Willie Mullins admits Cheltenham expectations leave ‘a certain dread in your stomach’

The most successful trainer in festival history with 78 winners says nerves hit in build-up

There's only 20 days to the start of the Cheltenham festival so first things first – Willie Mullins thinks Allaho is his best bet for jump racing's biggest week of the year.

Since Allaho is a 4-5 favourite to repeat last year’s success in the Ryanair Chase its cautious advice unlikely to make any punter rich.

However, since Mullins is the most successful figure in festival history with 78 winners – and is himself odds-on to be top trainer for a ninth time – he knows his every word gets pounced on at this time of year.

When quizzed by media at his Co Carlow base on Wednesday morning he had barely mentioned favouring the Turners Chase rather than the Brown Advisory for Galopin Des Champs than the star novice’s price collapsed in the shorter race.


It sets up the prospect of a mouth-watering cIash with another Irish star in Bob Olinger, although 27 years of Cheltenham success has taught Mullins the value of wriggle room.

That means definitive festival plans are unlikely to be finalised until the first 48-hour declaration stage the Sunday before.

That will be when the brains trust of Mullins, his son Patrick, champion jockey Paul Townend, assistant trainer David Casey, and someone called Ruby Walsh, sit down and divvy up a colossal 60-horse squad.

“Mental,” is how the perennial champion trainer describes how that decisive date used to be in the office. It’s a quicker process now but still him with the ultimate call.

“It’s probably a gut feeling. Sometimes you don’t make the right decision but you go with your gut feeling or whoever puts up the biggest argument.

“Sometimes [though] I’ll have my mind made up, I listen to the others, and we go my way!” he says.

It means the racing world must hang on longer for where other exciting novice talents such as Sir Gerhard and Dysart Dynamo end up.

There are other dilemmas, too, such as whether the former dual-Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo will emerge in time from an apparent mood slump to try and regain the ‘Blue Riband’ crown, or if Chacun Pour Soi is too much of a home bird to carry his outstanding domestic form across the Irish Sea.

So perhaps it’s little wonder that while everyone else is counting down the days the central figure is more ambivalent.

“[I] probably dread it because of the expectation from everyone that we’re going to have half a dozen winners,” he admitted.

It seems not even 78 winners – including eight in a single week in 2015 – can insulate someone against a fear of it all going wrong.

“Some year it will happen – we’ll have a blowout. And that’s always on the back of your mind,” Mullins said.

“Everyone’s expectation is going to be your failure if you don’t come up with it. That leaves a certain dread in your stomach. A week or two before the festival can be tough in that respect.

“But I’m lucky enough with the owners and the horses I have to be in that position. You just have to take what comes with it; people always stopping you and people always ringing you, that’s the price you pay.

“And thankfully people are because there’s lots of guys no one wants to ring. I know I’m very lucky so that’s the way I feel going into it. On one hand you’re dreading it – on the other I’m lucky,” he added.

Cheltenham’s central role in the sport means it’s not just the racing world focusing on the four days in the Cotswolds.

After the reputational disaster of 2020, and last year’s eerie behind closed doors action, the prospect of an ‘old normal’ festival with heaving crowds felt as bright as Wednesday morning’s sunshine following a week of torrential rain and wind.

"It comes from over there, from Jim Bolger country," Mullins joked, pointing to nearby hills where his outspoken former mentor is based. "Comes down here and lands on us – like a lot of stuff from there!"

Squabbles might be as common as rain in Irish racing but what’s novel is the scale of the raider’s dominance at Cheltenham.

A record 23 of the 28 festival races last year were won by Irish-based horses, leaving a mortified home team to indulge in introspective examination of their failure.

It didn’t feel like only modesty that led the most successful figure of all to disagree with Gold Cup-winning trainer Henrietta Knight’s recent comments about part of the Irish success being due to better trainers here.

“Our racing structure, with better prizemoney, is attracting better and bigger owners, who in turn can buy horses and we have the investment in Irish racing to buy the types of horses that are needed.

“I don’t think it’s about the trainers. I think it’s the stock we have.

“I remember my father was champion trainer and if he had two Grade One horses in his yard at the one time that was a good number. Because any time a horse popped its head up at that time it was bought and on the ferry.

“So the money and investment went into English racing. Now it’s the other way around. That’s the big thing,” Mullins said.

He was also keen to point out how not everyone gets right all of the time.

“I’ve turned down some good horses too. I turned down Denman because he was hobdayed [operation to improve a horse’s breathing].

"I rang Tom Mahoney [scout] the following year when he won his novice half the track and I said 'why didn't you ring me?' and he says 'I did, and I told you he was hobdayed, and you told me to f**k off!" Mullins laughed.

Mullins on his key Cheltenham hopes

Al Boum Photo (Gold Cup)
"I'd rather I had him in better order to be honest. I brought him away to work and I wasn't happy with him.

“He’s fit and we should have plenty of time. I think he’s in better order this morning than he was the last few days.

“Maybe it just wasn’t his day when I brought him away. He usually comes right for Cheltenham.

“I wish he was in better form but we still have time. It’s just a matter of hoping he comes into form.”

Appreciate It (Champion Hurdle)
"I had him away for a gallop last week and I was very, very happy with him.

"I'd say we have a good record with horses running first time out at Cheltenham. I don't know we've done it in a Champion Hurdle but we did it with Quevega and Joe Cullen won first time up.

“It’s not something I’m worried about. I made the decision ages ago and the closer we’ve got the happier I am that we didn’t have a run.”

Galopin Des Champs (Turners or Brown Advisory)
"Galopin did it very well at Leopardstown and I can't see him going up to three miles. It's not a decision yet but at the moment I'd be favouring going for the shorter race.

“I think he has the ability to do that. He jumps well, he’s sharp and I don’t think he needs to go three miles.

“Bob Olinger is obviously a worry but I’d be thinking our man would be better off in the shorter race.”

Sir Gerhard (Supreme or Ballymore)
"I've no doubt that whatever race he runs in, getting a lead, he'll be fine. He has plenty of speed and jumps well. I'm looking forward to getting him over there and he could go in either race.

“You could toss a coin to decide which race he goes to. That’s the sort of ability I think he has.”

Facile Vega (Bumper)
"I got him ready last year to run and he did a bit of work here one day that said to me 'wow' this fella could be special. He got jarred so I left him alone. What he did from the furlong marker the last day [Dublin Racing Festival] was exceptional."

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column