Cheltenham 2014: Willie Mullins eyes 'out-of-this-world' challenge

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Ruby Walsh, Hurricane Fly and Willie Mullins
Ruby Walsh, Hurricane Fly and Willie Mullins

Ireland's champion jumps trainer Willie Mullins has described his most powerful ever challenge on the Cheltenham Festival as "out-of-this-world stuff".

Mullins and his team have at least one leading contender for most of the major prizes, though not the Gold Cup.

Two-time Stan James champion hurdler Hurricane Fly defends his crown.

Quevega seeks an unprecedented sixth Festival victory when lining up in 'her race', the OLBG Mares Hurdle; while Annie Power's target is to be decided.

With 29 successes over the years at the four-day Festival, Mullins, who set a personal best annual score of five victories at the 2013 fixture, is no better than 4-9 favourite to be leading trainer this time.

A squad of around 40 horses will travel to Cheltenham attempting to land him the title for what would be the third time in four years.

Mullins told BBC Sport: "I keep saying to my son Patrick 'You think this is normal - this is not normal, this is out-of-this-world stuff'.

"I think the same every time I go up to the gallops in the morning. We have [many] horses that any trainer, and indeed up until a few years ago me, would have been delighted to have as my star horse in the yard.

"We enjoy it, but don't take it for granted, and it could all end, you don't really know why things go up and down."

On a visit to the eight-time Irish champion's headquarters in rural County Carlow, confidence is high about Hurricane Fly despite the race being rated the most competitive in years.

Mullins believes that despite his age the 10-year-old, the favourite to win again, could "be better than ever this year".

Ruby Walsh will ride a majority of the runners, including Quevega, who won the Mares' Hurdle for the fifth successive time last year and is described as being "fine" after being given a "few easy days" when it was feared that there could be a problem.

A hotly anticipated decision on where Annie Power, the winner of 10 races from 10 starts and victorious by eight lengths on the course earlier this year, lines up will be made late on with entries in the Champion, OLBG and Ladbrokes World Hurdles.

Of his other higher-profile hopefuls there was a feeling that Champagne Fever, who kicked off a memorable festival for Mullins in 2013 in the supreme novices hurdle, will lead the way Arkle Trophy.

Much-hyped novice hurdler Faugheen's condition seemed to have been causing some concern. Favourable words can also be passed on too for Rupert Lamb, in the Grand Annual Chase.

Such a quantity of big chances is accompanied by pressure to succeed, and Mullins, whose father Paddy saddled Irish legend Dawn Run to win a Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup, knows it.

Archive - Dawn Run wins 1986 Gold Cup (UK only)

He said: "That's the hard part, but it goes with the territory.

"The fear of failure is terrible, and if for one or two of the key horses, the ball hops the wrong way on the day, next thing you are into depending on 33-1 shots to get you a winner.

"And though you get maybe two 33-1 shots winning, the key horses are beaten, and people are saying 'Willie's had a bad Cheltenham'. My fear going to Cheltenham is everyone is expecting."

Up to 250,000 punters will descend on the Cotswolds for jump racing's showpiece event, with millions more following in betting shops, online and via radio and television.

All will be determined to enjoy the action but it seems that for one of the event's major players, enjoyment is not the name of the game.

"We are just working all the time," said Mullins, Ireland's most successful Festival trainer. "You are trying to keep your head level, because you don't know what's coming around the corner.

"Last year, our jockey for the Gold Cup got injured, stuff like that, so I can't be off having lunch, half full of beer or wine or anything like that. I like to get in five minutes before the first race, and get on with it."

As for this year, Mullins added: "I hope Quevega wins, I hope Hurricane Fly wins - they'd be huge, to go away with those two."

The Cheltenham Festival runs from 11-14 March. There will be commentary on all 27 races on BBC Radio 5 live or 5 live sports extra

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