Willie top of the pile, but not alone in scoring well

Cheltenham Kryptonite: Why the Mullins Bankers Might Get Beaten

Every horse can get beaten, even Frankel nearly managed it at Royal Ascot in 2011, and the laws of probability suggest a few short-priced Mullins favourites will get turned over at the Festival, writes Tony Keenan.

Mullins’ record at Cheltenham with horses priced 3/1 or shorter since 2003 is superlative and worth referencing here; he’s 18/31 for a strikerate of 58.1% and an actual over expected of 1.45 while everyone else is 37/143 with a strikerate of 25.9% and an actual over expected of 0.74. Regardless of which figure you focus on, he’s lapping the field.

But it’s unlikely they all win and I want to suggest now why they might not. I’m not saying for a second that I recommend laying or even opposing them; rather it is an exercise in predicting what might be the reason they are beaten in March.

Min – Supreme Novices’ Hurdle

Weakness: Aggressive Keenness

Min has become the defining horse of what we might call before-timing, the phenomenon where punters quote big odds about a runner they have backed ante-post after it has shortened but before it has run. As such, he’s mighty hyped in the markets, which won’t cause him to lose at Cheltenham, though might create betting value; a greater concern is how hyped he’ll be through the race.

His win at Punchestown must have rid his trainer of any thought of going for a longer race with how he raced with the choke out and that has to be a concern with the Supreme where he will face a field of not only inexperienced horses but also jockeys who have been eagerly awaiting a Festival ride for 362 days. Getting taken on in front is a distinct possibility which might set it up for a closing type: Altior and Tombstone head that list.

Douvan – Arkle

Weakness: A Nuclear Apocalypse

Douvan is undefeated in six starts in UK and Ireland and in truth has been never looked like being beaten. He’s going into a race where odds-on shots have a fine recent record with Simonsig, Sprinter Sacre and Un De Sceaux all winning lately and like them he could scare off plenty of his rivals; seven, seven and eleven were all that turned up in their respective years.

Jumping might be an issue with Douvan – he was sketchy at the last on debut and at the last two over Christmas – but never looked like falling; and he took his rivals so far out of their comfort zones last time that they were never in a position to take advantage. Maybe that Leopardstown form can be crabbed – Ttebbob found it soon enough after Navan while Sizing John was never going – but at this point Douvan looks the banker’s banker.

Faugheen – Champion Hurdle

Weakness: A Contested Lead

The sole black mark on Faugheen’s CV came when Nichols Canyon took him on for the lead in the Morgiana. Other reasons have been posited for that defeat – he may have had a physical issue with how he was hanging in the finish and it’s possible he left his race behind in a piece of midweek homework – but he has looked best forcing the pace previously.

Sectional times say he had the run of the race and then some in last season’s Champion Hurdle with Arctic Fire coming out close to the best horse on the day. While it could be argued Faugheen proved himself superior to that stablemate later at the Punchestown Festival, Arctic Fire didn’t have an ideal prep having fallen in the Aintree Hurdle on his previous start. That horse is one that could give him a race again in 2015, especially with Nichols Canyon and Identity Thief likely to be up with the pace.

Annie Power – Mares’ Hurdle

Weakness: Injury

It is unlikely that Annie Power will lack for fitness in the Mares’ Hurdle – Quevega never did despite not having a prep run for the last five of her wins– but there will always be a doubt about her making the race given a history of injury and her absence for chunks of the last two campaigns. She was initially suspected to have a stress fracture when missing the Hatton’s Grace in 2014 but it turned out to be only a “stress reaction” (whatever that means), while Mullins reports she has just had niggling setbacks this season.

You’re paying for that doubt if you back her ante-post – she’s 4/5 now but will be 1/2 or shorter on the day – but against that the Mullins machine has been brilliant at getting their fancied horses to the meeting whole; some of their Festival bit-players do miss the target but it’s hard to remember one of his strongly fancied horses not making it to post. We might have to go back as far as Hurricane Fly in 2008 and 2009 to find a really short one not to run while day-of-the-race absentee, Ballycasey, in 2013 is a more recent example.

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Bellshill – Neptune

Weakness: The Track

Bellshill isn’t as short as some on this list but he might be come mid-March. This Neptune doesn’t look the deepest and he has lots to recommend him, not least that he was Timeform’s top bumper horse last season and there is a likelihood that he can improve for better ground. The track could be an issue though as the only time he’s finished outside of the first two in eight career starts was when tenth in last year’s Champion Bumper.

Looking back at that run, he was keen early and buffeted about a bit before not coming down hill that well and then staying on. We need to be careful making hard and fast statements about young horses and track preferences early in their careers – Jezki was placed in a Supreme and won a Champion Hurdle after running middling in the Champion Bumper – but this is sure to surface in critiques of Bellshill in the coming months.

Un De Sceaux – Champion Chase

Weakness: The Fences

Jumping is hardly a new problem with the Mullins horses – his fall/unseat rate is no better than average – and quite a few of his hotpots have issues at their obstacles, notably the likes of Shaneshill and Vautour. Un De Sceaux, who has fallen in a third of his chase runs, is the standout example of this.

Un De Sceaux looks the best horse in this race, a 170 talent against a host of 165 types, and there is an element of randomness to his falls; he generally jumps well and such is the pace these two-milers attack their fences, falls and unseats are inevitable. Moscow Flyer certainly suffered from the same flaw, going from November 2001 to April 2005 without being beaten in completed starts.

Killultagh Vic and Shaneshill – JLT Novice Chase

Weakness: The Douvan Effect

In another yard and/or another year, both Killultagh Vic and Shaneshill would be headed for the Arkle and with the speed the former showed after nearly unseating on Sunday, he would hold a big chance. But here we are with the two likely to face off and it will be far from a match with the behemoth of Douvan likely scaring off plenty in the Arkle.

Sizing John, Garde Le Victoire and Bristol De Mai were all horses intended for the shorter heat at the start of the season but who instead could pitch up here, and this might be the Festival novice chase with the biggest field go to post.

Vautour – Gold Cup

Weakness: Stamina

Vautour’s connections have not always had a positive attitude to risk and while they’re making all the right noises about him running in the Gold Cup at this point, there has to be a good chance that they will take in the Ryanair Chase rather than the blue riband come March. It’s a stamina concern that is prompting this thinking with Vautour seemingly having faded on the run from the last in the King George; but the way he went through the race suggested he was not only the best horse in that race but perhaps the best in training.

There’s something of the Kauto Star about him, a horse that might be able to mix it at the top level over a variety of trips, and it might be a bit early to write him off completely at the Gold Cup trip; better ground and spring could help him get home.

- TK

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1 reply
  1. Dan says:

    Great article! Although if you want to get onto ITV’s new team for next year, you might have to cut out this sort of reasoned contrarian analysis and replace it with “yes Mr/Ms Bookies Rep, of course all the Willie Mullins favourites are certainties, what lovely gravy this is” OWTTE.

    I have to disagree with you about Un De Sceaux. We have limited evidence but at this stage I don’t think there is an element of randomness to his falls – his two non-completions have come on his first race of the season, when this particularly keen type has been at his most overly keen. IMO his biggest weakness will be the ground – unless it rains overnight, the Festival ground will be at its quickest on the Wednesday, as opposed to the opening day on which he won last season. The quickest ground he has faced saw him record his least impressive performance, when he just about confirmed his superiority over Just Cameron, last seen finishing nowhere off a mark of 148. If it’s genuine good ground on the day, I’ll be backing Sizing Granite against him.

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