No one in their right mind could quibble at the induction of Willie Mullins into Cheltenham’s Hall Of Fame. The Irish trainer, who a year ago became the most successful Cheltenham Festival trainer of all time when Laurina secured his 61st win at the meeting by landing the mares’ novices hurdle, is there on merit. And then some.
His feats are not only unique to the Festival, they are fairly startling across the board. In the last Irish jumps season he won 212 races to beat his previous record of 193, set five seasons earlier, to become Ireland’s champion jumps trainer for the 12th time with a new prize-money record, helped by having sent out an astonishing 18 winners at the 2018 Punchestown Festival.
Mullins has trained more than 3,000 career winners, among them four Champion Hurdles. and a Grand National. But there is one anomaly - he is yet to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
For a serial winner like Mullins having to stand in the spot reserved for second place after the Gold Cup on no fewer than six occasions might start to feel a little personal. But that's where he has been time and again, after the brave but ultimately unsuccessful efforts of Florida Pearl in 2000, Hedgehunter (2006), Sir Des Champs (2013), On His Own (2014) and Djakadam (2015 & 2016).
At this time of year this is variously referred to by headline writers as a ‘curse’, ‘hex’, ‘hoodoo’ or ‘jinx’. As far as Mullins is concerned, however, bad luck has played very little part. “We are very lucky to have horses that are good enough to run in a Gold Cup," he said. "Probably I think maybe I have been unlucky once. All the other times that was as good as they were.”
That one hard-luck story he will accept came when On His Own was beaten a short head by Lord Windermere in one of the most contentious finishes to the Gold Cup in the race’s history. Victory for Lord Windermere was confirmed only after a 15-minute stewards’ inquiry into the mayhem caused when the first past the post carried two of his rivals across the course.
Davy Russell received a one-day ban for careless riding but ultimately the panel ruled the interference was accidental, despite On His Own’s jockey David Casey arguing: “I felt, with a straight run, I would have won the race.”
Mullins, 63, has been the most successful of the family dynasty since he struck out on his own in 1988 at his Closutton base in Bagenalstown, County Carlow, having enjoyed three Festival winners as an amateur rider.
Before that he had worked as an assistant to his father Paddy, himself one of Ireland’s most successful trainers and whose enduring legacy was his handling of the great mare Dawn Run who is the only horse in history to win both the Champion Hurdle and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Willie Mullins has produced a catalogue of jump racing’s biggest names. They began with Florida Pearl, winner of the Weatherbys Champion Bumper and RSA Chase and Hurricane Fly, twice winner of the Unibet Champion Hurdle, and have multiplied through the exploits of Faugheen, Annie Power, Un De Sceaux, Douvan and Vautour.
Mullins also trained and rode Wither Or Which to win the 1996 Champion Bumper and saddled the extraordinary Quevega to win the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle six years in a row. In 2015 he became the first to train the 1-2-3 in the Champion Hurdle when Faugheen beat Arctic Fire and Hurricane Fly.
And, despite these quite extraordinary achievements, the Gold Cup still eludes him. No wonder, then, he remains tirelessly ambitious to finally nail the Festival’s ultimate prize, and he is coming back again this year with a potential team of four, all of them last-time-out winners.
The Mullins squad comprises Kemboy, winner of the Grade 1 Savills Chase at Leopardstown in December, Irish Gold Cup winner Bellshill, Al Boum Photo, winner of a Listed chase on New Year’s Day and Thyestes Chase winner Invitation Only. Killultagh Vic, who is also entered, is unlikely to line up.
Mullins gave a rundown of each of the horses at his annual Cheltenham Festival media open day. "Bellshill stays very well and he jumps very well, which is probably his biggest asset and is a huge plus for him,” he said. “Cheltenham has not been the luckiest of tracks, but hopefully he could put that right this time around. He is now becoming the horse we thought he would be.
"He had an in and out time over the last couple of seasons, but we think there is more improvement to come from him after Leopardstown the other day.
"Al Boum Photo should be effective over the Gold Cup trip and he won well at Tramore last time out," Mullins went on. “I don't think we've seen the best of Al Boum Photo yet.
"Kemboy is in good form. His performance at Leopardstown over Christmas was very good and with fast, good ground, which can come up on the fourth day of Cheltenham, he would have a very good chance. I think the further he goes, the better he is.
"It was a brave ride from David Mullins over Christmas on him, but it paid off. I think the different way of riding him did suit. Kemboy skipped over the fences at Leopardstown and hopefully he can do the same at Cheltenham, whilst the extra trip there should suit.
"Invitation Only will have to step up a bit on his form to get involved in a Gold Cup.”
Despite his immense firepower, the Gold Cup is probably the only race Mullins can approach unable to express absolute confidence. This year is no different.
“This year's Gold Cup looks wide open and I think my horses all go there with a good chance,” he said. “It would be very nice to win a Gold Cup and I think we have as good a chance this year as any."
When asked what finally winning the Gold Cup would mean to him, Mullins replied, “A big headache!” There would be many prepared to share in a toast to him if he can pull it off.
We look forward to welcoming you for Day Four - Gold Cup Day of The Festival 2019. See you one week today.