Willie Mullins staying calm in the face of the coming festival storm

Champion trainer overseeing the final preparation of up to 50 horses

Florence Nightingale apparently believed apprehension more harmful than any exertion so Willie Mullins might need some TLC in the next fortnight before Cheltenham begins.

Mind you, an ‘if-only-I-had- his-problems’ reaction would be understandable from rivals enviously looking at Ireland’s champion trainer preparing to bring the biggest and most powerful string National Hunt racing’s greatest festival has ever seen.

Up to 50 horses, including superstar names such as Hurricane Fly, Faugheen and Annie Power, will travel from Mullins's Closutton base with Nicky Henderson's record 2012 tally of seven festival winners under serious threat.

But with two weeks to go Mullins is waiting for things to go wrong. It’s a fatalistic attitude that working with hugely powerful yet maddeningly vulnerable animals inevitably generates anyway. But now is the time when fate can seem to really start being mischievous.


For the next two weeks every phone call from the yard is a potential disaster, every anxious groom hurrying around a corner could be carrying bad news, and every stone in Carlow is waiting to be stepped on.

Ruled out

“It’s inevitable: as it gets nearer there will be news of a good horse being ruled out somewhere probably every day. Now is the time you have to work them harder so things will start to happen. So some will disappoint, will get setbacks,” he says. “I’ve entered eight horses for the Champion Bumper. They’re all fit and well today but one or two are sure to drop out at some stage.”

If Mullins is living on his nerves he hides it well in front of yet another pre-Cheltenham media invasion, where he knows every Cheltenham word he utters will be parsed for nuances and cautionary impulses get prodded in the hope of extracting a betting nugget.

Caution though has come through bitter experience of the sort that happened just hours before to the 2013 Cheltenham winner Back In Focus, Mullins’s big Grand National hope for April, who’d been meticulously nursed back to fitness after almost two years out injured.

“He got a fright in his stable - I don’t know what – and he banged his head off the door and fractured his cheekbone. That might even be only the minimum, he could have done an eye-socket or his sinuses too, we’ll have to see: but that’s him out for the season,” he says.

With a Baltic wind carrying the sting of snow which had fallen earlier, and encouraging excitable and race-fit horseflesh to get skittish, the vulnerability of these big, strong animals is amplified. Even Annie Power wears a hood in case she gets spooked by the wind, or the unsavoury company.

But there’s a strange reassurance too in how the most skittish of the lot is still Hurricane Fly, old enough to know better but still prancing and snorting like the classic winner he was bred to be and not the finest hurdler many of us will ever see, taking his place at the head of a long line of stars as no more than his due, still daring any of them to pass him.

Young pretender

As they canter around the maze of all-weather gallops, the strength in depth of the Mullins team is only emphasised by how just a few places back is Faugheen, the young pretender and hot favourite to win the Champion Hurdle and who Ruby Walsh is likely to favour over ‘The Fly.’

“I hope there’s as much to come from him (Faugheen) as everyone seems to think,” Mullins laughs. “It’s an extraordinary position to be in with the two of them. And Arctic Fire is in the race too.”

It’s not the only extraordinary position Mullins is in. No trainer has dominated jump racing to the extent he currently does and his ambition is far from sated. Quizzed about jockeys and when they mature, he winds up pointing to the example of his late father Paddy in terms of trainers improving.

“He was 62 when he won his first trainers’ championship. And I think he won ten eventually,” he said. “My father was always keen to know about anything new, in terms of feed, or gallops, anything that might suit him. There’s no blueprint to this: it is basically having to get better in order to keep up. You never stop learning.”

It’s remarkable though how jump racing’s greatest empire essentially revolves around one man’s eye, something that perhaps explains why Mullins has carved out such a unique position: not for him for instance any ascetic devotion to detail for its own sake.

“I don’t like watching replays of races. You can start to think the opposition are better than they are,” he said. “I prefer to watch a race once, through my binoculars, and go with my first thoughts.”

The unique numerical strength in depth of his Cheltenham team however might make recourse to the replay button inevitable this time, no matter what happens in the next couple of weeks.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column