Willie Mullins gives Laurina green light to test Champion credentials at Cheltenham

Champion trainer confirms Footpad will return to action in Leopardstown Grade One

Laurina’s credentials for joining an elite handful of Champion Hurdle-winning mares are set to be examined at Cheltenham on Saturday.

Willie Mullins is keen to make the most of opportunity to run his exciting young star in the Grade Two Unibet International Hurdle which was reopened to entries on Tuesday.

That paid dividends when Ireland’s champion trainer included Laurina among a new 11-strong entry that also includes the veteran former three-time winner of the race, The New One, and last season’s Supreme winner Summerville Boy.

The latter finished a disappointing fourth to the reigning champion Buveur D’Air in Newcastle’s Fighting Fifth Hurdle earlier this month, a race in which the big Irish hope Samcro was beaten for a second time this season.


That eclipse helped Laurina to shorten to 5-1 second favourite for the Champion Hurdle despite not having emerged from Mullins’s yard yet this term.

A massive reputation generated last season by winning all four of her starts for Mullins since arriving from France – and by an aggregate of 52 lengths – has been backed up by Buveur D’Air’s jockey Barry Geraghty recently describing her as his main danger for the big race in March.

Initial bookmaker reaction was for the sponsors to go 4-5 about Laurina living up to such billing in Saturday's race, where she will be ridden for the first time on a racecourse by Ruby Walsh.

It was Paul Townend who rode her in all four starts last season, including when sauntering to festival success in March and subsequently landing Grade One success at Fairyhouse over Easter.

Laurina, who is owned by Sullivan Bloodstock Ltd, missed out on an Ascot engagement last month due to unsuitably quick ground conditions. The Cheltenham going is currently good to soft.

“We can’t have too much rain at this stage and I hope the ground is all right but the plan is to go,” Mullins confirmed on Tuesday. “She worked well this morning and we’re happy with her. She’s all set.”

Just four mares have ever won the Champion Hurdle and Mullins saddled the last of them, Annie Power in 2016.

Some weeks ago the trainer admitted Laurina “could be special”. However, he is reluctant to make comparisons between her and Annie Power.

“I wasn’t comparing her to Annie Power. She’s a jumps-bred mare whereas Annie Power had a good flat pedigree. I’d be looking at her a bit differently,” said Mullins, who nevertheless confirmed Champion Hurdle ambitions for Laurina.

“That’s where we’re going to aim. Connections are keen to go the Champion Hurdle route rather than a novice chase route,” he added.

Summerville Boy might provide a gauge as to Laurina’s championship prospects if bouncing back to something like his best form following a lacklustre Fighting Fifth effort.

“That was his first run of the season and whilst that form was way below his Supreme Novices win, he has been all right since and nothing has come to light with all the tests he’s had.

“It was disappointing but we have to move on and he was taking on top-class two-milers on his first start of the season. The International Hurdle is an option. We’ll see how he is during the week,” said his trainer Tom George.

Popular veteran The New One won the International in 2013, 2014 and 2016 and would create history with a fourth success.

He was runner-up to My Tent Or Yours a year ago connections have indicated he will have to step significantly on his first start of this season or they could take the decision to retire the 10-year-old.

Mullins also confirmed on Tuesday that last season’s unbeaten star novice chaser Footpad is set to return to action in Leopardstown’s Grade One Paddy’s Rewards Chase over two miles at Christmas.

Footpad proved a bitter disappointment on his reappearance at Naas, falling at the last when appearing beaten behind Saint Calvados. He was subsequently found to have suffered an overreach during the race.

“Leopardstown is the plan. He’s back doing fast work and we’re very happy with him,” he said.

Footpad is currently a 6-5 favourite with the sponsor for that race. His stable companion Min, winner of Sunday’s John Durkan, helps give Mullins a strong hand and is a 2-1 next best.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column