Willie Mullins may be the most successful trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival, with 78 wins under his belt – but for Willie Mullins, there’s still one race that eludes him: the Queen Mother Champion Chase for Willie Mullins.
A bit like London buses, you wait around for a while and then two come at once – it’s almost hard to believe that he was so hard pressed for Gold Cup success. It looked that way, up until 2019, when Al Boum Photo eventually broke his duck with back-to-back wins in the blue riband event.
Last year had been one of his best chances yet to land the Grade 1 race on day two of the Festival – through Chacun Pour Soi, the bookies’ favourite at odds of 8/13, ridden by jockey Paul Townend. Instead, the plaudits lay with Aidan Coleman and Put The Kettle On, through a scintillating display which saw the duo win the feature race by half a length.
Afterwards, Mullins couldn’t quite put his finger on the issues that saw his odds-on entry place in third. The Closutton trainer said:
“Paul’s feedback was that he ran a bit flat, which looked obvious. I’ve not seen any other reason to say that is not right. It’s disappointing. He had every chance to win the race but he didn’t.”
With no entry in 2020, his previous hopes lay with Min at the 2019 renewal. It was always going to be tall order to overcome the unbeaten Altior – who had won 17 consecutive races prior to arriving at the Festival – and the favourite duly delivered. Mullins’ 7/2 chance had to settle for fourth, after a disqualification to Hell’s Kitchen. Instead, it has been an agonising wait for the handler, who is also an eight-time leading trainer at Cheltenham.
After last year’s optimism, the 2022 edition of the Festival is looking like Mullins’ best chance yet of landing the elusive Grade 1 race, although, he’ll have a battle on his hands to get one over fellow trainer Nicky Henderson – with Shishkin the early favourite. However, with Chacun Pour Soi and Energumene among the front-runners, it’s set to be a thrilling battle.
Of course, many believed last year was going to the year that Mullins would land the one race that has evaded him so far. It was a different kind of Festival – going ahead behind closed doors amid the pandemic – and perhaps this year, without an empty concourse, the crowd will play their part.
Henderson has quite the stronghold on day two’s feature race – and it will take a special horse to topple him. Energumene, the second-favourite, has already tried and failed at Ascot this season, but he ran Shishkin close in the Clarence House Chase and it’s clear he still has the attributes to be a real contender.
The eight-year-old has won five of his six chases since transferring to Mullins’ yard, with that defeat to Shishkin his only blemish over fences, and is said to have recovered after suffering a stone bruise earlier this month.
This time next week, the stage will be set. Can the King of Prestbury Park finally land the race he’s so desperately missing from his lengthy list of achievements?