Willie Mullins targets first British trainers’ title after Grand National triumph

Irish champion trainer a 1-2 favourite to beat Paul Nicholls and Dan Skelton when season ends on Saturday week

I Am Maximus did prove to be greatest in Saturday’s Randox Aintree Grand National and he has set up his trainer Willie Mullins for what could prove to be the Irishman’s ultimate annus mirabilis.

Considering how Mullins has transformed the face of National Hunting racing over the last decade, it’s a seriously high bar. But a first British trainers’ title when the cross-channel season ends at Sandown on Saturday week will mean the sport’s dominant figure scales it in style.

Not since Vincent O’Brien all of 70 years ago has an Irish-based trainer landed the British trainers’ championship.

Mullins had a good go in 2016 only to come up short of Paul Nicholls on the final day. But after Saturday’s National he stood proudly on top of the table with I Am Maximus’s half-million pounds first prize boosting his sterling prize money haul for the season to £2,874,693 (just over €3.3 million).


Bookmaker reaction was to make him a 1-2 favourite to maintain his narrow lead over both Dan Skelton and Paul Nicholls for the next fortnight, although it might mean pitching up in some unlikely places.

“We’ll have to give it a good go so we might see you at Sandown, Perth, Ayr, or anywhere else!” joked Mullins. “I’d love to win the championship. Vincent O’Brien has done it in the 1950s and it is something different to do.

“As much as I’d like to win it, my owners would like me to win it and so would my staff, so now we’re in this position you have to have a real go.

“JP McManus [owner of I Am Maximus] has been telling me for the past couple of years to have a real go. But I always think just mind yourself at home rather than spread yourself too thin and leave yourself wide open to have a bad season at home.

“Travelling horses takes it out of them, especially early in the season, which is why we don’t do it. But it’s panned out well today,” he added.

Sure enough, the final leg of ‘National’ season takes place in Scotland this Saturday and the Coral Scottish National sponsors have cut Mullins’s MacDermott to 6-1 favouritism in anticipation of a rare raid across the North Channel to Ayr.

There are also a handful of entries from Closutton still in the valuable Scottish Champion Hurdle ahead of Monday’s latest acceptance stage.

Before that, though, there are a couple of Mullins entries, Karia Des Blaises and Miss Manzor, on more familiar ground at Cheltenham on Thursday.

It could ultimately come down to the final weekend’s centrepiece in Sandown where Mullins currently has 13 options for the bet365 Gold Cup, including the beaten Irish National favourite Nick Rockett.

With an 18th Irish title long since assured, the desire to pull of the championship double could mean an impact on plans for the Punchestown festival which starts three days after Sandown, with stars such as El Fabiolo perhaps being rerouted.

That such a rare accomplishment is required to make it an exceptional campaign for Mullins underlines his persistent and overarching influence.

Along with his jockey Paul Townend, Mullins pulled off jump racing’s unofficial Triple Crown on Saturday, I Am Maximus scoring on the back of Galopin Des Champs in the Gold Cup and State Man in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham last month.

Only for the long odds-on El Fabiolo fluffing his lines when pulled up in the Champion Chase, it could have been a repeat of the sport’s Grand Slam, memorably accomplished by Henry de Bromhead in 2021.

If Nicholls and Skelton face having the Irishman on their own patch to an uncomfortable extent over the coming days, then Gordon Elliott can advise them on what to expect.

The Co Meath trainer described his rival as a “thorn in my side” having saddled the second and fourth, Delta Work and Galvin, in his efforts to win a record-equalling fourth National.

It may be an unwanted compliment, but Mullins has credited Elliott’s annual attempts to dethrone him as champion trainer in Ireland with expansion into the greatest winning machine the sport has seen.

Elliott landed a Grade One double of his own on Saturday with Found A Fifty and Brigherdaysahead. It brought his top-flight haul for the season so far to 11. More National glory eluded him, however.

“It just didn’t happen for us. No one remembers second, I don’t anyway. Delta Work was awesome and Galvin is a warrior, I’m so proud of him and I’m so lucky with the horses I have.

“Delta Work was flying come here and I thought this was his year. He ran his race and just got beat by a better horse, that’s it. The winner is exceptional, and Willie Mullins remains a thorn in my side!” he said.

Messrs Nicholls and Skelton are set to find out with a vengeance just how thorny a scenario that can be.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column