THIS time last year, Irish champion amateur jockey Patrick Mullins was about to ride in the Grand National for the first time. Here, he describes how one of the greatest days of his life turned into one of the worst ...
'We stride out through the glass walls of the Aintree weighing room and walk through the organised chaos that is Grand National day. Down the steps into the parade ring, get my bearings, and set off to try to find the people I need to among the shifting crowd.
Finally, time is moving along at the right speed again. Tip my cap, shake some hands, smile. It’s all just getting in the way. The bell rings, and I set off to find my partner. Jump up into the saddle and walk out under the stand, in between the well-wishers, the punters and the drunks.
The parade goes surprisingly quickly and smoothly, just like a party when you’re enjoying yourself. We gallop down to the first, have a look, turn around and gallop back. Other horses are galloping past me, beside me, against me. The circle moves and drifts. I just try to keep Ruby Walsh in the pink silks, riding our stablemate, in my line of sight, and follow him round. My back protector feels a little tight, but I find myself cracking a smile. The crowd starts to come to life. The circle is becoming a line, the walk becoming a trot. “Not yet!” the microphone tells us. We keep coming. “All right – away you go!”
And we’re off. The crowd is drowned out by the thunder of hooves. We’re away nicely, just tracking the pink silks. Middle of the pack, on the inner middle of the track. Right where I want to be.
We’re rattling along, but somehow I thought we’d be going faster. The Melling Road flashes under us. The first fence is rushing to meet us, here we go. A stride comes. My horse, Dooneys Gate, takes it and we’re over. Land, look for some space, get into it and aim for a clear spot on the next fence.
Almost immediately, we’re over that one, too. On our right, a chestnut crumples and splashes along the ground, but we whizz past him just before he rolls our way. Our luck must be in. This must be how the RAF boys felt when one of their squadron went down. I hope he’s fine, but am too busy minding my own hide to check.
The ditch appears next – the stride looks long. I sit and let Dooneys choose. He’s been here, done it, he knows what he’s at. He shortens, lifts quickly, touches down and gallops on. Pink silks takes it half-way up. There’s an almighty thump. He stays up, but drops out of view. I’m flying solo now.
We’re among the front-runners, I reckon. The ground seems to fly by – another fence comes straightaway, no time to think. We glide over the fourth, meet the fifth in our stride and wing it. Now for Becher’s.
Everything has gone to plan. We’re nicely handy, chasing the leaders, on the inner of the middle and jumping well. Anything could happen now – and we’ve as good a chance as any. It’s the National, after all.
The horse in front of me drifts right, squeezing my space between the others. I guide Dooneys to the left. We’ve a clear view. Stride looks a little long again. Your call, Dooneys. He goes for it, lifts, then doesn’t. S---. Bang. Mane. Blue, green, arms. I’m standing up, talking to someone about something. There’s a field of horses galloping in the distance. I turn around to pick up my stick. There’s a dark horse on the ground, head facing the fence, away from me. Don’t be my horse. Please.
I run around and there’s the white splotch on the forehead. It’s Dooneys. He looks OK, not in distress. I look at his legs. Nothing broken. Good, good – bloody great. He’s only winded.
I go and undo the girth. Suddenly we’re surrounded by green. There’s people running in around Dooneys. “Sure, he’s only winded,” I tell them. “Not so sure, son,” says the vet. “Look at his tail.” It’s loose and floppy. Someone pours a bucket of water over Dooneys. He lifts his head and shifts his front legs. But his back legs don’t move.
The people begin to shout. A rope is slung around his legs. Whistles sound nearby, lots of them. The thunder gets nearer and nearer until the field storms past. A loose horse jumps the fence and misses us by a few feet. People are still shouting. My shoulder is pumping.
I can’t keep a train of thought. Someone hands the vet a small black case. I look at Dooneys quickly and walk down along the fence. Other jockeys are watching the end of the race. I couldn’t care less. Pop. Turn left. Walk. Stupid f------ race. Why Dooneys? Why me? I’d gone over the race beforehand a million times, and never thought of this.
Jeeps and buggies offer me lifts. I hear them but don’t see them. “No,” I grunt. I can’t say more than one word. That’s it – I’ve had enough of this riding business. I’m going home. I want the next flight home. I don’t care about the horse in the bumper, the jumpers’ flat race. Let someone else ride him.
Damn race. Dooneys wasn’t some horse I’d swung my leg over a few times. He’s been in the yard six years. I’ve seen him win his bumper. Win his hurdles. Get injured and come back. Seen him win over fences. Seen him fall over fences and get back up. He was my first winner over fences. He was a gent. That’s it, I’m giving up, I’ve no interest in this any more.
I just keep walking. “You’ve got to keep your chin up,” says a voice beside me. A jockey in white and blue silks. “It’s outside the back door.” No, it’s not. He’s down behind Becher’s. I keep growling the lump out of my throat.
We’re back at the stand, among the well wishers, the punters and the drunks again, but I don’t see them. I’m not seeing or thinking anything, just walking and concentrating on left foot, right foot. Everyone is in my way. A reporter asks me for a comment on my race. Are you serious! I don’t have the energy to be angry with him. Back in through the glass walls into the weighing room.
I slam the door open. Didn’t mean that. There’s people everywhere watching replays and discussing the race. I feel sick. I walk through to the smoking area outside the weighing room.
I find a seat. Sit down. Close my eyes. Deep breath in. Dooneys. What the hell happened? I don’t know. He didn’t get an inch off the ground. What’s to be gained by going home? It happens. Happens to everyone and everything. Suck it up. He didn’t suffer, he knew nothing about it. There are worse ways to go.
Nothing I do will change what happened. The sooner you get up and get on with things the easier it is. Go out and win the bumper, take something home from the day. Open my eyes. Breathe out. Stand up. Walk back into the weighing room.
Patrick Mullins is the joint winner of the under-26 category in the 20th Wills Writing Awards, which judge the best writing by young people on a horse racing theme. This year’s Grand National takes place tomorrow