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Familiar winning formula works once again for Cheltenham Festival maestro Willie Mullins

SUNDAY TIMES, SPORT, 15 March 2020

There is no hurry about him. On Friday morning he was so late on the gallops that half the horses had finished their exercise. Genius is a heavy sounding accolade but few wear it as lightly as Willie Mullins at Cheltenham.

By Friday he had already saddled 39 horses on the first three days and put down his late arrival and husky greeting to “excess self-medication” in celebrating a big turn up in fortunes which had seen 10 Mullins trained losers on the opening afternoon. “Self-medication” was needed then too.

But class will out and by close of play on Friday, Mullins had won four more races including a second Gold Cup with Al Boum Photo, was the Leading Festival Trainer for the seventh time, and the 72 Cheltenham winners since 1995 make him the most successful handler in the meeting’s history. By others’ standards his is a huge operation, yet even with the massive raiding team gathered on Monday, it still seemed easily handled. After all, if this was a class of children, every kid had a teacher, and if Willie Mullins was the head master, he is a bit spoilt in the quality of his assistants.

For a start Jackie Mullins would be a star as a headmistress. A fine amateur rider herself she has been alongside Willie for all of his 30 plus years as a trainer and combines both warmth and efficiency, qualities not always twinned in her role. Looking around as the horses cropped a pick of grass on Monday was to see that the Mullins Academy staff room is almost overstocked with talent.

There’s David Casey, assistant these last five years after twenty as a jockey including big wins in Ireland, France and here at the Festival. How about having a 30-year-old son like Patrick Mullins who is Ireland’s greatest ever amateur rider and sharp enough to have awards as a writer? Or even Ruby Walsh, whose alliance with Willie Mullins was the crowning of an already legendary career and who is now at the head of the string issuing orders as firmly as he gives opinions on ITV?

That’s not to mention the self-composed figure who took Al Boum Photo into the history books on Friday. Paul Townend’s treble on that final day sealed a deal with public approval that had long been rock solid at the yard back in Closutton, Co Carlow. There are more than 200 horses under Mullins wing, but that is not huge numbers in educational terms and looking at the group on Monday was to see pupils at ease in the classroom.

Besides Ruby Walsh stands the brilliant Chacun Pour Soi for whom last minute lameness would rob a chance of glory in Thursday’s Ryanair. Chacun Pour Soi is a typical product of the current Mullins academy. Originally headhunted from the French jump racing world and shipped over - not cheaply perhaps - for Rich Ricci, one of Willie’s principal and best named owners. Chacun Pour Soi looks lean, hard and ready for the fray. It’s what they teach them in Carlow.

I went over there 20 years ago this month and found myself riding four horses and 28 circuits around the hillside carousel on which their fitness is based. I couldn’t walk for a week.  Since then the facilities and the numbers may have been upgraded but the principals have not. Respect the horses, get them fit, but above all, decide the best schedule to develop their potential and it is in this last crucial respect that Willie Mullins has the touch to which all his team have long known not to question.

To win a Gold Cup with a horse whose only public performance that season was to have a jolly odds-on spin round Tramore on New Year’s Day mocks orthodox thinking. But that’s what Al Boum Photo did on Friday, and it was a repeat of the self-same routine in 2019. Mullins’ genius is thinking outside the box. He may have won all the big races in Britain and Ireland, and quite a few in France, but in 2013 it took imagination and deliver to saddle Blackstairmountain to win E565,000 in the “Nakayama Grand Jump” and extraordinary intuition last November to send the six year old True Self to win the Queen Elizabeth Stakes on the flat in Melbourne exactly two years to the day that she won the unsung Templemore Maiden Hurdle at Thurles.

It is a gift that is genetic. Spend any time around Willie Mullins and even his natural courtesy cannot hide his intelligence or racing expertise.  But to find his secret comes back to another Irish morning in the March of 1984. Another horse was circling around its trainer although this time on increasingly rapid laps with the tiny bird like figure Charmian Hill, its 65 year old owner, in the saddle. The horse was Dawn Run, the most famous mare in jumping history who in two weeks would win the Champion Hurdle before later becoming the only Champion Hurdler to also win the Gold Cup.

By 1984, Paddy Mullins had already been training for 31 years and it would be another 19 before he bowed out winning the Irish Oaks. He was 10 times champion jumps trainer but he had the originality to win Newmarket’s Champion Stakes with Hurry Harriet and the enterprise to send Grabel to America in 1990 and win a record £186,000 hurdle race in Kentucky. Paddy was quieter and perhaps even more thoughtful than Willie but had the same understated sense of humour. As Dawn Run rocketed past with her aged owner Paddy gave a little chuckle and said: “it will do the old girl good.”

For Willie last week’s triumphs will bring plenty of well deserved “self medication”. But don’t confuse the lack of hustle for any lessening of the genius touch.