of the top Irish races would be blighted by miniscule fields and ordinary animals without the support of the Mullins battalions. In the UK, his presence in the big contests has actually increased competition and raised standards.

The argument of the critics is based on the assumption that any Tom, Dick, or Willie could emulate Mullins, given the support of such wealthy, high-profile owners as Rich Ricci, Graham Wylie and Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud. But as at football clubs who throw money at their managers, success cannot be guaranteed. Just look at the UK yards of Donald McCain, where his main, big-spending owner removed more than 50 horses in October, and Olly Stevens, who quit with a dire strike-rate despite the backing of Qatar Racing.

It is no coincidence that Ricci, Wylie and O’Leary choose to fuel the Mullins bandwagon. His skills in developing and placing young horses before producing and repeating results at the highest level, as part of what must be an enormous logistical operation, are incomparable.

Those results are also a testament to his jockeys and staff, not least the experts who source his potential stars from the Irish point-to-point field or France. One of his critics claimed glibly that “everyone knows which are the best ones to buy in France, but no trainer can compete with the financial power of the Mullins owners”. Whisper it quietly, but novice hurdling sensation Min, the undoubted star turn of last weekend’s racing, cost just 6,000 euros after two poor runs in Auteuil. Now he’s Min the merciless, trained by Mullins the phenomenon.

Pick of Mullins’s Festival firepower

DJAKADAM -- Gold Cup.

DON POLI -- Gold Cup.

VAUTOUR -- Gold Cup or Ryanair Chase.

FAUGHEEN -- Champion Hurdle.

NICHOLS CANYON -- Champion Hurdle.

ARCTIC FIRE -- Champion Hurdle.

UN DE SCEAUX -- Queen Mother Champion Chase.

DOUVAN -- Arkle Novices’ Chase.

PONT ALEXANDRE -- RSA Novices’ Chase.

MIN -- Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

YORKHILL -- all novice hurdle options

BELLSHILL -- all novice hurdle options.

UP FOR REVIEW -- Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.

ANNIE POWER -- Mares’ Hurdle.

APPLE’S JADE -- Triumph Hurdle.