In recent years, jump racing’s showpiece meeting has been turned into an over-hyped battle between Irish and British trainers, there is now even a trophy awarded – the Prestbury Cup – while previously simple bar bragging rights sufficed.
Last year, British trainers won 15-12, the year before Irish trainers had 14 winners – one more than their rivals.
But Willie Mullins, Ireland’s seven-time champion trainer, makes the travelling all-comers something of a one-man team. He’s been turning this verdant corner of a foreign field into a patch of County Carlow for some time now.
He’s been the Festival’s top trainer in three of the last four years – winning four races 12 months ago and five in 2013. He’s Ireland’s Postman and, with jockey Ruby Walsh, he usually delivers on the sometimes blind faith of grateful punters.
And this year his travelling squad – more than 60 strong – have the power to dominate like never before.
Indeed, Mullins will saddle four favourites on the opening day – leaving bookmakers with a potential £100m headache should Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Faugheen and Annie Power justify their odds in the Supreme Novices, Arkle Chase, Champion Hurdle and Mares’ Hurdle.
It’s nearly 20 years since Frankie Dettori’s Magnificent Seven at Ascot cost bookmakers a reported £40m – Mullins and Walsh could morph into Four Horses of the Apocalypse for the oddsmakers if they prevail, as many expect.
Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson – seven and two-time top Festival trainers – again represent the best of British.
Nicholls has been predictably combative in the build-up, dismissing Mullins with some carefully wounded soundbites and baiting course officials for watering the ground, which he thinks plays into his rivals hand.
“There’s too many hype-horses on this list,” Nicholls said. “They’ve been winning three- and four-runner races in Ireland. They will not all win at Cheltenham.”
Henderson claimed Mullins’s armoury was ‘scary’ before cautiously adding: “We’re trying to take Willie on between us.”
But it’s another British trainer, Nigel Twiston Davies, who is aiming to ruin Mullins’s best laid plans in the Festival’s opening day championship showpiece, the two-mile Stan James Champion Hurdle.
Last year, under the charge of his son Sam, he appeared to be in contention until he was badly hampered when Our Conor was fatally injured in a late fall.
That cost him ten lengths or more and he still flew up the hill to finish third, with Twiston Davies left wondering what might have been.
The New One is unbeaten in five starts since then, though arguably the lightly-raced Faugheen has been more impressive, especially in his last outing at Kempton, as good a hurdling display as witnessed this season.
“Faugheen has done brilliantly but we are as good and I think they should be joint-favourites,” said Twiston-Davies.
“The New One has done brilliantly too this season and we won’t be allowing Faugheen out of our sights.”
Mullins’s star charge has not raced since winning the Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day, a fact that bucks normal race trends.
“We looked up the stats and we’ve seen plenty of horses that have gone from Kempton to the Champion Hurdle without a run,” insists Mullins.
Logic and odds still say this could be another day to remember for Mullins and his fans but logic and odds are famously uneasy bedfellows at Prestbury Park, where there are always more questions than answers.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge