14 March 2024

Unstoppable Mullins has perfected the Midas touch

14 March 2024

Willie Mullins set himself apart with his 100th Cheltenham Festival victory on Wednesday – a hallmark of the trainer’s domination of the National Hunt scene.

Going into what for many is the biggest week of the year, Mullins boasted the favourites for all but a handful of the 28 races, making it something of a foregone conclusion he would break new ground with a century of wins, with just six victories required.

That the feat – which took just two of the four days – was achieved in the Champion Bumper by a horse ridden by his son, Patrick, seems fitting for a man who is the very embodiment of a racing dynasty.

The 67-year-old is the eldest of four sons and one daughter for the late trainer Paddy Mullins, the man who handled the great mare Dawn Run – the only horse to win both the Champion Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup.

His brothers Tony and Tom are also Grade One-winning trainers, while the aforementioned Patrick is a record-breaking amateur rider whose nephews include top-level jockey Danny, Grand National-winning rider David and Grand National-winning trainer Emmet, illustrating the family’s influence over both Irish and British racing.

A fervent Manchester United supporter, Mullins was a very capable amateur rider himself, riding a Festival winner aboard Wither Or Which back in 1996. But there is no doubt the best thing he ever did was hang up his saddle and concentrate fully on his training career.

It has been a series of smashed records ever since, with Mullins crowned the champion trainer in Ireland in each of the last 17 years, clicking through the number milestones with regularity, sending out his 4,000th career winner in January 2023.

Some true equine giants of the sport have passed through his hands, with Florida Pearl the first marquee name for the Closutton team, although Hedgehunter’s 2005 Grand National win propelled him onto the front pages as well as the back.

Mullins’ career has been defined by his Cheltenham domination though, with Hurricane Fly, a 22-times Grade One winner, Un De Sceaux, Douvan, Vautour, Faugheen and Annie Power all achieving superstar status in the Cotswolds.

However, the Cheltenham Gold Cup proved elusive for a long time, with six second places illustrating the difficulty of achieving jump racing’s holy grail.

But Al Boum Photo righted that wrong in 2019, before following up in 2020, with Galopin Des Champs adding a third triumph for the trainer last year and a hot favourite to make it four on Friday.

The Mullins momentum has barely been checked and he is an illustration of the old adage success breeds success, with owners clamouring to send their big-money recruits to be trained by a true genius of the sport.

Even Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary – a man not known for a lack of opinion – had to change his mind about jettisoning Mullins’ services back in 2016.

Increased training fees were mentioned as a reason at the time, but O’Leary had runners back in the yard for the first time since this season, proving that maybe you really do get what you pay for.

Patrick Mullins in fact pointed to that split as a catalyst for the yard’s exceptional success in recent years, describing how that blow drove his father forward to seek new horses, owners and staff, underlining his determination and willingness to look beyond the obvious.

Married to Jackie, the couple took part in the royal carriage procession before racing at Royal Ascot last year.

There is no doubt Mullins is out on his own at this point by any measure and while he admitted on Wednesday he would relish a bit more competition, his rivals have more than a bit of ground to make up.

Perhaps his former jockey Ruby Walsh – himself a great of the sport – put it best: “It’s awesome, an incredible achievement as a manager, because that what he is, a sporting manager.

“He is like the CEO, his wife is the CFO, his son is the managing director and he’s doing it all.”

Ruby is right – when it comes to managers, in racing terms Mullins is Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola rolled into one.

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