Donn's Articles » Willie Mullins

Willie Mullins

A year and a week ago, Willie Mullins sat at his kitchen table and reflected on the season that had almost passed. Highlights? His son Patrick winning the Cheltenham Bumper on Cousin Vinny, Fiveforthree’s victory in the Ballymore Hurdle, Glencove Marina winning the Paddy Fitzpatrick Chase, training 100 winners that season for the first time ever.

At the time, Mullins was just leading Noel Meade in the duel that had developed between them for the 2007/08 trainers’ championship. The Punchestown Festival would determine the destination of the title. The meeting didn’t start too well for Mullins last year. Clear Riposte got caught on the run-in in the opener and Pomme Tiepy got beaten by Air Force One in the Grade 1 novices’ chase. When Jered won the Champion Novices’ Hurdle for Noel Meade, the Meathman actually went in front of Mullins in the battle for the championship. The signs were ominous. Then the Mullins juggernaut clicked into gear. Quiscover Fontaine, Freds Benefit, Irish Invader, Scotsirish, Arbour Supreme and Cousin Vinny all won to deliver the trainers’ championship for Mullins and make it a Punchestown Festival to remember. It didn’t get much better than that.

Actually, it did.

This season, the dying embers of which glowed their final glow yesterday evening at Punchestown, the trainer reached a level of achievement that is unequalled in the modern era. The trainers’ championship was effectively over in November. Perennial champion Noel Meade conceded the title in his own head before Christmas. Mullins’s domination of the top prizes in Ireland has been almost absolute, his progress relentless. This season, the trainer seems to have succeeded in getting all the elements to fall into place. If there is a sweet spot in the training of racehorses, Mullins hit it this year: the quality of his horses, their health, their fitness levels, the astuteness and care with which they have been campaigned, it all just came right this season, the four Lucky Sevens lined up. Jackpot.

Mullins’s progress even from last year’s extraordinary high has been remarkable. Last year’s total of 111 winners – a career high and 25 more than the next best – has been made to look almost ordinary by this year’s 136. Mullins has trained more than twice as many winners as any other trainer in the country this season, his prize money haul is 50% higher than his total last season, and his strike rate is an astonishing 27%. To put that figure into context, the average strike rate for the next 10 best Irish trainers was 11.5%, the best among them 13%.

But it wasn’t just about the figures. The season was as much about the quality of the horses, the levels of performance, as it was about setting statistical records. Common consensus was that the degree to which the Irish challenge at Cheltenham this year would succeed or fail was largely dependent on how Willie Mullins fared, and the trainer easily lumbered that burden of expectation. Three winners, two Grade 1s and a Grade 2, via Cooldine, Mikael D’Haguenet and Quevega, was an impressive haul, and that was without his star turn Hurricane Fly.

If Mullins hadn’t had a winner at Punchestown this week, he still would have had his best season ever. But he wasn’t content with that. He had to hammer the point home. This week at Punchestown was Willie Mullins week. He trained 12 of the 36 winners at the meeting, one in three. Astonishing to think that, given the year that he just had, the 52nd week of the season was his best.

We were given a taste of what was to follow when, in just the second race of the festival, the Evening Herald Champion Novice Hurdle, the Ruby Walsh-ridden Hurricane Fly blitzed his rivals with a turn of foot that only truly top class horses possess, and his closest challenger was Kempes, another Mullins representative, and the week just went on from there.

There was a treble on Wednesday. The Midnight Club stayed on really well, having looked beaten, under Willie’s nephew Emmet Mullins, to land the three-mile novices’ hurdle. Ruby Walsh took over again, riding a lovely waiting race on J’y Vole before allowing the mare slice through her field to land the two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase, and then doing something similar on Jayo, although perhaps not quite so pronounced, in the novices’ race.

There was a four-timer on Thursday. Amazing. Seven races at one of the most high-profile and competitive meetings on the calendar, and one man wins four of them. Grade 1 winners Fiveforthree and Barker, Jessies Dream in the opener and Quel Esprit in the finale, the bumper. Another treble on Friday, Ballytrim, Equus Maximus and Mikael D’Haguenet, another Grade 1 win, another Mullins 1-2 with Cousin Vinny chasing him home. Just one on Saturday, Sesenta in the handicap hurdle. If the Monopolies and Mergers Commission has not been disbanded in 1999, a referral would already have been made.

One thing that is striking about these horses is that the majority of them are youngsters. Hurricane Fly is still only five, Kempes is six, Jessies Dream is six, Mikael D’Haguenet is just five, Cousin Vinny is six. Fiveforthree looks like a pensioner by comparison, and he does have the grey hair to go with the image, but he is still just seven, a mere whipper-snapper in staying chaser terms. Even J’y Vole and Jayo, although it may seem like they have both been around for a little while, are still only six. These horses are only getting going.

It will be an interesting summer for Mullins and his owners, as they deliberate over future plans. Despite the obvious attraction of a trip back to his native land, back to Auteuil, where he performed with such credit for Mullins last summer, it looks like Hurricane Fly will be put away now until next season, when his entire campaign will be geared towards the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March. It is significant that you won’t get any better than 4/1 about him for that contest even now.

Both Mikael D’Haguenet and Cousin Vinny look set to go over the larger obstacles next season, although Cousin Vinny may run again over hurdles before having the summer off. Mikael D’Haguenet in particular is a hugely exciting staying novice chaser in the making. He is a half-brother to two chase winners in France, and he has already run over the larger obstacles there, a factor that attracted Mullins to him in the first place. Fortunately, he didn’t win that race, which means that he is still a novice over fences for next season. 5/1 for the RSA Chase, if you’re interested.

It’s steeplechasing as well for Fiveforthree. That’s the plan at the moment anyway. He was supposed to go chasing this season, but niggly little problems kept him off the track for long enough to convince Mullins that he should keep him over hurdles this season and retain his novice status over fences for next term. That said, there has to be a slight chance that Mullins will keep him over hurdles, such was the fluency and authority with which he landed the Ladbrokes World Series Hurdle on Thursday, and given that fact that, all things being equal, there will be enough top class staying novice chasers at Closutton to cover most bases. Fiveforthree’s next outing is likely to be in the French Champion Hurdle, run over three miles and one and a half furlongs at Auteuil in June.

Barker, the 15-length winner of the Swordlestown Cup on Thursday, was never a Champion Chase contender in Mullins’s eyes, not before Thursday. Indeed, the trainer considered running him in the three-mile contest instead of the two-mile race. After the pace that he showed on Thursday, however, and the ease with which he beat the Arkle winner Forpadydeplasterer, the Champion Chase is the obvious target for him next season. He still has to improve on what he has done, but he has progressed immeasurably since joining Mullins, and there is no telling how high he can go.

Willie Mullins had to have been immensely satisfied picking up his champion trainer’s trophy at Punchestown yesterday. Surely it can’t get any better than this?

© The Sunday Times, 3rd May 2009