Kevin Blake

With just over three weeks to the Cheltenham Festival, Kevin Blake feels Willie Mullins faces his toughest career test heading into the National Hunt season's showpiece event.

  • Monday 18 February
  • Blog
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What Willie Mullins has achieved in his training career is nothing short of remarkable. Having regained his Irish Champion National Hunt Trainer crown in 2007/8 by securing over 100 winners for the first time, he surged from strength-to-strength despite the country around him being mired in recession. 

As the economic conditions improved around the country of Ireland, Mullins continued to bull forward into a position of dominance never seen in Irish National Hunt racing, securing a record 193 winners in 2012/13.

While Mullins’s dominance seemed sure to last indefinitely, the relentless rise of the equally-remarkable Gordon Elliott has changed the face of Irish National Hunt racing once again. However, Elliott’s presence has only served to drive Mullins on to even greater heights of excellence in recent seasons, with him saddling an unbelievable tally of 212 winners in Ireland last campaign.

On the face of it, all would appear to be going well for Mullins this season. He currently leads Gordon Elliott by over €400,000 in the trainers’ championship having trailed him at this stage in the last two seasons. However, that doesn’t tell the full story.

For Mullins, it has been a season of two halves so far. Since Gordon Elliott has started to challenge Mullins’s dominance in the last few years, Mullins is likely to have become acutely aware that Elliott has been able to poach a significant lead on him in the first half of the season. The 2017/18 season saw Mullins seem to make a change to his modus operandi by being much more active in the summer months, securing what was for him a record 86 winners by the end of October.

Fast-forward to the start of this season. With Gordon Elliott having had well publicised health issues with his horses in the opening weeks of the campaign, Mullins came storming out of the gate in even more ferocious style, smashing Elliott’s record for the fastest 100 winners in a season and saddling 107 winners by the end of October.

However, one can’t help but wonder has there been a price to pay for this change of tactics. Prior to the 2017/18 season, the months of November, December and January had seen Mullins secure 79, 76, 78 and 77 winners in the previous four seasons. After his fast start in 2017/18, his tally for the following November, December and January dropped to 63. Following his even faster start this season, Mullins’s take during those three months was just 48 winners, more than 40% less than we had come to expect from him.

Of course, there have almost certainly been other factors at play in Mullins’s relative under-performance in the last three months. Chief amongst them has been the unusually firm ground that has prevailed all winter. It is no secret that Willie Mullins’s setup at Closutton is designed to condition horses to thrive on testing ground.

The surface of his main gallop is very deep and it puts a depth of conditioning into his horses that brings them into their own when the going gets really tough during the winter. It is also no secret that Mullins is a very keen utiliser of schooling hurdles and schooling bumpers on the racecourse, but the firmer-than-usual ground has restricted how much he can use those with his winter horses too.

These factors have almost certainly contributed to many of Mullins’ best horses having very limited campaigns and even being kept off the track altogether this winter, as well as the likes of Douvan, Draconien, Great Field and Next Destination picking up season-ending injuries. There has also been a lingering concern about the form of those that Mullins has run in recent months, with his string lacking the consistency we have come to expect from them.

Willie Mullins at Cheltenham
Could the 2019 Cheltenham Festival be Willie Mullins's toughest in recent memory?

To illustrate just how relatively tough this winter has been for Mullins, on October 17th I published a stable tour with him detailing 23 of his most high-profile horses. In the four months that have followed, seven of them have yet to run and the remaining 16 have only run 28 times between them. In contrast, of the 23 horses contained in the stable tour I conducted with Gordon Elliott the day after that, only one has failed to make the track and the rest have run 67 times between them.

What all of the above sets us up for is an extra layer of narrative heading into the spring festivals. It is clear that by his own sky-high standards, Willie Mullins has had a difficult winter. However, Mullins has a well-earned reputation for his ability to be patient with a view to peaking his best horses for the spring festivals and finish the season with a bang.

This season more so than any other since his rise to the top of the sport will have tested that famed patience. The next three weeks is likely to represent the greatest challenge he has ever faced to get his horses to peak for the Cheltenham Festival in such testing circumstances. If anyone can do it, Willie Mullins can, but he will likely need to use all his experience to deliver it.

Kevin Blake
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