Willie Mullins: How genial genius makes domination look so easy

Irish trainer travels to Cheltenham this week closing in on 100 Festival wins, and despite huge success remains one of the most likeable people in the sport

Brough Scott

Monday March 11 2024, 11.00pm, The Times

It will be the greatest invasion since the Norman Conquest and although they share the same name, no one calls this leader “William the Bastard”. Willie Mullins’s horses are over from Ireland, set to put Cheltenham ablaze.

The statistics are staggering. On Tuesday he saddles the favourite in six of the seven races including State Man at odds-on for the Champion Hurdle. Wednesday he has the favourite in five races, including El Fabiolo for the Champion Chase. Fifteen runners but no favourites on Thursday, but four more, including Galopin Des Champs, 6-4 to win the Gold Cup on Friday for a second year.

Since he trained the prophetically named Tourist Attraction to win the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 1995, he has saddled a total of 94 Festival winners, 21 more than Britain’s record-breaking Nicky Henderson, and bookmakers are refusing bets that this week he will hit the century. In today’s very first race he saddles six runners including the first two favourites, one of whom, Mystical Power, is by the Derby winner Galileo out of Champion Hurdle heroine Annie Power and so the best-bred jumper that has ever raced. You would think his rivals must hate Mullins, but they don’t.

For, quite apart from Mullins’ own geniality, which sees him as at ease with stable staff as in Ascot’s royal procession, everything but the most intangible is an open book. What’s more a simple snapshot of how he operates is on show at Cheltenham every morning. At half past eight, after the rival raiding parties of Gordon Elliott, Henry De Bromhead and most others have departed, the Mullins battalion will file up the course and through to the inner training ground with four of its main protagonists already in position. Willie, never one to trouble the dawn chorus unless at the end of merry-making, will arrive a touch later.

Those key players will be Willie’s wife, Jackie, herself a highly capable rider but Gold Cup class when it comes to charm; his son, Patrick, the world’s most successful amateur rider with 700 winners and counting; and his former jockey assistant David Casey, who first joined in 1994. With them will be the stable jockey Paul Townend, with the yard since a teenager, and his now-retired predecessor Ruby Walsh, the most complete and successful rider that Cheltenham has ever seen. Every one a star, and each having circled the Mullins sun for most of a lifetime.

Jackie will be smiling; the other faces lean and ready but civil enough to handle a bit of TV talk between first warm-up circuits of this fairly basic training oval. Now Willie will join them. At 67 and with a bit of back and heart trouble in recent years, he holds himself a little upright at the walk and at this stage his face will still have a slightly crumpled look. Some trainers are very evident by their entrance. Willie seeks no fanfare. He has the most able and trusted aides in the whole profession. He wants to know what they think. What he does, better than anyone, is to watch.

That’s how it has always been back home in Co Carlow. Training horses is a collective operation and a trainer is more headmaster than individual tutor. His task is to absorb all the assorted information before the plan ahead, but also to get a feel for each pupil in his head. There is wisdom as well as wit in Mullins’s self-proclaimed “Three Ds” secret: “Decide, delegate and disappear.”

Those decisions can be contrary and certainly can be taken aggravatingly late, but their success comes from an analytical intelligence harnessed to an equine education which began at his father’s knee. Paddy Mullins started training in 1953, won ten Irish training titles, and big races as far apart as Cheltenham, Newmarket, Paris and the United States. He was more self-effacing than his ever-approachable son, and his facilities were a lot simpler than the multi-operational set-up now developed at Closutton. But there was no missing his ambition or originality of thought. In 1982, as future Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup mould-breaker Dawn Run rocketed round two open fields with her 63-year-old, 7st owner Charmian Hill a passenger up behind her ears, Paddy nodded and said: “I think the old girl’s enjoying herself.”

The son, also, was and is an original thinker and has much of his late mother’s inquisitiveness. In Willie’s riding days, which included six amateur championships and two Festival triumphs, Ted Walsh has a story of Willie stealing a march on bogged-down rivals by galloping down the ambulance road. In training times his continued rise has been marked by an ability to adapt and press forward.

His actual method is an evolution of his father’s deep sand circuits, which were also at the heart of the Dickinson “Famous Five” in the Gold Cup 41 years ago, with horses harder and hungrier-looking than purists like. To that, as a fan of developments in other sports, he has added up-to-date analyses to the views of that inner cabinet. Most of all he has found a unique network with Harold Kirk in Ireland and former Closutton pupil Pierre Boulard in France to source the horses and had such success and transparent competitiveness that the biggest owners are attracted.

Big hitters, with not necessarily the smallest of egos, accept that very often their biggest dangers are another owner’s horse from the same stable? The answer is that results confirm that they are always in with a chance — at the Dublin Racing Festival, more than half of Mullins’s record-breaking raft of winners came from the apparently less fancied of stable runners — and that the trainer and his team are such engaging and open company that they feel this is the best school. If it’s another pupil who beats them at the sports, so be it.

Whether such total dominance is helpful for public interest is another matter. Willie will stress his amazement and gratitude at having progressed to his present 200-horsepower zenith but also repeat his watchword: “If you are not going up, you are going down.” It’s for the others to catch him.

But we should add one final touch, a generosity of spirit which extends as much to the horses as it does to the humans. “The one thing I have learnt from Willie,” Walsh reflected one day when he was still riding, “is that horses want to please you.” The Mullins ones are likely to please a lot of people over the next four days.

How Mullins bounced back and diversified on his quest for a Cheltenham century

Willie Mullins is comfortably clear of the field with the most Cheltenham Festival winners by a trainer, only six short of a century.

Judging by previous years, he should reach that landmark this week — having failed to saddle at least six winners at the Festival only once in the past nine years.

For many years, Ruby Walsh rode the bulk of those winners, but Paul Townend has taken over as stable jockey and is sure to add more successes to his tally.

Broadening out the scope to all grade one winners, Mullins used to rely on a small group of owners for his biggest victories and one owner in particular: the pink-and-green silks of Rich and Susannah Ricci.

The Riccis had five winners with Mullins at a single Cheltenham Festival in 2015, at the height of their dominance, but their influence has since waned. The trainer also lost 60 horses from Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud in 2016 after a disagreement over fees. He has recovered remarkably, however, and last season trained the same number of grade one winners as in 2015, but spread across a much larger number of owners.

This week, across 28 races, Mullins holds favourites for eight different owners. His hold over Cheltenham shows no sign of fading.

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