Monday 23 April 2018

Festival jumps to Mullins' attention

Right now, National Hunt is Willie Mullins’ world Photo: Sportsfile
Right now, National Hunt is Willie Mullins’ world Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

If the bookies are right, in less than two months Willie Mullins will enjoy a Cheltenham the likes of which has never been seen before. Last year the Carlow-based trainer set a record by saddling eight winners at the Festival. Right now, he's got 11 ante-post favourites, including an unbackable odds-on favourite in the Champion Hurdle and three of the top four fancies in the Gold Cup.

You want to know how much the pendulum has swung in Mullins' favour? Up to last year he had never trained more than five winners at a Cheltenham Festival. This year he is 16/1 ON to train six or more, even money for ten or more and 5/1 to make it an even dozen. He's also a good bet to break the record he set for winning Grade One National Hunt races last year and is neck and neck with Paul Nicholls in a battle for the English trainers' title. Should he win that he'll become just the second Irish trainer to do so, after Vincent O'Brien who managed it in 1953 and 1954.

Emulating O'Brien would be fitting because chances are that by the time Mullins finishes his training career he will be looked upon in the same way the great Corkman was - as the undisputed best in his field. He's even spooking the bookies. Coral spokesman Simon Clare said last week: "Never before has one trainer dominated all the conversations and all the betting activity in the run-up to the Cheltenham Festival to the extent that Willie Mullins is doing now. Every bet we are striking is on him or his horses and in many of the races ante-post interest has stagnated due to the stranglehold his horses have on the market." Pity about them.

It's taken Mullins a long time and an enormous amount of effort to get to this point. He's 59 and knows what it's like to come back from Cheltenham disappointed. He has, for example, still to win the Gold Cup though you'd imagine that one of Djakadam, Vautour and Don Poli will do the trick for him this time. So he probably finds it churlish when questions are raised about whether this dominance is entirely good for the sport when he hasn't been dominant for all that long. But they're raised all the same.

The rise of Mullins seems on first sight to go hand in glove with the huge success of Irish-trained horses at recent Festivals. His eight winners obviously contributed hugely to the 13 Irish winners from last year and should he go into double figures this time, chances are that Irish trainers will outscore English trainers for only the second time. Yet on the first occasion this happened, in 2013, Mullins saddled just five out of the 14 Irish winners.

And it's interesting to see what happens when you remove the Mullins winners from last year's Cheltenham. On five of the eight occasions, it was Irish-trained horses which finished behind them. So even without Mullins Ireland would still have won a healthy ten races. His success denied Cheltenham wins to the likes of Noel Meade, Eddie Harty and Jessica Harrington.

I'm a sentimental soul so I like the idea of the Cheltenham pot being shared around a little more evenly. Among Irish trainers at least. Many people remember Oliver Brady and his quixotic quest for a Festival winner and in many ways that great-hearted man stood in for all the little stables for whom one winner at Cheltenham would almost justify an entire lifetime of work. It's getting harder all the time for the small-time operator's dreams to come true at Cheltenham.

On the other hand, chances are that Mullins will facilitate a wholesale scourging of the bookies this year at Cheltenham, something which will add greatly to the gaiety of this nation. The fear he inspires probably means some of his horses are priced too short, but last year's Festival showed there was good reason for the bookies' caution.

Right now, National Hunt is Willie Mullins' world. Everyone else just lives in it.

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