Lady luck’s spotlight hasn’t been shining on Willie Mullins during the 2016/17 season. His well-publicised fall out with Gigginstown Stud at the start of the campaign saw several of his stable stars sent out to rival yards. Vautour’s tragic death in a freak training accident has set the tone for a season littered with injuries and set-backs.
The Cheltenham Festival, the biggest meeting on the National Hunt racing calendar, is literally just days away. For five of the past six seasons, Mullins and his faithful sidekick, Ruby Walsh have dominated the winners’ enclosure at Prestbury Park, landing considerably more winners in the past six years than any of his other rivals.
Mullins will make his yearly pilgrimage across the Irish Sea to Gloucester without several of his top draw attractions – with the likes of former Champion Hurdler Faugheen, reigning Champion Hurdler Annie Power and potential Arkle Challenger Min, all missing the trip to Cheltenham with niggling injuries. Despite all his troubles this season, the County Carlow maestro is still a strong favourite to claim Top Trainer honours at the Festival. Let’s take a look at some of Willie’s stable stars, who could emulate their stricken teammates and land Cheltenham Festival titles next week and get some expert Cheltenham tips.
Mullins will play an extremely strong hand in the Supreme Novices Hurdle, the first race of the Festival, as he looks to get off to a winning start in 2017. Melon looks to be his best hope of landing that title, with Bunk Off Early, Cilaos Emery and Crack Mome all boasting credible winning chances. Willie is the best in the business at finding winning mares and Vroum Vroum Mag is likely to battle Apple’s Jade once again in the Mares’ Hurdle. Limini, who beat Apple’s Jade on her reappearance last month, also features prominently in the Mares’ Hurdle field, but she could be rerouted towards the Champion Hurdle, to bolster the weakened team Mullins will be running in Tuesday’s feature contest.
All eyes will be on Douvan as he hits the track on Wednesday afternoon and it seems a mere formality that the imposing seven-year-old will claim the Queen Mother Champion Chase crown. Bacardys will pit is considerable wits against Neon Wolf and Finian’s Oscar in the Neptune, before Carter McKay and Ballyward lead Mullins’ charge for the Champion Bumper title later in the day.
Un De Sceaux will be looking to bounce back from his Champion Chase defeat to Sprinter Sacre last season, by jumping up in trip and challenging for the Ryanair title that Vautour won so brilliantly last year. Yorkhill is expected to kick off Ladies Day in winning style when he takes on his fellow novice chasers in the JLT, Shaneshill will try and upset Unowhatimeanharry in the Stayers’ Hurdle, before Let’s Dance and Airlie Beach look set to fight for the Mares’ Novices title.
Djakadam will return to the Gold Cup for a third time, after finishing second to Coneygree and Don Cossack on his previous two Festival appearances. Mullins’ has been talking up his charges Gold Cup chances, as Djakadam has enjoyed a rare, uninterrupted run towards the biggest price in horse racing. Bapaume and Merie Devie both hold strong chances in the Triumph Hurdle before Augusta Kate seeks to avenge her last defeat to Death Duty in the Albert Bartlett.
Looking into the handicaps, Isleofhopendreams is a definite title contender in the Pertemps Final, while The Crafty Butcher and Battleford boasting strong chances in the Kim Muir and Martin Pipe Handicaps respectively, as they and the rest of Mullins’ team of talented challengers, look to ensure their master retains his Top Trainer title at the Cheltenham Festival for yet another season.