Cheltenham Festival: Another Mullins monopoly a sure bet as Greatest Show on Turf returns

Dominance: Willie Mullins has six favourites in the graded races alone at the Cheltenham Festival  (Getty Images)
Dominance: Willie Mullins has six favourites in the graded races alone at the Cheltenham Festival (Getty Images)

It was almost fitting that Willie Mullins brought up the 4,000th winner of his training career on Cheltenham Trials Day in January, ‘almost’ because although the landmark success arrived the same afternoon, it actually came at Fairyhouse, across the Irish Sea.

Any gripe, though, would be violin stuff, since Mullins has enjoyed more than his fair share of that haul at Prestbury Park, 88 of them at the Festival itself, more than any other trainer in history.

With jump racing’s premier meeting set to get underway tomorrow, it is usually around this time that one would weigh up the contenders to be top trainer, but really there seems little point. Mullins has won the prize at eight of the past 10 Festivals, including each of the last four, and in 2022 set a new record of 10 winners across the four days. Needless to say, he is the antithesis of a working man’s price to head the standings once more and only a bit bigger than even-money to reach double figures again.

That is not without good reason: the Closutton chief has six favourites in the graded races alone, and around another dozen horses either second or third in the betting, to go with what usually proves a strong handicap squad.

If the quality at Mullins’s disposal is one thing, then the depth is another, as was made clear at last month’s Dublin Racing Festival, the most prestigious meeting in Ireland this side of Cheltenham. There, the 66-year-old saddled an unprecedented eight of the 15 winners, but seemed to leave Leopardstown a semi-frustrated figure, having watched three of his most-fancied runners beaten at odds-on. The catch? He won all three races anyway.

Recent seasons have seen the Mullins dominance reach such a level that there have been questions as to whether it is good for the sport. Monopolies are, after all, seldom healthy.

While big-picture questions are justified, the idea that Mullins’s expected level of success could somehow make this year’s Festival a tad dull seems a stretch, and not only because when 20 horses turn for home in the Coral Cup still with chances, few punters tend to be worrying about which is trained where.

Every sport needs its stars and, in the context of Mullins at Cheltenham, we are not talking about umpteen titles in a row for Bayern Munich or a Formula One team mopping up at every Grand Prix: even that record of 10 winners last year (owned, incidentally by nine different owners and ridden by four different jockeys) meant 18 races were won by someone else.

Over the next four days, there will be countless great stories with which Mullins has no association, perhaps as early as tomorrow’s feature race, when Constitution Hill is looking to join the Champion Hurdle greats. Come Friday evening, though, it would be the upset of the week should anyone have tallied more wins.