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The rise of Willie Mullins as he bids to land historic UK trainers’ championship

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John Ingles charts the career of Ireland’s perennial champion trainer and his landmark successes.

It may have gone largely unnoticed among some other of his other achievements this season, but seven winners on Easter Sunday took Willie Mullins’ total to a new record for an Irish jumps season. That was on March 31 with a month or so of the Irish season still to run and which reaches its climax at the Punchestown Festival next week where Mullins will doubtless be clocking up plenty more winners.

Mullins’ domestic totals in Ireland are as good a measure as any of the rise of a trainer whose first success in that capacity came when Silver Batchelor won a bumper at Thurles in February 1988, ridden by Mullins himself who was Ireland’s champion amateur jockey six times.

From a modest start, his seasonal tallies grew steadily and in the foot-and-mouth hit season of 2000/01 he was champion in Ireland for the first time, though that proved only a brief interruption to the reign of Noel Meade who was Ireland’s dominant jumps trainer at the beginning of the current century. But Mullins’ statistics continued on an upward curve and in 2007/08 he left his previous best well behind when training more than a hundred winners for the first time (111), thereby ending Meade’s era as champion trainer for good. Mullins has retained his title every season since so that he’s all set to be crowned Ireland’s champion jumps trainer for the 17th year running, and 18th in all, after Punchestown next week.

Ten years after his first century of winners, Mullins hit a double-century for the first time in 2017/18, though his final total of 212 was only two more than Gordon Elliott who’d been the first to reach 200 winners in an Irish jumps season. Elliott held a lead of more than €500,000 going into the final week at Punchestown only for Mullins’ 18 winners at the Festival – ‘if we had a race for the stable cat I’m sure that would have been up there too’ – swinging the balance his way. Mullins broke his own record last season – again on Easter Sunday – before a final total of 237 winners, though as already mentioned he’s raised the bar again this year.

Mullins’ winners can now be measured in their thousands and another indication of how steeply his graph of success has risen was that it took him almost 20 years to train his first thousand winners but little more than another six before he hit two thousand at Leopardstown on Boxing Day 2013. Less than ten years after that – in January 2023 – Mullins trained his 4,000th winner when Bronn won a beginners chase at Fairyhouse.

But for all his day-in day-out success on his home turf, it’s Mullins’ success in the biggest races elsewhere, notably at the Cheltenham Festival where he has established himself as the most successful trainer in the meeting’s history, which make at least as impressive reading.

Another nine winners there this year – one short of his record total set in 2022 – took him past the milestone of a hundred Festival winners to a current total of 103. The first of those came when the mare Tourist Attraction caused a 25/1 surprise in the 1995 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Mullins has now won the Supreme seven times, including with Douvan and Vautour, two of the highest-rated horses he has trained later in their careers as chasers.

But it’s the Champion Bumper in which Mullins has had most success at the Festival. His first winner, Wither Or Which in 1996, dates from the time when he was still riding, as well as training, winners, while Jasmin de Vaux took his number of wins in that race to thirteen in March.

It wasn’t until well into his training career, once starting to attract big-spending owners after establishing himself as champion in Ireland, that Mullins began to make his mark in the main championship races at Cheltenham. The first of those prizes to fall to Closutton was the Champion Hurdle, won by Hurricane Fly in 2011, the same year that Mullins became leading trainer at the Festival for the first time. That’s a title he’s held for the last six years and eleven times in all. Hurricane Fly won back his crown two years later before the Rich and Susannah Ricci-owned pair Faugheen and Annie Power won back-to-back renewals in 2015 and 2016, with State Man winning the latest edition for another of the yard’s biggest supporters Joe and Marie Donnelly.

A couple of Stayers’ Hurdles, courtesy of Nichols Canyon and Penhill, soon followed in 2017 and 2018, and, after saddling the runner-up no fewer than six times, Mullins finally won the biggest Cheltenham prize of all when Al Boum Photo won the Gold Cup for the Donnellys in 2019, a victory he repeated a year later. That was a feat matched by Galopin des Champs when winning his second Gold Cup in March. The Queen Mother Champion Chase proved still more elusive until Energumene gave his trainer a first win in that contest in 2022 before he too won the race again a year later.

Mullins’ success at the latest Cheltenham Festival, coupled with his second winner of the Grand National – there was a 19-year gap between the victories of Hedgehunter and I Am Maximus – have helped put him within reach of becoming champion trainer in Britain seventy years after Vincent O’Brien had last achieved that feat from an Irish base. Mullins had gone very close before though, losing out to Paul Nicholls in 2015/16 in a tussle that went right down to the final day of the season at Sandown.

Jumps trainers have much less scope for international success than their Flat counterparts, but that hasn’t stopped Mullins setting his sights further than just Britain when it comes to big prizes abroad. When Nobody Told Me won the Grande Course de Haies d’Auteuil in 2003, she became the first overseas horse to win France’s top hurdle since the great Dawn Run trained by Mullins’ father Paddy to whom he served as assistant in his younger days. As well as winning ‘the French Champion Hurdle’ on another four occasions since, among other successful raids on Auteuil, Mullins has paved the way for the likes of David Pipe, Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson to win the same race. Mullins hasn’t won the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris yet but it could only be a matter of time and Franco de Port’s third place in 2022 was a better showing than most overseas challengers have managed.

Scaramanga’s win in the Iroquois Steeplechase last May was a notable Grade 1 success on American turf, but Mullins’ enterprise at finding opportunities overseas paid off most spectacularly with Blackstairmountain who remains the only European-trained horse to have won the Nakayama Grand Jump, Japan’s most valuable race over jumps, after his success in 2003. More recently, Mullins has won valuable prizes further afield on the Flat – in both Australia and Saudi Arabia – with the mare True Self who began her career in bumpers.

Indeed, True Self is a reminder that not all of Mullins’ big winners have been confined to the jumps. Another to start out in bumpers was the remarkably versatile Wicklow Brave, winner of the 2016 Irish St Leger, whose other successes included a County Hurdle, a Punchestown Champion Hurdle and a Grade 3 novice chase. Among important staying handicaps on the Flat in Britain, Mullins won the Ebor for a second time when Absurde was successful last summer and has won three editions of the Cesarewitch, while at Royal Ascot he has won the Ascot Stakes and Queen Alexandra Stakes four times each.

In a season when Mullins is set to become champion in Britain as well as Ireland, when he reached a hundred career winners at Cheltenham, won all eight of the Grade 1 races at the Dublin Racing Festival and set another new record for winners in an Irish season, it begs the question of what else Mullins, who turns 68 later this year, might yet achieve before he decides to hand over the reins at Closutton to son Patrick.

Perhaps the last word should go to Mullins junior on the secret of his father’s success. ‘Being a good trainer is more than having fit horses. He’s well able to source good owners and he’s well able to source good horses for those owners and that’s the key. We have so many expensive horses coming into our yard every season. There’s new blood every year. He’s never sat back. He’s continually looking for the next crop of horses and the next crop of owners.’


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