An Irishman’s Diary: Lunching with youth and experience – David Mullins and Mouse Morris

David Mullins with trainer Willie Mullins Photograph: ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

David Mullins with trainer Willie Mullins Photograph: ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

 

At the Horse Racing Ireland awards lunch earlier in the week, I found myself sitting beside a cherubic youth who looked vaguely familiar.  Anywhere else, I would have suspected he was bunking off school. In this context, I guessed he was a jockey: probably a famous one.  

His first name (“David”) didn’t help much. It took a few more clues before I remembered the event that launched him last spring, his boyish complexion then accessorised with mud. He had just won the English Grand National at his first attempt. Splashed all over the front pages the next day, he had Aintree splashed all over him.

At 19, David Mullins wasn’t the youngest to win the race. He’s in the all-time top two, behind a 17-year-old from 1938. So of course I plied him with questions about what it felt like for one of such tender years to survive that mad, four-mile cavalry charge, careering over 30 fences, with mayhem all around.

Alas, I am little wiser now, except that he “never saw a fallen horse” anywhere.  In general, as he recalled it, the experience sounded like a jog in the park. And of course I was disappointed. But that’s the difference – or one of them – between sportspeople who actually perform at the highest level and those of us who admire them from a safe distance.

WB Yeats, not a sporty type himself, was in awe of the recklessness of horsey people which he considered part of Ireland’s national character. It made him feel doubly inadequate in their company. “Irish by tradition and many ancestors,” he wrote of himself, “I love, though I have nothing to offer but the philosophy they deride, swashbucklers, horsemen, swift indifferent types.” The feeling must have run deep, he even has a version on his epitaph.

It’s no coincidence that jockeys were a favourite subject of his brother too. Jack B Yeats was no more a sportsman than Willie, although he did secure a competitive edge on his brother, eventually, by winning independent Ireland’s first Olympic medal, albeit in the now-defunct games discipline of painting.

Gold medal

Morris, as one always has to be reminded, is a son of the late Lord Killanin, who among many other distinctions was president of the International Olympic Committee.  

Mouse’s mother was remarkable too. As Sheila Dunlop, during the war years she worked in England’s Bletchley Park, Hut 6 – where the Enigma code was cracked. She never discussed the job afterwards, although, as her son says, “whatever she did, she got an MBE for it”.

Aristocratic

Ted Wash

Hard as it is to believe now, he too was a teenage jockey once, after a struggle. Aged 15, one summer in the 1960s, he was due to return to school in England, where dyslexia made him miserable. He resolved this problem by hiding up a tree until it was too late for the flight. When he came down, expecting murder, his understanding parents let him become a horseman instead. 

It turned out that both he and his young jockey were nominated in the same category, for the year’s Outstanding Achievement. And any other year, Mullins might have triumphed but Mouse had trained the winners of both Irish and English nationals in 2016, a double last achieved in the 1880s. So he got the nod.

Back on the Tir na nóg side of our table, the result was taken well.

“We’ll give him that,” said Mullins, as he might, with such a bright career ahead. But the ceremony also included a sombre reminder of the risks he and other real-life Oisíns run if and when they touch earth.  

Among the faces in the video tribute to absent friends was JT McNamara, who died this year, having never recovered from a fall at Cheltenham in 2013.  And after all the awards were distributed, departing diners were invited to buy Christmas cards in aid of the injured jockeys fund. You can buy them too, if you want, at irishinjuredjockeys.com.