It was a rare disappointing day for Willie Mullins and his British raiders at Cheltenham and Doncaster on Saturday, but that hasn't put Mike Norman off backing the leading Irish trainer to reach double figures when it comes to Festival winners in March...
Willie Mullins - No. of Cheltenham Festival Winners (Sportsbook)
*Prices correct as of 8am, 2 February 2016
Leading Mullins Entries: Min (13/8), Yorkhill (6/1)
Combined Sportsbook Win Odds: 10/11
About the time when the Royal Procession was making its way up the Ascot straight last summer, and the thoughts of racing enthusiasts up and down the country were a million miles from the National Hunt game, one name was starting to emerge from Willie Mullins' Closutton Stables.
Rumours of a stunning new recruit to the yard were becoming more widespread, and when it emerged that the horse in question was Min, the then 4yo was immediately installed as ante-post favourite for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
Min went on to win his first two British starts in effortless fashion, and by winning the Moscow Flyer Novices' Hurdle before tackling the Deloitte Novices' Hurdle later this week, he is taking a similar path to Cheltenham as the last three winners of the Supreme - Champagne Fever, Vautour, and Douvan. This in itself is highly significant and a massive pointer to how highly regarded he is at home.
Min is a super slick hurdler who looks to possess a huge engine, he's a winner over 18f and won't mind a bit of cut, and rather than be the Mullins 'first-day shortie' that might just get beat, he might instead turn out to be one the week's most obvious bankers.
Leading Mullins Entries: Douvan (1/2)
Combined Sportsbook Win Odds: 1/2
Last season's Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner Douvan has made the transition to Chasing look seamless and he is impossible to oppose in the Arkle.
The 6yo is three from three over the larger obstacles, his last two victories coming in Grade 1 company, and although he's made the slight mistake along the way he's barely come out of cruising speed in demolishing his rivals.
Cheltenham will be a tougher test of course, but Douvan appears to be a much better jumper than last year's Arkle winner Un De Sceaux and he already looks head and shoulders above his Novice class rivals.
Leading Mullins Entries: Faugheen (4/11), Arctic Fire (7/1), Nicholas Canyon (12/1)
Combined Sportsbook Win Odds: 1/15
As the odds suggest, Willie Mullins will once again be lifting this year's Champion Hurdle trophy, and like last year he's very likely to train a 1-2-3.
There are a few ways of explaining why Mullins will win the opening day feature, the easiest of which is to simply say that last year's winner Faugheen - who put in a stunning display to win the Irish Champion Hurdle last month - will land the short odds.
But if for some extraordinary reason 'The Machine' doesn't land the prize then Arctic Fire will, and if he doesn't then Nicholas Canyon will. It's as easy as, well, 1-2-3.
Leading Mullins Entries: Annie Power (4/6), Vroum Vroum Mag (5/1)
Combined Sportsbook Win Odds: 3/10
After Thistlecrack's stunning performance in the Cleeve Hurdle last weekend there's even more reason to believe that Mullins will dodge the World Hurdle and instead run both of these superb mares in this race. If he does then he's a 3/10 chance to land the spoils, and land the spoils he will.
This is a race that Mullins loves to target having won seven of the eight renewals to date, six with the brilliant mare Quevega. Last year he won it with Glens Melody, who took advantage of a last flight fall by Annie Power who was about to saunter to victory and cost the bookmakers a king's ransom.
Annie Power will make amends for that mishap I'm sure. She is reportedly going really well at home but the Mullins camp is unlikely now to get a prep run into her, and if that's the case then they've always said she will run here instead of the Stayers. Vroum Vroum Mag is an able deputy but if they both line-up then expect another outcome dominated by the Mullins runners.
The bookies should be running for cover by now with Mullins having an outstanding chance of landing four races on day one of the Cheltenham Festival.
So it will be a bit galling for the on course layers to see that he has a chance of making it five on the day with multiple runners in the National Hunt Chase, all at the top of the market.
Black Hercules looks to be the leading contender after a super round of jumping secured success at Warwick just over a fortnight ago with his jockey Danny Mullins saying after the race, "The main thing is he's got a lot of class. He's got the frame of a chaser and that looks like where he's going to excel."
Should Black Hercules not live up to his lofty expectations then Roi Des Francs looks likely to take advantage after his stylish victory over Pont Alexandre - another Mullins entry - at Naas recently.
A rarity, a non-handicap in which Willie Mullins doesn't train the ante-post favourite... at the time of writing that is.
But this is only thanks to Yanworth's hugely impressive victory in the Neptune trial race at Cheltenham on Saturday, a performance that demoted Bellshill to second favourite for the opening race on day two of the festival.
Yanworth deserves massive respect of course but Bellshill - a confirmed runner for the Neptune - has done nothing wrong either in winning three out of three over hurdles, his last victory coming in effortless fashion in a Grade 1 race at Naas last month.
In the lead up to last year's Arkle Chase, the main question on punters' minds was will Un De Sceaux put in a clear round. He was a free-running sort who appeared to pay little respect to his fences. But jump round he did, albeit with plenty of zest and exuberance, before storming up the hill to beat God's Own by six lengths.
And the same questions were asked before Un De Sceaux lined up in the Grade 1 Clarence House Chase at Ascot last month.
But the eight-year-old put in an excellent round of jumping and put former Champion Chaser Sire De Grugy in his place in no uncertain terms, with Mullins declaring afterwards that he'll improve massively for the outing.
Mullins is a man of his words meaning when the tapes go up to signal the start of this year's Champion Chase, Un De Sceaux literally does - dare I say it - just have to jump round to win.
Augusta Kate, very impressive in winner her two starts to date, has been one of the market leaders for this race for a long time now but there's a big chance that she will be kept for the Mares Bumper at Aintree in April.
However, this is a race that Mullins usually has five or six runners in, and he has too many entries to list as this stage, all or any of which could be out of the top drawer and good enough to provide him with his ninth success in the race since he won it as a jockey/trainer 20 years ago on Wither or Which.
Anyone who saw Killultagh Vic win at Leopardstown three week ago will know that this 7yo has outstanding claims of providing Willie Mullins with another winner at this year's festival.
The bay gelding - who last season got the better of World Hurdle favourite Thistlecrack at Punchestown - made a horrendous blunder at the last and nearly came to a standstill, prompting his price to hit 1000.0 in-running.
But Ruby Walsh stayed on board, and got the horse balanced and running again to produce a storming finish to win going away.
It takes a horse of huge courage and ability to do what he did that day, and providing he has suffered no ill effects from that mishap then he will take the world of beating if lining up in this race, with possibly the main danger coming from his stablemate Shaneshill.
I'd be very surprised if Vautour didn't take in the Ryanair this year with Mullins holding some strong bullets in the Gold Cup a day later.
Put simply, Vautour took my breath away last year when winning the JLT, producing a round of jumping from a novice that I've never seen prior or likely to ever see again. It was an exceptional performance, and if in the same mood here, would be an impossible nut to crack.
Vautour has the speed and ability to win the Champion Chase, and he'll have no problems staying three miles plus in time, but hopefully he'll line-up in this race and provide Mullins with another 'banker'.
Valseur Lido has some top class Chase form to his name also, especially as a novice, and will be an able deputy should Vautour be aimed elsewhere, but in all honesty, this is a race that Mullins really shouldn't let get away from him.
One Willie Mullins horse that has gone slightly under the radar so far this season has been the very promising mare Limini.
The form of her Punchestown win last May - in which she beat the now 138-rated hurdler Sandymount Duke - has worked out very well, and on a day when Mullins suffered some setbacks in England, she was the one shining light for the stable back in her homeland on Saturday.
Limini put in a terrific performance to win the Mares Novice Hurdle' at Fairyhouse and is now the clear favourite to give the yard another winner at this year's festival
I was staggered, but pleasantly surprised, to see Djakadam pushed out in the Gold Cup market after his unfortunate fall at Cheltenham on Saturday. The horse was travelling perfectly well at the time and simply suffered a mishap, something that can happen to any horse at any time.
Does that fall mean Djakadam is now a worse horse then when finishing second in this race last season, or a worse horse than winning the John Durkan in effortless fashion in December? Of course it doesn't.
Djakadam is still the one they all have to beat in the feature race of the meeting, and a clear round should see him go very close to landing the spoils.
Should he need it, Mullins also has the top class Don Poli, a proven stayer, to hopefully give him his 10th winner of the meeting (if he hasn't had 10 already), and if the going is described as Good (Good to Soft) then don't rule out Vautour taking his chance.
In other words, Mullins has an extremely strong hand to play.
More Cheltenham Festival Specials - Betfair Sportsbook
- 15 or more UK trained Winners - 4/5
- 15 or more Irish trained Winners - 5/4
- A Gigginstown owned horse to win the Gold Cup - 11/8
- Nicky Henderson to train the most winners w/o Willie Mullins - 6/4
- A UK trained horse to win the Bumper - 7/4
- Willie Mullins to train the winner of the Bumper - 7/4
- UK trained 1-2-3 in the World Hurdle - 7/2
- Willie Mullins to train the 1-2-3 in the Champions Hurdle - 9/2