Willie Mullins Chat with The Snout
What a difference a year makes. Cheltenham Festival 2016 was, without question, dominated by Willie Mullins, who hammered home 7 winners and 13 places, including his brilliant 2 mile hurdling champion Annie Power. The chants of “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby” rang around Cheltenham town centre long into the night for those four days, but could the possibility of the master of Clossuton having a similar Festival this year be slim?
The 2016/17 season so far has been incredibly tough for Willie Mullins in many ways. First, way back in September, came the news that the Gigginstown operation were to move 60 or so horses from his yard and were to be placed elsewhere following a supposed dispute over training fees. This meant that he not only lost the experience types such as Don Poli and Valseur Lido, but he also lost a fresh batch of youngsters and Novice Hurdlers coming through, a type that he always excels with. Still, he had amongst his ranks the type of horses that most trainers could only dream of having in their care, most of which were owned by the infamous American owner Rich Ricci.
The yard began slowly, with just 7 and 6 winners in the months of September and October. November was always going to be the month when things stepped up a gear as the rain finally fell, and they did, as the yard hit a 43% strike rate delivering 20 winners. However, early November saw continued signs that this year was going to be tough when connections lost the furiously-talented and Cheltenham Festival legend Vautour, in what was described as a freak accident in the fields.
Since then, Mullins has had further injury issues. Min, Annie Power, Killultagh Vic, Faugheen and most recently Champion Bumper favourite Getabird have been ruled out of Cheltenham Festival 2017. The Prestbury Park crowd will dearly miss seeing those superstars that they have become accustomed to seeing over recent years. Most yards would have very little to fall back on if they had lost 4 or 5 of their flagbearers, or horses of this quality, to injury in just 1 season. However, this is no normal yard, and with them operating at their highest ever strike rate (35%, up from 33% in 2016 and 34% in 2015), is it too soon to be writing off this juggernaught of jumps racing?
Despite this supposed dreadful year, they still have SEVEN antepost favourites at the time of writing for March. They include Melon (Supreme), Vroum Vroum Mag (Mares), the almighty Douvan (Queen Mother winner), the lovely grey Carter Mckay (Champion Bumper), Yorkhill (JLT, and one of the favourites for the Champion Hurdle), Un De Sceaux (Ryanair) and Airilie Beach (Mares’ Novice Hurdle). Add to this a host of single figure priced horses in other races and surely a few to be entered into the handicaps, it is clear Willie Mullins still has a huge stronghold on Cheltenham Festival.
We may not be seeing the likes of the famous and oh-so-nearly fourfold like we did in 2015, or the likes of Annie Power and Vautour being labelled certain winners weeks before the Festival is underway, but he undoubtedly has a formidable team that he will be attacking this festival from every angle. And let’s not forget – he is the best at getting his team there in the best shape possible. Any runner he sends out with Ruby or Paul Townend on their back deserves the utmost respect and cannot be ruled out at any stage.
And then who knows, maybe we will be seeing Faugheen, Killultagh Vic, Min and co making their appearances in April in Ireland, as he will not be wanting to let go of the Irish Trainers Championship for which he has dominated so strongly over previous years.
The build up to the best four days in the year, bar none, is well and truly in full swing!