Willie Mullins sends out chilling signal of Cheltenham intent
Nine wins from 15 races at the Dublin Racing Festival shows strength of trainer’s team
Trainer Willie Mullins celebrates winning the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup with Kemboy at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown on Sunday. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
With five weeks to the start of Cheltenham Willie Mullins appears to be in a uniquely dominant position, although competition fears for jump racing’s biggest festival are being downplayed.
On the back of winning nine of the 15 races at last weekend’s Dublin Racing Festival in Leopardstown, Mullins is in the remarkable situation of having clear favourites for 12 of the 28 races at Cheltenham.
The festival’s most successful ever trainer with 72 winners also has an abundance of other major chances. It leaves him as a 1-3 favourite to be crowned top handler for an eighth time next month.
Mullins’s weekend tour de force at Leopardstown sent out a chilling signal to his cross-channel rivals who also face the prospect of a massively powerful Irish team overall.
Gordon Elliott topped the Cheltenham trainer’s table twice, in 2017 and 2018, and was only denied on countback by Mullins last year when each saddled seven winners.
There were 16 Irish-trained winners overall in 2020, including the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle, who once again looks likely to head a powerful Henry de Bromhead team.
The only home-trained clear ante-post favourites for a Grade One prize at Cheltenham are Shishkin (Arkle) and Paisley Park (Stayers’ Hurdle). Betting on the Prestbury Cup sees the visitors at 1-3 to once again outscore their cross-channel rivals.
Even by his own exalted standards Mullins looks set to attack Cheltenham 2021 in overwhelming strength, although it is those numbers which could prove vital to maintaining competitive levels at the festival.
“I still think it is going to be competitive because Willie Mullins has so many horses to run. It’s not like he’s going to scare away his own,” Paddy Power said on Tuesday.
“Paul Townend’s job will be tricky and interesting. Willie Mullins is going to be one to a million to be [top] trainer. But it mightn’t always be with the first choice.
“For those of us into racing the trainer thing is really interesting. But for most people who watch Cheltenham it’s horses they’re backing, not the trainer,” added the spokesman for the Paddy Power organisation.
“I think you go into Cheltenham with four real ‘shorties’ each year and this year probably looks the same.
“Energumene most years would be a certainty. But this year he makes Shishkin beatable.
“I wouldn’t be pessimistic at all. I don’t think Gordon Elliott has forgotten how to train winners or suddenly doesn’t have good horses.
“Elliott hasn’t really got going yet this season. Normally he storms ahead and Willie has caught him at Punchestown and won the trainers’ championship.
“So come the festival we probably haven’t seen the best of the rest yet. Nicky Henderson had a pretty gloomy Christmas as well.
“Ireland has maybe the favourite in 22 of the 28 races which is outrageous. But I wonder is it due to how we haven’t seen the best of the rest yet.”
One competition already widely presumed to be a one-horse race is the totting up of Irish and British winners at Cheltenham.
Irish-trained horses won 16 of the 27 races last year with Easyland landing the cross-country for France.
In 2017 there were a record 19 Irish-trained winner at the festival.
“The Irish do look much better to be fair [but] we don’t want to beat them by too much,” quipped Power.
“With the whole Brexit narrative I wonder will it go like Australia – Bart Cummings and all those saying ‘we shouldn’t let the bloody foreigners come over [for the Melbourne Cup]
“Maybe they’ll ban the Irish from coming,” he added.