Donn's Articles » Patrick Mullins

Patrick Mullins

Patrick Mullins remembers Florida Pearl. He remembers watching on television at home in the sitting room in 1997 – too young to travel – and seeing the horse that his dad trained bound up the hill in the Champion Bumper, his big white blaze going up and down in tandem with Richard Dunwoody’s rhythmic drive. Magic.

He wasn’t there in 1998 when Florida Pearl won the RSA Chase, but he was there in 1999 all right, a wide-eyed nine-year-old, when Willie Mullins’ horse was sent off as favourite for the Gold Cup.

“I couldn’t believe it when Florida got beaten,” he recalls. “I was standing in the stands with my mum and dad, watching it all unfold in front of me. But this was Florida Pearl, Florida Pearl just didn’t lose. He was our hero. He was my hero anyway. I remember coming down off the stands, devastated. It taught me a lot about Cheltenham, though, at a very young age. You just don’t go there expecting to win.”

They were different days. Before Florida Pearl won the Champion Bumper in 1997, Willie Mullins had trained just two Cheltenham Festival winners, Tourist Attraction and Wither Or Which. Now, in 2015, he has trained 33, and he has been leading trainer at three of the last four festivals.

Florida Pearl lit a fuse of sorts inside young Patrick. Before Florida Pearl, he was another athletic youngster. He played soccer – Thomastown’s Under-11 player of the year – he ran lots, he rode ponies. Badly, he tells you. After Florida Pearl, however, he was a budding young rider who wanted to ride at Cheltenham.

He ticked that box in 2007, when he rode Adamant Approach in the Pertemps Final.

“Adamant Approach was an unbelievable horse. He used to go out on the gallop as a 12 and a 13-year-old every morning, and he’d whinny like a two-year-old. Every morning. I used to ride him work, and he taught me an awful lot about riding.”

Patrick won the Pertemps Qualifier at Leopardstown that January on the Greenstar Syndicate’s horse, and the owners were happy to allow the amateur ride him at Cheltenham.

“I was at boarding school, so I wasn’t riding out every day. I was running twice a day at school, I remember doing laps around the floodlit pitch, and I must have gone through the race a million times in my head as I was running. Each lap was the race, where I would be in the race, who I would follow. I had Plan A, B, C, all the way down to Z. It was all I thought about for six weeks.”

Adamant Approach ran a cracker. He got hampered as they by-passed the second last flight, but for which his rider thinks he would have gone very close to winning. Even so, he ran on really well to finish third. When you finish in the first four at Cheltenham, you get to go into the winner’s enclosure to unsaddle. It was almost as good as winning.

One year later, Patrick went two places better.

2007/08 was a big year. Not only was it the year that Mr P W Mullins kicked on as an amateur rider, it was also his Leaving Cert year. In that regard, it was a help that Father Moloney, principal at Clongowes Wood, was a racing man.

Mullins initially thought that he would be riding Drive On Regardless in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham in 2008. It wasn’t until declarations were made that his dad told him that he was riding Cousin Vinny.

“I was delighted to get the ride on Vinny. Apt Approach was our number one horse, Ruby was riding him. But I thought that Vinny had a big chance. He had shown a really good turn of foot when I won on him at Punchestown.”

His plan was to follow Ruby through the race. If you follow Ruby through a race, you usually won’t be too far off.

“We travelled really well down the hill, and we turned into the home straight in front. From there, I was just waiting for something to come past me. I hit him once, and he kind of ran left, he was green, so I just rode him hands and heels after that, tried to keep him straight. But it took forever to get to the winning line. It was the longest 20 seconds of my life.”

Ask him to explain the feeling, riding a Cheltenham winner, his first Cheltenham winner, and he struggles. He didn’t raise his whip, he just patted his horse down the neck. Happy, contented. It wasn’t what he expected it to be.

“It was strange. Maybe it’s like that when you achieve something that you weren’t really expecting to achieve. It wasn’t euphoria. There was no release, no relief of pressure. I don’t know really. Just very happy. Try to describe colour to a blind person.

It was almost dark when they came back into the winner’s enclosure. A big syndicate owned Cousin Vinny, and there was a big cheer.

“It was unbelievable. I got down off him and I gave my dad a hug. My mother came along then, she had watched the race outside. My only regret was that my grandfather (the legendary Paddy Mullins) wasn’t there. He just wasn’t well enough to travel. My grandmother was there, though. She’s an amazing lady. It was my first Cheltenham winner and it was fantastic. I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”

In 2012 Patrick won the Champion Bumper again on Champagne Fever, and in 2013 he won the National Hunt Chase on Back In Focus. The bumper wins were brilliant, but to ride a winner over fences at Cheltenham is just about as good as it gets.

“Tofino Bay was out there in front of us, but my fellow pricked an ear when we landed over final fence, so I knew that he had some energy left. They don’t do that if they are flat to the boards. Gradually we reeled the leader in, we got there, got past, got to the line. Then I realised that I hadn’t taken a breath since we had jumped the last! It took me about a minute to get my breath back.”

Of course, Cheltenham week is a massive week. Willie Mullins will have upwards of 50 runners, and Patrick will ride out every morning, help out where he is needed. His riding comes first though. The horses he is riding will be his main focus for the week. Maybe with one exception: Hurricane Fly.

“He has a chance of winning the Champion Hurdle again. I don’t think you can say that he doesn’t have a chance. If there is a bit of give in the ground, that would help him a lot. But he is in great form.”

Ask him what he will ride in the bumper, and he scratches his head. He goes through the possibles, Bordini, Pylonthepressure, Au Quart De Tour, Stone Hard, Turcagua, extolling the virtues of each one. He just doesn’t know yet.

“I’ll ride what I’m told to ride. Dad has this way of matching the horse to the rider in the Bumper. There are eight possibles, and I’m happy to ride whatever he wants me to ride. He has this annoying habit of being right.”

© The Sunday Times, 1st March 2015