Sunday 25 February 2018

Cheltenham 2016: All eyes on Annie Power as Mullins prepares to storm the Cotswolds in search of further glory

Ruby Walsh with Annie Power
Ruby Walsh with Annie Power
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

A year after Annie Power saved the bookmaking industry a reputed £50m payout, Willie Mullins will again strive to storm the Cotswolds.

The insatiable champion trainer's brilliant mare has twice left her connections and punters ruing their luck at the Festival. In 15 starts, her only two reversals have come at the four-day March frenzy.

In 2014, after seeming to compromise her chance of staying three miles by fighting Ruby Walsh ferociously for her head in the World Hurdle, she pushed More Of That all the way.

It was as gallant a turn as last year's final-flight calamity was galling in the mares' hurdle.

Trainer Willie Mullins at Cheltenham yesterday. Photo: CODY
Trainer Willie Mullins at Cheltenham yesterday. Photo: CODY GLENN/SPORTSFILE

This time, despite not even being entered in the race until Rich Ricci sanctioned a £20,000 supplementary fee last week, Annie Power will seek to make it third time lucky by dropping back to two miles for a tilt at what would be a historic Stan James Champion Hurdle triumph.

Her presence in the prestigious championship event provides a compelling strand to the opening day's activity, 30 years after Dawn Run's immortal climb to glory under Jonjo O'Neill for Mullins' legendary father, Paddy. Two years earlier, of course, Dawn Run had initiated a still unmatched double by securing the Champion Hurdle itself.

Of the 12 left standing in today's showpiece, Mullins will also saddle Nichols Canyon and Sempre Medici. Paul Townend gets a shot at the big time on Nichols Canyon, while 19-year-old David Mullins, so polished on Graham Wylie's charge when masterminding Faugheen's downfall at Punchestown in November, is rewarded for his increasingly impressive endeavours with the mount aboard Sempre Medici.

The Irish challenge is completed by Henry de Bromhead's Bryan Cooper-ridden Identity Thief - many people's idea of a live one in an edition that doesn't boast the magic that it often does due to the absence due to injury of the sensational reigning title-holder, Faugheen.

In total, Mullins is poised to saddle 13 horses today as he begins his latest assault on Prestbury Park. He departed with a record eight winners in 2015, and Min is a hot favourite to get his quest for a fifth leading trainer's title in six years off to a flying start in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

Then it will be Douvan's turn to justify odds-on status in the Racing Post Arkle Trophy, and this time it is Vroum Vroum Mag that might carry the can of anchor in the day's fourth Grade One, the OLBG Mares' Hurdle.

At the best odds available last evening, the combined price on the four-timer was just 35/1, with doubts surrounding Min's credentials prompting his odds to drift to as big as 5/2, having been as low as 7/4 in the morning.

A year ago, Glens Melody clung on to complete a less predictable Grade One four-timer for Mullins. This time, Gitane Du Berlais will carry the tag of second string in the mares' race.

It would be wrong to label the likes of Henry de Bromhead, Dermot Weld and Gordon Elliott as merely members of a supporting cast, but, in what has become Mullins' own personal fiefdom of late, there is an element of that about it.

Each man, though, will saddle live contenders on an afternoon that promises plenty of the usual high-octane drama.

Over the past three years, 15 Irish handlers have combined to plunder 34 Festival wins.

It is some feat of logistics bringing such an equine army across the water, never mind the expertise required in fine-tuning so many horses for this unique cauldron of intensity.

"We have a team of 11 for the Festival this year," said De Bromhead, whose five-strong team today is headed by Identity Thief and Sizing John, on arrival yesterday.

"We travelled six of them over yesterday and five more are coming in today. I'm happy with all of them so far - I just hope they all give a good account of themselves."

The official going on the Old Course is now good to soft, soft in places.

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