Donn's Articles » Willie Mullins Cheltenham team

Willie Mullins Cheltenham team

Last Saturday at Punchestown, the exciting young hurdler Ut De Sivola won the Grade 3 contest for juveniles. He wasn’t as impressive as a long odds-on shot should have been, and if Hisaabaat hadn’t made a significant error at the final flight, he might have had a fight on his hands. Nevertheless, the bookmakers were suitably impressed, 12/1 for the Triumph Hurdle, they said, no better. I hope he has improved again, said his trainer Willie Mullins.

The following day, So Young won a two-mile hurdle race at Navan. He had to make his own running, and he was out to his right a little at a couple of his obstacles, but he picked up nicely between the final two flights to come away from the useful Trifolium, and he clocked an impressive time over a trip that was almost certainly short of his best. 20/1 for the World Hurdle, said some bookmakers, 12/1 said others. He’ll get an entry in both the World Hurdle and the Champion Hurdle, said his trainer Willie Mullins.

Mullins is now ubiquitous. Hardly a week goes by these days without the champion trainer adding another arrow to his Cheltenham Festival quiver. Call The Police wins at Gowran, Boston Bob wins at Navan, Zaidpour wins at Navan, Blackstairmountain wins at Leopardstown, Make Your Mark wins at Leopardstown, Sir Des Champs wins at Limerick, Mikael D’Haguenet wins at Punchestown, Quel Esprit wins at Thurles. All important wins in their own right, but as stepping stones to Cheltenham, they are crucial.

You can tell yourself that the season is not all about the Cheltenham Festival, you can try to convince yourself that there are other meetings on the National Hunt racing calendar that are as important as those four days in March, but you will struggle. Before Christmas, Cheltenham is the ever-present canopy that envelopes the season, the reference point for every race; after the turn of the calendar year, the blurry Cheltenham targets gradually come into view, the images get sharper with every day that passes, every race that is run. Focus.

There are few whose Cheltenham focus is as sharp as Willie Mullins’s. Of course, it is not surprising that it is thus, given the Mullins family’s history with Cheltenham, and Willie’s own exploits there as an amateur rider, but as a trainer, he has brought the synonymy to a new level. Last year, he had four winners during Cheltenham week and lifted the trophy for leading trainer at the meeting for the first time. This year the bookmakers make him their 15/8 second favourite to win the title again.

It is easy to look at a couple of high-profile horses, scratch the surface, and be fooled into thinking that a trainer or a rider has a strong hand at Cheltenham. Mullins has the high-profile horses all right, but he also has strength in-depth. In fact, the deeper you get into his possible team, the stronger it becomes.

Of course, he has his flag-bearers, like Hurricane Fly and Thousand Stars and Quevega. They don’t make them any more high-profile than Hurricane Fly. High-profile absentee from the 2009 and 2010 Festivals, he was a high-profile participant in last year’s, when he put a high-class Champion Hurdle field to the sword with his trademark devastating turn of foot. We haven’t seen him race this season yet, but signs are that he will make his belated debut at Leopardstown next Sunday in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle. After that, next stop Cheltenham.

We haven’t seen Quevega this season yet either, but we have become used to that. The daughter of Robin Des Champs has won the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham for each of the last three years, and in those three seasons, prior to Cheltenham, she ran a total of just once. It has got to the stage now where we would be worried if she did make her seasonal debut before Cheltenham. Her trainer reports her to be well and on-track, and that’s really all we need to know.

Thousand Stars is a little less straightforward. The 2010 County Hurdle winner lurked in Hurricane Fly’s shadow for most of last season, but he proved that he was a top class hurdler in his own right when he ran away with the French Champion Hurdle at Auteuil in July, leaving Mourad and Final Approach and Grands Crus in his wake. He could join Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle again, or he could step up in trip and contest the World Hurdle. The latter race would seem to be a more realistic option, given that he appeared to stay three and a quarter miles well in the French Champion Hurdle, albeit in a race run at a typically French sedate pace.

Mourad is probably World Hurdle-bound. Third in the race last year as a six-year-old, he stays well and it makes sense to allow him have another go. However, an inordinate number of his stable companions are with Thousand Stars in the Champion-or-World-Hurdle box. So Young, Mikael D’Haguenet, Zaidpour. It’s uncanny. All three have pace and class, they have all won good hurdle races over two miles and over two and a half miles, and each of them have the potential to improve again for stepping up to three. Deciding on individual targets won’t be easy for Mullins, but it won’t be easy in the apple-tart-or-trifle sense, not in the cane-or-leather-strap sense. More 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 than how are we going to find 11 players?

The novice hurdlers aren’t very helpful either. Sous Les Cieux looked high class when he won the Grade 1 Royal Bond Hurdle at Fairyhouse last month, shaping as if he would improve for stepping up in trip. As such, the Neptune Hurdle looked like the race for him at Cheltenham. Then Boston Bob won the Grade 1 Navan Hurdle over two and a half miles, and Make Your Mark ran out an impressive winner of a two-and-a-half-mile maiden hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas, both shaping like Neptune Hurdle horses.

Mullins won the Neptune with Fiveforthree in 2008 and with Mikael D’Haguenet in 2009, and Boston Bob could be the one to carry the Mullins flag into the contest this year. Make Your Mark won his only point-to-point and is stoutly-bred from the family of top staying chaser Wayward Lad, so perhaps he could be the one to step up in trip for the Albert Bartlett, while Sous Les Cieux has won a Grade 1 two-mile hurdle race, and he may just have the pace for a strongly-run Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

There are many more. Sir Des Champs, winner of the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle at last year’s Festival, is two for two over fences and could be Jewson Chase-bound, Blackstairmountain for the Arkle, Scotsirish and Uncle Junior should be big players in the Cross-Country, Allee Garde possibly or the National Hunt Chase, Quel Esprit possibly for the Gold Cup, Ut De Sivola for the Triumph Hurdle, and we haven’t even got near the handicaps or the bumper. Targets still need to be found for Call The Police, Blazing Tempo, Final Approach, Bishopsfurze, Sweet My Lord and a whole host of others.

As Cheltenham teams go, injuries to key players notwithstanding, they don’t get much stronger than Team Mullins this year. Just over seven weeks now to decide on the formation.

© The Sunday Times, 22nd January 2012