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Dublin: 11°C Tuesday 20 April 2021

The disarming genius Mullins, chats about Faugheen over pints and the change from Ruby to Townend

Willie Mullins has so many big names, horses and owners, yet he nearly always seems to get his way.

Trainer Willie Mullins at his yard in Carlow today.
Trainer Willie Mullins at his yard in Carlow today.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

DAVID CASEY IS bargaining with a hangover and, like his favourite football team last night, coming out the wrong side.

“I stayed out after the Liverpool game,” he tells me as we shelter from the rain in a barn in Closutton, hugely promising bumper horse Ferny Hollow watching on.

“It wasn’t a good idea. I rarely do it midweek. Now I have to get up on a four-year-old and ride him out.”

His boss, Willie Mullins, was also in the Lord Bagenal, where an annual quiz took place to honour the late Mark O’Hanlon on Tuesday evening. Not that you’d know it from him.

Mullins hits the pensioner stakes next year but he barely seems to age at all. Today, he welcomed the English and Irish media on Cheltenham’s behalf, tossing around jokes with everyone and full of chat four weeks before the Festival.

“That’s a story I’ll tell you all better if you turn off your phones,” he says in relation to the sale of a horse.

I asked Casey what sets Mullins apart and he reckons it is that his boss sees things other do not see. One thing he needs to be that many trainers do not is a diplomat, a delegator, a politician.

Mullins has so many big names, horses and owners, yet he nearly always seems to get his way. His owners defer to the disarming genius.

a-view-of-horses-out-on-the-gallops A view of horses out on the gallops at Willie Mullins yard. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

On Un De Sceaux, owned by the O’Connells from Cork, however, might be an anomaly:

“Yes… the owners want to run him in the Queen Mother but I’d prefer the Ryanair,” and then he responds to Richie Forristal, Irish editor of the Racing Post: “You know yourself how stubborn Cork people could be.”

Mullins, not unreasonably, does not fancy Un De Sceaux in what looks the most competitive Queen Mother we have seen since the days of Moscow Flyer and Azertyuiop.

“Patrick might ride him, I suppose,” he adds, not overly enthused.

It would at least be nice, someone says, for his son to ride a stable favourite like the veteran Un De Sceaux in the Queen Mother, a race the yard has yet to win.

“Yes,” Mullins says, “though the photographer would be better to take a photo of them passing the line the first time.”

Mullins prefers owners like Joe Donnelly who, along with wife Marie, can lay claim to be one of Ireland’s most serious art collectors. He has a picture in Asterion Forlonge, but then again he has another in Shishkin, trained by Nicky Henderson.

Both are very good novices. The problem is, with both likely bound for the Supreme, only one of them can win.

“I spoke to Joe Donnelly who said ‘do whatever you want’,” Mullins said with a smile.

“I like that about Joe, and it has always been the case with him: he tells me do to what I feel is right for the horse. At the moment that’s where he is going.”

His best-known owner is perhaps Rich Ricci, rich by name and nature, though not so much in terms of a conversation that the pair were said to have had yesterday. Inevitably, talk turns to Faugheen, to Benie Des Dieux.

One gets the feeling that, for whatever reason, the champion trainer is not too keen on the prospect of the 12-year-old Faugheen going to Cheltenham, but he is nuanced about what may have been said between owner and trainer.

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john-codd-on-faugheen John Codd on Faugheen Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Remember Faugheen’s win at Leopardstown that brought the proverbial house down?

Rich and Willie went for pints afterwards, which presumably lasted a while, but Cheltenham never came up!

“We didn’t talk about Cheltenham when Faugheen won at Leopardstown at Christmas. That was about celebrating the win that day,” says the trainer, and there is no reason to think he may be wrong.

“Rich texted me yesterday and said ‘I know it’s your press morning tomorrow, do remember we have not spoken about plans yet’.”

Then it is put to the champion trainer that Ricci mooted brilliant mare Benie Des Dieux being supplemented for the Champion Hurdle, something that he confirms will happen Cilaos Emery.

“Did he, did he? He hasn’t spoken to me about it. He did say yesterday evening he hadn’t spoken about plans,” he adds with a grin.

Likely she goes for the mares’ hurdle, but the stayers’ route has not been totally ruled out. I wonder which one Ricci prefers, even if his trainer might not.

It says something for Mullins’ firepower that he can bat away Cheltenham absentees like Douvan, Saldier and Footpad without much in the way of a headline. He has a smart novice for every race and his competitive side is in evidence when we discuss another of Donnelly’s nags, The Big Getaway, who must take on Envoi Allen in the Ballymore Novice Hurdle.

Would he be afraid of taking on a horse that seems unbeatable, trained by the man chasing his tail like a ravenous dog?

“Definitely not. I’m not shying away.”

He loves Chacun Pour Soi, who bids to provide the barn with a first Queen Mother winner, and his loyalty towards jockeys shines through in his explanation why Paul Townend will likely ride Al Boum Photo, last year’s winner, over Kemboy, last year’s faller, in the Gold Cup.

It was only the previous season that Townend had made the biggest mistake of his career at Punchestown, which resulted in Al Boum Photo blowing a near-certain win in a Grade 1 race.

“In last year’s race you could see Paul thinking, ‘just keep jumping’ and hope that the Punchestown demons didn’t kick in!

“Even the year before Ruby broke his leg on him (at Cheltenham in the JLT). You don’t know what is going through a lad at that stage.

“Ruby was injured so much, Paul (has) been here so long, Paul was champion jockey when Ruby was out, assuming the mantle of number one jockey brings on a bit of extra pressure. It wasn’t that he was coming from another yard.

paul-townend-on-min Paul Townend on Min Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“He knows the way the yard operates, he knows the way we think, he knows how we like the horses ridden. We didn’t think of it as a transition. The only difference is Paul might have felt more pressure himself.

“A lot of the decisions are mine, not Paul’s. Don’t be riding horses that…you can get injured any day of the week. Stay right for the big meetings. That’s the important thing.”

And know that your boss is a genius.

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Johnny Ward

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