Willie Mullins is a red hot favourite to become next month's top trainer at the Cheltenham Festival, and Mike Norman is struggling to find a single reason to oppose him...
"This season Appreciate It is three from three over hurdles, and his two latest victories in Grade 1 races at Leopardstown, where he easily beat the best 2m novices hurdlers in Ireland, stamp him out as the one they all have to beat in the festival's curtain raiser."
If there was one lesson that we learned from the recent Dublin Racing Festival more than any other, then it was that Willie Mullins has arguably the strongest team of horses he'll ever send to a Cheltenham Festival.
The Closutton handler dominated the two-day festival at Leopardstown, saddling nine winners from the 15 races including six of the eight Grade 1 contests.
But it wasn't just the numbers that had many racing enthusiasts shaking their heads in astonishment, it was the manner in which most of Mullins' winners simply blew away top class rivals to win as they liked, showing a dominance that suggests they'll be very hard to beat at next month's Cheltenham Festival.
Strongest team ever?
Some will argue that it's nonsense to suggest that the Mullins battalion that will arrive at Prestbury Park in four weeks' time is his strongest team ever, especially given that in 2015 he had the likes of Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Faugheen, Annie Power (let's no mention that fall!) and Vautour among his ranks.
But it's also doubtful that we've ever been this far from a Cheltenham Festival - and four weeks can be a long time in racing - with Mullins having so many antepost favourites, and some immensely strong ones at that.
As you can see from the table below, Mullins - who has had 72 Festival winners including eight in that special 2015 year - has nine antepost favourites and one second favourite on the Betfair Exchange, and these only include the Championship and some of the high profile Graded contests.
|Appreciate It||3.39/4 FAV||Supreme Novices' Hurdle|
|Energumene||3.55/2 2nd FAV||Arkle Novices' Chase|
|Concertista||2.77/4 FAV||Mares' Hurdle|
|Gaillard Du Mensil||4.216/5 FAV||Ballymore Novices' Hurdle|
|Monkfish||1.9720/21 FAV||Brown Advisory Novices' Chase|
|Chacun Pour Soi||2.3411/8 FAV||Champion Chase|
|Kilcruit||2.8415/8 FAV||Champion Bumper|
|Al Boum Photo||4.03/1 FAV||Cheltenham Gold Cup|
|Billaway||5.24/1 FAV||Cheltenham Foxhunters|
|Elimay||3.711/4 FAV||Mares' Chase|
It's perhaps no surprise then that Mullins is the red hot 1/3 favourite in the Cheltenham Festival Top Trainer market on the Betfair Sportsbook, with only Betfair Ambassador Gordon Elliott (7/2), and leading English trainer Nicky Henderson (15/2) rated as serious contenders to beat him.
In addition to his plethora of antepost favourites on the Exchange, the Sportsbook have priced up every Cheltenham Festival race, going Non Runner Money Back on them all, and it's noticeable how many fancied runners Mullins has there also.
The likes of Saint Sam (Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle), Great White Shark (Coral Cup), Blackbow (Grand Annual), Gauloise (Mares' Novice Hurdle), Blue Lord and Saldier (County Hurdle) all feature prominently in the betting, and the 64-year-old also has some lively outsiders in Grade 1 contests like the Champion Hurdle, Stayers' Hurdle and Triumph Hurdle.
The likely winners
It's impossible to say exactly how many of Mullins' strong hand will actually make it to post time, let alone win, but if he doesn't have any serious hiccups between now and the festival starting on Tuesday 16 March then he has every chance of beating his own record of eight winners on the week, with the five that I like most being:
Favourite, but beaten by Envoi Allen in a Point-to-Point three years ago, Appreciate It was rated as one of the Irish bankers going into last year's festival, but could only manage second behind stablemate Ferny Hollow in the Champion Bumper.
This season Appreciate It is three from three over hurdles, and his two latest victories in Grade 1 races at Leopardstown, where he easily beat the best 2m novices hurdlers in Ireland, stamp him out as the one they all have to beat in the festival's curtain raiser.
A facile winner of the Mares' Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham last season, Concertista rightly takes her position at the head of the market for a race in which Willie Mullins has farmed since its introduction 13 years ago, winning it nine times.
Like many of Mullins' stable stars Concertista has been relatively lightly raced, appearing just twice since last year's Cheltenham victory and winning on both occasions, impressively beating some of the best mares in Ireland in a Grade 3 contest over Christmas. She'll take the world of beating.
Winner of the Albert Bartlett last season, Monkfish has quickly developed into one of the most exciting novices chases seen for a long time, so much so that the Betfair Sportsbook have him as the odds-on favourite to beat Gordon Elliott's stable star Envoi Allen should they meet in this race, formerly the RSA Chase.
That seems unlikely however with Elliott preferring the Marsh Novices' Chase for Envoi Allen, and that's not surprising after Monkfish destroyed a top class Grade 1 field at the Dublin Racing Festival recently. It's also no surprise to see the 7yo being touted as the Irish banker in some quarters for next month's Cheltenham Festival.
In another race that Mullins has targeted down the years with his most exciting prospects, Kilcruit looks like he'll take the world of beating in the Champion Bumper after his massively impressive victory in the Goffs Future Stars bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival.
You'll have to go a long way to find a more easy winner of a top class National Hunt Flat race than the manner in which Kilcruit swept past his rivals at Leopardstown, and it's quite possible that Mullins has a very special talent on his hands, with the trainer himself admitting, "I haven't seen a performance like that in a bumper for a long time." Neither have I Willie!
And finally, a Mullins horse that didn't win as she liked at Leopardstown recently, but only because she skipped the meeting in favour of a Listed Mares' Chase at Naas last weekend, which of course, she won easily.
Mullins is undoubtedly one of the best National Hunt trainers seen for a very long time, but he especially excels with mares, so it's no surprise that Elimay heads the market for the Mares' Chase. Another of the stable's lightly-raced mares, and one very much on an upward curve, she already looks like the one they've all got to beat at Cheltenham next month.
*Follow me on Twitter - @MikkyMo73