Mullins set to throw a Champion curveball
Un De Sceaux credentials may be put on line in Sandown 'rendezvous'
WILLIE MULLINS could be poised to throw a curveball into the Champion Hurdle build-up after raising the possibility of pitching his precocious front-runner Un De Sceaux in against Melodic Rendezvous at Sandown on Saturday.
Hurricane Fly's barnstorming fourth triumph in Sunday's BHP Irish Champion Hurdle put the seal on the reigning champion's on-track preparations, but stablemates Un De Sceaux and Annie Power are two still unknown quantities that could yet be among his most dangerous rivals in the Cotswolds on March 11.
Annie Power also completed her diverse range of trials in facile fashion against inferior opposition over two miles at Doncaster on Saturday, though her Prestbury Park target remains undecided.
While the Stan James-sponsored feature on the opening day is the only race that Un De Sceaux is entered in at Cheltenham, we could yet find out far more about the extent of his capabilities were he and the Jeremy Scott-trained Melodic Rendezvous to clash in the Listed Contenders Hurdle.
After the Edward O'Connell-owned six-year-old trounced two inferior rivals for a second time this term at Navan, Mullins (pictured right) hinted that the Red Mills Hurdle at Gowran Park on February 15 could be next.
Meaningful opposition would likely be thin on the ground again there, and it appears the indomitable champion trainer might himself be eager to learn a bit more about Un De Sceaux, which has returned prohibitive SPs of 1/16 and 1/12 in his outings this term.
Unbeaten in four hurdles for Mullins after landing two bumpers in France in 2012, the keen-running force of nature has never been headed in a race.
He is an enormously exciting prospect that relishes soft ground, but, so far, he hasn't encountered a horse remotely capable of putting it up to him.
The 143-rated Foildubh was annihilated at Navan, but was subsequently found to have suffered what his trainer John Ryan described as a "nasty cut" during the race, so putting Un De Sceaux's visually stunning performances into context remains a mercurial task.
An encounter with Melodic Rendezvous in testing ground could change all that.
Successful in Grade One company in the Tolworth Hurdle 12 months ago, Scott's eight-year-old's only defeat in his last six starts came when he was a below-par fifth behind My Tent Or Yours in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle in November.
He redeemed himself by claiming Haydock's Champion Hurdle trial in style 11 days ago, and shares an identical rating of 156 with Un De Sceaux. He is also a proven mudlark, so it would be fascinating to see what might transpire were they to clash on Saturday in a race that Binocular won en route to Cheltenham glory in 2010.
Melodic Rendezvous' odds of 25/1 for the Champion Hurdle reflect Scott's assertion that he won't tackle the race unless the ground is soft, but the top-priced 14/1 that can be had about Un De Sceaux would surely disappear if he were to dismiss him with anything like the sort of authority that he has done less talented individuals.
Mullins could also unleash a couple of other high-profile names at Punchestown on Sunday.
Vautour, demoted from his position at the head of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle market after a workmanlike win at the track earlier in the month, is one of five that he has put in the Listed Novice Hurdle.
He can choose from Arvika Ligeonniere or Twinlight in the Boylesports Tied Cottage Chase, which could also host the seasonal reappearance of Tony Martin's Bog Warrior.
Rathlin, Toner D'Oudairies, Baily Green and Special Tiara are all potential starters in a €40,000 two-miler that will be run for a first time since 2009 without either Sizing Europe or Big Zeb, our two latest champion chasers, in the line-up. Donald McCain is responsible for the sole English entry in the Grade Two, the hat-trick-seeking Desert Cry.
Also pencilled in to return at Punchestown is Peter Maher's Cheltenham Festival cross-country hero Big Shu, which went on to complete a tremendous double at the Kildare venue under Barry Cash in April.
Meanwhile, Jim Dreaper has suggested that his progressive novice chaser Los Amigos – an admirable runner-up to On His Own in last week's Goffs Thyestes Chase – could be aimed at the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse on April 21.
"He is fine after the Thyestes and we are just reassessing our options now," the veteran trainer said of his lightly-raced seven-year-old.
"It will obviously be a three-mile-plus chase that we will be looking for, maybe in late February or early March, and he will certainly get an entry in the Irish National."