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Mullins still holds handful of aces for Cheltenham Festival

Mullins still holds handful of aces for Cheltenham Festival

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At the start of the current National Hunt season champion Irish jumps trainer Willie Mullins had a stable full of stars, many of whom were favourite or vying for favouritism for the big races at the Cheltenham Festival in March. Halfway through the term there have been a few downs but many ups and the legendary County Carlow handler continues to hold a hatful of aces ahead of “the greatest show on turf”.

Faugheen, highly impressive winner of the Neptune Investment Management Novices hurdle at Cheltenham last season, enhanced his already massive reputation when winning the Grade 2 Coral Hurdle at Ascot in November in fine style and is now a general 9/4 clear favourite for the Champion Hurdle. He is set to run at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting where he will bid to extend his unbeaten run and solidify his position at the head of the ante-post market for the championship race.

Faugheen’s veteran stable companion, the mighty Hurricane Fly, twice a winner of the Champion Hurdle, showed he is still no back number despite being on the verge of his 11th birthday, when beating reigning champion hurdler Jezki in a good renewal of the Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown. He has been to 14/1 from 33’s to win the crown for a third time, but may well have got the best of Jezki by virtue of the runner-up more than likely having been a little way short of peak fitness.

Vautour, winner of the Supreme Novices Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, was another Mullins star to do everything right on his first outing of the new season. Making his novice chasing bow at Navan on November 23, the five-year-old looked a potential top-notch chaser in slamming Clarcam by an easy eight lengths and his betfair odds for Cheltenham were cut 6/1 to 4/1 ante-post favourite for the Grade 1 Racing Post Arkle Trophy on March 10 following rave reviews. He was also cut to 3/1 favourite for the longer two-and-a-half-mile Grade 1 JLT Novices Chase at the same meeting.

Things didn’t go quite as well though for his stable companion Un De Sceaux, unbeaten over hurdles for Mullins, and who made his chasing bow at Thurles four days later. He was well in command and around 15 lengths clear when crashing out with the race very much at his mercy. Despite that spill, most firms felt Un De Sceaux had shown enough to still be a serious contender for the Arkle Trophy, for which he is a 6/1 shot.

Last term Mullins’ grand mare, Annie Power, tasted her one and only career defeat when finishing runner-up to More of That in the Grade 1 Ladbrokes World Hurdle at Cheltenham, and with her legendary stable companion, the six-time OLBG Mares Hurdle winner Quevega, having been retired, Annie Power has been a persistent fancy to take over the mantle of top mare and continue the Mullins dominance of the big Cheltenham race.

The six-year-old daughter of Shirocco had been expected to take all the beating in the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at the end of November, but she missed the contest after being found to be lame and connections remain in the dark as to quite what is causing the problem. It appears that the winner of 11 of her 12 career starts now faces a race to be fit enough to make it to Cheltenham but she remains a hot favourite to land the spoils and is generally on offer with a range of bookies, such as Paddy Power and BetVictor, at 5/4, although she has eased out from 5/6 prior to her setback.

The ex-French juvenile hurdler Douvan has emerged as the clear 7/1 ante-post favourite for the Supreme Novices Hurdle after strolling to a 12-length victory at Gowran Park on his first start for Mullins and owner Susannah Ricci, and is already being talked of as a potential new stable star. He is also offered at 12/1 second-favourite in the market for the Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle behind stable companion Shaneshill, winner of last season’s Punchestown Festival Bumper having lost out narrowly to Dermot Weld’s Silver Concorde in the Cheltenham equivalent a few weeks earlier.

Shaneshill (10/1) made a fine start to his hurdling career when beating the decent Keppols Queen by four lengths in a two-and-a-half-mile maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse on November 19 and is another exciting performer to look forward to.

And as if he didn’t have enough aces in his pack, Mullins also introduced a potentially serious Triumph Hurdle candidate in the shape of the ex-French Kalkir (another owned by Mrs Ricci), who hacked up in a Grade 3 juvenile hurdle at Fairyhouse in November on his Irish hurdles bow and has already gone into plenty of notebooks as a potentially smart, young horse. 

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