Maestro Mullins is odds-on to conquer the Cheltenham Festival

FIRST PAST THE POST -- the kind of thrilling finish to a Festival race up the renowned hill at Cheltenham that helps to make the meeting the highlight of the year for so many racing fans. (PHOTO BY: rossparry.co.uk/mikal ludlow).

FIRST PAST THE POST -- the kind of thrilling finish to a Festival race up the renowned hill at Cheltenham that helps to make the meeting the highlight of the year for so many racing fans. (PHOTO BY: rossparry.co.uk/mikal ludlow).

Invincibility is a word that does not sit naturally on the unforgiving playing fields of Cheltenham.

Festival after Festival down the years, a posse of short-priced favourites has pitched up, begging to be backed as ‘good things’.

The cynics amongst us, wisened by experience, have resisted with the knowing retort: “They can’t all win; this is Cheltenham.” And vanquished favourite after vanquished favourite later, we are proved right. Of 28 horses to be sent off odds-on since 1995, 47 per cent of them have been beaten. Eight of the 13 odds-on shots to start at 4/5 or bigger have been stuffed.

But now, there are signs that the landscape is shifting. In our midst is an unprecedented force capable of lowering Festival barriers and re-writing even the unwritten rules. That force is called William Patrick Mullins, born September 15, 1956, occupation racehorse trainer, location Closutton, Muine Bheag, County Carlow, Ireland.

Backed by the not inconsiderable financial muscle of owners Rick Ricci, Graham Wylie and Michael O’Leary (Gigginstown), Mullins’s masterful dominance of Jumps racing has been evolving so fast in the last five years that he saddled a record-breaking tally of eight winners at the 2015 Festival to take his overall total to 41. Now, that evolution is poised to reach its crescendo at next week’s Cheltenham shindig, which he is threatening to make his own.

Even without the machine FAUGHEEN, who is unable to defend his Stan James Champion Hurdle crown because of injury, Mullins is bringing over a battalion of more than 60 horses. And it is not inconceivable that he could become only the second trainer in history (after Nicky Henderson) to reach a half-century of Festival winners. When you consider he trains the current favourites for more than one-third of the 28 races and horses in the first three in the market for 16 races, it is even conceivable that he could pass Henderson in one fell swoop.

Such is the strength in depth at Mullins’s disposal that he still has three leading fancies for the Champion Hurdle in mercurial mare ANNIE POWER, the only horse to ever beat Faugheen, NICHOLS CANYON, and lively each/way outsider SEMPRE MEDICI. And his embarrassment of riches for the Timico Gold Cup, via superstar VAUTOUR, last year’s runner-up DJAKADAM, the gritty, gutsy DON POLI and the under-rated VALSEUR LIDO suggests that Mullins could also add the one major prize still missing from his CV.

Legitimate challengers to the Mullins quartet abound, however. The only Irish trainer capable of mixing it with him at the top table, Gordon Elliott, fields the classy DON COSSACK, while lovable veteran CUE CARD aims to become only the second horse, after the mighty Kauto Star, to complete the Betfair Chase/King George/Gold Cup treble and collect a £1 million bonus. Throw into the melting pot the revitalised grey SMAD PLACE, possible dark horse SAUSALITO SUNRISE and last year’s third, ROAD TO RICHES, and it’s clear Cheltenham is to be graced by one of the great Gold Cups to cap four days of sensational racing.

Since its humble beginnings, the Festival has matured into a national institution. An event that transforms a quiet corner of the Cotswolds into a cauldron of drama, fuelled by a social craic and camaraderie unrivalled in UK sport and bolstered by an invasion of thousands of Irish racing fanatics overflowing with enthusiasm and bonhomie.

Those happy hordes will swell the aggregate attendance at Prestbury Park over the four days to more than 250,000. All of whom will marvel at a much-needed £45 million redevelopment of the course, which includes a plush, new stand and an elevated walkway sure to cut congestion and add even more electricity to the famed atmosphere.

Other innovations include the prospect of Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton tackling the Foxhunters’ Chase as part of her Betfair-sponsored ‘Switching Saddles’ initiative. After one or two falls, opinions are divided as to whether the 35-year-old is ready for such a formidable challenge. She looked accomplished when guiding her Cheltenham mount PACHA DU POLDER to victory at Wincanton last week, but she was helped by a streetwise horse and by straightforward front-running tactics that she won’t be able to repeat next week on a mount unlikely to stay the 3m2f trip.

Other Festival changes for 2016 include prize money boosted to a total of more than £4 million and a brand new race, the Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, taking the overall schedule to 28. Whisper it gently, but just two more contests are now needed to stretch the week to five days, comprising six races on each. Such an extension is a contentious issue, fiercely opposed by critics who fear unnecessary dilution of quality at an event they feel highly protective of. Indeed it could be argued, tongue firmly in cheek, that such opposition is more powerful than that Mr Mullins will face next week.

It has been a curious season for UK trainers, with only Alan King and Philip Hobbs able to maintain consistency. The aforementioned Henderson has lined up strong ammunition, the string of champion Paul Nicholls is making an ominous return to form and the likes of David Pipe and Jonjo O’Neill will take the wraps off handicap plots. But it remains a shade of odds-on that this Festival will be remembered not for ‘Switching Saddles’ but for the ‘Blazing Saddles’ of the Closutton oracle.

Festival tips online, and Project Horse on track

Remember Project Horse Cheltenham, our random, long-range search for a winner to pay for our Festival expenses?

After alighting on fast-improving, lightly-raced hurdler DIAMOND KING, the project was temporarily derailed when his official rating soared to 149, which is above the weights ceiling for trainer Gordon Elliott’s intended target-race, the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle on Gold Cup day.

But the eight-year-old has been re-routed to Wednesday’s Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle (same distance), where the confidence in him is reflected in his position at the head of the market as 10/1 favourite.

See what you think of all my other tips for every race at next week’s Festival by going to this paper’s website from 6 pm on Sunday.