Mullins aims at a bumper Festival

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The Independent Online

So the secret is out. Or is it? This year, above all years, it is being assumed that Willie Mullins will win the bumper at Cheltenham next Wednesday.

Quite apart from the fact that he has won six of the last 12 runnings, this season he admits to having unprecedented depth among his younger horses. Despite an untimely setback for Hurricane Fly, probably best of the lot, Mullins will saddle perhaps the Festival's most fancied novice hurdler in Cousin Vinny. That horse won the bumper last year, of course, and this time round Mullins has made no fewer than a dozen entries for the race.

There was much excitement, therefore, when Sicilian Secret appeared to work best of those Mullins galloped after racing at Leopardstown on Sunday. Sicilian Secret was promptly slashed in the betting, much being made of the fact that he had been ridden by the trainer's son. Last year Mullins had been thrilled that Patrick should have won on Cousin Vinny, because the teenager's opportunities as a rider will soon be curtailed by weight.

But Mullins is impatient with naïve assumptions, not only about the significance of what happened on Sunday, but also about the relative prospects of horses who have disclosed little of their hand. "When Alexander Banquet won, in 1998, he did a bit of work at Leopardstown and came up last of my four," Mullins said. "My owner came off the stand saying: 'Well, that's it – we're not going.' I replied that I hadn't come here to find out whether or not we were going. That was just him, the way he always worked. He was an out-and-out stayer, and those horses are never going to be impressive doing short bits round Leopardstown on good ground. But when it comes to the hill at Cheltenham, and grinding it out at the end of two miles, they'll come into their own."

Mullins is developing such distaste for the way the Leopardstown gallops are nowadays ogled, with breathless television and press coverage, that he now treats them less seriously. Genuinely searching workouts are stressful enough, without that kind of circus.

That said, he confessed relief that Sicilian Secret had shown such flair, having been disappointed by the manner of his debut success at the course. "He was just very green that day, but on Sunday he galloped the way he does his home work," he said. "But he was in against real stayers, rather than speed horses, and the work would have suited him best."

Quel Esprit, for instance, pleased Ruby Walsh in chasing Sicilian Secret at a respectful distance, while Meath All Star travelled strongly in behind. "Quel Esprit's work was good, considering it was a mile and a quarter, and he would want every bit of two miles," Mullins said. "Meath All Star's bumper at Cork has worked out really well, and he will really appreciate the better ground, being by Presenting."

And so he goes on, as he reprises the gallops, discarding only Glenlo Abbey on his work. Then there were those who stayed at home as they did not need the stimulation: Quionola Des Obeaux, who has twice won in a canter, and the mare, Morning Supreme.

Mullins acknowledges the intrigue to be legitimate, but only to the extent that not even he can know until Cheltenham whether one of these horses will volunteer himself as a star. "We're always looking at them, in August and September, wondering which has Cheltenham written on them," he said. "It's fascinating to watch them go up and down. Some only come alive as you tighten them; others will show a lot of speed in October, but when push comes to shove they don't have the stamina."

After making an impeccable transition to hurdling, Cousin Vinny and his young rider came down to earth with a bump at Leopardstown, cruising when stumbling over the last. "I sent him out to go over the last two at speed, as Vinny hadn't done that yet," Mullins said. "He just pecked, and hopefully horse and rider will have learned from that. Ted Walsh was first on the scene and told him not to worry, that he'd had a similar experience when Daring Run was Champion Hurdle favourite."

While much pride is invested in Patrick, there is another rider in the yard being groomed as Ruby Walsh's heir. Paul Townend is only 18, and did not have his first ride over jumps until last May, but Mullins is so sure of his talent he had no qualms about giving him the mount of Hurricane Fly when Walsh ruptured his spleen in November.

"I didn't get him jumping until we had ironed out his bad, pony racing habits," Mullins said. "Paul is mature and confident. He was brought up in the game, knows the ups and downs. I'd say he'd be top of the next generation."

Patrick, of course, was named after Willie's father, Paddy, the man responsible for one of the iconic Festival moments when Dawn Run won the Gold Cup. Willie himself has long been the bedrock for Irish punters at Cheltenham, dependably bringing his horses to the boil in March. His stable has seemed in more of a hurry this season, and Mullins admits to being unnerved.

"We were just starting to wonder, when three horses ran badly on Saturday," he said. "But then we came up with three winners at Leopardstown next day. The horses did come into form earlier than normal, but were winning at weights they wouldn't have before. Hopefully that means they were just healthier and can still be on an upward curve."