Sunday 19 November 2017

Mullins' great expectations

Willie Mullins can separate sentiment from judgement, as he tells Aisling Crowe

Willie Mullins is likely to saddle the favourites for five of the seven races on the opening day at Cheltenham.
Willie Mullins is likely to saddle the favourites for five of the seven races on the opening day at Cheltenham.

Aisling Crowe

The final fortnight before Cheltenham is the most fraught for trainers with the hardest work still to be put into their horses to ensure they peak at the exact moment they must sit the championship test.

No matter how many times Willie Mullins has been champion trainer, nine in case you're wondering, no matter the records that tumble, the trophies that adorn every available space of his home, these next two weeks do not get easier for jump racing's dominant force. The needle on the barometer just rises ever higher.

Legion of boom might be the best way to describe the 50 or so horses that will set out from Mullins' base in Closutton, Co Carlow for the ferry at Rosslare. Once landed, they will travel the M4 through the south Wales shoreline and abandoned coal mines until the convoy reaches the Severn bridge and Gloucestershire. More than 30 members of the Closutton staff will travel with the horses to tend to their every need.

The logistics of transporting the team that packs more power than the Seattle Seahawks' Super Bowl winning defensive line will not be left to the champion trainer. Others with more precise organisational skills will see that the right horses arrive and leave the stables at Cheltenham racecourse in the correct order. It hasn't always gone so smoothly.

"It is going to be a headache but we take them over in drafts. This year we have more than normal so we might have to make a few changes. We stable them all at the track but it is going to be tough. I find if I get involved in it, then it all goes wrong so if I stay out of it and something happens then I can give out," he laughs.

"Two years ago we brought over a horse that wasn't running and last year I was looking for a horse in the racecourse stables, asking people where he was and we had left him at home."

Missing horses or others on an unexpected trip to the races have not hindered Mullins' elevation to the Cheltenham hierarchy an ounce. The leading trainer at the last three Festivals, his ambition and desire remain insatiable.

Last year's return of four winners and six second-place finishes would represent a fantastic achievement for any trainer, but not for the man who is the most successful Irish trainer ever at Cheltenham. It was the close shaves and the near misses that his mind toyed with over and over.

For so many things to have gone right, so many others went wrong and the trainer's inquiring mind couldn't help but ponder the answer to the question of what is possible if everything fell into place perfectly? "We regrouped after Cheltenham, I was delighted to win the leading trainer award and it is fantastic to see it named after Dessie Hughes this year, but I wondered if everything clicked into place what could it be like?

"It shows you what the competition is like over there. It's the thrill of Cheltenham - if it was that easy to get winners there then it wouldn't be fun."

His approach to Cheltenham has evolved with his success. Like the meeting itself, Mullins' Cheltenham team has grown over the years and the increased workload that accompanies the bigger team has changed the experience from one of pleasure to a working one.

On his earlier forays to the Cotswolds, he brought a handful of horses to the races and had some fun. Now, apart from dinner on Thursday and Friday nights, it's all work. The enjoyment now is in the winning.

Despite possessing a team of equine superheroes, Mullins knows well the pitfalls that lurk amid the lush blades of Prestbury Park for some of them.

The night before his recent stable tour for journalists, he had lain awake in his bed.

The puzzle occupying his mind was the chance of five favourites winning on the opening day of the meeting.

In his head he was trying to work out the chances of one, two or even three favourites winning never mind five. First up there's Douvan, the favourite for the first race, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle - a race notorious for its treatment of those who 'bank' on the shortest-priced horse in the betting to carry their hopes and cash.

Mullins also trains the current market leaders for four other races on Tuesday fortnight and in his mind, he was attempting to figure out if it were possible for all of them to win.

Along with Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Faugheen, Annie Power and Don Poli complete the famous five. Yet if he were only to have one winner - not just on Tuesday, but throughout the entire Festival - it is victory for a horse outside that quintet that would give the trainer the greatest joy.

"It's probably not fair to ask me as I am a died-in-the-wool Hurricane Fly fan but I would be delighted if Hurricane Fly could win," he says of his veteran Champion Hurdle contender. "That would be the dream result of the festival. Faugheen is the future but Hurricane Fly is our king. I suppose if Hurricane Fly goes down and Faugheen rises then it is a case of the king is dead, long live the king but I would love Hurricane Fly to win."

Despite his declaration of support for Hurricane Fly, the trainer assesses each horse in his care with the pragmatic detachment of a professional. When it comes to winning, sentiment and emotion are not what get you to line in front.

"It's quite easy to separate sentiment from judgement. The way I earn my living, I look at the potential of each horse and decide what races they should run in depending on whether they have the best chance of winning it.

"I like different horses for different reasons and I don't look at it sentimentally. If Faugheen chooses this year to show how good he is, then so be it."

The Faugheen versus Hurricane Fly debate and the discrepancy in their odds for the Champion Hurdle puzzle him but those who compile such lists take a different view to the trainer.

For him, it is the veteran, 11-year-old Hurricane Fly which has proven himself the most likely to cover himself in glory and seven-year-old Faugheen the horse with a reputation to prove.

Mullins will spend the next fortnight taking every precaution to ensure Faugheen, Hurricane Fly and the rest of his team gets to Cheltenham in the best of health with not a sniffle or a cough amongst them.

It is an anxious time but between now and March 10 it is inevitable that horses will drop out of races, jockeys too and Mullins must watch as Ruby Walsh and Paul Townend temper their natural desire to race with the need to line up behind the tapes for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle in the best of shape too.

Their importance to the operation cannot be overstated.

Mullins will have more than one live contender for many of the Festival Grade Ones, and having two top-class jockeys to call upon gives him another edge over many of his rivals.

The confidence Walsh gives horses and owners is immense and having the prodigiously talented Townend as his deputy is another boost.

However, rumours have been rife about 24-year-old Townend's future since AP McCoy announced his intention to retire at the end of the season.

Mullins is aware of just what a loss Townend would be were he asked to form part of the revamped JP McManus riding team.

"I think Paul has probably everything that they are looking for - youth, experience, confidence and he is a big-race jockey so I am conscious of that. I don't think you can replace McCoy, you will need two people for that job because he was a one-off, an iron man with an incredible will to ride winners and I don't think anyone can replace him so there will be two good jobs," is how Mullins analyses the situation.

That question won't keep Mullins awake at night. He's a good sleeper, he confides, and that's something to be grateful for over the next couple of weeks when the barometer of expectation around his Cheltenham contingent will soar ever higher.

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