Energumene is a hot favourite to follow in some illustrious hoofprints in the Patrick Ward & Company Solicitors Irish Arkle.
Willie Mullins has saddled a record six previous winners of Saturday’s Grade One contest, with his last three – Un De Sceaux, Douvan and Footpad – going on to win the Arkle at Cheltenham the following month.
The lightly-raced Energumene has certainly made a big impression in winning his first two starts over fences – and while he is odds-on to complete his hat-trick at this weekend’s Dublin Racing Festival, Mullins is keeping his feet on the ground.
He said: “It would be very hard to compare him with the likes of Douvan or Un De Sceaux just yet – they were very high-class horses.
“Hopefully he can be up to that level, but he still has a fair bit to prove.
“He’ll have to show us this weekend whether he’s as good as them or not.”
The Tony Bloom-owned seven-year-old won by 18 lengths on his debut over fences at Gowran Park, before successfully dropping from two-and-a-half to two miles in a novice chase at Naas last month.
Mullins is hoping his charge can earn himself a shot at the Arkle at Cheltenham with victory this weekend, which would throw up a mouthwatering Anglo-Irish clash with Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin.
“I just felt when he jumps so well, why waste it going two and a half miles? We said we’d see what he can do over two miles against good horses,” Mullins added.
“I think he passed that test (at Naas). He’ll have to pass this test against better horses, so we’ll just wait and see.
“I’d like plenty of juice in the ground. He’s a big unit, and you don’t really need fast ground for this type of horse.”
Energumene is not Mullins’ only hope of winning a seventh Irish Arkle – with stable companions Unexcepted, Franco De Port and Blackbow also featuring in a nine-strong field.
Unexcepted has not been seen since making a flying start to his chasing career at Tipperary in October; Franco De Port won a course-and-distance Grade One over Christmas, and Blackbow was a distant third behind Energumene at Naas.
“Unexcepted had a little issue, but is going fine at the moment, and you’ve got to run in these races,” said the Closutton handler.
“If he’s not up to that standard we can always drop down and find another opportunity for him somewhere else.
“Franco De Port is a good, solid jumper. He doesn’t do anything fast early on, but if they go a mad pace in this race he’ll be coming up to mop up the spoils later on, so we know we’ll have something coming along at the end!”
Gavin Cromwell’s Darver Star and Gordon Elliott’s Felix Desjy were second and third respectively behind Franco De Port in December and are once again in opposition.
Elliott told Betfair: “I was left scratching my head after his run over this course and distance in December. He started off over fences with an easy win at Killarney and he beat Sizing Pottsie to win a Grade Two at Punchestown in November.
“Last time out everything seemed to be going well up until around halfway where he lost the lead and never looked happy at any stage thereafter. He is much better than that, but I’m baffled by that last run and I’m just not sure what to expect this time.
“He’s in good shape and if the real Felix Desjy turns up he will run well, but I’ll be the first to admit he has questions to answer.”
Mullins is also well represented in the first of four Grade Ones on the card – the Nathaniel Lacy And Partners Solicitors ’50k Cheltenham Bonus For Stable Staff’ Novice Hurdle.
Stable jockey Paul Townend has sided with course winner Gaillard Du Mesnil over Stattler (Danny Mullins) and Ganapathi (Bryan Cooper), while Mark Walsh takes the ride aboard Shadow Rider for his retaining owner JP McManus.
Mullins said: “Gaillard Du Mesnil got beat at Punchestown on his first run of the season, when a lot of our horses were needing the run big time, and then went and won at Leopardstown.
“I’d rather the race on Saturday was two and a half miles, than two-mile-six – but he was a bit keen last time, and I think he’ll settle a lot better after getting that run out of his system.
“We were planning to run Stattler at Thurles, but he just wasn’t right. He’s back right again now, (but) he’s probably going to be better over three miles.
“Ganapathi was very novicey when he ran in the Moscow Flyer in Punchestown (finished second) and was up against a very professional horse in the winner (Dreal Deal).
“That was only the third race of our horse’s life, and I’m hoping there is going to be a great deal of improvement to come.
“Shadow Rider won very nicely last time and looks like a horse that could improve a fair bit.”
The Emmet Mullins-trained Cape Gentleman and Mouse Morris’ Gentlemansgame are two of the biggest threats to the Mullins brigade, while Elliott is hopeful of a bold showing from Fakiera.
He said: “Even though he is stepping up in class to Grade One level, I could see him running a big race.
“He will love the longer trip and if this turns into a proper stamina test, I could see him playing a big part in the finish.”
Mullins is responsible for three runners in the concluding Goffs Future Stars I.N.H. Flat Race, with son Patrick choosing Kilcruit over course-and-distance scorer Ramillies (Barry O’Neill) and Whatdeawant (Tom Hamilton).
Mullins senior said: “Kilcruit was very impressive the last day at Navan, and Ramillies was huge at Christmas.
“I was surprised Ramillies could do what he did, and he’s interesting coming back to the same track again.
“I know Patrick loves Kilcruit, and always has. He was the last horse my mother bred.”
After deciding against saddling Champion Bumper favourite Sir Gerhard, Elliott relies on Chemical Energy – while Cromwell’s Letsbeclearaboutit, runner-up to Sir Gerhard in a Listed contest at Navan in December, adds further strength in depth.
Elliott said: “This looks an especially hot bumper and is probably one of the most interesting races of the weekend.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing this horse (Chemical Energy) in action. I think he’s a quality sort – and I’d expect him to represent us well here.”