Willie Mullins with one of his many stars, Annie Power
The Cheltenham Festival has been compared to many things. Horse Racing’s Olympics, the greatest week in sport, the finest four days of gambling and drinking on the planet, etc, etc.
What is has never been compared to is an avalanche, but that is what Willie Mullins likens Cheltenham to as he prepares to take a scarcely believable team of up to 60 horses to the Cotswolds this week.
Mullins’ thinking is straightforward, because, just like an avalanche starts, once the roar for the first race goes up on Tuesday afternoon, you simply cannot stop the thing; you go along for the journey.
“Once it starts, Cheltenham is like an avalanche, it’s a runaway train that you can’t stop,” he insists. “We just keep going back to the stables and getting more horses and saddling them up and hoping that something will go right instead of wrong.
“Just to get a winner on the first day is fantastic. With the team we have this year, I know people are expecting more than that from us on Tuesday.
“But Cheltenham is not like going to Thurles or somewhere like that where you can bring two or three decent horses and just turn up to win; the competition is too strong at the Festival for that.”
And the scale of the four days is too big for that too. It is quite simply a massive show, with over a quarter of a million people coming through the turnstiles on the four days.
“When you get a winner there you have to deal with the owners, with the sponsors, with media and all of that stuff. But that’s where my team comes in. I don’t think I personally saddled a horse on the first day last year, but it worked out well because the boys and girls just go and do it. I give a lot of responsibility to them and they go and do their jobs.”
But even for Mullins, with more equine firepower than any trainer has ever taken to a Festival, the highs and lows of racing inevitably intrude on his days, just as on the first day last year, when he had four winners.
“When you have a day like the first day last year, winning three of the first four races, you can’t just go ‘wow’ and crack open a bottle of champagne.
“We had Annie Power running in the next and then she goes down dramatically at the last hurdle and yet within 30 seconds Glens Melody has won the race.
“When I was coming off the stand after that race,” Willie remembers, “I thought Annie Power was in a bad way because I saw the green screens around a horse and that Glens Melody had been beaten in the photo finish and that’s all I was thinking about; I’d forgotten about the three winners in that instant. My head was just above my knees at the time, all the success was forgotten about.
“Then I heard the result of the photo finish, and we’d won and then someone said to me that unfortunately for David Pipe, the screens were around one of his mares – that Annie Power had got up and galloped away. The relief was just incredible.”
Willie will hope to win quite a few races on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“We’re heavily front-loaded towards our chances on Tuesday and Wednesday. We’ve little enough on Thursday, but then we’ve the Gold Cup and the Triumph Hurdle on Friday. That’s an open enough race this year and we’ve chances; and the Martin Pipe too, that race has been good to us.
But there is no doubt that the Gold Cup is the one that Mullins has trained his sights on this week. “I’d love to win the Gold Cup. Every trainer should and I’m no different.
“I don’t set out to tick the boxes of races we haven’t won. I never look at it as ‘we’re going to win the Gold Cup’, I look at it as we’re going to win races, and if that includes the big one, fantastic.”
Pressure or no pressure, or indeed avalanche, Willie Mullins enjoys Cheltenham. “I think we’re lucky in our sport that we have a festival like Cheltenham; it brings the whole Irish and English jumps world together at the end of the season.
“If it wasn’t there, our sport would be a lot poorer. People give out that too much of the focus of the season is on Cheltenham, but every sport has its big days, there are All-Ireland Finals and Six Nations and cup finals and the rest."