Popular jumping legend prepares to fight over every blade of festival grass - with the minimum of fuss
Trainer Willie Mullins with his string at last Sunday's pre-Cheltenham schooling after racing at Leopardstown racecourse. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
The man with the Midas touch is following in a rich family tradition
This weekend Willie Mullins faces the logistical headache of starting to transport almost 40 horses to Cheltenham for the National Hunt festival which begins on Tuesday. At any one time during his legendary career, Tom Dreaper never had 40 horses in his entire stable. That one of them was the peerless Arkle helped Dreaper become Ireland’s most successful ever trainer at the festival. That is until now.
If Mullins gets three winners next week, he will overhaul Dreaper’s tally of 26, secured between 1946 and 1971. And if he doesn’t get more than three, thousands of Irish punters making the annual pilgrimage to the Cotswolds are going to come home a lot poorer.
Ordinarily, such presumption has a habit of coming down on its arse at the final fence. But Cheltenham 2013 is already witnessing something extraordinary when it comes to the Anglo-Irish rivalry that defines this festival.
Never before have Irish hopes been invested so heavily in one man. It might not do to get all “Mise Éire” about Mullins but all the same, hanging an Ó Riada soundtrack around Ireland’s champion trainer wouldn’t be the most outlandish thing to happen next week. Simply put, if Ireland is to have a successful festival, Mullins has to have success.
Last year a similar load was placed on the smiling 56-year-old’s shoulders. And it didn’t quite work out. Rarely if ever can a trainer have saddled three festival winners and left Prestbury Park with a feeling of anti-climax but that was Mullins’s lot last year. His horses weren’t sick. But they weren’t pitch-perfect either. And it’s on such tiny margins that success and failure swings. Thus the record 2011 Irish tally of 13 winners dropped to five.
Nobody else had the fire-power to pick up the slack. And everyone appears to be even more out-gunned this time.
It’s hard to quantify precisely the dominance Mullins exerts over Irish National Hunt racing because he is in uncharted territory. Statistically, it’s easy.
A couple of weeks ago, he surpassed Aidan O’Brien’s near 20-year record for the number of winners trained in an Irish season – and did it with nearly three months to spare. Mullins’s tally is more than his four closest rivals in the table combined. His prize-money total is approaching €3 million. But it’s the depth of quality behind such quantity that’s different.
Mullins rarely raids outside home ground until Cheltenham and of the 19 Grade One races run in Ireland so far this season, he has won 11. Of the others, his British contemporary, Paul Nicholls, has won two and Jessica Harrington’s Jezki has notched two others. According to the bookmakers, Jezki is the principal Irish hope in the festival opener. Sizing Europe flies the flag in the Champion Chase. But in Grade One terms, apart from them, it’s pretty much a Mullins solo-show.
Hurricane Fly is favourite to regain his Champion Hurdle crown on Tuesday. Sir Des Champs is second favourite for Friday’s Gold Cup. Quevega is chasing a festival five-in-a-row that only Golden Miller has achieved before and Point Alexandre’s reputation as racing’s potential “next big thing” could be copper-fastened by victory on Wednesday. And they’re just the headline acts.
“Willie’s got horses for every race for the simple reason nobody’s got the numbers he has,” says Mick O’Toole, a mainstay Irish trainer at Cheltenham during the 1970s and 1980s. “I’d say the most old Tom Dreaper had in his yard at any time was about 40 horses. Willie has that going over there!”
In fact Dreaper didn’t even have 40 during the halcyon days of the 1960s when fan-mail addressed to “Arkle, Ireland” was sent from around the world to the famous Kilsallaghan yard in Co Dublin – and always arrived.
“My Dad never had more than 25 horses, because that’s all the boxes there were here,” remembers Dreaper’s son Jim, a Gold Cup winning trainer himself, and a famously rational observer of the ever-fluctuating business of passing the finishing post first.
“I’ve never seen in National Hunt racing here the scale of the dominance Willie has right now,” he agrees. “Maybe we saw it with Vincent O’Brien on the Flat during the Sangster time. But even Aidan (O’Brien) nowadays, he’s got the likes of Jim Bolger keeping him straight. When he was training over jumps, I don’t remember Aidan being so dominant, even though he was obviously sending out loads of winners. And when you look at Cheltenham this year, it’s all about Willie isn’t it?”
Francis Flood is another veteran Gold Cup-winning trainer who has seen all the great names from O’Brien to Dreaper and Paddy Sleator. But Mullins believes he has taken things to another level.
“So much depends on having wealthy owners behind you and Willie has them,” he considers. “He can go to France and spend a lot of money on a horse. And that gets you results. And that gets you more wealthy owners.”
In the circumstances, the lack of personal resentment towards Mullins is remarkable in a business normally so bitchy. Referred to universally, from humble stable lad to billionaire businessman, as simply “Willie” , Mullins manages to coat driving ambition in an easy approachability that makes him a generally popular figure.
His overarching dominance this season may have been referred to in some quarters as mildly obscene but the behind-the-scenes sniping that characterises private conversation about Aidan O’Brien, for instance, is notably absent with Mullins.
“People like Willie. He certainly wouldn’t do anxiety very well. He’s not like Nicky Henderson walking his box at three in the morning. And he knows how to enjoy himself, likes to socialise,” says a friend. “I’ve seen him be uptight on the gallops but he is able to shut things out when work is over for the day. There’s no way the stress of Cheltenham will get to him.”
An ability to see the bigger picture is reflected in a number of outside interests such as rugby, but also during a four-year reign as chairman of the trainers association during a tumultuous period, Mullins’s popularity remained intact – no mean feat considering the range of sectional interests involved.
An easy manner with people is in marked contrast to his father Paddy, the patriarch of a racing dynasty and a man almost as famous for a taciturn nature as the instinctive genius that saw him turn meagre resources and facilities in Co Kilkenny into a centre of training excellence most notable for producing Dawn Run.
“They all talk through their pockets,” was his dismissal of a media pack that his son handles with a sure-footed candour. Post-race huddles usually begin with the sentence “I’m delighted with that,” something he does intentionally, because “racing is basically a game of disappointments. You have to grab the good things that happen”.
An apprenticeship served with his father included six years as a champion amateur rider, a role his son Patrick now fulfils, before branching out as a trainer himself in 1988. He and his wife Jackie, an English- born law graduate, started with just half a dozen horses, a long way from a current client list that includes Michael O’Leary, Graham Wylie and Rich Ricci, a collection of owners that can test the trainer’s diplomatic skills.
Tourist Attraction was a first Cheltenham winner in 1995. Mullins rode and trained Wither Or Which the following year to win the Champion Bumper, a race he has subsequently won six more times. Both the bumper and the mares race dominated by Quevega are comparatively new races at the festival, unavailable for plunder to Dreaper, who nevertheless could draw on the two top-rated steeplechasers ever, Arkle and Flyingbolt.
“My Dad had less ammunition but he took longer to do it,” Jim Dreaper says. “Willie has managed this in a relatively short time. He hasn’t won the Gold Cup yet, but the way he’s going it’s probably only a matter of time.”
And it’s not just horsepower that Mullins develops. Ruby Walsh started working for him as a teenager and has never left. It’s a similar story with his number two rider, Paul Townend, and veteran jockey David Casey. And they’re just the best known. “He’s got 10 or 12 jockeys and work-riders that can get down off a horse and tell him something important. Certainly the relationship he has with Ruby is unbelievable,” says Mick O’Toole. “But ultimately it must all come down to him. He’s in charge and he put that team together.”
Certainly Mullins’s eye for a horse was vital in establishing his career and remains the central component of the entire enterprise. A willingness to travel horses to France – he has won the French Champion Hurdle four times – has also paid dividends in establishing a talent-scouting system a long way from Ireland’s traditional point-to-point heartland.
Hurricane Fly, Sir Des Champs, Quevega and Pont Alexandre were all sourced in France. They are just the latest in a long line of French purchases. Agent Pierre Boulard identifies embryonic talent on the continent. Mullins’s assistant Harold Kirk has a say in potential buys, but ultimately it all comes down to the boss.
Last year he walked into a yard in France and saw the young Pont Alexandre who’d just won his first ever race at a nondescript country track in the north west of France. Mullins fell in love immediately, and recommended to Rich Ricci he buy him. The price was steep. Racecourse rumour has it to be approaching €300,000: big money for an unproven talent. But Ricci didn’t hesitate. Mullins’s recommendation was enough. And yet again, it has paid off, in typical understated Mullins style.
Mullins himself is keen to play down any talk of festival domination – “It’s so tough to win at Cheltenham; every blade of grass is fought over” – and speaks reverentially about Dreaper having both Arkle and Flyingbolt outside his back door.
“He does everything with a minimum of fuss. He’s not one to pin a medal on himself. And he’s still friendly with everyone, which is a good sign of a man,” declares Mick O’Toole before summing up the current Mullins era in typically colourful fashion – “He’s got the thing by the b****x!”
There will be a lot invested on Mullins securing a firm grip of Cheltenham 2013 too.
Willie Mullins Factfile
Born: September 15th, 1956.
Job: Champion Trainer.
Based: Closutton, Muine Bheag, Co Carlow.
Notable Wins as a Jockey: Hazy Dawn (1982 National Hunt Chase,) Atha Cliath (1983 Aintree Foxhunters,) Macks Friendly (1984 National Hunt Chase,) Wither Or Which (1996 Weatherbys Champion Bumper.)
Notable Wins as a Trainer include: Hurricane Fly (2011 Champion Hurdle,) Hedgehunter (2005 Grand National,) Florida Pearl (2001 King George VI Chase.)
Greatest Winning Streak: Nine Hennessy Gold Cups at Leopardstown.
Leading Trainer at Cheltenham Festival: 2011. Second favourite to Nicky Henderson this year.