With the Cheltenham Festival now less than 20 days away, Willie Mullins exuded confidence in one of his opening day contenders.
The Irish champion trainer has sent out the last two winners of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, both owned by Rich Ricci, and this year trains the clear favourite for the same connections. Douvan has impressed on the course with two facile victories, but it is more the noises coming from Closutton that give the feel that he is a potential star.
Mullins said: "He does everything right. He's as nice a horse as we've had ever going to Cheltenham. Has he been beaten? No. That will do me. He's just got lots of natural ability. Every time we do something with him he comes up with the answer."
The five-year-old thrashed subsequent Grade One winner Sizing John at Gowran Park before cruising to victory at Punchestown in the Moscow Flyer Novices’ Hurdle in January. Mullins has a host of exciting novice hurdlers, but it’s pretty clear that he thinks this one is particularly special.
The Supreme usually goes to a five or six-year-old and winning form going into the race is a strong trend. It is also a contest rarely won by ex-flat performers, with Binocular the last to even make the frame when finishing runner-up in 2008. The Irish have made a habit of starting the Festival with a bang, having won over 50% of the openers in the last 20 years.
The bookies would have us believe that only two horses can win the Festival curtain-raiser. Mullins’ hotshot is a short-priced favourite at 2/1 with the Nicky Henderson trained L’Ami Serge generally a 4/1 second favourite. We then jump to around 10’s where we find Harry Fry’s Jollyallan, owned by JP McManus.
Another five-year-old, L’Ami Serge has also impressed during the winter with three victories since arriving from France. All his wins have come in small fields and on soft ground, his latest when storming clear of Jolly’s Cracked It at Sandown. But he is the son of King’s Theatre and as such is likely to appreciate a sounder surface. His jumping has looked far less proficient than Douvan’s though better ground could help.
Nicky Henderson has failed to win the race since 1992, though that simple fact fails to tell the full story. He couldn’t have come much closer in recent years, having had the runner-up in the last four renewals. Josses Hill and Vaniteux chased home Vautour last year and in 2013 My Tent Or Yours just failed to overhaul Champagne Fever. A year earlier it was Darlan who finished second and in 2011 Spirit Son and Sprinter Sacre filled the places behind Al Ferof. It seems only a matter of time before Seven Barrows strike gold.
Jollyallan was beaten last time out, which is of course a negative as we mentioned earlier. He travelled well through the race at Sandown before appearing to be out-battled by a more experienced Garde La Victoire. Connections used the testing conditions as something of an excuse, though I have to say that his breeding doesn’t suggest better ground will necessarily benefit. He is a lovely big chasing type who surely needs time to mature before being seen at his best. That last defeat is hard to forgive if he is truly to be considered a Supreme winner.
Nichols Canyon remains prominent in the market for the opener but Mullins spoke of him and his other contenders saying: “I reckon he'll end up in the Neptune. He'd have no problem staying. People are saying he could be the next Inglis Drever for his owner (Graham Wylie). I will have to see how Shaneshill works. He's missed a bit of time but he's coming back and if Nichols Canyon goes for the Neptune, he could then go for the Supreme. Alvisio Ville is in the Neptune and the Supreme, but I'd imagine, connections-wise, they will be happier to go for the shorter distance.
It’s worth remembering that Shaneshill was second in the Champion Bumper last March and is therefore assured to act on the track. He travelled powerfully that day before being out-kicked by the flat-bred winner Silver Concorde. He was beaten last time by the classy No More Heroes, though that was over 2m4f. He looked the winner approaching the last before possibly being out-stayed by a more stoutly bred opponent. Odds of 14/1 look fair for this classy type.
Alvisio Ville flopped somewhat at Leopardstown, when beaten a long way by Nichols Canyon. Still only a five-year-old, he's a huge chasing type and may be another that needs time before we see him at his best. The stable clearly love him, but his sire has produced a number of quality staying chasers, and he could just lack the basic speed for a race such as the Supreme.
Paul Ferguson is having a terrific campaign and he has a live contender in the shape of Qewy. The horse burst onto the scene with a recent victory at Newbury. Rated over 100 on the flat, he clearly has plenty of speed and is out of a Barathea mare. It’s not unknown for that name to appear in the pedigree of decent hurdlers, and although horses from the flat have a poor recent record, this fella looked special at Newbury.
The familiar ‘Cheltenham Festival Roar’ will meet the runners as the flag falls. Will it be the all too familiar result, some four pulsating minutes later?