Patrick Mullins: 'Cotton wool merchants need not apply here. You need to be brave at Cheltenham'
As the Closutton machine gears up for another assault on Cheltenham, Patrick Mullins gives a unique insight into preparations behind his father's bid for that elusive Gold Cup victory
Strange. It's been that. Sahara ground in an Irish winter. A flu outbreak in vaccinated horses across the water. Looking in the rear-view mirror at Gordon Elliott in the trainers' championship instead of seeing him distantly on the horizon. It hasn't been like it's been before. But no bloody snow this year, thank God for that.
The juggernaut rumbles on regardless. Cheltenham approaches and the preparations are continuing apace.
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It can be difficult at times for Willie to train 200 horses - in between reading the Irish Independent, watching funny videos on his phone, discussing with 'Tanguy' the gardener just why the flowers aren't as colourful as he had hoped, keeping The Lord Bagenal afloat and delivering his daily sermon on what it is that Manchester United are doing right or wrong, amongst other vitally important things.
Thankfully, he does find the time. Eventually.
It can sometimes comically resemble trying to catch a fresh horse in a big field. David Casey and Ruby Walsh, armed with the entry book, blocking the door to the stairs while Jo Shairp, our secretary, and my mother Jackie complete the pincer movement by barring the route to the TV room. If punters and journalists think it's hard to get an answer out of Willie, they should try working with him!
The routine doesn't change much. Routine is king. At this stage the horses will all have had their prep runs. A few had to miss their engagements at Gowran because of the new flu vaccination rules, but that is something that can't be helped so why rage at the wind? Work around it and move on.
Over the next week or so, buttons will be pushed. Horses will do their last few bits of work. Things will go wrong. We brought six away to school recently and two came back loose. That's what happens when you let Ruby set the pace on Footpad! Rachael Blackmore and Paul Townend had to thumb a lift back to the stables. What one does this season, the other has to do too, it seems!
There will be injuries. Some will pull out short or sore or stiff and have their participation in doubt. We are in the lucky position that we will have others to replace them and others to concentrate on after.
Not all are so lucky. But perhaps that gives us the freedom to have these horses at a Himalayan peak. Cotton wool merchants need not apply here. They need to be hard fit. You have to be brave. It's impossible to make an omelette without breaking eggs.
The Gold Cup has so far remained elusive to my father. Florida Pearl, Hedgehunter, Sir Des Champs, On His Own and Djakadam have all gone to the last fence with the prize within their grasp only to falter on that final, infamous climb.
For this year's blue riband we have assembled a squad that might finally put my father level with my grandfather's victory in '86 with Dawn Run. Kemboy, Bellshill and Al Boum Photo are all Grade 1 winners - and don't forget Thyestes Chase winner, Invitation Only.
While we may have smaller numbers this year, it's a formidable team nevertheless. Un De Sceaux and Faugheen go unto the breach once more; older and more mortal than before, perhaps, but still with fire in their belly.
Sharjah and Laurina will travel with hopes of halting Buveur D'Air which bids to match the legendary Istabraq's haul of three Champion Hurdles.
Footpad is seeking to recover the cloak of invincibility that he wore all last season and Min is desperately searching for a view of the Cheltenham winning post that doesn't have Altior's tail in it.
We might be without Penhill for the Stayers', but Benie Des Dieux will resist any attempt to take away the Mares Hurdle crown she wrested from Apple's Jade last year.
The stage is almost set, the players nearly in place and the crowd awaits. It won't be long now. Can you hear it?
That roar being unleashed as the Supreme Novices thunder under the start tape and pound down to the first. We can't wait. Can you?