Cheltenham 2016: Mullins clan immersed in the business of racing
The foundations for the continuance of a racing dynasty are as strong as ever
Tony Mullins, Paddy Mullins, George Mullins and Willie Mullins. Photo: Inpho
Willie Mullins’s star-studded team are the foundation blocks for much that is fascinating about Cheltenham 2016 so there’s symmetry to the story of how National Hunt racing’s dominant personality is actually a loss to architecture.
It perhaps contains a clue too as to why he has redefined the sport of training racehorses. And there’s no doubting the source’s credibility.
“After William did his Leaving Cert I took him to Bolton Street where you could pay them to tell you what your son or daughter might do next. William met with this man and afterwards I asked ‘where did you think we should send him’. And this man said he didn’t know, but that he’d never examined a student so particular about detail. “Try architecture,” he said, and walked out the door,” remembers Maureen Mullins.
At that moment, back in Co Kilkenny, one of the most intuitively brilliant trainers ever to emerge from Ireland might have briefly sensed an escape route for his eldest son from the racing circus. But it probably didn’t linger long. Paddy Mullins would have suspected a nearly 70-mile drive home left ample time for his wife to talk some sense out of the boy.
That, if the young Willie Mullins had rowed along with his father’s instinct for him to go down the secure job route, his family would still have wound up among the most lustrous sporting dynasties in Ireland only emphasises its singular status.
Racing’s nature encourages family participation more than most sports. Basic requirements are more expensive than kicking a ball or putting on a pair of runners. Even allowing for that, and the dynastic nature of Irish racing in particular, the name Mullins holds a unique position in Irish sport.
Still surveying it all from the Goresbridge farmhouse and stables from which Dawn Run was prepared for her historic Cheltenham Gold Cup success 30 years ago is the family’s matriarch. At 87, Maureen Mullins is fit, active, and possesses the calm assurance of someone content with her lot. The only gaping absence is the family’s other cornerstone.
It is six years since her husband passed away, aged 91, acclaimed as one of this country’s finest horsemen, able to win any kind of race, classic or chase, with most any kind of horse. His victories are committed to racing history. It is his family though which is his continuing racing legacy.
“When they were in school he always said to them to study hard and get a good job with a good pension. Little did he know what would happen to the pensions!” says the woman who knew him best and became a public face for a man wary of the spotlight. “But from the very beginning I wanted them all to do horses,” she adds.
The outcome of yet another victory for female willpower was that all five children, Sandra, Willie – always William to his Mum – George, Tony and Tom, rode winners. Tony was champion jockey in 1984. Willie was champion amateur rider half a dozen times.
The trio of Willie, Tony and Tom have all trained Cheltenham festival winners. The Supreme Hurdle contender Charbel is one of the latest good horses bred by their older sister and if George has bucked the trend by going into business, the fact it’s the largest horse transport firm in the country hardly makes it a giant leap. And his siblings insist it has made him richer than any of them!
It is noteworthy how they all still live within ten mile radius of Doninga Stables where they grew up which is no mean outcome in rural Ireland these days. More noteworthy though is how the next generation have continued the tradition.
Five of Maureen Mullins’s ten grandchildren have ridden winners. Two of them, including Willie’s champion amateur jockey son, Patrick, have won races at Cheltenham. Two others, Danny and David, have won Grade One races. One, George’s son, Emmet, has already embarked on his own training career. Even Danny’s mother, Mags, trains less than a mile away and is preparing Martello Tower to run in Thursday’s World Hurdle.
The memorabilia associated with this multi-generational outcome to her racing instincts – “They wouldn’t have been happy doing anything else” – cram into the house which fronts the famous stables from which Tom continues to train. Just up the road is the house where she first met her husband as a child before the War.
“Very quiet and very observant,” is her memory of first impressions. “There was never a man fitted more into a day, whether it was going fishing, or reading– he loved PG Wodehouse – and always the horses. I think he thought of them as part children. He got attached to them, even the bad ones. He’d always say something positive about them, even if it was that they were good feeders.”
Tony Mullins remembers his father’s intuition with horses, how the nervous Vintage Tipple was taught to relax enough to win the Irish Oaks in 2003 through the simple measure of blackening up her stable so she was literally kept in the dark all the time. He also says his father’s famous distaste for the media game was overplayed.
“He had this fear of being misquoted, that was all. The only thing that drove him mad was lads poking for winners. That did drive him off his head,” he recalls.
Tony Mullins saddled Pedrobob to win the 2007 County Hurdle but says it feels like only yesterday since Dawn Run’s Gold Cup provided one of the most bittersweet success stories in Irish racing history.
The saga of the trainer’s son being “jocked off” by the mare’s owner, Mrs Charmian Hill, and his father having to choose Jonjo O’Neill to replace him, had a seismic public impact at the time. The memory still lingers vividly for those involved.
“It’s like yesterday for me. I actually didn’t realise the enormity of it at the time. The public took it as an issue. Nothing was ever said by Mrs Hill but I had a sneaky feeling all along it might happen,” Tony remembers.
His mother recalls its effect on Paddy. “I wouldn’t dwell on it, but it was a stressful time and he hated all of it. If Tony was in a different business he could have forgotten about it overnight. But he isn’t and I’m sure it had an effect on him.”
Paddy Mullins was so upset by what happened to Tony he deliberately removed himself from the famous post-race delirium at Cheltenham. Much later only royal command could sway him to return. “The Queen Mother asked me to get Paddy to bring the mare into the spare paddock at Cheltenham so she could see her. She was a lovely lady. But it was difficult to enjoy that Gold Cup,” Maureen Mullins recalls.
Tony won’t have a runner himself at this Cheltenham but his famous eye for a horse means he will have huge interest in how both Roi Des Francs and Felix Yonger, both of whom he sold as youngsters, will fare for his big brother. If either he or Tom are troubled by sibling rivalry of Willie they hide it convincingly.
“If you mention a horse to Willie, even if it was ten years ago, he’s able to tell you everything about it, down to whatever bits of work it did. He’s able to take in so much detail,” says Tony. His mother agrees. “He has so many horses and he has to know them all. And he’s always trying to find out something new that could help them, reading, examining. He’s like Paddy that way.”
No one has ever exerted a grip on jump racing in this country that Willie does. Even with Faugheen missing, he will send the most powerful squad of horses ever sent to Cheltenham next week. He is on course for a tenth trainers title, already four more than his father collected, after transforming the racing landscape over the last decade.
“I think it is that attention to detail that has helped William,” says his mother. “Mind you, he wasn’t always like that. I remember when he was young, and he had a new sports car, driving to some party in Leopardstown, and the car ending up balancing in six foot of snow: Paddy had to go get it the next day and found the car balancing on a hedge.”
Never a man to use a word when a glance might do, Paddy Mullins’s reaction to such youthful play was probably more indulgent than when it came to work. Willie likes telling the story of a silent drive home from Galway after neither he, or Tony, had excelled on two beaten favourites. Only turning into the gate did their father finally turn to Maureen and declare her sons were trying to run him out of business.
One close friend points out the different type of success reflected in a notably close family.
“The lads aren’t like old Paddy at all. He barely said a word whereas there are no shrinking violets among his sons. They’re all very sociable and very forthright. It’s something to see some nights when they’re all out. They’re all still tightly-knit.”
The extensive gallops Willie has built up at his yard is also used by other members of the family. His 26-year-old son Patrick, whose mother Jackie was also a successful amateur rider, has outlined his own plans to eventually go down the training route but is determined first to maintain his dominance of the amateur championship.
His cousins Danny, 23, and David, 19, have ridden Grade One winners for his father and Emmet, 25, won for his uncle at the 2011 festival. Emmet’s sister, Fiona, 21, is a student in UCC but prior to that rode a handful of winners, including one for the champion trainer. Invariably such success draws accusations of nepotism.
“You should see some of the emails I get, if we have a beaten favourite, or there’s a faller: unreal stuff. Obviously because my son and two nephews ride for me, I get told they’re only race-riding because they’re related. In fact they’re race-riding because in my book they’re good enough,” Willie says.
Danny Mullins misses out on Cheltenham due to a fractured knee sustained last month. His festival memories are bittersweet. It is two years since Our Conor started one of the favourites for the Champion Hurdle and sustained fatal injuries in a fall. It’s an occupational hazard but the sport enthrals him.
“I remember as kids me and my brother Anthony, and Emmet and Patrick, bringing our ponies over to Willie’s. Anthony used to be every bit as good a rider as me, if not better. But when he was 11 he got off the pony one day and said ‘that’s it.’ He just stopped. He’s a mechanic now and has a more solid lifestyle than we do, no falls,” he says. So would he swap? “No, I’d take getting hopped off the ground any day!”
As he says it, his grandmother nods approvingly, the foundations for the continuance of a racing dynasty as solid as ever.
Maureen Mullins: On her sons and grandsons
On Willie: “William is great fun. The night is never too long. He didn’t get his outward manner from his father. I would claim that!”
On Tony: “He has the most marvellous eye for a horse of any of them. If you were going to buy a horse, Tony is the one to take with you.”
On Tom: “He’s such a hard worker. I think trainers put in more physical work than anyone. They’re in the yard at six every morning, even if they’ve finished last the day before.”
On Patrick: “Patrick does a wonderful job with his weight. He’s always walking, always running, rides out every lot, knows all the tricks.”
On Danny: “Such a methodical boy, always has his day planned out: not like his father [Tony] who you couldn’t get out of bed in the morning!”