Champion Bumper hero, Briar Hill, claimed the Slaney Novice Hurdle at Naas over the weekend to give Willie Mullins yet another big race success. The Irish Champion Trainer has a frighteningly strong team at his disposal this season and with the Cheltenham Festival now just nine weeks away, it looks as though he is set for a stellar week at Prestbury Park. Mullins, along with his owners, will be spending plenty of time in the build up to the Festival planning which horses to send to which race and as the latest ante-post markets suggest, that will be far easier said than done.
It is almost impossible to have an ante-post bet on any Cheltenham Festival race without stumbling across at least one live Willie Mullins contender. With that in mind, we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to break down and analyse his potential Cheltenham runners and the different options available to those runners.
Willie Mullins has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal this season when it comes to the novice hurdle races at the Fesitval. Ante-post punters have been scratching their heads in recent weeks as they try to work out which horses will go where in March. The Supreme Novices Hurdle is the best place to start over two miles and there is no doubt that Mullins will have at least a couple of live chances in the first race of the meeting.
At this stage it is the exciting, but un-exposed Vantour, who is likely to be the first string for Mullins in the Supreme. The five-year-old cruised to victory on his first start at Navan back in December and despite not beating much that day, he certainly looked impressive in the process. There has been steady money for this horse ever since with one or two bookmakers even making him the current 10/1 favourite for the race.
The aforementioned Briar Hill is also featuring in the Supreme betting after his Slaney Novice Hurdle success but he looks more likely to be going for the Neptune at the moment. He showed plenty of stamina to win the Slaney in testing conditions and his Champion Bumper success proves he enjoys the conditions at Cheltenham.
Briar Hill maybe a Festival winner and a short price for the Neptune but in Faugheen he could come up against an even more fancied stable-mate. Faugheen is another horse owned by the powerful Ricci family and Mullins has steered him to five wins from five races so far with the horse remaining unbeaten. He has been impressive in those wins but hasn't beaten too much on the way, which ensures that he could still be anything at a price of around 6/1 for the Neptune.
It is also worth noting at this stage that both Faugheen and Briar Hill are also quoted at short prices in the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle market over three miles. Mullins has indicated that both of them benefit from a stamina test and it is highly likely that the pair of them will be separated between the Neptune and the Albert Bartlett come March.
We haven't even mentioned the classy Moyle Park, who is in both the Supreme and Neptune betting and is one to watch, while the same can be said of Upazo, who is likely to run in the Tolworth Hurdle at Kempton this weekend.
Potential Cheltenham Festival Novice Chasers for Willie Mullins
Mullins is looking just as strong in the Novice Chase division this year with a number of his horses featuring in various ante-post markets at this stage. On the face of it, Mullins appears to have three particularly strong novice chasers to work with and there is every chance that all three will be kept apart come March.
Champagne Fever is of interest to plenty of punters with the horse winning at Cheltenham for the past two years. He won the Champion Bumper in 2012, before beating My Tent Or Yours in 2013 to win the Supreme Novices Hurdle in great style. Those wins came over two miles which would indicate that an Arkle tilt could be on the cards for Champagne Fever, but the vibes from the yard suggest that he has more than enough stamina to go over further.
At the moment, Champagne Fever is as short as 4/1 for the Arkle, 7/1 for the Jewson Novices Chase and 10/1 for the RSA Chase which highlights the conundrum facing ante-post punters.
The RSA Chase appears the least likely race for Champagne Fever given the fact that the same trainer, and same owners, have another major contender for that race. Ballycasey has been highly thought of for some time now and he is without doubt a strong stayer, which is indicated in his current price of around 8/1 for the RSA Chase.
The third member of the Willie Mullins novice chase team for Cheltenham this season is Felix Yonger. The eight-year-old has impressed in races between two miles and two and-a-half this season and as such is well fancied for the Arkle (10/1) and the Jewson (10/1). Once again, the likelihood is that Mullins will try to keep Champagne Fever and Felix Yonger apart with Ballycasey almost certain to be a leading player in the RSA Chase market.
The four Championship races are of course the highlight of each day of the Cheltenham Festival and we can expect to see Mullins feature in at least one or two of them. The Champion Hurdle is the highlight on day one and Mullins will be hoping that the great Hurricane Fly can add a third crown to his already bulging CV. The ten-year-old looked as good as ever as he won the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas and few would be surprised if he started as favourite for the Champion Hurdle.
The racing world know exactly how good Hurricane Fly is but the same cannot be said of Annie Power who remains one of the most exciting young horses in training. The mare remains unbeaten having slammed Zarkandar on her last two starts but at this stage her Cheltenham target remains up in the air. Ruby Walsh has clearly been impressed with Annie Power this season and connections have so far been reluctant to committ to either the Champion or the World Hurdle.
Mullins is unlikely to want Annie Power to face Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle juet yet, while sending her over three miles at such a young age could also be considered a slight risk. Having said that, the World Hurdle could be a possible if Big Buck's shows any chinks in his armour, when he returns from injury in the Cleeve Hurdle at the end of the month.
The Queen Mother Champion Chase betting revolves around the fitness of Sprinter Sacre with the unbeaten chaser pulled up on his last start with an irregular heartbeat. He is the one to beat but if fitness doubts remain, Willie Mullins will be hoping to pounce with the improving Twinlight, who is as short as 9/1 in the ante-post Champion Chase market.
The one race where Willie Mullins is perhaps searching for a star this season is in the Gold Cup. Sir Des Champs, who came second last year, is out for the season with an injury which does leave the cupboard looking a little bear. Rubi Ball could be an each-way shout after a decent run in the Lexus while Boston Bob is another viable option, although he is also a possible for the World Hurdle over the smaller obstacles. (Boston Bob's target could depend on depend on where Annie Power goes??)
Other Mullins Horses of Note on Target for Cheltenham
It is impossible to talk about potential Cheltenham winners for Willie Mullins without mentioning the incomparable Quevega. The super-mare has won the David Nicholson Mares race for the past five years and a sixth success is more than likely if you believe the ante-post betting.
The Champion Bumper has been farmed by Mullins in recent years and once again he is likely to have a very strong hand in the race this season. Shaneshill has won both of his starts to date and is highly thought of which is reflected in his current price of 8/1 for the Champion Bumper. Royal Caviar is another unbeaten bumper horse for Mullins and he too is towards the head of the ante-post market at this stage of the campaign.
One other horse to mention is Arvika Ligeonniere who is around a 12/1 shot for the Ryanair Chase and he is another one to have proven that on his day, he is capable of mixing it with the very best. Those horses and more are all on target for Prestbury Park and punters wanting to back any of the Mullins string ante post, are advised to do so with the Non-Runner Free Bet concession from Bet Victor on their side.