All three editions of this column in 2016 have mostly centred around Willie Mullins’ growing army of Graded performers, and the final piece of January will be no different. At the beginning of the month it was the turn of Graham Wylie’s three ‘hills’ – Bellshill, Yorkhill and Shaneshill – to take centre stage. Next came exciting Supreme favourite Min, while last week’s edition highlighted victories for the likes of Black Hercules, Roi des Francs and Killultagh Vic, all seemingly headed to Cheltenham holding outstanding chances.
Those horses mentioned above are of plenty of interest in their own right, but this was the weekend that Mullins really brought out his big guns, with three electric former Festival winners in Un de Sceaux, Douvan, and Faugheen, all in action at Grade 1 level.
Saturday saw the belated British return of Timeform’s top two-mile chaser of last season, Un de Sceaux, who had made a fairly low-key start to his second season over fences, after being pulled out of the Tingle Creek at a late stage in early December, and then falling two from home with another Grade 1 at his mercy over Christmas at Leopardstown. Un de Sceaux made no mistake in the Clarence House on Saturday, however, and promptly recorded a career-best effort, beating Sire de Grugy – who has been in good heart so far this season, winning the Tingle Creek before going down narrowly to Sprinter Scare in the Desert Orchid – by five lengths. Un de Sceaux is now Timeform-rated 180p and will naturally take all the beating in the Champion Chase if putting in another clear round.
With the rest of the two-mile chase division, which includes the likes of Sprinter Sacre (172), Sire de Grugy (168), and Special Tiara (166), being quite evenly matched, the improving Traffic Fluide (now 166p), who nearly got up for second ahead of his stable companion on Saturday, could be a lively contender to chase home Un de Sceaux at the Festival if continuing his progression.
There is a chance that, astonishingly, Un de Sceaux may not be at the top of the two mile chase division for long, as he may have his stablemate Douvan to deal with next season. Douvan demolished his two rivals in Sunday’s Grade 1 Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle in similar style to Un de Sceaux last season, putting in an impeccable jumping performance and quickening clear after the last in most impressive fashion. With the clock reinforcing the visual impression he created, Douvan is now Timeform-rated 168p, and with his jumping so assured, it is hard to see anything getting near him in the Arkle, for all the likes of L’Ami Serge (148p) and Garde la Victoire (147p) also remain open to improvement at this stage.
Going into the Irish Champion Hurdle, it was not really a question of if Mullins could land a lucrative Grade 1 treble, but more of who would provide him with it, with the front three in the betting – and the main contenders by some margin – all hailing from his yard. Faugheen certainly didn’t let the Ricci/Mullins team down, and left the memories of his defeat by Nichols Canyon in the Morgiana on his reappearance this season firmly behind him, with an impressive 15-length victory over Arctic Fire. This was not only a career-best effort from Faugheen on Timeform Ratings – he ran to 177, 7 lb better than his Champion Hurdle win last season – but as he was pressed for the lead from the outset by Nicholls Canyon, he also put to bed any doubts about needing an easy lead to be seen to best effect. Faugheen is well on his way to becoming one of the hurdling greats, and it is needless to say that, like both Un de Sceaux and Douvan, he will take all the beating at the Festival once again.
The leading British hopeful for the Champion Hurdle, The New One, was also in action this weekend, winning Haydock’s Champion Hurdle Trial for the second year running, but he only ran to a similar level as when he was thumped 7 lengths by Faugheen in the Christmas Hurdle, and he is set to be competing for minor honours at Cheltenham once again.
Away from the very top level, Mullins continued to dominate proceedings on both sides of the Irish Sea, with Vroum Vroum Mag giving him a double at Ascot in the Grade 2 OLBG.com Mares' Hurdle. Vroum Vroum Mag, who has reverted back to hurdles in search of better opportunities after winning her first six starts over fences for Mullins, is now rated 149P in this sphere after justifying short odds with ease on Saturday, though due to the proximity of 33/1-shot Jennies Jewel in second and 40/1-chance Cannon Fodder in third, there is a limit to the view that can be taken of the form, and with a much stiffer test in store against the likes of Thistlecrack (167p) should she run in the World Hurdle, her odds for that race look overly short.
Back in Ireland, Mullins added a further string to his already impressive bow of novice hurdlers on Sunday, with A Toi Phil looking another smart ex-French prospect for the yard when winning the Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors Novices' Hurdle by seven lengths. A Toi Phil’s blend of speed and stamina makes the Neptune look his ideal Cheltenham target, though with a new Timeform Rating of 145p, he is perhaps open to less improvement than some of the others who are currently prominent in the betting such as Yorkhill (150P) Bellshill (149P) and Yanworth (148P).
Believe it or not, there were Cheltenham clues to be found in races that were not won by Willie Mullins this weekend, with Bristol de Mai (now 145p) winning a Grade 2 at Haydock. Despite his main rival Otago Trial failing to fire, this was an impressive display, and he looks to be a lively contender for either the JLT or RSA, with the JLT perhaps being the more suitable option given the thorough stamina test of a normal RSA.