Willie Mullins speaks to the media in Closutton last week. Picture: Christopher Dunne
The countdown is very much on to the start of the 2022 Cheltenham Festival and all eyes will be on Willie Mullins once again as he gears up his stable of stars for a shot at horse racing’s showpiece event.
Mullins is the most successful trainer in the history of the event with 78 winners and after saddling more horses to victory in 2021 than the UK in its entirety, he is once again the man to follow in the Cotswolds.
The Closutton handler has numerous decisions to make over the next fortnight as he plots his way through his exceptionally talented deck of cards.
Decision time for Mullins begins from the very start of the festival when the traditional Cheltenham roar goes up for the opening Supreme Novice Hurdle on Day 1 and after guiding Ebaziyan (2007), Champagne Fever (2013), Vautour (2014), Douvan (2015), Klassical Dream (2019) and Appreciate It (2021) to past wins in the Grade 1 two mile contest, he will be hopeful for similar success.
The curtain raiser to the four day extravaganza tends to always bring out an impressive winner and this year’s edition looks exceptionally hot with UK trainer Nicky Henderson sending out unbeaten youngsters Jonbon and Constitution Hill in opposition to Mullins charges.
The 13 time Irish champion trainer has admitted that Kilcruit will definitely run in the race but it’s still unknown whether Sir Gerhard or Dysart Dynamo will take their place with one or the other re-routing to the Ballymore Novice Hurdle over 2m4f a day later.
Kilcruit is the winner of three of his four starts in bumpers for Mullins including a Grade 2 at the Dublin Racing Festival and a Grade 1 bumper at the Punchestown Festival, he made it third-time lucky over hurdles when winning a maiden at Punchestown in January.
The trainer added: “You’d think that a horse that was second in the Champion Bumper would be one for longer trips over hurdles, but I think we’ll keep him to two miles for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.”
Sir Gerhard and Dysart Dynamo have had an almost faultless season thus far.
Dysart Dynamo is unbeaten in two starts in bumpers and two starts over hurdles including a wide-margin victory in the Moscow Flyer Novices’ Hurdle at Punchestown last time while Sir Gerhard is the winner of the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival last March, he has won both his starts over hurdles this season including the Tattersalls Ireland Novice Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival.
“I really want to hear what Paul (Townend) would have to say about what he would like to ride in the first race (Supreme).
“I have a fair idea what I’m going to do, but I want to see how they work and chat to Paul and I don’t want to chat to him too soon. And I want to chat with David (Casey) and Patrick (Mullins) and Ruby (Walsh) and their input will be huge too.
“I always think it will be a great problem to have on the morning of declarations,” Mullins added.
Arkle candidate Blue Lord on the gallops. Pic: Christopher Dunne
The Kilkenny handler was in a noticeably relaxed mood as he opened up the gates to his stables last week and he also confirmed that Blue Lord (Arkle Chase) and Burning Victory, Stormy Ireland (Mares Hurdle) will compete in some of the Grade 1’s on day one of the meeting.
The standout race on the opening Tuesday is the Champion Hurdle and despite winning the 2m contest on numerous occasions in the past, Mullins looked to be up against it in 2022 with the dynamic duo of Honeysuckle and Rachael Blackmore aiming to win the race for a second successive year.
Mullins will send 2021 Supreme Novice Hurdle winner Appreciate It to the race and despite it being his seasonal debut, connections are hopeful of a big run.
“Appreciate It will go for the Champion Hurdle. He looks to be in great form at home and I had him away for a gallop last week and he did very well.
“Taking on Honeysuckle is a big challenge for any horse, she races any way that Rachael puts her and she’s going to be very hard for anyone to beat her – there doesn’t look to be anyone in the British Isles anyhow.
“I’d say we have a good record for doing that (running well first time out at the Festival), but I don’t know whether we’ve done it for the Champion Hurdle. Obviously, there was Quevega and it’s not something I’m worried about and I didn’t think he needed a run that close to the Festival so I’m very happy to go there as we are.
“He was going to go chasing this year and he got injured, so we changed our mind to go back hurdling as we didn’t want to lose his novice status this late in a season. It was a fairly easy decision to make. The novice chases can be very lucrative so you don’t want to waste it, you want to win three or four races during the season and if it’s a good season you could win six or seven! If he gets started early and the ground is nice we’ll see.”
The opening day at the festival has proven to be lucrative for Mullins and Co in the past and while he will hope that history can repeat itself, he also knows that Wednesday also offers a number of big opportunities.
None more so than the Queen Mother Champion Chase which incredibly he has never won.
The 2022 edition will see Mullins aim both Chacun Pour Soi and Enurgemene in the Grade 1 two mile contest and although they have the Nicky Henderson trained Shiskin to deal with, they will still give it a right go.
“I think the world of Chacun Pour Soi and a lot of people are saying that he can’t face the hill at Cheltenham but he’s a horse I’d love to see get a fair chance over there – which I don’t think he’s had yet.
“Maybe he’s a horse that runs better fresh, especially when you take the travelling into account. People are saying we should fly him but I don’t think that’s the solution as it brings a whole new thing into it. I think he’ll be fine going over the way we do – we used to fly and there wasn’t much in it, plus the cost was high.
“At the time I thought we should have made more use of him pace wise last year but this year is a different race.
“He and Energumene are completely different horses. Energumene is a young horse coming into this and Chacun has done a lot of stuff, so we give him the respect he’s due I think.
“Energumene ran a terrific race in a brilliant day to be involved in at Ascot and we look forward to the rematch. We know he’s not far away from wherever Shishkin is but as I said on the day it’s going to be hard to turn that form around. Shishkin made two mistakes and we can probably change things a little bit and it’s going to be very tough to win but we’ll see.”
Energumene (above) is one of the stable’s big stars
A lot of talk in recent weeks has surrounded the hugely talented novice chaser Gallopin De Champs and after he won over hurdles at both the Cheltenham and Punchestown Festivals in 2021 and he is unbeaten in two starts over fences this term.
While Mullins seemed to indicate that he will most likely go for the 2m4f Turners Novice Chase on the Thursday, you still wouldn’t be surprised if he runs over three miles a day earlier.
What is not up for debate though is the form of the Mullins yard in Bumpers around Ireland this season which was heightened when the stable won all four races under Bumper rules at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival.
Among them was Cheltenham Bumper favourite Facile Vega and the son of multiple Cheltenham winner Quevega looks the one to beat in the concluding event on Day Two of the meeting.
Willie’s son Patrick will likely have numerous options for the race but it would be a big surprise if he didn’t ride Facile Vega.
Willie outlined the horses chances: “Facile Vega has done everything right so far and from what I’ve seen at home and what I’ve seen at the racetrack he’s the one I’d be riding anyways.
“I got him ready last year to run and he did a bit of work one day and I said to myself ‘wow, this could be something special’.
He got jarred and I left him alone after that. I thought if I can get him back this year and he was as good as last year, he would be good. I didn’t want to overstretch the mark at home and we got him to the racetrack and he won nicely. What he did from the furlong marker to home the last day was so professional and we’ve a nice team of bumper horses.
“You never know with them though, I’ve had plenty of morning glories over the years and it’s only when you bring them to the racetrack that you see.
“Normally a lot of race mares don’t breed good horses, they might take a generation or two out before they produce something good or they come via the half-sister or something but Quevaga (Facile Vega’s dam) wasn’t hard raced and that’s in her favour.”
The team will go into Day Three on the Thursday with plenty of chances as Allaho aims to defend his Ryanair Chase title while Klassical Dream is also on a retrieval mission in the Stayers Hurdle.
The Blue Riband of the week is the Gold Cup on Friday and dual winner Al Boum Photo will be looking to regain the title he lost to Minella Indo in 2021 but the vibes aren’t good.
“I’d rather I had Al Boum Photo in better order to be honest. He did some work and I wasn’t happy with him so we’ll see.
"We’ve still got plenty of time and he’s fit and I think he’s looked in better form this morning and in recent days. We just gave him a few easy days after his work and it just might not have been his day. He usually comes right for Cheltenham.
“I wish he was in better form but we still have time. I’m hoping he comes into form and I think he will. I think we were probably a bit hard on him because he had a race and maybe that’s backfired on me a little bit. It looks a very open race though.
“Paul Townend was very happy with him at Tramore and said he’s in way better form than he was last year and we thought that would take a bit of pressure off but because we hadn’t had the chance to run him we’ve worked him very hard at home and maybe we’ve overcooked it.
“It looks an open enough race and some of the leading contenders haven’t put their head up yet but a lot will depend on who turns up on the day.
“He’s done his job for us and Joe Donnelly and owes us nothing.”
On the rest of the Friday card Vauban looks the one to beat in the opening JCB Triumph Hurdle while Concertista and Elimay could have it between them in the concluding Mares Chase.
As usual Mullins looks like he’s in pole position to have a cracking week at Cheltenham as he spearheads the Irish challenge across the water.
Pushed on a banker for the week he mentioned Allaho in the Ryanair Chase.
That may be a tip in itself!
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