PATRICK Mullins, the most successful amateur rider in the history of jump racing, is gearing up for the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, which gets underway tomorrow week.
Mullins would have been looking to add to his four festival winners this year but after taking a few days to think about turning professional, he has decided not to.
The UK Government’s suspension of grassroots sports due to Covid-19 restrictions means there will be no amateur riders this year and professionals will instead take over bookings in the National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup, Kim Muir Challenge Cup and the St James's Place Hunter Chase.
Looking ahead to the festival, he said: "Our entire year revolves around the Cheltenham festival. It's our Christmas, our All-Ireland final, our Champions League final, from the minute it finishes on Friday you are counting down the days until it begins again the following year".
Appreciate It looks certain to start as favourite for the opener on day one, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
"The supreme has been a very lucky race for us. We thought he would be a horse that would go over further, but when Ferny Hollow got injured Willie decided to drop him back to two miles.
"We were very happy with him at Christmas and at the Dublin Racing Festival. I think he's the best horse in the race and I would be disappointed if he can't get us off to a great start."
Another year of the Mares’ Hurdle and yet again we will have a short-priced Willie Mullins favourite. Benie Des Dieux missing the Festival and Honeysuckle opting for the Champion Hurdle has left Concertista at a short price at the top of the market.
From speaking to Patrick, it's pretty obvious they expect her to win.
"She's a real Cheltenham specialist, she was just beaten a short head on debut two years ago and she bolted up last year. Our mare is very, very good and I'm hoping she can continue our great record in the Mares event."
One of the highlights of day one is the Champion Hurdle, Mullins gives a favourable mention to Sharjah.
"He ran a cracker to finish second last year. He's in great form at home, it's a fantastic race and we are expecting a strong run race which will suit us. At around 16-1, he is a great each-way bet."
Monkfish will surely go off at odds on for Brown Advisory Novices' Chase?
"Monkfish has just improved, improved and improved. He's a huge horse and his jumping is a joy to watch. We are hoping he will develop into a Gold Cup horse."
Another shortie for team Willie Mullins is Chacun Pour Soi in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
"We think he's an exceptional horse and hopefully we can finally win the Queen Mother Champion Chase."
We know what Al Boum Photo can do in a Gold Cup, and how he gets there, following the tried-and-tested path again this time, via one stop at Tramore?
Looking ahead to the Gold Cup, Mullins said: "Al Boum Photo is in very good form. Paul Roche rides him at home and is very happy with him. The form of his race at Tramore has worked out well.
"The horse I'm worried about is A Plus Tard, I think the fact that he could beat Chacun Pour Soi over two miles and then stay a strongly run three miles, he's the one I'm worried about, but I don't think Paul would swap him for anything."
I finished up by asking Patrick for his banker of the meeting and I also asked him what horses we should watch out for in handicaps.
"In the handicaps, Galopin Des Champs is a very nice horse. He's in a couple of races, but he looks better than his mark of 142.
"The other horse is Blue Lord, he's rated 145 but I think he's a 150+ horse. I actually think if he runs in the Supreme, he's far too big a price. There the two to watch out for."
Clerk of the course at Cheltenham Simon Claisse expects the ground at Prestbury Park to be mainly good to soft for the start of the Cheltenham festival, which is now less than two weeks away.
Claisse expects the description to have either good or soft in places in it with the ground that the horses will be running on will have not been touched for 12 months, he told ATR.
“As things currently stand I have a good sense we are going to start with good to soft and ‘something’ in places – whether it is good in places or soft in places – with the normal caveat based on the current forecast.
“The ground we use at the Festival is preserved behind rails throughout the season, October to December – so basically what we’re racing on, no horse has set foot on for the best part of 12 months.”
Although the weather this jumps season has been one of the wettest on record, the conditions at the track ahead of the four-day meeting are said to be in fine order across all three courses.
“The track is looking in great nick – and maybe we could be looking for some rain in a week or so’s time, which is ironic in a way,” he said.