Donn McClean speaks to Willie Mullins ahead of the Cheltenham Festival in his new weekly feature.
By Donn McClean
Last Updated: 06/02/13 10:47am
The Irish trainers' table just would not look right these days if Willie Mullins did not sit at the top seat. Mullins is the dominant force of Irish National Hunt racing, the Barcelona, the Djokovic, the Frankel.
Since he first won the Irish trainers' championship in 2008, he has gripped the Irish jumps scene like a drowning man grips a log. Not that Mullins is a drowning man.
Buoyant as a life raft filled with helium, this season the champion trainer has gone stratospheric. His 138 winners in Ireland so far this term is 27 more than the total with which he won his first championship just five years ago. More than that, it equals the total that he achieved in the entire of last season when it appeared as though he had reached a zenith.
Add the totals of the trainers lying in second, third and fourth places in the trainers' championship - Meade, Hughes, Elliott, top class trainers all - and you still fall short of Mullins' total. Add the win prize money of the trainers lying in second, third, fourth and fifth in the championship, and Mullins' total is higher still.
"Yes, but we could be doing without weekends like last weekend," says the trainer. Rooted to the ground like an oak.
One winner, a Grade Two winner, on a high-class day's racing at Punchestown would be a good day for most trainers. A good week. Not for Willie Mullins. The defeats frustrate. Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser.
Probe a little deeper, however, focus on the positive, and you find that the trainer was very happy with that win, Mozoltov's defeat of Don Cossack and Ned Buntline in the Moscow Flyer Hurdle.
"He jumped well at that speed," he says. "He looked beaten twice, but he pleased me the way that he battled. I'd say it was a fair field. That performance put him into the picture for Cheltenham all right."
As if Mullins needed another top class novice hurdler. Mozoltov just adds to the near-embarrassment of riches that the trainer has amassed this season in the novice hurdling ranks. The difficulty at Cheltenham will be in keeping them apart.
Perhaps Un Atout and Mozoltov for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Ballycasey for the Albert Bartlett, Pont Alexandre and maybe Champagne Fever for the Neptune. Difficult decisions, but you can't really feel sorry for him. For the majority of trainers, these are the choices of Never Never Land.
"I loved Pont Alexandre the moment I saw him," says Willie. "His trainer in France (Laurent Viel) told me that he was as good a horse as he has ever had. Up until about a month before I ran him, I was wondering if he really was going to be that good, but then he started showing me a little at home, and I started to think, he might just be as good as he looks."
Pont Alexandre made his debut for his new trainer in the Grade One Navan Hurdle in December. Never before had the champion trainer run a horse in a Grade One race on his debut for him, but he took the risk with the son of Dai Jin, and it paid off. In spades.
"I was obviously delighted with him when he won that day. That he was able to beat top class opposition on ground that he had never encountered before. And he impressed me again when he won the Grade Two race at Leopardstown 10 days ago. It wouldn't have been easy making all the running on the day, with the ground and the wind, but he is a hardy individual, and he has pace."
Like Pont Alexandre, Ballycasey and Champagne Fever are both owned by Rich and Susannah Ricci.
"I'd say Ballycasey will go in the Albert Bartlett all right," says their trainer. "He's a good stayer, he has plenty of stamina. Champagne Fever blotted his copybook at Naas. He is on the comeback trail, but he has to bounce back now. We might let him take his chance in the Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown on Saturday, and take it from there."
Novice chasers? No easier than the novice hurdlers. Boston Bob is in the Arkle, the Jewson, the RSA Chase and the National Hunt Chase. Back In Focus is in the RSA Chase and the National Hunt Chase. Both horses are owned by Graham Wylie, so they will probably be kept apart.
"Both are in the Dr J Moriarty Chase at Leopardstown on Saturday, so we'll see how they go. I was hoping to get an easier task for Boston Bob for his second chase. While I was delighted that he won on his debut, I wasn't exactly jumping for joy afterwards. Back In Focus is a real stayer."
Aupcharlie will probably be dropping down in trip from three miles.
"He seemed to be caught for stamina over three miles on his last two runs. He could go in the Arkle or the Jewson, probably the Jewson, although the way he jumps, he wouldn't be out of place in an Arkle. Arvika Ligeonniere is fine after his fall the last day at Leopardstown, and he will probably go in the Arkle."
At least Hurricane Fly's target is certain. The stable star is three for three this season - 14 Grade Ones, remarkable - and he is bang on track to try to regain the Champion Hurdle crown that he lost last year.
"I am very happy with him this season," says Willie. "Although you never know what's going to happen between now and Champion Hurdle day. You saw what happened to poor Darlan. That was desperate for JP and Jonjo. We're just hoping that we get there in one piece."
Quevega? Good. Going well in her work. The Mares' Hurdle is her target and, although she is still in the World Hurdle you'd imagine that she wouldn't turn out again on Thursday if all went to plan on Tuesday.
Uncle Junior? Good. Loves that cross-country track.
Sir Des Champs? Good.
"He is progressing through the season," says his trainer slowly. "He wasn't beaten far in the Lexus, and I expect him to improve from that. He made two significant errors that day, which surprised me. Until he made that mistake at the last fence at Punchestown last April, I would have thought that he was a horse who would never make a mistake.
"Maybe it's the soft ground, maybe he just doesn't jump as well out of that as he does off good ground. His best form is on good ground at Cheltenham. He is on track for the Gold Cup, and I am hoping he will run a big race in the Hennessy at Leopardstown on Saturday."
The bumper horses are busy trying to sort themselves out. Clondaw Court and Union Dues and Sizing Tennessee and new recruit Moyle Park and more.
"The form of Moyle Park's race is obviously working out well. I really bought him for next year, though, rather than for this year, but we'll see what happens. We will probably try to win another bumper with him and take it from there."
Blood Cotil and Diakali perhaps for the Triumph Hurdle. Maybe Fatcatinthehat, maybe Dogora. Maybe one or two of those for the Fred Winter Hurdle instead. The first-named pair are both in the Grade One Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown on Saturday, so we should know more after that.
There are others. Lots of others. Vesper Bell possibly for the National Hunt Chase, Call The Police perhaps for the Byrne Group Plate, Inish Island maybe for the Albert Bartlett, maybe for a handicap, the bonus-seeking Abbey Lane perhaps for the County Hurdle or the Coral Cup.A lot of it is still up in the air. It's early days. Exciting days though, nerve-wracking days, no doubt.
For now, though, from his position at the top of the table, Willie Mullins' cup runneth over.
For more of Donn's thoughts, visit www.donnmcclean.com