Donn's Articles » Willie Mullins

Willie Mullins

Cheltenham, eh?  The Cheltenham Festival.  Seventy-two winners, more than any other trainer.  Ever.  How the hell did that happen?  

Remember Tourist Attraction, the first, when Irish Cheltenham winners were hen’s teeth?  When, if there was an Irish-trained winner, any Irish-trained winner, it was a feat that was worthy of note?  It’s not that long ago.  And now look.  

Seven winners in 2016, six in 2017, seven again in 2018, four in 2019, seven more in 2020.  And that’s just Willie Mullins, not the Irish collective.  Nine of the last 10 leading trainer awards at the Cheltenham Festival have gone to an Irish trainer, two to Gordon Elliott, seven to Willie Mullins. 

You don’t take it for granted though.  Remember 2017?  No winners after two days.  Douvan had been beaten, Melon had been beaten, Bellshill had been beaten, and no Vautour, no Faugheen, no Annie Power.  Photographer Caroline Norris does a collage every year of the Willie Mullins Cheltenham Festival winners, and they wondered if they would have anything at all for 2017.  Then Ruby Walsh went out and rode four winners on the third day.

“Sure come down and see some horses, stay for a bit of lunch.”

You’d need traffic lights.  Really.  Or at least signs to tell you whether you should look to your left or to your right before you cross.  Most of the horses seem to know what they’re doing though, as do all of the riders.  ‘Two big’ seems to be the most popular activity for the morning, up and around to your left and out of sight, then back around to your right again and three furlongs straight until you get to the tree.  (It’s easy to spot, a big tree with a sign on it that says ‘The Tree’.)  Then you do it again.  Then you ease down and walk back and report.

Horses?  Oh yes.  Big ones. Saint Roi and Appreciate It and Ferny Hollow and The Big Getaway and Monkfish and Min. The white board is just about big enough for all the names, but a white page certainly isn’t.  And Al Boum Photo.

It was one of the anomalies of National Hunt racing that Willie Mullins, one of the best National Hunt trainers that there has ever been – the best, many say – had never won National Hunt racing’s glittering prize.  Six seconds and no winners.  Then you blink and he has won it twice.  They’re not like busses though, don’t be fooled.  You don’t wait over 30 years for a bus.

And March 2020 was different to March 2019.  Four chances in March 2019, but the champion trainer had by then adopted the mindset that maybe the Gold Cup just wasn’t one from which he would ever drink.  He had convinced himself that maybe it just wasn’t for him.  He pushed the bar of expectation down as low as he could. 

Logic, eh?

In 2020, a Gold Cup already in the bag, the title around your neck, reigning Gold Cup champion returning.  There was expectation all right.

“You know things can go wrong,” says Mullins thoughtfully.  “But I felt that I hadn’t seen anything all season that was better than we were.  I felt that if our fellow turned up as good as he was last year, then he would be good enough to win it again.  And we thought he was at least as good as he had been the previous year.  Possibly better.  It was a funny feeling, going there thinking that we had the winning of the Gold Cup.  That we just needed the ball to hop the right way for us. It was sort of ours to lose.”

It wasn’t all about the Gold Cup though.  It’s never all about one race. 

“Every day at Cheltenham, we just focus on the day ahead.  At the start of the week, I wasn’t thinking of the Gold Cup on the fourth day.  We were thinking of today, each day.  You try and get through each day as well as you can and focus on that day.  We’re lucky enough to have plenty of runners each day, which means you have enough on your mind trying to work out what we’re going to do that day.”

Thirteen races flowed under the bridge at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival before there was a Willie Mullins winner.  In the last race on the second day, the Champion Bumper, Ferny Hollow and Appreciate It finished first and second.  The half-time oranges tasted sweeter in 2020 than they did in 2017.  Bagging one in the first half is always better than going in at half-time scoreless.

It was a unique Cheltenham Festival though, the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, the creep of Coronavirus a dark backdrop.  There was an unusual atmosphere.

“I said to Jackie before we left, I’ll go across but I might not go racing. I might stay in the hotel.  Racing people had huge respect for the Coronavirus. I certainly did and a lot of people we met at the races wouldn’t shake hands.  I’ve never washed my hands as much. Normally you’d give someone a hug or a kiss, someone you hadn’t seen for a long while, because you meet so many people at Cheltenham who you might only meet at Cheltenham from year to year.  But not this year.  We didn’t go out at night time, we stayed in the hotel and ate on our own. We didn’t want to go into big crowded areas. Everything was subdued.”

Two more winners on Thursday, Min and Concertista, and then an explosion on Friday. Burning Victory in the Triumph Hurdle, Saint Roi in the County Hurdle, Monkfish in the Albert Bartlett.  First three races, rat-tat-tat.  You roll on to the fourth race, the Gold Cup, but you’re not thinking that you’ll win that too.  On the contrary, you’re wondering if you have used up all your luck.

“You don’t have that much time to think too much.  You’re having runners and you’re lucky enough to be having winners, and you’re chatting to press and to owners and trying to remember to get out and go into the ring and chat to the owners for the next race.  You’re trying to think forward and you’re thinking, I want to talk to the jockey, I want to talk to the owners, at least wish them the best of luck. Because time does run away with you in Cheltenham, especially when you’re having runners in lots of races.  But we’re lucky, we’ve got a great team, Patrick, Ruby, David Casey, Jackie, so they’re all the time looking out for things that I might miss.”

He majors on the team, many minds concentrated, fused thinking in pursuit of a common goal.  You see it on the gallops, every rider’s input solicited and assimilated.  You see it in the office as Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh make the entries, a listed mares’ hurdle at Limerick, a two-mile-five-furlong maiden hurdle at Tramore, races for horses and horses for races.  Track characteristics and orientation, race conditions, likely ground, every detail taken into account before decisions are made.  And an intimate knowledge of the racing calendar: he could run there, but there’s a race the following week that could suit him better.  It’s fascinating to observe.  Where qualitative and quantitative converge.

“Everyone here is constantly looking for ways in which we can do better.  Take Concertista, for example.  What she did at Cheltenham, the way she won, I’d been expecting her to do something like that since the first time I ran her. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t winning. Honest to God. So we changed something small about her work routine at home before Cheltenham. It was one of the suggestions from the team. My attitude was, well, what we’re doing is not working so we need to change something, and that’s a good suggestion. We changed it maybe only two weeks before Cheltenham, but it worked.  Same with Vautour in 2016. he wasn’t coming right, so we changed things.  We just left him outside for two or three nights, we didn’t bring him in at all into his stable. Well, it turned him inside out.  His ears were pricking and he did one good bit of work and we said right, that’s changed him. And he went and won the Ryanair Chase by six lengths.”

It’s warmer inside, where the topics of conversation are as varied and as palatable as the lunch that pipes in front of you.  Jockeys, football, American politics, Manchester United, horses, yarns.  The way the wheels of life go around.  Like, Willie’s first winner as a trainer, Silver Batchelor, whom he also rode to win a bumper at Thurles in February 1988, was owned by Paddy Kehoe, who also owns Princess Zoe, whom Willie’s brother Tony trained to win the Prix du Cadran in October this year.  And Willie bought Silver Batchelor at the Derby Sale, sold to him by Eddie O’Leary of Gigginstown House Stud.

Fiction, eh?

Last season was Willie Mullins’ first season for years without Ruby Walsh as stable jockey.  It was a change for sure, you don’t not miss Ruby Walsh, but the transition to Paul Townend was seamless in the trainer’s eyes. 

“To me, Paul has ridden as first jockey for me for a long number of years, when Ruby was out injured and when Ruby had commitments in England. I know that, officially, Ruby was gone so Paul was there, but I think he had played in that position for years. I didn’t think it was a big change, I didn’t make as much a fuss out of it. I didn’t think about much at all in fact. I thought it was the most natural thing in the world. To me it was just Ruby had retired, it was like Ruby had been injured. Paul was just the man then. And I had felt for a long time that he was well up to it. And you know, Ruby probably went maybe a year or two longer than he thought he would go, so I thought that Paul would have been riding as first jockey before this year. So I was quite prepared, in my mind that was his job forever. From the time that he started riding as second jockey to me, it was going to be a natural progression. Whenever Ruby retired, Paul was the man. There was never going to be anyone else in line for it. I thought that it was great, that I had a guy who was ready to assume control the minute Ruby went.”

Last season ended prematurely.  The coronavirus cloud descended and enveloped most things, including the end of the National Hunt season.  No Fairyhouse, no Punchestown, no Aintree. 

“It was a little frustrating all right, but we appreciated what was going on. We soon got over it.  And what made it easier for me was we had had such a good Cheltenham. If we had had a disappointing Cheltenham, then I imagine I would have been thinking well at least we have Punchestown to look forward to. Because we went out on a high, I think it sort of softened the blow a good bit for me.”

And this season?  

Expectations, eh?

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