With my great friend, Ber Scott, we stealthily slipped into a generous office, manned by a petite, fair-haired Wexford lassie, Cathriona Murphy from near Gorey, and having done the customary, mannerly intros, we stood and gawked, writes Barrie Henriques.
In the nerve centre that is the Willie Mullins equine powerhouse, the four walls roared Cheltenham back at us. The Ballybrit roar thundered down on us, Leopardstown, Fairyhouse, Ascot, Kempton Park and Liverpool matched them with their own inimitable sounds. The walls are veritable museum pieces to the excellence of heroes past; heroes that defied the odds, or matched the odds to the chagrin of wailing Turf Accountants, or to the ineluctable euphoria of a delighted support.
Where could you start a story about the greatest National Hunt trainer the country has ever known? By the time you read this he will probably have created yet another record of National Hunt winners in a season.
Where to start? The signposts bellowed Doninga, just a kick of a limping hen down the road in his native county of Kilkenny. Because Willie Mullins is a Kilkenny man through and through. ‘Twas there with his brothers, George, Tom and Tony grew up. ‘Twas there that the sounds of metal shoe and cobble created a cacophony of sound that would resonate with them all for the rest of their days. ‘Twas there that the lads in ‘short britchers’ learned quickly about the vagaries of equine habits.
“Your mother must have died a thousand deaths at the thought of you kids around, and under the legs of some highly strung equine athletes,” we suggested.
Born on horse’s back
“We all learned very early about horses, and what their habits were,” Willie shot back. “You could say we were born on a horse’s back. We had no fears of horses. Very early we could all read a horse’s mind. We knew the ones to stay away from.
“A horse will always give you a warning if you can read it. I think I got one kick in my life, and a bite or two, but that was it. We were fast learners the lot of us. I presume my mother worried, but it didn’t impact on us. Very quickly you get to know which end of a horse kicks,” he laughed.
Racing has morphed into an unrecognisable vista to what the young Mullins lads were familiarised back in the days?
“There have been quite enormous changes since my young days,” he replied. “At that time racing merited a sparing exposure from media outlets. On television we probably had racing about four or five times a year. We probably had the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse, probably a day or two at Galway, Cheltenham, the Irish Derby at the Curragh and probably the Aintree Grand National, and that compliments of the BBC, and that probably because they had Micheál O Hehir on their commentary team with Peter O’Sullivan.
“Television was the catalyst for many of the changes. It gave racing, and sport in general, an hitherto unexpected exposure. It wised up people in the ways of racing. It nudged the crowds in their thousands to see marquee horses like Dawn Run, Arkle before her, and others to go see them in their athletic prime.
“It gave a shop window to racing, and it showed the palpable excitement generated on the big days, and many wanted a slice of it.”
Then the inevitable happened. Television walloped itself into overkill. Other than the big meets, crowds dwindled because of the saturation coverage. Television rewards racing with bundles of money, but the glue that is so very important - patrons - has dissipated. Would he think that we are being overtly critical of the TV impasse?
TV hugely important
“Television has been hugely important, and generous might I add to the game,” Willie assured. “Its saturation frequency could be hauled ashore somewhat, and that might just give the less significant tracks a chance of increasing their foot-fall. But I feel that a bigger problem is the present financial state of the country.
“A huge number of syndicated horses, so prevalent during the boom times, are no more. Consequently there are many yards with a lot of non-owned horses, which is not good. Some of the bigger operations are fortunate in that they have some very wealthy clientele as their patrons.”
Willie makes a strong argument in the advocating of a betting tax of some denomination.
“All democracies are funded by tax deductions, so I cannot understand how an industry like ours, which employs somewhere in the region of 20,000 people in rural Ireland, cannot benefit from a tax levy of some format,” he said “It’s a crazy situation really.”
In Closutton the Willie Mullins racing industry employs 40 people in the yard, with another 20 or 30 outside of the yard. Jim Bolger up the road would probably have 100 in his employment, while Pat Fahy, the Hughes family, Tony, Tom and George Mullins would also be carrying big numbers of employees.
“So,” said Willie, “within a four-mile radius of here, there are in excess of 200 people on the permanent payroll of a racing industry establishment. If in the morning the IDA or Enterprise Ireland announced that there would be an industrialist opening a factory in the same area employing over 200, it would certainly grab plenty of media headlines.
“In short, we are keeping an awful lot of people in jobs, and yet we are struggling to hold our own people, directly involved in gainful employment. It beggars belief that racing, which gives employment to over 200,000 people nationwide, cannot be funded from some form of tax. It really is an incredible situation.”
Back to Doninga! Your father, Paddy Mullins must have been snared in the horns of a dilemma when you were all growing up and putting yourselves in the eye of the beholder (your dad) when it came to riding arrangements?
“I got my license when I was doing my Leaving Cert in Roscrea (Cistercian College), and I had my first winner in Tramore for dad in 1974, called Silver Road,” Wi;llie recalled.
Do you remember it?
“I would never forget it,” he insisted.
Was it an emotional experience for you and your dad?
All got their chance
“It was for me, but I don’t think my dad showed much emotion, if any,” he said. “He was that kind of man. I would say deep down that he took a great deal of pride and feeling from all of our successes, but he rarely showed too much of it in public anyway.”
All the Mullins lads got their chance whenever their pater decided that it was the right thing to do. Each in their time rode plenty of winners. As an epilogue to the Silver Road story, Willie tells a funny (afterwards anyway) story about the same horse in Bellewstown, who was supposed to win for his American owner, specially invited over to see the event.
“Bellewstown was sticksville, but my dad was certain that we couldn’t be beaten,” he said when he recalled the day. “However, a certain gentleman called Barney Curley, notorious for orchestrating winning gambles, had other ideas. There being only one on-field public phone at the time in Bellewstown, Mr Curley had a steamer in the field, and he floored him with on-course money.
“He also arranged that at least three accomplices were in Bellewstown, and their job was to engage the phone prior to, and up until the race was over, so that bookmakers could not get their money laid off. I was going grand on Silver Road, until Michael Furlong (riding Yellow Sam) passed me pulling a train.
“His mount was the catalyst of one of the great racing betting coups. Our American owner (Mr Green) was disappointed, but what could we do? I remember meeting Barney years later and complimented him on the job in Bellewstown. Och Willie, he said, not only did I have a lad on the phone but the next three lads in the queue to use the phone were mine too.”
I tempted Willie with a question (none of my business really) that has intrigued punters, myself especially, since the day Tony was replaced by Johnjo O’Neill on Dawn Run to win the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup in Cheltenham.
Surely their dad was at least miffed by the insistence of the owner, Charmaine Hill, to replace Tony, who had done everything expected while piloting the mare to many successes?
Pragmatically, Willie intoned that such are the vagaries of sport, and racing in particular.
“Of course we were all disappointed at home for Tony, but our father did not make the decision in the first instance,” he offered. “That was forced upon him, tough as it was, because it involved his son, but the Dawn Run connections made the decision. There was nothing dad, nor Tony, could do about it.
“Sure it was a tough blow for Tony, but Tony is a very strong individual, and is to this day, and he is the ‘go to man’ in our family. A great guy, and a superb horseman.”
Willie, and the Mullins family, had a great grá for the Galway Festival.
“Our uncle Luke was the boss down there for years, and our whole family would go down,” he said with enthusiams in his voice. “Galway is a special place, and a terrific place to ride a winner. There is a tremendous affinity with the crowd, especially if you come up that hill in front on a favourite.
“I don’t have as many Galway horses as my father, as the vast majority of my stock would be Winter horses. Incidentally there is a very pronounced difference between what I am doing now and what my father did. His achievements were more prestigious, and remarkable if you like, because whilst I have some extremely wealthy patrons, which affords me the privilege of buying the top-of-the-range stock, my father trained horses in the 60s through to the 80s generally for farming people.
“Many of his horses were those that couldn’t be sold at sales, or mares or fillies that nobody would want to buy. But the successes, and the numbers of winners he had with what I would classify as very ordinary stock was phenomenal. That was one of the reasons why he was such a marvellous trainer, and the best equine educational institution that I could have attended was outside our back door.
“He was a remarkable man to have done what he did, and the facilities he had available to him. He trained on grass gallops, and in the summer we would plough out a track from virgin ground. There was no such thing as all-weather gallops.
“When Hurry Harriet won the Champion Stakes in ’73, she went home to her Canadian owner, Malcolm Thorpe (to stud) an Irishman, who emigrated and practiced as a doctor in Canada. I went over to the stud farm, and stayed with Michael Byrne (a Tullow man, and brother of Paddy), who managed the stud farm near Toronto. It was there that I first laid eyes on an all-weather facility, covered with cinders.
Trial and error
“To gallop horses then, you would be planning it for seven days previously. Nowadays we can be in the Curragh within an hour and a half”.”
The young Mullins returned after some time to Doninga with ideas way beyond the comprehension of his dad and brothers. They took some convincing, but eventually they capitulated to the youthful exuberance of Willie, and an all-weather track was cut and laid.
Through trial and error, eventually the perfect track was in situ, and Willie would admit that it was the greatest innovation ever in Doninga.
Willie well remembers his first Cheltenham winner for his dad, Hazy Dawn in’82. He followed that up with yet another for his dad, Macs Friendly in 1983.
“They were memorable days for sure, but don’t forget that he won the Foxhunters Chase in Aintree in between years for Des Hehir with a horse called Atha Cliath,” he reminded. “It was the first Irish horse ever to win the Foxhunters at Aintree. I think that Des Hehir didn’t have racing silks, but that particular year his jockey wore the Kilkenny jersey. I think that it was Brian Cody’s jersey, because he was the first City man to captain Kilkenny to an All Ireland win.”
Willie is obligingly gracious for the training, the knowledge, the encouragements, the directions, the basic assistance imparted from a wide range of sources.
“For instance,” he revealed, “I learned much sitting in the back of my father’s car listening to him talking to another racing man, be it an owner, or a fellow trainer, or even a jockey. I spent 15 of the most important months of my life with Jim Bolger.
“Now there is a man! He is the most uncomplicated, focussed man you could meet. He is an extraordinary decent, uncomplicated, honest man, but a strongly passioned man. He is a tough task-master, but a very decent task-master. I learned a great lesson from him one day when he told me that you should always strive never to make the same mistake twice, but learn from the first one.
“Profound words indeed, from a man that knows what he is talking about,” he insisted.
Willie has a tremendous respect, and regard for Brian Cody, and he likens Cody’s strengths with the business of keeping Kilkenny hurling at the top like he would wish to treat his business.
Not afraid to try things
“He has courage, and confidence with his stock,” was his observation. “He is not afraid to give an untried player a chance, and does not indulge in casting him to one side after a single failure. He will give him more than one chance. Likewise with a jockey or a horse.
“Everyone has an ability, and as Brian Cody has done on many occasions, his persistence is eventually rewarded. Take Hedgehunter, for instance. We couldn’t buy a race for him, and if we did what many would have suggested, we would never have won the Grand National.
“More than the Kilkenny team, I have tremendous regard for what their manager has done, because at the end of the day, his contribution is key.”
Willie, please tell me about winning the Aintree Grand National, because I have never spoken to a National winning trainer or jockey.
“Since I could remember, the first racing action I remember being televised would have to be the Aintree National,” Willie smiled. “Coming from the family I do, I always had the objective that one day I would want to win at Aintree.
Even though my father won four Irish Nationals, he couldn’t win the Aintree one.
“I wondered why, and the answer was that he never had enough runners in it to win. Every year I decided that I would at least try and have a representative. If you are not in it you can’t win it. Then I got Hedgehunter. He came from a primarily flat racing pedigree.
“Every year I would go down to Tom Costello in Clare with the expressed idea that I would buy a horse for outrageous money (he would think it a giveaway). Invariably I would come home with a half dozen that would cost big money, and then by way of filling the lorry (he laughs) he would throw in a few more, as I would call them yellow pack horses, just to fill the lorry.
“Well, Hedgehunter was one of those ‘fill the load’ horses. Tom Costello is the only man I know who would make a fortune from selling sand to Arabs (more laughter). I got Florida Pearl down in Clare.”
As I said at the outset, Ber and myself cruised the walls of the office. Florida Pearl stared back at us. There too was Alexander Banquet and Macs Friendly, Hazy Dawn (why not?), Cousin Vinny, Scolardy, Tourist Attraction, Rule Supreme. Ah sure listen, we could have gawked and wondered all day. I think they do tours down in Closutton. Check it out. If so, go down yourself. I went to meet the great man, and I took him down a different road.
Ber went to talk horses.
Will Quevega do the impossible and win an unprecedented five-in-a-row?
“She is in great form. Hopefully we get her to Cheltenham in that form. She will take all the beating.”
Hurricane Fly (Champion Hurdle): “He’s back to what he was two years ago. He has done nothing wrong this season. He is stronger this season. If we can get him there in his present form, I think he has a great chance.”
Sir Dechamps: (Gold Cup): “He loves the track. He has got track form having won twice there. I have no doubts about him getting the trip. I give him an excellent chance.”
He has a great opinion of Pont Alexander in the Neptune.
“Keep an eye on Ballycasey in the Albert Bartlett Chase.” And finally, we don’t want you to tell us which of your horses will win the Bumper (he laughs, and so does Ber), but how are you fixed?
“We have as good a team as we ever had going for the Bumper, and we will be thereabouts when the whips are cracking,” Willie smiled. “We will be four-handed with Clondaw Court, Seizing Tennessee, Briar Hill and Union Dews. Each of them is capable of winning.”