Can Mullins complete Festival Grade 1 clean sweep?

It’s a good rule of thumb that any article that has as a headline a question containing a deeply unlikely scenario – ‘Is there life on Mars?’; ‘Is it time for a remake of Some Like It Hot?’; ‘Can Spurs win the Premier League?’ – will always conclude ‘no’, however many hundreds of words are taken to reach that point. And yet…

Willie Mullins has never been more dominant than he is now, so the idea that he could deploy his forces to win all 14 Grade races at the Cheltenham Festival is no more than highly unlikely, rather than totally implausible. On the weekend just gone, Mullins had nine winners at the Dublin Racing Festival, including landing six of the eight Grade 1 events.

It’s worth recalling that at Punchestown in 2018, the stable would have landed ten Grade 1 winners had Al Boum Photo not run out in bizarre circumstances at the last; and it had the runners-up in the other two races. Even at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, Mullins managed five Grade 1s, and his team this time round looks even deeper, while some of his rivals, notably Nicky Henderson, aren’t having quite their usual level of success.

So, how does Mullins get to fourteen? Chacun Pour Soi is the first name on the team sheet. His performance in defeating a back-to-form Fakir d’Oudaries was right up with his best efforts, the time of the race overall looking good in relation to two others run over the same course-and-distance, including a highly competitive, good-quality, large-field handicap. Altior will need to look right back to his best at Newbury next weekend if he’s to threaten Chacun Pour Soi’s dominance of the Champion Chase market.

Energumeme a threat to Shishkin in Arkle for the ages

Chacun Pour Soi’s victory was followed by another really impressive display from Energumene, in the Irish Arkle. He again showed a slight tendency to jump right, correcting himself at times, but his jumping was essentially so assured under a slightly more controlled ride than previously that it put a lot of pressure on his rivals once he kicked on three out.

Energumene will face a formidable opponent in Shishkin the Arkle itself, but this win suggests he will have the time to measure his fences and has a fighting chance in what promises to be one of the match-ups of the week. Buck House against Noddy’s Ryde for a new generation.

If Energumene was confirming what was already known about him, Monkfish, in winning other Grade 1 novice chase at the meeting, on Sunday, took a significant step forward. There were grounds for being a bit lukewarm about his previous chasing wins, but this was an outstanding display.

Monkfish, like Energumene, made a real asset of his jumping, putting rivals that were travelling well under pressure as the race developed. What was especially taking was the manner in which he pulled away from the last. Perhaps this sort of forcing ride at this slightly shorter trip is what Monkfish needs to be seen to best advantage.

Monkfish had looked to have the Festival Novices’ Chase (sponsor pending?) as his obvious target and that may well still be the plan. Although his owners also have Royale Pagaille, presumably Monkfish will go where his trainer thinks best and Royale Pagaille will fit in where he can. It’s hard to see what else might trouble Monkfish in the three-miler, but, were Mullins planning a clean sweep, then Monkfish might be his best option for the Marsh.

Certainly, Monkfish, or indeed Energumene, would be just the horse to find any flaws in Envoi Allen. There don’t appear any so far, but he’s yet to face any particularly challenging opponents over fences. Were Mullins to opt for the Marsh with Monkfish, then the mare Colreevy would be a plausible candidate for the Festival.

Supreme looks just the ticket for Appreciate It

If Mullins holds a hand with two aces in the novice chase division, he has plenty of picture cards among his novice hurdlers. Appreciate It clearly looks the one to beat in the Supreme after he followed up his Grade 1 win at the track at Christmas with an emphatic victory against a useful field on Sunday. His dominant position was further enhanced when one of the chief British-trained candidates Third Time Lucki flopped at Musselburgh.

Sent off at odds on in the Scottish Supreme, Third Time Lucki looked all over the winner early in the straight, but the race was something of a sprint and the outcome was in the balance when he lost all chance at the last, weakening into fourth. The Betfair Hurdle might have been a better option.

Back to Mullins. The Dublin Racing Festival opened with what looked a particularly strong Grade 1 novice hurdle over two miles six, with Mullins four-handed, but the market wanted to know only Galliard du Mesnil and the market was spot on. Indeed, his supporters hardly had a moments worry as he travelled and jumped in mid-field before finding a good turn of foot from the last.

Galliard du Mesnil will have no trouble dropping back in trip slightly for the Ballymore, and although he isn’t so far clear of his likely opponents as Appreciate It seems to be, he deserves to be near the head of the market, along with Bob Olinger.

Galliard du Mesnil’s stable companion Stattler was just run out of second, but there was plenty to like his effort too, and he might well be an Albert Bartlett contender, his pedigree certainly suggesting he’ll be effective over three miles.

One of the stable’s few disappointments came in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle. Both Mullins and Gordon Elliott kept their powder dry to some extent, neither represented by their number one four-year-old, Mullins’ representative Youmdor turned in a sloppy round of jumping, while Elliott’s Quixilios was polished and won decisively, French Aseel‘s debut for Mullins is still awaited. The Triumph might be one of the weaker links in the sweep, though, oddly, Quixilios won so well that the possibility of switching Zanahiyr to the Supreme must remain.

Native River – a threat to Photo?

Sizing John, Djakadam, Native River, 1280.jpg
Among the more established runners for Mullins, Kemboy dominated from start to finish in the Irish Gold Cup, several of his opponents disappointing. That he looks a utility player to be slotted into a gap in either the Ryanair or even the Stayers’ Hurdle says plenty. Al Boum Photo, sat like Achilles in his tent, remains the one to beat in the Gold Cup, though the magnificent Native River showed he’s no back number in winning the rearranged Cotswold at Sandown. Eleven year olds don’t win a second Gold Cup after a three-year interval, do they?

Kemboy hasn’t been seen over hurdles in nearly four years, but his jumping of fences at Cheltenham and the lack of a strong alternative in the race for the yard makes the Stayers’ Hurdle an option. Benie des Dieux, yet to be seen this winter, would be a plausible candidate, though the Mares’ Hurdle and the new Mares’ Chase are other possibilities for her.

The yard has several Ryanair options, though Melon – unsuited by being held up- as well as the blundering Min failed to enhance his Festival claims. Sharjah was another relative failure, in the Irish Champion Hurdle. And the Champion Hurdle is a race where Mullins’ chance of a clean sweep might fall early on. Partly because he doesn’t have a really strong candidate (especially assuming Concertista sticks to the Mares’), partly because Honeysuckle was so impressive in winning on Saturday.

The Mares’ Hurdle remains an option for Honeysuckle, but it would be criminal to go for that after such a display and on recent form she clearly ought to be favourite for the Champion, ahead of Epatante.

Finally, the Champion Bumper. Ridiculous as it seems, the most impressive Mullins winner of the weekend was probably Kilcruit in the Grade 2 bumper. He looked like he just joined in is an old racing clichΓ©, but he really did look like he’d just joined in as he swept past the field in the straight. Kilcruit might have been slightly flattered, given the way the race was run, and Elliott opted not to run Sir Gerhard, but a repeat performance from Kilcruit at Cheltenham would likely give Mullins yet another Champion Bumper victory.

And that is the route to fourteen.