Mullins two-pronged attack on Mares' Hurdle can continue record run
Willie Mullins' stranglehold on the OLBG Mares' Hurdle could continue at Cheltenham today but it remains to be seen whether it will be last year's winner Vroum Vroum Mag or Limini that will prove his number one hope.
Ireland's champion jumps trainer has won the last eight runnings and is responsible for the two main protagonists this time.
Stable jockey Ruby Walsh may have sided with Limini out of the Rich Ricci-owned pair, but Vroum Vroum Mag's rider Paul Townend (pictured) will no doubt fancy his chances. After all, he landed the spoils on the Mullins second string Glens Melody two years ago after Annie Power crashed out at the final flight.
Understandably, Limini is favourite to come out on top and she has had a light campaign.
Winner of the mares' novice hurdle at the 2016 Festival, Limini defeated Apple's Jade on her only run of the winter, leading to much speculation as to whether she would be supplemented for the Champion Hurdle.
Vroum Vroum Mag has had a busier time, as connections had to decide which of her many Cheltenham entries the eight-year-old was going to take up.
They plumped for the tried and tested option, although the mare appeared to under-perform when scrambling home by a head from Midnight Jazz, who was rated 16lb inferior, at Doncaster in January.
Mullins believes Vroum Vroum Mag had a valid excuse and she was found to be under the weather when she returned to Ireland.
"I think she was just brewing something over in Doncaster, some sort of cold. When we brought her home we gave her antibiotics and an easy time," he said.
Limini showed her well-being when beating Apple's Jade at Punchestown last month in her first race since the festival meeting at that track at the end of April.
"I went to Punchestown thinking 'am I mad going there'. Last year when Annie Power won it you'd probably have said before the race it would be a schooling hurdle for her, with what was in the race," said Mullins. "This year I thought Apple's Jade wouldn't make it easy for us and maybe a hard race three weeks before Cheltenham is not good.
"But we'd said we were going to run, so we probably had to turn up and I just hoped it wouldn't turn into a race of attrition.
"We thought we'd ride the race Ruby did ride and everything just fell into place.
"What I didn't think was that Limini could pull out and go past her without getting a slap, which begs two questions - have we improved that much? I thought we'd improved at home, but I didn't know we'd improved that much and did Apple's Jade run up to her form?
"Limini didn't have a hard race and pulled out of it well. It was not more than she would do if we didn't go to Punchestown and took her away somewhere.
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"Her jumping has improved hugely from last year."
Walsh explained why he plumped for Limini, and how difficult the choice had been.
"I suppose I've thought for a while this was going to happen, and still at 11.30 on Sunday morning I wasn't sure (what to ride), and I suppose I've gone with recent form and Limini's recent form is better than Vroum Vroum Mag's," he said.
"Vroum Vroum Mag has proven more in her career than Limini has, but there's nothing between them on ratings and not much between them on their home work and I just took a chance on Limini improving, whereas Vroum Vroum Mag may have plateaued.
"That's only my hunch, I could very well be wrong and there's a big chance I am wrong. I've done a lot of things as a jockey, but I don't think I've ever figured out how to ride two in one race."