Willie Mullins has big Cheltenham hand despite turbulent time
Champion trainer insists he has forgotten about last year's split with Michael O’Leary
Trainer Willie Mullins with Douvan at his stables at Closutton, Co Carlow. Photograph: PA Wire
It might make for an unlikely “underdog” story but with two weeks to Cheltenham it seems there is quite a sentimental desire out there for Willie Mullins to once again flourish on racing’s greatest stage.
Usually such sentiment is rooted in hard betting currency, and for the festival’s most dominant figure to generate public sympathy outside of that really should be illogical.
Mullins is after all odds-on to once again be the festival’s leading trainer. He has perhaps its outstanding talent in the overwhelming Champion Chase favourite Douvan. There is growing confidence that Djakadam can finally deliver that elusive Gold Cup success, and Mullins appears to be leaning towards a Champion Hurdle attempt with Limini.
The team is the envy of everyone else so, really, how “boo-hoo” a scenario can it be. He is all but certain to at least secure the two more winners which will take him to a half century of festival successes, and it’s a brave punter who will still bet against him equalling last year’s eight winners.
But if a week is a long time in politics, a year can be an eternity in racing, and the personality who has dominated Irish jump racing like no other for the last decade goes to this Cheltenham after a season like no other.
Deprived of his triple-festival winner Vautour after a fatal accident in the autumn, Mullins has his last two Champion Hurdle winners, Annie Power and Faugheen, among a list of top stars cruelly confined to the injury sidelines.
It has been a decimating run of injuries, sickening enough even for his great English rival Nicky Henderson to bemoan the fate of “poor Willie”.
And if that must be maddening, lurking underneath everything is the continuing reverberations from September’s shock split with Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud.
That clash over training fees saw 60 ex-Mullins horses dispersed among rivals, and one of them, Gordon Elliott, threatens to win Ireland’s trainers’ title this season as a result.
Sympathy or sentiment are the last things Mullins either wants or needs, but it says something that few people are enjoying any unease the 60-year-old maestro might be experiencing – albeit during a period which still generated over €3 million in prizemoney in Ireland alone – and plenty seem to be actively rooting for him.
On the ferry
Of course in any sympathy scenario it helps to have a baddie, and if you’re going to have a baddie it’s best to have a billionaire one.
It isn’t just sections of racing’s hack-pack who appear keen to assign O’Leary such a role but Mullins wasn’t playing ball, although he conceded the removal of 60 quality horses by the Ryanair boss was always going to have a major impact on his fortunes this season.
Pressed on how odd it must be, just a year after appearing to have the world at his command, only to then have a sizable chunk of his firepower removed, the trainer said: “That’s sport – Claudio Ranieri was probably thinking the same thing!”
However, when invited to speculate on how much he might enjoy getting the better of O’Leary at Cheltenham, and especially beating horses he used to train like the prime Champion Hurdle hope Petit Mouchoir, Mullins shook his head.
“I don’t think you should gloat in racing. You can be delighted to win but not because you beat someone. Because in racing they’ll end up beating you the next day.
“I’ve forgotten about that thing with Gigginstown. We knew what was going to happen when we did that [increasing training fees] so you take the consequences. It’s done. Other people can enjoy or debate it but I don’t dwell on it. I’m looking forward. If you look back in this game you’re finished.
With up to half a dozen ante-post favourites the ammunition for another successful festival, Mullins nevertheless anticipates a reduced team of about 40 horses travelling. That they include Douvan will still make him the envy of his rivals, and Cheltenham will provide temporary relief from the domestic trainers’ championship narrative and his battle with Elliott.
“We need to win the Irish National without Gordon being in the first three just to get back level so that’s the scale of the task,” anticipated Mullins, who pointed to the sheer weight of numbers his younger rival is able to call on, something he has no ambition to replicate.
“It’s not something I aspire to. We try to look for top graded horses and hope to find the investment to buy them,” he said.
That’s because, for good or bad, it’s still the case that Cheltenham’s all-consuming nature means success there is remembered long after trainers’ titles.
And somehow, despite everything this season, it’s Mullins who once again looks to have the best festival cards to play, which is hardly very “boo-hoo” at all.