Popular jumping legend prepares to fight over every blade of festival grass - with the minimum of fuss
Trainer Willie Mullins with his string at last Sunday's pre-Cheltenham schooling after racing at Leopardstown racecourse. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
The man with the Midas touch is following in a rich family tradition
This weekend Willie Mullins faces the logistical headache of starting to transport almost 40 horses to Cheltenham for the National Hunt festival which begins on Tuesday. At any one time during his legendary career, Tom Dreaper never had 40 horses in his entire stable. That one of them was the peerless Arkle helped Dreaper become Ireland’s most successful ever trainer at the festival. That is until now.
If Mullins gets three winners next week, he will overhaul Dreaper’s tally of 26, secured between 1946 and 1971. And if he doesn’t get more than three, thousands of Irish punters making the annual pilgrimage to the Cotswolds are going to come home a lot poorer.
Ordinarily, such presumption has a habit of coming down on its arse at the final fence. But Cheltenham 2013 is already witnessing something extraordinary when it comes to the Anglo-Irish rivalry that defines this festival.
Never before have Irish hopes been invested so heavily in one man. It might not do to get all “Mise Éire” about Mullins but all the same, hanging an Ó Riada soundtrack around Ireland’s champion trainer wouldn’t be the most outlandish thing to happen next week. Simply put, if Ireland is to have a successful festival, Mullins has to have success.
Last year a similar load was placed on the smiling 56-year-old’s shoulders. And it didn’t quite work out. Rarely if ever can a trainer have saddled three festival winners and left Prestbury Park with a feeling of anti-climax but that was Mullins’s lot last year. His horses weren’t sick. But they weren’t pitch-perfect either. And it’s on such tiny margins that success and failure swings. Thus the record 2011 Irish tally of 13 winners dropped to five.
Nobody else had the fire-power to pick up the slack. And everyone appears to be even more out-gunned this time.
It’s hard to quantify precisely the dominance Mullins exerts over Irish National Hunt racing because he is in uncharted territory. Statistically, it’s easy.
A couple of weeks ago, he surpassed Aidan O’Brien’s near 20-year record for the number of winners trained in an Irish season – and did it with nearly three months to spare. Mullins’s tally is more than his four closest rivals in the table combined. His prize-money total is approaching €3 million. But it’s the depth of quality behind such quantity that’s different.
Mullins rarely raids outside home ground until Cheltenham and of the 19 Grade One races run in Ireland so far this season, he has won 11. Of the others, his British contemporary, Paul Nicholls, has won two and Jessica Harrington’s Jezki has notched two others. According to the bookmakers, Jezki is the principal Irish hope in the festival opener. Sizing Europe flies the flag in the Champion Chase. But in Grade One terms, apart from them, it’s pretty much a Mullins solo-show.
Hurricane Fly is favourite to regain his Champion Hurdle crown on Tuesday. Sir Des Champs is second favourite for Friday’s Gold Cup. Quevega is chasing a festival five-in-a-row that only Golden Miller has achieved before and Point Alexandre’s reputation as racing’s potential “next big thing” could be copper-fastened by victory on Wednesday. And they’re just the headline acts.
“Willie’s got horses for every race for the simple reason nobody’s got the numbers he has,” says Mick O’Toole, a mainstay Irish trainer at Cheltenham during the 1970s and 1980s. “I’d say the most old Tom Dreaper had in his yard at any time was about 40 horses. Willie has that going over there!”
In fact Dreaper didn’t even have 40 during the halcyon days of the 1960s when fan-mail addressed to “Arkle, Ireland” was sent from around the world to the famous Kilsallaghan yard in Co Dublin – and always arrived.