Willie Mullins down on Cheltenham numbers but set for quality opening day
Champion trainer is 10-1 to saddle four or more winners on festival’s opening day
The Willie Mullins-trained Benie Des Dieux leading horses on the all-weather gallop in the centre of Cheltenham racecourse. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
The man who has transformed the parameters of Irish success at Cheltenham in the 24 years since his first festival winner has travelled with overall numbers edging more towards 40 horses than the usual 60-plus.
The impact of a freakishly dry winter, particularly in relation to Mullins’s novices, has led to a reduction in quantity: a corresponding reduction in quality looks far from inevitable.
A fifth Champion Hurdle success with Laurina looks on the cards, and the festival’s winning-most trainer (61 winners and counting) looks to have the potential among his 13 day-one runners to have yet another very lucky Tuesday.
An opening day hat-trick a year ago was greeted with relatively little fanfare simply because of a context that includes a memorable four-timer Mullins on the first day of 2015.
Even Annie Power’s famous final-flight fall meant Glens Melody stepped up to the plate instead in the OLBG Hurdle.
One bookmaker is offering just 10-1 Mullins has four winner – or more – again on Tuesday.
It’s a price predicated with Mullins supplying the opening day “banker” for many punters with Benie Des Dieux lining up in the OLBG again.
Last year’s winner has had a season reflective of the winter ground difficulties in that she hasn’t raced at all. The mare who put Apple’s Jade to the sword last year has instead has a home preparation, hardly a big factor considering the wonderful Quevega mostly did the same during her unparalleled six-year OLBG reign.
Only Apple’s Jade’s 2017 victory has interrupted Mullins’s dominance of the race over the last decade. Nothing of her class appears to be lurking among Benie Des Dieux’s 14 opponents.
It’s a festival year fraught with welfare issues, concerns about whip use, and worry over red-tape requirements on the back of last month’s equine influenza outbreak.
So for punters at least there will be more than some reassurance from the familiarity of Mullins and his great rival Gordon Elliott being to the front of this week’s Irish challenge.
Between them they saddled 15 of last year’s 17 Irish-trained winners. In the previous year’s record haul of 19 Irish winners they each had half a dozen each.
In 2018 Elliott’s eight winners ultimately earned him the top trainer award for a second year running. Mullins, who has landed the same prize five times, had the major consolation of eclipsing Britain’s champion Nicky Henderson as the festival’s most successful ever trainer.
The Champion Hurdle may emerge as a titanic Mullins-Elliott duel between Laurina and Apple’s Jade. But in terms of Tuesday’s card overall it is Mullins who could hold an edge on his great rival.
Patrick Mullins has twice before won the four-mile National Hunt Chase for his father, on Back In Focus in 2013 and Rathvinden a year ago.
Ballyward is the hope this time, and the manner in which the previous maiden ran away from Chris’s Dream and Champagne Classic in a Naas Grade Three last month suggests he will relish this marathon test, perhaps more than the Henderson hope OK Corral.
Mullins is likely to be once again a powerful player in this week’s handicaps, with Up For Review not without a chance in the Ultima Handicap Chase. His Thyestes comeback on soft ground was an encouraging effort, and Mullins’s big-priced Tricast in Sunday’s Leinster National is encouraging in terms of overall stable form.
Both Mullins and Elliott will aim to get a festival flier in the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novice Hurdle, although Joseph O’Brien’s attempt to secure a first “official” festival winner will be keenly anticipated.
With Sir Erec favourite for Friday’s Triumph Hurdle, O’Brien and JP McManus have opted to put the four-year-old Fakir d’Oudairies in against the older novices, complete with an 8lb age allowance.
O’Brien prepared Ivanovich Gorbatov to land the Triumph three years ago although his father, Aidan, was officially the trainer. O’Brien will be widely expected to score under his own banner this week, and tick another box on a burgeoning CV that already includes classic wins and a Melbourne Cup.
Hors La Loi successfully took advantage of the age allowance 20 years ago but he was a future Champion Hurdle winner.
Joseph O’Brien and JJ Slevin can look forward to an interesting handicap contender later on the card with Tower Bridge.
The Grade One-winning hurdler has yet to win in three starts over fences, but shaped well at Gowran last time, dons first-time cheek-pieces and doesn’t look to have a bad mark on 141.