track legend There is nobody who has walked the sporting terrain that I more admire more than Willie Mullins
IF they handicapped horse-whisperers as they do their equine locomotives, Willie Mullins would ferry a weight so crushing it might have reduced Arkle to a crawl.
Mullins has not merely brushed against the history of his chosen code, he has re-written it, grazing, week after week, year after year, against eternity.
He stands alone as Cheltenham’s sovereign, Dysart Dynamo, Appreciate It, Blue Lord, Gaelic Warrior and Stattler among the four-legged legion who will this afternoon seek to add to his untouchable 78 March triumphs in the storied bowl he long ago made his private Cotswold dominion.
At Punchestown next month he will gallop, on the bridle, to a 15th successive Irish training championship.
Not that the Closutton Caesar, fiercely driven yet unboastful, would ever be remotely inclined to emulate the bombastic demigods of Ancient Rome in riding his chariot down racing’s Via Appia in imperious triumph.
In the public realm, he is as even-tempered as a still-life. The temperate climate of his nature is rarely given to public squalls, never mind tempests.
He has arrived at this apex of power without ever compromising on the understated restraint, a lovely, largely lost, old-world loyalty and doffed-fedora civility that, twinned with a genius in coaxing animals to run like the wind, is his calling card.
This essential humanity is one of the reasons so many of us will be in Mullins’s corner as the Gloucestershire valley works its old magic this week.
On our wonder through life, a small number of sporting figures locate a special place in the soul’s affections. Their deeds move us, yielding electrifying memories, the wattage of which stubbornly declines to dim with the passing years.
This grizzled observer would nominate Michael Jordan, Padraig Harrington, Diarmuid Connolly, Kellie Harrington, John Mullane, Ruby Walsh, James McCarthy, Roy Keane, Shane Lowry, Lionel Messi, Maurice Fitzgerald, Steph Curry, Henry Shefflin, Paul McGrath, Anton O'Toole, The Tiger and Seve on any longlist of favourites.
But there is nobody who has walked the sporting terrain I more admire than Mullins.
The combination of bygone era gentility, rounded world view, rapacious hunger to dine out on the biggest days, easy intelligence, polished articulation, mannered communication and unquenchable lust for life, set WP apart.
It makes Mullins, at once, a man of yesterday and tomorrow.
For, if he brings the courtesy and manners of a rural English vicar to the track, he combines it with a penetrating eye, rare emotional intelligence and an innovative, approach to conquering the demanding terrain that is his factory floor.
His son Patrick, a trusted lieutenant as well as a record-shattering amateur rider, draws from the deepest well of eloquent affection when shining a light on his sire.
He has described his father as “old school”, noting the absence from Closutton of heart monitors, treadmills and swimming pools, cutting-edge aids to performance so familiar at rival stables.
But Mullins has the most state-of-the-art facility of all: A mind that intuitively understands the magnificent athletic creatures whose rough edges he so often sculpts to perfection.
If he would be horrified by the idea of social media self-promotion or the attention-seeking flourishes favoured by managers in other codes who could not hold a candle to his achievements, still he is a cutting edge winning machine.
To the point where your would have to speculate 30 euro on him to be leading trainer this week merely to win a tenner.
But it is his unshakeable decency, his everyday living of Rudyard Kipling’s “If”, the sameness with which he treats the twin imposters of triumph and disaster, that sets Mullins apart.
That selfless grace, the refusal to bathe in the shallows of self-pity or the kick-out when the sporting gods look the other way, once drew Ruby Walsh into the unfamiliar territory of sentiment to deliver a beautiful, eloquent tribute.
“I love working for him. I’m there since I was 16 when he offered me a job. That’s a long time to work for anybody, but we haven’t fallen out yet.
“Whenever anything goes wrong, he’s standing right behind you.
“You could make an absolute cock-up of something and he never says anything. There isn’t a more loyal man in training.”
Few would be inclined to disagree with the impeccable word picture painted by the Rembrandt of race riding, who, three years on from competitive retirement remains a vital figure in Willie’s trusted kitchen cabinet.
Think of Mullins when a freak gallop accident thieved the life from the potentially immortal Vautour, when injury diminished Faugheen and Douvan in their prime.
His response was informed by an absolute absence of self-pity, by the impressive restraint of an individual who accepts that he operates on a frontier where an ambush from fate can lurk behind any drumlin or esker.
Likewise when Michael O’Leary, seeking to transfer his cost cutting aviation model to training fees, summarily withdrew 60 animals from the Mullins yard.
Mullins was stoic, stubborn, principled, understanding his value and unwilling to sell himself short. What might have been a catastrophe in other hands was reimagined as an opportunity. He found new owners, extended his yard, grew stronger. Without ever compromising on his dignity.
Remember when Paul Townend catastrophically rode Al Boum Photo onto the wrong course at Punchestown in 2018?
There was no strop, no lashing out, no bemoaning a huge purse lost, no pursuit of recrimination. Instead, as Walsh highlighted, Mullins, emphatically, had his jockey’s back.
That it was Townend who sent thunder echoing across the Cotswold valley a year later when steering the same horse to Gold Cup glory spoke again of that bottomless reservoir of fidelity and good breeding from which the trainer draws.
If that unfading, landmark Cheltenham Friday, seemed to fill every blank on the glittering Mullins CV, still, a lone cavity remains on his Prestbury Park wall of glory.
The Champion Chase, that invigorating two-mile adrenalin rush of bold jumping at frenetic speed, has remained elusive.
Tomorrow, Mullins will send out two titans of his team, Energumene and Chacun Pour Soi, to prospect for one of the last National Hunt nuggets yet to find a home in his treasure chest of accomplishments.
Standing in his path is Nicky Henderson’s mighty Shiskin, whose January duel with Energumene brought an enthralling, heavyweight hint of Rumble in the Jungle to Ascot’s moneyed establishment.
It could be the race of the week, perhaps even the decade, a modern take on Kauto Star v Denman, or Arkle v Mill House.
Racing loyalties are largely governed by the name on a betting slip, but I could invest every last shilling in the Paddy Power account on the English horse and still I would find myself cheering for Mullins if the main protagonists where to meet the rising ground in a line.
If Mullins was to take down the Saxon champion, there is no doubt his pulse would race and all those liberated endorphins would send a rush of joy into his bloodstream.
But, publicly, he would remain a triumph of retro decorum.
One more eternal moment would be greeted with a doff of the fedora, followed by a dignified, understated, cerebral, sharing-of-the-glory TV interview.
Just the latest example of a unique horse whisper again carrying himself with the poise and class of Arkle in his untouchable prime.
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