This year, as we approach a Cheltenham Festival like no other, our aim atis to get ourselves, and the majority of you, the non-hardcore racing fans, ready for the one week of the year where we all like to sound like experts!
Over the next few weeks, we'll be previewing the Festival by looking at the storylines and contenders in all of the big races with our new podcast, in association with Ladbrokes, The Buildup: Road To Cheltenham. Our very own Shaman Of Cheltenham, Aonghus Ó Maicín, is our guide on this journey, and will also cover the main storylines for each race here on site. You can listen to our first episode covering The Champion Chase and the Arkle here or read Aonghus' thoughts on the races here.
You can watch to the second episode of the show below, or listen here.
As the weeks flow by and the glum frosty mornings are cast aside to mere memory, identifying future winners hardly gets any easier.
It's the interminable spring quest for any keen - or lapsed - racing fan, considering the form and ground and weights and trends, and combining them into a cauldron of numbers and statistics in the hope of one name emerging from the brew of confusion. Finding regular winners is no expeditious task carried out on a whim. It never has been. Never will be. And yet, it can still be achieved.
Keeping up with General Mullins on the other hand, the man who keeps finding new ways of riding into battle only to inevitably emerge over the bodies of his foes, is the quest no racing enthusiast is ever likely to conquer.
The Carlow native has become over time the subject of racing's greatest imponderable: Does Ireland's champion trainer purposely generate widespread confusion, with all the devilment of a classroom prankster, or is he genuinely waiting patiently for the cogs in his head to click into place, only to arise from his bed in the middle of the night with another grand plan for his latest smash-and-grab?
For such an unexcitable and phlegmatic character, he somehow manages to always inject a generous serving of chaos into the world of racing conjecture and discussion. That's not criticism by the by. Far from it. The Closutton trainer creates excitement and discourse and a general feeling of suspense like no other figure in his trade. You'd sooner land a tricast in the County Hurdle than figure out what Mullins is planning for his breakfast the following morning.
Faugheen is just one notable example of this famed caprice of his. A once-unbeatable star of the Champion Hurdle division returned to assume the disguise of a staying chaser, ripening into a decent novice over fences as he entered old age. Last year's commendable performance in the Marsh Novices' Chase meant the 13-year-old could well have been directed towards a tilt at the Gold Cup at this year's Festival until he was robbed of precious momentum and was removed from the Festival squad.
It would have been some sight, and some achievement from the man responsible for saddling the former champion who could just as easily have returned him to the Champion Hurdle picture for another tilt at his crown.
You just cannot read Mullins. You can try but you will most definitely fail. You just have to sit back and marvel at his mysterious ways which may well become abundantly evident yet again on those hallowed few acres beneath Cleeve Hill in mid-March.
The Champion Hurdle - Can The Mares Be Touched?
The credentials of the leading two contenders are well-noted in the Champion Hurdle; Honeysuckle the winner of six Grand Ones and boasting a flawless unbeaten record that includes an array respected victims, and Epatante, the winner of last year’s renewal of the race, boasting a similarly formidable record.
Goshen, last year’s banker of the Festival who clipped his heels and somersaulted upon arrival back on Earth after the final fence in last year’s Triumph Hurdle, also arrives into the race in fine fettle, having turned the Tuesday showpiece on it’s head with a spectacular performance in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton the weekend before last. What was a two-horse Champion Hurdle has been blown up like a piñata, thanks to the Gary Moore-trained five-year-old that relishes a strong pace.
But then Mullins, perhaps feeling left out in the race that is increasingly becoming the most anticipated of the week, added more intrigue to the event as we approached the three-week mark on the countdown clock. Sharjah, Closutton’s primary contender, was an opponent not to be scoffed at - and will still turn up alongside two-time Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’Air and Silver Streak, Epatante’s conqueror at Christmas - but Mullins dropped a bomb in a conference with the media last week when he entered another name into the equation, one that would have been unrecognisable for even some of the most seasoned of racing observers.
The Carlow-based trainer has yet to run James Du Berlais at the racecourse, having recently purchased the future chaser from France, but he discussed the possibility of running him in one of the most famous races in the sport. The stable, he said, was looking “for something to do” with their new acquisition.
It’s difficult to look beyond Honeysuckle or Epatante in attempting to pinpoint the winner in the first championship race of the week - and it wouldn’t be unfair to include Goshen in the mix even if he is handing seven pounds to the mares - but with the most successful trainer in Cheltenham history intent on setting landmines such as this latest French import, the first day of the Festival is becoming very interesting indeed.
Ryanair Chase - Just Who Will Run?
The Ryanair Chase, the racing equivalent to a bag of Liquorice Allsorts where any type of thoroughbred can pop up, can be just as unpredictable as it sounds. As the unofficial fifth championship race, the Tour Championship or Tour Finals of Cheltenham, it often attracts runners that have shown they lack the speed necessary to become major contenders in the Champion Chase and lack the stamina required for a crack at the Gold Cup.
Mullins brings three notable runners to these proceedings , current favourite Allaho and last year’s winner Min attracting most attention. Melon, however, isn’t a runner to be hastily cast aside, having finished second in his four runs at the Festival, twice in the Champion Hurdle, in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and in the Marsh Novices’ Chase. If only we could crack open the trainer’s head and see where his mind is at as a result of watching the trio on the gallops every day. The best gauge the general public will have in relation to the individual chances of the three prior lies with Paul Townend and the runner he decides to ride, though it may even cost Ireland’s champion jockey a night or two without sleep. Solid cases can be easily made for all three.
The Kim Bailey-trained Imperial Aura, Saint Calvados who lost last year’s renewal by a neck and Fakir D'oudairies, a horse that has shown that this may be the trip he has been crying out for, are also worthy of mention in what seems a wide-open race, even by Ryanair standards.
But it’s no surprise that the man beneath that familiar brown trilby is the one holding the best hand as we await the cards of raceday to be dealt.
The Festival is already assuming the look of a Mullins Show - was it ever anything else? - as, even in races he doesn’t hold runners near the top of the market, he is still dominating the narrative, as is the case in Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle.
It comes with the territory of being undoubtedly the best trainer in the business, enjoying perhaps the season of his life and heading for the place where he has conjured up most of his magic.
He's the game's greatest showman and at this year’s circus he’s looking near-on unbeatable.
Can anybody take the wheels off the applecart?
Can anybody storm his palace and steal the top trainer title, an accolade he’s held for seven of the last 10 years?
Laughable guff, some would say. Others would claim it’s the very essence of the game.