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Tony Mullins

Tony Mullins is concerned. It’s not Clarach. His Guinness Galway Hurdle aspirant is in top form and bang on track for the feature race of the Galway Festival on Thursday. Mullins was delighted with the mare’s performance three weeks ago in winning a decent race at Limerick, and she has thrived since.

It isn’t the ground. Clarach has won over hurdles on good ground and on good to yielding ground, she won a flat race at Tramore in June on good to firm ground, and she has run well on firm ground and on soft to heavy ground. She will be able for whatever the elements have in store for her this week.

It’s not the track either. Clarach loves Galway. She is nimble enough to handle the tight turns and the undulations, she gobbled up the hill when she won a mares’ handicap hurdle at last year’s Galway Festival on her only run at the track, and she jumps those Easyfix hurdles like a cat.

It’s the race. Getting into it.

The problem is that Clarach is number 24 on the list for a race in which only 20 can run. In order for the mare to get to run in the race, four horses above her in the ratings have to be taken out between now and Thursday morning. Compounding the problem is the fact that Clarach’s main alternative to the Galway Hurdle, the Carlton Hotel Galway City Handicap, is set to be run tomorrow evening, before you know if the mare will get into the Galway Hurdle or not.

You can see the quandary.

“If I knew that she was definitely going to get into the Hurdle,” says Mullins thoughtfully, “I wouldn’t run her in Monday’s race. I just think that she is at her best when she is fresh. That said, she could get away with it. She could run in both.”

It is 363 days since Mullins stood in the winner’s enclosure at Galway after Clarach had won that mares’ handicap hurdle. Beside him was Ger Whyte, owner of the Castlebar Inn and head of the Castlebar Syndicate that owns the mare.

“You know what?” said the trainer, a quiet voice in the midst of the euphoria that traditionally accompanies a Galway Festival winner.

The owner listened intently.

“We could be coming back here next year.”

But Mullins and Clarach go back way more than 12 months. Bred by neighbours and good friends of the family for generations, Matt and Philip O’Keefe, Mullins saw the Beneficial mare for the first time as she frolicked in a field as a yearling. You can get rid of the rest of them, Mullins told the breeders. But keep her.

“She was just the most lovely filly,” the trainer recalls. “Her conformation was hard to fault. She was just a little bit small. If she has been one hand bigger, she would have been perfect.”

Mullins broke her and got her going, and started her off in a maiden hurdle at Cork in June 2009, when she ran most encouragingly to finish third of the 24 runners. Thirteen months and eight races later, however, she still hadn’t won. She finished second twice and third four times, but she just couldn’t win.

“We couldn’t understand it,” says Mullins. “She was travelling well in her races to the final flight, and then stopping. I never thought she was dishonest, I never thought she wasn’t going through with her effort, she had such a willing attitude. Obviously something was bothering her, but we couldn’t find what it was, so she was sold to England.”

She raced four times for Tim Vaughan, and never won. Mullins remembers watching her race at Towcester on At The Races in October 2010. Same story. She travelled well to the second last, but didn’t go on. Suddenly, something clicked with him. Her breathing. She couldn’t get enough air into her lungs when she came under pressure in the closing stages of her races.

The owners were intent on retiring their filly and breeding from her, but Mullins asked if he could have another go with her. He had her soft palate cauterised, took her back into training, and ran her in a maiden hurdle at Killarney in May 2011. She bolted up.

“We were only letting her run to see where we were with her,” laughs Mullins. “We weren’t really expecting that she would be fit enough to win, but we were delighted when she did. I suppose when she won we were vindicated in taking her back, and in thinking that she was a good horse in the first place.”

Since then, Clarach has improved by 26lb, according to the official handicapper. She has won her last three races, two hurdle races and a handicap on the flat, and she has got to a point at which she has a real live chance in a Galway Hurdle. If her mark of 130 is high enough to get her into the race.

“We don’t have that much in hand,” says Mullins slowly. “She was rated 122 when we won that race at Limerick, and now she has to race off 130, so she has to find 8lb worth of improvement. But if there isn’t a Champion Hurdle horse in it, she will have a big chance if she gets into the race, and she will have a big chance in the Carlton Hotel race if she doesn’t. She wasn’t beaten that far by Steps To Freedom on the flat at Leopardstown last summer, he is rated 109 and she’s rated just 76. She could have a big chance off that mark.”

Mullins has never won a Galway Hurdle, neither as a jockey nor as a trainer. It was never a track at which he had much luck as a rider, he concedes. He rode winners there all right, and he was placed in a couple of Galway Plates, but he never felt that he rode the track well. However, he did train Afford A King, who won the Galway Plate in 1988, and he sent out Rock And Roll Kid to win the Galway Mile in 2009. That victory was made all the more special by the fact that the horse was ridden by his son Danny.

“I didn’t even see the finish of that race,” says the trainer. “I went down to the start, just to make sure that Danny was okay and that everything was all right with the horse at the stalls, so I couldn’t get back up in time to see the race. My view of the winning post was obscured, and I couldn’t hear the commentary with the noise of the crowd. I did see the winning jockey punching the air, mind you, and I thought that it looked like Danny. He was small and his silks were flowing out behind him. That was a special day.”

All going well, Danny will again be on board Clarach on Thursday. It could be another special day.

© The Sunday Times, 29th July 2012