Donn McClean: A sweet selection

  • Last Updated: February 20 2014, 19:53 GMT

Donn McClean goes through the Willie Mullins ranks for the Cheltenham Festival and marvels at the strength and quality - both with four legs and two.

Mullins: Quality and quantity
Mullins: Quality and quantity

Willie Mullins' yard: Auntie Nellie's Sweetshop. Have a look around you and try to stop your eyes lighting up with wonder.

There's Hurricane Fly, Paul Townend up. Does a little on his own, then returns to lead the line. That line is made up of one of the richest seams of National Hunt racing talent that has ever been assembled in one racing yard. Champagne Fever, Vautour, Faugheen, Annie Power, and the rest. Any one of them would be a stable star in just about any other yard in the country. Here, each one is just another delicious half-pound of cola cubes.

You put it to Willie that he probably has a stronger Cheltenham team than he has ever had, and he pauses for a moment, a half-smile twitching in each corner of his mouth.

"You think?!"

Now you're second-guessing yourself. You thought you thought.

So you rewind 12 months in your mind, quickly now, leafing back through the months and arriving back at February 2013. Hurricane Fly and Quevega were here again then, each one donning the favourite's hat for each respective Cheltenham target, each hat ultimately fitting perfectly snugly, as things turned out.

Champagne Fever was also here last year, the Deloitte winner on track for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, which he duly won. Boston Bob (Dr PJ Moriarty Chase winner) and Back In Focus (Topaz Chase winner) were the two big staying novice chasers, the former on track for the RSA Chase, in which he fell at the final fence when in front and looking the most likely winner, the latter for the National Hunt Chase, which he won, even though he didn't look like the most likely winner at the final fence.

Briar Hill was here too last year, but you weren't really that interested. Big mistake.


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Pont Alexandre was here, and if you had asked the lads for a Willie Mullins banker at the time, they would have said Pont Alexandre. The fact that he didn't win the Neptune Hurdle last year, and that Mullins was still crowned top trainer at Cheltenham 2013 with five winners, tells you much about the strength in-depth of last year's team.

This time last year, the Closutton team also included Ballycasey (although he didn't make it to the starting line in the end), Un Atout, Aupcharlie, Arvika Ligeonniere, Marito, Diakali, Tennis Cap and others. There was also Sir Des Champs of course, regrettably absent this year.

Annie Power was here too, but she was never on last year's Cheltenham ticket.

This year, different story, tickets all over the place, but don't ask Willie to nominate the race for her. So much can happen between now and March 11, not only with your own horses, but also with those of potential rivals, and there is still a lot that we don't know about Annie Power. We don't know what her optimum trip is for starters but, more importantly, we still don't know precisely how good she could be over it.

Fast-forward back to the future, appreciate how lucky you are to be here, mingling with some of the best National Hunt horses in the land, and count the potential Cheltenham favourites. Hurricane Fly, there he goes, that's one. The reigning champ, eventually raised to the pinnacle of the Champion Hurdle market where he belongs, the setter of the standard to which the sophomores are still only aspiring, and flying, according to your eyes and his trainer's comments.

Vautour, Supreme Novices' Hurdle favourite, that's two. Champagne Fever, that's three; Quevega, four. That's four of the first five non-handicaps and we're still only having our dinner on Tuesday evening.

Faugheen, Ballycasey, Felix Yonger, Black Hercules or Shaneshill, Briar Hill. They may not all go off as clear favourite but, all things being equal, they should all be up there towards the head of the market if not sitting on top of it. That's nine.

There is strength in-depth too outside of the headline horses. Wicklow Brave and Valseur Lido as support for Vautour in the Supreme, Djakadam perhaps as support for Felix Yonger in the JLT, Sure Reef as a solid back-up plan for the Neptune or the Albert Bartlett, Suntiep or Balnaslow perhaps for the National Hunt Chase. And then there are the handicappers. You could nominate a dozen horses who would be well worth their place in the line-up for one or more of then handicaps.

The other element in Willie's favour at this year's Cheltenham Festival is that he will have all of Ruby Walsh, not just half of him. You speak of teams, you are allowed speak human as well as equine.

Ruby's deep involvement means that you can plan with certainty, it means that you can plan with the rider's input, and it means that you will have him on your side in all of the professional races and not against you in any. It is difficult to quantify the value of that, but it is probably massive.

Now you feel equipped to answer.

"Yes," you say quietly. "Yes I do."

• For more of Donn's thoughts, visit www.donnmcclean.com.


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