Vincent Hogan meets Willie Mullins: 'Paddy learnt the hard way and I learnt from him. We had it tough'
As Willie Mullins re-writes the National Hunt record books, it is from his late father that he still finds example and timeless inspiration
Do horses suffer stage-fright? Could a human ever know? Thoroughbreds have complex, fragile wiring and, in racing, maybe the magic has always been to disentangle those strings. One of the things you notice about Willie Mullins is that he doesn't take notes. In the yard, on the gallop, at the races, nothing. His eyes just find light in concealed places, his mind registers it.
It is Fairyhouse on a foot-stomping January Wednesday and he sits to tea in the threadbare racecourse restaurant. Outside, is a diehard pilgrimage. Hard faces pinched against the cold, maybe 500 of them working the puzzles of a seven-race card that won't stay relevant beyond the exit gate.
A low-watt day for Mullins in the shadow of Broadway then. He exchanges smiles and easy courtesies. He is royalty to this congregation but, in National Hunt, there are no walls between prophet and pilgrim. In any event, Mullins's genius has never been contaminated by high self-regard. People, palpably, like him. But what is it he sees that others don't?
Tomorrow in Leopardstown, he may well saddle the first three home in the Irish Champion Hurdle. So we ask him to demystify the superstars, to give them human faces. His response is open and wonderfully uninhibited.
Faugheen is a contradiction. A horse without the pedigree to be doing the things he does. Has a point-to-pointer ever run like he ran at Cheltenham last March? He thinks not. So Faugheen's is the plain face making people swoon. The reluctant movie star dodging flashbulbs.
"He's hugely unusual," smiles Mullins. "I suppose he's not the prettiest horse and you seldom get a good photograph of him. Whereas Hurricane Fly is very photogenic, he's interested the moment he sees a camera, Faugheen just doesn't like people in his face. An ordinary bloke is probably how I'd describe him.
"But he can do extraordinary things. I thought he was going to be a chaser when we bought him, but he can kick hurdles out of the way and still win. Most horses, if you make a mistake at this level, you lose two or three lengths that you don't get back. But he can actually read a hurdle all wrong, kick it out of the way and not lose a length."
Nichols Canyon? A bit of an oddball. Often sleeps with one leg off the ground, like a dog nursing a sore paw. The first time Mullins saw him do it, he "nearly got heart failure looking in over the door". But, two nights later, he was doing it with the other leg. Just a spooky, behavioural quirk.
Mullins describes him as "a small lad, tough, never says anything. He'd always be at the back of the group, but totally genuine. He'd be very accurate. If he hit you, he'd land a punch in the right place. But very relaxed. Most nights you'd walk in and he's relaxed, asleep. He'd be like me in that way. I could sleep on a Ryanair flight to Liverpool and you don't get louder than that!"
Arctic Fire is the hard chaw, the grumpy one. "When you come near him in the stable at night, he'll meet you with his teeth," smiles Mullins. "He doesn't want you near his door. Definitely, if you went down the town with Arctic Fire, you'd end up in fisticuffs somewhere!
"That's the way he is, the way he races."
So long as one of them wins, Mullins says he will be happy. Short of all three falling victim to sniper fire, one of them will.
Racing is a forgetful place, the trick is to understand this. Some people grumble about Mullins's dominance today, reading it as somehow repressive and limiting for an industry losing small yards.
It is as if they imagine his gift as some kind of family heirloom handed blithely down, as if they think winners can be played like stocks and bonds. Paddy Mullins was a champion trainer too, a quiet, gifted man who won great races. But what his father did never foretold the story of Willie Mullins. How could it?
Often, he finds himself talking to his own son, Patrick, about this now. About how what they have today in Closutton is precious because it is so far removed from the harsh canvas a man he still, instinctively, calls "the Boss", worked his miracles from.
Ferdie Murphy once said that Paddy Mullins won big races out of "the kind of place Vincent O'Brien would not walk his horses in". Murphy was head lad and stable jockey to Mullins in a modest Goresbridge yard for six years. Paddy Mullins did not bequeath his sons excessive wealth or privilege. He just taught them the virtue of work.
True he sowed the acorn that begat the oak, but he could never have envisaged how high it would reach.
Just this week, someone asked Willie if he ever thought his yard could attain such dominance. And, of course, he couldn't. In his childhood, nobody ever had a jump yard of this scale. You couldn't imagine it, let alone aspire to it. Tony Mullins once joked that his father would have preferred his sons pursue careers as doctors or vets rather than chase the lottery ticket of fast horses.
"I would imagine knowing the hardship he went through, he probably hoped his children wouldn't have to do that," reflects Willie now. "And I'm always trying to paint a picture of what it was like for him to my own son now. Because what we're going through now ... there's a whole other life before that.
"He (Paddy) learnt the hard way and I learnt from him. We had it tough."
The juggernaut today? When Willie first took out a training licence in January of '88, the requirement was to have possession of six horses. He had only five. One old mare had passed away a few weeks before the Turf Club inspector came visiting. Willie indicated that the field in which the mare was kept was "wet and mucky" that day, so the inspector just ticked the box.
As Mullins puts it, "We had the passport alright, just hadn't got the horse!"
It seems another lifetime now simply because it was. They had a staff of one when he and wife, Jackie, started the business and they learnt, as trainers must, by their mistakes. So much, even now, comes down to simple instinct. Yet, nobody has dominated the game like this before. No yard has ever cast a longer shadow.
He will send a string of 50-plus horses to Cheltenham in March, studded with some of the brightest equine jewels the sport has known. Mullins has been leading trainer at The Festival for three years running and it will be deemed an upset if he doesn't claim the prize for a fifth time in six seasons.
The big English yards have been ruthlessly usurped, Nicky Henderson joking at Sandown before Christmas that he'd quite like Mullins to "feck off back to Ireland".
Yet, at this altitude, a cough in the yard can have the efficacy of a gunshot in the street. People must live on their nerves, knowing how quickly expectation can become a leaden weight. "We could go to Cheltenham, maybe have two or three winners and people will say that's failure," Mullins acknowledges (they won a record eight last year). "We could go and win the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup and it might still be deemed failure.
"With the team that we bring over, we are expected to do better. And, probably, we do need to do better than that. If I'm honest, we ourselves are expecting more than hoping now, which we used to do. But you're not entitled to anything.
"Every time we come home from the Festival, our focus is on what we did wrong. When the statistics come in the following Tuesday on the 'Racing Post', you look down the list, see other guys whose stables didn't perform and you're thinking, 'That could be us next year'.
"No matter how much people expect, we know that failure is only around the corner. It happens in every sport."
Maybe so, but the horizon looks unblemished now. Closutton's dominance seems franked by an approach to quality control that extends far beyond its remarkable owner. Three years ago, Mullins secured exclusive access to Ruby Walsh (right on Faugheen) and, having the sport's number one jockey ride work every week, provides feedback you could not price.
Mullins says it is his staff that makes the difference, breaking away to take a call that all but validates his point.
It is from Patrick. They measure lameness from one to ten and he'd sensed a faint problem with one on the gallop that morning. Jogging the horse up, Willie hadn't seen anything. But Patrick felt something, pulling up immediately. "This fella's not right..."
A less experienced jockey might have missed it. As Willie puts it, "If you put an inexperienced guy up, he'd have gone and cantered away. and it'd be like driving a car with a flat tyre."
The horse was checked and found to have just one out of ten lameness. Had he cantered, he might have been a three.
For consistency of information, the same jockeys ride the same horses. Trust is absolute. With maybe 150 horses on active duty at any given time, you wonder how Mullins retains such a depth of information. His candid response is that he doesn't.
"If I took notes, I wouldn't read them," he says. "That's why I want to be out on the gallop every day, to physically see the horses, to see their shape, make and how they're moving. When we were smaller, I used be able to retain everything. I'd know what every horse was doing, where we were aiming them.
"Now the operation is so big, that's not possible. The staff know the way I work.
"Sometimes they'll say to me, 'You mightn't want to work him today, he's not running till ... ' And I'll say, 'Oh yeah, I forgot!' I might have had something else on my mind. So it's huge teamwork.
"The wealth of talent we have in the yard at the moment is fantastic. You know you've Ruby, Paul Townend, David Casey, Danny Mullins, Patrick, David Mullins, Mikey Fogarty, Johnny Burke comes in, Katie Walsh comes down...they're all riders you would put up in any big race, anywhere, on any big day.
"And the younger members of staff learn so much to ride upsides those. I always say to Patrick that, when I was growing, we might have had one jockey come down to ride work. We didn't have a gallop. It was all very basic."
The moment Dawn Run won the Gold Cup for his father, Willie Mullins was under a Cheltenham enclosure, cursing their defeat.
Watching her go to the last under Jonjo O'Neill, he'd assumed they were beaten, putting down his binoculars. It was only walking in under the arches that the din reclaimed his attention. He didn't see them go past the post, but the noise told him that something epic had occurred.
"I just saw hats going in the air," he remembers. "And I knew there wouldn't have been that reaction for any other horse. Next thing, it was like a tsunami of people pouring towards me. And I'm shouting 'What won? What happened?' Nobody would stop. They were all running to the winner's enclosure. English people, everyone. They just wanted to be there."
It was Paddy Mullins's greatest training feat, albeit one shadowed by personal disappointment that the owner, Charmian Hill, had not kept faith with his son, Tony, as jockey. Willie, today, has 41 Cheltenham victories to his father's five. Yet, the arithmetic demands context. Because it obscures the world that Paddy Mullins trained in, the absence of big owners, of moneyed races in the country through which to build a powerful yard.
Today, the Irish system attracts a calibre of horse that England squanders through pinched prize-money and an industry hopelessly tethered to the betting game. Grade Two and Grade Three races in England have been turned into handicaps. "And nobody buys a horse to have a handicapper," as Mullins puts it. He has had Cheltenham launches in his own yard and spoken out against the Festival prize-money. England, he believes, is leaking horses and owners to better, more lucrative systems.
Yet the Gold Cup transcends commerce. Willie Mullins has had five second places in the great race, but is yet to match his father's victory. Two years ago, people thought he might lodge an appeal against Lord Windermere's victory after a lengthy stewards' enquiry focusing on interference with his horse, On His Own.
He did not countenance it.
"A lot of people said we should have appealed, but I didn't want and my owner certainly didn't want to win it in the middle of May in London," he remembers. "There'd be no joy coming out with that. I used to be the opposite, but now I treat it as a ref's decision in a match. I don't know if I've ever seen a ref change his mind but, every week in football, you see ten players around one giving out. Crazy stuff.
"That's what I love about Brian Cody and Kilkenny hurling, they get on with the game. I love the way they come out and play, end of story. You get a kick on the shin? Forget it. The ball's over there, go for it. Don't be looking for the ref to sort it out. I like my horses to run like that.
"And I like my riders to be like that. Get out, race-ride and if there's something on, get over it. Because if you dwell on it, you'll never win anything. Just go out there with more grit next time.
"Hasn't worked for me in the Gold Cup yet mind (laughing)!"
Djakadam and Don Poli will carry his hopes this year and, potentially, Vautour too. Some day soon, the seal will surely break. In a child's dreams, the jump races that draw goosebumps are the Grand National and Gold Cup. Willie Mullins was no different and is warmed that Paddy lived at least to see him saddle Hedgehunter at Aintree in '05.
And Heaven knows what the family patriarch might have made of things had Willie plundered the Melbourne Cup last year, Max Dynamite coming so close to plundering one of the world's great Flat prizes for a jumps yard.
Willie describes his father as "traditional" in his approach to the business side of training. Paddy was imaginative and innovative at work, yet he could be innately hesitant when it came to despatching invoices. A common enough wrinkle in how the industry is still run.
"I think trainers on the whole...we are bad business people," says Mullins. "We tend to be better looking after our horses than our business. We are still running our businesses like trainers were 150 years ago."
Still, he doesn't doubt that, were he around today, 'The Boss' would be a proud man. Because everything of value that he knows, Mullins learnt from the magic weaved in that small stubble field from which great giants sprang.
He honours his father's gift by not forgetting that.