It’s all about the horses as Cheltenham Festival kicks off
George Mullins expects to deposit about 55 horses to Cheltenham and then return them
Willie Mullins during a visit to stables in Closutton, Co Carlow, where his brother George runs an equine transport business. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
For champion trainer Willie Mullins, who has saddled an incredible 54 Cheltenham Festival wins, the solution to the problem of how to move the horses safely across the Irish Sea and on to temporary lodgings at the racecourse is right on his doorstep.
His brother George runs an equine transport business from Closutton, Co Carlow, and has a fleet of lorries shuttling between Dublin and Holyhead. With several hundred horses coming at the same time, and only so many horse boxes around, this is no mean feat.
When the four-day Cheltenham Festival begins this afternoon, many thousands of racegoers will have made the annual journey to Gloucestershire eager to see a repeat of the record 19 Irish-trained winners from 28 events.
But it’s the horses’ comfort that will be foremost in the minds of trainers.
George Mullins also assists the likes of Henry de Bromhead, Mouse Morris and Ted Walsh with their runners and expects to deposit and return about 55 horses to Cheltenham. Some 30 Irish-trained representatives are confirmed for day one of the card and more than 40 tomorrow.
Missed the cut
Such is the competition for starting places in some of the heats that it is often the case that horses arrive in good time to settle in for a few days, only to have missed the cut and wasted their journey.
“The first lot leave on Saturday morning, then Saturday afternoon, some that evening, and so on until Tuesday,” he says.
“A lot of them will drop off and go straight back, but it’s only four hours from the ferry the other side so the journey isn’t too bad. It’s easy enough – I’ve been doing it for a long time.
“Some of the lorries will take 12, but they divide into sections and you would usually want to give them plenty of room, so it might be more like six or seven in each.”
Faugheen, who attempts to regain this afternoon’s Champion Hurdle, is one of the greats to have voyaged in a George Mullins tanker along with many six-figure purchases representing the ambitions of powerful owners at the one jumps meeting of the year that truly counts.
Yet the nature of international horse trading means Cheltenham week brings no more responsibility than any other in the transport business.
“There’d have been some good ones in there, but a lot of them will go there a lot more valuable than they are when they come back!” says Mullins, whose vehicles are equipped with closed-circuit television, satellite tracking and temperature control.
“Just the other week we had a lorry coming back from the sales, and there was over a million euro worth of horses in there. That’s pressure. If a horse gets injured in someone’s box, that’s their problem, but when it’s in one of yours there’s trouble.”
Horses have passports listing their markings and are subject to raceday microchip vetting, yet mistakes can happen in a busy yard.
“You’ll have horses forgotten – sometimes you’ll have someone saying ‘this one’s over here, but he’s been left behind!’’ he explains. “Something will happen every year but luckily we have a two-stall box over here which can go and get them if there’s an emergency.”
George remains on the ground during the week, rather than in the cab, managing to watch every race. One would guess, given his family connections, he would have the inside line on their chances.
“Laurina in the mares’ race, she looks pretty good. And there’s Getabird in the Supreme,” he says. “You forget a few of them. I know Willie would like to win the Gold Cup after all those second places. He’ll live if he doesn’t, I imagine, but he has a few in there.”
Irish-trained horses took three of the four main events last year with Special Tiara winning the Champion Chase, Nichols Canyon the Stayers’ Hurdle and Sizing John the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Only the former is returning to defend his title and British horses head the betting in each of the features but bookmakers still anticipate Ireland dominating overall again, offering odds of 4-6 in the Prestbury Cup, a novelty Anglo-Irish competition across the races.