Mullins' army ready to conquer on Cheltenham's green fields
At 1.30, in the natural amphitheatre below Cleeve Hill, a roar will ring out across the north-eastern corner of Cheltenham that signals the start of the 2015 National Hunt Festival; four days, 27 races, Britain versus Ireland, punter versus bookmaker, the retiring AP McCoy against Ruby Walsh, and today, it may be no exaggeration, Willie Mullins' first strings against their stable companions.
Racing was first recorded in the Cheltenham area exactly 200 years ago, but has any trainer ever brought a force to this part of Gloucestershire like Mullins? Not in my time.
Nicky Henderson saddled a Festival four-timer when Simonsig, Bobs Worth, Finian's Rainbow and Une Artiste won on the Wednesday of the 2012 meeting.
Not all of those were strongly fancied but they helped Henderson's second head lad, Conor Murphy, walk off with a cool £1m from a speculative accumulator.
Today the Mullins-Walsh axis has the power to actually put a few rails bookmakers out of business should all four of their red-hot favourites - Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Faugheen and Annie Power - triumph. Three of them are owned by Rich Ricci.
This is no bolt from the blue - like Frankie Dettori's Magnificent Seven at Ascot in 1996 - for the big firms, so do not listen to the doleful tunes being played on violins, a cap for coins at their feet, by their PR men.
This has been coming since Christmas and will be factored into all their price calculations - plus they will have three more days to get it all back.
But the starting prices of the Mullins runners will depend on Douvan.
If he wins the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, the momentum will be with the punter and the prices shorter. If it gets beaten the bookmakers will stick their heads above the parapet.
At this morning's prices, an accumulator on all four would only pay 30/2.
Ladbrokes, by contrast, can offer you 25/1 about Mullins not training a winner today.
He runs three in the Stan James Champion Hurdle, with Faugheen a warm favourite.
Last year the unbeaten seven-year-old, bought by Ricci after winning a point-to-point in 2012, kicked a couple of hurdles out of the way when winning the Neptune.
Mullins indicated then that he would commence his quest for a Gold Cup by going chasing this season.
But at Punchestown in April, Faugheen was dropped back to two miles and, despite having won over three miles on heavy ground last winter, this was his most impressive victory when he sauntered home on good ground 12 lengths clear of the second.
Nevertheless, one still has to ask, can a horse with his stamina have the speed to win the best two-mile hurdle of the season?
In two starts this term, both in England, he has comfortably beaten second-tier hurdlers but has yet to meet one of today's rivals. If Walsh has to make his own running, as he probably will, it will not bother him, but he will require a clean round.
Stable companion Hurricane Fly has twice been Champion Hurdler but he has also twice run below his best in the race. At 11 you would imagine we have seen the best of him but if he could reproduce his Leopardstown form this winter he will again be in the mix.
Likewise the 'third string' Arctic Fire, twice placed behind him this season, would not have to find much improvement to be in the shake-up.
The New One is, by some margin, the best of the home team.
If things had gone his way last year we might be talking about him as the defending champion, but his tendency to jump right-handed has been a worrying trait this season and one has to wonder whether his best chance has been and gone.
My selection is Jezki, which can get the McCoy farewell party going and is the horse most likely to prick the Mullins balloon.
As much as Neptune winners (Faugheen) have a good record in the race, defending champions usually come back and give it a good go.
Though Jezki has not been able to get on terms with Hurricane Fly at Leopardstown this winter, this is Cheltenham in the spring and his form coming into the race is much better than it was last year.
Douvan has not come out of second gear on heavy going to win both starts since his arrival in Ireland from France. It will be interesting to see how he handles better ground and I rate Seedling as an excellent each-way chance.
Exciting as the Ricci trio are, Un De Sceaux could be the most exciting Mullins horse at the Festival in the Racing Post Arkle. His catch-me-if-you-can style makes him as thrilling to watch as Walsh, who has little say apart from steering, finds him to ride.
Expect fireworks. (© Daily Telegraph, London)