A fear of failure will be the driving force behind Willie Mullins’ bid for further honours at what he expects to be “the best Festival ever” at Cheltenham this year.
Failure is not a word anyone would associate with the master of Closutton, whose tally of 78 winners at the showpiece meeting makes him the most successful trainer in Festival history.
But despite being responsible for around a dozen favourites this time around, Mullins revealed “dread” is his overwhelming emotion during an illuminating chat in his living room in late February.
He said: “I probably dread it because of the expectation from everyone that we’re going to have half a dozen winners.
“Really, going over there we’re hoping to get one winner to get us off the mark. A couple of years we didn’t have a winner on Thursday and some year it will happen and we’ll have a blowout.
“Everyone else’s expectation is going to be your failure if you don’t come up with the goods and that does leave a certain feeling in your stomach. A few nights before the Festival can be tough.
“If you have one or two horses, they win or they don’t, but when you have a team of horses and have expectation behind that team it’s much harder.”
Despite his trepidation, Mullins is well aware that most trainers would love to be in such a fortunate position, with an army of close to 60 horses being prepared to travel to the Cotswolds.
“I’m lucky enough to have the horses and owners to put me in that position, so you have to take what comes with it and try to enjoy it eventually,” he said.
“People say to me ‘there’s always people stopping you and ringing you’, but that’s the price you pay. There’s lots of guys nobody wants to ring or talk to.”
It is 27 years since the County Carlow maestro broke his Festival duck, with 25-1 shot Tourist Attraction springing a surprise in the 1995 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Almost three decades on, Mullins still recounts that day as his fondest Festival memory.
“It was huge. You must remember at that time if Ireland went over and had two or three winners, it was a great week,” he said.
“I came home from Cheltenham that year thinking ‘if I’m never here again, we’ve done it’.
“We didn’t think we’d ever have another Cheltenham horse. I was hoping we might have something for the bumper or the National Hunt Chase, but we never dreamt what was going to happen was going to happen.”
The meteoric rise of Mullins has undoubtedly played a significant role in the National Hunt pendulum swinging hugely towards Ireland in recent years.
The shift in power was never more evident than at the 2021 Festival, with the raiding party plundering 23 of the 28 races – six of which went to Ireland’s perennial champion trainer.
Mullins, who counts powerhouse British-based owners like Rich Ricci and Cheveley Park Stud among his major patrons, believes superior prize-money is the key factor in Ireland’s current dominance.
He said: “I never thought Ireland could have 23 winners in Cheltenham. I think a lot of it is down to the fact that our racing structure, with better prize-money, is attracting bigger owners who in turn can buy the horses.
“We have the investment in Irish racing to buy the type of horses that are needed. It’s not about the trainers, I think it’s about the stock we have.
“I never dreamt that we’d have the yard we have. When my father was champion trainer, if he had two Grade One horses in the yard at the one time, that was a good number.
“All the horses at that time, if they popped their head up they were on the ferry and across to England, with the investment going into English racing. Now I think it’s the other way round.”
Thankfully, Cheltenham 2022 will look very different to Cheltenham 2021 – off the track, at least.
While Covid-19 meant champions were crowned in front of just a handful of people 12 months ago, the Prestbury Park grandstands will once again be packed to the rafters – and Mullins cannot wait.
He said: “I anticipate that this Cheltenham Festival will have more buzz about it than any Cheltenham that ever went before.
“Two years ago we kept to ourselves. I was very aware of Covid and very afraid of it, so we stayed in our hotel most of the time.
“Last year was surreal. Cheltenham looked after us very well, but you were eating on your own in your room every night.
“I watched the races up in the owners and trainers stand and sometimes it was just myself, David Casey and Jackie (Mullins, wife) there. It was surreal.
“People are itching to get back. When I see the atmosphere at the Dublin Racing Festival, and a few of the smaller tracks in the meantime, I think it’s going to be the best Festival ever.”
Amen to that Willie. Let the greatest show on Turf commence.