Mullins: A Cheltenham conundrum
Donn McClean weighs up the many and varied options available to Willie Mullins as the Cheltenham Festival approaches.
If you train racehorses, any week in which you have 10 winners is a good week. Even if you are assessed according to the standards that you yourself have set, even if you are measured by the barometer that you have invented.
Even if you are Willie Mullins.
Include in those 10 wins the Grade 1 Clarence House Chase, the Grade 2 Doncaster Mares' Hurdle, the Grade 2 John Mulhern Galmoy Hurdle, the Grade 2 Nat Lacey and Partners Novice Hurdle. And include a near-flawless performance from the much-touted brand new Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle favourite on his debut for the yard.
Yet it was the absentees that made the headlines.
Annie Power was ruled out of the Cheltenham Festival on Wednesday. The ligaments in her knee are going to take six to nine weeks to heal, so, regrettably, that rules out a defence of the Champion Hurdle title she won so brilliantly.
Then, when the declared runners for Sunday's Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Chase at Leopardstown were published on Friday morning, Min was not among them. Faugheen was among the declarations for the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle all right, but he was scratched from the race on Saturday morning.
You want to see these top-class horses race. These are the horses who characterise the sport, who draw the crowds, who define the era.
You wanted to see Faugheen return, take his place in the Irish Champion Hurdle line-up, defend his crown. You wanted to see him take on Petit Mouchoir, see how close the pretender was to the champion, see if the champion retained all or most of his ability.
You want to see Min race again over fences now, see if he can take the next step forward. And you definitely want to see Annie Power. It's desperately disappointing that she will miss Cheltenham. Hopefully she will be back for Punchestown.
But as frustrating and all as it is for racing fans, it is worse for trainers and connections. Lucky, then, that this trainer and these connections have strength-in-depth.
It will be fascinating to see how the Mullins team for the Cheltenham Festival takes shape over the course of the next six weeks. (That's right, just 43 more sleeps now.) There are myriad permutations.
With last year's Champion Hurdle winner Annie Power now ruled out, it leaves 2015 winner Faugheen as the automatic Mullins number one and ante post favourite for this year's renewal. The plan is now reportedly to go straight to Cheltenham. There just isn't time to get a prep run in between now and then.
It is a massive ask, to win a Champion Hurdle after such a long break. There are 415 days between last year's Irish Champion Hurdle, when Faugheen last raced, and this year's Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. Even See You Then didn't have to overcome an absence of that magnitude, and they called him See You When.
On the plus side, if you were to choose one man to whom to entrust the job, you would choose Willie Mullins. Remember that we rarely saw Quevega between April and March.
There are other Mullins Champion Hurdle possibles. Footpad ran a cracker on Sunday to get to within a length of Petit Mouchoir. Okay, so there was a sense that Petit Mouchoir was softened up a little by Nichols Canyon, that Footpad picked up the pieces. But Petit Mouchoir is third favourite for the Champion Hurdle in most lists, and Footpad deserves his place in the picture, at least on the periphery.
More intriguingly, Yorkhill is also at least a shadow in the Champion Hurdle picture, even if he is not among the entries. Mullins mentioned him as a Champion Hurdle possible 'in time' last week, and that was before Annie Power was ruled out. It has to be unlikely though; he would have to be supplemented and, more importantly, he is a novice chaser now.
The Wylies' horse does jump to his left over his fences, he did so on his chasing bow at (right-handed) Fairyhouse, and he did so again in a Grade 3 contest last weekend at (left-handed) Leopardstown. That trait shouldn't be a major issue at Cheltenham, which also goes left-handed, like Leopardstown. He oozes class. Always has.
Yorkhill won the Neptune Hurdle at last year's Cheltenham Festival over two and a half miles, not the Supreme Novices' Hurdle over two, and he won the Mersey Novices' Hurdle at Aintree, also over two and a half miles, not the Top Novices' Hurdle over two. So you have to think that the JLT Novices' Chase is a more likely target for him than the Arkle, especially with Min on your team.
Min is an Arkle horse all over. He has never gone beyond two miles and two furlongs over hurdles or fences, and the only time he has been beaten since he joined the team at Closutton was in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle last March, when he finished second to Altior.
He has raced twice over fences, and he has impressed on each occasion. His task was rendered easier than it might have been in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novices' Chase at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival by Identity Thief's early departure, but he was still impressive. His jumping was electric.
Mullins said that his absence from Sunday's Irish Arkle was just down to a bang on the knee. That it was the timing of the injury that was bad rather than the severity of it.
Vroum Vroum Mag was not impressive in winning the Grade 2 Mares' Hurdle at Doncaster on Saturday. She just wasn't at her best, but she still battled well to get home from the teak-tough Midnight Jazz by a head.
She is a remarkable mare. She has raced now 13 times for Mullins, and she has won 12 times, going down by a short head to Apple's Jade in the Hatton's Grace Hurdle in her only defeat. The fact that she was able to do enough to win on Saturday, despite not being at her best, is testament to her toughness, and the fact that she is entered in six races at Cheltenham – hurdles and chases, over distances ranging from two miles to three and a quarter – is testament to her versatility.
Un De Sceaux was good in the Clarence House Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday. He jumped well and he galloped on strongly to the line to justify the odds-on quotes.
The 2015 Arkle winner and now a sextuple Grade 1 winner, it looks like it is the Ryanair Chase for Edward O'Connell's horse at the Cheltenham Festival, as much because you know that he stays two and a half miles as because you know that the champion trainer has another one for the Champion Chase. (See below.)
Let's Dance was very good at Leopardstown on Sunday. She jumped well in the main and she came clear of her rivals from the second last flight. That is her fourth win now on the bounce and, a second-season hurdler, she has more experience than most of her fellow novices.
It is interesting that owner Rich Ricci mentioned the Albert Bartlett Hurdle over three miles – a distance over which she has never raced – as a possible Festival target in his post-race interview at Leopardstown. She also has the option of the Neptune, the Mares' Hurdle and the Mares' Novice Hurdle. Like Vroum Vroum Mag, she is versatile, and she has options.
Melon was also very good at Leopardstown on Sunday. He jumped really well for a debutant, and he came clear of his rivals to post an impressive victory. He justified the hype, lived up to the reputation that preceded him, and he galloped through the line. It wasn't until the second flight past the stands that Ruby Walsh was able to pull him up.
And there are the constants. Djakadam is a constant, still runner-up in the last two renewals of the Gold Cup, still on track for another crack. Douvan is a constant, still the monster that he was, unbeaten since his arrival here, still looking unbeatable, still looking monstrous, and still long odds-on for the Champion Chase.
Douvan still blows you away. Even if you are Willie Mullins.
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