Last year’s Cheltenham Festival was a game of two halves for Willie Mullins.
A series of high profile reverses on the first two days was followed by a stunning Thursday four-timer, and he only lost out on the top trainer prize to Gordon Elliott on countback.
It was a dramatic season for Mullins, but he ended it with a bang at Punchestown, clinging onto his Irish champion trainer trophy by the narrowest of margins from Elliott.
That contest looks set to go down to the wire again this year, although there’s the little matter of Cheltenham beforehand.
The Closutton maestro doesn’t go into this year’s Festival with as many short-priced favourites as he has done in the past, but he still has an enviable squad and is even money with Grosvenorsport.com to train five or more winners.
On Monday at his County Carlow base he talked the media through his team and revealed that star chaser Douvan is likely to reappear in the Betway Champion Chase, a race in which he was a beaten 2/9 favourite last year.
“He’s been pleasing me, he’s doing everything right. He has a few bits of work to do now this week,” said Mullins.
“Any time a horse has an injury you’re worried about a re-injury, but it’s been very good so far.”
Stable jockey Ruby Walsh has been sidelined since breaking his leg in a fall at Punchestown in November, but his recovery seems to be going well.
“Ruby has been riding out at home, he hasn’t ridden out here yet, he says I work him too hard!
“I was happy watching him the other morning. Stormy Ireland got loose and Ruby took off after him like Usain Bolt up the gallop.”
As for wrestling back the leading trainer award, Mullins said: “It’s tough [to beat Gordon]. He probably has better bankers and then it’s hard to know about the handicaps, but we have our chances.
“I’m delighted with the team we have going, but they’re not as short [in the betting] as they have been before.”
Here are his thoughts on his main contenders.
Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (6/4 with Grosvenorsport.com)
It looks like the Supreme for him. He’s 100%. His win in Punchestown the last day made this the obvious race to go for. He’s improving all the time and he’s not flashy at home.
Racing Post Arkle (EVS with Grosvenorsport.com)
All is well with Footpad. He has a beautiful method of jumping. He had ability over hurdles, but his method of jumping has catapulted him right to the top. He’s
a just a natural and very athletic. He could be a Gold Cup horse in the future.
Unibet Champion Hurdle (5/1 with Grosvenorsport.com)
He might not need to be as good as he once was, but I still think he can be competitive. I was quite downhearted after Leopardstown, but we still had plenty of time for him to spark and get better. We haven’t gone downhill at home, we’re going up, maybe slower than he was in the past, but he’s improving all the time.
Unibet Champion Hurdle (8/1 with Grosvenorsport.com)
He’s not a great work horse at home, he’s very lazy and you’ve seen it on the racecourse too, when he gets to the front he idles a little bit. He could go for the Champion Hurdle or the Ryanair. We’ll leave the decision for much later, but I would say it’s 60-40 for the Champion Hurdle at the moment.
Betway Champion Chase (11/4 with Grosvenorsport.com)
I couldn’t see him going anywhere else other than the Champion Chase. He’s unbeaten this year, I know he was disqualified in Leopardstown, but he’s doing all the right things. Whether he’s good enough [to beat Altior] we’ll have to see.
Betway Champion Chase (7/2 with Grosvenorsport.com)
Douvan will go for the Champion Chase all being well. So far everything is well. He did a bit of work [in November] and I just thought, “this is awesome”, but then he was lame the next day. Whether he’ll get back to how he was that time I don’t know, but his work is certainly good enough at the moment.
UN DE SCEAUX
Ryanair Chase (9/4 with Grosvenorsport.com)
He’s the ultimate iron horse. He’s in great condition, we’ve plenty to work on still for Cheltenham which is surprising the way that he works in the morning. Everything is going well with him. We’re aiming for the Ryanair, that’s his target.
Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle (11/10 with Grosvenorsport.com)
Laurina looks really good, she’s top class. She’s a big scopey filly and one we’re looking forward to taking over there. I don’t have any ground worries for her. Cheltenham always produce nice ground.
Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup (10/1 with Grosvenorsport.com)
He’s straightforward and goes for the Gold Cup. We’re very happy with him. He looked in a very good position when he fell last time. He had the momentum and looked like he was going away. He’s schooled well since and he’d jumped well up to that point.
Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup (14/1 with Grosvenorsport.com)
Our aim had been the Grand National, but I think the Gold Cup gives us a good chance. He’s a relaxed horse, he jumps economically and that will suit him around Cheltenham in a Gold Cup. I think it’s an open Gold Cup and he deserves a crack at it.
Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup (20/1 with Grosvenorsport.com)
Djakadam has been a little disappointing this year. There’s a lot of feeling that he should go back for the Ryanair, and that might happen. I feel he should go for the Gold Cup. He doesn’t look the same horse on the track this season. He hasn’t fired like he did in other seasons.