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Willie Mullins

At half-time in last year’s Cheltenham Festival, on Wednesday evening, at the end of Day Two, Willie Mullins had five winners on the board.  Then on Thursday, he sent out Penhill to win the Stayers’ Hurdle and Laurina to win the Dawn Run Hurdle.  That took his total number of Cheltenham Festival winners for the week to seven, and his total for his career to 61.  That’s more winners than any other trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival.

It was appropriate that he reached the milestone in the race named after Dawn Run.

There is a need for context.  Paul Nicholls has trained 43 Cheltenham Festival winners.  Martin Pipe trained 34 during his standard-raising career.  Fulke Walwyn trained 40.  Fred Winter trained 28.  David Nicholson trained 17.  Nicky Henderson has trained 60 thus far, it was Henderson’s total that Mullins eclipsed, but the master of Seven Barrows sent out the first of his 60 Cheltenham Festival winners in 1985, 10 years before Mullins sent out the first of his 61.    

“Nicky has a strong team this year,” says Mullins.

Things have changed since Tourist Attraction won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 1995, not just in the context of the behemoth that the Cheltenham Festival has become – 20 races have become 28 for starters – but also in the context of Willie Mullins’ role therein.  Back then, he was a peripheral player.  One Willie Mullins Cheltenham Festival winner was to be celebrated.  Tourist Attraction in 1995, Wither Or Which in 1996, Florida Pearl in 1997.  None in 1999.  None in 2003. 

These days, he is Cheltenham front and centre.

Seventeen of the 61 Willie Mullins Cheltenham Festival wins were recorded in the 15 renewals that ran between 1995 and 2010 inclusive.  (There was no Cheltenham Festival in 2001.)  That’s an average of just over one per year.  The rest, 44, have been amassed in the last eight years.  That’s an average of five and a half.

“This season has been a strange season so far,” says the trainer.  “We haven’t had much rain, we haven’t had the soft ground, so we haven’t been able to get the runs into some of our horses that we wanted to.  We had nearly 60 runners at Cheltenham last year.  I’d say this year we will have no more than 40.”

Even though his Cheltenham numbers may be down on last year, there is still serious strength in the Closutton team.  It looks like Laurina, impressive winner of a listed mares’ hurdle at Punchestown on Wednesday on just her second run this season, is going to join Sharjah and Melon in the Champion Hurdle instead of reaching for the lower-hanging fruit in the Mares’ Hurdle. 

Since joining the Mullins team, the Spanish Moon mare has now won all her six races, including that Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival last year.  We still don’t know where the ceiling of her ability lies. 

“It wasn’t ideal that we missed a week’s work with Laurina, but she’s well.  She’s a different mare to the mare she was last year.  Last year, she would have got upset if you had walked into her box.  You would have needed a bodyguard.  This year though, she’s very different.  More relaxed.  I find that interesting.  Maybe she’s just more mature.”

A four-time winner of the Champion Hurdle, Mullins has yet to land a Cheltenham Gold Cup.  He has come mighty close.  Florida Pearl finished second behind Looks Like Trouble and third behind See More Business.  Hedgehunter finished second to War Of Attrition.  Sir Des Champs finished second to Bobs Worth.  On His Own was beaten a short head by Lord Windermere.  Djakadam finished second twice.

This year, it looks like he is set to field three Gold Cup runners at least, maybe four. 

“Kemboy put up a big performance in winning the Savills Chase at Leopardstown, and I think that the extra distance will suit him well.  Bellshill stays well and jumps well, and I think that he can improve from his win in the Irish Gold Cup.  Al Boum Photo won well at Tramore, and I don’t think we have seen the best of him yet.  Invitation Only was a good winner of the Thyestes Chase.  He will have to improve to come up to Gold Cup level, but we’ll probably give him his chance.”

There is no Willie Mullins banker in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.  That’s new.  The trainer has produced the winner of the Festival’s curtain-raiser three times in the last six years and, in each of the last five years, he has provided either the clear favourite or one of the joint favourites.  This year, Klassical Dream and Aramon, first and second respectively in the Grade 1 Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival three weeks ago, lead the Mullins charge.

“Aramon has surprised me with how far he has come this season.  He keeps on improving.  Klassical Dream is a very good jumper who has lots of experience.  I think that he will want to go further than two miles in time, so he also has the option of going for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle instead.” 

There are other key players.  We haven’t seen Penhill all season, but last year’s Stayers’ Hurdle winner is very well, and the plan for some time has been to go back to the Stayers’ Hurdle without a prep run.  He went there without a prep run last year, and look how that turned out. 

Min and Footpad both have the Champion Chase and the Ryanair Chase option.  Both are top class at two miles, but both are also proven over two and a half.  Decisions on their respective targets will not be made until closer to declaration time, but either horse would be a big player in either race.

Ballyward for the National Hunt Chase, Allaho probably for the Albert Bartlett Hurdle, Tiger Tap Tap for the Triumph Hurdle, Benie Des Dieux back for the Mares’ Hurdle, Un De Sceaux probably for the Ryanair, Duc Des Genievres probably for the Arkle, Faugheen probably to join Penhill in the Stayers’ Hurdle.  Blue Sari for the Champion Bumper. 

It’s a strong Willie Mullins Cheltenham team.  It’s what you expect.  He may not remain on 61 for much longer. 

© The Sunday Times, 24th February 2019