Tiger Woods won 14 majors in an 11-year streak and once spent 281 weeks as the world’s No. 1 golfer. Do we think his success was boring? No possibility. We marveled at his spectacular feats and hailed him as the greatest golfer ever seen.
The West Indies cricket team is still used as a benchmark in the sport due to the dominance it had over its dominance. Do we get tired of his exploits? Do me a favor. We continue to talk about them in reverential tones because they showed us a new way to play.
Why, then, are people so eager to dismiss the Willie Mullins era of National Hunt as boring? I heard that argument, after his victory over eight Grade Ones last weekend, and it strikes me how bad this is for racing.
Sports greatness is never boring. Ever. The All Blacks, Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, the Chicago Bulls – no one rolls their eyes when talking about the glorious successes and memories they created. And the more they won, the more they wanted to win.
Graeme Souness, my esteemed fellow columnist, used to emphasize this point when we worked at Sky. He would lean forward in his chair, adjust his trouser legs and say of his iconic Liverpool team: “That, Ed, was when we were winning everything.” Mullins is winning everything now. With Cheltenham a month away, he has 14 ante-post favorites and it is inevitable that, at some point during those four fabulous days, he will take his Festival winners tally (currently 94) beyond 100.
Willie Mullins closes in on historic milestone with 100 Cheltenham Festival winners
But why isn’t his success celebrated in a similar way to other titans of the sporting world, such as Tiger Woods?
He has the best horses, but don’t lazily assume this has been easy. It is not like this. Mullins has built his business organically, working tirelessly to make his barn attractive to 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 experience in a given field if it helps his team make marginal progress.
Thomas Gronnemark, a Dane, was hired as throw-in coach. Mona Nemmer, a leader in the field of nutrition, was hired to improve the team’s nutrition. Klopp was comfortable with himself to delegate for the good of the team and look at the dividends it brought him.
It’s a similar story in Closutton, where Mullins is based. He is surrounded by three of racing’s best brains: his son Patrick, Ruby Walsh and David Casey. Then there’s Harold Kirk, a bloodstock agent who is the best in the business of getting cattle from France. Of course, real sport is about competition, but is Mullins’ power threatening to ruin Cheltenham? Not for a second. The archetypal Cheltenham racing fan, or ITV viewer, simply wants a good time and a bet, especially both ways.
Willie could have all eight in a race, which of course would be a bad look and bettors don’t like to think that the stable knows much more than they do, but I still think that would be less worrying than a small field or, God. I don’t want it, a match.
Sir Alex Ferguson was part of the 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 in progress compared to 20,000. Let’s put it this way: I’d rather see a series of Mullins horses, from different owners, going full throttle for a prize than some of the “racing” we’ve seen here recently. If Warwick had not been abandoned today it would have been the scene of the Kingmaker Chase, but there were only three declarations. We had decided not to show it on ITV; It didn’t help us at all.
Small fields are the scourge of racing, not the quality of a trainer, and isn’t it up to everyone else to try and catch it? Tiger, Federer and Bolt brought their rivals to their level and it’s also worth remembering that nothing lasts forever – someone always comes along to challenge.
People are certainly willing to fight and it was fascinating to see Sir Alex Ferguson involved in the signing of Caldwell Potter for £634,000 this week – a bigger fee than he paid for Denis Irwin! He will now be trained by Paul Nicholls, another man who loves competition.
And the competition is exactly what you’ll see today, when the focus turns to the Betfair Hurdle. Whoever wins will know that he has been in a race. Because? The favorite, Ocastle Des Mottes, will be ready for battle. He is trained by Willie Mullins.