Sport Cheltenham

Friday 14 December 2018

'We're going to Cheltenham in hope and fear'

Patrick Mullins looks ahead to Closutton's big hopes for this year's Festival

Un De Sceaux has stood true all season. Photo: Sportsfile
Un De Sceaux has stood true all season. Photo: Sportsfile

Cheltenham has a certain mystique that is unique to the Cotswolds in March. The four days have a Tolkien sense of quest and magic set against a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western backdrop. The races that end in roaring success or burning failure will be remembered for years to come; Cheltenham victory and defeat are like diamonds, they are forever. And in that cold truth lies the allure.

In Closutton, we are very lucky to have an army of horses to bring over this year. The logistics of transporting more than 50 horses, staff and equipment is not to be underplayed. My mother, Jackie, has this operation down to a fine art and our head travelling man, the ever-witty Ben Delamare, carries out the instructions to a tee.

Willie and Patrick Mullins. Photo: Sportsfile
Willie and Patrick Mullins. Photo: Sportsfile

Our head girl, Rachel Robins, will call the shots over in Cheltenham while our head man, Dick Dowling, will steer the ship a steady course at home. It is a huge effort by everyone here. The first horses will leave the yard at the crack of dawn today to catch the boat. They will be followed every morning for three days after that.

Willie never gets too high or low. He keeps his head at all times, except perhaps when someone fiddles with the toaster. He doesn't worry over making decisions as he doesn't ever make them until the final moment, when he has all available information and variables. This can frustrate some people but it is his nature and his routine. And it tends to work. He has that damn well annoying habit of getting things right a lot.

This year, instead of going with our superstars in peak form, we find three of them searching for redemption. All three are dual Cheltenham winners. However, it is the future and not the past that counts next week. There isn't much comfort standing in the 'Long-faced ring' telling yourself you won last year.

Faugheen had exploded back on to the scene in November before two head-scratching, below-par performances. He looks to wrest back his hurdling crown from the young British champion Buveur D'Air but at 10, time is not on his side. However, I love this horse and with love comes faith, so I still believe he can take back what is rightfully his.

Faugheen. Photo: Sportsfile
Faugheen. Photo: Sportsfile

Douvan has only suffered one defeat with us and that was when he cracked his pelvis in Cheltenham last year. After another setback mid-season, he arrives in Cheltenham looking for salvation without a prep run. Quevega managed this year after year but she never had to contend with the likes of the pride of Britain, the imperious Altior. It is an unenviable task against a formidable opponent. A clash of titans indeed.

Yorkhill is looking for his third consecutive Festival win. A horse who possibly was raised in Bethlem Royal Hospital, Willie has always found a way around his maddening quirks but this year we have yet to find the right key to unlock his vast wealth of talent. After changing trip, we might possibly change discipline. Every page in the playbook is being thumbed.

Only Un De Sceaux, the Tony Stark of Closutton, has stood true all through the season. This horse is a frightening fusion of raw power and unlimited zeal. Only the mighty Sprinter Sacre has defeated him at Cheltenham, his brave defeat bookended by two courageous victories in racing's fiercest crucible.

A winner on the first day is so important. Last year the first two days went by with no winner, which for the team we had brought over, and the expectations and responsibility that goes with that, was unsatisfactory, to be frank. However, Ruby and Willie kept their heads while many others about them lost theirs and they pulled it bare- handed out of the smoking-hot fire on days three and four.

Douvan. Photo: Sportsfile
Douvan. Photo: Sportsfile

People can think this is easy, that wins are promised. But as Kanye heard them say, nothing is ever promised tomorrow today. Cheltenham owes nobody anything and she can take everything she wants. She's spoilt us over the last few years but we are under no illusions that this will be everlasting.

Nevertheless, we go forward with hope and fear, like everyone else to this mythical place of joy and despair. There are few places on earth where men in a state of sobriety talk about their heart but Cheltenham is such a place and few places play with the heart more.

The last week has dragged but once you touch down in Cheltenham, you know you're not in Kansas anymore and that anything is possible. I can't wait for it to start.

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