Willie Mullins to justify punters’ Cheltenham trust again
Ireland’s champion trainer can rally from turbulent season back off track at home
Ruby Walsh riding Limini (centre, pink), with Ruby Walsh on board, on the way to winning The Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle Race at the Cheltenham festival last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
It isn’t “In Arsène We Trust” anymore at Arsenal but at the start of Cheltenham 2017 Irish punters in particular have to decide about whether or not to maintain their festival trust in Willie Mullins.
For most of a decade Mullins has been the mainstay of an unprecedented run of Irish dominance at the festival, making him Ireland’s most successful ever Cheltenham trainer and leaving him requiring only two more victories to reach the momentous 50-winner mark.
Such a figure once would have seemed impossible, just as it would have been equally far fetched just a year ago to imagine jump racing’s most powerful figure returning to the sport’s most important stage under pressure.
Fortunes famously fluctuate when it comes to horses and after a winter that has seen his dominance challenged at home, Mullins has a lot riding on maintaining his stranglehold of Cheltenham’s leading trainer award.
That he’s odds-on to win it for a sixth time in seven years after what has already been a tumultuous season indicates just how overwhelming his festival influence has been.
Mullins’s team of 40 horses is down from the massive 60-strong raiding parties that picked up 15 festival victories between them through 2015 and 2016. It’s scarcely credible to believe anyone else could assemble this year’s firepower after the series of reverses he has endured since then.
Robbed through injury of star names in Faugheen, Annie Power and Min, and the sad death of Vatour, it is the impact of Mullins’s split from Michael O’Leary especially that has had a seismic influence on the season to date.
O’Leary’s decision to take those 60 horses away in September in a clash over training fees has already seen Gordon Elliott become odds-on to dethrone Mullins as Ireland’s champion trainer.
It now reverberates into the week which will ultimately decide which of the pair has come off worst, and if it’s presumptive to reduce racing’s greatest shop-window to another headline-friendly personality clash it is also silly to ignore how so much of this Cheltenham could be influenced by it.
It’s a curio that Ireland’s most important race meeting is staged in England but domestic rivalries look set to be transplanted with a vengeance to Gloucestershire this week whatever about the automatic Anglo-Irish flavour that comes with this greatest of festivals.
Mullins has dismissed the O’Leary saga as “old news” but he’s much too savvy to imagine that if Petit Mouchoir – a horse he trained until September – wins the Champion Hurdle for Henry De Bromhead it won’t be portrayed through the prism of his split with the billionaire Ryanair boss.
He’s also experienced enough to know that the next four days can colour how an entire year gets portrayed.
The trainer has the peerless Douvan for Wednesday’s Champion Chase and if, after Mullins finishing runner-up half a dozen times, Djakadam should secure him an elusive Gold Cup victory, it’s hard not to suspect that if Mullins was offered those two wins now he might happily look back on 2017 with nostalgia.
Those punters throughout these islands preparing to bet an estimated €350 million over the next four days are likely to take a greedier approach, possibly recalling Mullins’s superb 2015 opening-day four timer.
Emulating that might be a stretch but so much of Tuesday’s action still revolves around the one figure.
In form terms, Melon’s only run over hurdles is pretty much meaningless. Beating up Broken Soul has been a winter pursuit for others too. But others don’t have the colossal home reputation Melon brings to the Supreme Novices Hurdle.
Three of his stable companions line up alongside him and one of them in particular, Bunk Off Early, can boast Grade One form and a profile that normally would make him easy to fancy.
Mullins though has already claimed that of all Ruby Walsh’s selection calls this week, Melon was straightforward based on what he shows at home.
It’s the punters choice to go on proven form like Ballyandy’s in particular, or with the maestro’s instincts. The Supreme is a race Mullins knows how to win. Tourist Attraction was the first of those 48 festival victories in this race 22 years ago. He’s won it four more times since. Melon must have a lot going for him.
Practically no one else but Mullins knows what it takes to win the OLBG Mares Hurdle, since he has won eight of the nine renewals. Limini and the defending champion Vroum Vroum Mag give him a strong hand against Apple’s Jade, one of those Gigginstown horses that left in the autumn.
Even a double Grade One winner like Jer’s Girl faces a task against this trio on ratings and the permutations are intriguing. Of them all however, Limini is the one coming into this in winning form, and that means she could just hold the edge.
If Altior will be the focus of purists’ attention in the Arkle, then the usual Anglo-Irish rivalry will be enlivened this week by controversies over the handicapping of visiting horses by the British authorities and suggestions by Michael O’Leary in particular of an anti-Irish bias.
The Paddy Power winner Noble Endeavor will be a popular pick for the visitors in the Ultimata Chase but it doesn’t require tip-toeing through diplomatic niceties to suspect the concession of almost a stone to the course winner Singlefarmpayment may be beyond him.
And if Singlefarmpayment can be fancied then the horse that beat him at Ascot last November, Beware The Bear, should hold major claims in the four-mile National Hunt Chase, especially since two wins over fences to date don’t look to have scratched the paint of his potential.
Cheltenham: 1.30 - Melon 2.10 - Altior 2.50 - Singlefarmpayment (Nap) 4.10 - Limini 4.50 - Beware The Bear 5.30 - Foxtail Hill.
Nap and Double - Singlefarmpayment & Beware The Bear.