The 2023 renewal of the Cheltenham Festival is almost upon us, with the steps of the iconic parade ring at Prestbury Park (pictured above) set to be packed with eager punters over the course of the prestigious four-day meeting in the Cotswolds.
The horses they will be most keen to catch a glimpse of before the big races are those trained by Willie Mullins. The Irishman is gunning for a fifth-straight and 10th-career Leading Trainer award at this year’s Festival, and with a record 10 winners last year and a wealth of favourites this year, it’s no surprise he’s the heavy favourite in the horse racing odds to retain his title.
At the time of writing, Mullins has 10 favourites in the ante-post markets and 19 horses in the top three of the Festival’s 14 Grade 1s. He could get close to 10 winners again this year, which would see him draw close to 100 Cheltenham winners. So, we’re going to zone in on his Grade 1 favourites and rate their chances of winning their respective contests.
Facile Vega – Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
The recent Dublin Racing Festival (DRF) was expected to see Facile Vega firm up as the favourite for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with a win in the Grade 1 Ireland Novice Hurdle. Instead, he came last of the five runners who finished the race as Paul Townend was heavily criticised for the run.
The exciting six-year-old has remained as the favourite at around 5/2, but he certainly isn’t as dominant in the market as he once was at about 8/11. A seed of doubt has also been planted now as to whether it was just a bad ride from Townend or if the horse has been exposed. Stablemates Impaire Et Passe (7/2) and Il Etait Temps (9/2) and Marine Nationale (7/2) are dangers.
El Fabiolo – Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase
The winner of the Irish Arkle at the DRF, El Fabiolo is now being tipped to keep his fantastic run of form going with a third-straight win over fences in the Arkle itself. The six-year-old has shortened to 11/10 from 4/1 following that success at Leopardstown and Jonbon’s scare at Warwick shortly after.
He looks like a top-quality horse, but that was just his second start over fences and Jonbon could have learned a lot from that testing win in the Grade 2 Kingmaker. Plus, the only blemish on the Nicky Henderson-trained horse’s form card was dealt by stablemate Constitution Hill in last year’s Supreme.
Energumene – Queen Mother Champion Chase
This year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase is not looking easy to predict, with favourite Energumene coming home in third in the Clarence House Chase over course and distance in January and second favourite Edwardstone also finishing behind surprise winner Editeur Du Gite that day.
Energumene didn’t jump well and an error at the final fence cost him ground on his rivals up the hill. However, both Edwardstone and Editeur Du Gite looked to be going better anyway so there’s not much to suggest a better jump would have seen him win or even claim second. Serious questions to be asked.
It’s For Me – Champion Bumper
Mullins winning the Champion Bumper is almost a certainty these days. The Irishman has won four of the last five renewals and 12 times overall since the flat race’s inception in 1992, giving him an incredible strike rate of 40% in the contest.
The Closutton trainer looks set to his extend his record to 13 as It’s For Me is the favourite at 3/1 after winning by 10 lengths on his reappearance in January. The five-year-old does face some stiff competition from stablemates Fun Fun Fun, who won the Grade 2 bumper at the DRF, and Chapeau De Soleil as well as John Keily’s a Dream to Share.
While Mullins looks nailed on for another win as his youngsters dominate the card, with 16 of the 34 entries coming from his conveyer belt at the time of writing, we’re not sure It’s For Me justifies such heavy favouritism. The aforementioned Fun Fun Fun might be worth keeping an eye on at 5/1.
Blue Lord – Ryanair Chase
Originally tipped to be headed for the Champion Chase, the ruling out of dual Ryanair Chase winner Allaho — who suffered an abdominal bleed — has resulted in Blue Lord potentially being rerouted for the day three feature — and he’s went straight to the fore of the market at 3/1 alongside Fakir D’oudairies.
The eight-year-old is another highly-rated Mullins horse that disappointed at the DRF, failing to win the Dublin Chase from odds as short as 1/4. Blue Lord is a top-quality chaser though with six wins in eight starts over fences and he did win over this distance (2m4½f) in a Grade 2 at Clonmel in November, but Shishkin now looks like the win to beat after his win at Ascot.
Lossiemouth – Triumph Hurdle
Sticking with horses who flattered to deceive at Leopardstown, Lossiemouth was heavily backed to win the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle. However, she was badly impeded and despite Townend’s best efforts to get her back into the race — which was later criticised by Mullins — the four-year-old could fare no better than second to stablemate Gala Marceau.
That was the exciting hurdlers’ first defeat after two previous wins over obstacles since joining Closutton and if she can go around Cheltenham without being hampered she should be able to reverse the form on Gala Marceau. The Kenny Alexander-owned horse and Blood Destiny (another stablemate) make up the top three of the betting for Mullins.
Embassy Gardens – Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle
Another Grade 1 that Mullins has enjoyed success in recently, with three wins from the last six renewals, Embassy Gardens is the 5/1 favourite for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle after winning by an incredible 35 lengths at Thurles last time out.
That victory was his first in three starts over hurdles and he showed significant improvement over the longer trip of 2m7f, so the addition furlong or so for this three-mile contest shouldn’t be a concern. But it looks like a wide-open affair.
Galopin Des Champs – Gold Cup
Rounding things off the Gold Cup, the Blue Riband event of the entire Festival and jumps racing calendar, Galopin Des Champs looks to be on course to land Mullins his third success in the showpiece following Al Boum Photo’s dual triumphs in 2019 and 2020.
The seven-year-old has won five of his six starts over fences, with his only blemish that devasting fall when well on course for victory in last year’s Turners Novices’ Chase, and he’s already won some big races this season — including his recent outing in the Irish Gold Cup.
The addition two and a half furlongs should be an issue, which is reflected in Galopin Des Champs’ incredibly short odds of 13/8. But victory could depend on whether or not A Plus Tard will return to form at Cheltenham.