Taking on the superpowers
Cheltenham will be dominated by three mega-yards, says Ian McClean
The Cheltenham Festival is steeped in the romance of the small man's triumph. From Tom Foley to Sirrell Griffiths to Jane Pilkington's Willie Wumpkins, the landscape of Cheltenham glories past is pockmarked with the little man.
And although last year the irrepressible dairy farmer Anthony Knott's Hunt Ball momentarily illuminated the enchantment of the underdog, it could not cloud the fact that one yard – Nicky Henderson's – took home a record seven prizes.
As with globalisation, where big corporates are just getting bigger and more dominant, gobbling up smaller enterprises like some kind of commercial Pac-Man, so the mega-yards are becoming ever more invincible, both quantitatively and qualitatively.
Therefore, it is hardly surprising that you can name your price about any trainer outside of Henderson, Nicholls or Mullins being top trainer at this year's Festival and such is their firepower in the Grade Ones, it is very conceivable that between them they could win them all. Between them they have finished top dog at eight of the last nine Festivals.
Of the triumvirate, it appears as if the Nicholls' (leading trainer five times in the last nine years) bench-strength is the weakest.
Mind you, that is hardly surprising considering the mix of retirements and injuries inflicted on the yard this season. Remove names like Kauto Star, Denman and Master
Minded through retirement and add the likes of Big Buck's, Al Ferof and Tidal Bay through injury and it remains remarkable the champion trainer is still only 8/1 to top the poll this year.
Add to his misfortune the disappointment of Arkle hope Fago at Sandown on Friday and the question over whether Reynoldstown winner Rocky Creek will skip the Festival for Aintree and you can be sure Nicholls will have stronger Festival teams in years to come.
Notwithstanding those who aren't there, Nicholls' two biggest hopes rest with Silviniaco Conti and Zarkandar in chasing and hurdling's respective blue ribands. Both are young, highly progressive and (one would hope) have more career ahead of them than behind.
Besides the big two, the Ditcheat yard has Dodging Bullets (put up as Nicholls' charity bet at a preview evening in the week) in the opening Supreme Novices; Far West, current Triumph Hurdle favourite; and Unioniste for the RSA. Beyond that, his main chances appear to rest in the handicaps where he has favourites for the Pertemps (Sam Winner); Fred Winter (Ptit Zig) and Grand Annual (Ulck Du Lin).
Wherever Nicholls appears over the four days he will inevitably find Henderson and Mullins lying in wait. Both outfits have a 30-strong plus phalanx ready to deploy and while Mullins has especially enormous depth in the novice department, Henderson seems to have majored in the ready-mades.
With 46 Festival winners, Henderson is the most successful Festival trainer of all time and with this year's line-up he doesn't appear anywhere near quitting.
Even the tragic loss of Darlan at Doncaster recently can hardly take the edge off it. If anything his assembly this year appears even stronger on paper than last year. He takes no fewer than five of last year's winners back this time around, so little wonder his Festival team reads so Box-Office A-List. Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig, Bobs Worth, Riverside Theatre and Finian's Rainbow are all back for more Festival pickings in less than three weeks.
Binocular and Long Run, two previous heroes, are on a restoration mission, while others like blossoming superstar My Tent Or Yours, Captain Conan, Grandouet, Oscar Whisky, Hadrians Approach as well as recent French imports Rolling Star and Utopie Des Bordes appear to give the Seven Barrows outfit an edge the Monopolies Commission might be tempted to investigate.
If Henderson seems to have a bit of an edge, then Willie Mullins' grip in Ireland is oligarchic. His domination of the domestic scene has been absolute this year but I'm sure not a day has passed that hasn't been coloured by thoughts on the assembly-combination of his Festival best.
While Mullins has the flag-bearing faithful leading his assault in the shape of Hurricane Fly and Quevega, the emphasis of his team's make-up is more on future potential than past glories and his posse of novices is possibly the strongest any trainer has ever brought to any Festival.
The Closutton trainer has at least four worthy pretenders for the Triumph for a start. Amongst his novice hurdlers to be spread most efficiently between the Supreme, Neptune and Albert Bartlett are Un Atout, Pont Alexandre, Mozoltov, Champagne Fever and Ballycasey. His novice chasers include the Wylie pair Boston Bob and Back In Focus, while Arvika Ligeonniere has the choice of Arkle and Jewson. And quite which or how many will turn up for Mullins' beloved Festival Bumper at this stage is anyone's guess. Including Willie's.
Although, when all is said, I'm pretty sure the one race above all Mullins would love to take home this year is jump
racing's biggest prize – and one he has never won. The Gold Cup was won famously by his father with Dawn Run. Mullins has had a nearly horse in Florida Pearl, a brilliant three-miler for whom the extended distance of the Gold Cup proved, on more than one occasion, just too much.
Hedgehunter went close too, but in Sir Des Champs he senses he has a horse that could just put it all together on the day.
He will not succeed without first facing down Messrs Nicholls (Silviniaco Conti) and Henderson (Bobs Worth and Long Run).