'It's important to enjoy the good days'
Despite all his success, Willie Mullins believes disappointment is the one certainty in racing
While it seems that everything from washing powder to cars to golf clubs has to be 'new and improved' in an attempt to grab attention in a crowded marketplace, it is very often the case that the new is merely the old, slightly tweaked and repackaged to attract a new audience or reawaken the interest of an old one.
And so we have the Dublin Racing Festival, this year's exciting addition to the Cheltenham build-up which combines three days' racing previously staged in January and February into a two-day Leopardstown extravaganza and which, as it includes the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle, the Unibet Irish Gold Cup and five other Grade One races, would be a worthy event in itself, even if everyone watching didn't have one eye on what might happen in the Cotswolds in six weeks.
With more than €1.5m in prize money up for grabs, it is no surprise that the meeting has attracted many of the country's top National Hunt horses, even if the number of entries from across the Irish Sea has been surprisingly low.
"When you see the prize money you have to target these races," says Willie Mullins. "I'm a great advocate of bigger prize money. When people put those races on, then we'll bring our good horses. The modern owner, who is putting a lot more money into the game, they want to be rewarded. You have to get some reward for it otherwise people won't invest money in National Hunt horses."
Mullins was in reflective mood as he hosted a visit to his training establishment in Closutton, Co Carlow. After 30 years of sending out winners and losers, of seeing horses develop, reach their peak and fade into retirement, of trying to find the secret trick to reveal each animal's hidden talent, you would think he has seen and done it all by now.
In many ways he has, and in many ways he is in the recycling business as well - tweaking his own methods and revisiting those of his father.
"I should have it off by heart by now, but we're still making mistakes," he says. "You still learn things about yourself when you're out there. And then there are different horses, I mean, there are things I'm doing this year and last year with horses that we wouldn't have dreamt of doing years ago, and now I even see things my father used to do with horses and I'm doing that type of training in a different way.
"I remember my mother telling me stories about the way he had with fillies, when I was only four or five, certainly before I was ever up on the gallops, and I find we're doing similar things now. Not because he did it, but because of a process of evolving or elimination. When one thing doesn't work, well, we'll try something else. It's nothing unusual, just training horses lighter, easier. I mean it's tough work on the gallops, it's tough work training and sometimes you find that a lighter touch can be good at times."
Faugheen is a case in point. After his failure to spark at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting, Mullins is optimistic that he will be back to his best on his return to the track next weekend for the Champion Hurdle. "I do think he had recovered from his race in Punchestown. Whether I'd overworked him going to Leopardstown . . . He's not a horse I work with other horses - or I haven't been working with other horses - so I'm just wondering, could he have been doing too much."
Talk of Willie's father Paddy reminded the trainer of times past when Irish National Hunt racing didn't enjoy the success and wealth that it does today. "The difference between then and what we do now - I have lots of wealthy owners and they're all businessmen. I don't think I have one farming owner left, but my father had all farming owners and they're a different type. The farmers would send you the horses they couldn't sell, or the fillies, and if you wanted to train, that's what you took.
"Basically the trainers at that time took what they could get and the same is true for a lot of smaller trainers these days. We're in the lucky position where we have lots of people who want to invest money in horses and we can go out and buy nice horses, buy made horses, which was unheard of at that time.
"At that time the small trainers in Ireland were there, and the English owners or Tom Dreaper came down and bought the good horses because they had the money and they brought them back to England or up to Dreaper's. It's completely turned around now. We're going to France, or England. The investment is here now, the money is here, and that's the difference."
And that's one echo of a past which hopefully we won't be revisiting. The days when the Irish would take the boat to Cheltenham hoping there might be one or two winners to cheer up the hill. But it can still be a tough and even a heart-breaking game to be in and Mullins, while never losing sight of that fact, has to keep his owners reminded of it as well.
"Everyone's reaction is different to success and failure and how they handle it. I think our owners handle failure equally as good as success. I think in the long term there's a lot of failure in racing and you've got to learn to handle your disappointment because it's not a game for people who can't handle disappointment. It's just the nature of the thing that you're going to be disappointed a lot more. That's why it's important to enjoy the good days. Owners are just like normal people and they get frustrated at times when horses don't do what they want them to do or expect them to do, but that is part of racing, unfortunately. You can't make them do what they're physically unable to do and sometimes they get hurt.
"The nature of jump racing means that horses risk injuries all the time and getting over those injuries to me is the key point. How to get over them quicker, how to conserve your team by withdrawing them quicker rather than racing them when they're carrying an injury.
"It can be very hard for some people to withdraw a horse that might be only nine-tenths right or less. People just have aspirations and ambitions to race and they say, 'Ah, we'll kick on', but it's always been our policy that if the horse is only half-right - stop. National Hunt horses can race for years and if you mind them they will race for years. The Flat game is rather different in that they tend to turn over past their three-year-old career."
And, of course, things can change and go back to the way they were in the blink of and eye. Douvan, previously ruled out for the rest of the season, was back on the gallops that morning and showing promising signs.
"His rate of recovery was way quicker than we had anticipated, which has led us to ask ourselves if we were looking at his problem the right way or was it just a little strain that was retraining an old injury. But his recovery was too quick for it to be the type of injury we thought it was in the beginning. We can't go quick with him, but every day we're upping the work he's doing and - so far, so good - he's taking that and appearing out the next morning.
"Maybe once we do too much, once we get up to fast work this injury might reappear and we might have to stop everything. But if he keeps going, he was fit enough before he went - I mean his last bit of work, where he got injured, was stunning - I don't think he's lost that much fitness. When he was off the gallops, I was able to get a lot of exercise into him which means we were able to retain his muscle mass and everything.
"So the next couple of weeks will be crucial because we'll be going from cantering to galloping and if he's able to gallop that will put a lot of things back on the table."
In a box not far from Mullins' back door stood Vroum Vroum Mag which many thought we had seen the last of. "She's back in training and we're going to decide over the next, maybe, six weeks if we are going to continue her training. We had thought we were going to retire her but her recovery has been very good. Our vet tells us we can keep going so we have to decide if we are going to keep her in training or cover her. She's a very valuable brood mare so whether we risk her training or not. . ."
Like the build-up to Cheltenham and the roller-coaster ride of runners and riders trying to make it to the starting line, it's a world of constant change. Same as it ever was.
SATURDAY FEBRUARY 3
RACE 1: Grade One The Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors Novice Hurdle €100,000 2m6f
RACE 2: Grade Two The Coral Dublin Chase €100,000 2m1f
RACE 3: Grade One The Frank Ward Solicitors Novice Chase €100,000 2m1f
RACE 4: Grade B Handicap Chase €75,000 2m1f
RACE 5: Grade One The BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle €150,000 2m
RACE 6: Grade B The Coral Handicap Hurdle €100,000 2m
RACE 7: Grade Two The Goffs INH Flat Race (C&G) €75,000 2m
SUNDAY FEBRUARY 4
RACE 1: Grade One The Tattersalls Ireland 4yo Spring Juvenile Hurdle €100,000 2m
RACE 2: Grade B The EBF Mares Handicap Hurdle €75,000 2m2f (upgraded)
RACE 3: Grade One The Deloitte Novice Hurdle €100,000 2m
RACE 4: Grade B The Handicap Hurdle €75,000 3m
RACE 5: Grade One The Flogas Novice Chase €100,000 2m5f
RACE 6: Grade One The Unibet Irish Gold Cup €200,000 3m
RACE 7: Grade A The Chanelle Group Leopardstown Handicap Chase €100,000 2m5f
RACE 8: Grade Two The Coolmore I.N.H. Flat Race (Mares) €75,000 2m
Sunday Indo Sport