Facile Vega odds-on to provide Mullins with twelfth Champion Bumper victory
Willie Mullins trained and rode his first Champion Bumper winner at the Cheltenham Festival with Wither or Which in 1996. He has obviously had a soft spot for the race ever since and the victory of Sir Gerhard last year was his eleventh in total. He currently has four of the first five in the betting for this season’s renewal, led by odds-on favourite Facile Vega. We take an early look at the field to see if anything can threaten his domination.
Facile Vega bids to uphold family tradition
Facile Vega is certainly bred to be a Cheltenham winner. He is by Walk In The Park out of the record six times Festival winner Quevega. She won the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle for six successive seasons between 2009 and 2014, eclipsing the record five consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cup victories of Golden Miller in the 1930’s.
With a pedigree like that, it was no surprise that he started odds-on for his debut at Leopardstown on Boxing Day. He won comfortably by six lengths and was cut to 3-1 for the Champion Bumper. Those odds disappeared when he followed up in the Grade 2 Goffs Future Stars Flat Race at the same course in February. This time he faced six previous winners but he treated them with disdain, easing to the front and powering 12 lengths clear.
Not surprisingly the bookmakers were running for cover after that display and even money is the top offer currently available. A note of caution is that, while Mullins has dominated the race, it is not always his shortest priced runner that prevails. Champagne Fever was a 16-1 chance in 2012 and Briar Hill 25-1 the following season. Relegate returned at the same price when providing Katie Walsh with a memorable Festival winner in 2018.
American Mike the obvious threat to Mullins’ team
Mullins has three more fancied runners in Redemption Day, Mercurey and James’s Gate. All three have coasted home on the bridle on their racecourse debuts so it is impossible to know which is the best. There are no clues in the form book with none of those races producing subsequent winners to date. Perhaps the most visually exciting was James’s Gate who settled kindly in front and accelerated away when asked to do so. He is still available at 12-1 which might be a good each-way investment.
Gordon Elliott has tried to muscle in on the Champion Bumper action, claiming it in 2017 and 2019. He also prepared Sir Gerhard for much of last season’s campaign. American Mike looks to stand between Mullins and his twelfth success, a son of Mahler and unbeaten in two starts in Ireland. He thrashed Battling Bessie by 17 lengths at Navan in December. That horse failed by only a nose to win a Grade 2 Mares’ Bumper at Leopardstown next time.
What of the British challengers you may ask? There have only been two home-trained winners in the past ten seasons; Moon Racer for David Pipe in 2015 and Ballyandy for Nigel Twiston-Davies in 2016. Jonjo O’Neill’s Market Rasen winner Springwell Bay is a 20-1 chance while Fergal O’Brien has the unbeaten Bonttay and Crambo at 33-1. At this stage it certainly looks as though this is one race that Britain will struggle to wrestle back from Ireland.