Saint Roi has been ruled out of the Cheltenham Festival by Willie Mullins, who had hoped last year’s County Hurdle winner would make up into a championship contender this spring.
However, the dominant jumps trainer of recent years was delighted to report no other issues affecting a remarkably strong team of high-profile horses being aimed at next month’s event, for which he has almost half the favourites in his County Carlow stable.
“Unfortunately, he’s out of Cheltenham,” Mullins said of Saint Roi. “I don’t think he’s scratched yet but chatting to JP [McManus, the owner] the other day, we came to the conclusion that we’re not happy with him and he won’t run at Cheltenham.
“He just hasn’t gone forward. He’s had one or two little niggles and I think JP was happy to just let him get over those entirely. Maybe they’re the reason, maybe they’re not. We’ll see.”
Saint Roi’s only success this season came on his October reappearance at Tipperary. He appeared an unlucky loser in the Morgiana the following month but was disappointing at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting and trailed Honeysuckle by 21 lengths in the Irish Champion Hurdle recently. He was a 20-1 shot for Cheltenham’s Champion Hurdle on Monday morning, having been a quarter of those odds in the autumn.
Mullins was otherwise sanguine as he surveyed his Festival raiding party in an online press conference organised by Jockey Club Racecourses. “We’re happy with the whole team, as far as I can see. We’ve had no last-minute problems, apart from Saint Roi, that’s the only one.”
The trainer recalled feeling worried about his stable’s ability to compete after losing some big-name horses from his stable last summer. “I was as astounded as anyone else when I read in the paper that we had 13 or 14 favourites for Cheltenham. For this to come out of where I thought we were in the autumn … If half of it comes off, it’ll be a brilliant Cheltenham.”
Asked what was the key to his continued dominance of jump racing, Mullins said: “To tell you the truth, I’m wondering myself. I think recruitment must be the key. I’m always searching and looking.
“At the moment, I’m looking for horses that are going to be racing for me in two years’ time. We’re always on the lookout for young horses and that’s instrumental in building a base. Of course, you need the people to give you the money to invest in nice bloodstock. We’re very lucky to have that and it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s hard for younger trainers to come in and expect to compete.”
Mullins has every reason to hope Al Boum Photo can emulate Arkle and Best Mate in winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup for a third time. “We think he’s in a good position. I’ve been happy with what I’m seeing. We don’t have any negatives at this point.
“It would be extraordinary if it happened. We were dreaming for years of winning a Gold Cup and two years ago, I’d given up the dream. I didn’t think I was gonna win one and now here we are on the brink of having a horse win three, having another Best Mate, another Arkle. It’s unbelievable, that’s what it is.
“He’s easy to train. When you see him in a field of horses, he’s unremarkable. You wouldn’t notice him. He’s an ordinary Joe.”
Al Boum Photo may be the yard’s only runner in the Gold Cup, as Mullins is mulling alternative targets for both Kemboy, who could try the Stayers Hurdle, and Melon, who could join Allaho and Min in the Ryanair. “There’s some bits of work to do. Who knows what’s going to happen.”
Despite the absence of Saint Roi, Mullins could still have strong representation in the Champion Hurdle, through Sharjah, Saldier and an interesting dark horse from France, James Du Berlais. Bought as a novice chaser for next season, he could turn up in the two-mile championship “for something to do”.
“We’ve been watching him in France for the last 18 months and trying to buy him. He jumps, he stays, he’s got everything you’d want. He can be a tough ride, from what I can remember. We’ll be asking him questions over the next fortnight that we haven’t asked him before, so we’ll learn a lot more about him. It’s not the end of the world if he disappoints because he wasn’t bought with this in mind.”