03/08/2015 8:36AM

Mullins loaded with contenders for National Hunt


The numbers are phenomenal.

In the four-day National Hunt festival for steeplechasers and hurdlers at Cheltenham Racecourse in the west of England from Tuesday through Friday, Irish trainer Willie Mullins may have as many as 50 runners in 27 races.

The Mullins team ranges from largely untested 4-year-olds in Friday’s two-mile Triumph Hurdle to the 11-year-old Hurricane Fly, who has won an astonishing 22 Grade 1 races from late 2008 through January this year.

Mullins has four strong favorites on Tuesday’s seven-race program, a group led by the undefeated Faugheen, the even-money favorite in the $608,000 Champion Hurdle at 2 1/16 miles. The Champion Hurdle is the day’s top race.

Hurricane Fly starts in the Champion Hurdle for the fifth consecutive year. He won the race in 2011 and 2013, was fifth in 2012, and finished fourth last year. A stakes winner on the flat in France in 2007, Hurricane Fly is an 8-1 shot to win for the 27th time in his 40th start.

When Faugheen and Hurricane Fly reach the paddock for the Champion Hurdle, Mullins already will have a good idea of what kind of week to expect.

In the three races preceding the Champion Hurdle, Mullins has two heavy favorites – Douvan, who can stretch a winning streak to four races in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at 2 1/16 miles, and Un de Sceaux, who is odds on at 4-7 in early betting to win the Racing Post Arkle Chase at two miles. After the Champion Hurdle, the Mullins-trained Annie Power is 4-7 in early betting to win the Mares’ Hurdle at 2 1/2 miles.

Wins in all four races by Mullins-trained runners is highly possible and would prove to be massively popular with Irish racegoers, many of whom have backed those horses in the future-book through the winter and are making the trip over the Irish Sea for the week.

The Cheltenham National Hunt festival compares with the five-day Royal Ascot meeting in June or the two-day Breeders’ Cup in quality of racing and enthusiasm shown by racing fans. Cheltenham is expected to draw 235,000 people this week at a track about the size of Arlington Park.

The top race of the week is Friday’s $836,000 Cheltenham Gold Cup over 3 5/16 miles (and 22 fences). Mullins’s best hope in the Gold Cup is Djakadam, generally an 8-1 shot behind the favored Silviniaco Conti at 3-1. Silviniaco Conti fell in the 2013 Gold Cup and was fourth last year. A 9-year-old gelding, Silviniaco Conti won the prestigious King George VI Chase at Kempton Park outside of London on Dec. 26 in his most recent start.