WILLIE MULLINS: CHELTENHAM MAESTRO ON THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF HIS FIRST FESTIVAL WINNER AS A TRAINER
by Mark Souster
Willie Mullins’ track record at Cheltenham is simply phenomenal.
In fact, it could - with a little creative thinking - be set to the jingle 12 Days of Christmas. How about nine Champion Bumpers, six Supreme Hurdles, four Champion Hurdles, three Martin Pipe’s, two Stayers’ Hurdles and a Gold Cup finally?
And that's just a snapshot of his 65 winners - a record for a trainer and one ahead of Nicky Henderson - at the Festival™ presented by Magners.
He had his first winner there 25 years ago and in the intervening period has plucked baubles from the Cheltenham tree almost at will. He has been leading trainer at six of the last nine Festivals and sent out a record-breaking eight winners in 2015, a figure matched by Gordon Elliott in 2018.
Given the quality and strength in depth he's bringing over this week from Closutton in County Carlow, there is nothing to suggest that he will not add considerably to his tally over the next four days at a venue that, for him, holds a particular reverence.
“To anyone in racing the Cheltenham Festival is where you want to end up with your horse,” he says. “If you’re a jockey it’s the best rides, as a trainer with a team of horses going over there is special.
“When an owner comes to me and says, 'Willie can you buy me a horse?' I say, 'What do you want?’ The usual answer is one that will win at Cheltenham. That sums it up.”
Mullins could well get off to a flyer in the opening race, the Supreme Novices Hurdle in which he has five contenders.
"If you can get a winner on the first day, everyone's relaxed. The whole team relaxes and it's almost like a job done so it is. One year I hadn't any winner for two days. It was tough going to bed each evening. But if you are fortunate enough to hit the board the first day or the bullseye even, that's good."
He first hit that Festival bullseye in 1995 when Tourist Attraction won the Supreme at odds of 25-1 ridden by Mark Dwyer. The then-six year old was owned by the North Kildare Racing Club. Memories are still sweet.
“They were a great bunch of owners and they’ve invited me to their 25th anniversary next month. That’ll be good fun,” he explains.
Recalling the day itself, he adds: “I remember thinking the favourite was beatable because we had beaten him in a bumper. Then we had trouble getting a jockey. One of the syndicate members knew Mark and we were delighted to get him to ride. He gave him a peach of a ride and produced him perfectly. I probably have no memory after that!”
Mullins probably felt the same after Al Boum Photo finally put the trainer’s Gold Cup hoodoo to rest - after being runner-up six times. His powers of recall of the race itself remain vivid.
“We had four runners. Kemboy was brought down at the first. Then Ruby was pulling up on Bellshill, then Patrick (Mullins his son) got a fall on Invitation Only on the bend past the stands. All of the while I was keeping an eye on Paul (Townend) on Al Boum Photo waiting for the worst to happen.
“Coming down the hill, I was watching Paul’s body action, then flitting back to see whether Patrick was getting up or getting into an ambulance, then back to Paul and his body language was still telling me he had plenty in the tank.
“Then coming to the second last – Al Boum Photo had fallen there with Ruby the year before (in the RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase.) I was thinking, ‘can he get over the last?’ When he did I was stuck to the ground. It was great to get one after so long and many near misses.”
Walsh has now retired but remains an influential figure at the yard. “Ruby is still on our team even though he works for ITV. He does a lot of work at home for us and he is a huge help to us during the year.”
One of Mullins’ favourites is Faugheen, a Champion Hurdle winner five years ago who, at the age of 12, stirred hearts and minds last time out at Leopardstown after switching to fences. This week he’s entered for both the RSA and the Marsh Novices’ Chase.
“I couldn’t get over the emotion and the atmosphere when he lined up for the second last (at Leopardstown),” Mullins explains. “This looked like it was game on. Then Easy Game was coming up beside him coming up to the last. The whole stand was erupting.
“I’m rarely moved on a racecourse but to me that was some reception. When they passed the winning post, everyone ran off to the winners’ enclosure. It was a fantastic moment. It just shows what people think of Faugheen.
“He has been very special to us. Now to be able to come back at his age, to do it over fences is pretty special.”
Not unlike Mullins himself, who at 62 shows no sign of slowing down.