Ireland’s champion Jump trainer Willie Mullins has assembled his strongest-ever Cheltenham Festival team at his Closutton Stables in County Carlow.
Mullins is likely to field over 40 runners over The Festival’s four days (Tuesday, 11 March to Friday, 14 March), including favourites for many of the meeting’s feature events.
But, although Hurricane Fly is on target to bid for a third Stan James Champion Hurdle, Mullins has still to decide whether he will be joined by stablemates Annie Power and Un De Sceaux.
“Hurricane Fly came in very strong after a summer at grass and you don’t expect a horse to improve at his age (10),” said Mullins. “I’d like him to win again at Cheltenham for the horse’s sake, he deserves it. He missed two Cheltenhams and then wasn’t right the year he got beaten.
“This fellow has great fight and aggression, they are the qualities that make him stand out.
“Annie Power is in good form and I’m just preparing her for Cheltenham like all the other horses. It will be at the last minute when we decide who goes where. We have to consider things like whether she’s ever met a real Champion Hurdle horse and the fact that she has done well every time we have done a longer trip.
“She was highly strung when with Jim Bolger but has settled down now. She seems to have taken her travelling over to England well and I hope it hasn’t taken a lot out of her.
“We have to look at what else is in the races and hope everything falls into place at the last minute. At the moment, there are four or five who will be hard to beat in the Champion Hurdle, one or two in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle and one in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.
“Un De Sceaux looks well but going over two miles on that ground at that pace at Gowran at the weekend could have taken a lot out of him. He’s a young talent that I don’t want to abuse. He’s done everything we’ve asked but we’ve found races for him where he could show his talents without coming under pressure.
“He’s not run in a Grade One and Saturday’s race was really only a Grade Two in name. It could be difficult to throw him in the Champion Hurdle but we’ll see how things play out in the next three weeks. He looks like a huge talent.
“I haven’t looked at the opposition too much, I haven’t really seen the English trials – I just concentrate on getting mine there.
“The decision on Annie Power will be very late. I’m looking at her and Un De Sceaux as the future and Hurricane Fly is the present.”
Quevega is set to bid for an unprecedented sixth consecutive victory in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle on Tuesday, 11 March and Mullins added: “I wasn’t happy with her so gave her a couple of days off, which I could afford to do because we have time to spare. But I’ve been happy again in the last few days. She’s just gone from strength to strength and we put everything into getting her right for Cheltenham.
“My owners don’t want to breed from her, they want to race. As a trainer I find it as personally satisfying as anything to produce a horse to go back there year after year. When they have ability, you mind that ability and pick the races.”
Mullins has an outstanding bunch of novice hurdlers and he is set to field three strong contenders in the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on Tuesday, 11 March while Faugheen is on course for the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle on Wednesday, 12 March.
“Vautour, Wicklow Brave and Valseur Lido are the three for the Supreme Novices’. Vautour’s jumping is very good, which is the key to the Supreme. He’s different from last year’s winner Champagne Fever, who is a lean racing machine. Vautour is more of a strong three-mile chaser.
“He was not as visually impressive as he might have been last time but Champagne Fever disappointed last year on his run before Cheltenham. Valseur Lido is fine and I think Wicklow Brave could really improve on the ground at Cheltenham. He definitely has the ability but his jumping is the thing that could let him down.
“With Faugheen we are looking at the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle at the moment. But he could run in any three of the novice races, with the amount of ability he has. He had three runs (this season) and I didn’t feel the need to run him again. I’ve actually been a little disappointed with him recently but changed his feed routine last night so hopefully that will help him. He’s fit and ready to run, he won’t need a lot more work.”
Mullins’ novice chase team includes Champagne Fever, who is being aimed at the Racing Post Arkle Chase on Tuesday, 11 March.
“Champagne Fever is heading to the Arkle at the moment but I could still change my mind. I think he’ll be back on his A-game this year. To make a mistake jumping is not like him and his style of jumping is the reason we are going for the Arkle.
“The Gold Cup in the future is where we are aiming with him and Ruby (Walsh) has the same objective. It would be nice if he was the first Weatherbys Champion Bumper winner to win the Gold Cup.
“Ballycasey looks a staying sort. Someone wrote that he doesn’t get three miles but if you look back there were reasons that he was beaten when trying that trip. He’s bred to be a three-mile chaser and, after his Leopardstown win, he is likely to go for the RSA Chase (Wednesday, 12 March), although he is in the four-miler.
“The ground is the key to Felix Yonger and the JLT Novices’ Chase (Thursday, 13 March) looks the target for him.”
Mullins’ four-year-old hurdlers include Ivan Grozny and Gitane Du Berlais, who were both left in the JCB Triumph Hurdle (Friday, 14 March) at Tuesday’s scratchings stage.
“Ivan Grozny is not going to be good enough with his rating for the JCB Triumph Hurdle and possibly too good for the Fred Winter. But after his run the last day I think we will focus more on the Fred Winter (Wednesday, 12 March).
“Gitane Du Berlais will definitely go for the Triumph although my owner would not be worried if she didn’t go to Cheltenham. She is very much next year’s filly and is a real talent that is going to improve. I love the way she is going and who knows what could happen if she got soft ground in the Triumph.”
One-time Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup hopes Sir Des Champs and Rubi Ball are sidelined with injury, although Arvika Ligeonniere is on course for the BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday, 12 March.
“It was hugely disappointing to lose our Gold Cup horses and Arvika Ligeonniere is most likely to go to the Champion Chase. We’re thinking of doing one or two things differently this year with him, just simple things.”
Mullins will be bidding for a ninth success in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Wednesday, 12 March) and added: “Black Hercules looks likely to go for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper and the same owner has Shaneshill and we could run both. I’ll have a chat with Mr (Graham) Wylie.”
Reflecting on his team, Mullins said: “This is out of this world stuff and I think the same every day I go to the gallops. I’m not taking it for granted and we enjoy it. But everyone has expectations as a result and I know we could go there and not have any winners. People expect us to have winners but I know that three out of every four bankers don’t win.
“I hope that Hurricane Fly and Quevega win, that would be huge, and then hopefully there might be another one somewhere along the way.”