Hurricane Fly: a top-price 3-1 for a third win in the Champion HurdlePICTURE: Alain Barr (racingpost.com/photos)
Mullins 4-9 to retain his Cheltenham crown
WILLIE MULLINS is the envy of his peers and a best-price 4-9 with BetVictor to carry off the leading trainer award at the Cheltenham Festival for the third time in four years.
Last year five victories for Ireland's champion jumps trainer was enough to see him regain his Irish Independent-sponsored crown from Nicky Henderson and, having assembled potentially his strongest ever festival team, bookmakers are taking no chances on him dominating four of the most competitive days racing of the entire season.
His team for the opening day on Tuesday includes leading fancy Vautour in the Sky Bet-backed curtain raiser, Racing Post Arkle favourite Champagne Fever, dual Stan James Champion Hurdle winner Hurricane Fly in the feature race and record-breaking mare Quevega in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle.
"We are very happy with the ground and the horses travelled well so we are keeping our fingers crossed and hope that it all goes well from here," said Mullins, speaking from Cheltenham on Monday.
He added: "I never dreamt that I would be favourite to take the leading trainers' award. I just hope that a few of the good ones go in. We don't expect, but hope to come over here and have a winner. People obviously think we are going to have a few - I hope they are right."
Regarding Hurricane Fly, who like Mullins regained his own crown in last season's Champion Hurdle and is a top-price 3-1 for a repeat, the trainer said: "All is well with Hurricane Fly and we are optimistic, he seems in good form, that's all I can say."
Big-race jockey Ruby Walsh, evens with William Hill to be top jockey at the meeting for the sixth time in the last seven years, was on hand to put Hurricane Fly through his paces on Monday and expressed his satisfaction.
He said: "We are happy with him and have got him this far, so fingers crossed we can get him the rest of the way.
"He has been here and done it twice before and, if we are being clinical about it, the others have got something to prove in a Champion Hurdle whereas he hasn't. It looks as if Captain Cee Bee will make the running, but there could be a curveball or two."
Willie Mullins: top Cheltenham trainer in 2011 and 2013PICTURE: Mark Cranham (racingpost.com/photos)
As well as general 3-1 second-favourite Vautour, Mullins also has Wicklow Brave and Valseur Lido primed for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, while Glens Melody offers a potent second-string for the trainer in the Mares' Hurdle.
Quevega is a general 4-6 favourite to make history by winning that race for a sixth time and Mullins was also happy with her on Monday.
He said: "She had one little blip last month but she was over it quickly and, anyway, she was well forward at that stage, so it wasn't a real concern. She was on good terms with herself on the racecourse gallops."
Suntiep, partnered by the trainer's son Patrick, will be Mullins' last chance of success on Tuesday when tackling the Terry Biddlecombe National Hunt Chase and is as short as 8-1 fourth-favourite to provide the father-and-son team with back-to-back wins following the success of Back In Focus last year.
The going at Cheltenham was changed to good to soft, good in places on Monday (from good to soft), but despite drying conditions clerk of the course Simon Claisse thinks it is unlikely watering will have to take place during the week.
He said: "Although it has been dry here for eight or nine days, we've had so much rain since the turn of the year that the course has held on to the moisture pretty well. It wouldn't take much to turn it.
"We will do whatever we can to avoid racing on good to firm, but my gut feeling is that we will get through the week without watering. I don't want to say we won't, but I think it's unlikely."
The going on the cross-country course remains good to soft, soft in places.