Cheltenham 2017: Festival can still be Mullins’ Gigg -
By his own admission, the current campaign has been “tough” for Willie Mullins.As well as blowing his rivals out of the water in his homeland for the last decade, the County Carlow maestro has become dominant in Britain, evidenced by his titanic tussle with Paul Nicholls for last year’s British trainers’ title. Mullins only conceded on the final day at Sandown.
Mullins has won the Leading Trainer Award at the Cheltenham Festival in five of the last six years, saddling a record eight winners two years ago and seven last season to take his total tally to 48, leaving him second only to Nicky Henderson (55) in the all-time list.
However, there has been a power shift in Ireland this season, with the well-publicised shock split with leading owners Gigginstown House Stud in a disagreement over increased training fees a double whammy, as many of the 60 horses that left Closutton moved to Gordon Elliott’s burgeoning Cullentra base.
Elliott’s improved arsenal has helped him race into a significant lead in the race to be crowned champion National Hunt trainer in Ireland and for the first time in a long time, the perennial crowning of Mullins at the Punchestown Festival is under serious threat.
The sad demise of Vautour and the enforced absences of superstars Annie Power, Faugheen and Min from this year’s Cheltenham team are further blows, but optimism is only marginally dimmed.
Considering his losses, Mullins has put together a remarkably strong team of around 40 horses ready to do battle in the Cotswolds, leaving him well placed to bounce off the ropes and come out fighting at Prestbury Park.
“I’d say we’ll have about 40 runners. Normally we’d have around 60, so we’re back that many,” said Mullins.
“Hopefully we’ll have quality going over, so we’ll have to try and make it up. It’s not going to be as big a team as other years, so it’s going to be tougher for us I think.
“People tell me I have four or five or six favourites, I can’t see them myself, but maybe I’m a bit more pessimistic.
“I didn’t think we’d have anything like that (number) going to Cheltenham this year and I just hope the markets are right.
“People expect a lot from our team and we’re hoping rather than expecting.
“When you go to Cheltenham with a strong favourite, it’s always relief rather than joy. If you have a 25-1 winner that’s unexpected, that’s joy.”
On the season so far, he said: “It’s been tough, but we’ve had some fantastic years and it goes up and down.
“I’m well used to accepting disappointment. Everyone in jumps racing gets used to disappointments and hopefully we have some nice young horses coming along.
I’ve always said to Patrick (Mullins) these things don’t last forever. I think he has probably listened and learned and I think whatever happens at Cheltenham, this year has been a reflection of what I’ve said.
“I’ve just forgotten about them (the Gigginstown horses). They’ve gone and we just get on with what we have.
“You’ll get people on the outside looking in comparing what might have been, but it’s the way it is. I can’t do anything about it and it’s done. We knew doing what we were doing what was going to happen and we said we’d take the consequences. I’m not dwelling on it.
“If you look back, you’re finished. You’ve got to look forward.”
So, would beating Gigginstown-owned horses at Cheltenham be extra special?
“I don’t think you should ever gloat in racing,” he said. “I’ll be satisfied if I do well, but I don’t think you can ever be delighted you beat someone, because the next day they’re going to beat you.
“Every second day it’s forward and back, so I just enjoy my own victories, not because of who you beat, just because you’ve won.”
Mullins also admitted that it would be difficult to be crowned champion trainer in Ireland. He said: “It’s going to be tough. Just the sheer weight of numbers alone (that Elliott has) makes it hard.
“Hopefully we’ll have horses for the Festivals. Whether that’s enough or not, we’ll have to wait and see.
“Then you look at races like the Irish National. We’d need to win it without Gordon finishing in the first three to get back level, so that shows you the scale of the task we have.
“My good horses I’ll campaign the same way I’ve always campaigned them. I don’t think it will have any effect on what we run at Cheltenham. What goes to Cheltenham goes to Cheltenham — I don’t think we’ll be keeping one back!
“Gordon probably has a lot of different types of horses than we have and he campaigned them much earlier, but I couldn’t see myself changing.
“Trying to find horses that will run earlier in the season is not something we aspire to. We try and look for top-grade horses.”
And on the British handicapper raising the marks of Irish horses, he added: “Our horses normally get somewhere between 6lb and 8lb over their Irish weight.
“I don’t like giving out about handicappers. You enter, you run and you take it or leave it.
“I try not to get upset about it.”