There are few races of any significance which do not adorn Willie Mullins’ CV and, after yesterday’s Boylesports Irish Grand National, there is one less. With the success of the Ruby Walsh-ridden Burrows Saint, the Closutton trainer joined his late father, Paddy, on the roll of honour for Ireland’s premier national hunt race.
Mullins saddled seven of the 30 runners but that was reduced to just five after the early exits of C’est Jersey and Pairofbrowneyes. The remaining quintet, however, were in contention most of the way, but Burrows Saint moved noticeably well throughout under his motionless rider.
Recent Clonmel winner Acapella Bourgeois was ridden even more prominently by Johnny Burke and as the field was whittled down, he was also still moving with purpose. Whisperinthebreeze had raced on a long way from home but as his exertions began to tell, it became clear Mullins was going to secure a first success in the race and possible that he might fill the frame.
Isleofhopendreams, who went agonisingly close to breaking Mullins’ duck in the race in 2018, again ran his heart out and for a brief moment after the final fence he looked a live danger to the winner.
But the six-year-old Burrows Saint - half the veteran’s age – proved he had substance to match the style with which he travelled, and the 6-1 favourite ran on strongly to be the one to give Mullins a much-coveted success.
Isleofhopendreams finished runner-up for the second consecutive year, with Acapella Bourgeois giving Mullins a one-two-three, and Snugsborough Benny getting up late to deny a Mullins clean sweep of the places, beating the left-jumping Bellow Mome to fourth place.
“It’s just been one of those years: we’ve just done things we haven’t done before,” said a delighted Mullins, who also claimed his first Cheltenham Gold Cup this season.
“I was a little bit worried after Pairofbrowneyes fell early and then C’est Jersey followed, and I’m thinking ‘well, things aren’t working out well’. And then I look back and our horses were up in the front five or six all the time, and they were jumping great. It was a tremendous result.
“I was a little surprised Ruby chose him as I thought he might go for something with a little more experience, but he obviously gave him a great feel the two days that he won on him. I think that’s his third run in six weeks, so it shows us what sort of ability he might have in the future.
“I thought for two seconds after jumping the last that Danny (Mullins, on Isleofhopendreams) might have won it as he was coming with a wet sail. Another good run from him.”
The winning rider, for whom it was a third win in the race, after Commanche Court in 2000 and Numbersixvalverde in 2005, added: “He travelled super, made a couple of niggly mistakes but I got into a great position when Any Second Now fell. I was able to slot over to the inside after what was a messy start.
“I was a bit worried about Whisperinthebreeze down from Ballyhack. I didn’t peg him back in the Leopardstown Chase. I know it was a mile further, but I was still thinking I can’t give him that much rope, so I had to go after him a little bit.
“But I knew over towards the fourth-last when I couldn’t hear more horses building up behind me that maybe they weren’t coming. And then I was in front a bit earlier than I wanted but he jumped the last three really well and was game from the back of the last.”
Explaining the decision to choose the novice over Mullins’ other runners, he explained: “You need an improving novice to win a race like this, and I thought he was our best possibility for that. Having said that, the second and third are well exposed. But the novice still beat them.”
Although much had been made of Mullins’ failure to win this race previously, Walsh feels there were very few runners in past renewals which had genuine chances.
“Bellshill, last year, we really fancied, and Pairofbrowneyes, but I looked back through the other ones with Patrick before I went out and I couldn’t even remember which ones I had ridden, which will tell you how much chance we were giving them going out in the first place.”
Of the significance of the victory for Mullins, he explained: “It’s a huge race in the calendar, and it’s a bit like Willie being the leading trainer in Cheltenham without a Gold Cup on the CV – it’s kind of an omission, but he has that now. And to be champion trainer here in Ireland as many times as he has and to train as many winners as he has, the Irish Grand National is an omission. The box is ticked off now.”
The season may have been a particularly significant one in the career of Mullins, but for Walsh it has been quite trying. For one of the coolest customers in the saddle, these victories are greeted with more emotion than we are used to seeing.
“Break your leg twice in a year, sit at home watching it all and see how much it gnaws away at you mentally - you’d want to be enjoying it,” reasoned Walsh. “Go back to work for a week in 12 months – it’s hard.
“I came back in Galway and I thought things would go well but then I got hurt in Killarney and it was stop-start. But finish as you mean to continue.”
Asked if it is his intention to continue to ride, Walsh responded quickly: “Why wouldn’t I?” Indeed.