Donn's Articles » Willie Mullins

Willie Mullins

One week to go in the Irish National Hunt season, and Willie Mullins is set to be crowned champion trainer once again. In truth, this one was over a long time ago. Mullins could have been called champion when the season was but an adolescent.

The perennial champ’s statistics this season are startling, even by his own lofty standards. His total of 179 winners in Ireland is greater than the sum of the individual totals of the trainers who sit second, third and fourth in the table behind him. Unsurprisingly, he has had more runners than any other trainer, but his strike-rate is staggering – 33%, at least twice as high as any other trainer in the top 20. One out of every three of the horses that he has run this season has won. And it could get even better this week, given the trainer’s remarkable record at the Punchestown Festival.

Mullins broke Aidan O’Brien’s long-standing record this year for the greatest number of winners in a National Hunt season (155), and he did it in February, with over two months still to go in the season. His win prize money of over €2.3 million is almost four times higher than the next best in the list. If Irish National Hunt racing were an orchestra, Willie Mullins would be conductor and first violin.

But it hasn’t only been in Ireland that Mullins has excelled this season. Last summer at Auteuil, he won the French Champion Hurdle and the Prix la Barka with Thousand Stars. He sent a stronger team than any Irish trainer has ever sent to the Cheltenham Festival last month, and, famously, he came home with five winners and the top trainer’s trophy.

Then last Saturday morning, before most of us had had our breakfast or even fully realised what day it was, Blackstairmountain raced on the far side of the world in the Nakayama Grand Jump, the second richest jumps race in the world and never before won by a European horse, and he won it.

“We haven’t really done anything differently this year,” says the trainer thoughtfully. “I suppose, because of the wet summer last year, we were able to get going with the good horses earlier than usual on the easy ground. We had a lot more winners by November than we usually have, and that set us up for the season.”

Sure enough, with just 21 winners between May and October inclusive in Ireland in 2010 and only 29 during the same period in 2011, Mullins’ total for that period this season was 66. That was the springboard from whence this record-breaking season was sprung.

But it isn’t just down to the weather. You don’t break records just because you get a drop of rain. Push him on all the other possibles, and he nods general recognition. Horses, owners, facilities, the horse sense that goes with simply being a Mullins, staff.

“Staff.” He hones in. “We have made a point of holding onto good staff. During the Celtic Tiger era, people would be leaving you because they were getting better money somewhere else. Other people would be trying to pinch your good staff. But we have lots of good people here now. Dave Dowling is the head lad, but they are all professional. The ship almost steers itself.

“And we have a superb team of riders. Ruby, Paul, Emmet, Patrick, Danny, David Casey, Declan Lavery. They all understand the way our horses are ridden, they understand the way I like to do things.”

As well as the pool of human talent, however, there is also a deep pool of equine talent, without which, obviously, none of this would work. And, no different to the people, the horses didn’t just happen upon Closutton by accident.

“We are lucky that we have some very good owners who want to buy good horses. We have good structures in place to buy good horses that we have built up over the years, especially in France. It’s a different system over there, there are different degrees of trust. It’s much more like a business there. In Ireland, it’s like your word is your bond. In France, you can get gazumped very easily. We have learned about that the hard way. But it’s working for us now.

“And there is no question about being unpatriotic because we buy a lot of horses in France. I don’t care about the nationality of horses, I just want value for money. I always want to buy a horse that is value for money.”

Another significant contributor to his success this season has been the soundness of his horses, how injury-free they have remained. That could be down to good fortune, it could be due to pure happenstance, but it could also be down to subtle influencing factors.

“We’re all the time learning about this game,” says Willie. “Our staff are here longer, they can pick up things more quickly. Little things before they become big things. The more horses you can keep sound, the more often you can run them and the more winners you will have. And we have owners who are not afraid to be patient, who are happy to put a horse away for a year if that is what is required. In the broad scheme of things, a year is really not that long a time in a National Hunt racehorse’s career.”

Ask him for a highlight of the season – notwithstanding the fact that there will probably be a few more candidates this week – and he struggles. There were so many high points. Hurricane Fly’s second Champion Hurdle, Quevega’s fifth Mares’ Hurdle, Sir Des Champs’ Hennessy Gold Cup, five winners at Cheltenham. Maybe it was Back In Focus.

“He was such a hard horse to train when we first got him for Graham Wylie. He was a huge horse, we were always worried that he would stay sound. But he has a very good work rider, she has been the making of him. For him to win the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham like he did, with Patrick riding him, riding his first winner over fences at the Cheltenham Festival – we got a huge kick out of that all right.”

Some performance. Some season.

Five for Punchestown

Sir Des Champs

He ran a great race at Cheltenham. While I was a little disappointed that he didn’t see out the trip as well as I thought he would, I was delighted he jumped as well as he did.

Hurricane Fly

We were delighted with him in the Champion Hurdle, and he is in great form for Punchestown.


She is a super mare. For her to win her fifth race at Cheltenham was fantastic. She will face stiff opposition at Punchestown, but she has won the World Series Hurdle every year for the last three years.

Champagne Fever

We were delighted with him at Cheltenham. It was probably a very good Supreme Novices’ Hurdle that he won, and he is on track for Punchestown.

Annie Power

We bought really her as a novice chaser, we gave plenty for her, but she has produced it over hurdles now, she has probably surprised us with how much class she has shown over hurdles.

© The Sunday Times, 21st April 2013