Donn's Articles » Danny Mullins

Danny Mullins

Danny Mullins’ Christmas itinerary looks something like this. He will enjoy his Christmas dinner on Wednesday. That’s the beauty of weighing in at just over nine stone and riding horses that carry no less than 10 stone: you eat what you like, you don’t count the potatoes.

On Thursday morning, he will fly to Kempton and ride Mount Benbulben in the King George VI Chase. He will return to Leopardstown on Friday to ride The Tullow Tank in the Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle, and Sraid Padraig in the Paddy Power Chase. On Saturday he will probably ride Shinrock Paddy in the Pertemps Qualifier at Leopardstown, and on Sunday he will ride Foxrock in the Topaz Chase and, all going well between now and then, he will ride the Dessie Hughes-trained Our Conor for the first time over hurdles when he takes on Hurricane Fly and Jezki in the Ryanair Hurdle.

On all of those horses – and probably on several more over the course of the next week besides – he will be clad in the yellow and navy silks of his boss Barry Connell.

The call came from out of nowhere really last January. Mullins knew Connell well, the owner had had horses with his mum and his dad for years, and he remembers riding Rock And Roll Kid for Barry to win a handicap up The Curragh in the summer of 2008, a 16-year-old 7lb-claiming apprentice. He rode Anonis to win a maiden hurdle for Connell at Leopardstown on St Stephen’s Day last year, and he rode Mumbo Jumbo for him to win another maiden hurdle the following day. Maybe that expedited the call. Maybe it didn’t.

“There wasn’t any talk of Barry even looking for a jockey,” recalls Mullins. “Nobody ever said anything about it. Then he called me that day in January and asked me if I would ride all his horses. I said yes straight away. I didn’t think about it. It was a fantastic opportunity, I didn’t need to think about it.”

It is hardly surprising that Danny Mullins can’t remember a world without horses or racing. He is bred for it: dad Tony a champion jockey, mum Mags a champion lady rider, grandfather Paddy a racing legend.

“I used to ride ponies with my brother Anthony,” he smiles. “But Anthony just lost interest. He’s two years older than me. He’s a mechanic now, and he loves what he does. That’s the most important thing, isn’t it?”

Young Danny started off showjumping as a youngster, he won the 12.2 class at the RDS twice with two different ponies, but it was to be at pony racing that he really excelled. In just two seasons on the pony racing circuit, he rode 126 winners, 42 in his first season and 84 in his second.

“I learned an awful lot on the pony racing circuit,” he says. “You learn so much about race riding. At the same time, though, you don’t want to stay at it too long. You can pick up bad habits. Two years was long enough for me, and I still got plenty of suspensions for excessive use of the whip during my first season riding on the track.”

That first season was an explosive one. In high demand, he spent the first summer in a few flat yards. The last yard he went to was Jim Bolger’s and, when the suggestion was made that he should stay, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

He rode four winners from his first six rides, and he rode a treble on the Friday of the 2008 Galway Festival, which included victory on the Paul Cashman-trained Glitter Baby in the big Guinness handicap.

He was still growing, however, as 16-year-olds do, and his weight increased to such an extent that it quickly became apparent that his future lay over jumps. But making the switch wasn’t easy.

“It’s completely different, riding over jumps compared to riding on the flat,” says the rider thoughtfully. “It’s a different way of riding, different pace, and obviously there are obstacles that you have to jump.”

Also, because he had ridden so many winners on the flat, he had no claim left when he started riding over jumps. He was riding against Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty and Davy Russell with no weight allowance, and still effectively a rookie. There was no added incentive for trainers to put him up. He had some 80 rides over jumps before he rode his first winner. It was the absolute converse of the four-winners-from-six-rides experience that he had had on the flat.

He had a bad fall at the 2010 Punchestown Festival, in which he broke his collarbone and thumb. Then, soon after he returned, he had another bad fall at Listowel in September, breaking his arm. Momentum halted just as he was beginning to build his reputation.

“It was a bit depressing all right, sitting at home and watching horses that you might be riding winning. But my mother and father were great to me. So was Willie. I learned so much riding out at Willie’s, and he would always give me an opportunity when he could.”

Things could hardly be going better for the 21-year-old than they are now though. He touches wood. He had his first Grade 1 win on Mount Benbulben at Punchestown in April, and he had his second when he booted The Tullow Tank home in the Royal Bond Hurdle at Fairyhouse earlier this month. He has already almost matched last season’s total of 19 and we are not half-way through this season yet. More importantly, however, he has big horses now to ride in big races.

“I thought I was going well on Mount Benbulben in the Champion Chase at Down Royal last month when he got rid of me at the fourth last. His jumping doesn’t worry me though. He has done some loose schooling with Con Power, who says that he couldn’t be happier with him, and I have schooled him plenty since Down Royal. He will need to step up again if he is going to win a King George, but he has an engine and Gordon (Elliott, his trainer) is very happy with him.

“I can’t wait to ride Our Conor. What he did last year as a four-year-old was unbelievable. He was only racing against four-year-olds, of course, and he is going to have to step up again if he is going to get to Hurricane Fly’s level, but he is in great form. He ran well on the flat at Naas, but he probably wasn’t fully fit, and he is better over hurdles than he is on the flat. He lights up when he sees a hurdle.”

Just as his rider lights up when he talks about him. And the others. Some week ahead.

© The Sunday Times, 22nd December 2013