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Picture: Willie Mullins Credit: Inpho

Record-breaking trainer could have biggest festival team to date with up to 80 runners

Brian O’Connor (Irish Times)

That Willie Mullins can come across smoother than a pint of Guinness was underlined on Monday when he momentarily had a media pack almost feeling sorry for him and his unparalleled dominance of jump racing.

“I didn’t want this amount of horses. I didn’t envisage this amount of horses. But the opposition kept putting up the amount of horses and I said [to myself] to stay relevant I have to go and get as big as the opposition,” Mullins said at one point.

“I was very happy where I was with 100-plus horses, but it’s grown way bigger than I ever envisaged. It’s a lot of work. What can we do? My theory in life is if you’re not going up, you’re going down,” he added.

Working out the logic as to why it might be Gordon Elliott, Henry de Bromhead, or Nicky Henderson’s fault the Co Carlow-based maestro is so all-powerful he might have Euclid tearing his hair out. But there’s no denying Mullins’s ability to sell an unconvincing argument with aplomb.

No one, especially somebody steeped in racing all his life, somehow stumbles accidentally into transforming the very face of the old game. But no one disputes that transform it he has.

Persuasive qualities have been no hindrance in assembling a string so powerful that his already singular Cheltenham record looks set for a substantial rewrite when the most important festival of all kicks off in four weeks.

He is on a record festival tally of 94 winners and odds about Mullins getting the half dozen more required to reach a once scarcely imaginable century are so cramped as to interest not even the most desperate punter.

He saddled six last year to be crowned the festival’s leading trainer for a 10th time, a haul greeted in mostly ho-hum fashion. That was no surprise considering the previous year the Irish man visited the winner’s enclosure on 10 occasions, half of them came on a single day.

They included Gold Cup hero Galopin Des Champs who is a hot favourite to defend his crown next month and will be backed up by a team of up to 80 stable companions. A dozen of them top ante-post betting lists for the 28 festival races.

It constitutes overwhelming strength in depth from a single figure whose grip on the game appears, if anything, to be tightening even further.

That point was also underlined during an annual media incursion to this side of the Irish Sea by the Jockey Club who own Cheltenham.

A full schedule began with a visit to Shark Hanlon’s Gold Cup hope Hewick and ended with some of Irish racing’s great and good shepherded into a nearby hotel for the dubious privilege of getting quizzed by the fourth estate. No one doubted, however, that the meat of the matter was in between.

For Mullins, pretending a couple of platoons of media pitching up on his doorstep isn’t a pain in the behind is a well-oiled routine although some of the horses reacted with appropriate suspicion.

Galopin and State Man, Constitution Hill’s only threat in the Champion Hurdle, were singled out for attention while champion jockey Paul Townend was also pressed into service.

Amid the bonhomie though, eventually, the inevitable question about whether a single person exerting such a stranglehold is good for the overall sport was lobbed.

Mullins would have expected it and before taking his “blame game” flyer noted how his opposition, in Britain and Ireland, hardly compete with one hand tied behind their back when it comes to purchasing all-important raw material.

“We’re very lucky to have the team we have. But we buy horses from a selection of areas, France, English point to points, we buy some Irish point to pointers, we buy the odd bumper horse, buy some stores. [But] those horses are available to everyone,” he argued.

“It’s not as if we go in and plunder all the good horses out of France or out of England, or the point to points. Clearly, we very seldom partake in those sales. I don’t know what to say, we just do what we do,” Mullins added.

What he does has almost every big owner in the game prepared to spend big to get into an operation proven to be the best in delivering success where it counts the most, at Cheltenham.

If there is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy about it, then Michael O’Leary’s effective admission in 2022 that he needed Mullins more than the other way around is a reminder of the unique situation he has carved out.

The amount of outstanding young talent being pointed at Cheltenham this time, including the outstanding Ballyburn, also emphasises the view that Mullins is only going to get stronger.

His rivals can’t even wish for a Jürgen Klopp-like resignation — “Of course I’m going to say no!” — or any sign of presumption.

Pointing to his dozen ante-post favourites, he said: “At least six of those will be beaten. I don’t know which ones, but I’ll be delighted if six of them won. It doesn’t always work out like that. Last year we had six winners, at least we got the right one [Galopin Des Champs] which maybe papered over the cracks.”

That cracks can be mentioned about six Cheltenham winners is the unique scenario in which Mullins finds himself as he closes in on a historic festival century of winners. Reaching it in the 100th Cheltenham Gold Cup is a piece of synchronicity that can’t be ruled out.