Cheltenham Festival 2016: The New One is primed to thwart Mullins
Last year, Cheltenham was all about Willie Mullins' record-breaking eight wins and it's easy to assume that it will be more of the same this week - or even better, especially as the astonishingly successful Irish trainer will have about 60 horses here to torment both the bookmakers and the English.
Day one is again potentially traumatic for the layers and lucrative for punters, so many of whom are now simply backing Mullins blind. Annie Power's last-flight fall in the Mares' Hurdle 12 months ago saved the bookies an estimated £100m after three earlier bankers had duly obliged and this afternoon the Closutton big guns once more come out blazing from the get-go.
It's hard to imagine Mullins and his main stable rider Ruby Walsh, top jockey at nine of the last 12 Festivals, not playing a huge part in proceedings once again, but there are two things to bear in mind.
First, Mullins says that last year his team arrived in peak health and form and everything - Annie Power aside - just dropped into place. It may have looked like shelling peas, but the man himself was almost dumbstruck at times as one winner followed another.
Second, even if Mullins does run riot again, it might not necessarily be with the expected horses. Walsh has the pick of the stable mounts most times this week, but even he reckons he will choose the wrong one three or four times.
Mullins' highlight last year was his one-two-three in the Champion Hurdle and perhaps his dominance of the Festival is best demonstrated by the fact that, although all three are missing this time through injury or retirement, he still has the first two in the betting, Annie Power (Walsh) and Nichols Canyon, plus an improving and perhaps underestimated outsider, Sempre Medici.
Annie Power is at a short enough price, given her interrupted preparation, while the delay in committing her to this race once Faugheen and Arctic Fire were ruled out does not suggest supreme confidence in the camp, either.
Few trainers are coming into this week in better form than Nigel Twiston-Davies, brimming with confidence after Flying Angel continued his good run in the Imperial Cup at Sandown on Saturday.
The New One (3.30pm), the apple of Twiston-Davies' eye, is not a new one any more after finishing an unlucky third in 2014 and running below par last year. He was subsequently treated for a kissing spine, but he has seemed close to his best.
Douvan (2.10pm) is the Mullins banker of the week. He makes very good horses look very ordinary, prompting his handler to wonder aloud if he is of a different species, and will surely win the Arkle Trophy Chase, bar a fall.
But Nicky Henderson, who still leads Mullins as the all-time leading Festival trainer (53-41) can strike blows for the home team, first with Altior (1.30pm), whose form is stronger than the hyped-up Min in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and with Polly Peachum (4.10pm), who faces another Mullins hotpot, Vroum Vroum Mag, in the Mares' Hurdle.
Vroum Vroum Mag is unbeaten in eight starts since being bought from France, but all those victories have been gained on very soft or heavy ground and never in company as strong as this. Polly Peachum has a fine chance of signing off her career with a big win before retiring to the paddocks.