Willie Mullins will return to Cheltenham without many of the superstar names of recent years and by his own admission a depleted squad – but only a fool would bet against the winning-most trainer in Festival history making the headlines at Prestbury Park once again.
It is 24 years since the Closutton maestro first struck gold in the Cotswolds, with Tourist Attraction in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Wind the clock forward two and a half decades and he now has a staggeringly impressive 61 Festival winners to his name and has won the Leading Trainer Award in five of the last eight seasons.
Mullins and his stable jockey Ruby Walsh have regularly been the toast of punters, as the likes of Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Vautour and brilliant mares Annie Power and Quevega have been roared up the famous Cheltenham hill.
However, it is perhaps indicative of the strength of this year’s squad that of the 28 races across the four days, Mullins houses just two clear favourites in Coral Cup market leader Uradel – winner of the race last year – and Benie Des Dieux, who will defend her crown in the Mares’ Hurdle.
Speaking at what has become an annual press day at his yard in County Carlow, Mullins said: “Looking at the markets, the team wouldn’t be as strong as other years and I think we’ll probably only have about three-quarters numbers-wise.
“We’ve sent around 60 before and I’d say it will be around 40 this year. Look at our novice chasers – we have very few entries – and in the bumper horses we’re not strong. We might have a few more in handicaps this year, but that’s the way it has been.
“We’ve also got very few of our novice hurdlers out – some of our top bumper horses from last season haven’t run at all.”
One of the major reasons Mullins is set to be a little lighter on numbers than usual crossing the Irish Sea is the weather.
Due to the sheer volume of horses he has at his disposal, the perennial champion trainer has been more badly affected than most by the dry autumn and winter in Ireland – and his ultra-cautious approach has meant many of his horses have not seen the racecourse at all.
“It’s been an extraordinary year,” said Mullins.
“I was looking at some statistics the other day and between 2015 and 2018 – in November, December and January – there was something like 3,000 races run in Ireland and 82 per cent of those were run on heavy ground. In the same period this season it’s down to 18 per cent.
“We could count on one hand how many tracks have had soft or heavy in the going description since August. I can think of Tramore, Cork and maybe Gowran on Thyestes Chase day and that’s it. Otherwise we’ve had good ground.
“We’d had ground you wouldn’t work horses on – a lot of the grass gallops this year haven’t been used.
“Thurles normally would have had about 10 schooling days at this stage of the year and this year they haven’t had one.
“I’ve never known a year like it, but it is what it is.
“It’s been hugely frustrating, but I’d rather have that frustration than have them injured.”
Despite the obvious difficulties of the campaign, it is certainly not all doom and gloom for the all-conquering team.
Mullins had saddled over 100 winners by the end of October – smashing his own personal best and comfortably beating his great rival Gordon Elliott’s record for the fastest century in a season in Ireland.
He has also shot clear of Elliott in the race to be crowned champion trainer – both in terms of winners and prize-money – and will still return to Gloucestershire with a strong hand in several races, perhaps most notably in the the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Mullins has famously never won the blue riband – but has saddled the runner-up on no less than six occasions.
And there is confidence within the camp that this could be the year the hoodoo end, with leading contenders Kemboy and Bellshill set to be joined by Al Boum Photo and Invitation Only to give Mullins a formidable hand.
Mullins said: “We’ve got good chances all week, I think.
“We’ve good chances in the Gold Cup – I think we have as good a chance this year as any.
“To win the Gold Cup would be fantastic. I’m delighted to have horses good enough to run in the Gold Cup and if it happens it happens, but I certainly don’t obsess about it.
“We’ve chances in the Champion Hurdle and a chance in the Champion Bumper (with Blue Sari). Our novice hurdlers have been running well all year. I’ll maybe have to rely on Ballyward in the novice chases, but we’ll be well represented in the handicaps.
“I always say if we can get one winner on the board we’ll work from there. I can’t see us having the same sort of year as last year or previous years, but hopefully we have a chance.”