Cheltenham betting tips: All-conquering Willie Mullins travels in hope, not expectation

Wille Mullins will be hoping to dominate Cheltenham Festival in 2016

By James Toney

There’s a quote in the Horse Whisperer that seems to perfectly sum up the very simple sporting philosophy of Willie Mullins.

Life, wrote Nicholas Evans, is ‘one big long trail of nows and all you can do is try and live one now at a time without getting too worked up about the last now or the next now.”

Sir Alex Ferguson was once asked when he would start planning for the new season, just seconds after winning yet another Premier League title. ‘About five minutes ago,” he responded.

Some are just hard-wired that way, winning is an addictive habit they find impossible to give up – the elation of success is all too brief before the fear of not experiencing it ever again kicks in.

Enhanced odds: Get 25/1 on Min, Douvan, Un de Sceaux and Thistlecrack to win

Mullins is cut from a similar same cloth, single-minded but never quite content, Fergie in a fedora.

He has the very opposite of what some professional golfers refer to as the ‘Ferrari mentality’. Players strive hard to win tournaments, wrack up prize money and buy their dream car. Once they drive it off the forecourt, their form slumps.

Mullins could have a fleet of super cars in the yard of his Closutton stables in County Carlow but, predictably, prefers a more humble mode of transport.

At last year’s Champion Hurdle – the feature of the Cheltenham Festival’s opening day – he scored a 1-2-3 with Faugheen, Arctic Fire and Hurricane Fly.

While all around him were losing their heads in the winners’ enclosure, Mullins fussed over his second placed horse, plotting and planning what was next and how he might go one better. It’s attention to detail that makes him a seemingly unstoppable force in his sport.

Enhanced odds: Get 25/1 on Min, Douvan, Un de Sceaux and Thistlecrack to win

Mullins’ total of 41 Festival winners since 1995, when Tourist Attraction won the Supreme Novices’, puts him second on the all-time list behind Nicky Henderson, who has amassed 53 victories.

But he could sizeably trim that gap in the days ahead, arriving at Cheltenham with perhaps the most powerful squad of Irish raiders ever assembled.

He has been the meeting’s leading trainer for the past three years, with a record eight winners 12 months ago, a total that he may even eclipse this week.

There is no longer a sense of hope but rather expectation. On the first day of jump racing’s most fabled meeting he could land three winners in the first four races if Min, Douvan and the much talked about Annie Power, deliver in the Supreme Novices’, Arkle Chase and Champion Hurdle.

With powerful owners like Rich Ricci and Graham Wylie hanging on his word, the sage of Muine Bheag, a modern day horse whisperer, is building a dynasty and securing his place in the pantheon of his sport.

“At one point this year we had 11 favourites in the 25 races, that’s impossible really and the expectation is huge,” he admits.

“We have to keep a balanced view but we’re bringing over a strong team and we expect to do well.

“That said, this is sport, we could win three races and people would say it’s a failure. We could win the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup and people would think that’s a disappointment.

“There is no sense of entitlement for us. We hope but we don’t expect, failure is always around the corner in every sport, it happens to everyone.

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“Besides the favourites don’t always win, that’s why people go horse racing and why people love Cheltenham. One or two winners on the first day and I’ll be delighted.

“However, whatever happens I won’t dwell on it. There was a review of last year’s Festival on television the other week, I just moved to the next channel to find a film to watch.

“Some trainers watch races over and over again, I like to win them and move on to the next one. If you dwell on things, good or bad, you’ll never win anything.”

Mullins is too good a trainer and far too loyal to owners who have backed him blind, to comment on whether he’d take just one Festival win this year in the race that has so far eluded him, Friday’s showpiece Timico Gold Cup.

Enhanced odds: Get 25/1 on Min, Douvan, Un de Sceaux and Thistlecrack to win

Mullins has been a runner-up five times, with On His Own losing by a short head to Lord Windermere two years ago. Some claimed he should have challenged that result, which followed lengthy debate in the stewards’ room.

To their credit, Mullins and owner Wylie took the defeat on the chin, preferring not to win the prize on appeal some weeks later.

Mullins is both canny and coy about who will line up for him this year. Last year’s runner-up Djakadam and Don Poli are definite starters but what of Vautour, considered by many the best chaser around after a breathtaking victory in last year’s JLT Novice Chase at the Festival?

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However, the guessing game will continue for a little longer yet, just another of the many questions that occupy the puzzling build-up to every Cheltenham.

“We all aspire to win the Gold Cup,” added Mullins, who is on course for tenth trainers’ title in Ireland and could even become the Champion Trainer in Great Britain, if he has a storming Festival and banks the big prize money at Aintree a few weeks later.

“We’ve got strong Gold Cup claims but anything can happen after they go beyond three miles, that extra 2½ furlongs brings out different qualities in horses and who knows?

“Whatever happens, I’m just a lucky man to have the owners and staff I have. What we have here is unprecedented, it’s stressful but it’s also fantastic.”

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