Maestro Mullins back on the Festival trail

Willie Mullins

There appears to be a different feel about the team Willie Mullins has assembled for this year's Cheltenham Festival.

The master of Closutton has hit the target with almost frightening regularity at the showpiece meeting in the last decade, claiming the Leading Trainer Award in five of the last seven years.

Three years ago he saddled a record eight winners, two years ago it was seven and even after the shock of failing to find the bullseye after two days last year, he still ended the week with six and was only beaten to the Leading Trainer Award by his great rival Gordon Elliott on countback.

By Mullins' own admission, the latest squad of around 50 horses bound for the Cotswolds is lacking in one or two areas, with one-time superstars Douvan, Faugheen and Yorkhill all having lost some of their aura of invincibility, for the time being at least.

However, it will be a brave man who backs against any of the above rediscovering their brilliance on the biggest stage of all and as our reporter Ashley Iveson discovered on his latest visit to Bagenalstown, with the likes of Getabird, Footpad and Laurina all pencilled in as potential Irish bankers, there is still plenty of confidence the Mullins machine will once again be firing on all cylinders next week.

On expectations for this year's Cheltenham Festival

It's tough.Gordon probably has better bankers and you never know what way the handicaps are going to go. We were beaten on countback last year.

It would be great if we could be leading trainer again, but at this stage of the game we're going to Cheltenham hoping that you get a winner and get on the board, hopefully on the first day, and then take off.

I would never dream of going there thinking that I could be leading trainer. I just hope we don't have a washout and a bad week.

I'm delighted with the team that we have going there. We have some great chances, but not as short (in the betting) as has sometimes been the case.

We've had Vautour and Annie Power and Douvan at his best. They were extraordinary horses and we might never get those horses again. To have them all at the same time was extraordinary as well.

We hope that some of them will fire anyway.

On having saddled 54 Cheltenham Festival winners - only four short of Nicky Henderson's all-time record

We're lucky. I would never have dreamt we could get into this position. It's fantasy.

I was only telling Patrick (Mullins) the other day, when we went to Cheltenham with Tourist Attraction and she won (Supreme Novices' Hurdle, 1995), we came home thinking that was it - we'd had our Cheltenham winner!

That was how few Irish winners there were then. To get one winner was great and we said, 'We've had a winner in Cheltenham and if we never train another one, that's fantastic'.

That was the mindset we had in the early 1990s as we didn't have the horses and the firepower in Ireland.

It's funny how the whole thing has changed and it's come around that a lot of the firepower is on this side of the Irish Sea. I'm sure it's cyclical and will change again.

On the increasing popularity of National Hunt racing

It's amazing how popular jump racing is getting and I'm sure Cheltenham drives that. It's got its own perch in the middle of March, there's nothing else on and it's in the middle of the week when you can have all the news channels and TV focus on it.

You just have a clear run and it's obviously rubbing off when you see the amount of people that want to get into jump racing and that has to be hugely beneficial for racing.

Two (jumps) horses were bought the other day, one by Lloyd Williams, who is one of the leading owners in Australia, and another by Cheveley Park.

I hear a lot of people giving out about Cheltenham and saying it's sucking the life out of everything else, but it's bringing the sport on way more than any other track can bring it on.

On the English-Irish rivalry at Cheltenham

I think that's just part of the fun of it. It's an away game for us, but we love going over there and getting our winners. It's just the old Irish-English thing, like the soccer and the rugby.

It's funny as a lot of my owners are English-based. They're gravitating over here as well.

The whole dynamic has changed, but I think for the better and it's good for the sport. It gets people interested.