A year on from breaking his Cheltenham Festival duck, Danny Mullins is relishing a return to the Cotswolds with what could be his strongest book of rides yet.
Working out the Mullins family tree can be a devil of a job. For those who do not know, Danny is the son of trainers Mags and Tony, a nephew of Willie and Tom and first cousins with Patrick, David and Emmet.
Willie Mullins, of course, is the Festival’s all-time leading trainer, while his son Patrick is the most successful amateur rider in history and has enjoyed his fair share of Cheltenham victories himself.
Danny, described by several members of the family as the hardest working Mullins, has seen his opportunities increase significantly since David – a teenage winner of the 2016 Grand National aboard Rule The World – made the surprise decision to quit the saddle aged just 24 in January of last year.
A month later Danny took over from his cousin aboard multiple Grade One winner Kemboy – steering him to success in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown – and just a few weeks afterwards it was to get even better as he picked up the chance ride on Gavin Cromwell’s Flooring Porter in the Stayers’ Hurdle.
With regular partner Jonathan Moore standing himself down on the morning of the race, Mullins grabbed the opportunity with both hands, with a masterful front-running ride followed by celebrations of unabated joy as he passed the famous winning post in front.
The fact that only a handful of people were there to see it due to the coronavirus pandemic mattered not to the 29-year-old.
“Crowds not being there didn’t take away anything for me,” he said with a smile.
“It will be fantastic to have that extra buzz back again this year, but for me it was a special day last year.
“It was a shame the owners weren’t there on-site to enjoy it, but they thoroughly enjoyed looking in and they’ll be eagerly awaiting getting over there this year.”
Flooring Porter will be back to defend his crown in the day three feature, having been kept fresh since filling the runner-up spot behind Klassical Dream at Leopardstown over Christmas.
The pair are set to renew rivalry, while the likes of Champ and Paisley Park will be bidding to keep the prize at home.
Mullins, though, is confident in his mount.
He said: “I think he can (win again). It’s a very competitive race – you’ve got Champ, Paisley Park was good the last day and Thyme Hill is not out of it.
“Klassical Dream was disappointing in Gowran, but if he bounces back to his best he’s right there as well – but I wouldn’t swap my lad for any of them.”
Mullins has already enjoyed three Grade One winners this season, with the undoubted highlight being the victory of his uncle Willie’s Tornado Flyer in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
He is primed to bid for Cheltenham Gold Cup glory, with Danny hoping to be on board once more.
“What impressed me most about Tornado in Kempton was the way he travelled and jumped in the middle part of the race,” said the jockey.
“I’d ridden him in a few good races before over two and a half miles and he just got outpaced and always stayed on well. Over three miles he seemed to jump very well and travel and hit the line strong.
“Kempton is a flat track, but the ground was a lot softer than it normally is there, so that would have to give you encouragement about him seeing out the extra two and a half furlongs at Cheltenham.
“That’s unknown territory, but you’d have to be optimistic heading there that you’d have a chance in what is a competitive but open Gold Cup.”
Mullins will have to wait until much nearer the time before finding out what other horses he might ride for his uncle, who is famed for making last-minute decisions.
The rider said: “There’ll be no conversations about it. Willie makes his decisions – that’s the way it works, pretty much!
“Hopefully there’ll be a few nicer ones to get my leg across. I’ll be happy with whatever spares I get during the week.”
One such spare might be either Energumene or Chacun Pour Soi, with stable jockey Paul Townend facing a tough decision on which horse to ride in a mouthwatering Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Energumene was narrowly denied by last year’s Arkle victor Shishkin in a race for the ages at Ascot in January and the pair dominate the market.
But Willie Mullins has always had a glint in his eye when it comes to Chacun Pour Soi, who was beaten into third when favourite 12 months ago, and Danny appears of a similar mindset.
He said: “Energumene and Shishkin put on a great show in Ascot, but I suppose there’s this perception that Chacun Pour Soi doesn’t travel to Cheltenham and I don’t buy into that.
“He picked up a stone bruise the first year and didn’t run and then he got beat a length in a Champion Chase after they went no gallop last year.
“I don’t think he was right in Sandown this season (when disappointing in the Tingle Creek) and I think he’s bang in the mix with the other two.”
Whether he gets a ride in the Champion Chase or not, there is no doubt Danny is an integral part of the Mullins team – one who is more than capable of getting the job done if given the chance.
He added: “I’m very lucky to be riding all those good horses. The harder I work, the luckier I’ll get.
“The amount of Irish people that travel over and plan their holidays around Cheltenham year in, year out is fantastic testament to the show that Cheltenham puts on.
“I’m just glad to be a small part of it.”