Willie Mullins has given an in-depth run down on his list of Cheltenham festival runners and what races they are likely to run in.
Mullins has been leading trainer at The Festival for five of the last six years and sent out a record-breaking eight winners in 2015.
He is the leading Irish trainer at The Festival, with 48 successes, and currently sits second on the all-time trainers’ list behind Nicky Henderson.
“People expect a lot from our team,” said Mullins. “We are hoping rather than expecting. We have two or three horses that will probably go off favourite. If one wins, you are going well and hopefully a couple more will come out of it.
“All the horses are fit and well. Now it is about keeping them right and not having any little setbacks. I don’t think the Irish trainers’ title is going to have any bearing on the team we send over. It is all about Cheltenham at the moment.
“The team (about 40 horses) is not going to be as big as it has been in recent years. I think it is going to be tougher for us.”
Arctic Fire: ”He was ridden out today. He is good order and has worked well. I stuck him in the Randox Health County Hurdle just to see and I would say it is less than 50-50 whether he runs or not. We will see what sort of work he does over the next few days.”
Augusta Kate: ”It is unlikely Augusta Kate will go for the Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle as I think she needs further than two miles.
“She will probably go for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle along with C’Est Jersey,Penhill and maybe Battleford.
“It was always the plan to leave Penhill off after Christmas. He is schooling well and three miles on better ground will suit. The longer distance has helped his jumping.”
Bacardys: ”Bacardys probably surprised us a little bit when he won the Deloitte Novice Hurdle. I was happy the way he did it given the tactics we used [held up]. That means he will probably go for the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle rather than the Albert Bartlett.
“He is a horse we have always thought a lot of and that win recently has put him back on track.
“Kemboy, Montalbano and possibly Saturnas are others in the mix for the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle.”
Bapaume: ”We think we have two nice ones in Bapaume and Meri Devie for the JCB Triumph Hurdle. They will definitely run. Dandy Mag is entered but I doubt he will go.
“I was disappointed with Meri Devie at Leopardstown. She is better than that. I probably gave her too much time off after her last run and maybe she needs to be trained more like a gelding. She has grown and put on weight since, so I think I can be a little bit harder on her over the next few weeks.
“I think it will be a tough choice for Ruby. I know he had huge time for Meri Devie before the last day and I made him ride Bapaume. He wanted to ride the filly.
“I hope there is more to come from Bapaume but there will need to be if he is going to win.”
Bellshill: ”Belllshill will go for the RSA Chase or the J T McNamara National Hunt Chase if he travels. He ran badly in Leopardstown last year and then we ran him in the wrong race in Cheltenham.
“He just disappointed me last time so we will have to see how he is. He was in better form this morning. I think he is all about trip these days.”
Blazer: ”He could definitely go over. He is a maiden over fences so will probably go for one of the handicaps.”
Bon Papa: ”I think Bon Papa is certainly good enough to travel. I will have to see what connections want to do. It will either be the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle or the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. He looks a real chasing type.”
Djakadam: ”Djakadam is in great form. He has not had any setback this year. Last year he got a cut in Cheltenham and we had just enough time [to get him there] whereas this year we have had a clearer, better run to the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup. Hopefully that’s for luck.
“Missing the Irish Gold Cup was part of the plan all along. We said we would skip it and then when I saw the dates I think it was a week nearer to Cheltenham this year, which I’m not sure is great for the Irish Gold Cup. We entered him but we were never going to run.
“I think Djakadam is a more mature horse. He is coming to the age when chasers can win a Gold Cup. The first year, he was young, the second year, he had a bad prep, this year everything is going right.
“Would he need to improve to win? Would his last two Gold Cup performances be good enough? I don’t know. I think he is a better horse this year. I was taken with his run at Christmas. We did what we did on the day, but reflecting afterwards we thought different tactics might have produced a different result.
“I’d say the Gold Cup looks more open this year. Last week we were about 12/1 and somebody said the other day we are now 5/1. This year has been a funny year with a lot of injuries and the races are more open.
“It is one of my big ambitions [winning the Gold Cup]. It would be nice to do it. We are hopeful. Perhaps we need the ball bouncing a bit more in our favour and it could happen.”
Douvan: ”Douvan is in good order. Everything has gone well. At this stage, we are just trying to get there in one piece.
“It is easy watching Douvan every day. The one who is hard to watch is Un De Sceaux because every morning he goes out and wants to race and be competitive. Douvan is a lovely relaxed individual. Holly rides him every day and they go around there at their own pace, whereas Un De Sceaux wants to race every time he gets on the gallop. He pulls, put his head down and wants to get on with the job. You wonder if he can do that every morning without pulling a muscle or overreaching. Those type of horses are harder to train.
“Douvan is always in control with his jumping. He has scope, he can go in close or he can stand back. He seems to have everything. He is huge and it is rare for a horse his size to stay so sound.
“When you are going to Cheltenham with a favourite like Douvan, it is relief rather than joy when they win. When you have a 25/1 winner that isn’t expected, that is joy. There is fair bit of expectation with Douvan so you just want to keep him right and get there.
“Douvan is right at the top [league of expectation]. Not only because of what you all think of him but because of what I have thought of him and what he could be. He is not there yet but the bar keeps rising and he keeps meeting it. Hopefully, he can keep going. He has won everything we have asked him to win, but the Championship races mean the most.
“I have said what I think of him. He could be the best I have had, although he has long way to go and has to get past Hurricane Fly, who did what he did. The bar is high for him but we will see.”
Footpad: ”He is a definite for the Stan James Champion Hurdle. Petit Mouchoir was not going away from him at Leopardstown so wherever he finishes we are hoping the track in Cheltenham will suit Footpad better. Wicklow Brave is also in the Champion Hurdle and I am trying to get him there.”
Haymount: ”He will go for the RSA Chase or the J T McNamara National Hunt Chase. I thought he hated the ground the other day. He wants nice ground.
“He would not have got this sort of trip other hurdles because he had no respect for them, but he has settled down over fences. I would be happy enough he will get the trip in the four miler. He jumps well.”
Invitation Only: ”He is no more than 50-50 at the moment. I might keep him for Fairyhouse.
“He had a little bit of setback and I keep getting him back but then I am not happy. I am much happier with him the last few days but whether I have enough done to go to Cheltenham is the thing.”
Isleofhopendreams: ”He will go for the Pertemps Final. Somebody was telling me that he might not get in but our horses usually get between six and eight pounds over their Irish rating and, if that is the case, he will easily get in.”
Let’s Dance: ”I haven’t really decided what to do with Let’s Dance. The obvious one would be the Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, although we seem to have a few nice mares for that including Airlie Beach.
“The mares’ novice looks the obvious one for Let’s Dance but she could slot in any of the novice races. Mares form seems to be good this year. It seems to be stacking up better than the geldings.
“The step up in trip has helped and she is a second season novice. That is a big help to her.”
Limini: ”I haven’t decided what we are going to do with Limini. I would say at this stage it is 50-50 whether we supplement for the Stan James Champion Hurdle. I had a quick chat with Rich [Ricci, owner] the other day and we both said we would not chat much more until the morning of the confirmations.
“The more I think about it, the more I think a lot depends on how Vroum Vroum Mag is going. She is obviously in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle and, if she is fine and sparkling, I think we might take a punt [with Limini].
“I went to Punchestown thinking am I half mad going there. Last year we went to the same race with Annie Power and before the race you said it was a schooling hurdle for her, whereas this year as we got closer to the race I was thinking Apple’s Jade is not going to make it easy for us and we could have a hard race three weeks before The Festival.
“I hoped it would not turn into a race of attrition and we thought we would ride the race Ruby actually did. Everything fell into place. What I didn’t expect was Limini to go past Apple’s Jade without getting a smack. You ask yourself two questions. One, had we improved that much? I thought we had a bit at home, and two, did Apple’s Jade run to form? If she did, I think we are entitled to go for the Champion Hurdle.
“Limini’s jumping has improved hugely from last year judged on that performance. She didn’t have a hard race either. She was out this morning and I didn’t give her any time off after. We rode her out the following morning.”
Melon: ”Melon is one of four or five we will run in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Bunk Off Early, Crack Mome and Cilaos Emery would be the three other at this stage.
“Melon is a horse with plenty of ability. He jumps well, but lacks experience. He is a fine, strong, tall horse. He has the ability and the potential to be right up there. I don’t think the form of the two-mile division is as strong as it has been in recent years. We will find out on the day.
“We are looking at what Melon does at home all the time. I don’t know which way Ruby will go but I think it will be an easy enough decision for him.
“Our previous winners of the race had more experience, although Fiveforthree won the Neptune after just one run over hurdles. We have done it before, just not in the Supreme. Melon has plenty of jumping experience at home. He seems a natural jumper.
“I think Crack Mome and Cilaos Emery have good enough form to place or even win it if things go right. We think a bit of both. They have had two runs each and all these horses are going to improve.”
Royal Caviar: ”He is in great order and definitely goes for the Racing Post Arkle Chase. We think he jumps very well and wants nice ground.”
Shaneshill: ”Shaneshill and Clondaw Warrior will go for the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle. I am not so sure about Nichols Canyon. He has had an in and out year, so I might skip Cheltenham and go straight to Punchestown. But I have changed a few things with him at home and if he starts to bounce between now and then, we might bring him.
“I think both Shaneshill and Clondaw Warrior have improved. Clondaw Warrior probably should have been campaigning over three miles long before now. It is going to be tough but they both have each-way chances.”
Vroum Vroum Mag: ”I would imagine Vroum Vroum will go for the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle. That is all I can see her going for after her performance the other day. It was a terrible run.
“Perhaps she was brewing something as when she came home we put her on antibiotics and gave her an easier time. She has done a couple of bits since and I am much happier with her.”
Un De Sceaux: ”At the moment, the plan for Un De Sceaux is the Ryanair Chase. Ground or no ground, that is where we are.
“I don’t think the trip is a problem. He won over two and a half on heavy ground as a younger horse, which means he could probably get three miles now. He is relaxing a lot better and I think his last run showed that. He is settling down as he gets older.”
Weatherbys Champion Bumper: ”Carter McKay heads our team for the Champion Bumper and looks the one after his performance the other day. We don’t think he has any issues with ground.
“He had been doing nice work at home, although I would have to say his performance at Naas was better than I had hoped. Any horse who can win around Naas like that is a fair machine. You don’t go expecting performances like that, especially against the likes of Joseph [O'Brien's] horse [West Coast Time]. The fact Joseph still wants to go to Cheltenham with his horse might mean his horse wasn’t right on the day.
“Ballyward will probably be entered but pulled a muscle the other day so we will have to see how he pulls out.
“Next Destination works well and definitely goes, and we have also entered two fillies Redhotfillypeppers and Mystic Theatre.”
Yorkhill: ”All is good with Yorkhill. He goes for the JLT Novices’ Chase. I was tempted by the Stan James Champion Hurdle at the beginning of the season, which is why he didn’t run over fences until Christmas time. I thought we would have the other two [Faugheen and Annie Power] for the Champion Hurdle and let Yorkhill go chasing.
“Last October, my leading fancy for the Champion Hurdle was Yorkhill because the other two had their problems. But as we got to Christmas time they seemed fine, so I made the decision I made. I was obviously hoping to get another year out of Faugheen or Annie Power but when Yorkhill won the Neptune last year I thought he was the next horse to step into their shoes.
“I thought about the Champion Hurdle for two seconds [after Faugheen and Annie Power were ruled out] and then said ‘no’. I spoke to Graham Wylie and he was of the same opinion. He could come back over hurdles next season. We will see how he gets on in Cheltenham.”