Pedigree and ambition too
Danny Mullins is hoping for Grade One glory this Christmas, writes Aisling Crowe
As he reclines on a sofa in front of a blazing log fire, the kind you thought only existed in movies, Danny Mullins contemplates that trinity of ghosts of Christmases past, present and future. But this is no Dickensian morality tale for the 21-year-old jockey who could have a Christmas scripted by Hollywood.
The pictures that frame the wall and the cabinet brimming with so many brightly coloured rosettes it resembles a tin of Christmas sweets, leave no room for doubting that Mullins is treading a path he was born to walk, or gallop. His grandfather was the legendary Paddy Mullins, his uncle Willie is redefining success and his uncle Tom has ascended training's highest peaks. As for his parents, Tony and Mags, well the gene pool is incredibly deep.
"I was very fortunate that my mother and father supported me all the way through, it was a great help to me. There is no real pressure to follow in the family footsteps. It would be more of a convenience really because everywhere you turn you can always ask someone for advice.
"My father was champion jockey, my mother was champion lady rider so for the pedigree I have I might not have performed as well as I should have," he smiles, "but we will keep trying! In that regard it is great to have them there, my mother and father are a great influence on me. I'd often come home from the races and think, 'Should I have done this or that', and they would be well able to say, 'You did that well', but they would tell you quick enough what you did wrong."
Ahead of the most important week of his nascent career, the ghost of Christmas past lingers pleasantly in the room. A year ago, Leopardstown brought three winners for his mother and made for a happy Christmas all round. Mullins was pleased with his festive haul but a month later he received a phone call that transported him back to childhood Christmas mornings.
That call was from Barry Connell. A big player on the financial markets, the stockbroker is now a behemoth of the racing scene. A shrewd and canny investor who has transformed his portfolio since retiring from the saddle, where once he concentrated on bumper horses he could ride himself, he is putting together a team of horses to rival the best in training. With the business acumen he is famed for, Connell decided he needed a retained rider and he wanted Danny.
Connell has horses in training with both Mullins' parents and he has enjoyed success in the Foxrock resident's yellow and blue silks, including the Galway Mile on Rock And Roll Kid in 2009, when not much more than that himself. Rides on Connell's horses for other trainers had also come his way but the offer of one of the most prized jobs in racing took him completely by surprise.
"The day I got the phone call about the job I couldn't believe it. It was like all my Christmases had come at once. Barry had a lot of good horses and more have joined the team since. I was actually finished riding out third lot in Willie's one day, when I got a phone call from him asking would I be interested in taking the job. I pinched myself for a second wondering whether it was a prank call or something but once I realised, I wasn't long about saying yes. How could you refuse?"
It was an offer nobody could refuse. Even a certain brewery would struggle to organise a 21st birthday like the one Mullins celebrated last April. As a birthday present for a jockey, a first Grade One winner is probably the perfect gift. Mount Benbulben's victory in the Growise Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown was a dream and all the sweeter for delivering a stern riposte to the cribbers.
"My 21st birthday was great and if every birthday came like that it would be fantastic. It was extra special. Mount Benbulben was a horse that everybody knocked, saying that he had his jumping issues and this and that. We always said he had an engine but everybody was laughing, thinking he will never get it together. When he did, it was a special one for me and Barry. It was Barry's second Grade One winner and my first and to do it on him was great. Gordon (Elliott, trainer) does a good job with him and he is a special horse for me."
A second top-level success was achieved in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse earlier this month with The Tullow Tank for his patron and trained by Philip Fenton. As the spirits of Christmas past and future dance in the orange glow of the flames, Mullins is busy compiling his Christmas list and conferring with Connell. Travelling around the country, visiting different trainers to ride Connell's horses and helping to plot a course for each one over Christmas occupies these December days. With a strong team, there is plenty to excite but three horses could be his Christmas crackers.
Mount Benbulben, which delivered that birthday gift, tries to give him a brilliant Christmas present on Thursday in the King George, Kempton's Christmas centrepiece.
"He schooled the other day and we were very happy with him. I think he will be alright on the day. Once he gets into a rhythm, he should be fine. It is a very good race, it won't be easy but we think we have a chance so we will line up and take it. I've never ridden in the King George before. It is a big race with plenty of hype around it so it is great to be going over there on a good horse with a chance," he says.
His Kempton adventure delays his appearance at Leopardstown by a day but he feels it will be worth the wait. The Tullow Tank, named after rugby star Seán O'Brien and built in the mould of Leinster and Ireland colossus, bids to follow up his Fairyhouse success in the Future Champions' Novice Hurdle on Friday and Mullins is quietly confident he can do just that but the joust between Hurricane Fly and Our Conor in Sunday's Ryanair Hurdle is a race to savour.
Mullins' voice drips with anticipation as he contemplates his young pretender sparring with the undisputed champion. "I was up with Dessie (Hughes) the other day and he is in great shape. It is going to be a proper Champion Hurdle trial, there will be no hiding place. Dessie couldn't be happier with the horse. Hurricane Fly wasn't too exciting in the Morgiana but you couldn't rule him out yet. I still think he is the one we all have to beat in the Champion Hurdle.
"He has been there and done it, got beat and come back and done it again. Willie has won two of the last three Champion Hurdles with him and I don't think he was too worried about his first run of the season, he knew what he had to do to come back and win. I'd say he is the one at the moment so it will be a proper clash up there."
There is a steely determination in his thoughts and a self-deprecating pragmatism to his words. Young and ambitious, winners are what drive him and he is intent on making the most of his chance. In that way, he and his patron are kindred spirits.
"Barry is very good to me and we both have a great appetite to win. He is very fair and a great man to work for. When you see what he did with Jonjo (Bright) and JT (McNamara), donating all of Our Conor's prizemoney, it just shows how kind he is and the love he has for the game," he says of the former amateur jockey, and of himself adds, "I had plenty of winners and got my first Grade One, to get another for the season was great. I set myself no real target at the start of the year but I would like to win on everything if I could. That won't happen when you have the likes of Ruby, Davy Russell and the rest but I like to try. I want to win on as many of them as I can and get some big winners along the way."
Three Christmas stars sit atop his festive wishlist and victory on any one of them would be his ideal present, but as dusk draws in and the flames cast ever longer shadows, Mullins reveals he already has a priceless gift. "When you love what you're doing and it's your hobby, sure you never really work a day in your life. When you're in a dream job like this, it is great to get up every morning knowing you have good horse after good horse to sit on."