His record at the Cheltenham Festival should not deceive anyone that horses trained by Willie Mullins only bloom in March. The fact is that Mullins is one of the great masters in building a horse towards a specific target, and it so happens that Cheltenham is the lodestar for his best horses. Sure enough, while Noel Meade has been saddling winners by the dozen this autumn, many of Mullins's horses have barely begun their groundwork.
"I told my owners not to ring me until we'd had a week of rain," he said yesterday. Now that the lines are back open, however, Mullins may yet confirm himself a man for all seasons at Newbury on Saturday week, when Snowy Morning reappears in the Hennessy Gold Cup.
Mullins has primed horses for this race before. Hedgehunter was fourth in 2003, while the previous year Be My Royal was contentiously stripped of the prize because of contamination in his feed. And Mullins has eyed the Hennessy for Snowy Morning ever since his game pursuit of Denman at Cheltenham confirmed him one of the best novices of last season.
"We always had the race in mind because we think he's on a good mark, and its demands should suit him," he said. "But I'm not sure yet whether he is going to be a championship type of horse. You'd have to suspect, having been so far behind Denman, that he might not be Grade One material. But I hope he could be a good handicapper, and he's in great form."
If both were to line up at Newbury, in principle Snowy Morning would receive 18lb from Denman for a 10-length beating at Cheltenham. But Mullins is at the mercy of any change of heart by Denman's trainer, Paul Nicholls, presently intending to run Kauto Star at Haydock on Saturday. If Nicholls happened to switch Kauto Star and Denman, Snowy Morning would be trapped 10lb out of the handicap.
Mullins also entered another of last season's better novices, Alexander Taipan, but he is unlikely to travel. "It's only now I'd start to think about risking him on the ground," he said. "The trouble is that I think he needs a lot of help from the saddle, and Ruby Walsh makes such a difference to him."
Walsh is sidelined until Christmas, when Mullins may raid these shores with another staying chaser in Homer Wells, just the type of slogger to go well in the Coral Welsh National. "He wants it up to his knees, and that's his kind of trip," Mullins said.
But it is the young bloods in the yard, as ever, that quicken the pulse. Glencove Marina is likely to run in the Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse, the day after the Hennessy, but he even jumps hurdles like fences – and that is where ultimate fulfilment awaits him.
"He has as much potential as any horse in the yard, if not more," Mullins said.
For now his leading Smurfit Champion Hurdle prospect remains Ebaziyan, so impressive at the last Festival. After a promising comeback at Down Royal, the grey finished rather tamely in a sprint through the mud at Punchestown on Sunday. "But I wasn't happy with his work last week and it may be that he just isn't sparking at the moment," Mullins said. "Those conditions wouldn't have suited him anyway, especially the way the race was run."
He has been here before with this horse, after all. "When we took him to Cork for his first run last season I thought he'd win half the track," he said. "I thought it was money for old rope. But he was beaten a short- head and there he was, a six-year-old, still a maiden. Ten days later he won at Thurles, but he wasn't impressive. The only reason we took him to the Festival was his homework. The great thing is that we know he handles Cheltenham and that he loves the end-to-end gallop there."
Mullins has runners at Fairyhouse today, including a couple in the opener, where they meet one of Meade's most talented novice hurdlers. An impressive bumper winner last season, Jered made a promising start over timber last month when a close third at Punchestown to Captain Cee Bee – whose performance at the same track last weekend confirmed him one of the best young hurdlers in Ireland. Jered himself has since been purchased by JP McManus and easily won a maiden hurdle.
Here the place to be is Hexham, an exposed location but certainly one of our most beautiful courses. Ferdy Murphy, flourishing now after a slow start to the season, has an interesting candidate for the De Vere Northumberland National in Delray Beach, and also has prospects later in the afternoon with Kalmo Bay. Both are ridden by Graham Lee.