Horse Racing Ireland got Willie Mullins to be the face of its official launch to the Irish National Hunt season on Wednesday. Since he is the sport’s most powerful figure and one of the great Irish sporting success stories, it was an obvious shout, although sod’s law meant he spent a lot of time talking about anything but the upcoming winter jumps campaign in Ireland.
His immediate priority is on the other side of the world on the flat in Australia with Vauban favourite to land Tuesday week’s Melbourne Cup in Flemington.
In the past, and from a small but select group of dual-purpose horses, Mullins has finished second and third in the race that famously stops a nation. Stable companion Absurde will join Vauban in the Aus $8 million (€4.7 million) highlight, although Mullins is adamant the latter is his best chance of landing a prize to rank with any in his glittering career.
“It has to be. Looking at the profile of our yard, it’s never going to be at the Breeders’ Cup. The chance of winning an Arc is tough. So, to us, with the type of horse we have, it’s probably the biggest race in the world that we could win,” Mullins said on Wednesday.
Having got so close in the past but coming home with no cigar makes it even more of a tantalising prospect since there’s hardly a race worth the name the 67-year-old trainer hasn’t won over jumps. The Queen Mother Champion Chase was one glaring omission on his CV but Energumene filled in that gap with back-to-back victories in the two mile championship. So, what’s left?
“I’d like to win the French Gold Cup [Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris] at some stage,” Mullins offers at one point. As for trying to win the British trainer’s title for a first time – “It would be nice to do it but it’s not a target or something I would set out to do.”
On a wider perspective, and as a grandee of the sport, more changes to the Aintree Grand National announced by the Jockey Club recently, including a reduction in the maximum number of runners from 40 to 34, meant Mullins got quizzed about the outlook for the sport’s most famous race, which he won in 2005 with Hedgehunter.
“They’re going to suit the bigger trainers. Unfortunately, it takes some of the tradition out of the Grand National, where everyone is in with a great chance.
“I used to be against all the changes but when I see 30 years ago a race that was going to be closed down for lack of funding and prize money, and how the Jockey Club got together with Aintree and implemented changes which none of us liked – Bechers and softening everything – but now we still have a Grand National worth a million sterling, that has to be applauded.
“So, overall, the changes are very good, and we have to go with them. If 34 runners makes it safer, that’s great. Bringing back the first fence needed to be done. A standing start is the way to go; the starts have gone very messy in the last few years,” he said.
The National has become an annual lightning rod for criticism by animal rights groups, one of which staged protests last April that delayed the big race start by 15 minutes. It was an action that some blamed for the subsequent fatal fall at the first fence of Hill Sixteen, although the latest National amendments have been accused of being a pandering response to that.
“I think racing is making the changes for the sake of racing and making it safer. We need safer racing all the time for jockeys and horses. That’s no harm. Racing has been pushed into it a little bit, but if it’s safer, it’s better.
“A lot the people you’re talking about, they go overboard. They don’t want people to have pets or whatever. When you see how many pets, dogs, get run over in the street every day, but no one’s saying people shouldn’t have dogs or cats.
“Life is life, things happen, you do your best to stop it and that’s where racing is doing its best to look after the individuals in racing, men and beasts. And the more care that’s taken, the better. But there is a stage where you have to race, and take the consequences of racing.”
It is the consequences of problem betting, and legislative efforts to tackle it on both sides of the Irish Sea, that has also provoked recent controversy. Affordability checks on cross-channel punters threaten the funding model there, while a proposed ban on gambling advertising could see the withdrawal of both specialist racing channels from Ireland.
“These are gambling rather than racing issues. I hope the gambling sector can get together and sort out the issues in both countries. I hate the fact people can get addicted to gambling. But that happens in every walk of life.
“People get addicted to alcohol. People get addicted to money and embezzle banks and businesses. Addiction is a problem, but I don’t think it should shut down an industry in either country,” he said.
Narrowing the perspective back to having the most powerful string of horses in the sport outside his back door, perhaps the main outcome of the launch was to underline the persistent ambition of a figure who shows no signs of weeping at having no more National Hunt worlds to conquer this winter. But Australia beware, Mullins is on his way to Melbourne.
Willie Mullins on winter plans for some of his stable stars
Galopin Des Champs: “The John Durkan is a week earlier this year which is probably better, so he will go there. I imagine I will try and do what we did last year, keep the same route: Christmas, Dublin Racing Festival, and then on to Cheltenham and Punchestown.
Impaire Et Passe: “Connections are keen to have a crack at the Champion Hurdle. I’m not sure if that decision was made before the Constitution Hill one or not, but I think he has a fair crack at the Champion Hurdle. If he improves any little bit – he’ll probably have to improve a fair bit to beat Constitution Hill – but I think he can and that is the decision we’ve made. I think he might start in the Hatton’s Grace.”
El Fabiolo: “He’s a replacement at this stage for Energumene who’s out for the season. I think he will start off in the Hilly Way in Cork and then plan a route to Cheltenham.”
Allaho: “He’s in great shape, very happy with him. He’ll start off in the Clonmel Oil [November 9th] I think he’s ready for that and hopefully back for a Ryanair again. The Gold Cup might be a little too long for him. He’s good around Cheltenham over that Ryanair trip.”
Gaillard Du Mesnil: “He looks the obvious horse to stay going for the Aintree Grand National. Whether I start him off over hurdles or fences, the Aintree National [third last season] will be the main target and I have no plan made for him at this stage. But he might have three or four runs before the big one.”
Lossiemouth: “She could go for the Champion Hurdle or the Mares’ Hurdle but it will more than likely be the Mares’ Hurdle. I haven’t decided where I will start her yet as she had a busy enough season last season and she’s only four. We’d probably like to run her at Christmas, Dublin Festival and Cheltenham so whether she runs before Christmas, I’ve not decided. We might just keep her fresh.”