It started with a letter. It was written in secret behind the sofa because twelve year olds don’t like parents to know to whom they are writing. The reply came a week later. The phone was ringing just as his mother brought him back from school in Belfast. After she had answered, she held it out to the young Neil Mulholland and said, “It’s the office of Aidan O’Brien.”
Twenty two years and what already seems a lifetime in racing later, the young letter writer looks back at the moment with head shaking wonder. “There was a lady on the phone,” says Neil. “She said ‘Aidan really liked your letter and would be very happy for you to come down and ride out in the Halloween holidays’. I could not believe it but it was true. From then on I was down there every holidays and I was still 15 when I rode my first winner for him at the 1996 Listowel Festival. My mother drove me all the way there and back to finish third on the Tuesday, I was back at school on Wednesday, and she drove me down to ride the same horse, Petasus, a winner on the Friday. I think it helped that my form teacher was A.P.McCoy’s first cousin.”
Neil was speaking last week from his Conkwell Grange Stables set high on the slope that plunges spectacularly down to the historic mill on the Avon at Limpley Stoke just five miles up river from Bath and whose extensive facilities are not that many furlongs behind those of Ballydoyle itself. Going into Good Friday Mulholland had saddled seven winners from the last eleven runners in this his seventh and most successful season crowned by a first success at the Cheltenham Festival with The Druids Nephew who now has a major chance of topping everything by winning the Grand National on Saturday. Linking the schoolboy letter writer to today’s “Brink Of Famer” whilst watching a major Aintree hope sauntering up the hill toward us might suggest the path had been easy. Incorrect.
Although it has to be said that the good fairy wasn’t stingy with her blessings at the Mulholland cradle. For Neil was raised, the third of three siblings, 15 miles west of Belfast at Glenavy where his father Brian has developed a highly successful Online Dental Supply Business in demand throughout the world. Brian was also devoted to horses, took the family out every Saturday with the Killultagh and Old Rock Harriers, had point to pointers with local trainer Ian Duncan and among the horses he bred on the farm was the Leopardstown winner Buckside subsequently snapped up by the Queen Mother’s scouts to score at Ascot in the royal colours in February 1999.
Neil was even keener than his Dad on horses and soon bedded down to become a fixture at the O’Brien yard first at Piltdown and then at Ballydoyle where he rode Istabraq of a morning. “It was the best of times,” he says, “the best yard, the best atmosphere that I have ever been in. I made friends for life. When Becky and I married in 1998 my two groomsmen were Colm Murphy, trainer of Brave Inca and Newmarket trainer Johnny Butler, who had both been with me at Aidan’s. I rode a few winners on the flat but the idea was always to go jumping. I stayed at Ballydoyle and rode freelance around the country, was second leading conditional in 2001 but things were drying up so I thought I would give England a try and early in 2004 it really looked as if things were taking off
“In the space of seven days,” he remembers, solemn faced with the exactitude of someone who was scholarship standard at Maths before the horses took over, “I had two doubles and a single winner but on the eighth day I got a right fall from a horse called Atlantic Hawk at Wetherby. I was unconscious for 45 minutes with a suspected broken neck and brain damage. I was rushed down to Leeds and also had a fractured cheek-bone and a fractured left leg which needed two operations and put me out for twelve months. A year later I broke the right leg and what with a pin through my collar bone it meant that after I came to England I was under the knife for five different things.”
Roisin Mulholland heard of her son’s accident on the car radio as she drove home from visiting a friend in hospital. “The news came on and said: ‘Local jockey Neil Mulholland has been taken to hospital after sustaining life threatening injuries,’ his mother recalled on Thursday. “And when I got to the house they were all waiting for me ready to fly to England, it was horrific. Although he was good at race riding I never really accepted it. I pleaded with him to come home and join his brother and sister in my husband’s business or to raise horses on the farm. But he had always been that set on his own pathway. One of his science teachers said to me “if Neil would give me one fifth of the interest he has with those horses, I would have him end up a professor.” But all Neil himself would say was “don’t worry about me Mum because I can count. And I will be sure to always count the money.”
Such assurances cannot have given much filial comfort as Roisin watched her son battling on as a journeyman jockey until announcing in 2008 that he was embarking on the financially even more precarious post of being a trainer. Seven years later a Ch4 crew is filming The Druids Nephew hacking up out of the valley and Grand National winner Mick Fitzgerald is there to put the questions. It is a double helping of fate that twelve months earlier the gleaming picture of equine physical prowess passing us was itself a hospital case almost as serious as his trainer back in 2004. But as Neil recounts his own progress from taking over the ailing Larkinglass Farm operation in 2008, to renting Martin Pipe’s spare yard in Somerset and finally moving to Conkwell in 2012, it is clear that his self belief extends to a bit more than counting money.
“I like to think I am very realistic and I always planned the future,” he says. “These days you can still see a lot of people riding 10 winners a year and putting their necks on the line in three mile novice chases and by the time they take their “exes” away they are doing it for pence. I didn’t want to be that way, not to wake up at 34 and think what am I going to do now. I wanted to have a secure future where I could support a family. But you have got to have a plan and a plan does not just come together overnight.”
As stable jockey at Larkinglass, Neil had bought two houses one of which he rented out and only took a couple of rooms for himself in the other. “When I could see that the place was going on the market I sold the houses,” he says. “So I had some money in the bank and was very fortunate to be able to move to the Pipe’s spare yard. It was a great privilege. I am the only person to have shared the gallops with Martin and David and they sent me a nice letter after The Druids Nephew won at Cheltenham.”
The Grand National candidate and two stable mates cross into another set of fields to work a lot faster on the level and Neil Mulholland remembers moving here three summers back and the challenge it represented. “When I was down at Pipe’s I always had a ear to the ground to find my own place where I could take the business even further,” he says. “When the chance to rent Conkwell came up I thought it had everything – up to 100 boxes and over 150 acres in a beautiful setting with good facilities which we are making even better. I am very proud that I have never borrowed a penny off my mother or father to set this whole operation up. Every single thing in the yard is paid for. I don’t have a business partner. There is no loan on anything. But I have worked for it. I work every hour that I can to make this place better. I don’t owe anyone a penny and I haven’t been handed twenty horses from Daddy to get it started.”
“I am not saying I am a good trainer,” he adds with a piece of nervous self-correction, “but I am saying that I have worked hard, everything is paid for and I hope I can go on improving it. I could not have afforded to put in this new gallop if I had paid contractors, so two summers ago I did it myself. It is one mile on the flat. We dug out the base, put in the foundation and then had eight huge loads of woodchip delivered and spread and rolled them ourselves. It allows horses to really stretch and I think it makes a difference. This winter we also put 72 tonne of carpet fibre on to the hill gallop to give it extra spring to help horses’ joints. We have increased our winners total every season, we should pass 50 this weekend, the horses love working on it and as it is easy work they always eat up afterwards.”
The memory goes back some years to Paul Nicholls enthusing over the training possibilities of a new flat stretch of all weather gallop he had installed as a complement to the famous hill at Ditcheat. Whilst Neil Mulholland’s brother and sister have got themselves qualifications as actuary and accountant respectively, the third sibling has been studying in a different school. Don’t doubt that his own lessons have been deeply imprinted.
“I have been around a lot of good people and I have tried to find my own system,” he says as his car moves off beside The Druid’s Nephew with long time Mulholland stalwart Mark Quinlan in the saddle. “Our hill is quite steep so we usually just canter up it for conditioning. I think that if a horse does that a couple of times it really improves their top line and their back-end which is what they need for jumping. But striding out along this flat stretch gives them enthusiasm. It makes them want to run.”
For a Grand National hope The Great Nephew is certainly shifting. As the speedometer moves towards 40 mph you reflect that this is one horse that will not be taken off its legs in that mad gallop to the first fence on Saturday. His victory at Cheltenham was all the more impressive for being freely predicted by his trainer. It proved that the horse had fully recaptured and indeed improved on his former ability before trainer Andy Turnell was smitten by a stroke and The Druids Nephew was found to have a fractured pelvis after pulling up at Doncaster in January last year. “Obviously he looked a bit of a wreck when I collected him from the hospital,” says Neil after the horses had pulled up and The Druids Nephew jig-jogged off with the adrenalin still surging, “and when we got him home he had to just stand in his box from February to April. But we brought him on carefully and he has stood his training well.”
The usual Aintree questions crowd in. Will The Druids Nephew’s jumping be up to the test? Will his slightly upright, white nose-banded head carriage have the resolution and stamina for that endless run-in? Will his fitness remain at the peak it reached at Cheltenham? The answers come direct and easy. “I think the jumping will be all right,” says Neil, “he went very left first time out at Huntingdon but he has got better each time. He has only ever fallen once and that was when he was blinded at the first in a big field at Newbury two years ago.”
“As for the noseband, head carriage and stamina; all my horses wear sheepskin nosebands, he always carries his head a bit upright and he galloped so well all the way up the hill at Cheltenham after three miles so whether he will stay is not something I will lose much sleep over. And as for condition,” the trainer concludes, “I made no secret that he was in the best shape I had ever had him going into Cheltenham and I believe he is the same now. You want a horse who can travel in their comfort zone at Aintree and I think the place will suit him.”
At breakfast Becky Mulholland produces delicious bacon butties with the ease of someone who has to handle the rather more major tasks of coping with two year old Patrick and the assorted stresses of the child’s driven but now rather tired eyed father. The pair had met when Becky was doing waitress work during student holidays in the now newsworthy sounding Richard III Hotel at Middleham. “It took me a long time to pluck up the courage to ask her out,” says Neil, “and even longer to marry her, but I believe in long term relationships.”
Jockey Dougie Costello has known Mulholland since teenage days in Ireland, had been riding one of the “pursuivants” behind The Druids Nephew on the gallop, rode a winner for the stable last month at Chepstow and was partner to that magnificent multiple Cheltenham winner Midnight Chase who did so much to first put the Mulholland name up in lights.
“He is one of the young trainers who is really coming through,” says Dougie. “He was always too intelligent to be a jockey! He is very good with numbers and can look outside the box when he is placing horses and now he has that flat gallop he can get a horse ready for a bumper like the one I had the other day. We go back a long time. I once saw him come from last to first in thick fog in a 20 runner race at Galway. Ah yes I remember him well. “
Aidan O’Brien also remembers Neil Mulholland. At this stage of the classic year, the great trainer tends to be a bit wary of coming to the phone as he is besieged with questions on assorted classic favourites not to mention the future of his so talented but “Gulliver in Lilliput” son Joseph. But there were no reservations when it came to talking about the little letter writer who rocked up at the O’Brien door for that Halloween Holiday in 1993.
“Neil was always a very good, very dedicated, very genuine, refined little fella,” remembers Aidan. “He was very polite, a great worker, and always had a natural affinity with horses, had an unbelievable interest in them. He rode very well but he thought very deeply. He didn’t just ride and walk away. He thought a lot about it. He always looked like he might be a trainer.”
It takes one to know one.