Donn's Articles » Tom Mullins

Tom Mullins

Punchestown Tuesday, Champion Novice Hurdle (Grade 1), second last flight, Tom Mullins doesn’t panic as he watches his horse Alderwood cede the lead to Trifolium. He has been here before.

He watches as AP McCoy crouches lower in JP McManus’s colours, asks his horse to pick up again. On the run to the final flight, the trainer takes heart from the fact that Trifolium isn’t extending the advantage, Alderwood has arrested the deficit and is galloping on willingly. He knows his horse well, he knows that he will keep galloping all the way to the line, and he knows that his rider will give him every assistance.

Over the final flight, barely a length in it, and Tom thinks, this fellow is going to win. That’s what confidence does to you. Gradually, Alderwood starts to reel Trifolium back in, his relentless gallop in absolute unison with his rider’s urgings, reduces the gap to a half a length, then a neck, then a head, draws level as the line closes in, goes a neck up, then a half a length, hits the line: gotcha!

When you think Punchestown and Mullins, you invariably think Willie Mullins, champion trainer, multi-record-breaker, perennial boundary-pusher, National-Hunt-scene-dominator, and it has been another fantastic Punchestown Festival for Willie. But once again this week, Tom has proven that he can train a good one when he has one. Gradually the penny is beginning to drop with racegoers that there is more than one Mullins in the scene.

“It was a great feeling,” says Tom now. “It was fantastic to win a Grade 1 race at Punchestown. Alderwood is hardy, he’s tough, AP gave him a super ride, and I knew from Cheltenham that he wasn’t going to lie down.”

Cheltenham was the same, but different. Tom watched through his binoculars as AP and Alderwood went around the inside in the County Hurdle, perfectly positioned as they started the turn for home. Then disaster. It all got congested on the inside as the riders jockeyed for position, Alderwood was one of the primary sufferers in the backwash, he lost his position and with it all apparent chance.

“I was watching with my wife Helen,” recalls the trainer, “and I hopped my binoculars off the ground in disgust. Or at least I tried to hop them off the ground. I actually hit my big toe with them and almost broke it.”

The pain quickly subsided as Tom looked back at the racecourse and realised that Alderwood was making progress again on the far side. He jumped the final flight well, hit the front early on the run-in and stayed on well up the hill to prevail by less than a length.

“That was just the best feeling,” says Tom. “It was up there with my father (Paddy) winning the Irish Oaks with Vintage Tipple. I was lost in the euphoria for a couple of minutes, I didn’t know what to think. He was so tough, he should have been on the floor at the bottom bend, so to come back and win the race was just incredible.

“To train a Cheltenham Festival winner, to get on the Cheltenham roster there with my dad and my brothers Willie and Tony. They had all done it, so it was great that I could do it as well. And the race that it was, the Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle, named after the man who was greatest trainer of all time, if that isn’t my father! It was a fantastic feeling.”

Actually, the County Hurdle wasn’t the original plan. Alderwood had won over two miles and six furlongs at Killarney in August, so, while Tom was thinking Cheltenham all right, he was thinking, two and a half miles, Coral Cup. Then McCoy rode Alderwood in a two-mile hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas, and said that he had the pace to travel in the two-mile race.

Mullins was happy with that. It looked like Alderwood’s owner JP McManus had Get Me Out Of Here for the Coral Cup. It didn’t make sense for the owner to have two horses in the same Cheltenham race when there was an alternative contest for one of them and, more than that, if Alderwood ran in the County Hurdle instead, it meant that McCoy could ride him.

It wasn’t all plain sailing to Cheltenham, however. After the Leopardstown race, the stewards ordered that the horse undergo a veterinary examination.

“They must have thought that he didn’t run well enough,” muses Mullins. “But the vet found that he had a fibrillating heart. He was fine, it’s good to know, it means that we can keep an eye on it, have him checked out regularly. Thankfully it hasn’t re-surfaced since.”

Alderwood has been working four years to become an overnight success. It was at the Goffs Land Rover Sale in 2008 that Mullins spotted the Alderbrook gelding. A paltry €19,000 later, and he had him home with him.

“I liked his walk,” says the trainer thoughtfully. “He had a really swanky walk. My father always said that if they can’t walk they can’t run, so how they walk is really important to me. He has always been tough. It was eight months before we could put shoes on him without sedating him first. But he’s a team effort. JP McManus has been great, as has his racing manager Frank Berry, and Aoibhinn looks after the horse in the yard. Aoibhinn and Alderwood are like a team. If Aoibhinn says jump, Alderwood says how high.”

Mullins’s own team is small but strong, majoring on quality, not on quantity. If he had 12 horses to train at the start of this season, he reckons, that would have been the height of it. Which makes it all the more remarkable that, an hour and a half after Alderwood had been washed down at Punchestown after Tuesday’s race, Mullins sent out Some Article to win the Goffs Land Rover bumper.

“I bought Some Article at Goffs as well obviously,” says the trainer, “and I have always thought a lot of him, but I thought that he would need plenty of time for the penny to drop with him. If it wasn’t for the fact that Tuesday’s race was the Goffs race, with plenty of prize money, I probably would have left him off until next season. But he won really well, and he is a lovely prospect now. Obviously the penny had dropped with him further than I thought.”

Pennies dropping all over the place.

© The Sunday Times, 29th April 2012