Willie Mullins confident Quevega can win again
Champagne Fever comes alive at this time of year and can land the Arkle Chase for the Closutton trainer
Spring is in the air as some runners have an early run-out at Cheltenham yesterday morning in preparation for the start of today’s four-day festival. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Willie Mullins appreciates the history of Cheltenham more than most so the significance of Quevega’s attempt at festival history today will weigh on the champion trainer almost as much as Hurricane Fly’s Champion Hurdle bid.
That the magnificent little mare is aiming to break Golden Miller’s record of winning the same festival race in a Grade Two confined to her sex will no doubt be used by sceptics to put a potential six-in-a-row in a context not designed to flatter Quevega.
And there’s no point denying that even her greatest fan would swap six in the OLBG Hurdle for the five Gold Cups that the legendary Golden Miller managed in the 1930’s. But by any measure, it will still be a superb achievement should Quevega, Mullins and Ruby Walsh pull off a unique winning streak.
It will be something the trainer will relish, certainly when he thinks back to first impressions of a French import he’d been assured had plenty of size.
“I was standing at the back of a lorry waiting for this great big mare to come down and this little thing runs out underneath me,” he recalled.
“I got onto the agent and said ‘this filly’s not as big as I thought she’d be’. He replied: ‘She’s got a big heart!”
For once the sales pitch was right. Quevega has reached her career peaks at Punchestown where she has proven more than capable of defeating males at three miles. In comparison, today’s event has mostly seen her outclass the opposition, and not much looks to have changed on that score this time.
The difference is that the Irish stalwart is now 10, but against that she has hardly been over-raced by Mullins who reports her to be in excellent shape for her annual return to the spotlight.
Last year’s runner-up, Sirene D’Ainay, is back again and Cockney Sparrow can boast Grade One form of her own. It’s placed stuff though in comparison to Quevega who in this race has always looked the true Grade One deal in Grade Two company.
In comparison Champagne Fever’s attempt at a remarkable festival winning streak of his own will be overshadowed by his stable companion but victory in the Arkle will give the big grey a third Cheltenham win in a row, and all at Grade One level.
The big plus Champagne Fever has going into today’s big novice heat is the abundant proof that this place brings out the best in him.
A 2012 Champion Bumper win was followed last year by a Supreme novices success that saw him beat no less than My Tent Or Yours and Jezki, genuine top-class novice hurdle form that is even more notable for the fact that in the long term both Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh view Champagne Fever as a Gold Cup contender.
In some ways the horse owes his position at the top of the market to that reputation, since he’s only run twice over fences and was well beaten on the second of them. But Champagne Fever comes alive at this time of year and the blend of speed and stamina he possesses surely makes him the one to beat.
The tone of so much of the festival is set by the opening two novice races so victory for Vautour in the opening Supreme will have bookmakers jumping for the trenches at the thought of what the rest of Willie Mullins’s Cheltenham team might do. For good measure the champion trainer also has Wicklow Brave in the equation and this prolific horse will have the sort of going he thrives on.
In contrast to Mullins, Barry Geraghty’s Supreme record is one of frustration but that could change with Vaniteux who has reportedly thrived for Nicky Henderson since dotting up in an ordinary race at Doncaster last month. What this horse has is the ability to travel easily through the race and stamina won’t be an issue.
Sisters-in-law, Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry, fought out a memorable finish to the four-mile National Hunt Chase four years ago and it could be the same today although on the going, Carberry could get her revenge on board Shutthefrontdoor as Foxrock appears best on very testing conditions.