By Jon Lees
Patrick Mullins believes he could have his strongest ever book of Cheltenham rides next month as he bids to put behind him a challenging 2019 Festival.
Mullins endured a series of misfortunes at the showpiece meeting last year, including being brought down in the Champion Hurdle.
This time, the 30-year-old son of Ireland’s champion trainer Willie Mullins is set to partner the yard’s Carefully Selected and Appreciate It – respective favourites for the National Hunt Chase and Weatherbys Champion Bumper – and Billaway in the Foxhunter Chase.
The amateur, who has ridden four Festival winners, could also be on fan favourite Un De Sceaux in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
He may get a second chance too on Sharjah, to erase memories of last year’s spill in the Unibet Champion Hurdle, if Paul Townend chooses to ride Cilaos Emery.
“It looks like I might have a couple of real nice rides this year, probably the nicest book of rides I’ve ever gone to Cheltenham with,” said Mullins.
“We are very happy with the way everything has gone, and I can’t wait for it to start now.”
Carefully Selected returns to Cheltenham – where he finished second in the 2018 Champion Bumper – having won all three starts over fences. Appreciate It has won two of his three bumpers.
“Carefully Selected has a lot of class,” he added.
“He looks slow, but he is deceptively quick. He was second in the Champion Bumper, so he has a form at the festival – which is a big advantage.
“He has been a bit novicey over fences, making two notable errors. I’m taking the view he made those errors as a survival instinct, and he’ll learn from them.
“He has all the attributes for the race. Willie won it twice, so it will be nice to win it a third time.
“Appreciate It got beaten first time out and then improved for the run.
“He left them for dead next time at Leopardstown. His biggest asset is his mentality – he is very relaxed, very professional, and you can ride him anywhere.”
Billaway will be a rare runner for the team in the Foxhunter, a race father and son have yet to win.
“The Foxhunter is not a race I usually get to ride in, because we are a bit short in that department,” said Mullins.
“I love his profile. He is a young, improving horse, rather than an older one coming back to hunter chases. He jumps very economically.
“The race he won last time at Naas turned into a sprint on good ground. The Cheltenham race will be very different, but he has a turn of foot and stays and jumps well.”
Last year’s exit on Sharjah, brought down by Buveur D’Air, was cruel – but it was far from the only incident to test Mullins’ fortitude last year.
He also rode Ballyward – the favourite for the National Hunt Chase, who was fatally injured when falling at the 17th fence – and Invitation Only suffered the same fate when they came down in the Gold Cup.
“It was a tough week, but it’s such a busy week you don’t have time to stop and think,” he said.
“You have to leave it behind and go to the next race. You have to be prepared for things to go wrong.
“When I was getting up off the ground from Invitation Only I was thinking ‘You can’t be serious’ – because it was a very simple fall. He jumped the fence fine, and seemed to trip on landing.
“What happened to Sharjah was a pity, because I was right where I wanted to be – which is unusual!
“I was tracking Buveur D’Air and said to myself ‘he will bring me to the last hurdle, and I can have a pop at him there’. Of course, then Buveur D’Air falls for the first time in his career.”
This season under Mullins, Sharjah won the Grade One Matheson Hurdle at Christmas but was then only sixth behind Honeysuckle in the Irish Champion.
“He’s a horse that can run a bit in and out,” added the jockey.
“I’d draw the line through Leopardstown (this month). He came out of the race fine.
“I think he has the strongest form in the race on his day. It’s going to be a large field, but I think the fact he won a Galway Hurdle will stand him in good stead.
“Usually we drop him out and ride him cold – but it was a big field last time, and I decided to be handy and follow Honeysuckle. Perhaps I made too much use of him – maybe I will go back to riding him the way I usually do.”
While also assistant to his father, Mullins has no plans yet to quit the saddle.
“Willie rode till he was 40, when he won the (Cheltenham) Bumper,” he said.
“Riding is a lot easier lifestyle than training. There is a lot less stress and a lot less pressure – from owners, staff and horses getting injured.”