Willie Mullins – An Off Season?

Willie Mullins has led the Irish charge to Cheltenham for a number of years. He was the leading trainer every year from 2013 to 2016 and is largely responsible for the recent Irish dominance at the festival. However, this year there his Cheltenham raiders aren’t surrounded by the usual excitement and hype. There is a general feeling that his yard never quite hit form this season, and as a result he sits third in the betting for leading trainer at the festival.

Previous Festivals – Where do the Winners Come From?

Mullins has trained 32 winners at the last 5 festivals, so it’s worthwhile to break them down in order to identify his areas of strength. I’ve divided the festival races into 7 categories:

  • Non-Handicap Novices Hurdles – the Supreme, Ballymore, Albert Bartlett, Mares Novices Hurdle and Triumph Hurdle
  • Non-Handicap Novices Chases – the Arkle, JLT, RSA and National Hunt Chase
  • Open Grade 1 Hurdles – the Champion Hurdle, Mares Hurdle and Stayers Hurdle
  • Open Grade 1 Chases – the Champion Chase, Ryanair Chase and Gold Cup
  • Handicap Chases – the Ultima, Close Brothers, Festival Plate, Kim Muir, Grand Annual
  • Handicap Hurdles – Coral Cup, Fred Winter, Pertemps, County Hurdle, Martin Pipe
  • Other – Bumper, Cross Country, Foxhunters
Non-Hcp Novices Hurdle Non-Hcp Novices Chase Grade 1 Open Hurdle Grade 1 Open Chase Handicap Hurdle Handicap Chase Other
2018 wins 1 2 2 0 1 0 1
2017 wins 2 1 1 1 1 0 0
2016 wins 3 1 2 1 0 0 0
2015 wins 1 3 2 0 2 0 0
2014 wins 2 0 1 0 1 0 0
Total wins 9 7 8 2 5 0 1

So, a few points worth noting:

  • Mullins has had 16 wins in the non-handicap novice races over the last 5 years – in other words, he has trained 16 of the 43 winners of these races in the last 5 years.
  • He has had just 5 wins in handicaps, and no wins in handicap chases.
  • He has had 10 wins in open grade one hurdles and chases, and his other win came in last year’s Bumper.

Novices

It would seem that Mullins’ key strong point is, unsurprisingly, the level-weight novice contests. In the Supreme, Arkle, National Hunt Chase, Ballymore, RSA, JLT, Mares Novices Hurdle, Triumph and Albert Bartlett, he has trained 18.4% of the total field in the last 5 years. His horses accounted for 37.2% of the total winners in that period of time. Mullins trained 27.6% of the horses to make the frame in the last 5 years (including winners).

However, the general consensus seems to be that these wins followed seasons of domination in Ireland, and that the horses were well fancied and in good form when Cheltenham came around. I want to weigh up how Mullins’ novices are performing this season compared to past seasons, so I’m going to look at how his novice hurdlers and chasers performed in graded level-weight contests in past seasons before the month of March. Firstly, his novice hurdlers (note that this doesn’t include juvenile hurdles):

Mullins Novice Hurdlers (Graded Non-Handicaps) Before March

Season Runners Wins W% W/P W/P%
2013-14 25 9 36 14 56
2014-15 31 10 32 16 52
2015-16 27 14 52 18 67
2016-17 30 8 27 14 47
2017-18 31 8 26 11 35
2018-19 31 8 26 12 39

The 2015-16 season was a standout one in terms of novice hurdlers – Mullins won 14 graded events in Ireland before heading to Cheltenham, with over half of his runners in these races winning. However, the following 2 seasons were slightly lower with 8 winners each year before Cheltenham. This season has actually seen the same number of winners to date.

Looking at novice chasers next:

Mullins Novice Chasers (Graded Non-Handicaps) Before March

Season Runners Wins W% W/P W/P%
2013-14 16 5 31 8 50
2014-15 26 10 38 17 65
2015-16 16 8 50 8 50
2016-17 22 6 27 9 41
2017-18 25 6 24 11 44
2018-19 20 6 30 10 50

It’s the 2014-15 season that was the standout this time, but again Mullins has trained the same number of winners in these races as he did in the previous two years. In fact, he has done so with slightly fewer horses, so his win rates (and win/place rates) are actually slightly superior this year to anything else we’ve seen since the 2015-16 season.

These numbers alone tell us that Mullins isn’t having that much of an “off season”. However, a closer look at this year’s winners to date might. I’ve listed the winners in the 2018-19 season below in all cases where they appear towards the top of the festival markets:

  • Cadmium – 20/1 Grand Annual
  • Voix Du Reve – 25/1 Arkle
  • Camelia De Cotte – 33/1 Arkle, 25/1 JLT
  • Ballyward – 6/1 National Hunt Chase
  • Sancta Simona – 12/1 Mares Novices Hurdle
  • Aramon – 12/1 Supreme, 25/1 Ballymore
  • Klassical Dream – 8/1 Supreme

Some of these horses accounted for more than one of the wins in the tables, and some other winners are out for the season and won’t be heading to Cheltenham. This list tells a fairly different story to the tables – Mullins’ horses may be winning races, but they’re certainly not well fancied for festival races. The fact that Ballyward (second favourite for the four-miler at 6/1) is Mullins’ leading hope in the novice contests according to current prices is fairly damning considering the fact that he trained the Supreme favourite or joint favourite in each of the last 4 renewals, and that all of them were shorter than 4/1. He also trained the Arkle favourite in 4 of the last 5 renewals, and 3 of these were odds-on. This year, his leading Supreme contenders sit 3rd and 5th in the market at 8/1 and 12/1, and his leading contender in the Arkle is fourth in the betting at 13/2.

These are just two examples of races in which Mullins doesn’t seem to have the same strength as in past years. Another is the Mares Novices Hurdle – he has trained all 3 winners of the race, each of them the favourite at odds of 4/7, 11/8 and 8/11. This year, his top contender is probably Sancta Simona who can be backed at 16/1, putting her around 10th in the market (although she is as short as 8/1 with one firm).

In short, I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that Mullins is having an “off season” as a whole – we’ve seen that his success in big novice races has been on a par with the last few seasons, and his win strike rate in all Irish races so far this season (25.08%) is more or less on a par with where he finished up last season (26.6%), even if they are below the 3 seasons before last (33.75, 33.21 and 31.52). However, it seems unlikely that his success at the Cheltenham festival (with novices at least) will match that of previous seasons.

The Positives – Handicap Hurdles

So, are there any positives to be taken from this? Well, there is one area which isn’t necessarily associated with Mullins, but in which he has excelled over the years – handicap hurdles. He hasn’t always aimed a large number of runners at these races (from 2007 to 2012 he had an average of just over 3 runners per year, including none in 2008 and 1 in 2009). However, he was nevertheless successful, with 3 winners and another 2 places from his 20 runners in that period. In recent years he has aimed more runners at the handicap hurdles – he has had 55 runners in these races in the last 5 years. His win rate has been relatively low by his own high Cheltenham standards, with 9 winners from these 55 runners (a 9% strike rate with 1.27 A/E) and a further 7 places (a 22% W/P strike rate). The 1.27 A/E is the more interesting point – despite Mullins’ high profile, his horses in these races don’t tend to be as heavily backed as in grade one contests – Bleu Berry was 20/1 when winning the Coral Cup last year, and Arctic Fire was the same price when he won the County Hurdle the previous year off top weight.

An interesting angle is that all of these winners and placed horses ran in a graded race last time out – if we focus just on horses which ran in graded hurdles last time out, it makes the record even more impressive:

Mullins Hcp Hurdlers (Ran in Graded Hurdle LTO)

Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
36 5 14 12 33 71.53 1.81

I’ve broken this down a bit more with a few other angles, which can be seen below:

Location of Prep Run

Track Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Leopardstown 15 3 20 5 33 50.87 2.56
Clonmel 3 1 33 2 67 11.59 1.96
Other 18 1 6 5 28 9.07 0.93

As ever, a Leopardstown prep run is proven to be valuable experience heading towards the festival. Interestingly, Clonmel has also produced a winner and a runner-up from 3 runners. Both of these (Don Poli when he won the Martin Pipe in 2014 and Roi Des Francs when finishing 3rd in the same race the following year) ran in the Surehaul Mercedes Benz Novices Hurdle, a grade 3 3m novices hurdle run at Clonmel in February. Battleford took the same route to the Martin Pipe in 2017 but only managed 8th.

Graded or Listed Winner?

Won at Listed Level or Above?

Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Yes 19 4 21 7 37 79.36 2.9
No 15 1 7 5 33 -5.83 0.82

4 of Mullins’ 5 handicap hurdle winners had previously won a graded or listed contest, as had another 3 placed horses.

Which Race?

Race Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Coral Cup 18 1 6 3 17 13.29 0.89
Fred Winter 5 0 0 0 0 -5 0
Pertemps 1 0 0 0 0 -1 0
County Hurdle 18 2 11 6 33 34.48 1.71
Martin Pipe 13 2 15 3 23 10.76 1.57

An obvious question to ask is which handicap hurdles Mullins’ horses are being aimed at and are winning – it’s clear that he doesn’t tend to run many horses in the Fred Winter or Pertemps, but does run them in the Coral Cup, Martin Pipe and County Hurdle.

More Festival Content can be found in the Cheltenham 2019 Section.

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