Mullins ma­chine crank­ing up for an­other big cam­paign

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RACING - FER­GUS MCDON­NELL

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

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