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9 Feb 2021

Can Anyone Stop Willie Mullins at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival?

The Cheltenham Festival is the pinnacle of the jumps season. In recent years, it’s also felt like a Willie Mullins appreciation event, such has been his dominance. Last year, Gordon Elliot ran him close, yet Mullins still managed to finish as the competition’s top trainer with seven winners, seven seconds and six thirds. And if the Irish master’s hot streak was in doubt, it was put to bed at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown. 

For jockeys, trainers and fans with Mullins’ connections, the prospect of the yard sweeping before them at Cheltenham isn’t very appealing. However, even though his mounts will undoubtedly be very competitive, there is a selection of horses that might be able to upset the apple cart. 

Shishkin – The Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase 

The potential horse of the meeting is the Nicky Henderson-trained Shishkin. He has received rave reviews throughout his career, only losing once over both hurdles and fences, and recent performances suggest Shishkin will take some beating if he isn’t to claim the Arkle Challenge Trophy this March. A rout at Doncaster in January only boosted the anticipation for his next outing, taking on a strong gallop and unsuitable ground to cruise to an eight-length victory.

The bookies certainly believe Henderson will get off to a flier as the horse racing betting odds already have Shishkin at 10/11. Energumene, Willie Mullins' best chance in the Arkle, is rated at 5/2, which is a large gap with a month left until the festival kicks off. As ever, the Cheltenham festival results are tough to pick in advance. Still, the people whose job it is to know about these things have Shishkin and Nicky Henderson as clear favourites in the Arkle.

Metier - Supreme Novices’ Hurdle 

Cheltenham has a couple of big races that are wide-open this year, and the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle is a massive chance for a non-Mullins mount to stage an upset. W P Mullins still has the favourite in the race - Appreciate It is 11/8 after an impressive performance at Leopardstown at the Dublin Racing Festival – yet Metier appears to have a very good opportunity based on current form.

Firstly, the gelding hasn’t lost over hurdles since switching codes from flat tracks. In his three outings, he has won all three times, although the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle does represent a step up for Harry Fry’s horse. Still, Nicky Henderson doesn’t have a standout in the race, which means there’s not as much competition. Combine this with the fact that Metier is already a Grade One winner and is unexposed, Mullins must be wary of the threat he poses.

Bear Ghylls - Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle 

The entrants for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle have yet to be confirmed. However, it looks as if Gaillard Du Mesnil will represent Willie Mullins and Co while Appreciate It and Metier battle it out in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. This leaves a quite open field, with Nicky Martin-trained Bear Ghylls seemingly flying under the radar. 

This bay gelding is unbeaten over bumpers and hurdles, meaning he definitely has the pedigree. Beating David Pipes' Make Me A Believer by four-and-a-half lengths at Lingfield certainly added to his reputation, and depending on how his lead up to the festival goes, Bear Ghylls could have an incredibly low rating for a horse of his calibre. 12/1 could be a steal come 17th March. 

Willie Mullins’ yard will be strong – there's no doubt of that, especially with Gold Cup legend Al Boum Photo. Still, there’s enough to suggest he will have to fight to claim yet another top trainer award if Nicky Henderson, Harry Fry and Nicky Martin have anything to do with it.