WATCH: 'Sheer weight of numbers will make Gordon hard to catch' - Willie Mullins on the struggle to retain his title
By his own admission, the current campaign has been "tough" for Willie Mullins.
As well as blowing his rivals out of the water in his homeland for the last decade, the County Carlow maestro has become increasingly dominant in Britain, evidenced by his titanic tussle with Paul Nicholls for last year's British trainers' title. Mullins only conceded on the final day of the season at Sandown.
Mullins has won the Leading Trainer Award at the Cheltenham Festival in five of the last six years, saddling a record eight winners two years ago and seven last season to take his total tally to 48, leaving him second only to Nicky Henderson in the all-time list with 55.
However, there has been a power shift in Ireland this season, with the well-publicised shock split with leading owners Gigginstown House Stud in a disagreement over increased training fees a double whammy, as many of the 60 horses that left Closutton moved to Gordon Elliott's burgeoning Cullentra base.
Elliott's improved arsenal has helped him race into a significant lead in the race to be crowned champion National Hunt trainer in Ireland and for the first time in a long time, the perennial crowning of Mullins at the Punchestown Festival is under serious threat.
The sad demise of Vautour and the enforced absences of superstars Annie Power, Faugheen and Min from this year's Cheltenham team are further blows but his optimism is only marginally dimmed.
Considering his losses, Mullins has put together a remarkably strong team of around 40 horses ready to do battle in the Cotswolds, leaving him well placed to bounce off the ropes and come out fighting at Prestbury Park.
Mullins is now over €350,000 behind Elliott in the race to be Irish champion trainer and knows how hard it will be to catch the Meath handler.
"It's going to be tough. Just the sheer weight of numbers alone (that Elliott has) makes it hard," he said.
"Hopefully we'll have horses for the Festivals. Whether that's enough or not, we'll have to wait and see.
"Then you look at races like the Irish National. We'd need to win it without Gordon finishing in the first three to get back level, so that shows you the scale of the task we have.
"My good horses I'll campaign the same way I've always campaigned them. I don't think it will have any effect on what we run at Cheltenham. What goes to Cheltenham goes to Cheltenham - I don't think we'll be keeping one back!
"Gordon probably has a lot of different types of horses than we have and he campaigned them much earlier, but I couldn't see myself changing.
"Trying to find horses that will run earlier in the season is not something we aspire to. We try and look for top-grade horses.
"Every day we get up we just look forward to where we can have another winner."
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