Friday 19 October 2018

'You just have to take the hits and move on'

Some things change but Mullins' star is showing no sign of fading

Douvan, with Holly Conte up, going through his paces at Closutton yesterday Photo: Patrick McCann
Douvan, with Holly Conte up, going through his paces at Closutton yesterday Photo: Patrick McCann

Michael Verney

Willie Mullins isn't one to ponder on the past so it's hardly any wonder that the 30th anniversary of his training career has gone totally over his head.

"Is that right?" the 11-time champion trainer jokingly says when informed that he entered the training ranks three decades ago this month. "I hadn't been looking back."

Willie Mullins Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Willie Mullins Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

A lot has changed in Closutton since starting out with a handful of horses and for Mullins, the only way is forward.

Winners rarely look in the rear-view mirror unless there's a lesson to be learnt but he does admit their unprecedented success is far beyond his wildest dreams.

The biggest stables at that time were those of his legendary father Paddy and Edward O'Grady with 60-70 horses but his military-style operation, powered by American investment banker Rich Ricci, dwarfs those in comparison.

Was this domination and record-breaking run all part of his master plan?

Cheltenham

"Like any jumps trainer starting off, I dreamt that I might have a horse good enough to go to Cheltenham.

"I don't even think we dared dream that we might have a winner in Cheltenham but we might have one to bring across and indeed that was our goal early in play," he recalls.

"I remember coming back from Cheltenham having had a winner (Tourist Attraction in the 1995 Supreme Novices' Hurdle) thinking, 'if I never get back there again at least I've done it, I've reached what I thought could be done from the small base that we had here', so to see what happened after that is just unbelievable.

"When I show my son Patrick some of the statistics from that era he can't believe how small the figures are and to him, it's been this way since he came into racing.

"And then for him to look back and see how small Irish racing was, prize-money wise, racing wise and to what it is at the moment."

A further 53 Cheltenham winners have followed to leave him breathing down the neck of Nicky Henderson's all-time Festival record (58) but a below-par Christmas period, only by his lofty standards, left some doubting the Mullins string.

Racing can be a cruel game, as he knows only too well with eight-time Grade 1 winner Nichols Canyon suffering a fatal injury at Leopardstown and 2015 Champion Hurdle hero Faugheen mysteriously under-performing, but perspective is key. The rough must be taken with the smooth.

"People were feeling more for us coming back after Christmas, we had 11 winners," Mullins observes with a smile.

"We were analysing it out, we had a few setbacks but I'm thinking to myself the only reason we had so many setbacks is because we had so many good horses and that in itself is not a setback.

"We constantly think how lucky we are to be in the position we are because we remember being small. And the whole Christmas Festival people were saying to me how bad and how unlucky we were and I'm looking at Andy Lynch (trainer of Zabana), who had one horse in his stable who is his stable star and it got killed.

"No one mentioned that and that's Andy's whole training, the whole bottom of his world has just been taken away from him and for him to get another horse like that, I'm lucky enough we go out there and we have plenty of nice horses and we have setbacks with some of them but it's not the end of the world.

"I came home from there thinking about two things: Andy Lynch - was he going to get someone to buy him a nice horse?

"And we lost Nichols Canyon, they were the two things I focused on coming home. I didn't really worry about our thing, we had a few upsets.

"I still had Faugheen, we had some inexplicable thing that went on but we still had him.

"Douvan was out but you know he'll be back next season I hope. We still had our horses, and things happen in jump racing, it's a tough game so you've got to be able to take it and move on."

Mullins is always "looking forward to the next good horse, the next winner", that's his motivation in a hectic season which he likens to soccer's Premier League as "it's all about managing the horses that you have in the yard and what way you race them to conserve them for the bigger days".

Leopardstown's lucrative Dublin Racing Festival - an exciting addition to the racing calendar on the weekend of February 3-4 - is one of those important targets for a huge string of his horses and it will play a massive part in deciding the home of the 2017/18 Irish trainers' championship.

Pride of place in Mullins's kitchen is the champion trainer's crown which he miraculously held onto last season when surging with a late run to pip pacesetter Gordon Elliott but with a sizeable deficit this term, he feels he's a clear underdog.

"It's looking tough at the minute but we'll keep battling. I'm sure the Dublin Racing Festival will reveal a lot," the 61-year-old says.

Following his well-documented split with the Michael O'Leary-owned Gigginstown House Stud in September 2016, Mullins believes there's "a different narrative" to this year's battle and only a fool would discount him.

Irish Independent

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