Donn's Articles » Willie Mullins, Melbourne Cup

Willie Mullins, Melbourne Cup

When you speak to Willie Mullins in the autumn, you speak National Hunt racing.  We’re on the brink of the season, call time for the National Hunt play that stretches from autumn to spring, and Closutton is replete with leading actors, all in the wings for now.  Galopin Des Champs and El Fabiolo and Impaire Et Passe and State Man and Allaho.  Yes, Allaho is back.

The Melbourne Cup may be a tangent but, this week in general, and in the small hours of Tuesday morning Irish time in particular, it is centre stage.

Willie Mullins has been there before.  It was in 2003 that he had his first runner in the Melbourne Cup, when Holy Orders finished down the field behind wundermare Makybe Diva.  Ten years later, he finished fourth with Simenon, and in 2015 he went even closer when Max Dynamite was a fast-finishing second under Frankie Dettori, beaten a half a length by Prince Of Penzance and Michelle Payne.  Max Dynamite went back again in 2017, along with stable companions Thomas Hobson and Wicklow Brave, and finished third behind the Joseph O’Brien-trained Rekindling and the Aidan O’Brien-trained Johannes Vermeer.

“The type of horse that we have,” says Willie, “the Melbourne Cup is probably the biggest race in the world that we can win.”

It is 30 years since Dermot Weld sent Vintage Crop to Flemington, to the other side of the world, to win the race that stops a nation, the race that they said no horse from the Northern Hemisphere could ever win.  And no horse from the Northern Hemisphere did ever win it, until Dermot Weld hatched the Vintage Crop plan, over a year in the making, quarantine regulations changed and everything, and Michael Kinane drove him to that famous victory in 1993.

Then Dermot Weld went back in 2002 and won it again with Media Puzzle.

Of course, the Melbourne Cup landscape is quite different now.  It is not impossible any more to cross the equator and win it.  The Japanese had the 1-2 in 2006 when Delta Blues and Pop Rock completed the Katsuhiko Sumii exacta.  Alain de Royer-Dupre won it in 2010 with Americain, Mikel Delzangles won it in 2011 with Dunaden, Andreas Wohler won it in 2014 with Protectionist, Charlie Appleby won it in 2018 with Cross Counter.  Joseph O’Brien has won the Melbourne Cup twice, with Rekindling in 2017 and Twilight Payment in 2020, Rekindling leading home that remarkable Irish-trained 1-2-3.

Willie Mullins has changed the landscape of National Hunt racing.  He has won every major prize, the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times, the Champion Hurdle four times, the Champion Chase twice, the King George twice, the Grand National once.  He has 94 Cheltenham Festival winners in the bag, more than any other trainer in history.  He is never not champion in Ireland, and he was almost champion in Britain in 2015/16.  If 1/5 shot Vautour hadn’t fallen in the Melling Chase at Aintree that year, he probably would have been.

He has also bagged some of the big flat prizes along the way.  He won the Irish St Leger in 2016 with Wicklow Brave, he won the Lonsdale Cup in 2015 with Max Dynamite, and he won the Doncaster Cup in 2018 with Thomas Hobson.  He has won in Australia too, he won the Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Flemington in 2019 and in 2020 with True Self, and he has had nine winners at Royal Ascot.  In global terms, however, a Melbourne Cup would be at a different level.

The latest of those nine Royal Ascot wins was provided by Vauban, who spreadeagled his rivals in the Copper Horse Handicap in June this year.  After that race, there was plenty of Melbourne Cup talk, but Melbourne Cup thoughts started for the trainer long before that.  Indeed, ask Willie Mullins when he first thought that Vauban could be a Melbourne Cup horse, and he tells you: when they bought him.

That was in 2021, after Vauban had won a listed race in France.  Susannah Ricci’s horse was the outstanding juvenile hurdler of the 2021/22 season, winning the Spring Juvenile Hurdle and the Triumph Hurdle and the Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle at Punchestown, and he did well in the top hurdle races against the top hurdlers last season at Leopardstown and Cheltenham and Punchestown.

When he ran at Royal Ascot in June this year, when he won the Copper Horse Handicap, he was racing for the first time since the Punchestown Festival in April.  And he stepped forward from that last time again when he won the Group 3 Ballyroan Stakes at Naas.

“I was impressed with him at Royal Ascot,” says Willie, “but he surprised me at Naas.  I was hoping he was going to run well and maybe win, but I hadn’t been too hard on him after Royal Ascot, and it was the manner in which he won at Naas that surprised me.”

Everything has gone well since then.  Vauban’s travelling has been seamless, and right-hand man David Casey reports that he has settled in well in Australia, as has his stable companion Absurde.  Absurde finished second to Vauban at Royal Ascot, and has since won the Ebor at York under Frankie Dettori.  He goes there with his chance too.  Ryan Moore will ride Vauban, as he did at Royal Ascot, while Zac Purton will be on Absurde.

“Zac has ridden for me before,” says Willie.  “He was straight on when he heard that Frankie couldn’t do the weight, and we were lucky to get him.  He rode Max Dynamite to finish third in 2017, so there is a relationship there.  He knows how we like our horses ridden.  We’re hopeful that both horses will run well.”

He could reach another level on Tuesday.

© The Sunday Times, 5th November 2023