Cheltenham's winning-most trainer Willie Mullins says his Cheltenham Gold Cup team could be the strongest yet, and that he will be better represented in the notoriously tricky handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival 2019.
In an all-access Cheltenham Stable Tour, Mullins outlined plans for his stars, and explained why there will be a smaller team travelling to Prestbury Park from Closutton this year.
"Looking at the betting for Cheltenham, our team wouldn’t be as strong as in other years, and I think we will only have about three-quarters of the usual numbers," Mullins said. "We will probably send around 40 this year and it’s because a lot of our horses just didn’t run this season due to the dry ground. I mean, look at our novice chasers; we’ve very few entries.
"Our bumper horses are not strong either, and a lot of our bumper horses from last year didn’t get back to the track to go hurdling, but we will be well-represented in the handicaps."
He added: "Despite all that, we have a strong hand in the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle and our novice hurdlers have been running well all year, though we’ll maybe have to just rely on Ballyward for a win in the novice chases."
Want to find out the latest on the likes of Penhill, Min, Footpad, Bellshill, Al Boum Photo, Un De Sceaux and Faugheen? It's all in our Willie Mullins Cheltenham Stable Tour below.
One of the few races on Cheltenham's 28-event schedule not on Willie Mullins's list of 61 victories is the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but with four contenders this term, he's hoping that could finally change.
"The main two will be Kemboy and Bellshill, but we will also run Invitation Only, who does need to improve, and Al Boum Photo, who I don't think we've seen the best of yet.
"For Kemboy, it depends on what the ground is going to be like. The ground in Leopardstown when he put in a huge performance to win the Savills Chase was very, very good.
"If it comes up like that on the fourth day of Cheltenham, which it can, he must have a good chance. We saw how he skipped over those fences at Leopardstown. Hopefully he’ll be able to do the same at Cheltenham. I think the extra trip will be good for him as well.
"It was a very brave ride from David Mullins at Christmas and it paid off. Maybe it was just the trip that improved him so much, and a different way of riding him. I haven’t made any jockey arrangements yet. But they are a very good combination.
"Bellshill has lots of stamina and jumps particularly well. Cheltenham has not been his luckiest place, maybe this is the year he’s going to change all that. I think he is now the horse we thought he would be.
"It’s all coming together for him. We can see him improving, and I think there’s more improvement to come. With the ground, he’s always gone on soft to heavy, but we took a chance running him on good ground the other day because I felt I had too. He’s by King’s Theatre though, and they love good ground. Even though he’s a big, heavy type of horse he handled it very, very well, and came out of that run at Leopardstown very well."
"This year hasn’t been his year with the ground not being as heavy as he wants, and probably needs as he gets older. But he still has the same enthusiasm as he always has. He’s in particularly good form this week. He just seems to be coming right at the right time. At the moment, I would imagine he will go for the Ryanair Chase, but he is in the Champion Chase, and that could change."
"Footpad (pictured above) schooled very well the other day. He schooled a bit more like the old Footpad. Hopefully thats a good sign that he’s started to find his form. I always thing, once it’s there you just have to find it again.
"We’ve been lucky enough that horses have often found their form coming in to Cheltenham, and I’m working to get him to that pitch if I can. He’s not one of the horses I’ve been too worried about this winter, because he can go on good ground.
"I want to get a few more gallops into him. He has had to miss some races because he’s had two over-reaches. He schooled around Navan the other day perfectly with no hind shoes and I’m very happy with that. It’s a new thing, maybe a freak accident, but we won’t be putting any shoes on him until after the race, if at all.
"The Ryanair Chase is an option. We ran him over 3m as a juvenile; pedigree-wise, and the horse he is, I think he’d have no problem stepping up in trip again."
"Min can go Champion Chase or Ryanair, and I’ll leave that decision until later. It depends on the ground, what Ruby Walsh wants to ride, what turns up - a number of things.
"He ran in the Champion Chase and was beaten by Altior. If he arrives on the day he will be the one to beat again. But things can happen. You can’t be afraid of one horse, so we will be taking him on with something, whether it's Min or Footpad. We’ll be keeping him straight, if nothing else."
"He’s coming along nicely. But we're looking at him every morning to make sure he’s okay. He’s going to have a few more searching bits of work.
"To me he was never going to have a run. I discussed it with connections and we said we would do the same as last year. Last year we were sitting at the kitchen table - Ruby, Patrick, and I - discussing should we do it or not, and they were all looking at me like, ‘why wouldn’t you do it?’ So we did it and it worked out, and then it made sense to go that route again.
"I’d rather get runs into them, but there is no point running at Punchestown and Leopardstown then finding you can’t get them to Cheltenham. So with a horse like him, we like to focus on getting to Cheltenham, then coming back to Punchestown, if we can. With him, we tried to get him running on the Flat last season, after Punchestown, but we couldn’t."
"He seems in good form. Ruby hadn’t stirred on him before he fell at Leopardstown, so what would have happened afterwards? I don’t know. Ruby was very confident that he hadn’t asked him anything at that stage.
"I was just waiting for Ruby to pull the lever, and unfortunately that never happened.
"He was very, very sore afterwards, so I’m very happy to have him back at a stage where I can get him ready for Cheltenham because when the fall happened I thought that might be it."
"He ran very well in the Stayers' Hurdle last year, and I think he was going to be placed when he fell at the last, so he goes back again."
"He's entered in the Ryanair Chase and Gold Cup. Trip-wise he should run in the Gold Cup. On his run the other day, he wouldn’t be going anywhere, however, Ruby did point out that himself and Edwulf jumped the last together, and they jumped the last together in the Irish Gold Cup last year too.
"I ran him in that race just to get a run into him, but I was disappointed with him, and I’m now sorry I didn’t have him entered in the Stayers’ Hurdle. I’ll chat to the owners and see what they want to do. We might try to get him into the Stayers’ or maybe he misses Cheltenham. I don’t know."
"Melon looks good, I’m very happy with him. We’re trying to figure out why he disappointed last time. We have our own reasons and will change a few things for Cheltenham.
"I know connections are saying Buveur D’Air has improved hugely from last year, but we hope that we’re going to improve hugely too. Now, obviously there isn’t any evidence of that.
"I’d say we’ve gone backwards on the racetrack, but I’m hoping if we change one or two things with him, it might bring back his old form. I’m not going to say what we’re going to do for now."
"It was not ideal running her after a flu vaccination, but the race had been in my head for ages. My original plan had been to wind her up for this race this week, then give her an easy time in the build up to Cheltenham, but that’s gone out the window. It actually wasn’t ideal for the whole yard, they all had to have a vaccination and an easy week.
"We won the Champion Hurdle with anothe mare Annie Power. Laurina is a very different mare to Annie Power though, they are both big mares, but in all other ways they are different, particularly in temperament, though Laurina’s has changed dramatically this season.
"Last year you wouldn’t want to pass her stable door too close because she might come out at you, and she’d get upset if anyone walked into her box. Whereas Annie Power, you could send a five-year-old child into her box and they would be safe.
"But Laurina has settled down hugely this year, which I find fascinating. We do the same work with her, she’s in the same stable, so I don’t know what it is, but I think she’s just more mature."
"Sharjah is a nice surprise this season; he’s improved beyond all recognition. He probably is what we thought he was coming up to Christmas two years ago, when he fell coming to win at the last at Leopardstown.
"He just sort of lost his way after that, perhaps it was a lack of confidence. But now he seems to be back to being a really good horse. He has really shown that, winning a Galway Hurdle off topweight, the Morgiana Hurdle and then Leopardstown."
"Aramon goes for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Klassical Dream is going to be the one to give me a bit of a headache. He's only won over 2m, but I think ultimately he will want a trip, so I'm not sure if he goes for the Supreme or the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle.
"Relegate goes for the Albert Bartlett. I was very disappointed with her at Leopardstown. Maybe the ground was just too good for her. Last year, in the Champion Bumper, I took my binoculars away from her just after the water fence because I thought she was finished.
"Next thing, she’s powering up the hill to win. So, horses for courses - hopefully she brings her A game back to Cheltenham.
"Allaho, I sort of said he'd run in the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle or Albert Bartlett, and I think he will more than likely go for the Albert Bartlett now after his win at Clonmel last week."
"Tiger Tap Tap certainly didn’t operate last time out. A few of my four-year-olds didn’t improve from their first run to their second and maybe I was just too easy on them. Now he had a very, very hard race at Christmas. I might have been too easy on him. I was hoping the run might have brought him on. I’m hoping that’s not his form."
"French Made, My Sister Sarah and Sancta Simona I’d imagine will run in the mares' novices' hurdle, though French Maid is in the Triumph Hurdle too."
Carefully Selected - "I’m disappointed I didn’t declare him for Punchestown today. If I’d known that rain was coming last night I might have run him, but at this stage I’d say he won’t go to Cheltenham."
Black Bow - "He had a little setback so, but he could come back for a bumper at Punchestown, just for something to do this season- if this weather ever breaks."
"Ellimay, Good Thyne Tara, Limini, and Benie Des Dieux will go for the Mares' Hurdle. Limini just hasn’t fired this year, but is another horse I’m hoping will show her best form at Cheltenham.
"Benie Des Dieux is in great order. Ground-wise we haven't been able to get a run into her. That's the only reason, and she won’t run now. She might have run last week, there were a couple of races, but with this new flu jab rule I just went and got them all done, that ruled her out of those races. I thought I’d rather get the flu jab done than race her."
"Cilaos Emery pulled a muscle schooling at Navan last weekend, so we have to wait and see what he is going to do. If he doesn’t come out of it in the next seven days, I’d say we might have to pull up stumps. That’s a disappointment.
"It looks like Duc Des Genievres will be our horse for the Arkle now. His performance the other day when winning at Gowran was very good, I was very pleased with him."
"Pravalaguna could have been one for the Novices' Handicap Chase, but I don’t think she qualified, so we will look at the JLT Novices’ Chase or the Arkle for her.
"I always thought she was a really good mare, and brought her to France and she had a terrible fall in Auteuil two years ago, so we’re delighted to have her back in the form that she is in. It’s the sort of form we thought she would aspire to when we bought her - she wasn’t a cheap purchase.
"Real Steel runs Thursday and needs to run to qualify for the Novices' Handicap Chase. But if he wins, he will be too highly rated. So if that happens, he’ll run in the JLT Novices’ Chase.
"I think the JLT is also an option for Voix Du Reve because a lot of people who have ridden him have said he needs a longer trip."
"Ballyward is my only entry in the National Hunt Chase this year. He jumps well and the plan is to run with Patrick (Mullins) riding."
"Redhotfillypeppers needs a good cut in the ground. She's in the RSA Chase and JLT Novices' Chase, but there’s a nice mares' race at Limerick on March 17 that she might go for instead."
"Blue Sari looks like being really our only bumper horse. A lot of what we could have run, we didn’t manage to get a run into at all this season.
"Like our 2018 Champion Bumper winner Relegate, he doesn’t show off at home. He’s very laid back, a child would ride him.
"I saw the speed he showed at Gowran, then I didn’t get that form franked in Naas when the horse that was second, Front View, was travelling very well before being brought down.
"I would have liked to have seen him finish the race that day. But doing what he did on the racetrack himself, Blue Sari certainly must go to Cheltenham.
"Four-year-olds have only won three Champion Bumpers - Rhythm Section (1993), Dato Star (1995), Cue Card (2010) - and maybe very few have contested it. That is a concern, but statistics are there to be broken. He’s mentally mature enough, he’s like a rocking horse - I’d say you could bring him anywhere."
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