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Monday, February 26, 2024

Carlow Nationalist — Fear of failure keeps pushing Mullins on as he eyes up 100th Cheltenham Festival winner

LEGENDARY trainer Willie Mullins stands on the verge of history next month, needing just six winners to bring up a century of Cheltenham Festival successes.

The feat has never been achieved before. In fact, no one has ever come close. But in a revealing interview about success, the fear of failure and how his famous Closutton operation produces superstar after superstar, the 67-year-old has admitted he never wanted more than 100 horses in his yard.

With 94 career Cheltenham Festival winners – three of them in the prestigious Grade One Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup – Mullins and his close-knit team could be forgiven for taking success for granted at horseracing’s equivalent of the Olympics.

Willie Mullins & jockey Paul Townend with 2023 Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Galopin Des Champs.
Photo: Lorraine O’Sullivan

However, he insists the annual pilgrimage to Jump racing’s most famous amphitheatre is always more in hope than expectation and that triumphing in even one of the 28 races during Festival week is just as hard as it has ever been, even if the racing world expects him to dominate over the four days.

Speaking during a media visit to his yard organised by The Jockey Club, he explained: “We’re very lucky to have the team we have but we buy horses from a selection of areas – France, English point-to-pointers, we buy Irish point-to-pointers, the odd Bumper horse and some ‘stores’ and those horses are available for everyone.

“Maybe we just get a bit luckier and maybe our riding team is just really good but it’s not as if we just go and plunder all the best horses in France or out of England or the point-to-points – clearly not and we very seldom partake in those sales, so I don’t know what to say.

“We just do what we do and it’s cyclical isn’t it? England are not having the best time of it at the moment. There are some brilliant trainers there and some very good horses going to Cheltenham but I’m amazed at the amount of horses we have.

“I didn’t want this amount of horses and I didn’t ever imagine having this many horses, but the opposition kept putting up this number of horses so I said to stay relevant in the game I have to go and get as big as the opposition.

“That’s in Ireland. I don’t know what the stable sizes are in England but to stay on par in Ireland we built more stables. I didn’t want to. I was very happy where I was with 100-plus horses but it’s grown way bigger than I ever envisaged and it’s a lot of work.”

Mullins is passionate about a range of sports and finding the magic recipe for success and staying at the very top is never too far from his mind.

He continued: “My theory in life is that if you’re not going up then you’re going down and I try and learn lessons from other sports, from other trainers over the years. I’m always amazed how some trainers get to a pitch and then it goes wrong and I say ‘why – what did they do wrong?’ Then I look at that and analyse it and then we come up with our own answers and you look at teams in any sport.

“Why do they reach a plateau and then go down? I look at that and then try to put that into our game and try to get around that which I think has been working so far. That’s why we are where we are. The same options are open to everyone else but we just happen to be the team on top at the moment but I’m sure that’ll change.”

With dozens of top quality horses to choose from and only a small number of horses currently missing this year’s Festival through injury – Energumene and Allaho being the most high profile – Mullins is once again looking forward to The Festival.

He added: “I couldn’t be happier. We have some fantastic horses going over, from the stars like Galopin Des Champs the whole way through to horses in the different types of races down to the Bumper and we’re strong in most divisions.

“I think it’ll be probably 60-plus horses. Who knows what’s going to happen in the next few weeks but we’ve been very lucky this year. We’ve had very few injuries and most of the horses are getting there at this point in time.

“It won’t all be decided until we get nearer to The Festival. We’ve got lots of options when you consider the Supreme, the Baring Bingham, the Turners’ and the Brown Advisory. Even Monkfish is in the Gold Cup and he’s also in the Stayers’ Hurdle, although I’m edging towards the Gold Cup with him, all being well…

“I just find we’ve got such a team going over and we’re just hoping that most of them can run a true run race because sometimes you go over there and they just can’t take the occasion or they lose a shoe the night before.

“I think about everything that’s ever happened before going to Cheltenham – the different reasons for having non-runners or failing to give their full performance so I’m more into just trying to get the team there in good order.

“I say every year that we find it extraordinary ourselves that they keep coming and we’re delighted.”

While the name on the training license reads WP Mullins, there is absolutely no suggestion that the yard’s success is down to one man.

Mullins himself laughed at the suggestion that taking so many horses across the Irish sea presents a “logistical headache”. He admitted: “None whatsoever for me! I’m better off just leaving the team to it otherwise half the horses wouldn’t get there if I had anything to do with it!

“The team we have at home here take the workload from me, starting with my wife Jackie and then Patrick, my son, and David Casey, Ruby Walsh, Grainne in the office who does all the logistics and declarations and Dick out in the yard. Everyone has their job, everyone knows their job.

“They do all that for me and then when we get to Cheltenham, Ian Renton (The Jockey Club’s Managing Director who runs Cheltenham Racecourse) and his staff over there make our jobs so much easier. Any time we have any little problem it’s solved but I’d have to say there are very few problems as they run such an efficient operation there too.”

Asked whose advice he takes on board he went on: “I have my own judgement. And then I have Patrick (Mullins), David (Casey), Ruby (Walsh), Paul (Townend) and all those people throw in their tuppence worth.

“Some of the things are so obvious but it’s good to toss it around and listen to people’s reasons and then make your final decision.”

Just six short of the magic 100 Festival winners, Mullins could quite easily be planning a celebratory week in the Cotswolds, but the most decorated trainer in the event’s history is not one who takes anything for granted.

He explained: “It’s not something I think anyone in racing ever thought of so I don’t know. People talked about it last year and thought I might go by that mark last year but often getting to that mark can be very hard. We’ve gone one or two days without a winner at Cheltenham and no one is gifted winners at Cheltenham.

“It’s only when you go back every year – you sort of forget how hard it is to win there. Everyone is so hyped up when you get to Cheltenham so we don’t go there expecting to win. We hope to win, I always say.

“If we go there with 12 favourites it’s great. I always say any day with a winner is a good day but at least six of those will be beaten. I don’t know which ones – I’d just be delighted if six of them won, but it doesn’t always work out. Last year we got six (winners) but at least we got the right one (the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup) which sort of papered over the cracks, because it might have been a disappointing week otherwise.”

Asked if the fear of failure drives him on he added: “Of course it does. That’s the pressure and the incentive. How do I handle it? It’s just part of the job and the weeks before Cheltenham, the weeks before the Dublin Racing Festival and the weeks before Christmas … this year we had a very quiet autumn and you look at the talent out there (in the yard) and you think cripes, these better fire, but they did fire and we had a brilliant Christmas.

“But I suppose it’s like a team going into a knockout stage or a final – you’ve got to perform. But I don’t sit here thinking ‘we’ll have four winners on the first day and three winners on the second day’.

“We went into Christmas this year with no winner at Leopardstown on the first day with a lot of fancied horses and you’re coming home thinking ‘ah’. And that could happen, that you just have a blowout for some reason. You might have something, which we did actually last Christmas. We had a bad batch of straw which wasn’t right but we got that out of the way. So something externally can happen outside of your knowledge and they’re the things you worry about and you’re looking all the time to see what’s different, what’s going wrong, and hopefully the team are as well. That’s my big fear.

“Once the race meeting starts and we get a winner it settles everyone’s nerves I think. But it’s not turning up and expecting winners – at least I don’t turn up expecting winners.”

The conversation turned briefly to football when Mullins was asked about Jurgen Klopp’s recent decision to leave Liverpool at the end of the season and whether he ever worries about burn out in his own role. But he laughed: “Of course I’m going to say no! I’m very happy doing what I do.”

Asked if he still has the same energy for the sport, he added simply: “I do because I love it.”

As for The Festival itself, Mullins seems as besotted with Jump racing’s most high profile event as he ever has been.

He concluded: “The Irish National Hunt fans love it, so do the English, the French, we met some people from Australia last year and some others from America who are coming back again this year. They can’t get over the atmosphere.

“The buzz in Cheltenham is amazing. The amount of people I meet who are Flat racing people but happen to be in Cheltenham – they all want a horse to go back to Cheltenham. They can’t get over the atmosphere and buzz that Cheltenham generates compared to any other meeting around the world.”

By Ben Cox (Jockey Club)

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