Donn's Articles » Jim Bolger and Willie Mullins

Jim Bolger and Willie Mullins

Take a racehorse trainer, a trainer of champion racehorses on the Flat. Say he was a septuagenarian, born on Christmas Day, who studied accountancy and trained show jumpers before he started to train racehorses in the Phoenix Park, thereby embarking on a mysterious and precarious path, from a standing start, that would lead to God knows where.

Say he trained the winners of the Tattersalls Gold Cup and the Yorkshire Oaks in 1981, say he trained the winners of the 2000 Guineas and the St James’s Palace Stakes and the Irish Derby in 2013, and say he had innumerable top class winners during the intervening 32 years in Ireland, Britain, France and Hong Kong. Say he had won four of the five British Classics at least once, and say he had won five of the last eight renewals of the Dewhurst Stakes.

It is a little far-fetched, of course, but say, on top of all that, that this trainer had a top class breeding operation as well, say he had a band of high-class broodmares, say he bred a large proportion of the horses that he trained, and say his wife owned the vast majority of them. Say you shook his hand when he arrived, and asked him what he would like to drink as he studied the lunch menu.

Red or white?

Now say, as the pair of you sat there, discussing the relative merits of the confit of rack of pork and the poached darne of salmon, that another racehorse trainer arrived, say, for contrast, a champion National Hunt trainer. Say that, oh I don’t know, the National Hunt trainer, unlike the Flat trainer, had been born into a racing dynasty, a horse never far from the living room or the familial conversation, and that a career outside of racing for him was never shorter than 33/1.

Say he had been a top amateur rider, and say he was breaking old records and setting new benchmarks now as a trainer, the habitual champion. Say that he recently obliterated the record for the number of winners in a season, and that he was top trainer at the Cheltenham Festival again this year. Say he brought a horse to Japan this year and won their richest jumps race, the second richest jumps race in the world, and say that he got to within a neck of beating The Queen’s horse in the Ascot Gold Cup on the Flat.

Just to add a little bit of spice, say that the National Hunt trainer worked for the flat trainer for a couple of years, and that they lived and worked within a couple of pucks of a ball of each other.

How do you think that would go?

“2013 has been great,” Willie Mullins is saying. “Things fell right at Cheltenham. There were a couple of disappointments all right, like Pont Alexandre was disappointing and it was a pity that Sir Des Champs couldn’t win the Gold Cup, but it was nice to be able to get Hurricane Fly back to win the Champion Hurdle, it was brilliant to get Quevega back to win her fifth mares’ hurdle, and there were a couple of pleasant surprises as well, like Briar Hill.

“It’s frequently the way. People say that you’re unlucky sometimes when you get beaten, but I think that you’re lucky to have any winner at all at these big meetings. You take what you get. In some races you’re unlucky, but in other races the luck runs your way. It usually balances itself out.”

As Willie was more or less wrapping up his season, Jim Bolger was more or less embarking on his. Literally. The Punchestown Festival finished this year a week before the 2000 Guineas was run. It’s non-stop this game.

“I suppose early in the season, it was all about Dawn Approach,” says Jim. “When you have a champion two-year-old and he survives the winter, you’re expected to line up for the Guineas and you’re probably expected to win the Guineas. So it’s nice to get all that done, first of all to get to the Guineas in one piece and then to win it.”

Famously, Jim doesn’t do nerves, doesn’t do pressure.

“There was lots of media attention all right. I suppose the most attention was when we had our media day up at Beechy Park, but I have to say that I expected him to work well, I was expecting everything to go well, which it did. It was the same on Guineas day. I couldn’t see anything in the line-up that I thought could beat him. It was just a case of him running up to or near his best, and that would be good enough. And sure, he did and it was. I often think that I might do my job better if I was a bit of a box-walker.”

Not only does Bolger not do nerves nor pressure, neither does he do sky-highs nor subterranean-lows. A Guineas win is a Guineas win. Life-changing for some, the catalyst for bonfires and celebrations for others, but not for Jim Bolger. On the October 2004 day on which Alexander Goldrun won the Prix de l’Opera in Paris, he and Jackie were back in Coolcullen by 11 o’clock in the evening having a cup of tea. Contentment maybe. Self-satisfaction. Job done. Just like a Derby defeat is a Derby defeat, nothing more, nothing less.

“If I were a proper trainer,” he says slowly, “I probably would have been devastated by the Derby. But it doesn’t really bother me. I’ll tell you what helps me a lot. I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I am not into the ego. And I think that, if you remove ego from the whole area, you remove a lot of the things that put pressure on you. Your own ego is the thing that exerts the greatest pressure on you.

“It’s a long time now since I’ve been sick after a race. It was different in the early days, when we were starting out with our own horses, and if one of them didn’t win, that was your Sunday roast gone. But once that problem was solved, once I wasn’t dependent on it, I had probably got used to being beaten anyway. I know some trainers are very upset if their horse comes home last, especially at Leopardstown or The Curragh. I have to say, it doesn’t have that great an effect on me. Someone has to finish last. It is a long time since I have been afraid of getting beaten.

“I did get things a bit wrong though. If Dawn Approach had turned up for the Irish Guineas instead of running in the Derby, he definitely would have won it. And if he had run in that, Trading Leather, who finished third in the Irish Guineas, would have run in the Derby, and we know now with the benefit of hindsight that he might well have won it. So I might have blown two Classics.”

He says it matter-of-factly. He could have been saying that he should have had the sole instead of the chicken. Nothing that can be done now, no point in ruing it. The chicken is on the table in front of him. The Classics have been run.

Two and a half weeks after the Derby, Dawn Approach went to Royal Ascot to run in the St James’s Palace Stakes, and he won it. It was a remarkable turnaround in such a short space of time. A remarkably tough performance by the horse, a remarkably ballsey decision by the trainer. You simply don’t finish last in the Derby in early June, then win at Royal Ascot in mid-June.

“Well, I wasn’t going to wait around all summer before giving him a chance to redeem himself.”

Therein lies one of the many differences between Flat and National Hunt racing, reckons Willie.

“It’s very hard after running a race over jumps to come back quickly,” he says. “You are racing on softer ground usually and over distances that are twice as long. Kevin (Manning) minded Dawn Approach in the Derby as well, didn’t he? That made a big difference as well.”

Willie knows what he is talking about too. He is no stranger to Flat racing. The champion National Hunt trainer has had at least one winner on the Flat every year since 1988, and he won the Ebor at York in 2009 with Sesenta. He has had 10 winners this year, and he sent Simenon to Ascot to finish second in the Gold Cup and to Flemington to finish fourth in the Melbourne Cup.

“I’d say the biggest disappointment I had this year was at Ascot,” he says thoughtfully, as the waiter brings the dessert menus. “I thought we had it won a furlong out. I thought we were coming with a winning run. You were talking earlier on about being gutted – well I was gutted after that.

“You know, I was disappointed when Pont Alexandre got beaten in the Neptune Hurdle, and I was disappointed that Sir Des Champs didn’t win the Cheltenham Gold Cup. But I’m hoping that I’ll be back there next year with a chance. Or the year after. They are the types of horses that we try to buy. But not an Ascot Gold Cup. I will probably never again get as close as that to winning an Ascot Gold Cup.”

And just as Mullins is no stranger to competing on the Flat, so Bolger has had his moments at the winter game. Lots of them. Clarinbridge, Condor Pan, Orbis and Vestris Abu were all high-class hurdlers for Bolger. He won the Irish Champion Hurdle in 1991 with Nordic Surprise, who went on to finish fourth in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and he again won the Irish Champion Hurdle in 1992 with Chirkpar, who went on to win the Dennys Gold Medal Chase the following year.

“Two years ago I was up at Leopardstown for the Irish Champion Hurdle,” says Jim, “when somebody in our company asked me if I had ever won it. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ ‘Only twice,’ said somebody else in the group. So it was obviously a big deal at the time, but when it isn’t your principal kind of deal any more, it just didn’t register with me then.”

It was in 1980 that Mullins and Bolger first teamed up.

“I wanted to move the whole thing up a notch,” recalls Jim, “and I knew that I needed a good head man in order to do that. So I targeted Willie. I knew that he would have a good grounding, given where he was coming from, and I also thought that he would have a good work ethic. So I offered him a good deal, and thankfully he accepted.”

“When Jim asked me to work for him,” says Willie, “I would have thought, here’s a man with no background in racing who is extremely successful, he must be doing something right, so I was delighted to go and work for him. Jim’s approach was totally different to my father’s. He was purely business-oriented, whereas my father’s way would have been from a farming background. Jim was aggressive in going out and buying and getting people to buy horses. My father would never have done that. It was great for me to learn about a different side to the business.

“And the training was different, in the Phoenix Park, a flat five. That would have been totally different to any work we had ever done at home.

“The staff were different as well. At home, we had all country guys, farmers’ sons, people who understood that, when you were working with animals, work had to be done, it didn’t matter if it was after five o’clock in the morning or nine o’clock in the evening. If someone was away, someone else filled in. My first few weeks up in Jim’s, I couldn’t believe it. ‘That’s not my horse, that fellow didn’t turn up.’ The poor horse would be starved, and they’d just say that it wasn’t their horse.”

“Or if they got a little cut on their hand,” says Jim, “they’d be straight off to Blanchardstown Hospital. Even a little nick, they’d down tools. It was a strange culture for Willie, totally different to what he had been used to at home.”

Willie worked for Jim for two years. In 1982, he went back to his dad’s to ride Hazy Dawn to win the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham and to set about going out on his own.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do before I worked for Jim,” he says. “My time there brought me into focus. I learned two things: one, that money wasn’t everything, and two, that I wanted to work for myself.”

Their paths cross regularly. Sometimes at the races, Leopardstown at Christmas time, sometimes at a Flat meeting during the summer. Sometimes in the Lord Bagenal after racing.

“Jim usually takes my table here. Jim is often the first sitting and the second sitting.”

“It’s not the same since Willie stopped running a slate. If he still did, I’d be here more often.”

Tea or coffee?

Jim Bolger and Willie Mullins on:

Annie Power

Jim: We always thought a lot of her. We had her ready to win her bumper at Galway in August and I was lucky enough that I was able to get Mr Patrick Mullins to ride her. There was a two-fold advantage to that, I had a really good pilot on the day, and I had a customer as well afterwards.

Willie: At our game, she could be anything. I was just taken by her physique and her size. We thought she would be an adequate replacement for Quevega when the time came. It’s very hard to get mares with as deep a girth as she has. Dawn Run was the same.

Stable jockeys

Willie: It’s a huge help that Ruby (Walsh) is staying in Ireland now. It’s a big boost. Plus his knowledge of English tracks will be a big help if we go over there, which we may do, as long as all the horses stay sound.

Jim: I think the ride that Kevin (Manning) gave New Approach to win the Derby in 2008 was one of the best rides you will ever see. And I think what won the St James’s Palace Stakes for Dawn Approach was the speed with which Kevin reacted when he got his bump. He gathered him again immediately and he was back on an even keel whereas I think, probably with a lot of riders, when they get a bump like that, it would have taken them a little bit longer to react to it. It was the speed of his reaction that won the race.


Jim: I didn’t get one new owner after winning the Irish Derby. I suppose that happens. Owners generally like to catch the new kid on the up. I’m fairly dependent on Jackie Bolger I suppose. We have got this far, though, we might just be able to see it out.

Willie: I see too many trainers falling into the trap of thinking their main owner, for want of a better word, is a pension. But anyone can decide at any time to pull out of a yard. If you’re too dependent on one man, that can leave a fair hole. So I would always try and look after my old owners from way back, plus get any new owners that we can as well. But it is harder and harder to give lots of time to an individual owner. However, I think owners are big boys too and they understand that.


Willie: I remember we were coming home from Galway one day, my mum and dad in the front, (my brother) Tony and me in the back. There wasn’t much talking, Tony and I hadn’t been great that day, we had given two horses rides that we wouldn’t have been writing home about. Then suddenly Paddy turns to Maureen and says ‘Your two sons are going to put me out of business!’

Jim: I tell people that my son is the luckiest man in the world that he was never born.

48-hour declarations

Jim: I’m probably the only trainer who thinks this, but 48-hour declarations would be a good thing for racing. I can’t sell the idea to Willie or anyone else, but if you’re sitting at home on Monday and you’re thinking you’d like to go racing on Wednesday, you have to wait until Tuesday to find out what’s going to be running.

Willie: If we were going to go to 48-hour declarations, we would need to be sure that racing got something out of it. We still haven’t got a levy or the betting tax sorted in this country. And we don’t need to be embarrassed about it. We’re giving good value for money. There are 20,000 people employed in the industry in rural Ireland.

Winning the Irish Derby

Jim: Winning the Irish Derby this year with Trading Leather was the best ever. It was a combination of everything, it was a home-grown success in every sense. And sure, what man wouldn’t want to win his home Derby?

Winning the King George

Willie: The day that Florida Pearl won the King George at Kempton, Jackie was at Leopardstown, we obviously had runners at Leopardstown as well. Anyway, shortly after we had won the King George, Jackie bumped into my mother. ‘Wasn’t it great?’ Jackie said. ‘Yes it is,’ said my mother. ‘Tony is after having a winner at Limerick.’ So that gives you an idea of the pecking order in our family!

Each other

Willie on Jim: When I worked for Jim, the one thing was Jim never made the same mistake twice. I think that’s the key to his success. He remembers everything. He started with a clean sheet about racing, whereas, I think once you’re starting where I started, it’s a different ball game. It obviously has its advantages, but with Jim’s brain the clean sheet is a huge advantage.

Jim on Willie: When I needed a good head lad, Willie was the first person I approached. I offered him a good financial package. I didn’t think he would come and work for us just because I was Jim Bolger I was hoping that he would learn from me, but I was also hoping that I would learn from him, which I did. Lots.

© Irish Racing Yearbook 2014