What could Willie Mullins relish more on a bank holiday Monday morning after celebrating a record eight Dublin Racing Festival (DRF) winners than to be faced with a platoon of media types?
Since the answer is “practically anything”, perhaps the Jockey Club get only partial allowances for not twigging the significance of the first St Brigid’s weekend bank holiday. But the Cheltenham festival is just five weeks away, so here we are.
“Welcome, I hope you’re all feeling better than I am!” joked the centre of attention gamely.
The “Sunday hours” atmosphere extended to light exercise by some of Leopardstown’s weekend stars as the truism about the only important race being the next one got stamped all over proceedings.
Even with Leopardstown still in the rear-view mirror, Mullins’s status as festival fulcrum ensured the Cheltenham countdown began almost immediately on his patch.
His haul of 88 Cheltenham winners is more than anyone else ever — including an unprecedented five on a single day last year to bring his total that week to a record 10 — and he admits he may be about to bring his best team to date to this year’s meeting.
DRF evidence backs it up. Galopin Des Champs is Gold Cup favourite after his victory on Saturday while State Man’s victory a day later cemented his status as the biggest threat to England’s apparent near-paragon Champion Hurdle favourite, Constitution Hill.
However, it was four other Grade One DRF victories for stable second strings that underlined Mullins’s strength in depth. Half of the ante-post favourites for Cheltenham’s 28 races are housed in Closutton. If the Jockey Club were quick off the mark, they were hardly off it in terms of news value.
Another unfortunate truism though is that bad news sells better than good and so Mullins wasn’t just quizzed on the weekend’s winners but also his rather public ticking off at the weekend of Paul Townend.
The champion jockey’s nightmare run on one odds-on favourite, Lossiemouth, was followed a day later by getting his pace fractions wrong on another, Facile Vega, who wound up finishing last. Mullins’s blunt view on that was Townend mistook Facile Vega for a machine, not a racehorse.
Inevitably social media was afire with speculation, including references to there being no such public rebukes of Townend’s predecessor, Ruby Walsh, back in the day. But Mullins poured cold water over it on Monday.
“To me it [Facile Vega] was just a tactic that went wrong,” he said, pointing to how the Lossiemouth experience may have influenced Townend’s determination to get to the front on Facile Vega.
“I let Paul do what he wants to do. That’s normally the way we work things; disappointed to be beaten but it’s not a condemnation of Paul’s riding ability. It’s just a decision he made on the way that didn’t work out.
“It’s part of the job. We all learn from it. Hopefully, it will make the horse better down the road. I didn’t go to bed last night thinking ‘that can’t happen again’. It just happens and we move on to the next race and get the next tactics right … Paul gets things right 99 per cent of the time. He knows himself nothing is ever going to go 100 per cent, and I know that.”
Mullins sees interpreting his jockey’s decisions as part of the job: what isn’t is use of the whip, always an incendiary issue rejuvenated by rule changes introduced by the British Horseracing Authority that once again threaten to cast a pall over the approach to Cheltenham.
“I don’t do whip rules, that’s jockey’s business — if they lose races that will be my business then!” he said.
New regulations in relation to the whip such as penalties for use over shoulder height will be new to most Irish jockeys going to Cheltenham and on Monday Mullins’s initial reluctance to comment quickly faded in the face of frustration.
“Why do they always bring up this before Cheltenham? It should be done after Cheltenham in the off-season. It’s like bringing in new rules for the semi-final and quarter-final of the World Cup. It’s a ‘shooting yourself in the foot’ job.
“They’re highlighting the whole thing for the wrong reasons. That should be done off-season like any other sport, introduce it at the start of a new season, trial it somewhere if you want,” he said.
Part of that frustration is that the coming five weeks are stressful enough anyway without needless worries rearing up.
Getting quizzed about whether or not he can beat last year’s record haul of 10 winners — and reach the magic 100 mark overall — produced an almost audible wince.
“People expect us to have winners at Cheltenham: we never go there expecting, we go there hoping, and it’s a relief if one of them wins. You forget until you go back to Cheltenham every year how every inch of ground is fought for. Normally you’re running around the whole year, if you see a maiden hurdle or a novice chase there may be 10 runners, only three of them can win it, and the three of those are against one another. Whereas when you go down to the start at Cheltenham, there’s 20-25 runners and every one of them think they have a chance.
“They jump off and want to get that second or third position on the rails or just off it and they’re fighting and jockeying for position for the first couple of furlongs and it’s just so immense compared to what your normal day-to-day racing is.
“So, there’s absolutely no ‘given’ over there. That’s what makes it special and what makes it hard to win there. I’m always amazed how tough the competition is every year,” Mullins said.
Cross-channel competition will be headed by Constitution Hill who has already earned comparison with some of hurdling’s greats after just a handful of races.
“He looks the complete package. He’s got speed, he can jump, he stays, he’s going to be very tough to beat,” Mullins admitted, although his readiness to take him on with State Man is noticeable.
As for enjoying the whole experience himself, he has mixed views.
“I enjoy Cheltenham for what it is. But I don’t enjoy the anxiety,” he said.
“When you’re looking after the team we bring over, and we’ll have lots of disappointments, it’s hard for me to enjoy. But the week after we might enjoy it, if it’s been successful. If not, then then we’ll have to just suck it up and come home and prepare for the following year,” he added.
When presumably St Brigids Day will have got enough traction to allow lie-ins.