Friday 24 November 2017

Student with master's gift

Patrick Mullins is relishing challenge of juggling college and competitive racing, writes Ronan Groome

R Groome

It's about six o'clock on Wednesday evening. Patrick Mullins arrives back at NUI Maynooth campus in a rush. While other jockeys are thinking only about Cheltenham at this stage, the champion amateur has the added distraction of assignments, a final-year thesis, study and lectures to attend at Maynooth as part of an Equine Business degree.

He had better get to work quickly because it's highly unlikely he'll get much done this week.

It was only just over an hour since he had ridden Champagne Agent to finish fourth in a bumper at Naas. "Disappointing, we thought the extra three furlongs would help -- it didn't, we think now he might be a good-ground horse," Mullins comments. "He should win a bumper though and he still has a bright future."

You tend to believe the 21-year-old when he tells you something. He speaks in a very similar fashion to his father Willie, clearly and informatively, in the manner of someone who already knows the game inside out. Only a week earlier he was making an ample case for nearly every horse in the Mullins Cheltenham team at a preview night at the Maynooth Student Union bar.

The other panellists laughed and joked that they may call Cheltenham off at this rate; Willie Mullins was going to have about 15 winners.

That won't happen of course, but the Carlow team more or less have 15 live chances which is a terrific platform in itself. Mullins agrees: "It's great to be going over with so many good horses but you would be lucky to come out with one winner."

The 21-year-old points out that the key to their horses' good form is that they have been kept healthy for a good while now. A bit slow to start the season, but they are really motoring at the right time again.

After completing his Leaving Cert at Clongowes, Mullins only had eyes for horse-racing. The idea of going on to study at third level didn't appeal to him.

Ever since he rode his first horse out at home at the age of 11, football and hurling -- which were first choice at the time -- took a back seat. It was from then on that he was counting down the days until he could take out his amateur licence.

It was Patrick's mother Jackie, as you would expect, who was keen for him to go to college. She sold the idea with the information that when Ruby Walsh broke his leg, he spent six weeks with his girlfriend at UCD and said that it was a life he wished he could have experienced.

If Mullins didn't like it he could always come home. He'd be long enough in the yard anyway. And so the 18-year-old set off for Kildare again and is six weeks away from sitting his final exams.

"I love Maynooth. I've met a great bunch of people here and the town and college is just a fun place to be," he says. "The course will help me in the future and the people I know from here could be the people running the sport in the future as well. Other than that it's great to know a different base of people outside racing."

One member of the Mullins team staying at home due to injury is Cousin Vinny, and he is still a horse close to Patrick's heart. It was his win in the Champion Bumper three seasons ago that gave him his finest hour yet and announced him as the latest Mullins to emerge. He can't really remember much of the day. He was 18 then, and still only learning the ropes as a jockey.

"It's a bit like trying to remember a dream, if that makes any sense," he says with a laugh. "I remember walking the track beforehand with dad, everything going to plan, and being last out of the parade ring in typical Mullins style. Ruby told me to track him on Apt Approach, and we just clipped heals with Barry Connell's Pineau De Re at the top of the hill, but I remember thinking there we have a right good chance."

They did. Cousin Vinny was soon in front and had kicked three lengths clear rounding the turn. It was just his second ever run, he was green climbing the hill in front on his own, and so was his jockey.

"Vinny started to run around and I was just thinking of where the winning post was. I thought it was never going to come. After the line, all I did was pat him on the neck, if it happened again I'd probably be punching the air towards the crowd."

Although he admits he'd have a Grand National winner over a Gold Cup winner, Mullins is buzzing in anticipation of returning to Prestbury Park. He was too young to recall his father's Champion Bumper win aboard Wither Or Which in 1996, and pinpoints Florida Pearl's Royal & SunAlliance Chase success in 1998 as his earliest memory of the Festival. The first time young Patrick was at Cheltenham was the next year, when Florida Pearl returned in the Gold Cup and came up short in third place behind See More Business.

"I was young at the time but I don't think I've ever been so down after a race since, he was our superstar and we couldn't see him getting beat."

It could be if Hurricane Fly gets beat this year that may bring about a similar feeling. The 21-year-old has the rationale to make a case for a donkey in the Gold Cup, but you can see he gets particularly excited when the topic of the Champion Hurdle is raised. The rumour around the college campus after the preview night was that should the son of Montjeu get beaten, he will be turning up for a day of lectures in a pair of Speedos.

Mullins has a track record with such dares; he said last year that if Go Native emerged a Champion Hurdle winner he would be lapping the college in a naked mile. It's that kind of tongue-and-cheek humour, along with his polite manner, that adds to his general likeability factor.

Unusually this year, the reigning champion amateur has a ride outside the bumper, and will be aboard Some Target over fences in the four-mile National Hunt Chase. He looks to have a big chance there as well. "His performance at Punchestown to beat a field of handicappers must say a lot about his jumping and how good he is, it was an impressive performance from a novice," he says. "Alfa Beat looks the one to beat, but Some Target will jump well and he'll be staying on at the end."

And then there's the Bumper, surely he knows by now what he's riding there. "No, not yet. I'm the same as everyone else really. Dad tells me nothing," he laughs. "Contrary to opinion, I don't get the choice either, I ride what I'm told to, and I only found out on the Monday that I'd be riding Cousin Vinny."

It appears that Patrick will take the ride on either Allure Of Illusion or Lord Gale, both of which he gives a decent chance to.

Then it's quickly back to Maynooth, with the first draft of his thesis due next Monday.

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