Mullins machine cranking up for another big campaign
HE asks jokingly who is in charge, but behind the giggles and jokes the work riders already know the answer. They circle Willie Mullins, naming their mounts in turn if he doesn’t name them first, and suggesting what they are about to do in a shorthand that means little to the outside ear. “Two, twos,” they might offer, or “One big.”
For the most part he agrees, occasionally asking what they did yesterday or adding a reminder of a recent run. One jockey is swapped for another because the horse might be a little too fresh for him, but soon the horses are galloping through the autumn Carlow air. It’s a well-oiled machine, a proper team effort.
Stable jockey Ruby Walsh is on hand too, fully fit again. Mullins is delighted to have him back although Walsh later jokes “he’ll soon be sick of the sight of me.”
There is no loss of enthusiasm on Walsh’s part. Yes, he’s had a tough year injury-wise, but “watching the horses go around here, there’s not much that dilutes your appetite, looking at them,” he says, eager to see what the winter holds.
“You have to have bumper horses to have novice hurdlers, and you have to have novice hurdlers to have novice chasers. If you don’t have a youth team, you don’t have a senior team. No minors, no seniors. We had a really good crop of bumper horses last year and should have an exciting team off the back of that.”
It’s only the last day of October but already Cheltenham is part of the narrative, not least because Mullins was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Cotswolds venue having recorded a record 61 winners at a festival where he has been leading trainer five times. “It’s a huge honour for the yard,” says Mullins, “that we managed to get those sort of figures for Cheltenham.
“We never dreamt starting off that an Irish trainer could be top trainer at a meeting like that. When you start off you hope that you can be a champion trainer some day. You don’t realistically think that it will happen but it’s something that could be achievable. You don’t even think about it — that you’re going to beat Nicky Henderson or those guys on their home patch.
“Every year we go to Cheltenham I’d be delighted if we get a winner or two. We’ve had a fantastic Cheltenham for the last few years. You know lots of people think that we’re going to be champion trainer, we’re going to have five or six or seven winners and I’m always delighted when we get one on the board and then take it from there.”
The one big Festival prize that has remained outside his grasp, however, is the Gold Cup, having finished second six times through Florida Pearl, Hedgehunter, Sir Des Champs, On His Own and Djakadam twice. At this stage, possible candidates for the 2019 renewal include Bellshill, Al Boum Photo and Footpad.
“Yes, we’d love to have a Gold Cup horse,” agrees Mullins. “We like having them but we’d like to win one as well, that’s the one we’re trying to look for. But then again, at the start of the season you’re looking for a good horse in any division so if we have a good novice, a good bumper horse, a novice chaser, a hurdler, I’d be happy with that too.”
“You’re always looking for Gold Cup horse,” echoes Walsh. “Could it be Footpad, Bellshill? Or maybe Al Boum Photo? We have a couple that have the potential, they have to improve a bit. That’s the dream. You have to have dreams, don’t you? It’s ten years, come this Cheltenham, since I last won it. Time flies. I’d love to win another Gold Cup and I’d love to win for Willie.”
Mullins is enthusiastic about Al Boum Photo. “I think we have to aim him at a Gold Cup, whether it’s Leopardstown or Cheltenham. He’s a staying chaser and he’s improving all the time so that’s the route I’ll go with him.
“You’re all the time looking for a new champion that might bring the yard into the next few years. We love sifting through our novice horses over the next two months — it should have been the last two months, but the weather played a bit of havoc with that. I think they’re all ready to go so once we get a bit of rain we’ll get them going.”
There is no shortage of stars in the Mullins firmament. He is planning a Champion Hurdle route for Laurina which he thinks could be special and Walsh agrees.
“She looks it,” says the jockey. “She didn’t do anything wrong. That said, purely on form, she has a big step up to make. If you go on ratings, it’s a fair step from where she’s been to where she’s going. She looks to have the potential and the right attributes. She has the seven pound mares’ allowance but she still has to step up a bit.”
Of Footpad, Mullins says: “The King George is a possibility. We’ll start him at two miles and see how he comes out of his first couple of races.”
“Easy to ride him at Cheltenham,” adds Walsh. “He has everything. I won a two-and-a-half-mile hurdle on him in Auteuil as a four-year-old. That would suggest that stamina is no issue to him. Some people point to that three-mile hurdle at Punchestown (he was third in the Stayers’ Hurdle last year) as being a negative. I wouldn’t.
“As a five-year-old, three miles at Grade One level is a very long way. People say point-to-pointers do it every day of the week. They don’t, not at the level of speed we were going at, trying to follow Nichols Canyon and You know w ha time an harry,
‘You’re all the time looking for a new champion that might bring the yard into the next few years’
it’s a different ball game. I think every door is open to Footpad. Like all horses, he’ll tell us. I imagine he’ll start short and go longer. We’ll find out what works for him.”
The trainer will be aiming Pleasant Company, which went so close at Aintree this year, in the direction of the Grand National once again. And as for Faugheen? “We’re very, very pleased with him,” says Mullins. “We haven’t really decided whether to go novice chasing with him or stick to hurdling. I’d say hurdling is favourite at the moment.”
Missing from action last week was Douvan which suffered lameness in his ‘good’ leg and was undergoing tests to determine the extent of the problem.
There is no shortage of stars in the Willie Mullins firmament. Photo: James Crombie