Arctic Fire became the latest casualty to be excluded from the Willie Mullins raiding party in March.
A few weeks ago we were scratching our heads trying to work out which races Closutton weren’t going to win at the Cheltenham Festival. Anything from nine to a dozen appeared a popular estimation of the likely Mullins winners over the four days of the Festival. Confidence couldn’t have been higher when Killultagh Vic got off the floor to win a novice chase in mid-January. He became yet another Cheltenham Festival favourite, heading the market for the JLT.
A few weeks later, that last fence slip had proved more costly than first thought when the talented novice chaser was found to have a suspensory injury. His season was over, and days later the dramatic news came that the Champion Hurdler Faugheen would be unable to defend his crown having also fell foul to the dreaded suspensory injury. The offending ligament lies in the lower part of a horse’s leg; in layman’s terms it’s similar to a footballer straining ankle ligaments.
The first three home 12 months ago are now all missing from the Champion Hurdle line-up. And Mullins is now reliant on Annie Power; yet to win at a Cheltenham Festival, and Nichols Canyon who could only manage third in last year’s Neptune Novices’ hurdle. A decision on ‘The Mare’s’ participation is yet to be made, but it is thought that she will take her chance, and she is already a short-priced favourite to take the race.
Two victories over Zarkandar at around two and a half miles appear to be her strongest form over hurdles. Of course she came second in the World Hurdle in 2014, but unless I’m mistaken that was against three mile staying hurdlers. No one could doubt the visual impression she has given in a stunning career to date, but even in a weakened Champion Hurdle, her form as a potential winner looks some way short of what is required. Her last win at two miles came in January 2014 when she defeated Doyle Carte at Doncaster by 15 lengths. Doyle Carte went on to finish 37 lengths behind Quevega at Cheltenham in the Mares’ Hurdle.
Annie will get the 7lb mares allowance should she tackle the boys in less than three weeks’ time. And only a fool would discount her chances, especially as the powers at Closutton clearly rate her so highly. But those that make her a Day One banker should be mindful that she has not been campaigned as a Champion Hurdle contender; nor has she competed against the best two milers at any stage of her career to date, and that she has only had one run this winter, and that was when beating two other mares at Punchestown a week ago.
Hope therefore springs eternal for Messrs’ Henderson, de Bromhead, Twiston-Davies and Nicholls, as they prepare their challengers for a race that suddenly looks very winnable. Henderson in particular looks set to throw everything at it, with five likely to take their chance, assuming My Tent Or Yours and Peace And Co are passed fit.
Mullins will still be the dominant force at Cheltenham in March. However, the degree of dominance appears to have shifted somewhat. Injuries may have robbed the Closutton powerhouse of several outstanding victors, but their loss may prove to be Cheltenham Festival’s gain.