Mullins targets Cheltenham with a different sort of festival team

Uncertainty has plagued some of champion trainer’s prominent stars this season

Willie Mullins: “Gordon has the better bankers this year. Samcro [Ballymore] looks an Irish banker. But what can you do. We have to make our own plans.”   Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA

Willie Mullins: “Gordon has the better bankers this year. Samcro [Ballymore] looks an Irish banker. But what can you do. We have to make our own plans.” Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA

 

A record career haul of 54 Cheltenham winners is ultimate proof of Willie Mullins’s eye for fitness and it’s not confined to horses.

Ruby Walsh, his ally for so many of those festival victories, has his Cheltenham clock ticking to a tee once again and is set to return from a broken leg in time for the start of jump racing’s greatest extravaganza in two weeks.

“He hasn’t ridden out here yet but he’s coming in and enjoying the horses’ preparation. The other day Stormy Ireland got loose and Ruby took off like Usain Bolt after her. He looks very fit and happy in himself.

“I imagine he will ride before Cheltenham. I like him going to Cheltenham fresh, but maybe not that fresh – he’s well able to gallop anyway!” joked Ireland’s most successful ever festival trainer on Monday.

The champion jockey skipped a freezing morning on the gallops interrupted by festival promotion and a media posse pretending to be able to gauge the fitness of some of the biggest squad of Irish horses going to Cheltenham.

With a fortnight to go, and even to an untutored eye, physical wellbeing was reassuringly abundant considering some of the uncertainty that has plagued some of Mullins’s stalwart stars this season.

Douvan hasn’t run since Cheltenham 2017 but looked hard-fit as he trailed another dual-festival winner Un De Sceaux who took his customary role at the head of 40 horses pounding the gallops.

A retrieval mission in the Queen Mother Champion Chase remains Douvan’s objective where he and his stable companion, Min, will attempt to topple the odds-on Altior.

Faugheen’s turbulent season could yet be retrieved if he can reclaim the Champion Hurdle crown and he looked perfectly at peace with the world on Monday, a few places behind the enigmatic Yorkhill, the latter rated as “60-40” to join him in the Champion Hurdle line-up rather than Un De Sceaux in the Ryanair.

With a trio of valid if hardly stand-out shots at trying to finally secure that elusive first Gold Cup victory after half a dozen runner-up placings, Mullins agreed it’s a different sort of festival team this year.

“We have some great chances but we don’t have as many short ones as we used to. When we had Vautour, Annie Power, Douvan at his best, Faugheen at his best, we had some extraordinary horses. And that we had them at the one time was extraordinary as well,” he said.

Big race

Douvan continues to do “everything right” in his comeback but it was easy to spot a certain wistfulness in Mullins’s comments about Faugheen. His three races to date this season began with brilliance, then disaster when pulled up at Christmas, followed by a better run in the Irish Champion Hurdle that was still a long way short of his pomp.

“I still think he can be competitive [at Cheltenham] and he might not need to be as good as he once was,” Mullins said.

“I always take the view if a horse can win a big race then enjoy it. If they can come back and do it again, that’s a bonus. Not many have the willpower and the stamina to keep coming back year after year,” Mullins added.

As a rebuttal to any suggestion of Faugheen being a champion on the fade it hardly smacked of conviction.

However Ireland’s champion trainer insisted a lot can change in a fortnight and anyway he is able to console himself with emerging talent such as Next Destination (Ballymore Hurdle,) Getabird (Supreme) and Laurina (Mares Novice Hurdle) that will make up much of his near 50- strong raiding party.

The numbers are as hefty as they’ve ever been during a decade which has seen him secure unprecedented levels of festival success. The difference this time is that his great rival Gordon Elliott relieved him of the festival’s leading trainer award in 2017.

If the short head verdict that separated the placed pair Mega Fortune and Bapaume in the Triumph Hurdle were reversed it would have been Mullins that kept the prize on countback. Either way the closeness of the call only emphasised the continual competition between Ireland’s two dominant trainers.

“Gordon has the better bankers this year,” Mullins declared. “Samcro (Ballymore) looks an Irish banker. But what can you do. We have to make our own plans. We have to get there and horses have a habit of letting you down – not putting pressure on Gordon!”

That rivalry propelled the Irish raiders to a record 19 festival winners last season. It is 22 years since Mullins first trained a winner at Cheltenham. It is 36 since he first rode a winner there. In that time a lot has changed, not least Irish expectations. What’s constant though is the festival’s central importance to the sport.

“It’s amazing how popular jump racing is getting and I’m sure Cheltenham drives that.  It’s got its own perch in the middle of March, midweek, all the TV news channels focus on it, and you see what it means,” he said.

It will mean as much as ever in two weeks’ time.

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