Scotland V England Saturday 24th February. 4:45PM. BBC One Scotland v England renew their rivalry…
In 2011 Willie Mullins became the first Irish trainer since Eddie O’Grady in 1996 to land the Thomas Pink Trophy, which is awarded to the leading trainer at the Cheltenham Festival.
The County Carlow handler also emerged as the top trainer at last year’s Festival, saddling five winners, which took his overall tally at jump racing’s equivalent of the Olympics to 29.
Mullins is now the most successful trainer from the Emerald Isle in the history of the big meeting, overtaking Arkle’s trainer Tom Dreaper and the legendary Vincent O’Brien, who sent out 26 and 23 Festival winners respectively.
Looking at the 2014 Cheltenham betting market for the top trainer accolade, Mullins is long odds on – as short as 1/3, in fact – to bag his third Thomas Pink Trophy. Let’s put his perceived leading contenders for this year’s Festival under the spotlight…
VAUTOUR – Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
Best price: 4/1 – Sky Bet
Irish raiders boast a cracking record in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the traditional Cheltenham Festival curtain-raiser. Mullins has won the race three times – including with Champagne Fever last year – and looks set to field a strong challenge again, headed by Vautour. He is unbeaten in three starts since joining Mullins, and established himself as one of the leading novice hurdlers around when beating The Tullow Tank in the Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown last time. He faces a very exciting rival in the shape of likely favourite Irving, but he has to be taken very seriously.
CHAMPAGNE FEVER – Arkle Trophy
Best price: 3/1 – Paddy Power
Just two of the last 11 winners of the Arkle have represented the Emerald Isle – and it’s a race that, so far, has eluded Mullins. However, in Champagne Fever the County Carlow maestro has an outstanding chance of ending his Arkle hoodoo. The grey has scored at the last two Festivals – the Champion Bumper in 2012 and the Supreme last year – and made a winning chase debut at Punchestown in November. He was disappointing in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown subsequently, but he is much better than that and, if his jumping holds up, he looks sure to make a bold bid.
HURRICANE FLY – Champion Hurdle
Best price: 3/1 – BetVictor
A winner of 21 of his 24 starts over hurdles – including 19 Grade 1s – Hurricane Fly will be bidding to join an elite group of multiple Champion Hurdle winners when he lines up for the Stan James-sponsored contest on March 11. He regained his crown in fine style 12 months ago and has looked as good as ever in his three starts this season. However, he will face arguably his stiffest examination yet, with rising stars The New One and My Tent Or Yours in opposition, along with Our Conor who, although beaten twice already by Hurricane Fly this term, still possesses considerable potential.
QUEVEGA – Mares’ Hurdle
Best price: 4/5 – Betfred
The 10-year-old will be bidding to become the first horse in history to win a race at the Cheltenham Festival six years in a row when going to post for the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle. The fact that she will be making her seasonal reappearance in the Grade 2 contest is of no concern, since she has won the last four renewals on the back of a similar absence. And, unless Willie Mullins fields stablemate Annie Power against her, it’s hard to envisage Quevega being turned over.
FAUGHEEN – Neptune Novices’ Hurdle
Best price: 3/1 – Paddy Power
The unbeaten Faugheen heads a long list of potential challengers from the Willie Mullins yard in this 2m 5f contest. He doesn’t look the finished article yet, but he’s undoubtedly a horse of massive potential and did the job well when landing a Grade 3 contest at Limerick last time. Still, he’s plenty short enough in the betting based on what he’s achieved and could be worth taking on, particularly if the word ‘soft’ does not appear in the going description.
BALLYCASEY – RSA Chase
Best price: 5/1 – Ladbrokes
Mullins was desperately unlucky not to win this race for the fourth time last season – Boston Bob was leading, and looked set to score, when coming a cropper at the final fence. His main hope this time round appears to be Ballycasey who made it 2-2 over fences when landing the Dr. P. J. Moriarty Novice Chase at Leopardstown last time. Only three runners contested that Grade 1 event, and it’s difficult to judge whether he would have won had Carlingford Lough not exited at the last. Conversely, the Presenting gelding should relish stepping up to 3m in the RSA and has to and, with the prospect of further improvement, he has to be respected.
BLACK HERCULES – Champion Bumper
Best price: 13/2 – Paddy Power
Willie Mullins’ record in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper is nothing short of extraordinary – he’s won the race eight times. At the time of writing he has three of the first five in the ante-post betting for this year’s renewal. Jockey bookings will offer insight into which is the most fancied of his raiders, but Black Hercules is widely perceived as his first-string. A winner of his sole start between the flags, the five-year-old has subsequently won bumpers at Punchestown and Gowran, and is clearly an exciting prospect.
ANNIE POWER – World Hurdle
Best price: 5/2 – William Hill
Though Annie Power still holds entries in the Champion Hurdle and the Mares’ Hurdle, it’s unlikely that Mullins will opt to pitch the exciting mare against stable companions Hurricane Fly and Quevega. Consequently, she looks poised to tackle Big Buck’s in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle – and what a prospect that is. She is unbeaten following 10 career starts and shapes as though the step up to 3m will hold no terrors and has winning course form. This will represent by far her stiffest test to date, but the six-year-old has done everything asked of her – and in good style – so she has to be accorded the utmost respect.
Is the Thomas Pink Trophy at Willie Mullins’ mercy?
Mullins also has strong claims with the likes of Briar Hill (Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle), Felix Younger (JLT Novices’ Chase), while Avrika Ligeonniere is hardly a forlorn hope in the Bet Victor Queen Mother Champion Chase (he’s currently the 11/2 second favourite for that contest with Paddy Power).
However, looking at the Cheltenham odds for the top trainer award, Mullins looks far too short at a top-priced 4/9 (Bet Victor). The chasm between his price for the Thomas Pink Trophy and that of Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson – 9/2 and 6/1 respectively to be the top Festival trainer – is simply too big.
Nevertheless, the 2014 Cheltenham Festival has the potential to be yet another highly productive four days for Willie Mullins. And if his charge Vautour wins the opener of the meeting, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the roar from punters as he crosses the finishing line will match that which will greet the start of the race.