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Why leading trainer Mullins isn't dwelling on past heartbreak as he aims to clinch Gold Cup at long last

As Cheltenham rolls into view, we look at how legendary Willie rose to the top of his profession from humble beginnings and his determination to finally land Festival's biggest prize in style

By Vincent Hogan

The great irony of his Festival last year was how the race that became a turning point was won by a horse known for the equine composure of a drugs mule with unravelling secrets.

What thoughts, you wonder, must have crowded Willie Mullins' head, watching Ruby Walsh guide that notorious blackguard Yorkhill down to the start of the JLT Novices' Chase? Two days down, two blanks on the sheet for Closutton. And a spell of gloom on the yard that Chopin could have put music to.

When a lame 2/9 Douvan had been reduced to an anecdote in Wednesday's Champion Chase, we watched Mullins and owner Rich Ricci go through their stone-faced forensic-like mourners pitched upon a theatre stage. In that moment, the enclosure could have been a war room.

Now, first race Thursday, Mullins looked to Yorkhill for redemption. To this "big, ignorant yoke", as Andrew McNamara recently described him, taking to the challenge of Cheltenham's fences with the manageable compliance that every single soul in the valley knew was alien to his nature.

It looked as if Willie was investing faith in a rodeo ride. Except, of course, the feet in the stirrups were Ruby's.

When people talk of great Cheltenham rides, Walsh's coercion of Yorkhill, specifically the extent to which he codded and manipulated and, essentially, brain-washed the horse into settling for an inside line where he had a reputation for seeing snakes in the grass, should be right up there.

A jockey weighing, say, 65kg, can't possibly have physical command of a creature tipping the scales at 500-plus. The only relationship that can work between them is one based on human intuition and intelligence.

Walsh himself has likened his earliest days in the saddle to "Benny Hill on a horse", so it says something for his capacity to self-educate that he is now seen as the very definition of ethereal lightness on the most complicated and quarrelsome of horses.

That victory on Yorkhill kick-started a run of four victories on Day Three for the Mullins-Walsh combination, restating their position as the most trustworthy Festival collaboration of modern times.

And the wonder of it all had been Mullins' good manners and easy courtesy when in the eye of the storm.

Jockeys used to say of his father, Paddy, that he could tell them more about their mount after a race than they knew themselves. When Willie Mullins was asked about those first two blank days last year, he assured us that he couldn't see too many instances of his horses being assailed by bad luck. In other words, he knew this didn't amount to any dark conspiracy of the fates.

He simply counselled realism and patience, proving neither precious before Yorkhill's victory, nor sanctimonious after.

Mullins had gone to Gloucestershire an 8/15 favourite to finish leading trainer at the Festival for the sixth time in seven years. By the start of Day Three, he was friendless in that market. So to eventually lose his crown only on countback, having tied with Gordon Elliott on six winners apiece, must have felt like some kind of seismic personal triumph.

After all, he'd lost an estimated 60 Gigginstown horses from his yard the previous September in a conflict over training fees and would, ultimately, be pushed to the final race of the National Hunt season at Punchestown to secure a 10th consecutive Irish trainers' title after an extraordinary, season-long chase of a "heartbroken" Elliott.

That title safely secured, Mullins candidly reflected: "It's been a funny season. It hasn't been very enjoyable and I'm glad it's over!"

His six Festival wins in 2017 drew him to within four of Nicky Henderson's record (58) and there's little doubt he will entertain real ambition of narrowing that gap over the coming week in the Cotswolds. That won't be easy, mind, given Henderson boasts the current market favourites to win the three principal Festival prizes.

Having Buveur d'Air (4/9 for The Champion Hurdle), Altior (4/6 for the Champion Chase) and Might Bite (3/1 for the Gold Cup) in one yard means Henderson is seen as having a shot at becoming the first trainer in Cheltenham history to win the Festival's three biggest prizes in the same year.

Ostensibly, that might seem to put him in better shape than Mullins.

But a suspicion brews that the Closutton maestro is perfectly happy heading to this year's Festival with so much preview spotlight focusing heavily on Seven Barrows. For the truth is Mullins looks set to have chances in every Championship race too, without the complicating energy of going there with a virtual target on his forehead.

The romantic scenario, of course, would be victories for Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle and Douvan in the Champion Chase.

But this is an industry in which romance seldom out-runs hard-bitten realism. Faugheen's Christmas implosion at Leopardstown was, at least, partially redeemed by that second to Jessica Harrington's Supasundae in the Irish Champion Hurdle. But, ominously, no horse has ever reclaimed Cheltenham's blue riband hurdle prize after a three-year gap.

And Douvan?

He hasn't been seen since suffering that first defeat in 14 runs at last year's Festival and, frankly, it takes quite a leap of faith to imagine him getting the better of Altior next week, albeit Henderson's horse was confined to his box for a month following a wind operation.

Factoring in how his No.1 jockey, Walsh, has been out of the saddle for three months, you might imagine that Mullins has serious cause for foreboding as he heads to the West Country.

Yet, he has always taken his lead from the kind of people who regard success and failure as twin imposters. Four years ago, people thought he might lodge an appeal against Lord Windermere's victory in the Gold Cup after a lengthy stewards' enquiry focused on interference with his horse, On His Own.

Mullins has yet to win that great race, saddling the runner-up on a remarkable six occasions now. Yet he had no interest in breaking his duck via appeal.

In Punchestown two years ago, he told me: "A lot of people said we should have appealed, but I didn't want, and my owner certainly didn't want, to win it in the middle of May in London. There'd be no joy coming out with that. I used to be the opposite, but now I treat it as a ref's decision in a match. I don't know if I've ever seen a ref change his mind but, every week in football, you see 10 players around one giving out. Crazy stuff.

"That's what I love about Brian Cody and Kilkenny hurling, they get on with the game. I love the way they come out and play, end of story. You get a kick on the shin? Forget it. The ball's over there, go for it. Don't be looking for the ref to sort it out. I like my horses to run like that.

"And I like my riders to be like that. Get out, race-ride and if there's something on, get over it. Because if you dwell on it, you'll never win anything. Just go out there with more grit next time.

"Hasn't worked for me in the Gold Cup yet mind!"

It is a mindset almost certainly inherited from his late father too. For theirs was never a silver-spoon existence, despite Paddy's own father - William - owning a 300-acre farm at Doninga in Goresbridge, Co Kilkenny. When William Mullins passed away, the entire estate went - as was the tradition then - to his eldest son, Jim.

It meant that Paddy and his wife, Maureen, settled into the stewards' house in Doninga, Paddy training his horses in what his former head lad and stable jockey Ferdie Murphy once described as "an old stubble field which had plenty of stones, the kind of place Vincent O'Brien would not walk his horses".

Paddy also made clear a hope that his children might sidestep the scratch-card emotion of the racing industry for professions carrying promise of a robust pension.

Yet this was never likely, given the love of horses so palpable in their home, Maureen once joking that Paddy almost confused the creatures in his yard with household pets, even the ones inclined to run like Morris Minors wheezing on dirty petrol. "He'd always say something positive about them," she once said. "Even if it was that they were good feeders!"

As it happens, each of the Mullins children still live within a 10-mile radius of Doninga Stables today - Willie, Tony and Tom having all trained Cheltenham Festival winners; Sandra being a successful breeder; and George now recognised as having the most successful equine transport business in Ireland.

In Closutton, Willie's wife Jackie runs the business side of things as well as their breeding operation, while son Patrick is his assistant trainer as well as a multiple Irish champion amateur jockey.

Yet this has never been a story of entitlement or comfortable lineage.

When Willie Mullins first took out a training licence in January of '88, he got it only through an act of gentle subterfuge. The requirement for any aspiring trainer was to have a minimum of six horses in work but, an old mare having passed away not long before the Turf Club inspector came visiting, Mullins had only five.

Indicating that the field where he kept the mare was "wet and mucky", he persuaded the inspector to simply tick the box, recalling years later: "We had the passport alright, just hadn't got the horse!"

Those circumstances seem unimaginable today, given the breadth and sophistication of the Closutton operation which, even with the disruptions brought about by recent snowfall, is still expected to direct a 50-plus string to the Cotswolds next week, Mullins attempting to close in on Henderson's remarkable record.

And he will do so armed again with the talents of the man who has been leading rider at the Festival for nine of the last 10 years.

Walsh's haul of 56 Festival winners may never be surpassed, given the man leading the chase, Barry Geraghty, is 22 behind. Indeed, a successful week for Ruby now could result in him doubling the Festival tally of AP McCoy (31), for whom a statue has already been erected at the racecourse.

Those figures would indemnify most against criticism or even direction and Walsh is seen as such a tough, self-sufficient competitor, it seems hard to imagine any trainer upbraiding him for the occasional lapse of judgment. Ostensibly, Mullins' amiable courtesy also gives the impression of someone for whom conflict is not a natural setting.

Yet Walsh, contracted exclusively to Closutton for the last five years, leaves nobody in any doubt about who - ultimately - calls the shots in the yard.

"Me working for Willie Mullins is no different to anybody going in to work anywhere," he explained last year. "Willie's still my boss so, if I'm not in good form, I can't bark at him. I don't think anybody goes into work and barks at their boss.

"At the end of the day, Roy Keane didn't get away with barking at Alex Ferguson, did he? You can't do that. Your boss is still your boss, whoever you are. And maybe that's what puts a bit of control, a bit of manners on you and gets you back to concentrating in a professional manner."

For Mullins, authority has always been a gift communicated with dignity and composure and he never wavered from that path last year, even when Cheltenham began throwing the maths of panic in his direction.

In the end, he did what he always does. He worked through the storm. He held his nerve. And with Walsh's matchless aid, they pulled a song from a horse so many others dismissed as a sociopath.

Belfast Telegraph

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