The Colm Greaves interview: Steel behind Mullins’ sunny disposition

At 28, Patrick Mullins has already overtaken the great Ted Walsh’s haul of winners as an amateur jockey.

The Colm Greaves interview: Steel behind Mullins’ sunny disposition

By Colm Greaves

At 28, Patrick Mullins has already overtaken the great Ted Walsh’s haul of winners as an amateur jockey.

He is also a key part of his father Willie’s dominant training operation. And he’s regarded as one of the nicest people on the racing circuit.

But he has fierce ambition too; for his riding and training careers and for the future of his sport.

National Hunt racing is not a natural hobby for a four-year-old boy from the suburbs west of Dublin.

But there’s a certain nephew whose old man likes going jump racing and the boy likes hanging out with his old man, so he tags along.

His passion for the sport deepens and racing photos are soon competing for bedroom wall space with footballers.

It’s not the horses that grab him, although he does develop a soft spot for Hurricane Fly. For him it’s all about the jockeys and by the time he turns five he already knows that if the colour is purple it’s Davy Russell.

The green and gold hoops are on McCoy and the pink with green spots is probably Ruby.

His favourite spot lies between the exit from the parade ring and the course, where the horses are closest and jockeys accessible.

From here he yells ‘good luck Tom, hope you win Dick” or “don’t fall off Harry.”

But by now his heroes are in the zone, staring into the distance with little inclination to respond to a small boy’s call.

Except for one. If he hears a ‘hope you win Patrick’ coming from below his horse’s belly, Patrick Mullins would usually lean his long smiling frame over a little and reply, ‘Ah thanks. I’ll do my best.’ The boy lights up.

He’s now a teenager, a little harder to please, but his old man still finds it hard to escape to the races without him. He blames a lot of this on Patrick Mullins’ sunny disposition.

Sunny Disposition

It’s the week before Galway and Mullins’ disposition is as sunny as ever. Last week he created a milestone in racing that is likely to remain forever unchallenged.

His 546th winner as an amateur overtook the record haul of the great Ted Walsh who could once ride horses with even more flair than he talks about them now.

Patrick believes that some of his general positivity is down to size and shape.

“Flat jockeys have reputations for being quite grumpy and I understand that,” he explains. “Week in week out, sweating every day, not eating.

"As an amateur I’m comfortable mentally and physically at eleven and a half stone. I’m not drinking pints or stuffing my face with Chinese takeaways and chocolate, so I can have three meals a day.

But it’s not always happiness. When I have to do those lower weights and have been on a diet for a week then I’m not so sunny then and you can ask the people I live with who’ll tell you.

Patrick Mullins’ most public role is that of retained amateur rider for his father Willie’s stable. His other job is arguably more important.

He is one of the ‘gang of four’ who plot world domination from their lair in deepest Carlow. He describes the dynamic.

“My job title is Assistant Trainer I suppose. Myself, David Casey are there every day, Ruby is there three days a week and we are the backroom team.”

He seems puzzled when asked what happens when views are divided, two on two.

“At the end of the day Willie makes the call,” he laughs incredulously. “We’ll all give our opinion and put forward what we think but Willie has this annoying habit of being right.”

Does he expect to be given a louder voice as his experience continues to deepen over time?

“Yeah, but I’m still wrong a lot, though I find that every week you’re learning. He’ll always ask for my opinion, but he won’t always listen to it mind.

"We have so many horses, around 200, we are at full capacity and there are always little issues and conundrums with a horse.

"I’ll say this happened last month and we did that, but Willie will spot something different. I’ll be saying one plus one equals two, but then he’ll say, ‘but Patrick, it’s two plus one.’”

Old Block. New Chip

The good news for Patrick Mullins is that his dad is a genius. The bad news is that the genius is Willie Mullins and his son openly admits that there are times when the old man’s idiosyncrasies drive him mad.

Why does he always refer to him simply as Willie?

“Somebody else pointed that out to me recently. On the gallops it’s always Willie and my mother is always ‘Mum.’

"Maybe there’s some kind of father and son thing going on there.”

What is clear is that this informality does not mask his admiration both for his Dad’s training ability and his strength of character.

“He has huge instinct,” he continues. “You never see Willie with a notepad, nothing is written down, it’s all in his head. You have all these new training techniques coming in, but Willie will always go back to his eye.

"He is always telling me to look at the horses, every day he likes to see every horse. We will drive back from Galway every day next week so that he can see the horses.”

He illustrates his admiration for his father’s strength and self-belief by recalling the 2016 great Gigginstown spilt when Michael O’Leary removed about 60 horses from the yard in a dispute over money.

Was there a lot of anxiety in the family at the time?

“There was, certainly,” replies Patrick. "I remember myself, my mother Jackie and Willie sitting down to discuss it.

We hadn’t put the fees up for 10 years and Willie wanted to keep expanding. He wanted to go forward, and he thought this was what we needed. Michael quite simply said ‘too much’ and to be fair he had a point.

"We had a lot of his horses and he’d put a lot of capital in. We took that into consideration, we debated it and Willie decided to stand with his principles and make it the same for everyone.

"It was a good-natured dispute and I’ve ridden winners for Gigginstown since, but we had made a decision and we thought that Willie would probably lose his championship and I’d probably lose mine and we didn’t take that lightly.”

As it turns out he was half right. Patrick lost his title as Champion Amateur rider in 2017, but old man Willie just kept rolling along. The bounce back astonished him. Still does.

“I was amazed at that time. Willie could have stood still but he didn’t. He built three new barns, added 20-30 more horses and added more staff. He is 62 and still going forward, still wanting more.

“That ambition is extraordinary. It’s very admirable and I’m interested to see what he does next year, how he improves again.”

This continuous improvement is worrisome for many who make their living in National Hunt racing.

The emergence in recent years of a Mullins/Gordon Elliot duopoly is squeezing the ‘soft-middle’ and there has been a reduction in the number of smaller training yards.

Patrick is sympathetic to this but thinks it is a short-term issue.

“The sport has changed without doubt, you see less trainers, but things tend to be cyclical,” he says.

“Five years ago, Gordon wasn’t where he is now, and I have a funny feeling that in two or three years time Joseph (O’Brien) is going to be far stronger.

"I think it’s been good for the sport. The Gordon/Willie rivalry has raised the profile.

“You have to remember that there is a lot more to being a trainer than getting horses fit. You have to be able to work with staff, get new owners, keep new owners, putting horses in the right races.

"It’s not easy and I don’t envy anybody starting up. But it’s the same everywhere.

“If you open a shop on the corner you are taking on Tesco. Unfortunately, nobody is entitled to be a trainer although I know that coming from me that might sound a bit... whatever.”

That ‘whatever’ comes after a long pause and scrunched face and a search for a word to convey that he is acutely aware that his place in the sport comes with a head start available to few others. He continues anyway.

“We look at some cards and we can only run horses in three or four of them because you have lower banded handicaps – we generally don’t have horses for those races, then you have rated beginner chases, these new hurdles for horses that haven’t been placed, maiden hurdles that are for horse that cost less than a certain price are a good idea.

"The authorities are doing their best to spread the chances.”

Speaking of corner shops, Joseph O’Brien recently broke away from the biggest Tesco of them all to set up on his own - is this a pathway that Patrick might take in the future?

“It has crossed my mind and I would like to train, would like to do what my father did. But being the only son, when Willie does retire if I’ve set up a yard I’d have to sell it to come back and that doesn’t make any sense.

“Besides, what I do at the moment is really enjoyable, I can ride the horses, and I enjoy doing that and if the horse gets beaten I can get off the horse and go home whereas Willie as a trainer has to deal with owners, staff, horses getting injured.

"Watching what my father has at the moment is what everyone dreams of, but I see the other side of it as well, how taxing it can be. So yes, I’d like to do that, but do I want to do it now at 28? No.”

This doesn’t mean his hunger has been satisfied. If he rides winners at his five-year average he could hit 1,000 somewhere around 2026, and he will still be well short of 40.

He sounds well up for the challenge.

“Definitely. I still like to have something to aim for and 1000 winners is something to stride towards. It took me 12 years to get to 546 winners and the way Willie is training you’d never know.”

While considering these lofty prospects he again returns to his empathy and admiration for the dour struggle facing many of his amateur colleagues trying to make their way in a sometimes dispassionate sport.

“They earn a living riding out, freelancing, hopefully getting paid, trying to get as much experience as you can and turn professional,” he says.

“Rachel Blackmore (who currently leads the jockey championship) I have great respect for. She comes from a background of no family connections in racing, took two college courses, was an amateur, then a pro and just built and built.

"She is amazing over a fence, horses jump as well for her and they are making half a length and they settle great as well.

"Never tries to overpower a horse, but has great hands and gets them settled, and what she has done it’s a greater achievement than most jockeys will ever have.”

Clouds on the horizon?

Unusually for such a high-profile jockey, Patrick Mullins made time to finish a business degree.

An equine business degree admittedly, but business nonetheless which arms him with a curiosity for the economic, social and political turbulence confronting his sport.

He addresses these considerations as always, with a pause, silent reflection and carefully constructed precision in the answer.

“I think the sport is in a good place in general,” he replies. “I am interested in how moving coverage to RUK from ATR will impact us and I do think the way we cover the sport on TV could be a lot better.

"Outside the big meetings we look at racing the same way we did 30 years ago — stationary cameras. I think if we are to get younger people interested in the sport we need to cover it better.

"Racing is a very fast sport, yet the way we watch it is like looking at horses running around a field. You need young people coming into the sport to keep it growing and to compete with all the other options.

I have these snapchat goggles and you can use to watch the race from the jockey’s head, why not put these behind the red button?  It’ll cost money, but we need to make racing look more exciting on TV.

“I think as well that many of the local tracks are too big. The likes of Fairyhouse and Punchestown are fantastic at Easter and April - but walk in there in mid-winter and it’s like walking into a car park.

"Those winter tracks could halve the space, put people together, create an atmosphere and more people might come racing then.”

And inevitably: Is Brexit a looming disaster?

“Everybody is worried about it. I’ve been trying to read up on it but to be honest it’s hard to get anything solid.

"I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to happen, so you have to sit back and watch it. Every second week you read something different. Willie was telling me about going racing over the border, back in the day.

"Crossing the border going up there and he’d be worried. Then I’d be watching terrorist attacks in England and I’d be thinking how do people do that? Then I’d remember - that was us, 30 years ago!”

Galway

With the King George having taken place at Ascot on Saturday and Glorious Goodwood in the Sussex Downs this week it is the flat racing high season. Beneath this, other things are stirring.

This is the time of year that the better jump horses come back in from summer break with bellies fat with grass and Patrick Mullins concedes to a tingle when he sees them return.

These thoughts of spring are quickly set aside. This is the time for Galway.

“We always get Galway out of the way before we bring them back in,” he says. “Others will bring them in earlier in July, but we always get our horses ready a bit later.

"Gordon and Noel (Meade) would have fair bit more success in September and October but most of our horses will have just one or two runs at most by Christmas. They are two different things though.

"Obviously, you’ve been planning for Galway for two or three months and you are going to find out your fate quite soon. You have six months before the good horses have to do what they do.

“Galway is an amazing place. There are very few places you’d go in Ireland with that crowd.

“You can hear the crowd as you go around, it’s all quite close-up with uphills and downhills. The hill at the finish is twice the size of Cheltenham.

"When you pass the castle on the back straight it is easy to start racing too soon. It’s good ground and a tight track and there are always traffic problems.”

As usual, the stable will send a strong platoon to the battleground and from these Patrick has bigger hopes for certain of his soldiers.

The main race this evening is the Connacht Hotel Handicap over two miles on the flat, which his father previously won on Paragon carrying 12-7.

“I’ve been placed numerous times and want to win it before I retire.”

He rides Cheltenham winner Limini who could be thrown in at the weights.

“Exchange Rate is a horse I won on last year over a mile and a half and has a chance in any of his entries.

"He doesn’t have a lot of experience and he’s a small horse, but he has a huge heart. He reminds me of Whiskey Sour who won this last year for us.

“There are a couple of nice bumper horses too. Wild Rendezvous won a Point and I’m looking forward to riding him.

"Patricks Park could go in the Plate, I won’t be riding him, but I helped buy him. If he gets in near the bottom with 10-7 he’ll go well.”

Excited by his chances. The positivity from the new world record holding amateur jump jockey is unrelenting.

If you are thinking of taking your kid to the Ballybritt track next week try placing him at the exit ramp from the parade ring and tell him to shout a pleasantry at Patrick Mullins on his way to the start.

But be careful what you wish for. The response might hook him on racing for life.

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