There are many factors contributing to the stunning rise of Willie Mullins to the dominant force he is now in jump racing.
Of those, perhaps the unflappability of the Closutton maestro, on the cusp of being crowned champion trainer in Ireland for the 15th time at the conclusion of the Punchestown Festival and having brought his Cheltenham Festival tally of winners to 78 as he left Prestbury Park with another leading handler’s prize, is a mite undervalued.
“Lots of people get their knickers in a twist about things,” Mullins observes with a smile of his focus on controlling controllables and not stressing about a potential problem before it materialises. “What can you do about it? That’s the way it is. Just tackle it when it arrives in front of you.”
So it was that he refused to get flustered in advance about doomsday predictions regarding the potentially toxic alchemy of Brexit and Covid-19 for Cheltenham, and he is the same about the availability or otherwise of stable jockey Paul Townend for Punchestown’s end-of-season carnival.
Paul Townend injury
Townend injured a foot after a fall at Fairyhouse on April 4 and has been out of action since but his boss doesn’t intend enquiring about the Cork pilot’s fitness until he needs to know.
“It is progressing but very slowly,” declares Mullins of Townend’s recovery. “I didn’t speak to Paul for a few days but I just said, ‘Let’s not talk, you just do what you have to do and get your boots made.’ He is going to have to have a protective boot made for the leg that is injured and I just said, ‘Get yourself ready and I’ll talk to you the morning we are doing declarations and we’ll see how he is.’”
Punchestown growing up
Paddy and Maureen Mullins always had Punchestown in their sights and their eldest son’s earliest memory of it is being allowed see the action while attending Coláiste na Rinne in the Waterford Gaeltacht of Rinn Ó gCuanach.
“The Fear An Tí brought me into his house to watch my mother’s horse winning whatever big hurdle race it was at the time – I won’t tell you when that was!
“Punchestown is what we always look forward to. There is huge prize money, fantastic racing, they always produce great ground and just the amphitheatre of Punchestown itself.
“I love going up there on the Sunday before the Festival to walk the track and just looking back on the track from the top of the hill, it is just an amazing place.
“I often think there is no racetrack like it in the world when you see it laid out for five days racing and all the different rails that are set up. It’s just amazing and the whole concept of the Punchestown Festival is huge when you see the work and preparation that goes into it.
“Prize money is key to any sport, I think. The new Punchestown is a different ball game altogether, my father would have been delighted to be training nowadays to see the facilities and the ground that they produce.”
Performances over the years
One notable facet of the Mullins machine has been how often his champions have been able to put an exclamation mark on their campaigns at Punchestown, despite having endured and overcome significant tests throughout the term.
“It has surprised me as well over the years that, after going to Leopardstown at Christmas, Cheltenham, maybe Aintree and some of them may be back to Fairyhouse, that they can still perform so well. We don’t take that for granted, we are delighted and maybe as surprised as other people looking because you don’t expect your horses to be at top level coming into the last month of the year but we’ve often found that horses might even put in their best performance all year there.
“They all get a break after whatever big Festival and everyone has their different ways of giving their horses a break but you’ve got to get back into them then and make sure they are all good and have enough done. Some horses take very little work, others take a lot of work.
“The different members of staff that ride the horses are able to tell me and give me feedback and with their feedback and our own eyes we make decisions and they can work. Some of them don’t work, you hear of the ones that do work but we’ve come home from Punchestown with lots of disappointments too.”
This year’s festival
Looking ahead to the battalions that Mullins is readying for battle at the Punchestown Festival, we can expect both quantity and quality as the Punchestown prize money is too lucrative to ignore.
“There is fantastic prize money so we are not putting them out to grass just yet. They’ll get plenty of grass in the summer!”
Day one of the Punchestown Festival on Tuesday is set to see a clash of Closutton titans in the Grade 1 William Hill Champion Chase as Chacun Pour Soi faces Allaho.
“The William Hill Champion Chase could be a good race,” he mused. “At the moment I’m looking at the race for Allaho. I’d just like to see what he can do over two miles, he jumps so efficiently and so well, that is where my head is at at the moment.
“I love horses that jump as quick as him and if you can jump that quick usually you can come back in trip a bit. I think Allaho has the jumping technique to jump with two milers and he gallops well enough, we all saw that in Cheltenham. It’s worth a craic I think, we’ve got to ask the question in Punchestown and then we will know where we want to go next year.”
Reflecting on Chacun Pour Soi’s performance at Cheltenham, Mullins said: “I just didn’t think we made enough use of Chacun Pour Soi (at Cheltenham). Maybe our tactics just let us down on the day. It is easy be wise afterwards.
“I think this is the natural race for him. There will be plenty of pace on and Cilaos Emery will probably go there as well so we will be well represented in the race.”
The tone of strong representation for the champion trainer will be set in the opening Grade 1 event of the week, the eCOMM Merchant Solutions Champion Novice Hurdle in which Appreciate It leads the charge.
“Appreciate It has surprised me,” Mullins admitted. “I never dreamt he had that much speed but he jumps, he gallops as well. He probably takes a lot of speed out of horses with the cruising speed he has as well and will definitely go for the eCOMM Merchant Solutions Champion Novice Hurdle.
“Blue Lord is in there as well and he was going to run a fantastic race at Cheltenham before he fell at the last. I think he will improve for the flatter track and the nicer ground we will have at Punchestown. Echoes In Rain is interesting. She will probably go for the mares’ race but her performance in Fairyhouse was very good and she is in the eCOMM Merchant Solutions Champion Novice Hurdle on Tuesday getting a nice fillies allowance so we’ll see.”
Tuesday’s Grade 1 Dooley Insurance Group Champion Novice Chase has the potential to be a race for the ages with Envoi Allen and Monkfish likely to lock horns for the first time and once again the Mullins support cast is enviable.
“Monkfish didn’t jump with the same flair that he jumped (with previously) and he didn’t gallop with the same flair (at Cheltenham) but he’ll go for the three-mile race.
“Colreevy has been covered by Walk In The Park and she will go for the Dooley Insurance Group Champion Novice Chase. That will probably be her last run. The Flynns are out and out breeders and she is a fantastic looking mare and hopefully, she’ll be lucky.
“From winning the Arkle at Christmas over two miles I think I’m going to put Franco De Port in over three miles for and that will tell us where we are going next year. We’ll have a good hand in that race.”
Wednesday’s feature race is the Ladbrokes Gold Cup, a race in which Mullins saddled the first and second when it was last run in 2019 as Kemboy got the better of Al Boum Photo and Ruby Walsh retired on the spot.
Both horses are reported to be well ahead of a return to that stage where they’ll be joined by stable companions Melon and Easy Game and will face the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Minella Indo and the Paul Nicholls-trained Clan Des Obeaux who is due to be supplemented for the race tomorrow.
“Lots of people could say that Al Boum Photo’s run might have been good enough to win the last two Gold Cup’s and he just met two good horses on the day. I’m not saying he’d have won the Gold Cup but I thought he could have run better, maybe he didn’t fire as well as he has. Certainly, the last five jumps weren’t as strong as they were last year. He has worked well in the meantime and I’m happy with him where he is at the moment.
“Kemboy will go for the Ladbrokes Punchestown Gold Cup again and he worked very well the other morning, I was very pleased with him and I’m finding it hard to find a race for Easy Game so he will probably take his chance in the Ladbrokes Punchestown Gold Cup.”
The ITM – Supporting Irish Store Sales Champion Bumper will see the first two home from the Cheltenham equivalent clash as Sir Gerhard and Kilcruit top the entries.
“I imagine Kilcruit will run, Sir Gerhard will run and we have a few more there. Ramillies is a horse whose homework is good. It might not be as good as the other two (Kilcruit and Sir Gerhard) but it is good and I still think there is a good horse lurking in there somewhere and it has to come out. Maybe a change of track and a flat track like Punchestown might bring it out in him. Grangee is there, she will probably go for the mares bumper.
“I think the track might suit Kilcruit better so we’ll see. It’ll be different and worth watching anyway.”
The Paddy Power Champion Hurdle will be the target for Sharjah who followed home Honeysuckle at Cheltenham last month.
“Sharjah ran a fantastic race in Cheltenham. I don’t think he could have improved much more. He’ll go for the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle. I’ve got James Du Berlais, Klassical Dream and Saldier in that race as well and we’ll see what way they go.
“James Du Berlais disappointed me at Cheltenham as his homework was way better than that. He holds entries in the two mile and the three mile hurdles so we’ll see when they do their final bits of work which direction they go.”
Energumene was a high-profile absentee from the Cheltenham Festival but remains on course to return to action in the Ryanair Novice Chase.
“Energumene had a little mishap before Cheltenham and I thought that was him for the season but he recovered quickly. I was trying to get him ready for Fairyhouse and then I felt it wasn’t fair on the horse to go to Fairyhouse so I said I’d wait for Punchestown and he’s been fine since so I’m looking forward to getting him out.”
The 2021 Punchestown Festival will take place from Tuesday 27th April to Saturday 1st May.