The name Mullins is deeply woven into the rich tapestry of Irish horseracing. Paddy Mullins, father of the current Irish Champion Trainer Willie and handler of the great Dawn Run, trained over 3,400 winners and was a ten-time Champion Trainer.
Champion sire he can now also be referred to given the exploits of Willie, who himself is also a ten-time Irish champion trainer. Six times an amateur Champion Jockey and forty-eight Cheltenham Festival winners – and counting – Willie himself has bred a champion in Patrick Mullins, who this season will bid for his tenth amateur jockeys’ title in-a-row.
In 2012, Patrick broke the long-standing amateur riding-record of 72 winners, previously held by Billy Parkinson and dating back to 1915, by riding two more winners. His success is intrinsically linked with his father Willie’s remarkable achievements over the last decade and Mullins junior is a vital cog in Team Mullins.
With the 2017 Cheltenham Festival fast approaching, Patrick talks to Declan Rix of attheraces.com to discuss past Festival successes, getting the team to Cheltenham, this year’s potential rides and the stable’s leading contenders at Prestbury Park.
TAKING AN ADAMANT APPROACH
While still at a seven-day-a-week bordering school, a then 17-year-old Patrick Mullins had an unyielding desire to compete as a jockey under his amateur status. Not able to ride out every day being away from home, Mullins would regularly sneak out of school to a local yard owned by Charlie O’Neill to keep his eye in.
The stealth missions undertook were going some way to achieving his goals as Adamant Approach was one of his seven winners in that 2006/07 season, the pair taking a Pertemps Qualifier en-route to Patrick’s first-ever Cheltenham Festival ride in the 2007 Pertemps Final where they would finish a gallant third at 16/1.
“I was 17 when I rode him, he was 13, there wasn’t much between us! I got a great spin off him and coming down to the last I thought we might just win. We didn’t last out, but coming into that semi-circle at the top of the Cheltenham parade ring is like riding a winner anywhere else.”
Patrick continued, “I remember thinking at the time, I might never get back in here again”, but he wouldn’t have to wait long as the following season he guided Cousin Vinny to a 3 ¼ lengths success in the Cheltenham Champion Bumper.
It was an important success for Mullins in many ways, not only was it his first Cheltenham Festival winner, but that season he took over the bumper-riding mantle from Katie Walsh. “The Cheltenham Bumper is one of the roughest races going, they aren’t called bumpers for nothing! But the whole race went perfectly. At one stage I remember nearly clipping heels with Barry Connell I was going that well.
“I had a plan of where to kick and once he hit the front, he ran green so I put my stick down and just rode him out. It took forever to get up that hill! We got there in the end and it was a moment that will stay with me till the day I die”
In looking for comparisons with his second Festival winner aboard Champagne Fever in 2012, I’d forgotten in what tough circumstances it came, not only for Patrick but for me. Not only did he beat my win only 25/1 ante-post bet on New Year’s Eve, but the multi-Mullins winner bonanza on day one that we are so used to, that particular Festival hadn’t gone according to plan.
The day before Hurricane Fly was beaten at 4/6 in the Champion Hurdle and Scotsirsh was fatally injured in the Cross-Country Chase. The Wednesday saw Allee Garde and Patrick fall in the National Hunt Chase, in the process, also bringing down stablemate Soll.
A cracked collarbone in that tumble and team moral not as high as expected “saw me going out a bit sore and a bit down, if I’m honest” says Mullins. “I couldn’t use my right hand and given how the first two days went, I gave him (Champagne Fever) a forceful ride”.
He continued “It’s funny how things work out sometimes because that was the way to ride him. He just kept finding and finding. It was great to get one for Rich (Ricci) as he had been supporting our yard hugely.”
While the two bumper wins were obviously massive career highs, I sensed Mullins’s last gasp 2013 National Hunt Chase win aboard Back In Focus meant plenty to him, “Riding over fences is the thrill, it’s the dream and there is no bigger kick. Obviously, the way he won it was exciting too”.
Team work was a theme that shone through in my time talking to Patrick, a lot of credit for Back In Focus’s Cheltenham victory was down to Virginnie Bascop who nursed the Graham Wylie-owned stayer back to health after a serious leg injury.
THE ROAD TO CHELTENHAM
The logistics of getting a huge team of horses to Cheltenham from Closutton has always intrigued me. A jovial Mullins says this is the toughest part of the job and indeed, “Willie has the easy work!”.
Speaking to Patrick on International Woman’s Day, the brains of the logistics operation is his mother, Jackie, regular rider of Vroum Vroum Mag. Jackie is aided by head girl Rachel Robins and head lad Dick Dowling in shipping a big team of equine and human talent happily and safely to Prestbury Park. In all, it’s a nine-hour journey from Closutton.
At last season’s Cheltenham Festival Team Mullins shipped 64 horse to Gloucestershire, running 61 and winning with seven. A smaller squad of “40-45” horses look like travelling to this year’s Festival and while lighter on numbers - due to losing 60-odd horses from Gigginstown House Stud, a blow Patrick feels may take three-four years to recover from - it’s still a tough job according to Mullins.
“It’s tricky, as you want to send good staff, but you also need good people in the yard, but we are very lucky that we have unbelievable staff – people from all over the world”. Patrick couldn’t have been more appreciative of the soldiers at Closutton and keen to stress they are as much down to the recent successes as the horses.
Backers of Willie Mullins horses at this year’s Festival can take comfort in the fact that no intended runner is considered a bad traveller. There’ll be no goat-like creature that used to accompany the former Henry de Bromhead-trained Sizing John to Cheltenham travelling from Closutton.
Maybe a goat could’ve stopped the fight between Champagne Fever and Un Atout as they travelled to the 2015 Festival, a bite from the latter costing Rich Ricci’s gallant grey a crack at a third success at Prestbury Park in March when he was ruled out of a very winnable Queen Mother Champion Chase.
IN SEARCH OF A FOURTH FESTIVAL WINNER
While speaking to Patrick when six days away from the Festival, much of his rides were still to be confirmed. On late decisions by his father Willie, Patrick says “I’m well used to it now, trust me, it’s not just horses Willie makes late calls on”.
As an amateur, Mullins can ride in all but one of the Festival races, the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle. Given his riding status, he is far more likely to pick up rides in the amateur jockey events, the National Hunt Chase, the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase and the St. James's Place Foxhunter Chase Challenge Cup.
While the case, it’s the Champion Bumper where his most likely winner will come from. Willie Mullins has four horses remaining in the race, but it’s Carter Mckay and Next Destination who look most likely to represent.
When quizzed on the potential of competitive egos clashing with Ruby Walsh on first picks in the bumper, Patrick was quick to say “No, that’s never been an issue. He’s here three days a week, Ruby is a real team player and very hands on. While I’ll get my say on who I’d like to ride, Willie makes the final call”.
One of the most important factors in winning the Bumper is being “mentally strong” according to Patrick. “I remember riding Sicilian Secret (2009) and Day Of A Lifetime (2010) and knowing I was beat before the race started, their heads were gone”
On this year’s Bumper team, he said “Carter Mckay is the obvious one. He was visually impressive at Naas, but it was only a three-furlong sprint. However, he showed a fantastic turn of foot and has stamina to win over three miles – he looks to have everything”
On the Malcom Denmark-owned Next Destination, Mullins said “He could be a Briar Hill-type. He’s not flashy and I think he’ll keep pulling out more. His work has improved significantly since his last run”.
National Hunt Chase plans are still in the balance, but Haymount got a positive mention from Patrick. “He’s a real good-ground Presenting and the going would’ve been too soft for him on his last two starts.”
His auntie Mags Mullins trains Martello Tower who Patrick regularly rides out for. “I ride Martello Tower at Mags’ yard in the mornings and he looks to be in good form going to Cheltenham, but I’m not sure where he runs”.
No ride looks likely in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir, but Mullins was delighted to pick up a spare in the Foxhunter. “I was talking to Tom Dreaper and I ride Aupcharlie for Jim Dreaper. It’s a privilege to ride for a legend like himself.”
“He was only beaten four lengths in the race last year and looked in great form when winning at Fairyhouse so hopefully I can make the best of this opportunity”.
Alelchi Inois is a horse Patrick is "quite keen on". He went over to Cheltenham in January where he hated the ground, but Katie (Walsh) said he loved it (the track) and on nice ground - he’s a real summer horse - he’ll run well”.
THE TALKING HORSES
The vibes from Closutton about Melon at their press day suggested this was their number one horse in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. “Look, his work at home is very good. The concern is he has only had one run (over hurdles), but Niall Kelly, our stable conditional, rides him in all his work and has had a big smile on his face the last couple of weeks. We’re very excited”.
The Mullins camp have made no secret of their adoration for Douvan. “He’s a unique shape of a horse. When you see him at the start, he reminds me of Usain Bolt – he’s just taller and leggier than everything else. He just covers so much ground with his stride. What’s also critical to his success is he is a gent. He is kind, easy to train, and touch wood easy to keep sound, a child could ride him.”
On JLT Novices’ Chase hope Yorkhill. “He’s the opposite of Douvan in that he is the bold kid in the class. He’s not keen in the normal sense of keen, it’s just when he sees daylight he takes off. Ruby harnessed him in the Neptune last year and he’ll do the same in the JLT. I love this horse, I think he is our Nap of the Festival. He has his quirks, but my God he has an engine”.
Un De Sceaux will step up in trip to contest this year’s Ryanair. Wouldn’t it be great to see Michael O’Leary hand over the trophy to Willie Mullins? Away from my own thoughts on the politics, Patrick said “A bit like Hurricane Fly, I think people haven’t forgiven him for being beaten in the Champion Chase. He’s one of the most exciting horses to watch, he wears his heart on his sleeve and would run through a brick wall for you. I don’t think the trip will be an issue or the ground. Without doubt, one of our best chances.”
The vibes about Djakadam heading into this year’s Festival are significantly strong and Patrick didn’t quash them here. “We are delighted with him. He’s had a great preparation. Last year when he fell in the Betbright Chase he had to be stitched between his legs. The first fence he jumped after that fall was the first in the Gold Cup. It’s funny, my mother used to say we are lucky to have plenty Irish Gold Cups, but no Cheltenham Gold Cup! Dad listened this year and avoided the Leopardstown race. We are sending him there fresh and Jason Dear who looks after him, says he is in the form of his life. It would be a dream to win it”.
Such a dream, when hypothetically offered this year's Queen Mother Champion Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup, two races Willie Mullins and his team haven't won, Patrick would gladly sacrifice this season's Irish Champion Trainers' title to land Cheltenham's two most prestigious chases.
Patrick finished up our conversation, saying "The trainers' title has been talked about in the yard, but at the moment Cheltenham takes priority. Hats off to Gordon (Elliott) though, he has come a long way in a short space of time. It's a friendly rivalry and we'll be the first to shake his hand if he wins. We are still incredibly lucky".