UK markets closed

Master Mullins embraces expectation ahead of Cheltenham challenge

Willie Mullins is the most successful trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival, though he has just one more win than rival Nicky Henderson

Willie Mullins has come a long way in three decades but the signs of the canniness for which he is now renowned has always been there, writes James Toney.

When Mullins applied for his training licence in 1988 he was told he needed to have possession of six horses in his start-up yard.

The man from the Turf Club called to put his inspection in the diary and then, just a few days before he arrived, an old mare passed away.

That left Mullins with five horses and a headache.

“I told the inspector the field was wet and mucky and he just ticked the box on his form - and then we were off and running,” he recalls.

They say you’ve got to be good to be lucky or lucky to be good and from such small beginnings, Mullins quickly stepped out the shadow of his father Paddy, whose six Cheltenham Festival wins include Dawn Run’s famous Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup successes.

The most successful trainer in the history of the Festival, with 65 wins and counting, one ahead of Nicky Henderson, arrives in the Cotswolds with another crack team.

From Asterion Forlonge in the opener to Appreciate It in the Champion Bumper, a race he has won a record nine times.

And then there's star mare Benie Des Dieux, defending Gold Cup champion Al Boum Photo and Chacun Pour Soi, a live chance to land the Master of Closutton the biggest race missing from his resume, Cheltenham's Champion Chase.

It's a superstar crew and that's just the A-listers, plenty of others are ready to seize their chance and play more than just a supporting role. And we've not even mentioned Faugheen.

Expectation is high but what's new?

Perhaps this is why Mullins has spoken about why winning is more of a relief than a joy these days – maybe looking to those other trainers, for whom one success is like every Christmas and birthday rolled into one, with just a little envy.

“It's sport but it’s hard to enjoy when you’re right in the middle of it all,” he said.

“I’m in a lucky position and you’ll never find me moaning.

"If you can get a winner on the first day, everyone relaxes. I remember when the first two days went past without a winner and that was tough, going to bed each evening with your mind racing.

"When you’re at the Festival you don't get chance to be too happy or too disappointed because you’re always thinking about what’s coming up next.

“In the evening we get time to relax, have dinner and sometimes a few drinks. Then it is fun - especially if you’ve had a winner."

Despite the weight of expectant punters’ money on his shoulders, Mullins looks remarkably relaxed as he purposefully strides around his yard, where winners poke their heads from every nook.

But in these fraught days before the Festival, he is surviving on a diet of little sleep and frayed nerves. Tension hangs heavy in the air.

It's hard to escape deafening drumbeat to this week in March, headlines scream from ever paper and racing channels are playing Mullins's greatest hits from Festivals gone by.

"I'd rather switch on to something else, I know the result," he adds. "I'd rather find a film or watch TV and get away from horses altogether."

Martin Pipe, son of a bookie from southwest England, changed training in the 1980s and 90s but Mullins has moved it to another level.

Pipe trained by touch and feel, even if horses were not in his DNA, Mullins – whose father was a patriarch of the sport – always has a mercurial and meticulous approach, spotting angles and options others would struggle to pick.

Ted Walsh sums it up best when he says: 'He just sees things differently'.

"You're always worried you could have a complete blow-out," adds Mullins. "The amount of expectation is huge and we try not to get carried away with it.

"We just try to keep a balanced view and don't worry too much about the others. Nothing changes and I haven't set any targets. I say it every year but it's true, I just want one winner."

You sense that's not the whole truth but it also doesn't pay to doubt Mullins.