Mullins looking to his 'fab four' to break Gold Cup duck
It's an unusual scenario for Willie Mullins to be preparing a battalion of Cheltenham hopefuls without a host of hotpots carrying hoards of Irish cash and there's a much different feel to his travelling party this year.
Only defending Mares' Hurdle champion Benie Des Dieux (7/4), exciting novice chaser Duc Des Genievres (7/1) in the Close Brothers Novice Handicap, Coral Cup market leader Uradel (8/1) and Min (3/1) in the Ryanair Chase carry favouritism.
There aren't the same number of 'certainties' as previous years for the Festival's most successful trainer - he leads Nicky Henderson by one with 61 winners - but a scroll through his team shows all kinds of possibilities.
The Closutton maestro won't have the same volume heading to the Cotswolds with the unusually dry winter/spring cutting his raiding party significantly from 60 to 40.
While the typically modest 62-year-old is quick to acknowledge that replicating last year's haul of seven winners will be difficult - he was still pipped to the Irish Independent Leading Trainer Award by Gordon Elliott's eight - his cup still runneth over.
Championship races are what it's all about at the Festival and Mullins has a strong hand in all four, starting with a four-pronged attack on the Magners Gold Cup where he has "as good a chance this year as any" to finally land the blue riband for the first time having hit the post on six occasions.
His 'fab four' consists of Savills Chase winner Kemboy (9/1), Irish Gold Cup hero Bellshill (12/1), Al Boum Photo (14/1) and Thyestes Chase winner Invitation Only (25/1) will line up but Mullins is in the dark on which is the most likely winner.
"Bellshill has lots of stamina and jumps particularly well. That's a huge plus for him. Kemboy skipped over those fences in Leopardstown and hopefully he'll be able to do the same in Cheltenham," Mullins said. "The extra trip will be good for him as well. I don't think we've seen the best of Al Boum Photo yet while Invitation (Only) will probably have to step up a bit."
Much of the talk is about the Champion Hurdle duel between Apple's Jade (2/1) and Buveur D'Air (7/4 favourite), but Mullins' mare Laurina (7/2) is the unknown quantity.
Throw last year's runner-up Melon - available at anything from 7/1 to 20/1 - and the improving Sharjah (8/1) into the mix and things get more interesting with Mullins sweet on Melon.
"Melon looks good. I am very happy with him. We have gone backwards on the racetrack this year, but I am hoping now that we have changed a few things with him that might bring back his old form."
A decision on whether Min (5/1) and Footpad (6/1) will take on the mighty Altior (2/5 favourite) in the Champion Chase will be made closer to the Festival but Mullins reports Footpad to have "schooled very well lately". Both also have the Ryanair Chase option - 2017 victor Un De Sceaux (7/1) looks certain to line up - while Penhill (5/1) again travels without a prep run to defend his Stayers' Hurdle crown.
The champion trainer will also saddle 2015 Champion Hurdle hero Faugheen (8/1) as the 11-year-old bids for an unlikely championship double but Cilaos Emery is a serious doubt after the Arkle contender pulled a muscle and Mullins said "if he doesn't come out of it in the next seven days, we may have to draw stumps".