Cheltenham review: Willie Mullins, Coneygree, Nicholls & AP McCoy

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Coneygree and jockey Nico de Boinville after Cheltenham Gold Cup win
Coneygree, ridden by Nico de Boinville, was the first novice to win Cheltenham Gold Cup since 1974

There were many highlights from a memorable 2015 Cheltenham Festival.

Trainer Willie Mullins created history despite Annie Power's £40m fall, while Paul Nicholls secured a big treble.

The meeting said farewell to jockey AP McCoy and hello to novice Coneygree, winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Here's my take on some of the big talking points.

What next for eight-time winner Willie Mullins?

Willie Mullins is rated about a 20-1 chance to double his tally in Cheltenham's marquee races - the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, World Hurdle and Gold Cup - in 2016, and take all four.

The length of those odds can surely only be down to time, because judged by the potential shown by this year's vast squad, Mullins already has major candidates for each prize.

Willie Mullins
Willie Mullins became the first trainer saddle the first three in the Champion Hurdle

Presumably Champion Hurdler Faugheen, who led home a 1-2-3 for the County Carlow-based team, may well be joined in that race by Douvan, outstanding winner of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

All being well, the brilliant Un De Sceaux, who didn't put a foot wrong in the Arkle Trophy, will be Queen Mother Champion Chase-bound, while Don Poli put in a performance which had Gold Cup written all over it in the RSA Chase.

Don Poli could line up alongside Mullins' Djakadam, still only six but runner-up behind Coneygree this time, plus the breathtaking Vautour who put in the performance of the season in the JLT Chase.

The main candidate for the World Hurdle looks like Annie Power, the last-hurdle faller in the mares race, and others are sure to emerge.

In a way this talk is absurd when we have 12 months to go, and anything can happen before then, but what's striking about Mullins is that one of his hallmarks does seem to be that he's a "lucky" trainer.

With his big names, things tend not to go wrong too often, unless, of course, it's a completely freak incident, like Champagne Fever being bitten by a fellow equine traveller en route.

What do we make of this Mullins dominance?

Obviously the proverbial bar has been raised and opponents on both sides of the Irish Sea need to work harder to compete.

At the moment, it is something of an uphill struggle with Mullins having so many wealthy backers, notably multi-millionaire banker Rich Ricci and his wife Susannah, who are prepared to pay top dollar for the horses they want.

But Mullins himself has conceded there is a cyclical element to all this, and while he's already making plans for next year, the same can be said of Paul Nicholls (three wins, 2015), Nicky Henderson (two) and David Pipe (two) who all know how to flex their Festival muscles.

And just when traditionalists start wringing their hands about the 'too great' influence of the big boys, along comes Coneygree, whose only 'purchase price' was his stallion's stud fee. So anything might happen.

Coneygree: can he do it again?

One of the reasons for going down the Gold Cup route rather than taking on fellow novices was because Coneygree, though only having his fourth run in a steeplechase, is already eight years old and can be fragile.

Coneygree arrives back at the Bradstocks' small Oxfordshire stables

So we have to slightly hold our breath that everything will be fine during the long holiday the horse is about to enjoy, ahead of the next campaign which trainer Mark Bradstock and family are already mapping out.

But, assuming all is ok, the answer is yes, of course. All the talk will be of how to repel the Mullins battalions, but with another year on his back, the bold, front-running, big-jumping Coneygree might well be an even more potent force.

A quick footnote: the owners and trainers have earned full marks for sticking with rookie professional jockey Nico de Boinville when some higher profile names surely galloped across their radars.

Footnote (2): Mark Bradstock has predicted Coneygree's little half-brother Flintham, who didn't get a chance to race at the 2015 Festival, could be better still.

GB v Ireland: the home side only squeaked it

Ireland, thanks to Willie Mullins, held the lead until past halfway, and the result ended up going all the way down to the wire, with British racing taking the Betbright Prestbury Cup by 14 successes to 13.

The big concern as regards holding onto the title in 2016 must be the limited success in the main races for youngsters through which we hope to gauge the future.

While the hugely-exciting Peace And Co led a terrific 1-2-3 for trainer Nicky Henderson in the Triumph Hurdle, and the Bumper went to the David Pipe team with Moon Racer, Ireland looks strong on youth.

Bullets fires Nicholls/Twiston-Davies forward

The fledging association between Paul Nicholls, the champion trainer, and jockey Sam Twiston-Davies was well and truly cemented with two wins, including that of Dodging Bullets in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Sam Twiston-Davies celebrates Dodging Bullets win with breeder Frankie Dettori (right)
Sam Twiston-Davies celebrates Dodging Bullets win with breeder Frankie Dettori (right)

They have had a generally pretty lucrative first season together, but, with its prize money and prestige, victories at the Cheltenham Festival overshadow everything, and they got them.

And famously down-to-earth Twiston-Davies will have made even more friends when confiding to BBC 5 Live listeners that he was settling down to celebrate with … a plate of cottage pie.

He's going to be a big player in future champion jockey title races, along with a decent-sized list of others; one name that should definitely be on there is up-and-coming Gavin Sheehan.

The well-judged World Hurdle success by Sheehan, 22, on the Warren Greatrex-trained Cole Harden was the rider's first at the Festival, and biggest to date - it will not be his last.

And finally, McCoy…

Cheltenham Festival: I will miss days like this, says retiring McCoy

The words "We'll miss you AP!" were displayed on the big screens regularly during the soon-to-retire champion jockey's final Festival, and, simply but eloquently, they reflected the prevailing mood.

McCoy's been a great jockey, obviously, but his ambassadorial skills cannot be under-estimated either, so his very presence has done its bit to help grow the Cheltenham Festival.

And I might say it felt bigger and better than ever in 2015.

AP McCoy at Cheltenham Festival
Career victories: 31. Third behind Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty in all-time winners list at meeting.
Gold Cup wins: Mister Mulligan 1997, Synchronised 2012
Festival top jockey: 1997, 1998
2015 meeting: One winner, Uxizandre (16-1) in Ryanair Chase, plus a second and third.
A good luck message to AP McCoy at Cheltenham racecourse
End of an era: A good luck message to AP McCoy at Cheltenham racecourse


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