Willie Mullins has given Irish racing fans and punters plenty of amazing memories over the last couple of decades. Indeed, Mullin’s has that special trait held by all the truly great trainers, a knack of consistent renewal, of quickly replacing a flagging generation with a new one.
Mullins’ has some wonderful horses aiming for big prizes at the Cheltenham Festival, with the likes of Footpad 5/1 for the Champion Chase and the much-talked-about Annamix, an 8/1 favourite for the Supreme Novices Hurdle despite having yet to run race in the UK or Ireland.
Moreover, Mullins is still showing that he is peerless when it comes to training great mares, with Laurina (5/1, Ladbrokes) and Benie Des Dieux (4/1, William Hill) among the favourites in the Cheltenham Festival betting 2019 for the Champion Hurdle and Mares’ Hurdle respectively.
Some special talents have beaten Mullins’ horses
However, the days when Mullins would bring a clutch of almost guaranteed winners of big races to Cheltenham seem to be gone. That’s not meant as a slight on the Carlow-based trainer. Rather, it’s more a testament to some of the incredible talents – Buveur D’Air, Altior, Native River, Might Bite, Sprinter Sacre – that Mullins’ horses have come up against in the big races over the last year or two.
In truth, Mullins could pull it out of the bag and challenge those pair, and he will undoubtedly pick up a handful of victories across the four days, especially in the mares’ races. But in terms of an overwhelming favourite, an inevitable winner, a horse that everyone is talking about, that doesn’t seem to be the case for Mullins.
“The Fall” still lives long in the memory
Indeed, one is reminded of the remarkable ‘Champion Day’ in 2015, when Mullins brought Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Faugheen and Annie Power to the opening day of the festival. Everyone who has ever placed a horse racing bet knows how the story ended, with Annie Power’s fall saving the bookies’ blushes right at the death.
Of that famous quartet, Annie Power has gone on to well-earned retirement after making amends for ‘the fall’ with a win in the 2016 Champion Hurdle. Douvan has suffered so many injury problems that most pundits speak about him with regret: He has a marvellous record, of course, but those injuries essentially ruined his chances of being considered one of the greatest chasers in modern history.
The other two, Faugheen and Un De Sceaux, are still in with a shot at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival. As 11-year-olds, it is likely to be one final bow in front of an appreciative crowd. The question is, though, can they bow out in style?
Faugheen will bring the house down with a win
Faugheen holds a special place in the hearts of Irish punters, of course. Make no mistake about it: The loudest cheer of the Festival will arise if he can somehow pull the Stayers’ Hurdle out of the bag. He is given odds of 12/1 by William Hill at the moment, but he was at one stage the favourite after whipping the 2018 winner Penhill by 13 lengths at Punchestown in April. A poor run out last month saw those odds tumble, but the whole country will be willing for one last great race from the once inestimably brilliant Faugheen.
For Un De Sceaux, one of Mullins’ most likeable and underrated charges of the last few years, there is perhaps a final shot at becoming a three-time Festival winner. The Ryanair Chase seems the most likely option, with Hills going 10/1 on that one. Un De Sceaux was close – very close – to Altior at the Tingle Creek Chase recently, although he seemed to run out of steam towards the end. If the signs are good there is a slight chance Un De Sceaux could have a crack at the Queen Mother Champion Chase. 20/1 is cited by Ladbrokes, but some bookies are a lot lower. What a way that would be to sign off on a brilliant Cheltenham career.