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Willie Mullins

You watch quietly as the horses amble past, Galopin Des Champs and State Man and Fact To File.  Every horse relaxed, every rider comfortable and easy on his or her back.  El Fabiolo and Lossiemouth and Ballyburn.  An array of stars.  Any one of them would be a standout in any other night sky.  Here, each one is just a member of a brilliant constellation. 

Willie Mullins didn’t arrive here by accident, and he didn’t get here overnight.  The degree to which he dominates National Hunt racing these days was brought into sharp focus at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown two weeks ago, when he was responsible for nine of the 15 winners, including the winners of all eight Grade 1 races. 

“It was a sense of shock,” he says now, reflecting on that astonishing weekend.  “You go there with a nice team, you hope to win a Grade 1 or two with the type of horses we have.  You don’t expect that to happen.  That’s just everything coming together.” 

Lots of things have to come together.  To be a successful racehorse trainer, it is not enough just to be a highly talented trainer of racehorses.  You need an assortment of abilities that is possessed by few.  You need the people skills and the organisational skills as well as the horse skills.  You need to have ability to find the horses, the network to source them, the owners to buy them.  You need the ability to attract owners, you need the staff, the riders, the people on the ground, the details people, the horse people.  Add to that an extraordinary understanding of horses.  

Willie Mullins has assembled a wealth of human talent around him as well as a depth of equine talent.  And yet, people with the understanding that Ruby Walsh, David Casey, Paul Townend and Patrick Mullins have are sometimes confounded by something that the trainer does, something he tries.  Call it genius if you want.

That innate horse sense has always been a part of the Willie Mullins DNA.  The fact that he is the son of the legendary Paddy Mullins and the remarkable Maureen Mullins – matriarch of the Mullins dynasty who sadly passed away during the week – was always an asset, and yet, he set out on his own from early.

It is 29 years since Tourist Attraction sprang a 25/1 shock in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, thereby providing Mullins with his first Cheltenham Festival winner.  After that, he said that if he never trained another Cheltenham winner, if he never trained another winner, he still had this sense of satisfaction.

He did train another Cheltenham Festival winner though.  The following year was Wither Or Which’s year, the bumper horse whom the trainer rode himself to win on his racecourse debut at Leopardstown’s 1995 Christmas Festival.  There were many offers for the horse, serious offers with lots of zeroes, and the young trainer had to decide then if he was going to be a trainer or a trader.  He decided on the former, and the amateur rider booted Wither Or Which home at Cheltenham, leaving Richard Dunwoody and Mick Fitzgerald and Richard Johnson and Charlie Swan and Jamie Osborne and Mark Dwyer in his wake.

The following year was Florida Pearl’s year.  And the following year.  Back then, though, Willie Mullins never thought that he could be champion trainer.  He didn’t see how he could amass that level of prize money.

It is not a new thing for one trainer to be dominant in National Hunt racing.  Vincent O’Brien had 10 winners of the Gloucestershire Hurdle, the modern-day Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, in eight years in the 1950s.  Tom Dreaper won seven Irish Grand Nationals in a row in the 1960s.  Michael Dickinson had the first five home in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1983.  Martin Pipe was champion trainer in Britain 15 times in 17 years that ran from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s.  

Or in any walk of sporting life: Kerry, Dublin, Roger Federer, Kilkenny, Limerick, Manchester City, Tiger Woods.  And when you are in the middle of a period of dominance by one entity, you can’t imagine how or when it is going to end.

“My theory in life is that, if you’re not going up, you’re going down,” says Mullins.  “I try to learn lessons from other trainers through the years, from other sports.  Why did they reach a plateau and then go down?  I try to look at that, I try to get around that.  The same options are open to everyone.  We just happen to be the team on top at the moment, but I’m sure that will change.”

The team that he has set for the Cheltenham Festival next month looks to be as strong as ever.  Myriad options in some of the top races, and 12 ante post favourites at present.

“I didn’t imagine ever having this number of horses,” he says.  “But the opposition kept putting up the number, so I said, in order to stay relevant, I had to go and get as big as the opposition.  We built more stables.  I didn’t want to, I was happy with where I was, but it’s grown way bigger than I ever envisaged.”

He is relevant all right.

“We’re very lucky to have the team we have.  But we buy horses from a selection of areas.  It’s not as if we just go and plunder all the best horses in France or in England or in point-to-points.  We just do what we do.  And it’s cyclical isn’t it?  England are not having the best of time at the moment, but there are some brilliant trainers there.”

Willie Mullins had six winners at last year’s Cheltenham Festival.  That took his Cheltenham Festival tally to 94, and further clear at the top of the trainers’ table.  Six more next month would take his total to a hundred, and that would be extraordinary.

The stars could align.


 © The Sunday Times, 18th February 2024