Let's put our trust in Mullins and back Dance to score
Mullins has a great record in the OLBG Mares Hurdle
Willie Mullins didn’t enjoy the best of fortunes over the Christmas period, but there was a few performances he will have been heartened by.
Chief among them was the display by Let’s Dance in winning the Grade 3 mares’ race at Leopardstown by eight lengths for the second year in succession.
Her performance deserves to be upgraded. It was her first start since a crashing fall on her return at Punchestown in November that broke Ruby Walsh’s leg.
It also came amid a four-day period in which Mullins lost Nichols Canyon, saw Yorkhill and Djakadam run poorly and witnessed the demotion of Min after he laboured to an unexciting first-past-the-post effort in a very weak Grade 1.
Put the two together and her smooth victory over Forge Meadow was fairly impressive in its own way.
Let’s Dance is now back on track and connections can plot their way towards Cheltenham and the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.
That could mean a clash against the mighty Apple’s Jade, who was also a winner at Leopardstown. Her win in the 3m Christmas Hurdle brought her Grade 1 tally to seven, which includes a win in the Mares’ Hurdle last season.
However, it does make me wonder whether we will now see a change of plan for her.
The Stayers’ Hurdle is open and she has confirmed she stays the trip, so a switch wouldn’t be the biggest surprise in the world – that happens all the time at Cheltenham.
As it is, she is a top price of 11-10 for a follow-up win in the Mares’ Hurdle.
However, stamina increasingly seems to be her strong suit and she did look vulnerable last season against Vroum Vroum Mag for a few strides before jumping the last.
My view is that she may do pretty well. She certainly has plenty of speed and a potent turn of foot – as evidenced by her win in the Trull House Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle last season over a bare 2m1f.
She’s won at all trips between 2m and 2m4f, is versatile regarding ground and I wouldn’t hold either of her late-season defeats last year against her as Mullins was chasing the trainers’ title and desperately trying to get as much prize-money as possible.
Mullins has a fantastic record in this race and, while that has a lot to do with Quevega of course, he also won it with Vroum Vroum Mag and Glens Melody, the latter in a year when he would have had a one-two but for Annie Power falling at the last.
Even last year, when he was beaten, he still filled the next two places, so whatever he runs invariably either goes very close or wins.
Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag could try again, but they haven’t run at all this season and have no upcoming entries. With questions over their wellbeing and Apple’s Jade’s target, it’s clear there’s potential for Let’s Dance to contract from her current 10-1.
Indeed, bearing in mind at the start of the season I thought Let’s Dance might develop into a leftfield Champion Hurdle hope, I have to be with her now this race looks like being her port of call.
Look further down the market and there isn’t much to write home about.
La Bague Au Roi is the highest British-trained runner in the market, but she was well beaten by Let’s Dance at Cheltenham last season and won over 3m last time out.
Kayf Grace is potentially more interesting for Nicky Henderson and did win over the Christmas period at Kempton following a below-par effort on her return.
She has never raced over this far but will appreciate 2m4f on breeding and did beat Augusta Kate when winning the Grade 2 Aintree bumper in 2016.
However, she can’t have been easy to keep sound as she has only raced three times since then and it was only a handicap she won last time out off 132. She still needs to improve.
This is the first of Nick Watts' Cheltenham Festival ante-post previews from this week's Racing & Football Outlook. Read the rest in the paper every week in the build-up to Cheltenham – out on Tuesdays