Mullins and Walsh dominant again despite fewer hotpots
Willie Mullins goes to war this year without stable stars Annie Power and Faugheen, as well as the Gigginstown House Stud battalions he lost at the start of the season, yet he remains a red-hot favourite to end the week top trainer for a fifth year in succession and a sixth in all.
While Mullins is much weaker than he might have been in the Champion Hurdle, it is worth noting that only two of his 24 winners in the last four years have carried the Gigginstown silks.
He is no better than 8-13 and backers will be hoping for a perfect start when favourite Melon heads the stable's five-horse challenge for the Supreme Novices'.
However, Nicky Henderson, second favourite in the top trainer's list at a standout 7-2 with 32Red, has a similarly strong first-day hand, with banker Altior in the Arkle and three in the Champion Hurdle.
A good week for Willie Mullins is likely to mean a good week too for Ruby Walsh, Cheltenham's most successful rider of modern times and normally a shoo-in for the leading rider's title. He is as short as 1-2 in places, but 4-6 with 32Red and Betway.
Noel Fehily and Mark Walsh, both beneficiaries of Barry Geraghty's absence, dispute second favouritism at a best-price 8-1.
At the shortest odds in Cheltenham's owner, trainer and jockeys' specials is JP McManus, although he eased yesterday to 1-3 with Betfair, who cut Gigginstown to 3-1.
The relative shortage of hotpots, many of them traditionally trained by Mullins and ridden by Walsh, is almost certainly a factor behind the livelier ante-post markets reported in some quarters, according to Ben Keith of Star Sports.
Keith said: "It looks properly competitive this time and we are seeing a lot of smaller owners having a bet, backing their horses at 25-1 or 33-1 or whatever because they believe they have a chance for once."
Star Sports have laid a £20,000 Champion Hurdle bet on Yanworth at 11-4, a price they have held, and £42,000 at 6-4 on Yorkhill for the JLT, for which he is now an 11-8 chance. They also laid Gold Cup second favourite Native River to lose £50,000 at 10-1 and now have him at 7-2.
Star Sports' other liabilities include:
Edwulf £10k each-way at 6-1, now 5-1
Josses Hill £2k each-way at 12-1, now 8-1. Vaniteaux £2k each-way at 33-1, now 20-1
Mares' Novice Hurdle
Groovejet £1k each-way at 100-1, now 50-1. Dusky Legend £3k each-way ay 16-1, now 14-1
Forth Bridge £1k each-way at 25-1 (still available)
Penhill £5k each-way at 20-1, now 12-1
Martin Pipe Hurdle
Sleep Easy £4k each-way at 33-1, now 20-1