Mullins relishing these days of glory

Mullins relishing these days of glory

Willie Mullins is chatting; shooting the breeze before the official interrogation begins. He seems less nervous than this time last season, when Quevega was being primed for a place in the history books and Hurricane Fly was favourite for the Champion Hurdle.

“Last year you were telling us you had just seen 12 Years A Slave.

“Yeah, I’ve seen nothing as heavy as that” comes the response. “I haven’t seen50 Shades Of Grey yet anyway!”

Riley, the ubiquitous Golden Retriever that has a life befitting his name according to his doting owner, moves easily amongst the Cheltenham String, on public show for a press pack of more than 40 from the UK and Ireland.

How times have changed. Paddy Mullins wouldn’t have let a journalist within a mile of Doninga to watch Dawn Run, Hurry Harriet, Vintage Tipple, Grabel or Herring Gull work. And if he did, he certainly wouldn’t have been as loquacious as his record-breaking son.

Willie’s mum, Maureen, is around, as interested and keen as ever, upright and proud; most particularly proud of the achievements of her expanding clan, right down to the grandchildren making such waves in the saddle now.

Hurricane Fly and Faugheen chart different paths, which is fitting, as they will cross swords for the first time at Cheltenham. The world record holder is on the inside gallop, the young pretender on the outside. Both look well and move easily.

At one stage, Riley is flitting between one gallop and the other. He is bored and wants to play, demanding attention. Fly and Faugheen are moving rapidly in his direction. A millisecond of fear strikes and one hack is calling the dog, fearful of disaster.

But these animals are all comfortable in each other’s presence. There is no deviation in the routes taken by the cantering horses. Riley lopes to one side in plenty of time, and Mullins throws a stone for him to chase.

The facilities are remarkable. It is a long way removed from when he took his licence out in 1988. He joked 12 months ago that it took him 26 years to become an overnight sensation, and if it wasn’t quite that long, you knew what he meant.

It is worth remembering where he has come from if tempted to join in with those that complain about his stranglehold on Irish racing, although Gordon Elliott is beginning to challenge. It isn’t that the 58-year-old was born into a position of entitlement and privilege. Rich Ricci, Michael O’Leary, Graham Wylie and JP McManus didn’t start throwing millions at him to buy the best Irish point-to-pointers and French-breds the minute he got his licence. Indeed O’Leary is a very recent client.

He had to work, grind and prove his genius. Now that he has done that, he is reaping the rewards. He gets the best because he is the best. When you have money and want to give yourself the best chance of success, why would you go anywhere else?

This is how far he has come. Initially, he had to tell a few white lies to get his licence. You needed six horses in training. He had four racehorses and an old mare in a field. Another horse had died a few weeks previously. He had a two-furlong gallop. He told the Turf Club inspector that the jumps that were compulsory to train NH horses were further down in another field but that it was too wet a day to go look at them. The inspector, a trainer himself, hardly bought the line, but took pity and gave his approval.

The late Colm Murray, the RTÉ sports presenter who died last year after a battle with motor neuron disease, owned one of the four legitimate wards. Willie and his wife Jackie, who still rides work, were desperate to receive Murray’s first cheque so they could buy a wheelbarrow costing £150. No silver spoon there.

He is completely aware of his position now, thankful for it and regularly tells his son Patrick that the dominance isn’t normal and won’t last.

When it’s put to him that his team bound for Prestbury Park is his strongest ever, he agrees. It will be the largest numerically, approaching 50, with plenty of his novices being targeted at the handicaps. Hitherto, the graded races were all he was interested in, but such is the depth he possesses in the yard now, there are good opportunities around.

On the first day alone, he has five favourites. This is why he is 1/6 to be leading trainer at the festival; something he would appreciate more than ever given that the award is now named after his late colleague, Dessie Hughes.

He asks the gurus if they know the stats for favourites winning on the first day. They don’t. He surmises that the percentages are low and that at least some of the aforementioned quintet will be turned over. It’s called realism.

You have to be a hard man to prevail in racing, but Mullins has a soft side, a human one, a romantic one. He would love Faugheen to win the Champion Hurdle, but if that favourite is beaten by Hurricane Fly – the 22-time Grade 1 winner with Superman scribbled on a sticker outside his box - well let’s say there won’t be any tears shed.

“I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Hurricane Fly fan, so it’s probably not fair to ask me what will happen” he grins.

“I’ll be absolutely delighted if Hurricane Fly can do it this year - it would be my dream result for the whole of Cheltenham.

“Obviously Faugheen is the future, so if he can do it he would have the potential to win another Champion Hurdle, and that would be fantastic.”

Trainer Willie Mullins reckons Faugheen 'is the future'. Photo: INPHO. Trainer Willie Mullins reckons Faugheen 'is the future'. Photo: INPHO.

Annie Power looks great and seems destined for the Mares’ Hurdle. The World Hurdle looks to be cutting up but three miles would be a stretch first time out. It helps that thanks to another Closutton legend Quevega, the only horse to win at Cheltenham festival six times in a row, the Mares’ Hurdle is now a Grade 1.

But as Mullins says often and repeats when talking about possible engagements for Don Poli – he’d prefer the National Hunt Chase, the owners are leaning towards the RSA – the most important thing is to get a Cheltenham victory.

The thing with Annie Power is that the fact she is in contention to make the festival at all is down to her trainer’s eye and innate understanding of horses. She was working well prior to intended appearance in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle in Fairyhouse at the end of November, but something about her didn’t seem right so he got her checked out.

She was found to have a pre-stress fracture. Had she run she would have suffered a full stress fracture which would have had her out until next season. Or maybe worse.

Normally, you would wonder about her making her seasonal debut at the Equine Olympics. But Mullins is the man who got Quevega to win at Cheltenham on her first appearance customarily. No-one doubts that Annie Power will be in peak condition.

Champagne Fever appears increasingly likely to bid for the Champion Chase rather than the Ryanair although a step back up in trip will certainly be attempted again next season.

Then you have Un De Sceaux, the runaway train, odds-on to take the Arkle Chase.

“He’s heart-in-the-mouth stuff to watch, but if he settles jumping his fences in Cheltenham, he's going to put in a big show. It’s going to be tough for him coming up that hill. It's going to be a huge jump, but he has every chance.

“He’s beaten everything he's taken on and it would be great if he went over there and did the same.”

Most notable, perhaps, is how upbeat he is about Supreme Novices’ Hurdle favourite, Douvan.

“He does everything right. He’s as nice a horse as we’ve had ever going to Cheltenham.”

Wait! What? Rewind. Play that again.

“He’s as nice a horse as we’ve had ever going to Cheltenham.”

Now that is a statement given the calibre of animal that has been and currently is housed in this Carlow establishment.

“Has he been beaten? No. That will do me. He’s just got lots of natural ability. Every time we do something with him he comes up with the answer.”

And he smiles. They won’t all win, but plenty will. He cannot wait. For this is what it’s all about. Training horses, gifted horses, for Cheltenham.

Nearly there.