For the past half a decade, race goers have witnessed the formidable Quevega notch up a sequence of devastatingly impressive victories in the OLBG Mares Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. Willie Mullins’ string is currently notoriously difficult to place confidently, but little doubt is behind the fact that the champion mare will attempt to make it 6 consecutive wins this term. A select field of 9 are currently engaged.
Willie Mullins (Mrs S Ricci)
6yo ch m Shirocco (GER) (11.7f) – Anno Luce (Old Vic (13.0f))
The supposedly second of Mullins’ string entered is Annie Power. Arguably anticipation is greatest of all behind this horse at the moment, and the question is: Which race she will contend? At this stage it looks unlikely that she’ll oppose stalemate Quevega here. Regardless, were she to take her place all eyes would be on the unbeaten Shirocco six year old, youth would be on her side as she is 4 years Quevega’s junior and has not yet been extended over hurdles. Having beaten Zarkandar comprehensively on two occasions this campaign, form was franked when he ran a close 2nd behind Melodic Rendezvous at Wincanton. Among those to have been beaten by Annie Power include top novices The Tullow Tank, Defy Logic and Don Cossack. It is no doubt she hasn’t established herself to the extent as Quevega, but here lies a possible opportunity for her to take another step towards becoming champion race mare.
Robert Walford (Mr Paul Murphy)
6yo bay m Hernando (FR) (12.3f) – Carole’s Crusader (Faustus (USA) (9.3f))
Carole’s Spirit finished 2 lengths behind Highland Retreat when having every chance last time out at Ascot. Without doubt she has talent but whether it is good enough to be involved here is questionable. Based on her previous start, where in my opinion she had the opportunity to win, she would simply not be good enough. She is a half sister to the very good mare Carole’s Legacy, who ran a mighty race in 2nd to Quevega in the 2010 renewal. As are many of these though, her consistency earns her credit. She is yet to finish outside of the first four positions and has put top class mare As I Am in her place to the tune of 2 and a half lengths. The previous statement is key as Carole’s Spirit is yet to make a real impression racing against the males, whereas others have that string to add to their bow. In reality, she is sure to be under minimal consideration here.
John Quinn (Mr Paul Gaffney)
5yo bay m Cockney Rebel (IRE) (9.7f) – Compose (Anabaa (USA) (8.3f))
John Quinn is no stranger to Festival success when his now retired, dual purpose inmate Countrywide Flame claimed the Triumph Hurdle two years ago. Cockney Sparrow is his hope for this year and although falling last time out, has ran creditably behind Champion Hurdle bound My Tent Or Yours, along with dominating her own sex on multiple occasions. With 7 lifetime wins to boast, she looks a chief threat to Quevega’s crown. Only 2 lengths behind Annie Power at Doncaster before she fell, she looked beaten but still would have advertised her claims in no uncertain fashion. The latter mentioned is likely to be at the head of the market in whichever race she goes for, which is no mean feat. Cockney Sparrow is no mug and has rightfully earned her place in the field: she demands respect.
Willie Mullins (Ms Fiona McStay)
6yo bay m King’s Theatre (IRE) (11.7f) – Glens Music (IRE) (Orchestra (10.1f))
One of the most intriguing contenders for me is another hailing from Willie Mullins’ yard – Glens Melody. I believe she does her best not to reveal her true ability and that if anyone is to unveil it and deliver her it would be Willie. Another ultra-consistent performer, she has never been out of the first 3 in her life and has beaten Mischievous Milly twice this season- there is little evidence to suggest that form will be reversed come Cheltenham. Generally she jumps and stays and does have an engine, but there may be one or two in this that could catch her off guard and by looking at her running style, a battle would not play to her strengths. She has a touch of class about her and cannot be discarded. Physically she is a big imposing mare and at 6 years old she probably has more improving to do. A concern would be on her last visit to the course she finished 29 lengths behind More Of That- this form hasn’t had the chance to be tested of yet, but I doubt it would be good enough to win here.
Harry Fry (Mr Richard Barber)
7yo bay m Exit To Nowhere (USA) (10.1f) – St Kilda (Past Glories)
Highland Retreat is a really likeable mare. Harry Fry has tasted success since leaving Paul Nicholls and this Exit To Nowhere mare has really enhanced his profile as a trainer. She has great constitution and a real toughness, unlike a few of these, she’ll be continuing when they have cried enough and her attitude stands her in good stead. She showed this to brilliant effect when beating Carole’s Spirit at Ascot last time. She’s never one to be flashy and perhaps lacks the class of the likes of Quevega and Annie Power but especially if the ground conditions remain testing, she would have to have a reasonable chance. Her versatility in terms of conditions is another positive attribute and she would not be inconvenienced by a change of surface. Again, she is another that is more likely to fill the place positions rather than winning. She’s also proven herself in terms of having form against the opposite sex and could be one that flies under the radar.
Alan King (Mr Denis J Barry)
5yo bay m Reefscape – Sans Tune (FR) (Green Tune (USA) (10.5f))
One of my Ten To Follow this season was the Alan King trained L’Unique. After an impressive victory in the 4yo Juvenile Hurdle at Aintree, beating the likes of Irish Saint, Flaxen Flare and Rolling Star (whom have since gone on to much better things) she has failed to fire this season. Whether this has been due to the ill-health of the horses at Alan King’s yard or something else, she doesn’t appeal coming into the race. 2 of these, Glens Melody and Cockney Sparrow, have beaten her this season by combined distances of just under 30 lengths. A return to form could see her in the mix but that is a big risk to be taking considering her recent efforts. It is also likely that at Aintree the horses that she beat were feeling the effects and demands of Cheltenham. It’s difficult to make a case for this French-bred.
Oliver Sherwood (A Stewart & A Taylor)
6yo bay m Old Vic (13.0f) – Jennifers Diary (IRE) (Supreme Leader (12.4f))
Mischievous Milly is another likeable contender; her form ties in with Irish hope Glen’s Melody- with whom she has been bridesmaid to on two occasions. Regardless of her smaller size, she has heart and a willing ethos, but whether that is good enough in this company is doubtful. Another concern would be her lack of course form, having never faced the undulations of Prestbury Park. I don’t believe the track would necessarily suit but it remains to be seen. It’s likely she’ll find a good few too good here yet but, should the others misfire, she could have a chance at the placings.
Willie Mullins (Hammer & Trowel Syndicate)
10yo bay m Robin Des Champs (FR) – Vega IV (FR) (Cap Martin (FR))
Unbeaten in 8 runs and winner of this race a stunning 5 times, Quevega requires little introduction. She’s beaten top quality horses such as Reve De Sivola, Voler la Vedette and Mourad. As is not unusual, we have not yet seen her this term but reports from Willie Mullins’ base are positive- he had a very small setback with her recently but is now very happy with her progress. He has highlighted no current concerns ahead of her almighty festival bid. Emphasis is placed on Annie Power in this case, as she would be Quevega’s main threat. It makes sense for Annie Power to run elsewhere as this is Quevega’s race and I doubt the trainer would run all three of his hopes. Should Annie Power be absent from the line up, you would think this talented individual would have little problem dispatching her rivals, as she has done on so many occasions prior to this. Now aged 10, her ability may not be fully intact but we are yet to see. Her lightly raced profile indicates she will be primed once more for what would be a historic accomplishment.
Emmanuel Clayeux (Stephane Milaveau)
8yo ch m Dom Alco (FR) – Evermine (FR) (Perrault (9.0f))
Second to Quevega by 1 ½ lengths in her last Mares Hurdle, Sirene D’Ainay could be one of the forgotten horses, similarly to last year when she was 2nd at 66-1. Sired by the prolific Dom Alco, she has been/is destined to be a high quality mare. She has since run 6 times in her native France, winning last time out on the 2nd of February. (Her only other 2 rivals fell). It’s safe to say she has been less impressive in the build up to Cheltenham this year, as last year she posted 2 wins, again in small fields. She may well be the one to lead them early on, as this position is one she adopted when doing so well last year. With arguably a host of more talented mares to beat this time, I doubt she’ll be able to remain at the head of affairs throughout and indeed at the top of the hill.
As highlighted in previous comments, this race is surrounded solely by the participation of Annie Power, which looks unlikely. Sentiment plays a part in seeing Quevega record such an amazing feat and she is more than worthy of her position at the top of the market. However, it is clear to see she won’t have it all her way, as has been in the past, as an interesting bunch of mares take her on. Should she run, Glens Melody has the class to be competitive and could be an underestimated mare coming into this. She travels with great enthusiasm and could carry herself into an attacking position. She would need to put her 29 length defeat at the course behind her though in order to be in with a shout. Cockney Sparrow possesses a professional angle and her turn of foot could create a turning point in what is sure to be a good renewal. Having an F beside her name wouldn’t be encouraging and that obviously wasn’t an ideal prep but she has the form and ability to right that wrong and bounce back. I’m a huge fan of HIGHLAND RETREAT who will surely improve again from her last run and be thereabouts in any circumstances. At a bigger price she could be each way value.