Even Douvan’s latest setback fails to ruffle Mullins’s feathers
Champion trainer makes fastest ever start to a national hunt season with 107 winners already
Willie Mullins with Faugheen at the launch of the Winter Jumps Season at the champion trainer’s yard at Closutton, Co Carlow. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
As Halloween horror goes, having your best horse go lame one day and a battalion of media types showing up at your door the next takes some topping if you’re Willie Mullins.
But equanimity has rarely been a problem for Ireland’s champion National Hunt trainer – even when it comes to Douvan and his infuriatingly fragile legs.
The horse once described by Mullins as the best ever through his hands has put his trainer through the emotional wringer in recent seasons. But he’s still able to come up with a twist, managing to go lame on his “good leg” this time.
“He was lame the other morning when I pulled him out. I sent him straight to his usual vet. He informed me this morning he’s lame on his good leg. He had trouble on his near fore previous, but he’s sore now on the other!
“It might be a little stress fracture or a ligament tear. Any time a good horse is lame it is a concern but we’ll know more in a day or two. I hope it’s something that will only keep him out for a few days,” said Mullins.
It’s the sort of reverse to test anyone’s composure. But at 62, and with 30 years of the trials and tribulations of training racehorses under his belt, Mullins has learned to presume little and enjoy the good days when they happen.
There have famously been enough of those for Cheltenham to recently induct the Irishman into their Hall of Fame. Since he’s the most successful ever trainer at the March festival with 61 winners, and been top festival trainer five times, it was a no-brainer move by Cheltenham.
And since Mullins has already saddled this season the fastest ever century of winners in an Irish National Hunt campaign, it was a similar move by Horse Racing Ireland on Tuesday to officially launch the Winter Jumps Season at his Co Carlow yard.
Douvan may have been at the doctor but other reassuring figures in Faugheen and Un De Sceaux were among a group of 35 horses galloped in front of a media throng. As well as the stalwarts there were also potential young superstars in Footpad and Laurina.
The only incongruous part was a winter jumps launch taking place in weather circumstances which continue to create ground conditions more suitable for flat racing.
The first Grade One of the new season takes place at Down Royal on Saturday and Mullins hasn’t a single entry. His Galway Hurdle winner Sharjah will go north on Friday to take on Samcro. But the seasonal flux is shown by Mullins having more entries for the final day of the flat at Naas on Sunday.
Not that he’s worried about that, as he says “This is Ireland; rain will come soon”.
Instead he praises racecourse managements in Ireland for providing safe ground throughout the baking summer, a consequence, he says, of having money to spend through HRI’s media rights deals.
It is spending power, and the concentration of it among a tiny elite of owners and trainers, which has transformed Ireland’s National Hunt sector in the last decade. But not without disquiet at the impact on a squeezed middle getting ever more squeezed.
The number of fully-fledged jumps trainers in the country has dipped under 100. Mullins’s younger brother, Tom, said recently that trainers need billionaire owners now to compete at the top level of what was once racing’s poor financial relation.
Even after his 2016 split with Michael O’Leary, wealthy owners still queue up to get into Mullins’s Co Carlow yard. The evidence of that is all over record levels of success at Cheltenham and the other major festivals for Mullins and his great rival Gordon Elliott in particular.
Asked on Tuesday about his brother’s billionaire comments, Mullins pointed to the increasing influence of point to points.
“There are two ways of looking at it. We’re lucky in Ireland to have huge owners that buy horses at the top level, and that we have trainers to train them and prizemoney to aim them for.
“On the other hand all the young horses are going point to pointing nowadays. What was once a spring sport with a few races has exploded into nearly a year long sport.
“All the young horses that go into smaller trainers are not going into training, they’re going into point to pointing. Small trainers need the young horses and they’re not going into the sport. They’re going into another sport, which is not Irish National Hunt racing,” he said.
With 107 winners and over €1.7 million in prizemoney already in the bag this season, Mullins has a significant advantage over Elliott. Both men again look set to dominate the upcoming winter campaign.
Elliott has Samcro. But Mullins has his own team of top young stars, including the hugely promising mare Laurina. Like Samcro, she is going down the Champion Hurdle route. It’s a scary prospect for other opposition but any clash will be one to savour for fans.