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Willie Mullins and Vincent O’Brien

Willie Mullins was crowned Champion National Hunt Trainer in Britain on Saturday.

Vincent O’Brien was Champion National Hunt Trainer in Britain in 1952/53, and again in 1953/54, and you can be sure that that was fairly remarkable for the people who were around in 1952/53 and in 1953/54.

They didn’t know it at the time of course, but, in the years that followed, Vincent O’Brien would leave an indelible mark on the global bloodstock industry.  He was a massive cog in the wheel of the brains trust that seismically shifted the plates in the horse racing world, generally regarded as the person who has had a greater influence on horse racing than anybody else in the history of horse racing.

That would all follow but, in 1952, he was already making his way.  He was an Irish National Hunt trainer who had won three Cheltenham Gold Cups in a row with Cottage Rake and three Champion Hurdles in a row with Hatton’s Grace, thereby igniting a national fascination with the Cheltenham Festival that would only gain traction and grow in momentum in the years and in the decades that would follow.

When Vincent O’Brien sent horses to Cheltenham for the first time, they went by boat.  When Cottage Rake went over for the 1948 Gold Cup, he went over with Vincent’s brother Phonsie.  On the trailer to Limerick City Station, on the horse wagon from there to the North Wall in Dublin.  Over on the boat to Liverpool, with the cattle and the stevedores, and a tarpaulin hung up around the horse to help him feel enclosed.  Then a horse box from Birkenhead to Gerald Balding’s, where they’d rest for a few days before going on to Cheltenham.

Cottage Rake won the 1948 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

When Cottage Rake went back to Cheltenham in 1949, he went with two other horses, Hatton’s Grace and Castledermot, and they went by plane.  It was an old RAF plane, modified for the job, but it flew and it delivered its passengers safely to their shared destination.  Cottage Rake won the second of his three Gold Cups, Hatton’s Grace won the first of his three Champion Hurdles, and Castledermot won the National Hunt Chase.

It was four years later that Vincent won the first of his Grand Nationals with Early Mist.  He won the Cheltenham Gold Cup that year too with Knock Hard and he was crowned champion National Hunt trainer in Britain for the first time.  He was crowned champion National Hunt trainer in Britain for the second time in 1953/54, helped to that title by a second Grand National win with Royal Tan, a second National Hunt Chase win with Quare Times and a second Gloucestershire Hurdle win with Stroller.

A pint cost nine pence in 1954, Eamon De Valera was Taoiseach and Fred Davis (not Steve) won the World Snooker Championship.  Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954.  That’s how long ago 1954 is.  No Irish-based trainer has been crowned Champion National Hunt trainer in Britain since.  Until today.

The birth of Willie Mullins was still a couple of years off in 1954.  Indeed, his father Paddy had only trained his first winner a year earlier.  And, while young Willie undoubtedly soaked up all the learnings from his legendary father, he pulled himself up and into the game by his own bootstraps.  From Silver Batchelor’s win in a Thurles bumper in 1988 through Tourist Attraction’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Wither Or Which’s Champion Bumper and Florida Pearl and Alexander Banquet, and Hurricane Fly and Faugheen and Quevega and Annie Power and all the landmarks, to Al Boum Photo and Energumene and Galopin Des Champs and I Am Maximus.

We are familiar with Willie Mullins’ accomplishments by now.  All the stats.  Champion National Hunt Trainer in Ireland for the 17th time in a row and the 18th time in total, Leading Trainer at Cheltenham again this year with nine winners, and 103 Cheltenham Festival winners in total now, the first trainer ever to go through the 100-winner barrier.  And all the horses, the household names.  All the races.  All the accolades. 

In the quieter moments, on those rare occasions when you can get him sitting in his sitting room and chatting quietly, and you get the chance to ask him about what he fears, he will talk about the black swan.  The unknown.  The thing that you cannot see or foresee that could come and get you.

Foot and Mouth might have been one.  The Covid pandemic could have been another.  Unpredictable and unforeseeable and an occurrence for which it is impossible to long-term plan.  The removal of the Gigginstown House Stud horses from Closutton.  And yet, none of them have checked the Willie Mullins momentum.  If anything, he has come back stronger after each.

With one week to run in the current Irish National Hunt season, on the brink of the Punchestown Festival, where he excels, Willie Mullins has trained 247 winners in Ireland this National Hunt season.  We know that he doesn’t rest on his laurels, he can’t afford to, not if he wants to be champion, not if we wants to continue as a perennial, not with Gordon Elliott snapping at his heels.  But if you were looking for proof that an air of complacency has not set in, you have it in that figure.  A week before the end of the Irish season, with a weekful of winners still to come, he has trained more winners in Ireland than he has ever trained before, than anyone has ever trained before.  

To put it into context, when he won the championship 10 years ago, he trained ‘just’ 185 winners.

But to be crowned Champion Trainer in Britain.  For an Irish trainer.  To be in a group of two, just Willie Mullins and the legendary Vincent O’Brien.  To achieve something that hasn’t been achieved by any other person in your own lifetime.  

He is making his way too.

© Sporting Life, 27th April 2024