The build-up to Cheltenham is starting to go into overdrive. With restrictions lifted and crowds back, would you say the Cheltenham buzz is back to where it was or maybe even bigger than ever?

I would doubt it’s any bigger than it was but you would have to think, looking at ticket sales in Cheltenham, that the buzz is back to where it was. Can it be any bigger than it was? Only time can tell.

Last year’s results were outrageously good for the Irish. Because of Covid, the racing had more attention than usual. Are there signs that Irish racing benefited in terms of getting new people/owners into the game?

Racing did get more attention than usual during Covid. Some of it was because of the results on the track. There was some [unwelcome] attention for racing off the track. One balanced out the other and I think racing has held its own through the lockdown. Maybe it’s grown slightly. I think the sport is in a healthy position but when you are inside the tent you can often see things through rose-tinted glasses.

Media requests must be through the roof at this time of year. Is it something you get more comfortable with each year since you stopped riding?

I suppose I am on the other side of the fence now, looking for people’s time, so I can see more of it now than I used to. Thinking back to when I was riding, I can understand how jockeys stay focused on the job in hand. It’s a bit different for trainers and dealing with media is part of it. Some people are comfortable with that and others aren’t. I don’t think you can make uncomfortable talkers talk. People are who they are and they should be respected for that.

Spotting talent early and getting young horses into the yard appears to be increasingly important. Do you keep an eye on point-to-point results and French racing, or do you prefer to leave that to others?

Everyone in Willie’s yard has a role. I try to maximise the equine talent that is there but it’s not necessarily my role to look for new talent. Willie, Harold Kirk, Pierre Boulard and many other people highlight horses who they think we should look at. If David Casey or myself saw one we thought had a future we would say it. But I don’t go looking for it. I prefer the horse to take my eye.

Full-blown Brexit just kicked in before Cheltenham last year but all the Irish trainers managed to cope with it. Has it got any easier and how much extra work will it involve for staff this year?

I don’t think a lot has changed on the Brexit rules from last year to this year. Maybe people have got used to dealing with them now. It’s just a lot of extra paperwork and extra costs. It’s more work for the people in the office and I don’t envy their task but it’s not something I have to deal with.

At least Covid restrictions and Irish bubbles will be removed this year. How difficult an issue was that for Willie’s team last year?

Cheltenham last year was a unique event, what with all the restrictions. The racecourse did a wonderful job in what they provided for everyone who travelled. For those who were there it wasn’t any more difficult last year than every other year. It was actually easier. There was no traffic, no crowds. Just this magnificent facility which was empty. It was quite easy to get around and do things.

Apart from all the Irish winners at Cheltenham last year, is there any abiding memory you have of how strange that meeting was– the year when nobody was there?

I was lucky enough to be in the Princess Royal Stand, pretty much all on my own. I was standing on the balcony, watching winner after winner walk back down the chute in silence. It was almost sad to see.

Would you say that Cheltenham’s dominance of the season is a good thing overall?

Is it dominating the season any more than it has for the past 15 years or so? I don’t think so. Maybe people are just highlighting it more. There are lots of great races throughout the year that people still want to win and still enjoy winning. Maybe it’s the promotion of Cheltenham and the ante-post prices that points everything in that direction, but everybody buys into the dream and the dream is being in Cheltenham. I don’t think it’s any more dominant than it was.

Willie is famous for leaving key decisions on running plans until the last minute. Talk us through those mornings as the declarations deadlines for the Festival approach.

By that stage most of the running plans are self-evident. Willie will seek various opinions before he makes the call but ultimately it is Willie who makes the decisions.

Willie has had 78 Festival winners and you’ve had 59 winners there. Name a few which have special meaning for you and why?

Alexander Banquest winning the bumper was a special day for me. Willie could have had any professional he wanted but he left me, an amateur, on him. That was a big day.

Winning the Champion Hurdle on Hurricane Fly was huge as well.

Then there was the Thursday we won the four races with Yorkhill, Un De Sceaux, Nicholls Canyon and Let’s Dance. That was a marvellous day.

Willie and I had many great days together. Willie is a great person for always looking forward. When things went wrong there was never any massive debate about that. ?