Willie Mullins in uniquely dominant position as he pursues century of Cheltenham Festival winners

Irish trainer needs just six more victories to reach landmark 100 at biggest meeting of the year

A perfect bit of Cheltenham synchronicity would be if Willie Mullins secured his landmark century of festival winners through Galopin Des Champs in Friday’s 100th anniversary Gold Cup. The only problem is the likelihood of such a neat coincidence is likely to be scuppered long before Friday.

Even by his own stellar standards, Mullins is in a uniquely dominant position going into the biggest week of the racing year. A team of up to 80 runners include the likely favourites for 13 of the 28 races up for grabs.

If Galopin is hot favourite to successfully defend his Gold Cup, his odds are positively tepid in comparison to Tuesday’s Unibet Champion Hurdle favourite State Man and El Fabiolo is almost as short in betting for the festival’s other ‘Triple Crown’ contest, the Champion Chase.

Novices such as Ballyburn and Fact To File will put stratospheric reputations to the test on Wednesday while Lossiemouth rivals State Man as a Tuesday ‘banker’ in the Close Bros Mares Hurdle.


They are part of a 20-strong Mullins team on Day One of the festival with their trainer as short as 6-4 to beat his record of 2022 record of 10 winners in a single week.

As for Cheltenham’s Anglo-Irish rivalry, the fact Mullins is 4-6 to outscore the home team on his own underlines how past tense it seems.

Not for nothing are some predicting a new standard in festival ‘greenwash’ with 2021′s record haul of 23 Irish-trained winners under threat. It is a position that even a decade ago seemed all but impossible although in any ‘Team Ireland’ context it is Mullins who is captain, coach, chairman and undisputed champion.

Gordon Elliott’s back-to-back leading festival trainer awards in 2017-18 might once have suggested a changing of the guard but that has been firmly scotched since.

Elliott goes into this festival needing just three winners to equal the 40 victories legendary Englishman Fulke Walwyn took four decades to accomplish. Elliott’s first was in 2011.

It is a remarkable accomplishment by a figure who in any other era would be overwhelmingly dominant himself. He has 10 runners on Tuesday, including, perhaps, the main threat to State Man in Irish Point. But Mullins has double that. Some firms have Mullins runners as favourites for six of the seven races on Tuesday. There are a similar number in store for Wednesday.

To his opposition, much of this week shapes as being an exercise in pushing water uphill.

As if circumstances weren’t in his favour enough, Mullins’s main cross-channel rival Nicky Henderson is arriving at the festival with his string under a cloud. If they haven’t been performing disastrously in recent weeks, they still haven’t been exuding the sort of rampant brio that has seen Mullins’s team register a 41 per cent success rate in the same period.

Constitution Hill’s absence from the Champion Hurdle has robbed Henderson, and the home team generally, of a rare ‘banker’.

The task in front of them is underlined by how champion trainer Paul Nicholls, Mullins’s British contemporary, has just a single starter on Tuesday. Nicholls needs a couple of winners to reach his festival landmark of 50. Even that feat struggles for light in Mullins’s shadow.

Admittedly, there’s nothing like the Cheltenham Festival to punish presumption. Henderson’s team might bloom at the perfect time. The Englishman is a maestro in his own right with 73 festival successes putting him second in the all-time table. Mullins might suffer a dip. But on all evidence, it’s hardly a likely scenario to bet the bank on.

Whether such overwhelming dominance is healthy for the sport will no doubt be thrashed out over the coming days.

Since much of the festival’s appeal from an Irish perspective has always been taking on the Brits on their home patch, and mostly from a position of underdog, such a lopsided nature to the flag-waving exercise has required ongoing adjustment. There’s just about enough novelty left to allow plenty to enjoy the likely rout. But it is surely in no one’s interests it sustains into the future.

JP McManus’s record 73 festival successes as an owner have straddled the Irish Sea divide in terms of where they’ve been trained. They even include a trio from France. Such a spread reflects jump racing’s interdependent ecosystem. It’s 35 years since Ireland famously drew an embarrassing blank at Cheltenham. That wasn’t good for the festival then and the same applies now.

McManus’s famed silks will be on board Henderson’s Jeriko Du Reponent and Mystical Power, one of Mullins’s half-dozen hopes in the festival opener, the Sky Bet Supreme Novice Hurdle.

That Mystical Power, a regally-bred son of Galileo and Annie Power, is owned in partnership with John Magnier and Rich Ricci smacks of the festival’s increasing exclusivity. Fairytale winners were always an anomaly but are increasingly rare exceptions to the old rule that financial clout usually wins out.

Ricci should score with Lossiemouth although his Gaelic Warrior looks a poor fit for the Arkle, given he likes to jump to his right. Stable companion Hunter’s Yarn might take advantage of that quirk. Corbetts Cross’ own foibles include having run out at last year’s festival, something that doesn’t boost his chances of beating Embassy Gardens in the finale.

That is the marathon National Hunt Chase, run this year in memory of the late Maureen Mullins who died last month aged 94. Victory for her son and grandson would be only apt in the circumstances of this Cheltenham.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column