There is a photograph on the wall in the Lord Bagenal Inn in the pretty town of Leighlinbridge in County Carlow that shows a group of men and women standing proudly in the main street, either side of a horse called Different Pace.
Willie Mullins is 32 years old in the picture and he is standing next to the horse’s head, holding its reins loosely in his hands.
Mullins is in his first months as a trainer and his wife, Jackie, is standing in front of the horse’s flank, her right hand holding on to the brim of her hat, lest it blow away in the breeze.
The florist, the postman, a builder, a man from the hardware store, the pub landlord and a couple of local doctors make up the rest of the cast staring proudly into the camera lens.
Legendary horse trainer Willie Mullins began from a modest start in the racing business
The photo is at the centre of a newspaper article stationed to the left of the bar. ‘Playboys of the Racing World,’ the headline says.
Mullins is hoping Different Pace will be his first ever Cheltenham runner and the piece imagines adventures to come, late nights playing cards and carousing, when it heads to the Festival some weeks in the future and most of the town travels there with it.
The writer goes on to describe the horse’s failure at Leopardstown some days later and bemoans money lost and the fragile hopes of Mullins, a man still in his infancy as a trainer. But if the headline is supposed to hint at grandiose dreams destined to be dashed by referencing J.M.
Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, it picked the wrong man. Different Pace never did make it to Cheltenham but Mullins did. His dreams were made of sterner stuff.
The Irishman has risen from a stable featuring Different Pace and not much else
Another 32 years have passed since that photograph was taken and now Mullins is sitting in the kitchen of his farmhouse next to his yard, Closutton, a couple of miles from the Lord Bagenal.
His dog, Lara, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, is lying by the stove, fast asleep. A long-haired Chihuahua sits watchfully on the stairs so it can see the comings and goings in the yard.
Where once there was Different Pace and not many more, now Mullins stables around 200 horses and when he leaves for Cheltenham next week, it will be as the most successful trainer in the Festival’s history and the man who saddled last year’s Gold Cup winner, Al Boum Photo.
He has been Ireland’s champion trainer for 12 seasons in succession and 13 in all. In National Hunt racing, there are few lands left for him to conquer.
Many of his charges are Cheltenham legends. Hurricane Fly, Faugheen, Annie Power, Un de Sceaux, Douvan and Vautour are among them.
This year, he says the best bets to add to his winning record are Al Boum Photo again in the Gold Cup, Benie des Dieux in the Mares’ Hurdle and Asterion Forlonge in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. He will take about 50 horses with him across the water to England.
‘At least now we’ve broken the hoodoo, or the ceiling we couldn’t seem to get to before, by winning the Gold Cup,’ Mullins, 63, says. ‘We are going back with a horse that has done it. It is very difficult to repeat it. Statistically, you can see that. But certainly I am going back there with a much more positive approach this year that we can do it.
‘We have a couple of live horses in it. Al Boum Photo has a favourite’s chance. A lot depends on the ground. The forecast is for broken weather, which will suit Al Boum Photo. If the weather dries up, Kemboy starts to come back into the race then because better ground suits him.
‘Al Boum Photo is a course and distance winner. He was going very well in the Novice Chase at Cheltenham when he fell with Ruby Walsh on board and broke Ruby’s leg two years previously.
It appeared he was going to win that day so he clearly likes the hill and clearly likes Cheltenham and he just made a novice mistake. If you have a horse that likes a course, always bring him back to it.’
Jackie is here, too, rushing to get out for an appointment but she stops for a moment as they reminisce about the photo in the pub and laugh. ‘We brought the horse down and stopped it on the street,’ says Mullins says.
‘And the first eight or 10 people who came, stood in the photograph. It’s a picture for all time. We often think the horse caught a virus that day because it got so cold. That’s why it didn’t get to Cheltenham.’
His Mullins Stables now has grown to around 200 horses in 32 years as a trainer
Most of the dreams Mullins harboured that day have already been realised. He won the Grand National with Hedgehunter in 2005 and last year, after coming runner-up in the Gold Cup six times, he finally claimed National Hunt racing’s biggest prize when Al Boum Photo, a 12-1 shot, overhauled Native River and held off a late charge from Anibale Fly to pass the post first.
The Lord Bagenal hosted the celebrations, as it has done for so many of Mullins’ triumphs.
Mullins had been trying to win the Gold Cup for so long that he hardly knew how to react. ‘It’s like chasing a beautiful woman for 80 years,’ Paul Newman said when he won the Oscar for Best Actor, for The Color Of Money, after six previous nominations.
‘Finally she relents and you say, “I am terribly sorry. I’m tired”.’ Mullins smiles at that thought, although in his case, his celebrations were muted because his joy was tempered with worry.
‘I had four runners in the Gold Cup last year,’ he says. ‘Kemboy fell at the first, another one pulled up early on and then later, Invitation Only, with my son, Patrick, riding it, fell.
‘It looked as if both horse and rider were injured. So for the last circuit, I was worrying about what was going on behind the green screens.
Mullins has spent his entire career trying to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup
‘I was trying to keep an eye on the race and every time I went back to the race, I could see Al Boum Photo’s jockey, Paul Townend and his body language and it looked as if everything was going right and that we were still in with a chance.
‘I was still convinced that something was going to happen to him as well. I was not able to enjoy the last part of the race, watching what I couldn’t see behind the green screens. That took a lot of the joy of the moment away.
‘Even as he passed the winning post, it was great to win but I still hadn’t a clue what was going on so that was my biggest concern at the time.
‘It is very hard to throw your hat and your binoculars in the air when your son and your horse are down behind a screen. They don’t tell you anything immediately. They have a protocol system about who gives you news in cases like that. It was 20 minutes before I found out that my son was OK but that the horse had died.
‘I had been second six times. There are lots of guys who are very good in their fields and never win the ultimate prize. I had got over it because I thought I would never win it. I just thought that was going to be the way it was.
However, I had won a Grand National and if you had given me the choice, I would rather win a Grand National. It can be harder to win. There is more romance about the Grand National. But I did want to win a Gold Cup.
‘It is something that every trainer wants to win. You dream about it but you never dream you would even have a horse good enough to run in the Gold Cup. It’s like a non-League team thinking they are going to win the Premier League.
They could maybe win the FA Cup, which might be like the Grand National, but the Gold Cup, you have to fight your way up to the Premier League and then go on and win it.’
Last year, Mullins won his first Cheltenham Gold Cup, thanks to Al Boum Photo
Mullins shows me around. The farmhouse is elegant in an understated way but then Mullins is an understated man. So there is a beautiful sculpture on the kitchen surface of three horses suspended in mid-air that is the trophy he won for being Cheltenham’s leading trainer last year.
Next to it, there is a coaster with a picture of a dog staring at an empty bowl. ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ the caption on the photo says.
The walls are covered with pictures of family and dogs and horses. Or family on horses. Mullins was a jockey. So was Jackie. His father was Ireland’s champion trainer many times over just as he has been.
He wears his success lightly. He acts like a man who would rather die than let a boast escape his lips. He personifies class and dignity. He is known for his loyalty to his staff and his generosity of spirit.
Best of all, he exudes quiet contentment. He loves it here. He loves his home and his work. He takes me up to a field to show me a couple of ducks he rescued from predators and which now waddle around the yard.
Later on, he lifts a black rooster from its shelter and nurses it in his arms. This is not just a racing yard. It is a menagerie.
Four years ago it felt as if all he had built up was under threat. All those hopes he harboured when he stood in Leighlinbridge’s main street with Different Pace were challenged anew when Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, the owner of the renowned Gigginstown Stud, removed all 60 of its horses from Mullins’ yard following a dispute over training fees.
O’Leary moved many of the horses to Mullins’ arch-rival Gordon Elliott. The loss represented a third of the horses at Closutton. Many wondered whether Mullins, who had been Ireland’s champion trainer for nine years on the run, would ever recover.
Elliott was impressed when, soon afterwards, he took a call from Mullins wishing him the best of the luck with his new arrivals and offering any advice he needed.
Many wondered if Mullins would recover from Michael O’Leary removing all of his horses away
‘It was a big thing,’ Mullins says of the Gigginstown blow. ‘One third of the business was wiped out overnight. That’s like someone getting docked a third of his wages and having to live off that. You just have to put up with it. We took a stand and he took a stand and that was it. We got used to it.
‘We were hugely moved and impressed by the support we got from people, other owners who asked me to buy new horses for them to replace the ones we had lost. We were amazed with the support we had got.
‘We had never dreamt that would happen or could happen. We didn’t have to leave off any staff or anything. We were hugely lucky.
‘It just shows you the way people think, which you are inclined to forget in your everyday life when you have your head down trying to work your way through it and do the best you can and then you get a body blow and you realise that other people are watching out for you. That was very reassuring, I suppose.
‘I suppose we always treat…we are very loyal to our people, staff and jockeys and owners and maybe a bit of it was returned. That’s what I wonder: was a bit of it returned? We try to be fair to everyone and maybe a bit of that had been returned to us.
‘I had no issue with Gordon. It wasn’t Gordon’s fault. It wasn’t Gordon’s plan. And it made us feel like underdogs again. We didn’t know if we would ever be champion trainer again, we didn’t know if we could get back to where we were or whether it would take five or six years to do that.
‘Our earning power was going to be so diminished. We had a third fewer horses to go into battle with.’
Mullins astonished Irish racing with the speed with which he regrouped. He managed to hold off Elliott’s challenge in 2016-17 despite the loss of so many of his best horses and held on to the trainers’ title on the last day of the season. He now has as many horses in the yard as he did before Gigginstown pulled out.
Mullins is in a race with Gordon Elliott to be Ireland’s champion trainer once more
The race with Elliott for champion trainer is tight again this season but Mullins has a narrow lead. Last year, Gigginstown announced they were pulling out of racing altogether.
‘It might even be good for Irish racing,’ Mullins says, ‘because now that they are leaving, a lot of other wealthy clients have come into the game to take their place.
‘There is probably more money being spent because other clients see that they have a better chance now of competing at the top table. They are going to be very hard to replace but I don’t see the sales falling.’
Before he goes back to the gallops, Mullins wanders outside and shows me another sculpture, a life-size likeness of one of his favourite horses, four-time Irish Gold Cup winner Florida Pearl, frozen in the act of leaping a fence in the garden.
There is a picture of Florida Pearl in the pub, too, to mark him winning the Martell Cup at Aintree in 2002. This time, the article was culled from the next day’s Racing Post and it ended with a line from Mullins’ mother, Maureen, who had greeted well-wishers in the winner’s enclosure.
‘I expect it’ll be another quiet night in the Lord Bagenal,’ she said.
The Jockey Club stages The Festival™ presented by Magners between March 10th and 13th at Cheltenham. For details please visit www.cheltenham.co.uk or call 0344 579 3003 to book tickets.