Cheltenham Festival: Willie Mullins says he will try to beat everyone

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Trainer Willie Mullins
Trainer Willie Mullins with Douvan during a visit to his stables at Closutton, Carlow.

Willie Mullins once said that if he hadn't been a racehorse trainer he'd have liked to have been a film director.

After the jumps season he's experienced, were Mullins to play the starring role at the sport's Cheltenham Festival this time, in the dominant manner he has in recent years, it would surely make for the most compelling of film scripts to direct.

In September, about 60 horses owned by airline tycoon Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud operation were removed from the stables after Mullins increased his fees.

Barely a month later, brilliant chaser Vautour died in a freak accident, while the run-up to Cheltenham has been marked by injuries to big-name Festival hopefuls Faugheen,Annie Power and Min, all owned [like Vautour] by financier Rich Ricci and his wife Susannah.

To make the potential plot line thicker still, Mullins trails rival Gordon Elliott - Gigginstown's biggest trainer - in the prize money-decided Irish trainers' championship by more than 300,000 euros (£255,000).

What a story it would be if Mullins could put all that behind him with another 'clean-up' at Cheltenham, which takes place from 14-17 March.

But, as he prepares for the four most significant National Hunt days of the year, Mullins remains resolutely philosophical about the situation.

The Irishman, 60, told BBC Sport: "The season's been tougher, but we've had some fantastic years, and it goes up and down.

"The other side of the coin is that we've been there in the past four or five years thinking 'Look where we are, and how well things are going', and that kind of thing can't last forever.

"I've just forgotten about it [the Gigginstown split]; as far as I'm concerned, they're gone and we just get on with what we have.

"We knew what we were doing [raising fees] and what was going to happen and we said we'd take the consequences, and that's it."

Even to a string with the strength in depth of Mullins, losing 60 horses, including likely big-race stars like Apple's Jade, Petit Mouchoir and Don Poli, was a hammer blow to other trainers.

He believed it would adversely affect his chances of fielding quite the calibre of the raiding party on Cheltenham to which we've become accustomed.

And at about 40 runners, numbers are indeed down. But seven are the favourite for their races, and Mullins describes himself as "totally surprised" at the amount of talent that will be taking the well-trodden route from County Carlow to the Cotswolds.

Many will be taking on rivals whose jockeys are wearing the maroon and white silks of the Gigginstown operation, some of them former stablemates indeed, and the possibility of exacting 'revenge' is sure to be a major Festival talking point.

Djakadam on the gallops at Willie Mullins' stables in Ireland

Mullins compared the feelings he had at their departure with the feelings that he imagined manager Claudio Ranieri might have had after being sacked by Premier League champions Leicester. Mullins smiled and said: "We'll be going out to try to beat everyone - we won't be targeting ex-horses or anything like that.

"We'll just be trying to win races and get on with our job of training, doing what we can as best we can."

While the Mullins team have enjoyed plenty of success at recent Cheltenham Festivals, the Champion Hurdle, which they have taken in four of the past six seasons, is the only one of the 'Big Four' trophies to have been won.

Heading the reckoning for this season's Champion Hurdle looks likely to be the filly Limini, who looks all set to be added to the list of runners as a late entry.

The seemingly peerless Douvan is odds on for the day-two feature, the Queen Mother Champion Chase; Shaneshill gets good mentions in connection with the Stayers Hurdle [day three]; and, after two second places, Djakadam looks to shake off his pageboy image in the Festival's highlight, the Gold Cup.

Ruby Walsh and Douvan
Ruby Walsh rides Douvan to victory in the Arkle Chase at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival

Having been the winner of 14 of his 15 races [unbeaten since joining Mullins], most eyes will probably be on Douvan, also owned by the Riccis and already a two-time Festival winner.

"Douvan is in good order, everything has gone well," Mullins said.

"He's a lovely, relaxed individual and is always in control with his jumping. He has scope, he can go close [to jump] or he can stand back.

"He seems to have everything, and going there, expectations are high, not only because of what you all think of him, but also because of what I have thought of him and what he could be.

"He's not there [at the top] yet, but the bar keeps rising and he keeps meeting it, and he could end up being the best I've had - though he has a way to go to get past [two-time Champion Hurdler] Hurricane Fly."

Douvan then leads the charge towards Cheltenham… and, who knows, towards the silver screen as well.

The Cheltenham Festival runs from 14-17 March, with extensive coverage on BBC Radio 5 live.

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