Wednesday 26 April 2017

Rising star eyes another freeze-frame moment

Grand National hero David Mullins continues his racing education as he seeks a Cheltenham first

Ready to Rule the World: Jockey David Mullins at the stud farm in Duninga, Goresbride, Co. Kilkenny ahead of next weeks Cheltenham Festival 2017. Photo: Dylan Vaughan.
Ready to Rule the World: Jockey David Mullins at the stud farm in Duninga, Goresbride, Co. Kilkenny ahead of next weeks Cheltenham Festival 2017. Photo: Dylan Vaughan.

Aisling Crowe

Mud-spattered face, splotches of muck decorating the maroon and white silks, the blue cap and white breeches, arm raised aloft in triumph, standing up in the irons with a smile that could have powered Liverpool's grid as Rule The World galloped past the Aintree winning line for a Grand National triumph that was as emotional as it was unexpected.

The photograph of David Mullins, only 19 and briefly ruling the world, captured the front pages of the Sunday papers. A freeze-frame moment, one which introduced him to the public beyond the racing world and catapulted him into the spotlight.

It is a victory that will keep his name in the roll-call of Aintree legends for generations to come. The second-youngest jockey to win the race, two years older than Bruce Hobbs was when he won it in 1938, but "younger than Ruby", he is quick to point out with a smile.

"I rode Rule The World twice before, we were second in the Irish National in 2015 and third in the Kerry National as well. About a week before Aintree Eddie [O'Leary] asked me to ride whichever horse of Mouse's [Morris] that Bryan [Cooper] didn't pick. I had never ridden over the fences before but the horse made it easy for me, he was fantastic," is his summation of those pivotal events.

His mother Helen and younger brother Charlie, aged 11 at the time, joined him in the winners' enclosure, and the interaction between the blond-haired Mullins brothers captured more than a few hearts of those looking in.

Headlines and celebrity beckoned but in a move admirable in one so young, but perfectly in keeping with the character he reveals, Mullins turned down Ryan Tubridy and opted for racing at Ballinrobe the Friday after his Grand National triumph, and Ayr on Saturday.

Despite success in an iconic race, Mullins is determined that his Aintree victory will not define him.

"I wasn't really thinking about what it meant at the time, I was a bit all over the place but then everything calmed down, I went back to work and I knew I didn't want my career to end there. Now it is all about Cheltenham this week, there is no looking back to Aintree. Cheltenham is where everyone wants to have winners and everything is focused on that."

Aintree was no flash in the pan. The previous November in a coolly-calculated tactical plan, he inflicted the first, and to date only, defeat on Faugheen, in the Grade One Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown. Riding Nichols' Canyon for his uncle Willie, also the trainer of Faugheen, he outfoxed a field of vastly more experienced jockeys for his first Grade One win.

In a way youth is discarded the moment a teenage jockey crosses the threshold of the weigh-room. Boys to the rest of the world, they are expected to be men in racing's world. Mullins, and other young jockeys, hold dual citizenship.

"When you turn professional at 17 or 18 you are expected to be mature and wise the second you walk into the weighing room. You have to be as good as those already there, otherwise you won't succeed. In a way you have to grow up quickly, from the start there is pressure on you but it is a good pressure…" he trails off. "Actually it's not that you have to grow up quickly, it's more that you have to be a grown-up from the moment you start."

In Mullins, the insouciance of youth is mixed with a calm and level-headed racing brain. It is a combination that has him in demand for Cheltenham this week.

His pedigree for the job is illustrious, a son of Tom Mullins, Cheltenham-winning trainer, and grandson of the legendary trainer Paddy Mullins, his uncle Willie is the dominant force in Irish racing, his uncle Tony was champion jockey and is a Cheltenham-winning trainer, as is his auntie Mags and cousins Patrick and Emmet have both won at racing's Mecca. If David Mullins were a horse at a sale, his page would all be in the bold black type which is so sought after.

With all that history, that knowledge, that glory in his fabled family, it would seem that he is walking down a pre-ordained path. Maybe it is so, but it wasn't a path that Mullins could see himself treading for much of his young life.

The great triumphs of his grandfather and father passed him by.

"The day Vintage Tipple won the Oaks for dad and granddad, I was at the seaside. Asian Maze winning the Grade One at Aintree for dad, running in the Champion Hurdle, I never realised any of that," he admits.

Hunting and showjumping were his equine pursuits, his family on his mother's side - the Hughes family - are renowned in showjumping. Being from Doninga, near Goresbridge, hurling was his sporting passion.

He attended Kilkenny's renowned hurling nursery St Kieran's, where they incubate future All-Ireland winners, but it didn't take Mullins long to realise that he wasn't a nascent All-Star.

When David was 15, his father decided he had enough of the laid-back teenager's less-than-enthusiastic work ethic, a trait that outside of the saddle lingers. Last year his grandmother, the indomitable Maureen Mullins, told an interviewer that her Grand National-winning grandson was also her laziest grandchild.

Tom gave him an unpaid job in the yard riding out Bob Lingo. An awkward horse, he and the teenage Mullins forged an understanding. That summer Bob Lingo won the Galway Plate and flicked a switch in David Mullins' mind.

He returned to school in September, this time in Bagenalstown, but his brain was even less engaged in formal education than it had previously been.

Much of his educational energy in the preceding years had been devoted to finding ways not to attend school - at one point setting his alarm in the middle of the night so that he could get up, walk around coughing, and convincingly explain that he was up half the night sick and unable to go to school.

In December, the school principal called Tom and Helen and explained that David was wasting his time in school.

"Looking back, it was probably the wrong decision to change schools, it was only five minutes away and much easier not to go to school. I always wanted to leave school," he admits.

"That morning I got up and was putting on my uniform and mam told me I wasn't going back. I was delighted and went straight up to the yard. It is a lot easier to get up and go to the yard than to go to school. When I was in school, I was never there because I was always on the phone checking results and fields."

It is not a decision he regrets.

"Ruby was always on at me to go back to school and do my Leaving Cert. He says it is worth it. Even a few weeks ago he said that it wasn't too late for me to go back but I never felt like I needed it."

Instead he set about getting the best racing education he could - Tom and Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott, Henry de Bromhead, Ruby Walsh - the distinguished lecturers and tutors in racing's university.

Weight is an issue, but again dealt with as a matter of fact. Swimming helps him burn off what he can but not eating is the best way to make 10 stone 4 or 5 pounds. Not easy when you return home after a stint living with your cousin Emmet, and your worried mother watches you fail to eat the dinner she has prepared.

"I swim but I only exercise for my weight, not fitness. Race riding is a knack, it's not really about fitness. I broke my collarbone and punctured my lung last June and I was off for five weeks but came back and rode in two races straight away.

"My weight is a bit more settled now but it is easier to keep weight off in England because there is racing every day. Mam always has dinner ready but if I have to make a weight I might only eat two or three dinners in a week. Sleeping keeps my mind off the hunger. It's not a sacrifice, nobody is making me do it."

No, nothing but the insatiable drive for winners, for freeze-frame moments when his face beams in delight and success, for Cheltenham glory, arms raised once more in triumph, for the fleeting seconds when David Mullins rules the world.

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