Dawn Run's story still stirs mixed emotions
Once Cheltenham gets under way on Tuesday week, Willie Mullins will have little time to look back half an hour, let alone 30 years. But, at some point, he will reflect that three decades have passed since Dawn Run put the Mullins name on the world racing map by becoming the only horse to complete the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup double.
The outstanding mare, as versatile as she was talented, was trained by Willie's father Paddy, the 10-times Irish champion jumps trainer, at Doninga, in Kilkenny. The yard's main facility was a two-furlong circular all-weather gallop. While Willie was the stable amateur at the time, the main players were Paddy and Willie's younger brother Tony, a professional jockey who won 15 races on Dawn Run. Crucially, however, Tony was jocked off the mare by her owner, Charmain Hill, for all three of her visits to the Festival, to be replaced once by Ron Barry, and then by Jonjo O'Neill in both the 1984 Champion Hurdle and 1986 Gold Cup.
Paddy died in 2010, but his wife Maureen, the family matriarch, still lives in the house opposite Dawn Run's old stable. She has missed one Festival since 1960 and still books her tickets in October - to shorten the winter.
"If we had 1,000 horses, we never had one as ferocious as Dawn Run," she recalled last week. "There was nothing docile about her. The vet came to inject her one day. We had a man either side of her head, but she lashed out with her near-fore and struck him in the chest. He hit his head on the wall as he went down. She knew what she was doing.
"When she ran in a bumper at Clonmel, as she passed the stands she tried to bite the horse upsides her - she didn't like being headed. If we had press days, which we occasionally did, Mrs Hill insisted on riding her out in front, but she was very slight and there was no way she'd have been able to stop her. So, Paddy would whistle when he wanted her to stop and the mare would stop herself."
But what should have been the high point of the Dawn Run story, the 1986 Gold Cup, even now stirs mixed emotions in the Mullins camp. In 1984, Dawn Run had won the Irish, British and French Champion Hurdles and the following season she won her only novice chase, but then went wrong.
In her third outing the following season, a dry run for the Gold Cup in the Cotswold Chase, Tony, already champion jump jockey in Ireland, was unseated from her. It was one of those situations where everyone took a view and Hill was swayed by the side which believed someone else should ride in the Gold Cup.
Despite looking beaten at the second-last when Forgive 'N Forget and Wayward Lad went past, O'Neill threw the mare at the last and galvanised her to get up and pass Wayward Lad and win by a length, triggering unprecedented scenes of triumph at Cheltenham.
However, the man who should have been celebrating his greatest moment in more than 50 years as a trainer was not. At that moment, he was a deflated father.
"Paddy was so silent after the race," explained Maureen. "He was so upset Tony wasn't riding. As she was being led in, he said, 'I can't bear it' and he disappeared off into the background. I took the trophy and the Queen Mother asked if my husband would let Dawn Run parade for the crowd because it was what they wanted."
Tony said: "In the build-up to the race, the subject was overtaken by trying to get the mare to win. It wasn't a topic of conversation for the month before, but afterwards, everyone was thinking what could have been.
"It was massive to win it, a little annoying for me and disappointing for my father, but it was a bit of a sideshow and, sure, who'd have had what if she hadn't have won?"
Tony, who trains near Gowran, added that, of all the family, he was probably least affected by the snub. "I was so young and naive," he explained. "I thought I'd win the Gold Cup the next year or the year after. I didn't realise how hard it was, particularly when my father wasn't like Willie and only ever had 50 horses."
His memories of the front-running Dawn Run, who was tragically killed in a fall a few months later in the French Champion Hurdle under a French jockey, are unclouded by the issue. "I remember it like it was yesterday," he said. "Mrs Hill only made me hold Dawn Run up once - that was the only time we were out of the money. She said to ride her like a proper racehorse, but the mare fought me all the way and at the second-last said, 'If you don't want me to go, I won't'.
"She was amazing. Everyone loved her as the 'darling little Irish mare', but she was far from that. She was a big savage of a mare. In a race, she got into a rhythm and didn't need a horse coming up to her. About five out, you'd just feel her getting more powerful underneath you. She was the only one I rode who could go flat out from start to finish. She didn't need a breather and she didn't quicken, like Sea Pigeon, but she'd just kill them with the gallop."
He added: "She was hit and miss with obstacles all her life. If she met it right, she was brilliant, if it got in the way, she'd burst it out. She'd never correct herself like a sensible jumper, but she could gallop, gallop, gallop; hurdles or fences, two miles or three, hard or heavy, summer or winter. Everyone goes on about Arkle, but to me, she was the most versatile. And the one with the most ability."
Sunday Indo Sport