Patrick Mullins contemplating professional move for Cheltenham

Patrick Mullins has not dismissed the prospect of turning professional after amateur riders were ruled out of next month’s Cheltenham Festival.

A ruling was made in January that amateurs would be temporarily prevented from competing under rules because of an ongoing rise in Covid-19 infections in Britain.

The move was made by the racing industry’s Covid-19 steering group, which constantly reviews coronavirus protocols to determine how racing can continue to strengthen its approach.

The group said at the time it had reached its decision because it “is in line with Government restrictions around the definition of elite sport and the associated suspension of grassroots sport”.

The four-day Festival begins on March 16, and in his road map unveiled on Monday for exiting lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined a date of March 29 for the resumption of grassroots sport.

Patrick Mullins in action aboard Sharjah
Patrick Mullins in action aboard Sharjah (Niall Carson/PA)

Three races at the Festival are confined to amateurs – the National Hunt Chase, Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Amateur Jockeys’ Handicap Chase and the St James’s Place Festival Challenge Cup Open Hunters’ Chase.

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The most successful amateur of all-time, Mullins could have expected to have a strong book of rides for his father Willie Mullins, including Sharjah in the Unibet Champion Hurdle, Kilcruit in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper and Billaway in the hunter chase.

Mullins – who has four Festival winners to his name to date – said: “I’m very disappointed with the news.”

Asked whether he could consider switching to the professional ranks, he added: “I don’t know. I will have to give very serious thought to whether I turn professional or not.”

Derek O’Connor has also ridden four Festival winners and is the most successful Irish point-to-point rider of all-time.

​He said: “I would have hoped to have picked up rides in all the amateur races, and obviously it’s disappointing – but it’s just unfortunate.

Derek O’Connor is a four-time Cheltenham Festival winner
Derek O’Connor is a four-time Cheltenham Festival winner (Nigel French/PA)

“I suppose the most important thing is the Festival going ahead. If this is a small, little help to getting the Festival to go ahead trouble-free, it’s not a big ask.

“I hope we’ll be able to be back for Aintree, which is quite important as well. The hunter chases would be the biggest loss because those are the races that are most associated with amateur riders – the hunter chase in Cheltenham and the hunter chase in Aintree. Hopefully things will have settled down a bit by the time we get round to Aintree.

“I’ll have been going to Cheltenham for 17 or 18 years, but I’ll be sat at home watching it on the television this year. Hopefully the meeting can go ahead trouble-free, and with no bad press, which is very important.”

Fellow Irish rider Jamie Codd numbers 10 Festival winners on his CV, and was set to partner leading Champion Bumper contender Sir Gerhard for Gordon Elliott.

He said: “For us qualified riders in Ireland, and the amateurs in England, it’s a huge blow.

Jamie Codd knows all about winning at Cheltenham
Jamie Codd knows all about winning at Cheltenham (Andrew Matthews/PA)

“Cheltenham is where we really like to be competing and showcasing our status. It’s hugely disappointing, but the UK Government have their decision made and fingers crossed we can all get back for the hunter chase in Aintree.

“We’re in strange times, so we just have to dust ourselves off and there’s a lot of people worse off than us – that’s the way you have to look at it.

“With the restrictions that are in place, I don’t think I’ll be travelling over. We’ll probably sit at home and cheer Gordon’s horses on from there.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve missed Cheltenham and it’s been a very lucky hunting ground for me, but that’s the way it is and we’ll have to put up with it.”

The British point-to-point season has been suspended since January 4, but could resume on March 29.

Peter Wright, who is CEO of the Point-to-Point Authority in Britain, told Nick Luck’s Daily Podcast: “Sadly, I think we have to accept the Government position, therefore there will be no amateur riding under rules until (March 29), unless there is a sudden change of heart by Government, but I don’t think that is likely.”

A spokesperson for the British Horseracing Authority said: “We would love to see amateurs able to ride again as soon as possible and will be working with DCMS, as we have throughout the pandemic, to ensure that happens.”

Saint Roi to miss Champion Hurdle

Last season’s County Hurdle winner Saint Roi has been ruled out of the Cheltenham Festival by Willie Mullins.

The six-year-old was Barry Geraghty’s final Festival winner when bolting up in handicap company in March, and went into the summer as one of the leading players for the Champion Hurdle.

His season started well with a win at Tipperary in October – but since being stepped up in class, he has been beaten in the Morgiana Hurdle, the Matheson Hurdle and the Irish Champion.

Mullins said: “Unfortunately he’s out of Cheltenham. Chatting to JP (McManus, owner) the other day we came to the conclusion that we’re not happy with him, and he won’t run at Cheltenham.

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“He just hasn’t gone forward. He’s had one or two little niggles, and I think JP was happy to just let him get over those entirely. Maybe they are the reason – maybe not.”

Mullins still has three Champion Hurdle possibles – Sharjah, who was second last year, the injury-prone Saldier and an intriguing new recruit from France, James Du Berlais. However, Sharjah may need a new jockey, as amateurs are barred from riding in the UK at present.

“I’m happy with him (Sharjah). Maybe the last race just came too soon after Christmas. Patrick (Mullins) has his own way of riding him. The better the ground, the better chance he’d have,” said Mullins

“Things aren’t looking good at the moment, we’ll have to see if the protocols change. It’s looking tough at the moment, anyhow. It will give myself and Gordon (Elliott) and any other trainers with good amateurs a problem, but it will be what it is.

Sharjah and Eilish Byrne on the gallops at Willie Mullins' Closutton yard
Sharjah and Eilish Byrne on the gallops at Willie Mullins’ Closutton yard (Niall Carson/PA)

“Saldier won’t run in the rescheduled Red Mills, where it was close enough. He’s entered in the County Hurdle, but he has been aimed at the Champion Hurdle all year, so we’re pressing every button we can to get him there.”

Of James Du Berlais, who is now in the ownership of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, he added: “He had a very busy season in France last year and was bought as a novice chaser for next season, but it’s a long time to wait.

“I was happy to run him somewhere, but I’m not going to run him in the Stayers’, so we said ‘let’s run in the Champion and have a go’, rather than do nothing the whole spring.

“I think he’s rated 167, so that puts him in with a shot. It will be a true-run race – as it always is.”

Mullins optimistic amateur issue can be resolved before Cheltenham

Willie Mullins remains hopeful his son Patrick will be able to ride at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

Amateur jockeys are currently prevented from riding in Britain due to a tightening of coronavirus regulations, as they do not fall under the elite sport banner that enables racing to continue in Britain.

With the Festival not starting until March 16 this year though, Ireland’s champion trainer is optimistic his assistant can still be involved in the saddle.

Patrick Mullins won the Matheson Hurdle at Christmas aboard Sharjah
Patrick Mullins won the Matheson Hurdle at Christmas aboard Sharjah (PA)

“It was another surprise, but we are getting used to those in these pandemic times,” said Mullins on a call to promote this weekend’s Dublin Racing Festival.

“I’m hoping that something can be done because we’ve about eight weeks to go and hopefully the figures on both sides of the Irish Sea will be better and governments will be looking at things differently. That’s the best we could hope for at this stage.”

With his nephew David Mullins recently springing a surprise by announcing his retirement, Patrick would be in line for even more rides than usual.

“Certainly he would be a top member on our team at Cheltenham – he could have half a dozen nice rides, especially with David retiring, it puts him in for a lot more. He’s a top guy to have on your team over there,” said Mullins.

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“We’ve discussed it, but there’s nothing much we can do. Obviously there are talks ongoing. It’s very unfair on the top English amateurs too, like Mr (Sam) Waley-Cohen and Will Biddick. There are some top amateurs there and they look forward to Cheltenham like everyone else.

“I haven’t fully read through the protocol that keeps them out of it because I feel things might shift about in a month or six weeks time, and there might be a chance they can ride at the Festival.

“I’m sure Patrick and the other amateurs will be doing their best and we’ll be trying to help them as well.”

Willie Mullins' team at last year's Cheltenham Festival
Willie Mullins’ team at last year’s Cheltenham Festival (Simon Cooper/PA)

As for how the pandemic might affect his team in other ways, Mullins hopes staffing will not prove an issue.

“I hope it won’t be a smaller team because of everything. We’re making arrangements to have things in place ready to bring our usual team, but until we see what rules and regulations are going to be applied, all we can do is prepare the usual stuff,” he said.

“There are a few headaches. We’re trying to get a team of staff together – we’ve plenty to go, but we’re wondering about getting them back. I have people who work for me in England, so I’m getting them involved as well.

“I’m trying not to get too bogged down in it because the whole scenario could change in a month or six weeks, at least that is what we are hoping anyhow.”

Al Boum Photo was victorious on his New Year's Day return
Al Boum Photo was victorious on his New Year’s Day return (PA)

One horse not running at Leopardstown this weekend is dual Gold Cup winner Al Boum Photo, who will head for a racecourse gallop in the coming days.

“Al Boum Photo is in great shape and he’ll do a major bit of work this week because he’s not running,” said Mullins.

“I need to get a good bit into him. My focus is just to get him there, I’m not getting sidetracked about the others.

“I was hoping to take him to Naas, but because of the Covid protocols that wasn’t possible. I have something organised and hopefully it will work out.”

Faugheen could be back at Punchestown
Faugheen could be back at Punchestown (Brian Lawless/PA)

Cheltenham will come too soon for the veteran Faugheen, but Punchestown is still in the mix after a setback earlier this season.

“Faugheen is just OK now, he’s certainly not going to run this weekend or anything, but we’ll try to prepare him for Punchestown. He’s in good shape anyhow.

“The way the season is panning out that will be the option that is left open, all being well,” said Mullins, who also had news of another of Rich and Susannah Ricci’s stars, Benie Des Dieux who was beaten by Honeysuckle last March.

“I’d say it will be straight to Cheltenham with her (Benie Des Dieux). The mares’ chase is a target I’ve had in mind for her, but we’ll see how both races cut up – we might have old business to attend to from last year!”

Sharjah and Mullins land famous hat-trick in Matheson Hurdle

Sharjah and Patrick Mullins made it a fabulous hat-trick when displaying a fantastic turn of foot in the Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown.

Runner-up in the Champion Hurdle to Epatante in March, Sharjah has not been sent off favourite for any of his wins, remarkably.

Ridden cold by Mullins, he was dropped out right at the rear as Rachael Blackmore attempted to make all on Aspire Tower.

Saint Roi, a Willie Mullins stablemate of the winner, had no excuses on this occasion – but well-positioned by Mark Walsh, his jumping did not stand up to the test in the highest company.

Another Willie Mullins inmate, Saldier – having his first run for more than 400 days – ran well for a long way before dropping away after the last.

But Gordon Elliott’s Abacadabras disappointed and never looked like winning at any stage.

Briefly Blackmore and Aspire Tower looked as if they might have slipped the field, but Sharjah (11-2) arrived on the scene still on the bridle before quickening up to win by two lengths. Petit Mouchoir ran on for third.

Paddy Power cut the winner to 8-1 from 16s to go one better than last season in the Champion Hurdle.

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“He’s some horse and he likes this track. Patrick loves riding him, and the horse responds to him,” said Willie Mullins.

“It can be very hard to ride a horse like that, the way he rides him, but he has great confidence in him.

“For a guy his size and weight, he has huge commitment. He does a lot of other work at home, running the yard as assistant trainer. He might be taking my job shortly!

“I’d imagine Sharjah will come back here for the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival.

“He has a little bit of class about him. He was second last year in the Champion Hurdle, and might have been a little far back then.

“Saldier ran a great race on his comeback. I thought Saint Roi would finish closer – but Mark said he went for his race too early and he’d like to have sat longer.”

Patrick Mullins said: “I just love riding him. He’s so straightforward. It’s easy to ride him like that when you know the turn of foot he has.

“He gives you as much as he can on the bridle, but he is tough off it as well. He just missed the last – but for that, we might have won a shade easier.

“Dave Porter, who looks after him, was trotting him up this morning, checking him, and said he was like Jackie Chan, he was in great form.

“He was keen today, which he usually isn’t. He stayed in for the summer and didn’t get much of a break, but it hasn’t done him any harm.

“I thought we went a strong gallop there but then slowed up turning out of the back.

“My plan was to track Saint Roi because I thought he had plenty of speed and I knew if they slowed up I had plenty of speed too

“Turning in I was thinking ‘we’re not getting to Aspire Tower’ so I had to commit a little earlier than I wanted to.

“A strong-run two miles suits him, because they are coming back at him, and a slow-run two miles suits him as he has such speed. He’s a wonderful horse to ride in these races.

“He doesn’t have huge scope at his hurdles, but he’s very clever. You have to leave him alone, and he’s good at getting in tight.

“He has the odd off day, and that’s maybe why he gets forgotten about sometimes because he’s not hugely consistent.

“On his day he’s as good as any of them. Last year in the Champion Hurdle there was a big field, and we didn’t go a huge gallop.

Sharjah still had ground to make up at the last
Sharjah still had ground to make up at the last (PA Wire)

“In a normal year with a smaller field that might put me four or five lengths closer for nothing. Would that make me win the race? You’d have to believe that.”

On riding another Grade One winner as an amateur, Mullins added: “I just like to justify my place riding those horses, obviously being the son of the boss and being an amateur.

“It’s great today, but I was raging over Melon (third in the Savills) yesterday. I felt that was one I might have left behind me, but I suppose you can’t win them all. I wish I had rolled the dice at the second last rather than playing it safe.”

Saint Roi on course for Leopardstown

Patrick Mullins believes Saint Roi is the currently the leading hope for Champion Hurdle honours based at his father’s Closutton yard.

With Sharjah and Saldier also in the mix among Willie Mullins’ battalion, the amateur jockey is hopeful last year’s County Hurdle winner Saint Roi can make the step up, despite meeting with defeat when slightly unlucky in the Morgiana Hurdle on his most recent run.

Speaking at the launch of Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, Mullins junior revealed Saint Roi is one of four potential runners for the team in the Matheson Hurdle on December 29.

“Saint Roi looks the number one at the moment. I know he hasn’t won a Grade One, but he has huge potential,” said the assistant trainer.

“He’s won around Cheltenham and for me, at he moment he could be the Champion Hurdle horse.

“We were very surprised with how keen he ran in Punchestown (in the Morgiana) and he gave Mark (Walsh) an awful time. Because he was so keen, his jumping got sloppy.

“He winged the third last and Mark was left in a situation where he could go forward and risk him doing too much and having his race run before the last, or take him back and hope he could get a run. It just didn’t work out and that happens.

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“Looking at the race you’d like to think he’d be able to reverse the form with Abacadabras, but it’s not always that simple.

“I don’t particularly think he needs a strong pace, for whatever reason he just got fresh on the day.

“David Casey rides him every day at home now and I don’t expect that to be an issue again, to be honest.

“It’s a fascinating race. Obviously Abacadabras won the last day and he’s the one we have to go and get.”

The yard’s other entries include high-class mare Concertista and Sharjah, who Patrick Mullins has steered to win the race in each of the past two seasons.

He added: “Concertista was very impressive the last day, but that was a second season mares race and this is another big step up.

Patrick Mullins (pink) was second to Epatante in the Champion Hurdle on Sharjah
Patrick Mullins (pink) was second to Epatante in the Champion Hurdle on Sharjah (Tim Goode/PA)

“I hope she does run though because Paul (Townend) will probably ride her and that means I’ll get back on Sharjah!

“I think he could be a huge price at around 10-1 as he loves the dry ground there and loves the track.

“He got a little break after Galway. We tried him back on the Flat, but he just doesn’t seem the same horse on the Flat.

“Last season in the Champion Hurdle (at Cheltenham), it was such a big field and we dropped out. In a normal year if there had been seven or eight runners we’d have been five lengths closer.

“Would that have turned the tables with Epatante? – maybe not, but if it was a smaller field this year I wouldn’t mind another crack at her.”

Saldier has been off the track since winning last year’s Morgiana, but there is no doubting his ability.

“Saldier is a very exciting horse. He was probably going to beat Espoir D’Allen in Naas the day he fell as Ruby (Walsh) hadn’t gone for his stick and Mark (Walsh) had,” said Mullins.

“He got a nasty fall there, which put him back, and he’s very fragile.

“We chose not to run him in the Morgiana or Hatton’s Grace as we felt he wasn’t ready enough. You don’t want to be too hard on him at home either, so it’s a balancing act.

“He’s going to be better in March whatever he does at Christmas.”

Exciting Monkfish primed for festive action at Leopardstown

Monkfish is set to be one of the headline acts as Willie Mullins prepares to unleash a formidable bunch of novice chasers over Christmas.

The Rich Ricci-owned six-year-old landed the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March and made the perfect start to his chasing career with victory at Fairyhouse in November, winning in a canter.

He is likely to be seen in the Grade One Neville Hotels Novice Chase on the final day of the Leopardstown Christmas Festival.

Speaking on call to launch the showpiece fixture, which gets under way on December 26, assistant trainer Patrick Mullins said: “He put in a fabulous performance at Fairyhouse.

“He’s a very tall horse and when he came to the yard he was very light so we didn’t get him out until Punchestown in his bumper season. We just couldn’t get him strong and get condition on him.

Monkfish is already a Cheltenham Festival winner
Monkfish is already a Cheltenham Festival winner (Andrew Matthews/PA)

“We ran in a big field and every time there was a gap he backed out of it so we ended up a little bit far back and had to come around. We got beaten by a good horse in Longhouse Poet.

“Then he got beaten first time last season and we were scratching our heads a bit thinking he maybe wasn’t the horse we thought he was, but he just improved every run after that.

“He won his maiden, then won by 20 lengths down in Thurles and we were wondering did the race fall apart.

“In Cheltenham, what I loved about him, was that when it got tight at the last he put his head down and went into the gap – he’s maturing and learning how to race.

“This year we’re having no problem keeping condition on him. He looks great, good and strong.

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“Three miles is obviously no bother to him. We’d be disappointed if he got beaten, but we’ve been disappointed before!”

Blackbow, Energumene and Asterion Forlonge are among the other novice chasers lined up for festive action.

Asterion Forlonge is poised for festive action
Asterion Forlonge is poised for festive action (Niall Carson/PA)

Mullins junior said: “It’s definitely the most depth I can remember us having in the novice chase division.

“Blackbow and Energumene look like they are going to be far superior chasers than they were hurdlers.

“Asterion Forlonge is a Grade One-winning novice hurdler who has now gone over fences.

“We were very disappointed with The Big Getaway (at Navan), but I wouldn’t give up on him just next.

“Janidil is another one that I think will make a superior chaser than hurdler so we’re very excited for the novice chasers.”

The Racing Post Novice Chase is the highlight of the opening day’s action at Leopardstown, and Mullins has nine in the two-mile-one-furlong contest.

Asterion Forlonge is among the big names among the entries, but he could be aimed at the Grade One Faugheen Novice Chase in Limerick on the same day.

Mullins went on: “He was very impressive in Punchestown. He jumps great, he came from Pat Doyle’s and he does a fantastic job with them.

“When he’s jumping down our strip he’s slightly to his right, but nothing terrible. He seemed to jump pretty straight all the way in Punchestown until the last two when he did go right when he was going a stride faster.

“That is going to be something in the back of our minds. He obviously did it quite severely in Cheltenham where you are continually turning down the back straight and nearly always going left. That probably exaggerates it.

“I’d imagine he’ll probably go to Limerick which is right-handed. That’s two and a half miles which is probably more up his street. That would be the most obvious choice for him.

“Energumene was very eyecatching in Gowran. He’s not a horse you would really thought was a two-mile chaser, but Paul (Townend) said it from the first time he schooled him – that the way he jumps he probably can come back in trip and be effective.

“He’s very clever over fences and even though he might not be as quick as some of the other horses, the way he jumps he’s very effective.

“Blackbow was a very good bumper horse, he disappointed over hurdles but seems to be electric over his fences.

“He was an English point-to-pointer, which we’ve had good luck with.

“He likes to get on with it and jumps very fluently.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he or Unexcepted or Energumene ended up as Arkle horses, but they are going to have to step up to Grade One form and prove that they are that level.”

Klassical Dream could return to action at Leopardstown
Klassical Dream could return to action at Leopardstown (Niall Carson/PA)

Mullins also had news of last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner Klassical Dream, who has not been seen since finishing last of five in the Matheson Hurdle at the Leopardstown fixture last Christmas.

He said: “We’ve schooled Klassical Dream a few times at home and Paul is very happy with him.

“He seems to respect fences a bit more than he did hurdles. I’m not sure what got into him last year when he just started throwing himself at hurdles in Punchestown and Leopardstown.

“He’ll probably go for a beginners’ chase in Leopardstown.”

No rush to make plans for Faugheen following setback

There will be no heroic performance at Christmas from Faugheen this year with Willie Mullins’ veteran recuperating from a setback.

The 2015 Champion Hurdle winner turns 13 in a few weeks but remains in training alongside a galaxy of other stars at Mullins’ Closutton yard.

He went novice chasing at an advanced age last season and having won on his chasing debut at Punchestown he went to Limerick for a Grade One over Christmas and beat Samcro by 10 lengths for a hugely-popular success.

He then topped that by winning at the Dublin Racing Festival and went down by just a length to Samcro at Cheltenham in the Marsh Novices’ Chase.

Patrick Mullins rode him at Limerick and the assistant trainer to his father said at an event to publicise Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting: “He had a little setback at the end of October.

“We’re just taking our time with him very much, so he won’t be out at Christmas. We’re just having to take our time.

“We’ll just have to start again with him and if he’s in great form we’ll look for a race then, but he won’t be out at Christmas.”

Mighty Min secures famous John Durkan hat-trick

Min recorded his third successive victory in the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown, as he led home a Willie Mullins one-two-three in the Grade One feature.

Winner of the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham in March, Min brought the strongest form to the table and was sent off the 13-8 favourite to complete his hat-trick.

With Paul Townend at Cork to ride Chacun Pour Soi, Patrick Mullins came in for the ride and set out to make all the running.

Given the race was run in thick fog it was difficult to see much of the contest, but the Mullins runners were all to the fore.

Battleoverdoyen dropped away before the straight, as did Allaho, and the surprise threat to Min came from Tornado Flyer.

Well-backed late on, Bryan Cooper delivered his challenge late – but Min stuck to his task gamely to win by a length, with Melon in third.

Mullins was thrilled with the spin he got from Min and said: “I’m gutted as he put in an exhibition of jumping and you couldn’t see it.

“He settled great in front. Chris’s Dream was beside us a lot of the way. From when we turned down the back he made ground at each jump.

“I was on the bridle down to the second-last and Tornado Flyer suddenly appeared on my outside. Bryan was motionless and I was flat out and was headed going down to the last.

Patrick Mullins returns victorious aboard Min
Patrick Mullins returns victorious aboard Min (Brian Lawless/PA)

“I winged the last and he kept on really well. He’s push-button stuff and I’d love another go on him.”

He added: “Because of Altior, at the start of his career he was seen as a nearly horse, but his longevity of top-quality performances is a very rare thing.

“He’s the first horse to get a hat-trick in this race and he’ll be very hard to replace.”

Min was trimmed a point into 7-1 by Coral to defend his Ryanair crown in March.

Min bidding for landmark success in top-class renewal of John Durkan

Patrick Mullins is relishing the opportunity to partner Min for the first time in his bid for a record third victory in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase.

The Willie Mullins-trained nine-year-old has landed the two-and-a-half-mile Grade One in each of the past two seasons, with Ruby Walsh doing the steering in 2018 and Paul Townend aboard 12 months ago.

With Walsh now retired and Townend instead heading to Cork to partner Min’s stable companion Chacun Pour Soi in the Hilly Way Chase, the most successful amateur jockey in Irish racing history will come in for the ride on last season’s Ryanair Chase winner.

He said: “I can’t wait to ride him – it’s a great ride to pick up.

“It looks a very tough race, but he has a fantastic record and hopefully we can improve it on Sunday.”

Min is one of four runners for the champion trainer, who is bidding to equal Jim Dreaper’s haul of seven John Durkan victories.

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Mullins also saddles Melon, who was last seen going down by a nose to Samcro in the Marsh Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham in March when ridden by Mullins – the fourth time he has filled the runner-up spot at the Festival.

Samcro (left) and Melon jump the final fence together in last season's Marsh Novices' Chase
Samcro (left) and Melon jump the final fence together in last season’s Marsh Novices’ Chase (Tim Goode/PA)

The Closutton quartet is completed by RSA Chase third Allaho and Tornado Flyer.

Mullins junior added: “Melon and Allaho are two of the top novices from last year, so it will be interesting to see how they get on in open company for the first time.

“All three of them are in great form and working well. It would be no surprise if any of the three won.”

Gordon Elliott was due to fire a twin assault, with stable companions Battleoverdoyen and Samcro  set to renew rivalry after finishing first and third in a Grade Two contest at Down Royal last month. However, Samcro was declared a non-runner on the morning of the race

Battleoverdoyen is Gordon Elliott's sole runner in the John Durkan
Battleoverdoyen is Gordon Elliott’s sole runner in the John Durkan (Brian Lawless/PA)

“From the minute Battleoverdoyen crossed the line in Down Royal, it was always the plan to come to Punchestown for the John Durkan,” Elliott said.

“Battleoverdoyen won well in Down Royal and came out of his race well. We’ll see if he can back that up now.

“The trip should be good.”

The Henry de Bromhead-trained Chris’s Dream came close to claiming Grade One glory on the same Down Royal card – going down by a neck to Elliott’s The Storyteller in the Ladbrokes Champion Chase.

Jockey Robbie Power is hopeful he can go one better this weekend, saying: “Chris’s Dream ran a blinder at Down Royal and I wouldn’t swap him on Sunday.

“He won the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park last season over two and a half miles and he travelled very strongly at Down Royal, so I don’t see any negative to him dropping back in trip.

“The horse that beat him at Down Royal had match fitness, which we didn’t have, but Chris’s Dream ticks all the boxes on Sunday and now he has had a run under his belt, which some of his opposition won’t have.”

A stellar field is completed by Joseph O’Brien’s Le Richebourg, who makes his first competitive appearance since winning for the fourth time in five starts over fences in the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown in February of last year.

Cilaos Emery back in action in Clonmel Chase

Cilaos Emery tries two and a half miles for the first time as the Willie Mullins-trained gelding makes his seasonal debut in the Clonmel Oil Chase at the County Tipperary course on Thursday.

The eight-year-old was fourth on his only previous attempt at the trip in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle in 2017 behind Apples Jade, but has stuck to around two miles under both since codes since then.

Cilaos Emery fell on his last race over fences at Leopardstown in February, after which connections put him back over the smaller obstacles. Following success in the Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran, Cilaos Emery was supplemented for the Champion Hurdle, finishing fourth to Epatante.

“When he fell on his prep run for the Champion Chase, owner Luke McMahon took the decision that the Champion Hurdle looked wide open and chanced that,” said Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father.

“I think they got their money back for finishing fourth, but we are keen to go back over fences again.

“Ruby (Walsh) felt going up to two and a half miles might help him. He had been a very keen horse in his younger days, but he seems to settle much better now so we’re hoping that two and a half won’t pose any problem.

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“We’re expecting a big run.”

Bachasson accompanies stablemate Cilaos Emery in the Clonmel Oil Chase
Bachasson accompanies stablemate Cilaos Emery in the Clonmel Oil Chase (Pat Healy/PA)

The Closutton yard is also represented by Bachasson in a bid to win the race for a sixth time since 2013.

Mullins junior said: “He was in great form last season. He won on the last day before lockdown in Clonmel.

“I rode him in the Coral Cup where he ran a very good race. We dropped out in a pace which was slow. He finished sixth, but he could have finished closer on a different day.

“He’s a high-class horse as well so it would be no surprise if he caused an upset.”

Kemboy, who won this race in 2018, was withdrawn at the 48-hour final declaration stage.

The three-time Grade One winner could reappear later this month ahead of his main early-season objective, the Savills Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas.

“All is well with him. There are a few other races coming up in the next fortnight he could go for, but all is good with him. Willie has a few different races in mind,” said Mullins.

“We’ll aim everything at Christmas, but it would be great to get a run in beforehand.”

Of the four horses that take on the Mullins pair, Gordon Elliot’s Alpha Des Obeaux and the Joseph O’Brien-trained Mortal are owned by Gigginstown House Stud. Noel Meade’s Snow Falcon and Henry de Bromhead’s Paloma Blue complete the sextet.

Shattered Love goes for back-to-back victories in the T.A. Morris Memorial Irish EBF Mares Chase
Shattered Love goes for back-to-back victories in the T.A. Morris Memorial Irish EBF Mares Chase (Tim Goode/PA)

Elliott’s Shattered Love, wearing the Gigginstown colours, attempts to repeat last year’s victory in the T.A. Morris Memorial Irish EBF Mares Chase.

The five runners include Jessica Harrington’s Magic Of Light, runner-up in the 2019 Randox Health Grand National.

The Mullins stable is represented by Cabaret Queen, fresh from her last-gasp victory in the Kerry National at Listowel.

“She’s been in great form since her win at Listowel,” said Mullins.

“Obviously on ratings she needs to improve a little bit again, but it’s a very competitive race. Hopefully she has the advantage of being hard fit on her side. Maybe that will bring things in her favour.”

Exciting times ahead for powerful team of Willie Mullins novices

Ferny Hollow and Appreciate It are expected to take high rank among Willie Mullins’ team of exciting novice hurdlers this season.

The pair were first and second in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at Cheltenham – an event the Closutton handler has dominated since its inception in 1992.

For assistant trainer and amateur jockey Patrick Mullins, it was a slightly bittersweet moment as he was riding Appreciate It.

“Ferny Hollow and Appreciate It are two fine specimens. Appreciate It is probably a bigger horse, he ran a cracker in the Champion Bumper, ran all the way to the line, but Ferny Hollow just picked him up,” said Mullins.

“Paul (Townend) gave Ferny a fantastic ride. I wasn’t gutted when he came past me, the only bit of commentary I heard was that Ferny Hollow was coming and I knew what would happen.

“That was our first winner of the week in the last race on the second day, so I was just glad it was one of ours by then!”

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He went on: “Ferny Hollow will jump a fence no problem, he’s won a point, jumps will help him settle. Appreciate It will probably step up in trip and be more of a Neptune/Albert Bartlett type, while Ferny Hollow is probably a Supreme horse, or Neptune, depending how he goes.”

Another winner in March for the Mullins team was Burning Victory in the Triumph Hurdle – but her success was more than a little bit fortunate given the final-flight blunder by Goshen who was well clear.

“Burning Victory is not a natural jumper, you saw that at Fairyhouse and again at Cheltenham where Paul gave her a fantastic ride. It’s hard to think if she met Goshen she could beat him, but I suppose the Mares’ Hurdle could be an option. She’ll have to brush up her jumping,” said Mullins.

Burning Victory was a rather fortunate and surprise winner of the Triumph Hurdle
Burning Victory was a rather fortunate and surprise winner of the Triumph Hurdle (Simon Cooper/PA)

One who has made great strides already is another mare, Shewearsitwell, for a new syndicate attached to the yard.

“Shewearsitwell always works very well and has a great attitude, she could go for the Royal Bond,” said Mullins.

“It’s fantastic for Closutton Racing Club to get such a good horse so early on, she could be another Airlie Beach. It’s hard to think you might get two fillies like that, but we’re hoping. The mares’ novice at Cheltenham will be the ultimate aim.”

Albert Bartlett winner Monkfish heads a formidable squad of novice chasers that also includes Asterion Forlonge, The Big Getaway and Klassical Dream.

Mullins added: “Paul schooled Monkfish morning and was delighted with him. He’s a horse who is improving all the time and maturing – the penny is starting to drop and he’s as exciting a novice chaser as we have in the yard.

“Elixir D’Ainay and Asterion Forlonge, who both ran in the Supreme (Novices’ Hurdle) last season, will be going chasing – they both schooled well too.

“Asterion obviously jumped very right in the Supreme, but I schooled him (over fences) last week and he was fairly straight and we’re hoping it was just a one off.

“I thought what probably got overlooked was how well he ran, considering what he was doing throughout the race.

“I can’t wait to see The Big Getaway over three miles on heavy ground over fences. I think he’s the biggest horse we’ve ever had.

“Klassical Dream is probably going a bit under the radar. Last year just didn’t go to plan and his jumping fell apart, but he’s a horse with an awful lot of ability and I wouldn’t be forgetting about him at all.”

High hopes Saint Roi can prove Champion Hurdle material

Saint Roi “could be anything” as the County Hurdle winner attempts to prove he is up to Champion Hurdle class later this season.

Having impressed many with the way he won one of the most competitive handicaps of the season at Cheltenham, the JP McManus-owned gelding did little to dampen enthusiasm winning a Grade Three event at Tipperary recently.

While plans are fluid for the Willie Mullins-trained five-year-old at this stage, his son and assistant, Patrick, feels he should be treated as a Champion Hurdle contender until he proves otherwise.

The latter did, though, have a rather forgettable experience on Saint Roi at Clonmel in December.

“I thought he had all the ingredients to win the amateur maiden hurdle in Clonmel last year, but that is one of life’s great mysteries,” said Mullins.

“He jumped terribly that day and we got the physio on to him, maybe he was a bit sore. Usually he is a fast jumper.

“We think this horse could be anything. To do what he did last year in the County Hurdle off the back of just two runs for us was extraordinary, you just don’t see that happen.

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“He’s not the biggest, but he’s a fantastic jumper usually, he works with a lot of speed, he’s won at the track, although the Champion Hurdle is on a different one to the County, but for me he ticks all the boxes. Until he says he’s not good enough we’re going to think he is.”

Mullins rode Sharjah to finish second to the McManus-owned Epatante in last season’s Champion Hurdle and by the sound of things would not be giving up the ride on him to anyone else.

“Last season for four or five strides I was thinking ‘here we go’, but the mare probably won quite comfortably in the end – Barry (Geraghty) was always in position A,” he said.

“A smaller field might have helped me, we went forward in the Irish Champion to follow Honeysuckle and it didn’t seem to work so we went back to ride him patiently so he could pass horses which he seems to love.

Patrick Mullins (left) has enjoyed some great days on Sharjah
Patrick Mullins (left) has enjoyed some great days on Sharjah (Brian Lawless/PA)

“I think he’s a huge price (for the Champion) again, I think he could be a Theatreworld and be placed in the race a couple of times and on another day – Epatante was coughing in February last year – you just don’t know.

“To me he’s a fantastic horse, he had a little break after Galway and will probably have the same programme, Morgiana then back to Leopardstown. I’d love to win a third Christmas Hurdle on him and I’d love another crack at Honeysuckle.”

In the same Rich and Susannah Ricci colours is Saldier, undoubtedly talented, as he showed when winning the Morgiana Hurdle almost a year ago, but who has had his issues, having managed just two runs in the last two years.

“Saldier is back in riding away with the rest of the winter horses and we’re probably looking at following the pattern of the rest of the good hurdlers,” said Mullins.

“I think the form of his Morgiana win would put him smack bang in the Champion Hurdle picture if we can keep him right – so far we’ve had no issues with him.”

Mullins’ father has dominated the mares’ hurdle scene for years, but he suffered a rare reverse at Cheltenham in March in that division when Honeysuckle lowered the colours of Benie Des Dieux.

It was a first defeat in nine completed starts since joining Mullins and a revenge mission is on the cards.

“Benie Des Dieux is back in and, like Quevega, we won’t campaign her very heavily, we want another crack at Honeysuckle, I’d love to see them meet again,” said the champion amateur.

“I think she was unlucky, but Rachael (Blackmore, Mullins’ housemate and rider of Honeysuckle) disagrees strongly.

“I think the Mares’ Hurdle has worked out, I know they could have run in the Champion or Stayers’ but it was a great race.”

Fabulous Faugheen gearing up for another campaign

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is a potential “dream” target for Faugheen, with the remarkable veteran all set to return for another campaign.

It is five and a half years since the Willie Mullins-trained superstar won the Champion Hurdle at Prestbury Park, one of countless Grade One victories over the smaller obstacles.

He looked set for retirement after being pulled with a heart problem up at Aintree in April of last year, but he roared back tremendously last season – winning his first three starts over fences before finishing a close-up third in the Marsh Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham.

Faugheen will turn 13 in little over two months’ time, but Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father, insists there is no sign his powers are on the wane on the gallops at Closutton.

Speaking on a National Hunt season preview press call, Mullins said: “Faugheen is back in and 100 per cent. John Codd, who looks after him and rides him out, is absolutely over the moon with him.

“If he shows that he’s still got all the enthusiasm and ability that he had last year, we’ll probably go again, and if he doesn’t, he doesn’t owe anyone anything.

“He won two Grade Ones last year and was placed in Cheltenham, and on another day he could have been closer.

“I look at his form rather than his age – and what he is showing us at home.”

Faugheen will, of course, need to step into open company over fences this season.

Ruby Walsh celebrates winning the Champion Hurdle with Faugheen in 2015
Ruby Walsh celebrates winning the Champion Hurdle with Faugheen in 2015 (Nick Potts/PA)

Asked whether he could see the long-time stable star lining up for the Gold Cup, Mullins added: “It’s a possibility, we’ll have to take it step by step.

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“I don’t know where Willie is going to go with him for his first run. Hopefully there’s a few extra second-season novice chases this year and one of those could be an option.

“That (Gold Cup) would be the dream – it would be incredible, but he could be a Ryanair Chase horse and there are plenty of good prizes out of Cheltenham as well.

“At the moment all options are open. John Codd knows him better than anyone and would be able to tell us straight away if he thinks the fire has gone, but at the moment it’s still burning very brightly.”

Should Faugheen run in the Gold Cup he would be attempting to dethrone his stablemate, Al Boum Photo, who has won the last two renewals and will follow a tried and trusted path back to the blue riband.

“I think you’ll see him (Al Boum Photo) at Tramore on New Year’s Day. It’s a plan that seems to work, we stumbled across it because of that very dry winter we got a couple of years ago,” said Mullins.

“We had lovely soft ground in Tramore and then he was declared for the Irish Gold Cup, but was taken out of the day because of the ground, so he ended up going straight to Cheltenham and completely by chance the programme was born.

“He followed it again last year and it worked, so why not go again?

“This fellow doesn’t stand out from the crowd. He’s not overly big or flashy, he’s quite plain and not a fantastic jumper, but in March in Cheltenham he doesn’t miss.

“I can’t see any reason why he can’t do it again with luck in running.”

Mullins also hopes another Gold Cup-type horse, Kemboy, can put a disappointing last season behind him.

He said: “For whatever reason last year he never seemed to travel and jump the same as he did the year before. Maybe that was because the ground was very dry two years ago and that suited him.

“We’ll be looking at all those big Grade One chases in Ireland.”

Chacun Pour Soi had to miss the Champion Chase with a bruised foot
Chacun Pour Soi had to miss the Champion Chase with a bruised foot (Niall Carson/PA))

Over two miles Chacun Pour Soi is the big hope, having been ruled out of the Queen Mother Champion Chase in March at the 11th hour.

“He got a foot bruise in Cheltenham. It’s a 24- or 36-hour thing and it was just a case of very bad timing. He would have gone to Punchestown no problem,” said Mullins.

“The way the Champion Chase worked out was disappointing as Altior didn’t run and Defi Du Seuil was disappointing on the day, so it looked like it was a nice opportunity.

“I’d imagine his season will be very similar to last year and we’ll try to get him back to Cheltenham for some unfinished business.

“He’s only run a handful of times over fences, but his jumping is fantastic and to me, he’s our best chance of winning a Champion Chase.”

In the same ownership is Min, who could have Kempton on his agenda at Christmas.

Asked about King George, Mullins said: “Possibly. He wasn’t stopping in the Ryanair. It hasn’t really been discussed as of yet, but I know Rich (Ricci) is always keen to go over to Kempton.

“I imagine it will be all roads back to the Ryanair. The John Durkan at Punchestown (which he has won twice) is there and you’ve got the good races in Leopardstown at Christmas and at the Dublin Racing Festival.”

Plans are less certain, however, for Douvan, who yet again has not proved straightforward to get fit.

“He is currently on the sidelines. We’re hoping to get him back later in the season, but he’s been frustrating,” said Mullins.

“He hasn’t had any big, serious injuries, (just) lots of little niggly things. There’s been nothing retirement-worthy, so we’re still hoping.

“We got him back for Clonmel last year and he was very good. If we can get him back another time this year, it would be great.”