Mullins family values
TOM MULLINS would have reasonable grounds for rejoicing at 2010's imminent demise, but harbouring regrets isn't his thing. That's not the way the Mullins clan were reared.
The passing of Tom's revered father Paddy at the end of October would be chief among his legitimate causes for ruing the year that was. It is a mark of that man's legacy, though, that the first thing that strikes you about an encounter with any of his offspring is their sheer humility and common decency.
In the multitude of posthumous tributes that were paid to Paddy Mullins, he was universally acknowledged as, first and foremost, a family man. Through his eldest son and champion trainer Willie, Joe Public frequently gets an insight into how that rounded perspective has been passed on. Tom, the youngest of five, is no different.
Apart from his father's death, the flow of winners from the Goresbridge yard that he took over following the great doyen's retirement has slowed dramatically since the turn of the year. The recession continues to exact a heavy toll on stable numbers, while Menorah, which Tom produced to land short odds in a bumper at Naas, has shot to stardom since vacating the premises last year.
Quickly shipped out to Phillip Hobbs' Somerset establishment once the money came, some might speculate that Menorah's then owner Eugene McDermott might not have cashed in so readily in times of plenty. However, that would be a mistaken assumption as McDermott's Kennycourt Stud specialises in turning over stock.
Recession or no, the current Champion Hurdle favourite was never likely to race on for him. The difference back in the good old days was that it would have been far easier to find a buyer that might have left Menorah where he was in Doninga. Still, you won't hear Tom Mullins complaining.
"I suppose you could say it's bittersweet watching him," admits the five-year-old's former handler, "but he (McDermott) got loads of money for him. That's grand. I got my cut, and everyone was happy. I wouldn't be in the least bit bitter about it."
Accordingtojodie, a flashy-looking four-year-old that Mullins saddled to justify favouritism on its debut at Galway in August, followed in similar circumstances. This one was due to make its debut for Nicky Henderson before Ascot fell foul of the weather today. He is one of just three horses to have won for Mullins this season.
"I suppose for a yard like mine," Tom replies when asked if a worrying trend is developing, "if a younger horse comes along and wins a bumper, the English man is coming back to buy them. That's a fair comment. But they are giving plenty dough, so they are welcome to them.
"It's not something I'm too worried about. I train for anyone, and it's whatever an owner wants to do, but those two owners, in particular, wanted to win a bumper and sell, right from the start.
"Maybe there is a fear that you'd get a reputation just for producing them, but I've plenty winners on the board myself as a trainer. I'll be working away to keep the thing going, but you have to take what comes. You can't be too choosy in these times. If an owner is a good payer, then I have to keep him happy. That's the bottom line."
Trainers, like everyone, are increasingly preoccupied by the bottom line. With horses and owners still being worked out of the once bloated system, there is probably some way to go to the bottom yet. Nonetheless, few years will be as tough as 2010.
Mullins' string has practically halved since 2008 from a high of 35, but it was really only during the past 12 months that the effect of such a decline began to fully reveal itself. He has had nearly 30pc less runners than last season over jumps at this point, while in the corresponding period in 2009 he already had 13 winners on the board.
From the turn of the year, he trained only two more before the campaign concluded in April. This season, he has just four to his name.
True to form, the 45-year-old is pragmatic in the face of such bleak circumstances. "It is a challenge, for sure," he says, "we've had to cut down on staff, and you just don't train the useless ones anymore.
"I'd have four or five owners now and they don't want to know about 0-95 horses anymore. They want to have a decent horse in the string and win a decent race with it. If you don't think that's going to happen, then that's it -- they don't want them."
To that end, Mullins' pared-down team numbers some pretty smart performers. The likes of Oscar Dan Dan, Made In Taipan and Bob Lingo should all win good races, but Tavern Times is one of the more exciting youngsters coming through. Fourth in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham in March, the Presenting gelding is set to get his season under way in a winners' bumper at Navan tomorrow.
"He'll definitely go hurdling after Navan on Sunday," Mullins reveals, "but it's a valuable bumper and it is an obvious race for him to start off in. He is an exciting horse, and I think we'll only see the best of him when he goes chasing next year."
Mullins' ability to prepare and campaign smart horses at the top level is already well established. On taking over the reins at the family homestead, he assumed care of Asian Maze, which he handled with tremendous skill to secure four Grade Ones.
By winning the Hatton's Grace Hurdle with Oscar Dan Dan last year, Mullins fulfilled a personal ambition to train a Grade One winner entirely of his own making. He had sourced the horse, now a six-time winner, for a relatively meagre €20,000 at the sales three years previously.
Mullins paid just a grand more for Made In Taipan, another with half a dozen firsts to its name now. That he can do the job is not in doubt; the problem at this juncture is simply one of opportunity.
All the same, in typically easy-going fashion, he confirms that he possesses little of the insatiable ambition that drives his eldest brother. "I don't know how he does it," he quips of Willie, "I'd have trouble entering 30 of them, and he'd have 130 -- or more!
"I don't know if I'd be able to deal with handling that many owners. I'm not sure I would. He's remarkable the way he keeps doing it. He must have an awful hunger for it -- he must want it very bad! Thank God he's getting it!"
On a more serious note, he continues: "It is great that there is a Mullins still at the head of the field, though. My father was champion trainer 10 times and it's nice to see Willie at the head of it now, whatever about myself in the long term."
No title ambitions, then? "I feel I'm just about able to manage what I have. If more come along that I'm able to handle, then fine, but with a young family at home I'm happy with what I've got."
His father, no doubt, would be pleased to hear as much.