Willie Mullins has admitted to feeling a mixture of dread and excitement as he prepares to unleash a scarcely believable army of equine talent on the Cheltenham Festival.
It is 20 years since the master of Closutton first struck gold at the greatest show on turf, with Tourist Attraction a 25-1 winner of Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Despite descending from esteemed National Hunt stock as son of the great Paddy Mullins, trainer of the remarkable Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup-winning mare Dawn Run, few could have guessed at that stage Willie would go on to become the all-time leading Irish trainer at the Festival, with 33 successes to his name so far.
It would be one of the biggest shocks in racing history should he not add to that considerable tally during the four days at Prestbury Park, but Mullins is well able to keep his feet on the ground.
“We’re looking forward to it as much as we’re dreading it. We’re looking forward to one or two of the nice horses hopefully winning their races.”
In fact, if Mullins does not strike at least a couple of times on Tuesday’s opening card, there are likely to be some long faces within his camp, in the Cheltenham betting ring and the length and breadth of Ireland.
Douvan is all the rage for the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, while Un De Sceaux is odds-on across the board for the Rcaing Post Arkle ChallengeTrophy.
Most trainers would be happy with two such horses over the whole week, but later that afternoon Mullins will then go to war with Faugheen and Hurricane Fly in the Stan James Champion Hurdle, before Annie Power goes in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.
“We know they can’t all win. I was only thinking in bed what the percentage is of winning favourites on the first day,” said Mullins.
“I keep reading in the paper we have five favourites on the first day. Do five favourites win out of seven races?
“One or two might get through, we might have a treble if we’re really lucky.
“The Supreme favourite normally gets turned over, that’s Douvan, who is probably one of our hottest ones.
“It’s what we’re in the game for, though — to go to Cheltenham with as many as we can muster with a chance. As much as I dread it, it’s lovely. That’s the position we want to be in. This game is a game of disappointments more than anything. You need to enjoy the good ones when they come along.”
The nine-times Irish champion jumps trainer has been the Festival’s top handler in three of the past four seasons and would dearly love to add to his haul in the year the award is named after Dessie Hughes, who passed away last year.
Despite leaving Prestbury Park last March with four winners, Mullins admits there was still a sense of what might have been.
He said: “Last year we had four winners and six seconds — three of them involved in photo finishes — and maybe a stewards’ inquiry or two that could have gone our way and didn’t.
“We all regrouped after and we were delighted to win the leading trainer award, but we were left wondering what it would have been like if everything clicked — it could have been a hell of a year.
“That just shows you what the competition is like at Cheltenham. If you’re just not up to it, you’re just going to be beaten. It’s the thrill of Cheltenham. If it was that easy, it wouldn’t be any fun.”
Mullins will send a jaw-dropping squad of around 50 horses to the Cotswolds, more than most trainers have in their yard, and admits it is something of a logistical nightmare for his hard-working team.
He said: “It’s definitely the strongest team we’ve ever had and I think we’ll definitely have more numbers this year and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.
“I’m just hoping it doesn’t leave our line too thin for looking after all the horses that are going over there. It’s going to be hard work for the people involved and I don’t get involved as I find if I do, it goes wrong!
“Two years ago, I think, we brought over a horse that wasn’t running and another horse got left behind. Luckily enough it’s a short ferry ride and short drive over to Cheltenham!”
It is 10 years since the Festival was increased from three days to four and with the the popularity of the fixture showing no signs of waning, there has even been talk of adding a fifth day and taking the fixture into the weekend.
While an extra six or seven races would provide Mullins with more chances of winning races, the purist in him feels extending the meeting would be the wrong way to go.
He said: “I was brought up with black and white TV, watching Arkle and Mill House and all those, and that’s what’s in a lot of our heads.
“I’m not in favour of Cheltenham getting bigger, but as a trainer I shouldn’t say that. I should say I want a 10-day Cheltenham because as a trainer it’s our job to have more races to win at Cheltenham. But I don’t know if expanding it is making the experience better. The experience as a three-day meeting was fantastic. Four days probably hasn’t caught up with that experience and a lot of people are either going for the first two days or the second two days.“
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved