times to take chance
'It's not the be all and end all but I'd like to win at the Festival to get this monkey off my back' -- Tom Mullins
This winter's Evening Herald Stable Tour series missed a stop this year, as some readers may have noticed. It wasn't an oversight that we didn't return to Tom Mullins, nor was it that we had offended him along the way or had any falling out.
Tom's horses just weren't right for a period before Christmas, and with the frost hitting in January it wasn't ideal preparation for a trainer gearing his squad for the heart of the National Hunt season.
A virus that hit his Duninga base on the Carlow-Kilkenny border is now long passed after overstaying its welcome, and this week the trainer is looking forward to a raid on the Cotswolds with some "lively outsiders" as he says himself.
Brother Willie has had his setbacks too, with a number of his supposed Cheltenham contingent meeting setbacks, but Tom is looking forward to the week as he tries to emulate some of his family in racking up a Cheltenham Festival winner.
"I would love to have a winner but I don't think it is the be all and end all," Mullins told the Herald. "I would like to have the winner to get the monkey off my back because Willie has obviously had winners there, Tony had a winner, the Boss (father Paddy) had winners and Seamus my cousin in England had a winner, so it would be nice to have a winner for that, and for my owners too it would be great."
Despite that apparent pressure, Mullins admits to being quite relaxed ahead of what is going to be a frantic few days which got under way today with Fosters Cross in the Arkle.
"It's a stage and, if you do well in it, it would help your career but it's certainly not the be all and end all. I don't feel any pressure this year, and maybe that's a bad sign but I am very relaxed about it this year and I have everything fairly well covered. I am not rushing anything to get there; it's not unknown territory and I have a good jockey (Davy Russell) that knows my horses," he said.
Arguably his best chance comes in tomorrow's finale, the Champion Bumper. It is, of course, a race Willie has farmed since it began in 1992 and his son Patrick was onboard when Tom's Tavern Times obliged on his debut at Fairyhouse to book his ticket here.
An impressive winner, he didn't get an ideal passage throughout that race but showed a wicked turn of foot to leave his rivals -- including subsequent winners -- reeling.
However, a second run prior to Cheltenham was not to be, due to the virus ruling out Christmas and snow forcing Naas to abandon.
"He had a very high temperature and it was very severe and that's why we didn't get a run all along Christmas, and then Naas came along and we were going to run. But I wouldn't want to use it as an excuse that he has had no prep run. Although if he gets beat we could be looking for one."
Mullins continued: "I don't think it is a setback. We could be sorry if we get beat but I don't really see it as a setback missing a run in Naas anyway. He was sick over Christmas. I got an awful virus in December and he was definitely one of the worst to get it.
"I heard when I had it (virus in yard) that a lot of people had it, but everybody stays quiet when they do have it, but it goes through a yard and maybe three or four horses don't get it but the rest of them do -- that's what happened to me anyway.
"They got over the signs of it in a month but I suppose it really takes two or so months before they really get over it fully."
Ever since things have cleared up, Mullins is happy he has had a clear run with Tavern Times as regard his homework, and even admitted to being slightly surprised at how well he has taken it all.
"Tavern Times has taken all his work so well I am actually afraid I haven't done enough with him! But, no, I have done plenty with him -- enough as I would want to do for any horse. A normal horse would throw it back at you, but he never threw back anything, he's looking well and he is very well.
"After every bit of work he never flinched and I am pretty happy he is firing on all cylinders."
The trainer feels too that the margin of the horse's victory and the manner in which he did it could have been more impressive with a more straightforward run in the race.
"I'm sure he would have looked an awful lot more impressive at Fairyhouse if he had got a clearer passage, that's for sure. He hit the front and I think he was green when he hit the front, but he showed an enormous amount of speed. Two furlongs to go, he had no position and a furlong out it was all over.
"He's a high-class horse. I don't care what happens in Cheltenham, he is a high class horse.
"If he runs his race in Cheltenham it will be a fair one that will beat him."
Only a superstar in Dunguib was responsible for denying Mullins with his first Cheltenham Festival winner last season when Some Present followed Philip Fenton's sensation up the hill in last year's Champion Bumper and Tom is hoping that he doesn't meet another star, which he compared to Dawn Run, tomorrow afternoon.
"Last year's winner Dunguib was definitely above average and I hope we don't run into anything like that this year, and if we do I could be in trouble, but I didn't see anything like Dunguib in it this year," he said.
"I will stick to my guns. I know he is a high-class horse and a Grade One horse but he has to handle the hustle and bustle of the whole lot now, travelling over and that, but my guess is that he will no problem.
"I wouldn't swap him for anything else, that's for sure, and I am happy to take on everything else. I saw nothing in the race with his speed, anyway, and I saw most of the winners.
"I hope he has an easy passage in the race and that is one of the things you look for, and with an easy passage over, it's the lad that usually gets those things that normally wins."
Tavern Times is probably the best chance, but there would be no surprise among connections if any of the rest of the team were to stick their head in front.
"All of mine are lively outsiders definitely, and Tavern Times is my best chance, I suppose, and if everything goes well in the handicap for Made In Taipan I would be disappointed if he's not in the first three."
The Tavern bar in Carlow is responsible for the naming of Mullins' best chance, and all roads will lead to that haunt if Tavern Times comes up that hill in front -- don't be expecting a quiet pint anyway.