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Cheltenham Festival: A look at Willie Mullins' Festival runners

As the countdown to the 2023 Cheltenham Festival gathers momentum we take a look at some of the potential leading lights for the all-conquering Willie Mullins.

The Irishman has dominated for more than a decade at the great showpiece, being crowned leading trainer on nine occasions since 2011 and stretching his tally of Festival winners to a staggering 88 along the way.

Here are some of Mullins' leading contenders for glory at the 'greatest show on turf' from 14th-17th March in Cheltenham.

WhatCheltenham Festival 2023
WhereCheltenham Racecourse at Prestbury Park, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire
WhenTuesday 14th March - Friday 17th March, 2023
How to watchRacing TV, selected races on ITV and bet365's Sports Live Streaming

Supreme Novices' Hurdle

Facile Vega - 4/5

With seven wins, including five since 2013, the Festival curtain-raiser is a contest Mullins is well versed in winning and this year he's got favourite Facile Vega to lean heavily on for a winning start.

Last year's outstanding bumper campaign included a win here in March and the son of record-breaking Cheltenham Festival-winning mare Quevega has made a bright start to his career over hurdles, winning at Fairyhouse on debut and then landing the Grade 1 Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas.

Some have quibbled his performance in that second success but there's no arguing he was well on top and Paul Townend felt he'd have learned plenty. He's the one to beat in the Supreme come 14th March.

Queen Mother Champion Chase

Energumene - 8/11

Energumene won the Champion Chase last season and, in doing so, completed Mullins' jigsaw of the Championship races at this great meeting.

All the talk last March was of a rematch between Energumene and Shishkin, after the latter came out on top in a scintillating Clarence House Chase duel at Ascot in January. Of course, Nicky Henderson's star flopped on the day and his career trajectory has gone downhill since.

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Energumene, by contrast, won the Punchestown Champion Chase afterwards and returned this season with an easy Hilly Way Chase win at Cork.

He heads to Ascot this weekend for the Clarence House and, with Shishkin out of the picture for that and this race, few will be taking him on in his Champion Chase defence.

Ryanair Chase

Blue Lord - 5/1

Of course, Mullins has 7/4 Allaho seeking to complete a Ryanair Chase hat-trick and he'll be a tough nut to crack given the authority of his wins in the last two years. 

According to the latest reports from Closutton, all systems are go for Allaho and Cheltenham, but he will go there without his usual prep run and that could make him vulnerable.

The danger could be right in his own yard as Blue Lord continues to go the right way this season for Team Mullins, winning the Grade 2 Clonmel Oil Chase (2m4½f) in November before his 2m1f Grade 1 score at Leopardstown over Christmas.

He won that well and clearly stays, and given Energumene is expected to dominate in the Champion Chase, this intermediate race could become his target. Whether Allaho is there or not, he'd be a huge player on his improved form this season.

Triumph Hurdle

Lossiemouth - 5/4

Up until recent times, Mullins' record in the Triumph Hurdle wasn't great, with Scolardy (2002) his only winner before Burning Times took advantage of Goshen's agonising demise to win in 2020.

Vauban needed no such shred of good fortune last year to make it two wins in three years for Mullins and in Lossiemouth he's got the outstanding candidate for the juvenile Grade 1 this year.

Picked up by top owner Rich Ricci after a debut hurdles win at Auteuil in April last, she's won both starts so far in Ireland. She dismissed impressive previous winner and stablemate Zarak The Brave at Fairyhouse in early December and followed up at Leopardstown on 26th December with a smooth Grade 2 score.

The filly dominates the betting for the opening contest on day four of the meeting and will have strong claims of giving her trainer three wins in four years in the Triumph.

Cheltenham Gold Cup

Galopin Des Champs - 6/4

For years, too, Mullins couldn't get his hands on the biggest prize of all, the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

He had near misses aplenty before Townend - still the second in command behind Ruby Walsh at the time - delivered Al Boum Photo to win in 2019.

With the same horse scoring in 2020 and Henry De Bromhead landing wins with Minella Indo and A Plus Tard since, Ireland's Gold Cup winning streak stands at four and in 6/4 favourite Galopin Des Champs, it is Mullins that is heavily fancied to extend that sequence on St Patrick's Day.

His fall in the Turners' Novices' Chase at this meeting last March is the only blemish in his chasing career and he'd have won that in a canter if he hadn't slipped on the landing side of the final fence.

He rebounded to round off his novice campaign at Fairyhouse in fine style and bagged the Grade 1 John Durkan at Punchestown on his seasonal comeback without being asked serious questions.

He was a Grade 1 winner over hurdles as a novice at three miles and so this increased stamina-test isn't likely to upset his equilibrium. He casts a long shadow over the Gold Cup and, after that mishap last March, will arrive at Prestbury Park with his eyes firmly fixed on the ultimate compensation payout.

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