Master of his own universe
Attention to detail is the hallmark of Willie Mullins' inexorable rise, says John O'Brien
SEáN Tiernan smiles ruefully when the subject of Hurricane Fly crops up. In 2006, Tiernan, a bloodstock agent based in Co Wexford, had travelled to the south of France to run his eye over a two-year-old trained by Jean-Luc Pelletan that was due to contest a Group Two race on the Flat. The horse wasn't officially for sale, but Tiernan knew he soon would be. This was a chance, he hoped, to steal a march on potential rivals.
His visit proved fruitless. There was no price tag on the horse but Tiernan understood it to be in the region of €300,000 and, at that altitude, he had to have absolute conviction.
Ultimately, the doubts he harboured would lead Hurricane Fly into the path of Willie Mullins, propel the trainer's Closutton yard into another stratosphere and accelerate a level of dominance jump racing had once briefly glimpsed when Aidan O'Brien ruled the roost in the mid-1990s.
Hurricane Fly wasn't the only time Tiernan lost out on a decent French prospect to Mullins. "A few years ago," Tiernan says, "I'd seen and liked So Young. I'd the deal done. Then I brought a trainer to see him and he said he wasn't big enough so we let him go. He wasn't even a dear horse. Harold [Kirk, Mullins' assistant] will tell you that."
There is no hint of bitterness in Tiernan's voice. They have both been fishing in French waters since the middle of the last decade and Mullins' superior financial clout hasn't stopped Tiernan from landing the odd nice catch. The first horse he bought was Lounaos for Eoin Griffin in 2005. Then came River Liane and Solwhit. Mullins' first purchase was Quatre Heures that same year, dropping a gentle hint of a new departure that would soon reap rich dividends.
Two factors in particular drew them towards France: cost and the fact that French horses were generally ready to run earlier than their Irish-bred counterparts. "The kind of guys I was buying for wanted action," says Tiernan. "The horses you'd buy at the Derby or Land Rover Sales here needed time to develop. Lads didn't have the patience for that here. The French horses suited them. They were ready to rock and roll."
That suited Mullins too. The traditional perception in Ireland was that horses tenderly handled would enjoy longer, more fruitful careers, but the French philosophy challenged that view. Golden Silver, for instance, had run 28 times before Mullins brought him to Ireland in 2007 and was still going strong four years later when a freak fall at Leopardstown ended his life. Mullins wanted horses which were ready to run and could keep a stable firing across the length of an entire season and, overwhelmingly, the French-breds have helped him realise that ambition.
None of this happened by accident, of course. With Mullins things rarely do. During a recent interview in the Racing Post, Mullins explained that the notion of looking to France had first occurred to him when he saw the success Martin Pipe enjoyed with French-breds in the 1990s. But this probably isn't the full picture. Like so many things in Mullins' racing career, the key goes back to one source – his father Paddy.
In 1985, Paddy had brought his legendary mare Dawn Run to France for a daring assault on the French equivalent of the Champion Hurdle, the Grande Course de Haies d'Auteuil. The mare was stabled at a yard near Maisons Laffitte where few of the staff spoke English. One of those who did was a young, ambitious assistant by the name of Pierre Boulard who was deputised to act as Paddy's translator.
They soon established a rapport and Mullins invited the young student to sample life at his Kilkenny stables. "I stayed one year as pupil assistant," Boulard says, "just learning as much as I could. It was an incredible time to be there. I remember flying with Tony from Cork the day Dawn Run won the Gold Cup. I watched them all – Willie, George, Tony, Tom. They were all horsemen. It was a dynasty, an incredible place."
At the time Roselier, a popular grey in France which had won the 1978 French Champion Hurdle, was beginning to gain a fan club as a sire and Paddy Mullins was among their number. "He would talk a lot about French-breds, particularly Roselier," Boulard remembers. "Paddy was a great believer in French-breds for National Hunt. I guess it was always in Willie's mind too."
And so, 20 years on, when Willie was putting his initial French plan in place, it was to Boulard he instinctively turned as agent and advisor. Of the French stock that fills his stable with star quality, 90 per cent of it will have been sourced by Boulard.
Others, like Hurricane Fly, have come through Kirk, while Mullins' brother, George, is another vital cog. "Whenever you see Harold at the sales," says Tiernan, "you'll see George there at his shoulder. They're a formidable team."
The firepower French-bred horses have given Mullins for the richest races here and abroad is difficult to overstate. Since Quevega became his first French-bred winner at Cheltenham in 2009, Mullins has won 11 races at the Festival and only two of them have come from non-French-bred horses. This year, too, French horses will overwhelmingly form the main line of his attack: Hurricane Fly (Irish-bred but bought in France), Sir Des Champs, Pont Alexandre, Diakali, Quevega.
While that explains his dominance, though, it doesn't hold the key to what makes Mullins great as a trainer. For that, again, you have to return to the beginning and the breeding ground of Doninga. It helped, naturally, that Willie was the eldest of four sons, three years older than George, six ahead of Tony. At 10, he was riding work on Paddy's two-year-olds. "He was riding winners before I left school," Tony says. "I'd my first ride in 1976, the year Willie was second on Andy Pandy in the Galway Plate."
It helped too that, like his own son Patrick, Willie's size always precluded a lengthy career in the saddle. For Tony, the opportunity came to turn professional, a fork in the road that Willie was never likely to approach. "I suppose he knew he'd be a trainer from a very young age," says Tony. "That was the road he was always going to go."
Ferdy Murphy spent seven years as retained jockey with Paddy Mullins in the 1970s when Willie was riding as an amateur. "Even at 15 or 16, his attention to detail was frightening," Murphy says. "Every I and every T had to be dotted and crossed. Every little detail had to be perfect. It was quite boring really." And just to be clear, he adds, he means that as a compliment.
Within the Mullins family, there is a fond memory of Willie riding Atha Cliath to win the Foxhunters over the National fences at Aintree in 1983. The horse was trained by Paddy but, that year, it was Willie who plotted Atha Cliath's destiny with military precision. "He'd been bought out of Jim Dreaper's," says Tony, "and Willie aimed him at the Foxhunters at Cheltenham. It was the first time Irish hunter chasers were allowed to run in English races. Willie thought he could win it."
The Cheltenham race, though, didn't work out as planned. Atha Cliath made a hash of the ninth and finished well down the field. Undaunted, Willie set his sights on Aintree and prevailed while steering an inner passage all the way around, at a time when that was still considered a reckless tactic. "I remember watching and thinking, 'Jesus, he's a brave man to go there'," says Murphy. "Stuck to the rail all the way round. But Willie would have worked that out and trusted his horse to handle it. And as usual he was right."
What he has achieved in the intervening years is simply an extension of those qualities. "It's just year after year," says Tony. "Putting a string of horses and a team of people together that jump racing has never seen before. It's gone up a notch every time.
"When Florida Pearl came along, that put him on the map. Hurricane Fly put him into overdrive. But people don't realise what it takes, the hours and days and months that go into it. It's 24/7 365. It's scary when you think about it."
Scary too to contemplate the figures. When Mullins brought his seasonal tally to 155 at Fairyhouse last month, it took him past Aidan O'Brien's record that had stood for 17 years. But even that fails to adequately explain Mullins' stranglehold.
Try this instead. If you added the totals of the four trainers from second to fifth on the prize money list, it would still fall short of Mullins' haul. He is so far ahead that he is not even a speck on his rivals' horizon.
Like Paddy, he is humble about his success. Asked recently about closing in on Tom Dreaper's Irish record total of 26 Festival winners (Mullins currently has 24), he seemed genuinely embarrassed, alluding to the fact that they only ever raced three days during Dreaper's era and that the legendary Co Dublin trainer's string probably never numbered in excess of 30 at any one time.
Yet what this overlooked was that, at 56, Mullins remains a relatively young man who, with another 15 or 20 years at the top, could comfortably set targets that no Irish trainer after him could ever hope to equal. The word genius is bandied around a little too casually for comfort these days but, for Mullins, it doesn't seem far-fetched or inappropriate.
"We can say that, definitely," says Boulard. "To manage a horse like Quevega to run just one, two races a year is a really, really difficult thing to do. And to come to Auteuil and win, like he did with Thousand Stars, is incredible. Nobody did that before." Ah, but Boulard knows that is not strictly true. One man had been to Auteuil before Willie, carving out new territory with a legendary, beloved mare.
A ground-breaking pioneer by the name of Mullins. Just like the son who has so brilliantly followed in his path.