Feather your nest on the first two days
God be with the days when we travelled to the Cheltenham Festival with just one great hope which, if sunk, cast a long shadow across the meeting for Irish punters. Things have changed dramatically over the past couple of decades, particularly so in the last six or seven years, with the emergence of Willie Mullins as a perennial leading force at the meeting.
And, how he has spoilt us, often making the cost of the most enjoyable four days in National Hunt racing that much more manageable by providing the winner of the Festival opener, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Champagne Fever, Vautour and Douvan covered many an expense in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and, had we allowed ourselves listen to the screams from the home team, we may have realised his bid for a fourth consecutive victory in the race, with Min, would be scuppered by an equine machine, in the shape of the home team’s Altior.
The truth remains that, for the clear majority of successful punters, the lion’s share of the profits will be picked up on the first two days of the Festival, but that shouldn’t mean the punting week must start with the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
This year’s renewal looks one of the most open for some years and, while Mullins remains unflinchingly positive about the chances of Melon, the Preview Night circuit would suggest there is a difference of opinion amongst the most respected judges in the stable.
Lest we forget, there also remains uncertainty as to which of four possible runners Ruby Walsh will ride. That decision, in itself, will have a tremendous influence on the market.
A good start may be half the battle, and an opening bet hard to resist, but a bad start can be a total disaster. Who remembers the pain of Youlneverwalkalone’s defeat? Or those of Cardinal Hill and Joe Mac?
But it’s no time to panic for followers of the Willie Mullins stable. This season may not have gone to plan, but this week is neither the time nor the place to think about a changing of the guard in Irish national hunt racing.
The Closutton maestro admits he has had more than his fair share of good fortune in previous years, but he has also had more than his share of bad luck this term. As punters,weshould remain confident he will, once more, deliver for us on the biggest stage.
One of the most intriguing sub-plots of the festival will be the respective results of Mullins and Gordon Elliott. The latter is threatening to wrest the Irish trainers’ title from Mullins, who has won it 10 times in total, but whether he can make the same impact as Mullins at the festival remains to be seen.
True to say he has one up on the champ, insofar as he has won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but Mullins’ dominance of the festival in recent years has been quite remarkable, and his record eight winners in 2015, followed by seven more in 2016, are targets few can dream of reaching.
In the challenge for the trainer’s title at home, Elliott enjoys a tremendous numerical advantage, but that will be turned on its head this week, with Mullins expected to have up to 10 more runners than his title rival at the festival.
Elliott, who is utterly determined to be crowned champion trainer at home, has a great team around him, and has developed a yard which should ensure he is a potent force as long as that drive remains.
But what Mullins has achieved in managing his team of horses to deliver at the highest level at this festival, and, on return home, for Fairyhouse and, in particular, at Punchestown, requires a touch of brilliance which few possess. Elliott may be of the same mould, but this week is not the time to switch allegiance. Mullins will deliver at Cheltenham.
If not Melon, it could be Douvan, Vroum Vroum Mag, Let’s Dance, Limini, Yorkhill, Un De Sceaux, Bacardys, Carter McKay, or Djakadam — there’s a Mullins banker for everyone in the audience. Don’t be hasty.
Choose yours carefully.
We should remain confident he will, once more, deliver for us on the biggest stage
Djakadam, with Ruby Walsh up, jump the last ahead of Outlander, Davy Russell up, on their way to winning the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown. Picture: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile