Mature response to job loss paying off for Mullins
Danny Mullins' quietly defiant response to the adversity that was thrust upon him in the autumn has been a refreshing footnote to the jumps season.
Sacked by leading owner Barry Connell at just 22 years of age having been retained by the Carrickmines financier less than two years earlier, Mullins might have fallen between the cracks.
He had been thrust into the spotlight by Connell's decision to retain him as a green-horned 20-year-old who had ridden just 25 winners over jumps, so he would be entitled to wonder what exactly he did or didn't do to warrant getting the chop.
Our Conor's fatal fall in the 2014 Champion Hurdle was their highest-profile setback, but that was simply one of those things.
Having never been able to claim an allowance over jumps due his successes on the Flat, Mullins had started from a slight disadvantage. Sure, being a Mullins is an undeniable advantage in itself, but you still have to learn your trade and earn your stripes.
In that sense, he was on the back foot against his National Hunt peers. When Connell appointed him, all of a sudden the formative years required to hone his craft were magnified.
He was as rough around the edges as you would expect, but no more or less, so for him to then be jettisoned after delivering three Grade Ones on Mount Benbulben and The Tullow Tank was a pretty raw deal. All the while, though, Mullins was a model of diplomacy.
"These things happen," he reflects philosophically after a pause for consideration that is a feature of our conversation.
"It has happened before in racing and plenty of people have come out the other side of it. You can climb into a hole and feel sorry for yourself if you want, but I took the view to get out and keep working hard, and the good horses would come back. Thankfully, I have been having a great season.
"Sure, it was a fair shock when I was told, but it was just a case of readjusting. Things can always get worse - they don't necessarily have to get better. You have to keep looking at the bright side and looking to the future."
In a manner not dissimilar to his senior colleague Davy Russell following Gigginstown Stud's dismissal of him last year, Mullins kept schtum. Rather than air his grievances to a sympathetic media, he knuckled down.
He is now carving a niche for himself, and earning an enhanced degree of respect to boot. As a member of the fabled Mullins dynasty with a cheeky grin and a nose for mischief, there might have been a perception of him as a bit of a wide-boy not necessarily equipped for rolling with the punches.
Remember, too, that a Turf Club hearing described his actions in apprehending an Order of Malta jeep to make his way back to the weigh room after a Bellewstown fall in the summer of 2013 as "extremely irresponsible".
In that sense, the way in which Mullins has re-fashioned a reputation for himself as a grafter is to his credit.
Maybe he is simply more mature, a point evident in his every utterance throughout this interview, during which he is perceptive and articulate. Of course, as a son of two of Irish racing's most modest and likeable individuals in Tony and Mags Mullins, his upbringing will have helped.
"I am lucky enough that both my parents are great to turn to for advice, and Willie is always there as well," he says, referring to his omnipotent champion trainer uncle.
"When I lost the job, my father reminded me that he had lost the ride on Dawn Run at Cheltenham in a Champion Hurdle and a Gold Cup, and he said, 'sure, I didn't die'. You get on with it and keep going. He said it might take a little bit longer but the good horses would come back and I would ride plenty big winners again."
Mullins' rounded perspective is now more evident in his riding as well. Within weeks of his dismissal, he excelled in getting his uncle's Felix Yonger up on the line in the Hilly Way Chase at Cork. It was a composed turn that showcased a renewed degree of finesse, and his presentation of a horse at an obstacle continues to improve.
A strike-rate with Willie of five wins from 17 domestic outings indicates that he is taking his chances. Mullins still operates as a dual-purpose rider, but he is now more polished over jumps.
At Cheltenham in March, he was entrusted with the rides on his uncle's Arctic Fire and Milsean, amongst others. They finished an honourable second in the Champion Hurdle and Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle respectively, reinforcing the sense that, if the horse is good enough, so is Mullins.
Milsean's defeat came after a prolonged tussle with Martello Tower. His mother Mags' first Festival winner sported his old boss' colours and was ridden by his successor Adrian Heskin.
Any question of animosity between the two was quenched by Mullins' exuberant offer of congratulations to Heskin as soon as they crossed the line.
"Adrian gave him a great ride and I was delighted for my mother," he says sincerely. "I thought I had their measure jumping the last but there was no hard luck for me - a better horse beat mine on the day. I was happy with my horse and it was great to see my mother get her first Cheltenham Festival winner - hopefully I will have plenty of them in the future.
"Willie's support has been important. Some of the big rides that I have got off him this season, especially at Cheltenham, were something I feared I might lack. It has increased my appeal to other trainers as well, notably so since Cheltenham. It's very hard for small trainers to put you to their owners if you're not riding a few for Willie."
The tact Mullins displayed during what must have been a trying period enabled Connell to book him for Martello Tower in a Grade Three at Limerick over Christmas. It resulted in a valuable victory, in a figurative sense as well as monetary, given what it reflected on Mullins' behalf.
"It's a very small circle, this racing game," he expounds. "So there is no point giving out. It's about working hard, improving your game, keeping yourself going forward and the rest will fall into place. If there are rides like that available on Martello Tower, I am delighted to take them.
"I was young when Barry gave me the job, so it was very good of him to put me in a position to win three Grade Ones. Now I'm going back to Willie's having done that, so it's easier for him to put me up in big races and say to owners, 'well, he has ridden Grade One winners, so he knows how to do it'.
"I am grateful to Barry for being the first to put me in a position to do that. Bitterness would get you nowhere - it would only be a step back. Hard work and persistence will bring you forward.
"People ask would I feel spite towards Adrian, but if he didn't get the job, someone else would have. My concern is about me and riding winners."
To that end, Mullins is waiting for his uncle to finalise plans for the busy Easter schedule before confirming his own. The thing is, though, he is in demand. That wasn't a foregone conclusion six months ago.
Danny Mullins Career factfile
Born: April 23, 1992
From: Doninga, Co Kilkenny
Lowest riding weight: 9st 8lb
First winner: My Girl Sophie (Jim Bolger), Leopardstown, May 21, 2008
First jump winner: Marlay Park (Mags Mullins), Thurles, January 27, 2011
Seasonal tallies (Flat & NH, Ire & GB): 19, 29, 10, 17, 24, 30, 24 (to date)
l 2012 Kerry National at Listowel on Faltering Fullback (Eric McNamara)
l 2013 Grade One Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown on Mount Benbulben (Gordon Elliott)
l 2013 Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse on The Tullow Tank (Philip Fenton)
l 2013 Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardsown on The Tullow Tank
l 2014 Grade Two Novice Chase at Naas on Foxrock (Ted Walsh)
l 2014 Grade Two Ten Up Novice Chase at Navan on Foxrock
l 2014 Grade Two Hilly Way Chase at Cork on Felix Yonger (Willie Mullins)
l 2014 Grade Three Novice Hurdle at Limerick on Martello Tower (Mags Mullins)