Dream factory cranks up production for more Christmas deliveries
In any other stable in Britain or Ireland, a trainer would be forgiven for getting preoccupied with a horse like Vautour. For Willie Mullins, there is simply no time to.
At Cheltenham last March, the novice with the white blaze and odd socks was spoken of as the future of jumping after a performance so complete that jockey Ruby Walsh wore the expression of a man who had achieved racing's equivalent of a 147 break or nine-dart finish.
Vautour has now graduated to senior competition and must prove his worth against the likes of Cue Card and Don Cossack in what promises to be a special encounter in next Saturday's William Hill King George VI Chase. That Mullins is not sure he will even attend Kempton's meeting tells the story. Last year he found it stressful keeping tabs on other horses running back at home and is responsible for key protagonists for virtually every major race across the Christmas period.
"I don't dwell on [how good Vautour is]," he said. "At one time I probably used to think about a horse winning a certain big race; now my whole thoughts are keeping them right, getting them out there. I think training is taking on a different focus now. It's about having enough balls to fire at the different targets rather than dreaming of winning."
Vautour and Faugheen, which defends the Christmas Hurdle, both have something to prove from their reappearances. The former scrapped out victory at Ascot last month despite edging left at many of the fences. He is untried over three miles.
Vautour's only defeat since arriving from France was on St Stephen's Day 12 months ago, when suffering from a muscular problem, but this is also part of a bigger picture as Mullins wants peak performances saved for the four most important days of the year at Cheltenham. "His mid-season runs every year have been not as good as his March runs, it was the same in novice hurdles. I hope we get it out of him at Christmas but I don't want it until March. That's the way we train horses. It might not be like that, this year he might be very good. Then I hope he improves more and more through the season."
The reigning champion hurdler Faugheen "goes with a favourite's chance". A racecourse exercise prior to his defeat by stablemate Nichols Canyon was described as so "spectacular" Mullins wonders if it affected him later on, and has diluted Faugheen's regime accordingly.
Watching dozens of the cavalry canter in concentric loops of the deep sand and woodchip last week, it seemed a wonder the 59-year-old has such a clear handle upon any of them. Nowadays Mullins is the chief executive of a multi-million-pound dream factory in Co Carlow. He relies upon riders, including champions like Walsh, his sister Katie, Paul Townend and the visiting Frenchman Jacques Ricou for feedback on individual horses.
Layers of yard managers and grooms keep the operation running at ground level and his long-time bloodstock agent Harold Kirk continues to remain ahead of the competition in scouting new stars.
The trainer himself has other things to worry about, like making entries and liaising with owners. "I just hope the phone doesn't go bleep, bleep - if I see no one there in the morning I'm happy, I walk straight to the gallop," he said. "Someone will come and tell me the name of a horse that's struggling, every morning or second morning there's always something because there are such a huge amount of horses here."
Despite his success, a bad word never seems to be spoken about Mullins. He arrived at the last Festival with what was considered the strongest stable challenge ever assembled and won a record eight times. With Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Don Poli and myriad others, the team could be better yet.
"We just have a huge depth of talent here at the moment, not only the horses but the staff. Once, we were probably aiming one at Cheltenham each year with a real winning chance and that was your whole focus. Now it's just different, you just hope you can win one." Right now, that looks more than likely.