Willie Mullins’ contenders for the Cheltenham Festival
Willie Mullins, the champion trainer at five of the last six Cheltenham Festivals, threw his stable doors open to the media on Monday morning and spoke at length about his team for this year’s meeting, which is expected to include about up to 40 horses. Here’s what he had to say about some of the leading contenders.
Djakadam (11-2 to win the Gold Cup)
Djakadam is in great form. He hasn’t had any setbacks this year, whereas last year he got a nasty cut when he ran at Cheltenham [in January] and we just had enough time [to get him ready]. This year we’ve had a clear run and a better run to the Gold Cup. I think he’s more mature, I think he’s come to the sort of age that you can win a Gold Cup. The first year he was young, the second year he had a bad prep, this year everything is going right. I don’t know if he would need to improve [to win], would either of the last two runs [when runner-up in 2015 and 2016] do this year? I was very taken with his run at Christmas [when he finished third in the Lexus Chase], we did what we did on the day and reflected afterwards we could have used different tactics, and everything has gone right since. We’re happy where we are and that’s the important thing. It’s a more open race this year, I think. We were 12-1 a few weeks ago, and we’re about 5-1 now. I know my horse is good enough to finish second the last two years, and we just need the ball bouncing in our favour a little bit more.
Douvan (1-3 fav, Queen Mother Champion Chase)
Douvan is in good order. At this stage, we’re just trying to get there in one piece. They are all fit and well, it’s about keeping them right now and trying not to have any little setbacks. When you go to Cheltenham with a strong favourite, it’s always relief rather than joy. A 25-1 winner, that’s joy, but there’s a fair bit of expectation with the likes of Douvan and you just have to hope you can keep them right. You’ve just got to mind them as best you can and hope that nothing stupid happens. You’ve just got to count down the days. He’s not there yet [as the best horse that Mullins has trained] but the bar keeps rising and he keeps meeting it. He’s got to win a Champion Chase and I don’t know what other direction we’ll go in after that. He’s won everything we’ve asked him to win but you’ve got to win your championship races to be the horse he might be. We’d all like to win them [the championship events], I’ve been six times second in the Gold Cup and had very few runners in the Champion Chase and Stayers’ Hurdle. We like to tick them off if we can, if we’ve a horse good enough to do that. A few times he’s given me frights and Ruby has said “I didn’t see what you saw”. He’s always in control, he’s always got the scope to go in close or stand back. Maybe you get more worried when you’re watching through a pair of binoculars. But he seems to have everything. He’s a huge horse, it’s rare for a horse his size to stay so sound, usually when they’re that big things go wrong but he keeps it all together.
Un De Sceaux (4-1 fav, Ryanair Chase)
Every morning he goes out and he wants to race and be competitive. He wants to get on with the job and you just wonder how a horse can go out and do that every morning, without pulling a muscle or getting an overreach or something like that. The Ryanair is the plan at the moment. The trip is not a concern, he won over two-and-a-half miles on heavy ground as a four-year-old, which means he could probably get three miles now. He is keen but he settles a lot more than he used to. The horse is settling down as he gets older and I don’t think it will be a problem.
Yorkhill (2-1 fav, JLT Novice Chase)
I was tempted [by the Champion Hurdle] and I didn’t let him run over fences until Christmas, and then I thought I’d have the other two [Faugheen and Annie Power, both now injured] to go for the Champion Hurdle and so we let him go chasing. I had a quick word with [his owner] Graham Wylie and he was of the same opinion, that we should go where we’re going this year and we could easily come back over hurdles next year.
Limini (13-2 Champion Hurdle [needs to be supplemented] & 7-2 Mares’ Hurdle)
A lot depends on how Vroum Vroum Mag goes between now and then, but if Limini is fine and sparkling I think we might take a punt with her [in the Champion Hurdle]. I went to Punchestown [last week] thinking am I mad going there? Last year with Annie Power [in the same race], you could say before the race that it should be a schooling hurdle for her, but this year as we got closer I was thinking Apple’s Jade is not going to make it easy for us, and maybe a hard race three weeks before the Festival is not good. I just hoped that it wouldn’t turn into a race of attrition. Everything just fell into place, but what I didn’t think was that Limini would pull out and go past [Apple’s Jade] without getting a slap, which begs two questions. Have we improved that much, and how was Apple’s Jade, did she run up to her form? If she did, I think we’re well entitled to go for the Champion Hurdle, and Limini didn’t have a hard race and has pulled out of it well. She won the mares’ [novice] hurdle last year, I’m very pleased with how she came out of her race the other day and keeping her going seems to be the trick. But she’s got a long way to go to be as good as Annie Power. Her jumping has improved hugely from last year. I think Ruby was very good [at Punchestown], she was very keen at Liverpool [last season] and the other day he had her asleep and he kept her asleep, and he had the confidence to know that he would pick her up later on.
Melon (9-2 jt-fav, Supreme Novice Hurdle)
He could be one of four or five for us in the Supreme. Bunk Off Early, Crack Mome and Cilaos Emery would probably be the others. He’s a fine, strong, tall horse who has the ability but not the experience. We’re looking at what Melon does at home all the time. I’m not sure which way he [jockey Ruby Walsh] will go, but I know where I’d go. I’d say it will be an easy enough decision for him. We ran Fiveforthree in the Neptune with one run I think, so we’ve done it before, if not in the Supreme Novice. Melon’s had plenty of jumping experience at home and he seems a natural jumper. the others have form that’s good enough to be placed in it, if not to win it if things go right. They are all going to improve.
Vroum Vroum Mag (6-4 fav, Mares’ Hurdle)
I would imagine she will go for the Mares’ Hurdle, that’s all I can see her going for after her performance the other day [at Doncaster]. It was a terrible run. Perhaps she was brewing something as when she came home we put her on antibiotics and gave her an easier time. She has done a couple of bits since and I am much happier with her.
Augusta Kate (10-1, Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle)
She is in the Neptune and the mares’ novice, but I think she could need the longer trip so I think she’ll go for the Albert Bartlett with C’Est Jersey.
Bacardys (8-1, Neptune Novice Hurdle)
He surprised me when he won the [Grade One] Deloitte, but I was happy with the way he did it and with the tactics we used. He’ll probably go for the Neptune Novice Hurdle rather than the Albert Bartlett. He’s a horse that we thought a lot of, then he put in a bad run, then he came out and did that [in the Deloitte] so it’s put him back on track for us anyhow.
Carter Mckay (Champion Bumper)
He’d look to be the one [in the race] on his run last time [at Naas] and the ground’s not a worry for him. He’d been doing nice work at home and I’d have to say it [his win at Naas] was better than I hoped, but you don’t go expecting performances like that, especially against the likes of Joseph O’Brien’s horse [runner-up West Coast Time]. I haven’t any plans on riding as yet. I suppose his performance the other day compares favourably with anything [by a Mullins bumper horse], for me a horse that can win around Naas doing that is a fair machine.
Meri Devie (20-1, Triumph Hurdle)
I was disappointed with her last time out [in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown]. She is better than that. I probably gave her too much time off after her last run and maybe she needs to be trained more like a gelding. She has grown and put on weight since, so I think I can be a little bit harder on her over the next few weeks. I think it will be a tough choice for Ruby [between Meri Devie and Bapaume]. I know he had huge time for Meri Devie before the last day and I made him ride Bapaume. He wanted to ride the filly.
Bapaume (10-1, Triumph Hurdle)
I hope that there is more to come from Bapaume but there will need to be if he is going to win.
Royal Caviar (20-1, Arkle Trophy)
He is in great order and definitely goes for the Arkle. We think he jumps very well and he wants nice ground.
Tuesday’s best bets, by Greg Wood
On this afternoon’s racecards, the 10-furlong handicap on the all-weather at Lingfield is one of the more interesting events, as despite attracting just five runners, all are priced up at single-figure odds.
Banditry (3.00) has made his most recent starts over hurdles, but his last two runs on the level have both resulted in victories: a clean-cut success at Chelmsford City and a more drawn-out drama after a race at Doncaster in October, which was finally awarded to Ian Williams’s runner after a decision by the local stewards was overturned. He remains fairly handicapped on the balance of his Flat form.
Picansort (2.00) and Attain (4.00) are two more that deserve close consideration on the all-weather card, while at Catterick, Halcyon Days (3.20) has won four of his last six starts and looked as though he would remain competitive when recording a narrow success on his latest outing. Powerful Symbol (3.40) and Jamrham (4.10) look best on the card at Leicester, the latter in particular after an unfortunate parting between horse and jockey at Catterick last time out when victory was within sight.
Greg Wood’s tips
Catterick Bridge 2.20 Cafe Au Lait 2.50 Chti Balko 3.20 Halcyon Days (nb) 3.50 Lough Derg Jewel 4.20 Fayette County 4.50 Aengus
Leicester 2.10 D’Nailor 2.40 Belami Des Pictons 3.10 Toby Lerone 3.40 Powerful Symbol 4.10 Jamrham 4.40 The Highlander
Lingfield Park 2.00 Picansort 2.30 Traveller 3.00 Banditry (nap) 3.30 Mise En Rose 4.00 Attain 4.30 Ixelles Diamond