Mullins Machine Roaring into Gear With Cheltenham On The Horizon

The first weekend in February saw one of the biggest pre-Cheltenham meetings as Leopardstown staged the two-day Dublin Racing Festival (DRF). Many of the Emerald Isle’s big hopes for Cheltenham glory were in action, and the signs don’t look too promising for the British challengers hoping to take them on.

If the DRF is to prove any guide, this year’s Prestbury Park showpiece may once again turn into the Willie Mullins show. Eight Grade 1 contests lit up the DRF, and Mullins won them all. Here, we look back at the electric eight and their likely targets at the big one.

Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors Novice Hurdle – Dancing City

Having scored at no higher than maiden level, this son of Feel Like Dancing was sent off at 16/1 in the festival opener – making him the rank outsider of the six-runner field. Outsider or not, Dancing City travelled stylishly throughout before being kicked into the lead around the home turn by Danny Mullins. Stablemate Predators Gold came closest but never looked like reeling in the much-improved winner.

Dancing City holds two entries at the Cheltenham Festival. He’s available at around 20/1 for the Baring Bingham Novices Hurdle over 2m4f, but given the staying power he showed in this 2m6½f event, the three-mile Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle – for which he is around 12/1 – may be more up his street.

McCann Fitzgerald Spring Juvenile Hurdle – Kargese

Eleven lined up in this classy event for the four-year-olds, six of whom hailed from the Mullins operation. True to form, Mullins saddled the first four home, led by tough filly Kargese. Having lost out by just half a length to the reopposing Kala Conti on yard debut, the daughter of promising young sire Jeu St Eloi stepped up on that effort to power home a length and a quarter clear of stablemate Storm Heart.

The Triumph Hurdle appears to be the target for this improving sort – a race Mullins has landed three times in the past four years. With Nicky Henderson’s Sir Gino trading at odds on, the Triumph looks like a hot race this year, but Kargesse may prove a popular each-way option at a general 7/1.

Goffs Irish Arkle Novice Chase – Il Etait Temps

This contest was supposed to be all about Supreme Novices’ Hurdle champ, Marine Nationale, who arrived unbeaten in six career outings and clear favourite for the Arkle Chase. Whether it was the soft ground or that the horse wasn’t at his best, the Barry Connell runner could only trail home in fifth – more than 10 lengths adrift of Il Etait Temps, who came home with a late surge to deny Gordon Elliott’s Found A Fifty.

Having finished fifth in both the 2022 Triumph Hurdle and 2023 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Il Etait Temps will hope for better in the 2024 Arkle Chase, for which he can be supported at 5/1.

Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup – Galopin Des Champs

Galopin Des Champs versus Fastorslow round three went the way of the reigning Cheltenham Gold Cup king. Beaten by the Martin Brassil-trained runner in the Punchestown Gold Cup and John Durkan Chase, the mount of Paul Townend bounced back to his best when thumping his rivals in the Savills Chase and delivered another near-flawless display here to dispatch his nemesis by four and a half lengths.

Favourite for the Gold Cup before this event, Galopin Des Champs is an even shorter price now, with 10/11 being the best price available online.

Ladbrokes Novice Chase – Fact To File

Of the eight Grade 1 winners Mullins enjoyed at the meeting, Fact To File had the easiest assignment. Setting off as the outsider of two in a match race against stablemate Gaelic Warrior, it quickly became clear that the JP McManus runner only needed to stay on the straight and narrow to prevail. Excellent at right-handed tracks, Gaelic Warrior once again proved to be well below his best going the other way around – jumping erratically throughout before unseating when well beaten at the last.

How much we learned about Fact To File here is unclear, but he undoubtedly rates a smart prospect. Those wishing to support him at Cheltenham may wish to wait until closer to the time, with the horse currently the clear favourite for both the Turners Novices’ Chase and Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase.

Tattersalls Ireland 50th Derby Sale Novice Hurdle – Ballyburn

Heading into the season on the back of a flawless bumper season, Ballyburn was one of the most hyped horses hailing from the Mullins operation. That reputation took a knock with a defeat to Firefox on his seasonal return, but he bounced back with a 25-length romp in a maiden hurdle and continued on an upward trajectory to slam his rivals by seven lengths on his first crack at the top level.

Having shown impressive stamina to score over 2m4f in his maiden hurdle and the requisite speed for two miles here, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle look viable Festival options. He’s a best-priced 7/4 for the former and 7/2 for the latter.

Ladbrokes Dublin Chase – El Fabiolo

This Simon Munir and Isaac Souede-owned runner proved to be one of the stars of the opening day at the 2023 Cheltenham Festival when putting in a sizzling display to master Jonbon in the Arkle. One year on, he remains at the forefront of the Mullins assault. Sent off as the 4/11 favourite in this event, he again proved a class apart to forge more than eight lengths clear of talented stablemate Dinoblue in the straight.

In the absence of Energumene, it falls to this good-looking seven-year-old to keep the Queen Mother Champion Chase crown at Closutton this year. Jonbon will once again lie in wait, but the bookies expect the result to be the same as in 2023, with El Fabiolo now no bigger than 1/2 for the Day 2 feature.

Chaneel Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle – State Man

But for the presence of Constitution Hill, State Man would likely be hailed as one of the greatest hurdlers of the modern era. This seven-year-old son of Doctor Dino is unfortunate to belong to the same generation as the Nicky Henderson freak of nature, but that hasn’t prevented him from amassing eight Grade 1 wins. This latest success went much the same way as the others – State Man travelling sweetly before lowering his head to find another gear and scamper away from his rivals.

Next up it’s the ultimate challenge as State Man makes the trip across the Irish Sea for a second crack at Constitution Hill in the Champion Hurdle. Nine lengths adrift of the Nicky Henderson star in 2023, he’s a best price of 3/1 to turn the tables this time around.