Though his monopoly in Ireland has come under threat this winter, chances are that Willie Mullins will again dominate at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Finding value in a Mullins contender is never easy, with his battalion often going off at restrictive prices. His Supreme Novice Hurdle contender, Melon, is a perfect example. The horse made his hurdling debut a few days back, beating an ordinary field in a 13 runner maiden. Though admittedly visually impressive, he’s now as short as 3/1 to take the Festival opener. The price is based on reputation rather than racecourse performances, and the handler’s outstanding Prestbury Park record of-course.
Success at Cheltenham for Mullins is pretty much nailed-on, but the same cannot be said for any other trainer. Many will be travelling to the Cotswolds full of hope, dreaming of that ‘big win’ on jump racing’s greatest stage. Anyone who doubts the magnitude of such a win should watch the reaction of trainers and owners as they return victorious to the winners’ enclosure during those fabulous four days.
One handler that knows the feeling all too well is Jonjo O’Neill. And he’s become something of a master at plotting the path to success, despite his team often looking to be ‘out of sorts’. He’s lifted major prizes at Cheltenham over the years, including the Gold Cup in 2012 with 8/1 shot Synchronised.
Jonjo’s had a steady flow of Festival winners since the turn of the century. Iris’s Gift was a hugely talented hurdler, finishing second in the Stayers’ of 2003 as a novice, before returning a year later to gain revenge on the mighty French hurdler Baracouda. Rated as high as 173 over the smaller obstacles, it came as a surprise when the powerful grey failed to make an impact over fences.
Though Black Jack Ketchum ultimately failed to reach the lofty heights many had anticipated, his victory in the Albert Bartlett of 2006, then the Brit Insurance, was possibly one of the most eye-catching the festival has seen for many a year. Travelling like a Ferrari among a field of Ford Fiestas, he cruised past his rivals, before scooting clear to win by nine lengths. AP McCoy’s face could not disguise the thrill of the ride on the wonderfully talented gelding.
McCoy had the pleasure of winning aboard Wichita Lineman and Albertas Run in the following years, with the latter winning three times at the Cheltenham Festival. In 2012 Synchronised captured the Gold Cup, and two years later, Jonjo celebrated a trio of festival winners, with Holywell, Taquin Du Seuil and More Of That.
The latter looked set to dominate the sport after his stunning success in the World Hurdle. That victory came as a raw six-year-old, and in More Of That, Jonjo appeared to have a future superstar. Unfortunately, injury struck during the following campaign, and despite finishing third in the RSA last March, the horse hasn’t yet reached the pinnacle over fences. Nevertheless, he remains a horse to follow when running at Cheltenham, having won four times at the ‘home of jump racing’. His festival target is yet unknown, but he should not be discounted.
Taquin Du Seuil is another with festival pedigree, though he’ll find it tough in March. Despite looking like a horse that needed mud in his youth, his better performances in recent times have come on a sounder surface. His jumping remains an issue, but given a clear round in either the Ryanair or the Gold Cup, he remains an each-way proposition. He ran pretty well in the Lexus Chase at Christmas, and is as big as 66/1 for the ‘Blue Riband’.
Holywell has the look of a Jonjo plot, with a handicap mark almost back to the festival winning level of 2014. Expect him to run in the opening day Grade 3 handicap chase. He won it in 2014, and finished runner-up 12 months ago. A pair of 10-year-olds have won the race in the past decade, he could be the third.
He may well line-up against stable companion Beg To Differ, who was last seen running a cracker in the Welsh National. His last run at Cheltenham was poor, but he was second at the track in January 2016, and is on a competitive handicap mark. Still only a seven-year-old, he looks a progressive sort.
Another young chaser who looks to be heading in the right direction, is the JP McManus owned Another Hero. He’s a dour stayer, and was last seen finishing third in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster. He came down in the Irish National last March, and may well be one for the Scottish version in April. If he arrives at Cheltenham, the Fulke Walwyn Handicap Chase looks a possibility, a race the yard won with Sunnyhillboy in 2012. Jonjo had three in the race last year, with Upswing the best of the finishers.
Doesyourdogbite was a little disappointing last time in the Lanzarote at Kempton. He was sent off favourite for the race, but never looked like winning, staying on late for a sixth-place finish. He’s won three of his four hurdle starts, and may well still prove competitive off his current mark, if taking his chance at The Festival. Two and a half miles with a stiff finish may be ideal.
Finally, the horse that maintained Jonjo’s impressive festival record a year ago. Minella Rocco looks set to test his Gold Cup credentials when he goes to Leopardstown in a couple of weeks. He’s fancied to go well in the Irish version, though this will be only his third outing of the winter, following his fall at Aintree behind the ill-fated Many Clouds in December. He won the National Hunt Chase at last year’s festival, beating Native River in the process. That form looks a lot stronger now. I’ve watched that race several times since, and it’s noticeable just how powerfully he travels into contention. He could be a real contender in March, assuming he jumps well enough.
It’s been a tough season to date for Jonjo and his team, with a current strike-rate of just 10%. Don’t be too surprised however, should the master of Jackdaws Castle be stood in the winners’ enclosure during the biggest four days of the Jump racing calendar.