Donn's Articles » Willie Mullins

Willie Mullins

Things were different at the end of 2001.  Willie Mullins had never trained a Champion Hurdle winner or a Grand National winner or a Neptune Hurdle winner.  That season he would train 44 winners in Ireland, just over half as many as the champion trainer Noel Meade.

Look back.  Rewind 14 years and a day.  Mullins sent Florida Pearl to Kempton on St Stephen’s Day in 2001 to contest the King George VI Chase.  Florida Pearl was nine years old in December 2001, almost 10.  It was likely that his very best days were behind him.  With Adrian Maguire on board for the first time, Violet O’Leary’s horse was sent off just fourth favourite in the eight-strong King George behind First Gold, Best Mate and Bacchanaal.

Florida Pearl led from early, but all four horses were in with a chance as they turned for home.  Favourite First Gold was the first one to weaken out of it on the run to the third last fence, but both Best Mate and Bacchanal pressed the gallant leader.

Florida Pearl stood tall.  He repelled the challengers, still led on the run to the final fence, jumped the obstacle in his stride and held off Best Mate’s late lunge to get home by three parts of a length.  It was Ireland’s first King George since the Pat Taaffe-trained Captain Christy had won the second of his brace 26 years earlier.

Fifty minutes after Florida Pearl’s victory, Willie’s brother Tony had a horse, Be Home Early, running in the handicap chase at Leopardstown, and he ran well to finish a good second.  With Willie at Kempton with Florida Pearl, his wife Jackie was supervising operations at Leopardstown.  Jackie met Willie’s mother after racing.

“Wasn’t it great?” said Jackie.

“It was,” said Mrs Mullins.  “Tony’s horse ran great.”

Willie smiles a wry smile at the recollection.

“That gives you an idea of what the pecking order is in our family!”


Now look.  Willie Mullins is master of the National Hunt world that he surveys.  Perennial champion trainer these days, for each of the last three seasons he has had 185 winners or more in Ireland, over four times as many has he had in 2001/02.  He had accumulated just six Cheltenham Festival winners in 2001, four of them in the Champion Bumper.  Now, he has amassed 41.  He had eight winners at the Cheltenham Festival in 2015, more than any other trainer at one Festival ever, and he has been leading trainer at the meeting four times in the last five years.

Never before has one trainer dominated National Hunt racing in Britain and Ireland like Willie Mullins does these days, but you can count his achievements beyond these shores too if you want.  Success in France, J’y Vole and Hurricane Fly and Blood Cotil and Rule Supreme and Diakali and Gitane Du Berlais and, of course, the Francophile who is Thousand Stars.  In April 2013 he sent Blackstairmountain to Japan to win the Nakayama Grand Jump, the second most valuable jumps horse race in the world, a feat whose magnitude has probably not been fully appreciated here.

Or on the flat.  Royal Ascot victories with Simenon and Pique Sous and Clondaw Warrior, an Ebor with Sesenta, a Lonsdale Cup with Max Dynamite.  In 2013, Mullins sent Simenon to the far side of the world to finish fourth in the Melbourne Cup at Flemington, and last month he sent Max Dynamite back there to finish second, beaten a half a length in a race that almost stopped two nations.

Now look around you.  Vautour and Faugheen and Douvan and Nichols Canyon and Arctic Fire and Un De Sceaux.  There is a depth to the team of horses that ambles around the yard in front of you that is difficult to quantify.  Any one of these horses would be the stable star in most yards in Britain or Ireland, so it is strangely exciting to be able to see so many of them together, routinely clip-clopping their way easily around the yard, getting ready for morning exercise.

With such a depth of talent, it is inevitable that things are going to be busy just after Christmas.  Today, Un De Sceaux, a late scratching from the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown three weeks ago, makes his much anticipated seasonal debut in the Grade 1 Paddy Power iPhone App Chase at Leopardstown this afternoon.

“I just wasn’t happy with him on the Wednesday before the Tingle Creek,” says Willie, “so we decided to take him out of the race that day, before declarations the following day.  We were very happy with his schooling session at Thurles, and he has been in great order since Thurles.  Looking back, we can regard Thurles as his seasonal debut, and now this is the next step for him into the season.”

Un De Sceaux’s record is simple: he has never been beaten when he has stood up.  Fourteen runs, one fall, 13 wins, 11 of them for Mullins, four of them over fences.  He was dynamite as a novice last season, winning Grade 1 chases at Leopardstown, Cheltenham and Punchestown.  Today, he steps into open grade for the first time.  Signs are, he is up to the task.

Mullins is set to run the two Gigginstown House horses, Don Poli and Sir Des Champs, in the Lexus Chase tomorrow.  Remarkably, the Lexus Chase is a race that has thus far eluded the champion trainer.  The Hennessy Gold Cup is a similar race to the Lexus, run, as it is, like the Lexus, over three miles at Leopardstown, but run in early February as opposed to late December.  Mullins has trained the winner of the Hennessy nine times, which makes his absence from the Lexus roll of honour all the more remarkable.  It is a balance that may be redressed tomorrow.

“Both horses are well,” says the trainer.  “I thought that Don Poli did very well to win at Aintree last time, to beat Many Clouds, the Hennessy and Grand National winner, given how his saddle had slipped right back on him.  And I was delighted with Sir Des Champs’ return at Thurles.  That was his first run in two years, so he should be able to progress from that.”

It looks like Arctic Fire and Nichols Canyon will both take their chance in the Ryanair Hurdle on Tuesday.

“Nichols Canyon was never a great work horse.  John Gosden trained him on the flat and he was never a great worker for him either.  Maybe that’s why he surprised us in the Morgiana Hurdle.  But he won four Grade 1 races last year as a novice, he is a high-class hurdler.  Arctic Fire has been good since his Hatton’s Grace Hurdle win.  We’re happy with him.”

Now look forward.

© The Sunday Times, 27th December 2015