Despite the cold weather outside, the jumps racing season has been heating up nicely in the UK and Ireland. There’s been plenty of action so far, and we are approaching the busy Christmas and New Year period that will throw up big battles like the King George VI Chase and Christmas Hurdle. But all roads lead to Cheltenham, as they say. It’s a part of modern jumps racing that every big success -a and failure – is viewed through the context of what it means for the Cheltenham Festival (15th – 18th March).
When it comes to following horses in the lead-up to the 2022 Festival, all eyes are inevitably drawn towards trainer Willie Mullins. Mullins is the undisputed king of Cheltenham Festival trainers in the 21st century, winning a record 78 races down the years. He will undoubtedly add to that tally this coming March. Below we have picked out five of his most intriguing charges to watch in the coming weeks and months. He will bring dozens across the Irish Sea with real hopes of success, but we believe this quintet is the most fascinating to keep an eye on:
Energumene is one of those horses that split pundits and punters. On paper, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the 7-year-old. Seven consecutive victories, switching from hurdles to fences without missing a beat – what’s not to love? The problem, as some see it, is that Energumene has never been truly tested. All those wins have come in Ireland. And while there are a couple of big Grade 1 wins in there, some pundits believe Energumene will get a rude awakening when arriving at Cheltenham. The expectation is that he will battle the mighty Shishkin in the Champion Chase. The latter has the edge in the current odds, but only by a slight margin. Can Energumene prove the doubters wrong?
A horse that has no problems with doubters. Appreciate It delivered a stunning 24-length victory in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham last March. Mullins toyed with the idea of aiming him at the Champion Hurdle, but it seems chasing is the preferred option right now. That means a tile at the Arkle, in which bookmakers have installed Appreciate It as the favourite. Stiff competition comes from Ferny Hollow (also trained by Mullins), and you should not rule out Alan King’s underrated Edwardstone.
Al Boum Photo
From superstars-in-the-making to a horse that has done it all – twice. Two-time Gold Cup winner Al Boum Photo is likely to be in action at Tramore on New Year’s Day. But is there enough gas left in the tank for a Gold Cup hat-trick in March? Odds of 20/1 would suggest it’s unlikely, and yet you can’t help but think that Al Boum Photo has barely put a foot wrong in the last few years. Finishing third in the 2021 Gold Cup was hardly a failure. Watch out for his Tramore run. If he runs well, you will see those Gold Cup odds tumble. After all, he has demonstrated he has what it takes to deliver in the big one.
Klassical Dream is a problem for Mullins in that it’s not always abundantly clear what type of race suits him. Mullins, however, seems to think that long-distance hurdling is the way to go, and that means the Stayers’ Hurdle on St Patrick’s Day is the aim. Klassical Dream is the current market leader, but we have yet to see him in action this season. Still, if he can replicate his form from Punchestown in April, then he will be a worthy favourite for the Stayers.
Horse racing, like all sports, can sometimes throw up those contradictions where a horse wins a big race but sees its reputation tarnished as a result. That’s exactly what happened Allaho in the Grade 1 John Durkan Memorial Chase a couple of weeks ago. Allaho looked all over the place with Patrick Mullins in the saddle and nearly fell at one point before gathering his wits and taking the win. He has entries in the Ryanair Chase, Cheltenham Gold Cup and Champion Chase. It’s going to be fascinating to see what Mullins does with him and how he performs in the coming weeks and months.