Road to Cheltenham: Vic and Hercules boost Mullins’ hopes again

As the days count down towards the start of the Cheltenham Festival, it looks as if there is a real danger of things turning into the Willie Mullins show.

The Closutton handler flexed his equine muscles once again over the weekend, with winners on both sides of the Irish Sea.

The subsequent market moves further emphasises the strength in the Mullins battalion heading to Prestbury Park.

In fact, of the 20 Graded races at the Festival, Mullins trains either the outright favourite, or joint-favourite in 13 of them.

One of those jollies is Killultagh Vic who not only displayed the quality that he holds, but also the extreme horsemanship that Ruby Walsh possesses.

Coming to the last in the Sunday’s Grade 2, the 2015 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle winner looked in full control over his three remaining rivals.

But the gelding seemed to get it wrong over the final fence, going down on his nose, before his back-end gave way.

Unbelievably Walsh clung on. Even more so was the fact that the jockey, minus one iron, rousted his charge back from an impossible position to score by three-quarters of a length.

With wins at two miles, two-miles-five and three miles, Festival options look wide open for the winner. His price for the RSA Chase shortened from 12/1 to 10/1, but it looks as if the JLT Novices’ Chase is the route for him.

Mullins has run four horses in Sunday’s race in the last four years, and all four have taken the race over the intermediate distance at the Festival, for which the son of Old Vic is now a 4/1 joint-favourite (from 7/1).

Killultagh Vic has turned into an extremely versatile campaigner

Killultagh Vic has turned into an extremely versatile campaigner

For the longer trips, the Irish Champion Trainer might have seen a shake-up in the pecking order of his charges.

Roi Des Francs’ upset of 4/7 favourite Pont Alexandre at Naas on Saturday, saw the pendulum swing in the favour of the Gigginstown Stud-owned gelding.

Prior to the race the former was a 25/1 chance for the RSA Chase, while the latter was a 10/1 shot, but following a one-and-a-half length defeat, the pair have levelled out with either available at 16/1.

It was a similar story for the four-mile contest at the Fesitval with Roi Des Francs going from 10/1 to 8/1 and Pont Alexandre nudged out to 8/1 (from 7s).

Both though, will have to usurp another Mullins charge in the form of Black Hercules.

The Andrea and Graham Wylie-owned seven-year-old showed a dogged display of galloping and jumping at Warwick in the Hampton Novices’ Chase over three miles.

His gutsy performance was certainly an eye-catching one as far as the real stamina tests at the Festival are concerned.

He was cut into 5/1 favouritism for the National Hunt Chase, while he was shortened from 20s into 12s for the RSA.

Black Hercules was a well-beaten seventh at the Festival last year

Black Hercules was a well-beaten seventh at the Festival last year

It wasn’t just over fences that the Mullins juggernaut was steaming ahead, as he took his record to six wins from just nine runners at Warwick when Thomas Hobson led home a stable one-two in the Leamington Novices’ Hurdle.

Danny Mullins’ bold front-running tactics had many of his rivals in trouble as the field approached the turn out of the back straight, and despite the best efforts of Open Eagle, was not for catching.

Even a mistake at the last couldn’t hand the initiative to his opponents as the former John Gosden inmate drew away for a two-and-a-half length success.

While Saturday’s contest was a Grade 2 event, it looks as if it could be handicap company for the six-year-old at Prestbury Park.

Ladbrokes cut him from 16/1 to 10/1 for the Martin Pipe, although he remains a 16/1 chance for the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle, as Mullins continues to strengthen his Festival hand.

An awkward jump at the last couldn't stop Thomas Hobson claiming victory

An awkward jump at the last couldn’t stop Thomas Hobson claiming victory

With nine more weekends to go before that famous Cheltenham roar kicks the week into action, there is plenty of time for challengers to emerge, but as it stands, a Mullins mauling looks on the cards at the Festival.

All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.

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Ben Stones

Ladbrokes News’ equine expert, Ben likes nothing more than studying the form to pick out a winner or two for our readers. A Journalism and Media Studies graduate from the University of Winchester, Ben has previously written for a number of football and racing blogs and websites, as well as contributing to the sports pages of his home-town newspaper.