07 March 2024

Mullins determined to stay focused – and on top

07 March 2024

Willie Mullins is showing no signs of taking his foot off the accelerator as his Closutton juggernaut threatens to steamroll the opposition at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.

There is very little to say about Ireland’s perennial champion trainer that has not already been said, particularly this season, when his stranglehold on the sport has come under increased scrutiny.

It is important to preface any analysis of whether the remarkable dominance of the Mullins machine is good for the overall health of the sport by stating no blame can be laid at the door of the man himself.

Indeed, Mullins deserves nothing but the highest praise for assembling what is surely the most formidable squad of equine talent National Hunt racing has ever seen.

The fact that all eight Grade Ones at the Dublin Racing Festival went to only one man gave further weight to the theory this is Willie’s world and the rest of us just live in it, and yet there is absolutely no evidence Mullins is taking his success for granted.

“I say every year, we find it extraordinary ourselves that these horses keep coming and I’m delighted,” he said at what has become an annual pre-Festival press morning at his yard in early February.

To visit Closutton is a pleasure and a privilege. Imagine Sir Alex Ferguson or Pep Guardiola inviting several members of the media into their living rooms for coffee or tea and a generous serving of smoked salmon on a glorious Monday morning – it simply would not happen.

This is a man who is at the very pinnacle of his sport, and yet he comes across with the sort of down to earth charm of someone who would be quite happy to have a pint with you – and potentially drink you under the table if given the opportunity.

When it was put to him that some racing fans may find his seemingly never-ending flow of big-race winners “boring”, it soon became clear Mullins had already given the answer some thought.

He said: “We’re very lucky to have the team we have, but we buy horses from a selection of areas – France, English point-to-pointers, Irish point-to-pointers, the odd bumper horse and some stores.

“All those horses are available, I think, for everyone. Maybe we just get a bit luckier and maybe our riding team is good.

“It’s not as if we go in and plunder all the good horses out of France or out of England or out of point-to-points, clearly not. We very seldom partake in those sales, so I don’t know what to say.

“We just do what we do and I suppose it’s cyclical, isn’t it? England aren’t having the best time at the moment, but there’s some brilliant trainers there and some very good horses going to Cheltenham.”

My theory in life is if you're not going up, you're going down

There is no doubting that Mullins’ spending power is greater than most. Success breeds success and he now has several owners who are not shy in dishing out the big bucks in search of top honours.

However, he is certainly not the only trainer with multi-millionaire backers, so what is it that puts him so far clear of the chasing pack?

“My theory in life is if you’re not going up, you’re going down and I always look at and try to learn lessons from other sports and other trainers from over the years,” he went on.

“I’m always amazed how some trainers get to a pitch, really fantastic trainers, and then it comes down and I say ‘why, what did they do wrong?’. I look at that, analyse it and come up with our own answers.

“You look at teams in any sport, why do they win two or three leagues or All-Irelands or whatever they win and then go down? I look at that and try to put that into our game and get around that, which I think has been working so far, and that’s why we are where we are.”

Not only is Mullins hoovering up all the big prizes, but he is regularly filling out the places and, as seen at the Dublin Racing Festival on the odd occasion, saddling most, if not all of the field.

Again, it is difficult to argue such scenarios are “good for the game”, but that is not Mullins’ fault.

“My take on it is we run all the horses for individual owners, we get the horses ready for those big races and a lot of our first team didn’t win at the Dublin Racing Festival, the other ones won and I was delighted for them,” he said.

“I would say we probably compete in 45 per cent of the races (in Ireland) only. People say we dominate everything, but we don’t even run in a lot of races.

“I don’t think our dominance is any bigger than good Flat yards over the years, or other jumps trainers. Every generation, there’s a cycle of people at the top and I think it’s just nature taking its course – and it will with us too, as we get older.”

You could spend a whole day at Mullins’ yard and still not see every horse stabled there. There are barns beyond barns and the gallops can often resemble Piccadilly Circus, with horses coming at you from every angle and heading in different directions.

There is now room for around 200 horses to be in training here at any given time, dwarfing all but the biggest Flat yards. Mullins insists it has grown way beyond what even he had planned for.

“I’m amazed at the amount of horses we have, I didn’t want this many horses and I didn’t envisage having this many horses, but the opposition kept putting up the amount of horses and I said to stay relevant in the game, I have to get as big as the opposition,” he added.

“To stay on par in Ireland, we had to build more stables. Eighteen months ago, I was very happy where I was with a hundred-plus horses, but the thing has grown way bigger than I ever envisaged and it’s a lot of work.”

And so the focus turns to Cheltenham, a place where Mullins is king.

Next season’s Festival will mark the 30-year anniversary of the then small-time trainer’s first ever success at the showpiece meeting, when Tourist Attraction landed the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

Wind the clock forward a few decades and he is now out on his own as the most successful trainer in Festival history with a staggering haul of 94 winners – and you have to go back to 2019 to find the last time he saddled less than the half dozen he now needs to reach a magical century.

On reaching the 100-mark, he said: “It’s not something anyone in racing ever thought of. Someone mentioned it last year and thought I’d go by that mark then, and often getting to the mark can be very hard.

“We’ve gone one or two days in Cheltenham without a winner before and no one is gifted winners in Cheltenham. It’s only when you go back every year that you remember how hard it is to win there.

“Everyone is so hyped up when they get to Cheltenham and it’s so tough, so we don’t go there expecting to win, we hope to win, I always say.”

Two of the trainer’s biggest guns for this year’s Festival are State Man and Galopin Des Champs, who will bid for Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup glory respectively.

Throw in novice hurdler Ballyburn and brilliant mare Lossiemouth and it is not difficult to see why Mullins will wake up every morning between now and then with a degree of trepidation.

“We’re lucky the team we have, but I’m always dreading a Monday morning and my phone goes off and it’s someone out in the yard telling me that we’ve got three lame horses. As long as I don’t see State Man, Galopin Des Champs and those type of horses, it’s fine,” he said.

“Someone said we’ve got 12 favourites. I always say any day you get a winner is a good day, but at least six of those will get beaten. I don’t know which ones, but I’d be delighted if six of them won.

I'm just trying to get the team there in A1 order and hopefully the good ones come to the top

“Suppose State Man and Galopin Des Champs went (injured), that puts a fair dent in your team and I’ve seen it here, if a good horse goes, the next thing the whole yard goes down, it’s amazing.

“We have so many and we’re just hoping that most of them can run true races. You take horses over and they can’t take the occasion, or they lose a shoe the night before. There’s different reasons for horses either being non-runners or failing to give their best performance.

“I’m just trying to get the team there in A1 order and hopefully the good ones come to the top.”

Mullins is keen to stress his operation is far from a one-man show, with his son Patrick, assistant David Casey and former stable jockey Ruby Walsh all major cogs in a wheel that never stops turning.

“We have the back-up team. I can sip tea with you all morning and they’re away working,” he added.

“Patrick looks after the staff, Grainne (Whelan, racing secretary) looks after getting the horses to Cheltenham and David Casey makes sure they’re in the right races.

“Between Patrick and David, they do all the race planning and when they’ve all that done, they come back to me and I would look at it and say ‘maybe we’ve forgotten one’. I just balance up what they do.

“I have my own judgement and then I have Patrick, Davy, Ruby and Paul (Townend). Everyone throws in their tuppence worth and we try to come up with the right answers.”

There was a major shock in the football world recently when Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp made the shock announcement he was to take a break from the sport at the end of the season, citing a lack of energy for his decision.

When asked whether he can see himself suffering burnout eventually, Mullins said: “Of course I’m going to say no, because the moment someone says yes, you’re signing your own thing.

“I’m very happy with what we’re doing at the moment. I still enjoy it, as when it’s not work, it’s very easy to do, isn’t it?”

It is clearly not easy – never mind “very easy” – but nobody makes it look quite as straightforward as Willie Mullins.

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