Why Willie Mullins should be treasured

There is this little kid from suburban Northside Dublin who somehow arrived at seven years of age still preferring National Hunt racing to soccer, GAA or rugby.

This was surprising as his family have no heritage or investments in the sport, it was just a fascination that developed from watching his father fretting over lucky fifteens in front of Channel Four on cold wet winter Saturdays.

Every so often the father would cave in to his pestering and take him racing.

Fairyhouse, Punchestown, Leopardstown at Christmas or for today’s big Gold Cup meeting.

Like most habitual racegoers, the lad soon developed a ‘course cadence’, a preferred routine when at the track. 

He liked to watch them saddle up beforehand, study them in the parade ring and then position himself between the ring exit and the course entrance so he could loudly wish the jockeys luck as they made their way to post.

“Good luck McCoy, good luck Ruby, good luck Davy,” he’d call, but by then Sir Anthony and the others were in ‘the zone’ as they passed him. 

Rarely any eye contact or a kind word, their minds solely on their task. Room only for focused thoughts of oncoming dangerous jumps and split second decisions.

“Good luck Barity,” he shouted once. 

Maybe it was the extra syllable he’d discovered in Geraghty’s first name that caught the jockey’s attention, but this time he did pause to look down, smile warmly at the nipper, tip his cap and say “thanks young fella, I’ll do my best”.

Even though he believed Ruby to be a much better jockey back then (still does) the boy now liked ‘Barity’ better. A two-second smile and a kind word at the right time can last, you know.

The day Barry Geraghty said thanks was the same day Willie Mullins won the Hennessy Gold Cup with his mercurial grey gelding, Quel Espirit, four years ago already.

The date is precise because the kid still has a prized photograph and race card from that day competing for space with posters of Wayne Rooney and Bernard Brogan on his bedroom wall.

He was standing near the entrance to the parade ring when he saw Willie rushing towards him, hurrying to greet connections and instruct his jockey for the upcoming bumper.

Suddenly a race card was thrust towards him from a height of about four feet. “Can you sign this for me please, Willie?” the lad asked. 

“Of course I can son, I have a pen here somewhere.” 

Hunkering down for better eye contact and a kind word, he instructs a phone fumbling uncle to take a good picture, searches through the race card to find Quel Espirit and then carefully signs across his new champion’s name.

He pats the kid on the head, mentions his upcoming runner should go well in the bumper and moves on briskly to join his fidgeting, clock-watching, bill-paying owners.

That was then, this is now. 

Nowadays there seems to be a begrudgingly chill breeze blowing in from media commentary and keyboard warriors and on down towards Mullins yard in Carlow.

It grumbles as it blows: ‘Willie has grown too dominant’ ‘the power of his yard is ruining the competitiveness of domestic racing.’ 

Sometimes even: ‘Willie Mullins is strangling the life from small Irish yards.’ 

This jealous whisper has been heard before. 

Vincent O’Brien was to be the death of Flat racing in the 70s and his namesake Aidan was predicted to be ruinous in the 90s and noughties.

Admittedly, Mullins is strangely good at what he does and it’s little wonder his rivals sometimes feel that they’ve come up against Henry Shefflin in one of those mythical Junior B club games. 

All being well, he will win the Irish trainers championship far into the foreseeable future and currently he is only around even-money to be champion of Britain this year too.

On average he has trained 188 winners a season for the last four years, an increase of 44% on his previous four year average. 

He brought 50 runners to Cheltenham last year and won eight races and as he already trains 10 of the ante-post favourites for next month’s festival he will probably rack up more stupid numbers in Gloucestershire again this year.

And even without his true ‘A’ team he will probably saddle two or three winners at Leopardstown this afternoon in what is easily the most intriguingly layered race meeting of the season so far.

So why all the sneaking begrudgery? We are normally a nation to cherish sporting dominance. 

Our respect for medal monopolist Katie Taylor is unflinching, Brian Cody is revered as the GAA nations grumpy but loveable old Grandad and when Rory McIlroy fails to win a major a morose Monday follows.

What Mullins is achieving these days in a ruthlessly competitive sport is unique and should be unequivocally treasured, as it will not always be like this.

It is true racing’s economic indicators can be grim reading at the moment. Ownership, breeding, sales and investment are all on the back foot and there are many structural and complicated causal reasons for this. 

Willie Mullins is certainly not one of them.

It’s not his role to make his opponents better. 

That is solely their task. His only responsibility is to buy or grow the best horses he can, persuade an owner to buy them, prepare them expertly in mind and body, find the best staff he can feed and care for them and then beat the living daylights out of whatever is put on front of him at the racetrack. 

And this is what he expertly does.

Besides, if you look at the success of other yards in the same four-year comparison period, it is clear that stronger competition is coming.

 Gordon Elliot has improved by 57% and Henry De Bromhead by 69% and this before young Joseph O’Brien is properly up and running at Piltown.

It is champion horses who bring people racing and keeps them coming back. Mullins makes champion horses, currently in a golden cluster as yet unseen. 

He talks articulately and thoughtfully on his sport, is always accessible, which has deep ambassadorial value for racing. 

He also carves time from all the mayhem to crouch down and talk to young fellas and make sure they get a good picture taken.

In fact with the recent sad demise of Terry Wogan our panel of national treasures has an open vacancy.

There are few stronger CVs available than that of Willie Mullins.

Who could begrudge that?


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