Tiger Woods won 14 majors in an 11-year streak and once spent 281 weeks as the world’s No1 golfer. Did we think his success was boring? No chance. We marvelled at his spectacular exploits and acclaimed him as the greatest golfer ever seen.
The West Indies cricket team are still used as a reference point in sport now because of the stranglehold they had on their domain. Did we tire of their exploits? Do me a favour. We continue to talk about them in reverential tones because they showed us a new way of playing.
Why, then, are people so eager to dismiss the Willie Mullins era of National Hunt as boring? I’ve heard that argument, after his clean sweep of eight Grade Ones last weekend, and I’m puzzled as to how this is negative for racing.
Sporting greatness is never boring. Ever. The All Blacks, Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, The Chicago Bulls — nobody rolls their eyes when talking about the glorious successes and the memories they created. And the more they won, the more they wanted to win.
Graeme Souness, my esteemed fellow columnist, used to emphasise this point when we worked at Sky. He’d lean forward out of his chair, adjusting the legs on his trousers, and say about his iconic Liverpool team: ‘That, Ed, was when we were winning everything.’ Mullins is winning everything now. A month out from Cheltenham, he has 14 ante-post favourites and it is inevitable, at some point during those four fabulous days, he will take his lifetime tally of Festival winners (currently 94) beyond 100.
Willie Mullins is approaching a landmark milestone with 100 Cheltenham Festival winners
But why isn’t his success celebrated in a manner similar to other titans of the sporting world – like Tiger Woods?
He has the best horses but don’t lazily assume this has come easy. It hasn’t. Mullins has built up his business organically, working relentlessly to make his stable appealing to the owners who want to spend big. He has a forensic brain and the political skills of a diplomat. When I look at Mullins, I see something of Jurgen Klopp, who is never afraid to appoint someone to his Liverpool staff with expertise in a certain field if it helps his team make marginal gains.
Thomas Gronnemark, a Dane, was brought in as a throw-in coach. Mona Nemmer, a leader in the field of nutrition, was recruited to improve the squad’s diet. Klopp was comfortable in his own skin to delegate for the good of the squad, and look at the dividends it reaped for him.
It is a similar story at Closutton, where Mullins is based. He is surrounded by three of the best brains in racing — his son, Patrick, Ruby Walsh and David Casey. Then there is Harold Kirk, a bloodstock agent who is the best in the business at sourcing stock from France. Of course, true sport relies on competition but does the might of Mullins threaten to ruin Cheltenham? Not for one second. The archetypal racegoer to Cheltenham, or ITV viewer, simply wants a good time and a bet, especially an each-way one.
Willie could have all eight in a race — which, granted, would be a bad look and punters do not like thinking the stable knows much more than they do — but I still believe that would be less of a concern than a small field or, heaven forbid, a match.
Sir Alex Ferguson was among a consortium that paid £634,000 for Caldwell Potter this week
Last Sunday, Mullins saddled Fact To File against Gaelic Warrior and if that happened at Cheltenham, all hell would break loose. There is a significantly different dynamic when you have 65,000 on course compared to 20,000. Put it this way — I’d much rather watch a raft of Mullins horses, for different owners, going full throttle for a prize than some ‘races’ we’ve seen here recently. Had Warwick not been abandoned today, it would have staged the Kingmaker Chase but there were only three declarations. We had decided not to show it at ITV; it was no use to us.
Small fields are the scourge of racing, not the quality of one trainer, and isn’t it up to the rest to try to catch him? Tiger, Federer and Bolt all pulled rivals up to their levels and it is also worth remembering nothing lasts for ever — someone always emerges to challenge.
People, certainly, are up for the fight and it was fascinating to see Sir Alex Ferguson involved in the £634,000 signing of Caldwell Potter this week, a fee bigger than the one he paid for Denis Irwin! He will now be trained by Paul Nicholls, another man who loves competition.
And competition is exactly what you will see today, when the focus is the Betfair Hurdle. Whoever wins will know they have been in a race. Why? The favourite, Ocastle Des Mottes, will be primed for battle. He’s trained by Willie Mullins.