As always, there was a fine crowd at The Salthill Hotel on Monday night for the annual Cheltenham preview event, which was this year sponsored by Paddy Power, with all proceeds in aid of Barney Curley's charity Direct Aid for Africa.
There is so much information bandied about at these types of events that one needs to take it with a pinch of salt, but there was no doubt it was an entertaining night for all who attended. The panel consisted of jockey Davy Russell, amateur jockey and assistant trainer Patrick Mullins, local tipster George McDonagh, and The Racing Post's Paul Kealy, whose colleague Johnathan Mullin was asking the questions. There was banter aplenty, especially from Russell, who is never afraid to speak his mind. The jockey said Paddy Power had saved so much money following the fall of hotpot Annie Power in last year's Mares' Hurdle that the least he could do was buy a round of drink for the house. The affable bookmaker took the bait and duly obliged to a rapturous round of applause. It is fair to say, he will always be welcomed back to Galway.
Now to the serious business of punting, and what will make us some money at Cheltenham? Firstly to the Supreme Novice and Patrick Mullins, whose stable holds an embarrassment of riches heading across the water, was very much in the Min wins camp. "His two wins have been nothing short of exceptional. His form looks rock solid. I have not seen anything that looks as good. I think on what he has shown, he looks a winner." There has been talk of the 6/4 favourite being a buzzy type which may boil over at Cheltenham, this did not seem an issue for Mullins. He has been keen but that has not stopped him. The fast pace at Cheltenham should help him settle." The Racing Post's Paul Kealy put up English hope Altior, saying he was a 'very, very fast horse' and believed the two should be closer in price. Davy Russell has been impressed by Gigginstown runner Tombstone. "I like him, he'll improve for better ground. Gordan (Elliott ) has his horses in serious order, he looks a bit of value."
Regarding the middle distance novice hurdle, the Neptune, Paul Kealy said the level of form shown by favourite Yanworth was 'ridiculously good'. "He ran to a rating of 160 the last day - you don't see that level of form outside of the Festival itself. I just hope he didn't leave the race behind him that day but I have a feeling that Yanworth is different class. Patrick Mullins gave a shout to A Toi Phil as possibly being the yard's best chance as he is working very well. "There could be further improvement in him. Bellshill's form the last day was too bad to be true. He is working very well again and being by King's Theatre will be better on good ground. Long Dog is made for the Neptune, he has done very little wrong." Davy Russell recommended the crowd to back Yorkhill as he 'adores' this horse, which "ticks every box to win a Neptune. He's tough and has done everything right." However it appears Yorkhill may be taking the Supreme route. Patrick Mullins noting that 'wherever he turns up he must be taken seriously, he has a huge amount of ability.'
Gangster; the horse to back outside of the yard's big name favourites
In the long distance novice, the Albert Bartlett, Mullins appeared very sweet on Gangster. "He is working very well and has caught my eye a few times. He is a half brother to Rite of Passage so is very well bred. I think because he started off in the summer, he has not attracted as much attention as some of ours."
The Arkle was an open and closed job, with everyone in staunch agreement that the monster that is Douvan is unbeatable. Paul Kealy nominated Sizing John as a good bet without the favourite - he is 7/2 to win or come second to Douvan.
Moving on to the RSA, the race was seen as a clear match between No More Heros and More of That and the big debate being whcih would prevail. The former described as 'a false Irish banker' by Paddy Power who believes More of That is simply a better horse. Patrick Mullins professed himself to be a big No More Heros fan. "I think he's a fantastic jumper, he was unlucky not to win the Albert Bartlett last year." Davy Russell was off the same view. "He is my idea of a future Gold Cup winner. I have adored him since he was a youngster, he has always been a class horse."
The Champion Hurdle was very clear cut for the panel who believe Ladies Day will come 24 hours early with Annie Power the clear pick. Patrick Mullins said the stable was very lucky to be able to call her up to fill the breach, following the defection of both Faugheen and Arctic Fire. "She has not had the ideal preparation, she could have had more experience this year running at speed over hurdles, but I think she is more than capable of doing it." He said Nichols Canyon's run against Identity Thief at Christmas meant they could not be split, so by process of elimination that left Annie Power as the winner. Davy Russell was also very confident in the mare's ability, believing she would win. "She makes bits of anything she runs against."
The Champion Chase is also geared up to be another Mullin's payday with nothing being put forward as any real danger to Un De Sceux. Paul Kealy thinks the field will be 'blown away' by the favourite. George McDonagh described him as 'a stone wall certainty'. Patrick Mullins alluded to jumping concerns; "He has fallen twice, both times it has been his first run of the season, when he has been very fresh and has basically just been a bit of an eejit. He was settling much better in his races at the end of last year. It looks like it's his for the taking."
In the third of the big four, the Stayers Hurdle, Thistlecrack was described by Paul Kealy as being bombproof. "He has improved out of all recognition, and has slaughtered everything he met this season. I can not see what is going to beat him. Davy Russell said it was very hard to fault the favourite and he was "actually value at 6/5."
Lots of opinions but no conclusive answer
And so to the big one; The Gold Cup. There seemed to be a consensus among the panel that it was hard to split the top five in the betting - as there was a case for and against them all. It now appears that Vautour will run here, and Mullins says the key people in the yard think he will stay the longer trip. He is expecting an improved showing from his King George second, pointing out Vautour is a better horse going left-handed, and that the Mullins' horses are never set to peak at Christmas. There was murmurings that Vautour's work had been poor - and interestingly it was pointed out that Gangster had beat him eight lengths in a recent piece of work. Patrick Mullins appeared unconcerned. "Vautour is never a particularly good work horse, his work this year would be no different to what it was last year, and the performance he put up then was extra-ordinary." D'jackadam, he said, was a fantastic jumper and there would be little between them. Paul Kealy believed Don Poli was a lay. "These are very, very good horses he is running against, I can't see how he will make the amount of improvement he needs to make to get near these horses." Davy Russell, who will ride whichever of the Don's not ridden by Brian Cooper, said it was fiercely competitive and he would be just glad to have a ride in the race. He said Ruby believes Vautour will stay the trip, and the man's opinion must be respected as he knows what it takes to win a Gold Cup, but he personally does not think the horse will stay. The debate went on and on, but nobody seemed to have a conclusive answer about which horse would emerge as the winner.
The panel's charity bets were to be worth €100, but again following much ribbing from Russell to stump up more for charity, the amount was doubled by a patient Paddy Power. The bets were as follows; Patrick Mullins; €200 win Annie Power, Champion Hurdle. George McDonagh; €200 win Don Cossack, Gold Cup. Davy Russell; €200 win double; Limini in the Mare's Novice Hurdle, and Vroom Vroom Mag in the Mare's Hurdle. Paddy Power; €200 win Native River in the four miler. Jonathan Mullin; €200 win; Our Kaempfer in the Pertemps. Paul Kealy; €200 win Fingal Bay - in whichever Handicap Chase he runs.
Event organiser Barney Curley spoke and was also allowed a bet in aid of his own charity. The legendary punter nominated a €200 double on Annie Power and Thistlecrack.