As the Cheltenham Festival fast approaches, it’s about time we look at some of the star horses on offer this year. A large chunk of these come from the Willie Mullins yard with the trainer sending a total of 40 (not all confirmed yet) runners to the Festival. His horses are responsible for around half of the 28 ante-post market leaders at present, and although never really out of form, the yard is flying at present. A 39% win rate in the last 14 days, coupled with 131 wins and 111 placed efforts from 455 total jumps runners this year puts him in great stead heading into the Festival.
It is also worth noting that Mullins had 7 winners at the Festival last year (Al Boum Photo, Monkfish, Saint Roi, Burning Victory, Concertista, Min and Ferny Hollow) some of which are mentioned below as potential winners again this year. This was an increase on the 4 winners he had back in 2019, can he keep the trend going and increase his tally again this time around? Let’s take a look…
Al Boum Photo – The Cheltenham Gold Cup. He's won the last 2 running’s of the race by a neck and 2.5 lengths respectively, and he looks good value to make it 3 in a row this time around. A top-class horse who wiped the floor with his opposition at Tramore on his reappearance (1st January) after 10 months of by 19 lengths. He’s amassed closing in on £1 million worth of earnings and looks set to increase that in this year’s Gold Cup. A Plus Tard had a good reappearance winning the Savills Chase at Leopardstown in December and stays well, whilst Champ made a promising return at Newbury recently and the longer trip will be sure to suit. It is however hard to look beyond Al Boum in a bid for a hat-trick of Gold Cups.
Appreciate It – This 7-year-old has hardly put a foot wrong, winning a grade 1 novices hurdle in good style recently and similarly another at Leopardstown prior. He ran in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham last year and was unlucky, losing out to Ferny Hollow by 2.5 lengths. The build-up to Cheltenham this year has been promising with 3 wins and he looks a good bet for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Appreciate It fought off Ballyadam nicely and pulled it out of the bag even when he looked in some trouble to win a Grade 1 Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown earlier this month. He’s shown good speed and stamina in his races thus far, standing him in good stead for the uphill finish at Cheltenham. Willie Mullins has won this race more than any other trainer since 1972 (6 times) and looks likely to make it 7 this year.
Chacun Pour Soi – Entered in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, Chacun Pour Soi should be a cut above if bringing his ‘A’ game. Preparation for Cheltenham after a break has resulted in 3 wins, a combined winning distance of 33.5 lengths, which he did easily with a good turn of foot galloping away from the rest. Altior is also entered in the race alongside recent victor Nube Negra for the in-form Skeltons. If Altior is back to top form after a recent injury, he could be a threat having won the race twice previously providing an interesting spectacle. Willie also has the option of the Ryanair Chase but the Queen Mother looks the most likely target this time around. Who can’t wait to see these two Horse Racing Heavyweights battle it out?
Concertista – Concertista won the Novice Mares’ Hurdle at the Festival last year in impressive fashion by 12 lengths, and is in great form winning Grades 2 and 3 races at Leopardstown at the end of 2020. She faces stiff competition in this race (Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle) from the unbeaten and very impressive Honeysuckle (also entered in the Champion Hurdle) who won this last year, and Roksana who was an impressive 2 lengths 3rd behind Paisley Park in the Long Walk. It remains to be seen whether this distance could be on the short side for Roksana and Willie seems confident an alteration in training has Concertista in the best shape possible and she has her ideal distance here. It'll be a close-run thing but there's no doubting the firepower the Mullins stable brings.
Elimay – Had options with the Mares’ Hurdle this year but opted for the Mares’ Chase as the best option. She’s a small horse in terms of size but has a big engine and great turn of foot, easily beating Shattered Love last time in a Listed race at Naas by 5.5 lengths (eased down). Elimay also ran a creditable race behind the other Mullins horse Allaho (entered in the Ryanair Chase) in a Grade 2 event prior which was impressive. The other Mullins horse Colreevy is entered and ran 5th in the Mares’ hurdle last year, but will probably want softer ground to be competitive, whilst Put The Kettle On is ever consistent (also has an entry in the Queen Mother Champion Chase) and will appreciate the step up in trip from his last race behind Chacun Pour Soi. It’s set to be an interesting race, but should the rain stay away, Elimay looks the best of the two Mullins runners.
Energumene – Romped home in the Irish Arkle Novices’ Chase at Leopardstown earlier this month and looks like a very talented horse. Shishkin is the early favourite for the race (Arkle Trophy) and has been impressive in his wins in two Grade 2 Chases recently; also winning the Supreme Novices Hurdle at the Festival last year so has that course experience too. Energumene seems to stay well and has good speed, although he has been known to jump right on occasions so just remains to be seen whether he has enough to fend of Shishkin and which of the two will make the running. On ratings, the two are rated 164 (Shishkin) and 163 (Energumene) so it will be a great battle for sure! Nicky Henderson has the most wins in the race since 1946 with 6.
Gaillard Du Mesnil – Mullins will be looking to extend his record to 5 wins in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle with Gaillard Du Mesnil. He posted a good effort at Punchestown in November after over a year off the track, backed up by two impressive wins, one of those in a Grade 1 hurdle at Leopardstown winning by 5 lengths. It seems as though 2.5 miles is around his optimum trip so this race should be run to suit whilst he is quite happy to be held up. He jumps well and hasn’t done much wrong in any of his races, but faces stiff competition from Bob Olinger (already easily won a Grade 1 over this distance) and Bravemansgame who most recently romped home in the Challow Novices’ Hurdle by 10 lengths from the front. Willie is quietly confident, but it remains to be seen if he can back up what we’ve seen so far against tougher opposition.
James Du Berlais – An interesting recruit here, and not one of the most fancied runners, but one that took my fancy at a price in the Champion Hurdle. Rated around 167 on British ratings, it shows the potential the horse seems to have, and although purchased as a novice chaser, looks as though hurdles will suit. Despite being a more of a long-term prospect, the horse could run well at Cheltenham and surprise a few people should some of the principles underperform. He has amassed over a quarter of a million pounds of earnings in France winning several Listed and Grade 3 hurdles races, as well as going close (beaten a short-head by another very progressive horse in Moises Has) in a Grade 1 at Auteuil in November. The trip may be on the short side, but he looks an interesting prospect and could easily outrun his odds.
Kilcruit – Entered in the Champion Bumper, a race Mullins has won 10 times from 1996-2020, Kilcruit looks like a very special horse. 2 NH runs for Willie and 2 wins, by 9.5 and 12 lengths respectively beating Letsbeclearaboutit whose form figures read 1122 and is no 'average' horse by any means. The recent win was probably one of the most impressive runs I've seen for a long time, the jockey didn't move a muscle on him, just eased him into contention, then to the front and away from the rest. He seems very athletic and goes about his business easily so it's clear to see why Willie is so impressed with him and he's the strong favourite for the Champion Bumper. A future superstar? His performance in this race should tell us more, but there is nothing to dislike about him so far.
Monkfish – Another top quality horse coming from the Mullins yard, winning the Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival last year beating Thyme Hill (4th), and we all know how good he’s turned out to be. Since then has gone on to win two Grade 1 chases at Leopardstown beating Latest Exhibition both times (by 3 and then 11 lengths respectively), an excellent build-up to the Cheltenham Festival. Already earning over £200,000 in prize money, another bold showing is likely this year. A very tall and light-framed horse, he seems to have bags of natural ability and providing last year’s hard-fought win hasn’t put him off the track, he’s in with a top chance again this time around. Paul Townend seems impressed with his work and should he be allowed to dictate from the front, he could be hard to peg back.
So that’s just 10 of the runners Mullins is planning to take to Cheltenham, all with very good chances of winning. You can never over-look the likes of Nicky Henderson with Shishkin, Epatante, Altior and Champ, Paul Nicholls with Bravemansgame, Politilogue, Bob and Co and Next Destination and even the Skeltons this year with Roksana, Allmankind and Nube Negra. Each of those is in with a very good chance of getting some winners on the board as well as other Irish trainers such as Henry De Bromhead (Honeysuckle, Bob Olinger, A Plus Tard) and Gordon Elliott (Ballyadam, Tiger Roll, Sir Gerhard) who could all easily take their share of the prize money. Of course, horse racing isn’t that simple and anything could happen… But it’s hard to look beyond Willie Mullins for Top Trainer at the Festival this year. With the firepower he possesses in his yard and the form he is currently in, he’s going to be hard to peg back once Cheltenham kicks off mid-March.