Willie Mullins gearing up for Christmas with the usual strong hand
The champion trainer has plentyof options for Leopardstown festival
Trainer Willie Mullins with Hurricane Fly at his yard, at Closutton, Co Carlow, during a stable visit to announced the entries for the seven Grade One races at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
To plug Leopardstown’s Christmas festival, Willie Mullins paraded 30 horses at his Co Carlow stables yesterday. And if the champion trainer needed reassurance that everything in his world is rosy, it came from how the 30 stars were out-numbered by the media throng. Cue satisfied grins from the PR bods.
It mightn’t do for the “morkoting” brigade to get too satisfied though. Dangling an audience with jump racing’s dominant figure in front of a hungry hack-pack is a bit like dangling meat over a crocodile-pen: you know you’re going to get a bite.
One ungracious visitor rather sniffily predicted a host of “Wonder Of Willie” headlines today but even that priapic vision can’t impinge on the wonder that surrounds Mullins’s unprecedented dominance right now.
When the racecourse commentator refers to Mullins having his “daily hat-trick”, you know you’re dealing with something singular. Only Aidan O’Brien, backed by the Coolmore behemoth, can know what it feels like to be so on top that winning nearly half the races on a card becomes de-rigeur.
But even the champion flat trainer doesn’t cast as all-enveloping a shadow over his competition as Mullins does. And it’s not like the flat hasn’t seen overwhelming dominance before. Vincent O’Brien and Paddy Prendergast remain legendary figures. But Ireland’s National Hunt scene has seen nothing like Mullins. Already this season he has passed the €1 million in prizemoney, saddling 88 winners, miles clear of his nearest rival. And he said yesterday that this has been a slow start to the season.
So hanging the release of pre-entries in Leopardstown’s seven Christmas Grade One races on the man who statistically is likely to gobble up most of them can’t have kept the PR bods up too late at night.
Cameras and microphones
If Hurricane Fly, Sir Des Champs, Champagne Fever, Annie Power and the others looked a little askance at the cameras and microphones on their home patch yesterday, Mullins was characteristically smooth in welcoming the invasion.
“The fact you’re here means we have good horses,” he said, before referencing the owners of the horses that already make the trainer odds-on to be the leading trainer at Cheltenham in March.
It goes without saying that with Leopardstown, and its €1.1 million in Christmas prizemoney, there’s no betting. “We’re very lucky to have owners investing in these horses and allowing us to train them,” Mullins added.
Which is all very well, except that putting a horse in a particular yard is no ‘chicken and egg’ question: expensive horses bring success but those expensive horses usually end up in yards that are already successful. It is 25 years since Mullins first started training, starting off on land in Closutton that was basically just that – land.
Now it’s unrecognisable, both in terms of what it was, and in terms of what Mullins’s competition now have to aspire to just to compete with him.
There was something “Ballydoylesque” about how Hurricane Fly led his stable-mates around the assortment of all-weather warm-up areas and gallops that weave and intertwine with a Clapham Junction type efficiency, putting to bed any old romantic idea of a farmer keeping the next superstar in a boggy field out the back.
Instead Mullins admits one of his biggest headaches is keeping his horses apart, a problem that’s likely to lead to much more pre-Cheltenham raids on the UK just to find suitable opportunities.
Annie Power’s victory at Ascot last month was the first of what’s likely to be many raids across the Irish Sea during the winter, although not many are likely to equal the impression she left there.
Couple of mistakes
“I was hugely impressed by her. It was her first time travelling, she’s still basically a novice, she was up against a triple Grade One winner in Zarkandar, and she made a couple of mistakes which made me think ‘game over-ball burst.’ But with the ability she has, she still won,” Mullins considered admiringly as Annie Power sat second only to Hurricane Fly as the line of 30 cantered into the distance.
It goes without saying that Hurricane Fly was at the head. Temperament and a wish for the dual Champion Hurdle winner to get the best of the surface means he always leads the most powerful string in Ireland. But who knows: the horse to relieve him of the Champion Hurdle title might have been just behind him.
Any clash between the pair won’t come until Cheltenham. The Fly will run at Leopardstown. Annie Power might, but in a different race.
The one sure-fire Christmas winner though is betting on their trainer, a fact that hardly needs plugging.