Cheltenham Day 1: Mullins at the Helm

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Well, this is a little different. Since 2002, we’ve filed Cheltenham reports from the trenches – flags flying, grenades landing, shrapnel, a lot of shrapnel. 

The first from the Hunter’s Lodge, the hostel at the top of the racetrack – Pelagos, Solo Lord, Moscow Flyer, Istabraq and Best Mate down the hall. From there, we moved to a bed and breakfast in Charlton Kings, our dear late friend David Mullins and his gang of revelers. One year, we finagled a ride for American champion Gus Brown and wound up in the Plough down the hill from Jackdaws, now those were stories. From there, the reports transferred to my favorite white cottage in Bradford-on-Avon – Richard Hutchinson and I living and breathing Inglis Drever, Tikram, Kauto Star, they were easy to write, hovered over Chinese takeout and three Stellas, never four. Somewhere along the line, George and Candida Baker invited me to a dinner party and I never left. The man who came to dinner? I came for a decade, bouncing from Far Westfields to Whitsbury and to Manton. Ah, Manton, how I miss Manton.

The reports have been criticized over the years – too short, disjointed, vague, sloppy, misleading. If you could see the trenches from where I wrote – wifi issues, dogs, drunks, two sets to gallop, the year they cancelled because of wind – you might have been less critical.

This year, there are no trenches, no mud on the loafers, no Guinness pooling in my cuffs, no roar, no buzz, no joy. My streak of 14 Festivals in a row stopped by a herniated disc in my neck. It wouldn’t have stopped AP, but it has stopped me.

But, alas, here we go.

People say Cheltenham is on their bucket list. Here’s a secret, don’t fill the bucket with things you want to do, empty the bucket with things you’ve done. Don’t write a to-do list, do your list.

Race 1. 9:30. The Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Grade 1. $176,500. 2 miles.

And the beat goes on. Willie Mullins runs 13 horses on opening day and the beat starts early as he sends out three in the opener.

“I arrived yesterday but I haven’t walked the course yet but the weather looks fantastic and the track is going to dry out, which will suit some of mine but not others. But, as long as the ground is safe, I am very happy,” Mullins said Monday morning. “Our horses have all arrived in great shape and they look very relaxed so far. We have a good few of them over but the rest are still to come. They all seem very relaxed on the course this morning. Normally, they are a bit wound up on the first morning but we have had none of that this year and they are all good. They have all travelled well; the first horses came in on Saturday and they have been coming in ever since and we will keep our fingers crossed for the rest of the week. As long as Cheltenham has room to take them, we will keep sending them.”

There’s room.

Min was a talking horse before he was handed a microphone. The French-bred 5-year-old was declared favorite for this before he had made his first start for Mullins. Fourth and third in his only two starts in France, he relocated to Ireland and has won both his starts, by a combined 23 ½ lengths.

To make money, you might want to be creative underneath. We’ll use Charbel, who impressed us in his most recent win and maybe Silver Concorde, trained by Dermot Weld. Altior has done nothing wrong, going 4-for-4 over hurdles this season. If he was trained by Mullins, his name might be Min.

The Picks: Charbel, Min, Altior. 

Race 2. 10:10. The Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase. Novice Chase. Grade 1. $220,500. 2 miles.

This is the best part of the Cheltenham Festival, watching novice hurdlers become champion hurdlers and watching novice chasers become champion chasers. Last year, Un De Sceaux dominated the Arkle, he’s favorite for the Queen Mother this year. Last year Douvan dominated the Supreme Novices Hurdle, he’s the favorite for this year’s Arkle.

Douvan has won eight of nine starts, including a 3-for-3 mark since switching to fences this season. He’s a steering job.

The Picks: Douvan, Sizing John, The Game Changer.

Race 3. 10:50. The Ultima Handicap Chase. Grade 3. $147,000. 3 1/8 miles.

This is where adding the fourth day has made the most impact, offering an opportunity to 24 horses who have tried the best and have proven that they can’t beat the best. Only five runners won their most recent start while six failed to finish their most recent start.

Southfield Theatre won’t face the likes of Don Poli or Coneygree here, perhaps, the class relief will help the eight-time winner. Holywell had people thinking he was a Gold Cup horse, of course, his trainer Jonjo O’Neill calls him a monkey, not exactly reference material from your boss.

Theatre Guide tries to put one the board for Gold Cup connections Jean Bishop, Colin Tizzard and Paddy Brennan. He could win.

I like Neil Mullholland with a target, The Young Master looks live.

The Picks: The Young Master, Theatre Guide, Out Sam.

Race 4. 11:30. The Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy. Grade 1. $641,000. 2 miles.

How deep is the Mullins well? Well, he lost favorite Faugheen earlier in the season and replaced him with another favorite, Annie Power. She turned for home in the mares hurdle last year, the bookies against the ropes, after Mullins’ first three hotpots had won, the four-horse accumulators ticking, a GOP crash. With just one more turn on the dial of the safe, she launched long and weak, falling at the last hurdle. She was down, the bookies were up. 

Nicky Henderson returns My Tent Or Yours, fresh off a two-year layoff. Yes, two years.

And if any American owners or trainers, recognize the name Lil Rockerfeller, yes, that’s the horse I told you to buy.

The Picks: My Tent Or Yours, Annie Power, Nicholls Canyon. 

Race 5. 12:10. The OLBG Mares’ Hurdle. Grade 1. $153,500. 2 1/2 miles.

How deep is the Mullins’ well…well, he diverted Annie Power to the Champion Hurdle and counters with even-money favorite Vroum Vroum Mag here. They all can’t win, can they?

The Picks: Vroum Vroum Mag, Bitofapuzzle, Flute Bowl.

Race 6. 12:50. National Hunt Chase. Novice Chase. Amateur riders. $147,000. 4 miles.

This is always a puzzle. Full field. Amateur riders. Novice chasers.

I think I’ll box Josh Newman and Steven Clements, my two friends who impressed Rusty Arnold and Dr. John Fisher when they came to America, on Warrantor and Ballychorus. Then box Definitly Red, Minella Rocco, Pont Alexandre, Southfield Royale in a trifecta.

The Picks: Minella Rocco, Pont Alexandre, Definitly Red.

Race 7. 1:30. The Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase. Listed Stakes. $95,500. 2 1/2 miles.

Last race on the first day, you’re either way up or way down, be careful, especially with this one…handicap chase with a spread of four pounds from top to bottom. Time for a game of darts. 

The Picks: Thomas Brown, Five In A Row, Double Shuffle.