Willie Mullins and Paul Townend with Galopin Des Champs after the Irish Gold Cup. Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Not all plain sailing but Mullins machine looks powerful as Cheltenham looms

Allaho is out but the champion trainer has a serious depth of talent.

THE NEWS ABOUT Allaho had just broken before you arrived.

Out of Cheltenham, out for the rest of the season.

The dual Ryanair Chase winner, the undisputed champion over two and a half miles and, up until Saturday, pleasing his trainer and a short price to become the first three-time winner of the race.

It’s disappointing for racing fans, it’s gutting for connections.

An abdomen bleed must be unusual when Willie Mullins says that he had never seen it in a horse before. Thankfully, Allaho is off the critical list, his bloods have come back down to normal. We won’t see him race again this season, but hopefully he will be back next term.

Willie Mullins is pragmatic about it all. The most important thing is that Allaho is okay. It’s racing, he tells you. It’s horses. They get injured. Elite athletes suffer setbacks. And we are entering a crucial time, when you start to step up the work in advance of the Cheltenham Festival, when you start to tighten the screws, push towards peak.

paul-townend-willie-mullins-and-connections-celebrate-after-winning-on-allaho Celebrations after Allaho's win last year at the Cheltenham Festival. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Even in Allaho’s absence, however, there is a serious depth of talent clip-clopping around the yard in front of you. There’s the Gold Cup favourite Galopin Des Champs, and the Champion Chase favourite Energumene, and the Arkle favourite El Fabiolo, and the Champion Bumper favourite It’s For Me, and the 1-2-3 in the Triumph Hurdle market, Lossiemouth, Blood Destiny and Gala Marceau. All there. And the Champion Hurdle second favourite State Man.

Can he beat Constitution Hill?

“We’ll have to give him a race!”

When Elimay won the Mares’ Chase last year, the penultimate race on the final day of the 2022 Cheltenham Festival, she brought up a 10th win for Willie Mullins at the 2022 Festival, and that was unprecedented. That took his all-time haul at the Cheltenham Festival to 88, more than any other trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival.

Tourist Attraction was the first of them, in the curtain-raiser to the 1995 Festival, a 25/1 shot who was owned by the North Kildare Racing Club and ridden to victory by Mark Dwyer, when, to just have a horse who was good enough to run in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle was an achievement.

It wasn’t all plain sailing from then either. Wither Or Which won the Champion Bumper in 1996 and Florida Pearl won it in 1997, and Florida Pearl won the Sun Alliance Chase in 1998, but it took a while for the flow of Willie Mullins-trained Cheltenham Festival winners to start. There were none in 1999, none in 2003, none in 2006.

It didn’t happen by accident, and it didn’t happen overnight. It was slowly slowly, building from the bottom up. Looking up at the top of the trainers’ championship, thinking that you would never be able to climb that high but working hard to climb as high as you could climb.

And the talent is spread too. His 10 winners at last year’s Cheltenham Festival were for nine different owners.

“I remember when they had the first running of the Vincent O’Brien Irish Gold Cup,” muses the trainer. “I remember thinking then, wouldn’t it be brilliant to just have a horse who was good enough to run in it.”

When Galopin Des Champs won the Irish Gold Cup 10 days ago, he brought up a 12th victory in the race for Willie Mullins, eight more than any other trainer.

Galopin Des Champs looks good too now, as he stretches his legs on the Closutton gallops. “Two big” means that you run around the (big) gallop twice, then slow to a walk.

“All good?”

“All good.”

Patrick Mullins is on Stattler, horse and rider moving easily towards you. The Stowaway gelding stayed on to finish second behind his stable companion in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown and he is on track for the Gold Cup too. Last year’s National Hunt Chase winner, the extra distance at Cheltenham, the step up from three miles to an extended three and a quarter miles, should suit him well.

Blue Lord could step back up in trip now for the Ryanair Chase. He looked like a Ryanair Chase horse when he won the Clonmel Oil Chase over around about the Ryanair distance in November, but he showed lots of pace in winning over two miles and one furlong at Leopardstown over Christmas. He was beaten by his stable companion Gentleman De Mee over the same course and distance at the Dublin Racing Festival though, and it may be that the step back up in trip will see him back to his best.

That would leave Gentleman De Mee to join last year’s Champion Chase hero Energumene in the two-mile race.

paul-townend-comes-home-to-win-onboard-energumene Paul Townend after Energumene's win at Punchestown last year. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

The deeper you dig into the Willie Mullins novices, the more potential gems you uncover. Facile Vega was beaten in the Tattersalls Ireland Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown nine days ago, but it appears that his trainer’s faith remains undimmed. Quevega’s son came home lame after Leopardstown, but his trainer says that he’s good again now, that he’ll be out again this week. And the Leopardstown race was won anyway by Il Etait Temps, who, with all the focus on his stable companion, may not have got the recognition that he deserved for winning the race.

Hunters Yarn threw his hat into the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle ring too when he was impressive in winning a listed hurdle at Navan on Sunday.

It may be that Impaire Et Passe, owned, like Hunters Yarn, by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, will go for the Ballymore Hurdle, even though he won the Moscow Flyer Hurdle, and generally the Willie Mullins Moscow Flyer Hurdle horses go for the Supreme. But Impaire Et Passe won his maiden hurdle over two miles and three furlongs, and he could be at least as good over the intermediate trip of the Ballymore as he is over the two miles of the Supreme. He could be joined in the Ballymore by Champ Kiely or Gaelic Warrior or both.

El Fabiolo looks Arkle bound after winning the Irish Arkle at the Dublin Racing Festival. He was superb in winning at Leopardstown, and it was only his second chase. And remember, he was only beaten a neck by Jonbon in the Top Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree last April on just his second run over hurdles, and that was after making a significant mistake at the final flight.

He could be joined in the Arkle by Dysart Dynamo, who likes to go forward in his races and who could be better suited by two miles at Cheltenham – one mile seven furlongs and 199 yards actually – than he was by two miles and one furlong at Leopardstown.

Appreciate It could step up in trip for the Turners Chase. The 2021 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner is nine now, and it may be that the intermediate trip will suit him better than the minimum trip now. Sir Gerhard could also take his chance in the Turners, although last year’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle winner could also step up in trip for the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase, where he could join either Gaillard Du Mesnil or Ramillies or both in the line-up. They are both owned by Marie Donnelly, so it is possible that, if Gaillard Du Mesnil is stepping up in trip for the National Hunt Chase, Ramillies could go for the Brown Advisory.

paul-townend-on-appreciate-it-wins Paul Townend on Appreciate It. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Add Brandy Love and Echoes In Rain and Ashroe Diamond and Lot Of Joy and Allegorie De Vassy and Elimay. The problem is, when you start to list the Willie Mullins Cheltenham contenders, it’s difficult to know where to start and when to stop. It’s For Me and Fun Fun Fun, Lossiemouth and Blood Destiny and Gala Marceau.

Around 60 horses, the trainer says. He’ll have around 60 horses going to Cheltenham, although he doesn’t like to finalise things until all the last preparations are complete and they are on way.

It’s an operational headache, although the trainer doesn’t get involved in that. If he did, he says, they would never get there. He’s very lucky to have the team of people that he has around him. He concentrates on his main job, preparing the horses to race and, if history is any guide, he’s not doing a bad job.

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