Donn's Articles » Willie Mullins

Willie Mullins

Willie Mullins is sitting at his kitchen table, reflecting on the season that has almost finished, tapping his mobile phone. It’s one of those old flip mobile phones, as old as some of the younger horses in the yard, on which the right-hand button doesn’t work any more, so that to get to certain functions you have to press the left-hand button about 100 times. Sometimes you get to a dead-end where you can’t escape without pressing the right-hand button. When you get there, you have to turn the phone off and start again. It takes about 15 seconds to turn off (he has counted them) and another 25 seconds to power back up again. The phone rings.

You ask him how the season has gone for him, and he pauses for a second to think. If you want a measure of how far Willie Mullins has progressed in the last few years, you have it right there in that pause. 132 winners in Ireland so far this season with the Punchestown Festival still to come, two winners at the Cheltenham Festival, and he has to pause for a second. Until two years ago, he had never trained 100 winners in a season. When he ended up with 79 winners in 2007, he achieved his highest ever tally. As recently as 2005, if he had trained 79 winners, he would have been leading trainer in Ireland. This season’s haul of 132 winners to date is 73 more than his closest pursuer in the trainers’ championship, and he still has to pause for a second.

It is typical Mullins, always moving forward, always progressing, setting the bar as high as he can reach and seeing if he can pole vault over it. When he was a kid growing up, Paddy Mullins’s son, he used to read up as much as he could on other trainers. He used to read mainly about their training methodology, how they worked their horses, how they solved problems. Even now, he is always reading, snippets on horses, feature articles on trainers, you never know what nuggets of information you will pick up. Every day a school day.

The phone rings.

We have been here before, we sat at this very same kitchen table last October as Willie looked ahead to the season that stretched out in front of him. We talked about the stable stars, Mikael D’Haguenet, Hurricane Fly, Glencove Marina, Cooldine, Quevega, Fiveforthree. It was appetite-whetting stuff. Alas, we didn’t know it at the time, but most of the main dishes were off. We haven’t seen Mikael D’Haguenet or Fiveforthree all season, we haven’t seen Hurricane Fly since he made his seasonal debut at Punchestown in November, Cooldine missed his intended debut in the John Durkan Chase in December and has been playing catch-up since and Quevega didn’t make her seasonal debut until the Cheltenham Festival, while Glencove Marina has had a hugely frustrating time of it, confining us to glimpses of his immense ability, and we won’t see him again now until next season.

“We have had a tremendous season,” says Willie eventually. “Just one or two of our top horses didn’t make it to the track. It was disappointing that Mikael D’Haguenet didn’t make it this year, and not to get a full run with Hurricane Fly, and I suppose Cooldine just never really got going this season, so that was disappointing. But in the broad scheme of injuries to horses, their injuries are all injuries from which they will recover. Conversely, a lot of the horses that we didn’t expect to do as well as they did have come good, and Quevega coming back to her best at Cheltenham was great. So there has been good and bad, but overall, we’re happy.”

It is a measure of the strength in-depth of the Mullins panel. We have just come in from fourth lot, from watching Sports Line and Snowy Morning and Kempes and Scotsirish and their ilk spin around the woodchip gallop. If you didn’t know of the existence of the others, you would think, some team, but Arsene Wenger’s injury-list had nothing on Willie Mullins’s this season. Mullins went through the season without Fabregas, Van Persie, Arshavin, Rosicky, Nasri and Gallas, and still had the championship sewn up by Christmas.

The trainer heads into the Punchestown Festival this week without another key member of the team. Ruby Walsh is out for a couple of months following the kicking he got when Celestial Halo crashed out at the second last flight in the Aintree Hurdle a half an hour before he was due to get the leg up on Big Fella Thanks in last Saturday’s Grand National. It’s desperate luck for Ruby, it’s not ideal for Willie, deprived of the services of one of the best National Hunt jockeys ever seen, if not the best. However, in Paul Townend, Mullins has a deputy who has the potential to fill Ruby’s boots in time. With Davy Condon and David Casey and Emmet Mullins to call on, things are looking good.

“Cooldine worked well this morning,” says Mullins. “He was a bit sore coming home from Cheltenham. It took him 10 days to a fortnight to get over it, but we think he’s back to himself. We think he’s in good shape now, but I’m wondering if the ground is going to be just too lively for him at Punchestown.”

“Hurricane Fly goes for the Champion Hurdle,” he says. “He just needed six weeks off, which meant that we didn’t have time to prepare him for Cheltenham. He worked well this morning though, and everything is going according to plan. I just hope the plan is right! Quevega I’m going to have to think about. She’s in the World Series Hurdle and the Champion Hurdle. She would probably be favourite for the stayers’ race, but she showed last year that she can be very competitive over two miles. I’m going to have to do a lot of thinking about her now.”

Ask him if he can repeat last year’s tally at the Punchestown Festival, and he laughs. Twelve winners, including four Grade 1s, was a remarkable haul even for the champion trainer. Almost one in every three races over the course of the week was won by a Willie Mullins-trained horse. However well he does, he tells you, whatever gods are smiling on him, it would be unrealistic to expect to equal last year’s feat, but it doesn’t mean that he won’t try.

“It looks like Blackstairmountain and Flat Out will both go for the Champion Novice Hurdle,” he says. “Flat Out would probably prefer a bit more give in the ground, but it should suit Blackstair well. He ran really well at Fairyhouse the last day, I think just the heavy ground wasn’t ideal, and a good horse in Luska Lad beat him. It was a very good race, I just hope it didn’t take too much out of him.”

“J’y Vole goes for the Gold Cup,” he says thoughtfully. “She deserves her crack at that. She ran really well at Cheltenham, and all the jockeys seem to prefer riding her right-handed than left, so she could be even better at Punchestown. She’s in great form. Golden Silver and Barker will probably go for the Champion Chase. Barker is just not firing this year, but I’ll let him take his chance I think. Golden Silver is so much better on proper winter ground, but he will run here hopefully, he deserves to take his chance, then he’ll go out to grass.

“The Midnight Club is in the staying novice chases, and he’s also in one or two of the handicaps,” he says. “We will confirm him for a few of the big races, and make a decision closer to the time. He’s in great form. He ran so well at Cheltenham in the Jewson, over a distance that was probably too short for him.”

Add Thousand Stars and Mourad and Sports Line and Shakervilz, and a host of handicappers and four-year-old hurdlers and bumper horses, and it is going to be a busy week for Mullins. Perhaps last year’s record haul is not that far out of reach.

The phone rings.

© The Sunday Times, 18th April 2010