When the Cheltenham Festival rolls around, one of the things that a lot of people are interested to know about is the outcome of the Prestbury Cup. That is a ‘friendly’ competition that tots up the winners achieved by Britain and the winners of Ireland, with the nation that managed the most winners overall taking the Prestbury Cup title.
Such is the success of the Irish trainers that it has become almost a moot point nowadays, with some looking to add a little bit more excitement to proceedings by looking at specific trainers.
With some bookmakers, for example, it is possible to place bets on whether or not Willie Mullins on his own will train more winners than all of the British trainers put together. You will no doubt be aware that Willie Mullins is the most successful trainer in Cheltenham Festival history, having overseen the success of 88 winners heading into the 2023 meeting.
That puts him 16 clear of the next-best trainer, who also happens to be Britain’s most successful, Nicky Henderson. The question that many will be asking is whether or not that is a bet that is worth taking?
What Makes Mullins So Good
Having trained 88 winners during his Cheltenham Festival career to date, it is entirely fair to suggest that Willie Mullins is a genuine great in the horse training sphere. In fact, he oversaw his 4,000 career winner in January of this year, so it isn’t just at Prestbury Park where he excels.
When it comes to the Festival, though, he has taken home the Leading Trainer trophy in nine of the previous 12 years, making it 16 in total to date. Having been a champion amateur jockey himself, he knows what makes a good horse and how to get the most out of them.
Mullins initially worked as an assistant to Paddy Mullins, his father, and Jim Bolger, getting his first winner at Prestbury Park in 1995. That came in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with Tourist Attraction, getting odds of 25/1 thanks to just one win of her previous four over hurdles. It obviously helped Mullins that he was able to work with many of the best owners in the business, to say nothing of the fact that Quevega alone added six wins to Mullins’ record. He is someone that knows that numbers can be key, having a decent amount of runners heading to Cheltenham each year.
Not that we should take way from his ability, of course. Mullins is very good at his job, training horses to understand the challenge that the Cheltenham Festival represents, having won the Champion Bumper himself with Whither of Which in 1996. Last year, he became the first trainer to notch up ten winners in one Festival, in spite of the fact that he didn’t get his first success until the National Hunt Chase. In fact, he only had five winners to his name heading into the final day of the meeting, but he won five of the seven on Gold Cup Day to make history.
His Best Chances
Heading into the 2023 Festival, Willie Mullins will be quietly contemplating whether he can break his own record of ten wins across the week. Looking at the ante-post markets, the Irishman has ten outright or joint-favourites in the 28 races, meaning that he has a very good chance of equalling his old record at the very least.
The reality is that he is odds-on to train more winners that Britain this year, such is the extent to which some of his best horses are considered to be NAPs by the betting fraternity. What are his best chances of winners?
Facile Vega – Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
Mullins’ first ever win at the Cheltenham Festival as a trainer came in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, so it’s fair to say that he has a soft spot for the event. This year, Facile Vega was well-fancied for the event heading into the Dublin Racing Festival, even though one or two remained cautious over him. When he lost his race there by 20 lengths, the confidence gained from two wins in a row over hurdles fell away for some and his critics were feeling rather smug. A better ride will be necessary here if he’s to be one of Mullins’ successes.
El Fabiolo – Arkle Challenge Trophy
If the Dublin Racing Festival gave Facile Vegas’ backers some cause for concern, it did the exact opposite when it came to El Fabiolo. The field looked strong before the race but the horse made easy running of it. That was only his second steeplechase, which might help to explain why he looked a bit wobbly over the fourth-from-last. Generally, though, he looked exceptional and his odds for the Arkle shortened as a result. If he does falter, Dysart Dynamo is also a Mullins option, so he stands a good chance of a win here.
Tekao – Juvenile Handicap Hurdle
When it comes to the horses that you’d feel are nailed on to be winners for Mullins, Tekao won’t be close to the top of the list. Both Gala Marceau and Lossiemouth, also stablemates of Tekao, finished ahead of the gelding at the Dublin Racing Festival, so it is unlikely that he’ll be able to get ahead of them this time out. That means J.P. McManus will be feeling confident, but Mullins is unlikely to be. That being said, he saw Saint Sam and Gaelic Warrior both finish second here in successive seasons, so can he go one further this time?
Gaillard Du Mesnil – National Hunt Chase
In 2021, Gaillard Du Mesnil finished second behind Bob Ollinger in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Last year, he finished third in the Brown Advisory. The fact that he has been getting further away from the win won’t be all that pleasing to Mullins, but the reality is that he stands a decent chance of finally bringing home a Festival win in the National Hunt Chase. Experience of steeplechases has counted for a lot in previous years and there’s no reason to suggest it won’t this time, meaning his Grade 1 win over Christmas shouldn’t be sniffed at.
Energumene – Champion Chase
Considering Willie Mullins’ success at Prestbury Park, it truly is remarkable that he had never won the Champion Chase until last year. That success came thanks to Energumene and he is leading the bookies’ odds this time around too. He did lose out in the Clarence Chase at Cheltenham, meaning that his confidence will have taken a knock, but he still managed to finish third in spite of the fact that he had a massive error at the final fence. The nine-year-old certainly shouldn’t be ruled out at this stage of proceedings.
It’s For Me – Champion Bumper
Wille Mullins has seen a horse of his win four of the last five Champion Bumpers and his tally stands at 12 wins overall, so you’d be a fool to rule him out of things this year. It’s For Me is considered to be his strongest option, with the point-to-point gelding having won a bumper in Navan during his debut run for the stable. Even if It’s For Me isn’t the one that does it for Mullins, this is a race where the trainer often throws a lot at it in the hopes that something will stick, so don’t be surprised if one of his other entries wins instead.
Lossiemouth – Triumph Hurdle
Normally when a horse loses a race, their reputation takes a bit of a beating. That isn’t the case with Lossiemouth, however, who was being talked about even more favourably in the wake of the mid-race shenanigans that took place in the Juvenile Spring Hurdle. It was stablemate Gala Marceau who defeated her there, but don’t be surprised if the roles are reversed in this year’s Triumph Hurdle. Given Blood Destiny is also likely to run in this one for Mullins, there are three strong options to bring him a return in this feature race.
Embassy Gardens – Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle
If you look at the last Albert Bartletts, you’ll notice that 50% of them have been won by Mullins. This time out, Embassy Gardens looks his best hope of repeating the trick, but it has to be said that this is a wide-open race as things currently stand. It is unlikely that there will be any clear winner, so it might well be nip-and-tuck in terms of how this event pans out. The bad news for Mullins is that he doesn’t have any obvious second-string runner, so he will be depending on a good run from Embassy Gardens and go from there.
Galopin Des Champs – Gold Cup
There is no such thing as a NAP when it comes to the Gold Cup, such is the extent to which the blue riband event can go any number of ways. That being said, the manner in which Galopin Des Champs shook off the final fence fall in the Turners to win both the John Durkan and the Irish Gold Cup means that there will be plenty backing him for success here. Across the past two years, the horse has peaked at Prestbury Park, so it isn’t out of the realms of the possible that he does so again in this one.
Allegorie De Vassy – Mares’ Chase
There have only been two runnings of the Mares’ Chase to date and both of them have been won by Willie Mullins, so you’d be mad to bet against the Irishman this time out. In terms of the best runner he’s got for it, you’d be hard pushed to look past what Allegorie De Vassy offers, given the fact that she’s won the four races she’s been in since arriving at Mullins’ yard. That being said, she didn’t look amazing at Thurles and this is a tougher race, so she’ll need to be at her absolute best if Mullins wants to make it three from three.
Britain’s Best Hopes
The question we posed with this article was whether or not Willie Mullins alone will be able to train more winner than Britain as a whole this Festival. He has options other than the ones mentioned running, so some of his wins might come from some surprising places, but the question really is whether British trainers have more than ten winners amongst them, given the fact that Mullins is odds-on favourite to have ten of his own. Nicky Henderson is the closest to challenger to Mullins in the all-time winner list, so he’s the best place to look to.
On that front, Luccia is the favourite to win the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, though the likelihood is that Mullins will surround her with options. He has won that event five times out of seven, so Luccia will need to be perfect if Henderson is to hold Mullins at bay. If it isn’t going to be Henderson that stops Mullins from running away with it for Ireland then it might be Paul Nicholls, who has been Champion Trainer 11 times in his career. He has failed to register any winners in the last two Festivals, though, so that will need to change.
Hermes Allen is Nicholls’ best hopes of a winner, having been unbeaten in his three starts to date and leading the betting in the Ballymore Novice Hurdle. Last year he made the decision to pull Bravemansgame from the Brown Advisory due to the Going turning Heavy, but he won the King George over Christmas and is a real contender for the Gold Cup. There aren’t many horses that you’d say are going to be nailed-on winners for Britain’s trainers, whereas the same can’t be said for the Mullins stock heading to Prestbury Park this year.
Will He Do It?
At the time of writing, Britain would need all of its main contenders to win their races if the country’s trainers are to have any hope of winning ten races. The betting certainly suggests that British trainers would do well to reach the double-figure mark across the ten days, so you can make of that what you will. The fact that you have to look back to 2016 to find a Festival when it was the British trainers that won the most races tells you a little something about where the sport is at the moment in the host nation of the meeting.
For bettors, the concern over the nationality of the trainer is moot when compared to whether or not they’ve won their wagers. Even so, if you’re hoping to have a decent looking return then you’ll want to think long and hard about how many winners Mullins is likely to train. The sensible money is being placed on him seeing more winners on his own than British trainers will see in total, so you’d need to be a fool to bet against Ireland retaining the Prestbury Cup in 2023. As for Mullins, he shows no signs of slowing down yet.