Without doubt one of the greatest trainers of recent times, Willie Mullins has been the Irish Champion Trainer for the past eleven years in succession, with twelve titles in total. He has saddled a remarkable sixty-one winners at the Cheltenham Festival, making him the winning-most trainer at National Hunt Horse Racing’s most elite Championships, just one ahead of old rival Nicky Henderson. This has led Willie Mullins to five Top Trainer titles at the Festival. In amongst all his spectacular wins, there is a trophy missing that has always managed to elude him – The Cheltenham Gold Cup.
It seems almost slightly outlandish that a trainer of his stature has yet to win the prestigious prize. In all the magnificent horses that have passed through Closutton over the years, one has never quite precisely fitted the bill. But that’s not to say one never will and it’ll be inconceivable were he to never lift the trophy.
He has a number of possible participants for this seasons renewal, with three in particular seeming to hold better chances than the others in terms of the betting.
Leading the way for the Mullins team is the Supreme Horse Racing Club-owned, Kemboy. He was a good hurdler, rated 144 at his peak when fifth in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle (now Ballymore) at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival. But he’s taken his form to a new level since switching to fences. Winning just one of his first four chase starts, he’s now unbeaten in his last four with his most recent victory by far the best of the lot. A seven and a half-length win in the Savills Chase at Christmas, recording an RPR of 172 in the process, displayed that he could be up to Gold Cup standard.
He’ll be going into the Festival with an official rating of 167. Given that five of the last seven winners have gone into the contest rated 167 or lower, he is certainly in the shake-up. A progressive and improving profile makes for an attractive proposition. He appeared to get caught out for a bit of pace when fourth in last seasons JLT and won over three miles in heavy ground at Limerick back in April of last year. The only time he tried further was when falling at the first in the Irish Grand National. So stamina is the question mark but he’s shaped well over three miles and wasn’t stopping in the Savills Chase. He’s a promising seven-year-old and looks Mullins’ leading hope for Gold Cup glory this time around.
Andrea and Graham Wylie are no strangers to Cheltenham Festival success with the likes of Inglis Drever, Tidal Bay, Yorkhill and Nichols Canyon among others carrying their black and gold colours to the winners enclosure. Bellshill has always had plenty of potential for the leading owners, winning at Grade 1 level in Bumpers and over Hurdles. Third in the 2017 RSA, he wasn’t then seen until February 2018 when comfortably winning the Bobbyjo Chase.
He took in the Irish Grand National next when seemingly having the race at his mercy before wandering around before the final fence, appearing very tired. He stayed on at the one pace after that for fourth (subsequently placed fifth). That gives a question mark about his stamina for the Gold Cup, but he has gone on to win both the Punchestown and Irish Gold Cup’s which provides encouragement in that regard.
Himself and Road To Respect are closely matched on recent runs and given the latter was fourth in last years Gold Cup, is a positive sign for connections. Evidently talented, he’s actually rated one pound better than his stablemate Kemboy. Therefore he has to hold a strong chance and it’ll be interesting to see who Ruby Walsh opts to ride.
Al Boum Photo’s chasing career has been somewhat dramatic to say the least. Winning three of his seven starts, finishing runner up once and failing to complete the other three. A penultimate flight fall in the RSA last season left Ruby Walsh with a broken leg and ruled him out for some time afterwards. Then, a controversial moment at the Punchestown Festival when he ran out prior to the final fence under jockey Paul Townend.
He made a smooth reappearance when comfortably getting the better of stablemates Total Recall and Invitation Only at Tramore on New Years Day. That was over two miles five and a half furlongs and even though he was an easy winner, he has never faced a test as stern as the Gold Cup. He was well-beaten on his only try at three miles over hurdles and hasn’t completed over the trip twice over fences.
Even though he looked to be in the driving seat at Punchestown, stamina has to be a concern given he hasn’t won, or even completed a three-mile race before, let alone the three-mile two and a half furlong test of Cheltenham. While he looks the least likely winner out of the three contenders mentioned here given the doubts about the trip (plus he’s the lowest rated at 165), there is a chance the distance could help him, albeit there is little evidence on the track to support that.
Seconds with Sir Des Champs, On His Own and Djakadam in recent years, Willie Mullins will finally be aiming to go one better and lift the Gold Cup trophy on Friday 15th March. As long as the three above make it to the race, plus he has additional entries such as Invitation Only and Killultagh Vic among others, Ireland’s Champion Trainer will have another strong hand in the Cheltenham Festival’s headline event.