He has the favourite of five races on day one alone, so it’s no surprise that Willie Mullins is short-odds to land the trainers crown at the Cheltenham Festival.
He did so last year with four winners and has been top trainer in three of the last four years. Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls are likely to put up the greatest opposition with the master of Ditcheat in particular enjoying a dominant winter.
On the opening day of the festival the Mullins-Ricci combination are fancied to take their place in the winner’s enclosure on four occasions. Douvan has looked exceptional in his two victories this winter and heads the Supreme Novices’ hurdle market. Connections have won the last two renewals and when recently asked of which of his team he was most excited, Rich Ricci rather surprisingly nominated Douvan above all others.
Un De Sceaux put up another stunning performance this weekend and is rightly a short-priced favourite for the Arkle. Simosig and Sprinter Sacre were the most recent odds on shots to land this race and this fella could prove to be just as impressive.
Faugheen is the next ‘sure thing’ in waiting though his bare form to date belies his stingy price in the Champion Hurdle market. Visually impressive and clearly highly regarded by the stable he is however yet to beat anything of note as the big day approaches. He is still undefeated under rules, but wins over Purple Bay and Blue Fashion show just how much his potential is taken on trust rather than hard evidence. The New One, Jezki and Hurricane Fly could provide arguably Faugheen’s first true test.
And what of Annie Power, who will be returning ‘Quevega like’ to Cheltenham without a prep-run hoping to take the Mares Hurdle. If she hits the track anywhere near her best she will take all the beating, but that remains uncertain. In Aurore D’estruval she has a serious challenger who is race fit.
Mullins’ final favourite on day one is Don Poli in the National Hunt Chase. He’s also well-fancied for the RSA on the Wednesday and could well take up that engagement. The Closutton haul from the opening day could just as easily read five or two, who knows? The only certainty at the festival is the uncertainty of each and every race.
Vautour is the only other Mullins trained ‘shorty’ of the week, though the likes of Champagne Fever, Au Quart De Tour, Outlander and Black Hercules all provide the crucial strength in depth that are the envy of other yards.
So what of the challenge of Henderson and Nicholls? Seven Barrows saw the return of their stable star when Sprinter Sacre finally got back on the track at Ascot recently. He remains favourite for the Champion Chase though the race has an open look to it, and much will depend on just how much ability the former star chaser retains.
Nicky Henderson does have several realistic challengers on the opening day, none more so than L’ami Serge in the opener. Indeed the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle could set the tone for the whole meeting, as Henderson and Mullins go toe to toe with two potential stars. Race two has a similar look when Josses Hill is sent into battle against the Mullins ‘hotshot’ in the Arkle. Still somewhat rusty over his obstacles at Doncaster, jockey Barry Geraghty remained upbeat and clearly thinks his fella has a huge amount of natural ability.
Peace And Co is another for the Seven Barrows team that has an outstanding chance. Another carrying the now familiar Munir-Soude silks, he was an impressive winner in Saturday’s Triumph Hurdle trial at Cheltenham and looks sure to go close in March.
In fairness the challenge then looks a little threadbare. Beat That and Whisper are likely contenders in the World Hurdle and Vyta Du Roc could well run a big race in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. Then of course there’s Bobs Worth in the Gold Cup, though a stunning return to form would be needed for him to regain his crown.
Paul Nicholls will very much look to his chasers to strike gold during the festival, none more so than Silviniaco Conti in the Blue Riband. Ulcer free and likely to carry cheek-pieces, it is hoped that he will gallop straight and true to victory after seemingly throwing the race away last year. This year’s renewal looks an open affair, but should the King George Conti arrive at Prestbury Park, the rest could have a mountain to climb.
Ptit Zig is a young chaser with a bright future. Chances are that he will be taking on the Mullins trained Vautour in the JLT Novices’ Chase. It’s yet another mouth-watering duel between two of the most powerful stables. Dodging Bullets is another young chaser that continues to flourish under the expert guidance of the champion trainer. Taking his form to another level this winter, his victories in the Tingle Creek and the Clarence House Chase ensure he heads to the Champion Chase as a leading contender.
Another potential star over fences has reverted to timber, and on Saturday burst into contention for the World Hurdle crown. Saphir Du Rheu carries the familiar Big Buck’s silks and will hope to emulate the great staying hurdler. The likes of Caid Du Berlais, Mr Mole and Benvolio all give Ditcheat opportunities to add to their tally and press Mullins hard for the Festival Trainers crown.
The usual suspects of Pipe, O’Neill and Hobbs are sure to hit the target during the week, but the battle for dominance appears to rest between the ‘big three’. Willie Mullins certainly has the eye-catching firepower, but nothing is a given in sport. Nowhere is racing more competitive than at Cheltenham in March. In a season when the Nicholls resurgence has been quite stunning it would come as no surprise to see his dominance carry over to the greatest stage of all.