Can Mullins Stay The Distance?

It looked inevitable, and yesterday they confirmed her inclusion in the Champion Hurdle.

In one of the most open looking renewals for many a year, Annie Power sits at the head of the market, and finally we get the chance to see how good she really is. The talented mare is now an eight-year-old, and has won 13 of her 15 career starts. It should have been 14 of course, having hit the deck in last year’s Mares’ Hurdle, with the race at her mercy. Her other defeat came in the World Hurdle, when seemingly outstayed by the powerhouse More Of That.

Her inclusion adds to the fearsome look of Mullins’ opening day challenge. Three out of his four short-priced favourites struck gold on day one last year. And even when Annie fluffed her lines, Mullins still came out on top with Glens Melody landing the spoils.

The Willie Mullins dominance has been developing over recent years, but it is the opening day of the Festival when the Closutton team are at their most potent. On Wednesday 12 months ago Mullins had two ‘shorties’ at the head of the market, but only Don Poli came out on top. Thursday’s lone win came from Vautour at 6/4, and though they took two races on the Friday, neither were easy to find, with Wicklow Brave winning at 25/1 and Killultagh Vic getting home in front at 7/1. Both their market leaders on the day were turned over, as Roi Des Francs could only manage third and Black Hercules coming in a disappointing seventh when a well-fancied 5/2 shot.

The Festival of 2014 followed a similar picture with an opening day stacked with short-priced fancies. On that occasion only two of the four well backed favourites prevailed. Vautour romped home in the Supreme and Quevega made no mistake in her last Mares’ Hurdle success. Champagne Fever was within a whisker of making it three in the Arkle, whilst Hurricane Fly suffered a rare defeat in the Champion Hurdle.

Wednesday 2014 brought only one win from three favourites, thanks to Faugheen. Shaneshill came close in the Bumper, but Ballycasey disappointed in the RSA. Thursday drew a blank though Annie Power came close, and Friday brought one win; step forward Don Poli, whilst Briar Hill fell when a short price in the Albert Bartlett.

The Closutton world domination thing was only in its embryonic stage in 2013, yet the pattern of being quick out the blocks was already emerging. Hurricane Fly and Quevega were the heavily backed winners, while Champagne Fever completed a first day treble having taken the Supreme. Two on day two became nil and nil on days three and four.

Clearly the Mullins team are now infinitely more powerful with winners likely on each and every day of the Festival. Nevertheless, it is again the opening day that looks sure to be the most fruitful.

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Min opens proceedings in the Supreme and it appears that Yorkhill is set to play wingman to the lead. Douvan takes centre-stage in race two; the Arkle Chase. Currently 1/3 with most bookies, many believe he merely has to get round to win.

Annie Power is the next Mullins hotshot, as she sets out to fill the void left by the injured Faugheen. She too has an accomplice, in the talented multi Grade 1 winner Nichols Canyon. The pair stand at the head of the market, though numerous entrants will arrive on the start line with a live chance of success.

Few would argue that Vroum Vroum Mag looks to have an outstanding chance in the Mares’ Hurdle. Mullins has taken the last seven renewals and VVM is a short price to make that eight.

It would come as no surprise should all four short-priced favourites prevail, and we can add to these Roi Des Francs who is vying for favouritism in the National Hunt Chase. He impressed last time in a Grade 2 at Naas and looks sure to appreciate a thorough stamina test.

A dominant opening day looks to be on the cards, and with horses of the quality of Un De Sceaux, Outlander, Vautour, Don Poli, Djakadam and Limini waiting to be unleashed during the remainder of the Festival, more winners are assured. However, blindly following everything Mullins saddles later in the week could prove expensive. Indeed, recent history has shown that his supposed second or third string are just as likely to hit the target as the week progresses.

I’m certainly not saying that after day one we should be taking on every Closutton ‘sure thing’, but there’s no doubting that his dominance diminishes as Friday’s finishing line approaches. The likes of Gordon Elliott, Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson may leave Prestbury Park on Tuesday evening with a bloody nose, yet they will know that the bell has only sounded to end the opening round.Let’s not forget that Mr Nicholls fired in a treble on day two a year ago.

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