Greatest family man the architect of a dynasty
Home still at heart of the Mullins empire, writes John O'Brien
IT was a mild autumn day towards the end of 2008. Three teenagers sat around the table in the kitchen of Willie Mullins's house outside Bagenalstown. They talked about their shared love of horses, their ambitions for the future and a past that had blessed and enriched them beyond measure.
Patrick, Emmet and Danny. The third generation of Irish racing's greatest living dynasty. Sons of Willie, George and Tony. Paddy's grandchildren.
What struck most, as they talked, was the reverence they held for their grandfather. The stories tripped from their tongues. How Paddy had gone to Canada as a young racing man and returned with a store of ideas. Soon he had installed a two-furlong all-weather gallop on the family farm in Goresbridge, the first of its kind in the country. Everything the family had done, all they had achieved, it was no exaggeration to say it all went back to Paddy.
The youngest, Danny, mentioned something about nuts. That related to the day Paddy had brought a sick horse, Vulpine, to the local mill and they devised a special formula for the horse's feed. Vulpine recovered to win an Irish Grand National and Powers Gold Cup and put Red Mills on the map. There were so many stories to tell. So many strands to Paddy's racing life.
Patrick spoke of how he'd been out cycling a few days before and had happened upon Paddy and his wife, Maureen, in a bottom field, feeding the horses. Paddy was in his 90th year then, not as mobile as he once was, but the love and enthusiasm had never waned. As a trainer his twilight strolls around the stable were a cherished ritual and became part of Irish racing lore.
For Paddy those moments became sacrosanct. When the stable hands had retired for the day and a beautiful calm had descended on the yard, that was when, he reasoned, you could spend quality time with the horses and, maybe, glimpse something that you might have missed in all the fuss of morning gallops. His sons and even his grandchildren have carried on the tradition. The gift passed on.
His achievements are easily noted: three Irish Grand Nationals, two Ladbroke Hurdles, an Irish Oaks and Champion Stakes on the Flat, 10 trainers' titles, the third Irish trainer to reach the 100 mark in a season. The figures don't complete the story, though. They don't explain how he started out with just six horses in 1953 and struggled for the guts of a decade to make any progress at all. "You can't imagine how difficult it was at the time," Maureen once explained. "You can't imagine."
He was tough and shrewd enough to survive. It was significant that Mullins truly came into his own during the 1980s when Irish racing was in the doldrums, years before the sport would gorge itself on government largesse. He was 66 when he landed his first trainers' title in 1984. Two years before retiring in 2005 he won
both the Irish Oaks with Vintage Tipple and the Galway Plate with Nearly A Moose. Remarkably, he trained winners in six different decades. "A better stayer than all the stayers he trained," as Jim Bolger put it.
Dawn Run, of course, ought to have been his crowning glory. But the mare's celebrated heroics left Mullins somewhat cold. At the time his son Tony was stable jockey and Mullins was dismayed that before both of her epic Cheltenham victories Charmian Hill, Dawn Run's owner, had insisted on replacing Tony with Jonjo O'Neill. Mullins never forgave her. "That woman," he would say in the few interviews he did, before pointedly referring to Hurry Harriet's Champion Stakes victory in 1973 as his most treasured racing memory.
His antipathy towards Hill wasn't all that surprising. For Mullins, blood was thicker than water. The family was the thing. There is the unforgettable memory of Willie choking back the tears when talking about Paddy after Hedgehunter's Aintree National victory in 2005. "The greatest family man I knew," Tony said simply last week. For those closest to him no greater tribute could be paid.