Cheltenham braced for the arrival of the Willie Mullins battalion

No other trainer has ever brought as powerful a team to National Hunt’s top festival

Willie Mullins at the gallops at his Closutton headquarters in Carlow. He will bring a formidable 50-strong team to Cheltenham. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

The scale of Willie Mullins’s overarching influence at Cheltenham next week can be gauged in any number of statistical permutations, but few have put it more succinctly than the racing hack recently left maddened at not being able to come up with a story not involving Ireland’s champion trainer.

“Everything’s Willie,” he despaired. “It’s like Fifty f***ing Shades!”

That priapic nightmare aside, there is no getting away from how so much of the 2015 festival does indeed revolve around the 50-strong string of horses Mullins is sending. It’s the largest team any trainer has ever sent to National Hunt racing’s greatest festival and the strongest in depth. Clearly they all can’t win, but what’s remarkable is that rare is the one that can be dismissed as a no-hoper.

Among the team is Tuesday’s red-hot Champion Hurdle favourite Faugheen, an unbeaten star still in possession of a level of potential so daunting that Ruby Walsh’s dilemma in deciding between him and the great veteran Hurricane Fly is widely dismissed as merely theoretical.


On the first day alone, all four Grade One races have a Mullins favourite. Douvan carries a daunting reputation into the Supreme Novices Hurdle: the charismatic mare Annie Power possesses the dreaded 'banker' status that her predecessor Quevega carried with such aplomb in the OLBG Mares Hurdle and Un De Sceaux is so short for the Arkle he has turned into a classic 'bar a fall' certainty.

Later in the week comes the sort of ammunition that makes one bookmaker’s offer of just 16-1 about Mullins training ten or more festival winners hardly seem the most outlandish of Cheltenham predictions. He is 1-5 to be leading trainer again and Nicky Henderson’s landmark tally of seven winners in 2012 looks under serious threat.

However it’s Cheltenham’s charm as well as its challenge that all predictions, even those of unprecedented level of dominance by a dominant individual, ultimately get proven or disproved by a simple winning post stuck in the midst of that great teeming ocean of hope and delusion, happiness and despair.

Inferior opposition

Cheltenham divines the real from the bogus with cold windswept detachment and there remains an underlying sense in Britain that some of Mullins’s star performers – particularly the novices around which so much is speculated – have been beating up inferior opposition at home in classic flat-track bully style and may yet be found out by jump racing’s ultimate cauldron.

Next week will settle everything but what’s already undisputed, even amongst the Anglo-Irish rivalry that so defines much of it, is that no trainer has ever brought as powerful a team to the festival as Mullins, a reflection of the unique position the 58-year-old now occupies on both sides of the Irish Sea.

From 1964 to 1966 Tom Dreaper brought the unparalleled pair of Arkle and Flyingbolt to Cheltenham but had no aspirations towards the combination of quality and quantity that Mullins possesses. Even the most successful festival trainer of all, Henderson, has never been represented in such numbers on his home-patch.

Over the years Mullins has emphasised how Irish horses are very much the ‘away-team’ at Cheltenham with the slight margins that often determine success in favour of those who don’t have to travel so far. And yet from his Closutton base in Carlow he continues to realign jump racing’s parameters no matter where they are.

No one, not even Vincent O'Brien nor Aidan O'Brien, has dominated jump racing in Ireland to the extent Mullins now does. He has trained almost twice as many winners as his nearest rival in the trainer's table, Gordon Elliott, winning more than twice the prizemoney, with a staggering strike rate just shy of 40 per cent.

It is revolutionary stuff in a sport which for so long prided itself on an egalitarian spirit that was probably more imaginary than real but which nevertheless has now been firmly consigned to history.

"When I was growing up Vincent O'Brien dominated the flat and brought it to a new level. Then Martin Pipe brought it to a new level over jumps," says the Gold Cup winning trainer Tom Taaffe. "Now, Willie is bringing it to a new level again."

It can be a near-oppressive dominance sometimes, particularly during the winter when even mundane midweek meetings are dominated by expensively-purchased Mullins-trained horses carrying the colours of wealthy owners such as the colourful American banker Rich Ricci and the Ryanair boss, Michael O'Leary.

Professional envy in the circumstances is inevitable. What stands out though is the comparative lack of personal gripe in what is such a notoriously bitchy industry. Mullins is invariably still referred to as “Willie”, a first name familiarity throughout all strata of the sport, even as his ambition and reach becomes ever greater – Napoleonic, but without the megalomania!

A notably articulate and accessible individual, the general amiability is no act. Even recent sympathetic comments about economically pressed colleagues juxtaposing with calls for more prizemoney for the top races didn’t result in the sort of virulent flak it might have been expected to.

After all Mullins personifies jump racing’s recent phenomenon of a concentration of equine talent amongst a small but select group of both owners and trainers. The champion trainer’s concern for colleagues was sincere but simultaneously pointing out the eye-watering cost of running his operation would have had other industry behemoths looking for cover.

Anabolic steroid

A former chairman of the

Trainers Association

, Mullins is well known however for an overview often lacking amongst others in his profession, and an even rarer willingness to express an opinion.

On the run-in to Cheltenham last year the inevitable focus was on the anabolic steroid controversy surrounding Philip Fenton, during which several of Fenton's owners had decisions to make on whether or not to let their horses run at the festival.

Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown Stud pursued an 'innocent until guilty' line. Barry Connell however said his horses with Fenton would be taken out and not run until the matter was resolved. Mullins trains for O'Leary but not Connell. Yet he said he hugely admired Connell's stance. That noses closer to home weren't put out of joint testifies to Mullins's political as well as training skills. But he learned early from his father Paddy that handling owners can often be trickier than training their horses.

Paddy Mullins, the six-time champion trainer of the legendary Dawn Run, retired a decade ago after a 52-year career that saw him become the patriarch of a racing dynasty. By then his eldest son had been training for 17 years already with a first Cheltenham winner – Tourist Attraction in 1995 – under his belt.

Amazing run

“People forget Willie was a good trainer before this amazing run started in the last six or seven years, when he only had moderate horses,” Taaffe says. “And once he got the financial firepower he still had to buy the right type of horse.”

Trying to pinpoint a single magic element to a run of success which, up to and since his father’s death in 2011, has seen Mullins tower over his opposition to an unprecedented degree is impossible. His yard for instance has been described as “basic,” possessed more of a working farm atmosphere than any secluded Ballydoyle aura.

"There's no 'type' of horse he looks for," says bloodstock agent, Gerry Hogan. "They're usually good individuals with size and scope, whether he buys them in France or in point-to-points here. But there's no exact 'type'."

His greatest star, Hurricane Fly, is hardly from the strapping National Hunt norm, a small ball of neurotic flat-bred energy that has been moulded into one of the great jumpers in modern times. Quevega, the only horse to win six years running at Cheltenham, was a madam of a mare whose diminutive frame needed a lot less care than her mind did.

It is inconvenient details like that which refuse to conform to theories that Mullins's greatest skill might be as a consummate PR-merchant able to mould the egos of rich men such as Ricci and O'Leary, or JP McManus and Graham Wylie, around his wishes, and getting them to pay significant six-figure sums for the best young talent.

Success breeds success: Mullins was impressive enough for Ricci & Co to back him in the first place. But there’s also no ignoring how the financial firepower the Irishman now wields has transported that success to another level again.

"He's a very fine trainer and the cream does usually rise to the top. But it is also a numbers game," says one racing professional who preferred to speak anonymously. "Noel Meade was supposed to be gone there for a while simply because he didn't have the owners to compete. But he didn't become a bad trainer overnight. What Willie has now is the money to go out and buy the best, both in France and in Ireland. And basically, if you throw enough you-know-what, enough of it will stick."

It’s an argument which presumes that of all the ingredients at Mullins’s yard it is Rich Ricci’s money which is the most important; something which in turn presumes it is just about the money, a presumption that has turned a lot of very rich owners into mere rich owners in the past. Ultimately what horse the money gets spent on comes down to Mullins’s judgement. And that judgement is not confined to horses.

Took time

“What struck me about Willie was he didn’t treat me like a mug with some money,” Ricci recalled of their first meeting. “He was very patient, thoughtful, couldn’t be more helpful, took time to explain things.”

Significantly the American has also confined his ownership to Mullins, encouraged by the presence of behind the scenes characters such as buyers Harold Kirk and Pierre Boularad in France, not to mention Ruby Walsh as stable jockey, as well as Mullins's wife Jackie and their son Patrick, the champion amateur rider, both of whom are mainstays of the operation.

“None of it happened by accident, the yard, the staff, the owners, the horses; they were put together by Willie. It isn’t rocket science, but the key is he polices it all so well,” says Tom Taaffe who suspects it is this strength in depth that could prove crucial next week.

“Cheltenham is where everything and everyone is revved to the last so strange things can happen there. Willie has a lot of favourites but what he has in his favour are other runners in those races too with chances. We’ve seen this season it isn’t always the No. 1 of his that wins: outsiders have won big races too. He’s going there with a battalion and you can’t really rule any of them out,” he adds.

Cheltenham calling: Six of the best Willie Mullins hopes


Stan James Champion Hurdle

Tuesday, 3.20

Unbeaten winner of last year’s Neptune at Cheltenham and a revelation this season, winning twice, including a sparkling Christmas Hurdle victory at Kempton over two miles.A red-hot favourite to put even his legendary stable companion Hurricane Fly in the shade.

Un De Sceaux

Racing Post Arkle ,

Tuesday, 2.05

A galloping advertisement to his trainer’s patience: looked a genuine Champion Hurdle contender last season but wound up running in Grade One company for the first time only in January. His spectacular defeat of Clarcam and Gilgamboa makes him virtually unbackable for all bar the biggest of big hitters.

Annie Power

OLBG Hurdle

Tuesday, 4.0

Beaten just once in a dozen starts, the mare has yet to race this season but that didn’t stop her former stable companion Quevega winning this race six years running at the festival. A true Grade One performer up against Grade Two opposition; if she’s anyway right Annie Power should outclass her opposition. And the vibes are positive.


Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle

Tuesday, 1.30

Very similar profile to last year’s Supreme hero Vautour and looked a potential superstar when outspeeding stayers at Punchestown in January. There’s no knowing how good the French recruit could be although it’s worth recalling Ruby Walsh’s comments about him being even better next season.

Don Poli

RSA Chase

Wednesday, 2.05

Not assured of running in the Grade One championship event for novice stayers but surely has a leading chance if he does line up over three miles rather than the four of the National Hunt Chase. Beat Apache Stronghold by three lengths at Christmas and the latter has won a Grade One since.


Betfred Gold Cup

Friday, 3.20

Mullins has finished runner-up four times in the Gold Cup including last year’s controversial finish. The runner-up On His Own is back again but Djakadam looks the in-form Mullins hope on the back of an impressive Thyestes win. In a wide-open Gold Cup he looks the big improver. And his trainer wants this prize more than any other.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

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