The clean, cool hero to lift Festival clouds
He trains several favourites for Cheltenham and Irish punters expect him to deliver but Willie Mullins thrives on pressure
Willie Mullins with the favourite for the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, Hurricane Fly.
Willie Mullins has hurt a hip but even that nagging pain and a slight limp cannot stop his heart from soaring on a day like today. This is the kind of day, on a beautiful morning offering the first promise that a long winter is about to give way to spring, when all the innocent power and majesty of sport unfolds before us.
Out on the dark and muddy gallops Mullins is a benign ringmaster, calling out each of his riders and horses. They trot around the trainer, his dog, Riley, and me in a giant circle, waiting for the moment when they can wheel away and run like the wind again.
Cheltenham is in the air. The great jump-racing festival is a week away and Mullins, who injured the hip after a small tumble on the gallops, is preparing to leave his yard, Closutton, in Muine Bheag, Co Carlow, with 40 horses. Some pundits have described his stable as the best collection of horses ever to descend on the Cheltenham Festival, for he trains either the clear favourite or joint-favourite in four of the first five Grade One races.
Mullins also brings two evocative stories in Quevega, aiming to win the Mares’ Hurdle for a sixth successive year, and Hurricane Fly, defending his Champion Hurdle title at the age of 10 against fierce opposition in the most compelling race next week.
Mullins lingers over each horse and then, looking at the young man or woman in the saddle, checks when they last worked and how far they ran. Only then does he make the call. “Two big,” Mullins might say, asking for a pair of challenging circuits, or “just two fours today. Keep her ticking over.” Meanwhile, the tail-wagging golden retriever, the happiest dog in Ireland, shifts his gaze from his master to the horse as if unable to decide which is more magnificent.
“He really lives the life of Riley,” Mullins says when, after the last horse heads for the gallops, his dog leaves a stone on outstretched paws so that the trainer might bend down, with a groan because of his hip, and pick it up. Mullins flicks the stone skywards and Riley leaps up and catches it in his mouth while the thundering hooves and flying horses gather speed as if they also sense the closeness of Cheltenham.
“All the satisfaction comes from the work,” Mullins says. “We all need money, but I learnt from an early age that it wasn’t making me any happier. It’s great to have work you love. I watch the news at night and see factories being closed and another 100 jobs have gone. I think how I would feel if I woke up in the morning and couldn’t come into the yard to work? How must those people feel? It’s only when you put yourself in their position that you realise you have a fantastic way of life and get paid for it.”
It’s rare for a sporting figure of Mullins’s stature to reflect on his good fortune – especially with the most important week of his year hurtling towards him. But the 57-year-old is different to most people. This season he’d earned his owners €2.5 million before his nearest rival in Irish racing had reached a million and so Mullins can afford to be philosophical. Yet, as he says, “I’ve become an overnight sensation after 26 years.”
Mullins leans against a railing and, watching his horses, it’s easy for him to remember taking out a training licence in January 1988. “You needed six horses to get a jumps licence and we had only four legitimate ones. We had an old mare out in the field and another had been dead a few weeks. That made our six. It was a dirty wet day and the Turf Club inspector was a man I knew and a trainer himself. I’m not sure if he knew the one horse was dead but he understood that everyone has to get started. My gallops were only one little section – a small ring – and he said: ‘Are your jumps down there too?’”
The old trainer cackles at his youthful self, bending the truth in the hope of landing a job that still feels dream-like today. “I said: ‘Yes, but it’s far too wet and mucky to go down there . . .’ He said: ‘Hmmm . . . okay.’ They were very kind and I got my licence.”
In the beginning Mullins needed to sell his best horses to survive. But he points to a courageous moment that shaped him forever and turned his working life into an obsession with the beauty and glory of racing.
“The turning point was when Wither Or Which won the bumper at Leopardstown one Christmas and I got inundated with huge offers to sell him. On the way home in the car with my wife I said: ‘It’s like this. If we want to be racehorse trainers we have to keep this feller – or we’ll forever be selling to big trainers.’
“We kept the horse and it paid off hugely when he won the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham [in 1996, with Mullins as his jockey]. It wasn’t money we were going for. It was a way of life. I didn’t think it was a gamble. I just wanted to be a racehorse trainer.”
Racing runs deep in the blood of the Mullins family. His late father, Paddy, had been a 10-time champion trainer who won the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in 1986 with Dawn Run. When we resume an interview stretching across a couple of hours, interspersed by two visits to the gallops, it’s plain that Mullins is in the strongest position of his life.
While we drink coffee in his kitchen, it’s striking that his mother, Maureen, should make a salient point about his current domination of jump racing. She married his father in 1954, but Maureen remains a spry and twinkling figure as she says: “I was reading an English paper today, the Guardian, I think, and [Britain’s current champion trainer] Nicky Henderson said ‘I’m fed up reading the papers and all day long I’m seeing Willie Mullins, Willie Mullins, Willie Mullins . . .’”
“Long may it last,” Mullins says, wryly.
His wife, Jackie, and son, Patrick, champion amateur jockey the past six years, drift in and out of the kitchen. The sense of happiness and hope, just days before the festival, is palpable. And so when we finally turn to the current darkness that frames racing, the change in mood is sobering.
Last month it was reported that the Irish trainer Philip Fenton had been charged with possessing anabolic steroids at his yard near Waterford. Legal proceedings had been issued against him more than two years after his training facilities had been raided by the Department of Agriculture.
“I was shocked when I initially heard about it – two years ago,” Mullins says. “I was very surprised it didn’t come to light sooner.”
Mullins also suggests that “I’m fascinated watching how the thing is playing out, watching people’s reactions. Thankfully, I can look at it from the outside.”
He is too honest and decent a man, however, not to speak out when he senses corruption in a sport he loves. Mullins also reveals a fear that his own horses might be sedated by criminal elements. He then tells a disturbing story of buying a horse at a public sale only to hear from the vendor that the animal’s system was clogged with illegal substances. When Mullins went to cancel the transaction he was distressed that the sales officer seemed less concerned about the doped horse than clawing back a commission. “It shocked me. But it wakes you up. It tells you what could be going around. Now we buy from people we know and trust.”
If Mullins believes “the game is essentially clean”, he admits to troubling concerns that his horses might be drugged with sedatives. He stresses that the sedating of rival horses has always infected racing, from the days when his father was a trainer. But his awareness of new trouble was pricked in February 2012 when John Hughes, a former veterinary inspector with the Department of Agriculture, was caught in possession of banned substances and, allegedly, a list of trainers’ names and addresses. Hughes pleaded guilty to four counts of possession but the charges were dropped and he agreed to donate €10,000 to an animal charity.
“I’m surprised that when he [Hughes] was caught with all that stuff there were quite a lot of sedatives in there and no one seems to be taking any notice of that,” Mullins says. “I’d be interested in who was buying the sedatives and who it was going to. Everyone’s going on about the anabolic steroids. But I’m always warning my lads here about guys using sedatives.”
Mullins has, on numerous occasions, harboured suspicions that his own horses have been undermined. When he gets home from racing some days and says: “Jesus, they ran terrible”, he can’t curb his doubts.
“You think: ‘What happened there?’ I’m always saying this to my son and staff and they think I’m loony. They think this doesn’t happen in 2014. But we’ve always got to be vigilant and that’s why I was surprised no one seems interested in the sedatives that were found.”
He asked the Irish Turf Club to check some of his horses, but “they’ve found nothing. Maybe that was a false alarm, but I remember riding horses that were doped”.
The secret history of doping demands greater vigilance today. “Oh, hugely,” Mullins says. “Everyone should be vigilant – especially if you have a fancied horse. You’ve got to be.”
Asked if he fears that his best horses might be vulnerable to doping before Cheltenham, Mullins nods. “Totally. And it wouldn’t surprise me. We have some very fancied horses and it would make a lot of money for someone if they were going to Cheltenham and they could alter the course of events.
“So we would be very aware and keep people away. That’s why you were stopped at least four times before you got to my office this morning.”
His laugh fades when he reiterates anxiety that some of his horses could be “nobbled. Got at. At the time [early 2012] that was my worry. We were going well and if you wanted to nobble someone who would you nobble? Nobble us. I’m not the integrity services. But I had to look out for the sedative. That was the one that was going to harm me. Everyone else was looking in the other direction.
“Maybe when [Hughes] was caught with all this stuff I became a bit paranoid. But it’s healthy in my position to be paranoid and let that run down to your staff. They might be laughing at me – thinking I’m going back 40 years – but these things go on. I feel this every year.”
Mullins is more uplifted by the owner Barry Connell’s decision to withdraw his fancied horse, The Tullow Tank, trained by Fenton, from Cheltenham. “One or two writers were not complimentary but it was a huge call. I know how passionate Barry is about racing and Cheltenham. It looked as if he had a real winning chance and it was very brave. He didn’t get the accolade he deserved. In Ireland we have a viewpoint that a man is innocent until proven guilty and I’d agree with that. But Barry sees the bigger picture. He doesn’t want to be standing in the parade ring with people inquiring about whether it’s right to be there or not.
“Lots of people have missed the fact that it has put a cloud over our game in the biggest festival of the year. That’s what it will be known as – the year of the cloud. People in racing are in a bubble. We don’t look out. But if this was another sport we would say ‘Yeah, they’re all at it’. We don’t realise that people will be saying the same about us. There are so many other sports and things people can put their money into. So we have to mind our game.”
Mullins has a wider love of sport – and a bruised perspective. “As a kid I always said if the Olympics ever come to Europe I’d love to go to it. But I was in London [in 2012] and I said to Jackie: ‘I’m not going . . . what’s the point of watching a race where the result’s going to be changed three times?’ I had no interest. I’m cynical. I couldn’t go to London and watch racing and in three weeks they say: ‘Yeah, your man’s doped . . .’”
He is at the peak of his trade but, this high up, the clouds surrounding professional sport are obvious. It must, surely, affect his mood before Cheltenham? “No. As far as I am concerned I’m going and the cloud is part of the build-up and the Cheltenham story. What I do won’t change it. We have integrity services from England and Ireland and it’s their job to look after it. It’s my job to get my horses over there and try to win. That’s what I’ll concentrate on doing – minding my horses, myself and my staff.”
We relax when we turn away from human corruption and remember the horses. Mullins leans across his kitchen table when I ask which horse he most hopes might win next week.
“There are two. Hurricane Fly and Quevega. Both will be putting their stamp on their careers for different reasons. I’ll be disappointed for either of them if they don’t do it. I know neither of them might win. But I’d love to see both winning for their fans and their own piece of racing history. They both deserve it. They have stamina, longevity and enough class to get that little extra. I’m delighted with what we’ve got out of the game but they deserve it. They’ve earned it.”
Mullins also deserves his place at the head of racing – just as he has earned every square inch of his yard. We go back out into the fresh air and he introduces us to Wally, the wild black cockerel living outside his front door, and to the baby chicks kept in his downstairs loo to survive the winter. Today they chirrup outside in warm sunshine. Horses clip-clop across the yard and Mullins stops every now and then to check on a specific thoroughbred.
He enthuses about his staff and how, two weeks ago, early on the foulest morning of weather he can remember in 26 years of training, every horse and rider was waiting for him to begin work on a quagmire.
Mullins, racing’s most versatile trainer, lets slip that his brilliant horse Annie Power will race against Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham. Annie Power could conceivably have run in two other races, but Mullins has steered her towards a formidable challenge he believes she can overcome.
It’s quieter in the sanctuary of the stables. I have been to yards in England where the facilities are much grander and gold plaques have been fixed outside the stables of horses who have won at Cheltenham. There is a more understated atmosphere here.
We’ve watched Quevega on the gallops, and looked closely at Champagne Fever, who is favourite for Tuesday’s Arkle Trophy. But we’re drawn most towards an imperious old champion. Hurricane Fly lifts his head above his door and nibbles Mullins’s gloves. A scrawled sign has been stuck to the wall outside. It says simply, in honour of a great horse, Superman.
Mullins believes that Hurricane Fly, despite his age, is better than ever this year. The trainer shrugs in amusement at a mention of his main rivals in the Champion Hurdle – My Tent Or Yours and The New One. “I’m only looking at one horse,” he says, stroking the defending champion.
Mullins leads Hurricane Fly out of his stable. As they turn back for a last photograph, the black clouds over racing can, briefly, be forgotten. All the hope and innocence of the gallops return to the sunlit stables. Supreme trainer and racehorse are preparing for battle again. Man and Superman, Mullins and Hurricane Fly, look ready for sport. They look ready to race hard and clean. They look ready to fly again.