With the Cheltenham Festival getting ever closer, all the talk is centering around just how many more trophies legendary trainer Nicky Henderson will add to his already overflowing cabinet. Over the years, he has trained a remarkable 55 Cheltenham winners, and with favorites like Might Bite, Buveur D’Air and Altior tipped to win the showcase races, there is every chance that he will take the tally above 60 this year.
A flying start for Ireland?
However, his long-term rival Willie Mullins is determined that Henderson will not have everything his own way. The Irishman is only seven winners behind Henderson in the all-time Cheltenham stakes, and as they cast their eye over the Tuesday race card, the tipsters at Cheltenhamracing.net think that Champions Day provides Mullins with the best opportunity to chalk up some early winners before his arch-rival has a chance to unleash the big guns.
Getabird and Footpad are two horses that are early favorites, but there could be some surprises later in the day, if Meri Devie can repeat the promise she showed at Punchestown last week. Let’s take a closer look at Mullins’ chances on the opening day of the festival.
Supreme Novice Hurdle
The opening race at Cheltenham is always something extra special, and has a real carnival atmosphere. It is also a tough one to call, with a large field and a track that is something of an unknown quantity till it has been seen in use. There are still more than 50 horses in contention, but Willie Mullins’ Getabird is the favorite among bookmakers and the UK media.
Mullins has also entered Duc des Genievres and Laurina, both of which are enjoying shortening odds and could certainly be worth a look as each way bets.
After the frenzied action of the opening race, there is a feeling of the festival settling down into a rhythm with The Arke, an altogether calmer affair, with a far smaller field of entrants. Here, bookmakers are strongly leaning towards Mullins making it two out of two. Footpad was the early favorite when the runners were first announced, and has remained at the top of the betting cards ever since. As the days have gone by, the odds have shrunk steadily, and few are now offering anything better than even money.
If any horse can spoil the party, most eyes are on Petit Mouchoir, who ran Footpad desperately close at Leopardstown last year. But don’t overlook Brain Power. He might not be Nicky Henderson’s most famous horse at the festival, but those in the know think he could have the makings of a future star.
Last year’s mare’s hurdle was won by the Gordon Elliot trained Apples Jade, and she is favorite to make it two in two years. However, Meri Devie’s strong performance in Dublin after an otherwise inconsistent season gives Mullins another opportunity to steal a march on Henderson. Mullins commented that she jumped well, and he feels she is ready to show what she can do at the next level. The distance is longer, but he said: “Two and a half miles is no problem to her.” Some bookmakers are offering odds as long as 40/1. Does the Irish trainer know something they don’t?
The Champions Hurdle
So what of the showpiece race on Champions Day? From the word go, the pundits have said Nicky Henderson’s Buveur D’Air will romp to a second successive victory. Does Mullins have a horse that can pull off an upset? Henderson himself certainly thinks so, and the bookmakers agree that Faugheen is one to watch. The 10-year-old suffered a dip in form at the Dublin festival, but Henderson knows that if anyone can bring the horse to peak fitness at the right time, it is his long time friend and rival.