Donn's Articles » Willie Mullins

Willie Mullins

Willie Mullins is still mystified by Faugheen, still at a loss to explain his stable star’s abject performance in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival.  When a 2/11 shot gets beaten, you seek an explanation.  In Faugheen’s case, even now, three weeks later, there is none.

The horse came home fine, in good form, no sickness, no injury.  All the tests came back fine. It’s a real head-scratcher.  He had looked so good in his comeback run at Punchestown in November.  All you can do is put it down to one-of-those-things and move forward with him, warily, tentatively.  It’s so far so good since though, and Faugheen is on track for the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown’s all-new Dublin Racing Festival in two weeks.

The evidence is there in front of you, Faugheen looking healthy and well, coat gleaming in the wintry sun, number 15.  It’s typical media morning stuff at Closutton, horses clip-clopping around the yard before they move out to tackle the gallop, each one with a numbered saddle-cloth for ease of recognition.  Everywhere you look, a superstar or a potential superstar.

Which are the important ones for the cameras?  Start with number one, Djakadam, he’s important.  And number two, Killultagh Vic, he’s important, and number five, Yorkhill he’s very important.  Make sure you get number nine too, Footpad.  And number 10, Invitation Only.  And definitely get 21 and 22, Getabird and Next Destination.  And Sharjah of course, number 24.  And don’t forget Stormy Ireland, number 28.  She could be anything.  Actually, try to get them all.

The problem when you set the bar high is that you then have to go and reach it.  There were reversals at Christmas, high-profile reversals – Faugheen was beaten, Djakadam was beaten, Yorkhill was beaten, Min was beaten – and it is the high-profile horses that set the beat. 

There was bad luck too.  Of course, the worst of all was poor Nichols Canyon’s fatal fall.  As well as that, Sharjah and Real Steel would have finished first and second in the Grade 1 Future Champions Novice Hurdle had they not both fallen at the final flight.  Min lost his race in the stewards’ room after passing the post first.  Al Boum Photo fell at the last in the Grade 2 chase at Limerick.

But there was also good.  Footpad was dynamite in the Racing Post Novice Chase, Whiskey Sour won the Grade 1 Future Champions’ Novice Hurdle anyway after his two stable companions had departed at the last.  Blackbow won, Mr Adjudicator won, Sympa Des Flos won, Carefully Selected won, Kate Appleby Shoes won, Fabulous Saga won, Let’s Dance won, Minella Encore won.

Since the Christmas festivals, there has been a sense of battalion-assembling.  Willie Mullins had six runners over the course of the first weekend of 2018 and five of them won. 

The novice chasers are stepping forward.  Demi Sang stayed on strongly to win on his Irish debut at Naas, Invitation Only was impressive again in winning at Punchestown.

The novice hurdling team is also getting stronger.  Just when it appeared that Sharjah might by the Mullins number one for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, Getabird goes and dances in at Punchestown in the Grade 2 Moscow Flyer Hurdle over two miles.  At Naas, Next Destination enhanced his reputation by adding a Grade 1 win to his CV.

Killultagh Vic returned over hurdles at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve and, despite losing ground at just about every flight of hurdles, he stayed on well to win nicely.

“He just doesn’t respect hurdles like he respects fences,” says Mullins, “so we will look forward to going over fences with him.  I’m very pleased with how he came out of the Punchestown race, and I’m thinking that he will run in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, along with Djakadam.”

Djakadam has to bounce back from a disappointing run in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase, but that race may have come up too quickly after his seasonal debut in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown.  It may not be a coincidence that the horse who beat him at Punchestown, reigning Gold Cup champ Sizing John, also ran flat at Leopardstown.  An 18-day gap may not have been sufficient.

Yorkhill will not be running in the Irish Gold Cup.  Few horses generated more column inches before running this season than the highly talented yet frustratingly eccentric Yorkhill, but the three-mile chase experiment in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase ultimately didn’t work.  He just raced too keenly, he didn’t give himself a chance of getting home over the longer trip, and he will drop back  down to two miles now.

“I thought he was a Champion Hurdle horse,” says Mullins.  “And if we think he is Champion Hurdle class, he could be a Champion Chase horse.  We’ll go down the two-mile chase route with him now.  He is on track for the Grade 2 Coral Dublin Chase at Leopardstown.  We’ll see how that goes, because he has the option to go back hurdling.”

There is a sense of déjà vu about this season: the trainers’ championship a captivating and consistent undercurrent to what happens on the racetrack, Gordon Elliott setting a strong pace, pushing at that bar, Willie Mullins chasing him down.

Only it’s a little different this season.  Last season, it was Elliott’s proficiency in the big handicaps that propelled him forward in the early-season exchanges.  It’s a long season, and it was Mullins’ superior quality in-depth that enabled the champion catch the pretender with just two days to go. 

This season, Elliott has won some of the big handicaps all right, but he has also been prolific at the highest level.  At this stage last season, Elliott’s horses had won three Grade 1 races.  This season so far, they have won seven.

“It’s going to be tough this year,” muses Mullins.  “It’s a different challenge.  We’re the underdogs this year.”

Even so, there is an air of quiet optimism around Closutton.  If it is a signal of intent you are looking for, you have it there in the 28 horses that make their way past you.  One top class racehorse after another.  Quality in-depth all right.  Try to capture them all.

© The Sunday Times, 21st January 2018