Willie Mullins chasing more Cheltenham Gold

Trainer still hungry for Festival success.

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Salt and pepper, fish and chips, Willie Mullins and the Cheltenham Festival.

It is 25 years since the master of Closutton first struck gold at Prestbury Park’s showpiece event with Tourist Attraction in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the first of a record six wins in the traditional curtain-raiser.

Wind the clock forward two and a half decades, it is difficult to mention the Festival without mentioning Mullins, with his remarkable tally of 65 winners making him the meeting’s all-time leading trainer, one clear of Nicky Henderson and 20 ahead of Paul Nicholls.

Having finally broke his Gold Cup hoodoo with Al Boum Photo 12 months ago, there is very little for Ireland’s 12-times champion left to achieve, but his fervent appetite for winners in the Cotswolds remains undiminished.

Assessing the overall quality of this year’s squad, Mullins said: “I think we have strength in the big races, but probably not strength the whole way across the team.

“I think we’ve a great chance in the Champion Chase, we have a great chance in the Gold Cup and we have a good chance in the Champion Hurdle.

“We have very good chances in all the novice hurdles and I think we have chances as well in the novice chases. In the novice races especially, you’d like to have young horses coming up and we have a nice batch of young horses.”

Speaking at what has become an annual press morning at his yard in County Carlow last month, Mullins made some attempt to clear up running plans for his Cheltenham-bound team of around 50.

However, this is a man famed for making decisions at the last possible minute, keen to give himself the opportunity to assess as many variables as possible, including the form of a particular horse, ground conditions and the opposition.

Another key factor in Mullins’ mind is riding arrangements. His partnership with the Festival’s all-time leading rider – the now-retired Ruby Walsh – was the stuff of dreams for many a Cheltenham punter.

“I often find that having a certain jockey being available for a certain horse might dictate that I run in a different race to the one that someone wants us to run in,” Mullins reasoned.

“Certainly when Ruby was riding, having Ruby available was huge and had a big impact on where we’d run. I like my stable jockey to ride the fancied horses, especially in novice races, where horses can jump from one trip to another.

“If you’re looking at the Supreme and the Ballymore, for example, and even the Arkle and the Marsh, having a good team going out can be more important that the actual distance of the race.”

Mullins will, of course, be without Walsh’s services this year, with the legendary jockey having called it a day last season.

The man in the privileged position of having the pick of the Mullins mounts now is Paul Townend, Walsh’s long-time understudy, winner of last year’s Gold Cup aboard Al Boum Photo and likely to be champion jockey in his homeland for a third time this season.

Mullins admits Townend will carry more pressure going into this year’s Festival than in the past, but views him as the perfect replacement for the retired Walsh.

He said: “Paul is well used to riding all the top ones – and don’t forget he was champion jockey in the season Ruby retired.

“Ruby was jockey number one and assuming the mantle of number one jockey probably puts a bit more pressure on Paul, rather than being the stand-in, but it wasn’t like he was coming from another yard or a different environment.

“Paul knows the way we like horses ridden, he knows the way the yard operates and knows the way we think.

“People on the outside probably think things are going to be different, but the only difference, I think, is Paul might have felt more pressure himself as now he’s number one and there’s no fall-back. He’s not riding for three or four weeks, or a month or two months before Ruby is back, then there’s less pressure.

“We’re very happy with the way things are going. Paul is riding fantastic and all I say to him is to keep injury clear and do your best. You can get injured any day of the week, but the important thing is to stay right for the big meetings.”

Mullins picked up the Festival’s top trainer award for the sixth time in nine years 12 months ago.

With defending Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo supported by Queen Mother Champion Chase contender Chacun Pour Soi, the brilliant mare Benie Des Dieux and a whole host of other stars and potential stars, it will be a brave man who bets against Mullins stealing the show yet again.

Willie Mullins chasing more Cheltenham Gold

Cheltenham 16:10, 10 March 2020

Cheltenham 15:30, 13 March 2020

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