Hurricane Fly and Quevega on Willie Mullins’s wish list for Cheltenham Festival
At media open day Co Carlow trainer gave no further clues as to which race Annie Power will contest
Hurricane Fly ridden by Paul Townend (left) and Quevega (ack Madden) during the media day at Willie Mullins stables in Bagenalstown, Co Carlow.
Hurricane Fly (Paul Townend) leads Champagne Fever and Ruby Walsh.
Jason Deer on Annie Power during the media day.
Hurricane Fly is cooled down by jockey Paul Townend.
Willie Mullins speaks to the media during the visit to his Closutton stables in Bagenalstown, Co Carlow.
At a press event at his Co Carlow stable on Wednesday, Willie Mullins was placing victories for Hurricane Fly and Quevega the highest on his Cheltenham Festival wish list.
The trainer played down a minor hiccup in Quevega’s preparation ahead of a sixth consecutive OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, but could not be happier where he stands with dual Champion Hurdler Hurricane Fly, whom he actually believes is better than ever at the age of 10.
Asked to summarise his expectations at a meeting which provided five victories in 2013, he said “I hope Quevega wins, I hope Hurricane Fly wins, they’d be huge for us on the Tuesday. After that, I hope we can get another winner. I know that if you put up four bankers, three of them will get beat.”
Quevega has appeared only twice for the last couple of years, winning at Cheltenham and then going on to Punchestown. Now also 10, she is well known as being frustrating to train.
Mullins said: “I wasn’t happy with the way she was moving and I got the vets in but she’s fine now. She had a few easy days because she was ahead of schedule but she has been back out riding the last couple of days.
“She’ll do fast work on Saturday. I thought about giving her a run – I did even think about entering her for a mares’ race at Punchestown today but I decided against it.”
On the gallops
Hurricane Fly was out early on the gallops under Paul Townend. With 19 Grade Ones in the bag, including his recent fourth Irish Champion Hurdle success, the gelding is sure to again be popular in the betting come March 11th.
“Two seasons ago he wasn’t right, last season he was getting better, but last summer was the best summer we’ve ever had,” Mullins said. “He had a proper summer and looked so good that maybe he was going to improve. I didn’t expect a horse of his age to improve, and especially a Montjeu as many of them don’t train on.
“He’s stronger but still retains his fight and aggression,” he added.
Champion Hurdle sponsors Stan James have Hurricane Fly as their 3/1 joint-favourite with The New One, and Our Conor 9/2 and My Tent Or Yours at 5s in a tight head.
“I don’t think about the dangers,” Mullins said. “My job is to get him there. The betting suggests what the dangers are.”
Mullins gave no further clues as to which race Annie Power will contest at the festival. Annie Power is arguably causing most interest as she still has the options of the Champion Hurdle, Ladbrokes World Hurdle and OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.
But Mullins already has Hurricane Fly bidding for a third Champion and Quevega for an incredible sixth mares’ prize, while the step up in trip to three miles against Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle would not exactly be the easy option. “It’ll be very late,” said Mullins. “It will depend on other horses, anything could happen.”
Weigh up decision
Mullins was asked how he would weigh up his decision, and said: “Has she ever met a real Champion Hurdle horse?
“Every time she has gone over a longer trip it has been good and she has travelled well to England three times.
“I have a feeling it will all fall into place, but it depends on what horses are running in which race.
“She could have five horses that will be hard to beat in the Champion Hurdle, one or two hard to beat in the stayers’ and then another very good horse to beat in the mares’ hurdle.
“She was bought as a chaser and I’m surprised she’s still jumping hurdles in her second season but I suppose the next two runs will tell us what we’ll do.”
Just as exciting, and similarly unbeaten, is Un De Sceaux, but Mullins again suggested he may not line up in the Champion Hurdle. “He’s well,” said the trainer.
“The other day at Gowran, it looked like a walk in the park for him but going over two miles on heavy ground does take something out of them.
“We’ll see. As a young, talented horse, I don’t want to be abusing him. He has done everything I’ve asked but do I throw him in the Champion Hurdle on what he has done?
“To me, Un De Sceaux is the future. We’ll play as we find it over the next few weeks.”
Mullins is leaning towards letting Champagne Fever chase his festival hat-trick in the Racing Post Arkle Trophy on March 11th.
Winner of the Champion Bumper in 2012 before claiming the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last March, the seven-year-old has been ante-post favourite for the two-mile novice chasing championship event since the start of the season.
He made a sparkling start to his career over fences at Punchestown in November, but ran well below par when only third at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival.
The flying grey has missed engagements since and is heading straight back to Prestbury Park.
While he remains among the latest forfeits for both the JLT Novices’ Chase over two and a half miles and the RSA Chase over an extended three, Champagne Fever, who was partnered by stable jockey Ruby Walsh in a spin in front of the gathered media, is set to line up as favourite on the opening day.
Assessing his major hopes for the three novice chases, Mullins said: “With Champagne Fever it looks like it’s going Arkle-wise.
“I think it has to be the RSA for Ballycasey and the JLT has to be the target for Felix Yonger.”
The master of Closutton also holds a strong hand in the novice hurdle division, with ante-post favourite Vautour heading three major challengers in the Festival curtain-raising Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Faugheen looks set for the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle, with last year’s Champion Bumper winner Briar Hill primed to play a starring role in the three-mile Albert Bartlett.
‘Ready to run’
Mullins revealed he had changed Faugheen’s feed on Wednesday but did not appear too alarmed at this stage as he added that he was “great” and “ready to run”
Mullins said: “Valseur Lido, Vautour and Wicklow Brave would be three for the Supreme.
“At the moment I’m looking at the Neptune for Faugheen and I’d imagine Briar Hill has the profile for the Albert Bartlett.
“Sure Reef looks like he’ll stay all day and would either go for the Neptune or the longer race.”
Arvika Ligeonniere has yet to show his brilliant best when going left-handed but is bound for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. “We’ll be doing one or two things differently with him, simple enough things,” said the champion trainer.
Boston Bob, second in the Albert Bartlett two years ago and a faller when leading at the final fence in last year’s RSA, could run in either the World Hurdle or the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
However, he would need to bounce back to form having finished last of six runners in Cheltenham’s Cleeve Hurdle at the end of January. Mullins said: “Boston Bob is in the World Hurdle and Gold Cup. On his last run he shouldn’t be doing anything, but he has done very well and I’d imagine we’ll leave him in both.”