Willie Mullins and his team have a love affair with the Cheltenham Festival. The Festival is the biggest jump festival in the UK and Ireland, and the Irish have always flocked to Cheltenham every year. Coming from a racing family Mullins has Cheltenham in his blood, but his success as a trainer isn’t down to luck. Every racing trainer wants to be top trainer at Cheltenham, but Mullins hasn’t left anything to chance. Back home in Ireland at his stable Mullins has replicated the Cheltenham course and more importantly the Cheltenham hill. The final hill at Cheltenham is unlike any other racecourse, so horses must be able to cope with it. Mullins knows any of his star-studded stable can cope with the hill as they train for it. The training routine that Mullins puts his horses through ensures that they are ready for the showcase festival, and if they aren’t ready then they don’t travel.
Willie Mullins’ love of the Cheltenham Festival continued again this year after he was crowned Champion Trainer for the 5th time in six years. Mullins relationship with jockey Ruby Walsh has also bloomed, with Walsh be crowned Top Jockey. Walsh rode all seven of Mullins winners at this year’s festival. On the opening day the pair notched up three group one winners, as Douvan won the Arkle, Annie Power won the Champion Hurdle and Vroum Vroum Mag won the Mares Hurdle. They were followed up as Yorkhill won the Neptune, Black Hercules won the JLT, Vautour romped to victory in the Ryanair, and their final winner was Limini the Mares Novices Hurdle. The pair almost won the feature race of the festival, but Djakadam would finish runner-up for the second year in a row in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Mullins had all this success and arguably the best horse Faugheen, was ruled out of the Festival through injury. If Faugheen had of been fit to race, then it would have been hard to him not winning, after the way Faugheen had won at Cheltenham in 2015.
Leading into the 2016 festival most of the racing world were asking questions about Annie Power. Mullins star mare had endured a nightmare at Cheltenham in the past. Annie Power was beaten when she was favourite for the World Hurdle in 2014; this had come as a huge surprise Annie Power had looked so dominate during the season. After another perfect season in 2015, Annie Power was sent off as the odds-on favourite in the OLBG Hurdle; Walsh had Annie Power going like a dream as she approached the last jump. Then shock horror zoomed around the racecourse as Annie Power hit the last jump and fell, and it was another Cheltenham disappointment for Annie Power.
Heading into this year’s festival Mullins and owner Rich Ricci were undecided in which race Annie Power would run in. But when Faugheen was ruled out through injury made their minds up for them. Annie Power would run in 2016 World Hurdle again. Annie Power would again go off as the favourite, but there were plenty of people willing to oppose her this year after the previous two years. As the Mare addressed the last jump everyone held their breath, but this time Annie Power jumped it like a dream as she left the field trailing in her wake. Mullins, Ricci and Walsh all had a tear in their eye as they walked back into the Cheltenham’s winner’s enclosure with Annie Power for the first time. If Annie Power hadn’t of won a race at the UK’s biggest jump racing festival it would have been one of racing’s greatest mysteries how, as the star mare had won everywhere else she had gone.
The Mullins’ star-studded stable shows no sign of letting up, and should once again be the ones to beat at the 2017 festival. 2017 could throw up a few headaches for Mullins and Ricci, as if all their horses are in good health there may not be enough races for them all to run in without going up against each other. With Faugheen coming back into the reckoning and likely to run in the World Hurdle again, they will need to think about the best plan for Annie Power and Vroum Vroum Mag. Ricci would also like to see Vautour run in the showpiece Gold Cup.
They almost chose this path for Vautour this year, but just felt that he wasn’t quite at his brilliant best when training leading up to the festival. After watching the Ryanair and the manner that Vautour won, then the Gold Cup looks the obvious next step. The only problem with this would be that Vautour and Djakadam would go head to head, Mullins and Ricci don’t typically pit their horse against each other, and it would also force Walsh to pick between them as he always rides both. Mullins also has some young stars coming through, Limini and Min are both look to have plenty of quality but will need time to develop.
With all the quality in this stable, it’s hard to Mullins and Walsh not winning the top jockey and top trainer again in 2017. If the pair has the same day one of the festivals that they have had in the last two years, then it’s incredibly hard for the chasing trainers to catch Mullins. The bookies will again fear Mullins and Walsh at Cheltenham in 2017 and the pairs love affair with the festival look set to continue for at least the next few years.
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