TONY Mullins was one of only a few who remained in the front of the Leopardstown stands last Sunday week, not long after the final race of the Dublin Racing Festival had been run.
In front of him, bookmakers packed away their equipment, the majority of them hammered by a plethora of short-priced favourites obliging on the day. That was much to the joy of a capital crowd who had retreated inside with money to spend. The music got louder, the cheers and laughter got harder and the queues for the bar got bigger.
Tony’s brother Willie had dominated the card. So much so that a chorus of “There’s only one Willie Mullins” echoed around the enclosures after Sir Gerhard powered home in the last Grade 1 of the weekend. And yet for most, the attraction was still Honeysuckle. They clapped as she went clear, 14 out of 14 and back-to-back Irish Champion Hurdles to boot.
She was queen for the day. But now it was time for a Princess.
Mullins watched his unmistakable grey mare cover a mile and a half of ground through his binoculars. He watched her see off her work partner without much fuss but more importantly, he watched her run through the finish line and then saw her continue on down the back straight, only pulling up by the time she got to the second fence on the circuit.
It was job done. Another box ticked towards the next objective of a remarkable story. While the majority of horses running on this weekend had Cheltenham in their plans, for Princess Zoe, it’s next stop Saudi.
The plan was hatched all of eight months ago, shortly after the mare came back from Ascot where she put up a huge performance to finish second in the Gold Cup, having been written off by many on account of a couple of average runs at the start of her season and the quick ground that prevailed at the royal meeting.
“Going to Ascot, I was quite happy she was going to act on the quick ground,” Mullins recalls this week. “But it was what we were going to have when we came back that made me anxious. We were 50:50 having walked the track that morning but everyone kept saying the rain was coming.
“We ran and she obviously put up a huge performance to be second to a good winner in Subjectivist. As luck would have it, there was a deluge of 40mm after racing. It went from good to firm to needing an inspection the following morning!
“But the amazing thing was there was no sign of wear and tear on her joints and tendons the next morning. She was absolutely fine. I rang Paddy (Kehoe) and Philomena (Crampton) shortly after and said we have to have a look at this prize money in Saudi Arabia.
“We had thought about the race before, but the likely quick ground put us off, but now that she showed she could handle that, it has opened the door.”
Princess Zoe will compete for the $2.5 million Red Sea Turf Handicap, run over just short of two miles, at Riyadh next Saturday. Needless to say it’s the richest race Mullins has ever competed in, though he did ride Grabel to win the Dueling Grounds International at Kentucky in the colours of Keogh and for his father Paddy in 1990. That contest was worth $750,000, which an economist will tell you is worth just over $1.5 million in today’s money.
Needless to say, despite that win, and a series of achievements as a jockey and trainer, most notably through Dawn Run, Mullins holds the achievements of Princess Zoe, at the top of his tree.
It is truly an amazing story that he will never tire of telling. In a little over three months Princess Zoe went from getting beaten off a mark of 64 in a Navan handicap to Group 1 winner at ParisLongchamp. He describes that first year as a “whirlwind”, like a dream that just kept getting better and better.
Her rating sequence went 64, 70, 83, 90, 101, 110, as she caught the imagination of the racing public with wins at the Curragh, Galway and then that remarkable last gasp win in the Prix du Cadran for her regular partner Joey Sheridan, the teenager providing another remarkable link to the story. Her groom Jackie Carter has also struck up an amazing relationship, and has become imperative to her success.
“Dawn Run was unbelievable but maybe I was too young to appreciate it,” Mullins reflects. “I was so inexperienced that when I got jocked off her for the Gold Cup, I thought I’d just win it the following year or the year after! I just didn’t realise how hard it was to win a Gold Cup.
“We’ve trained a lot of winners over the years, Grade 1 winners, Cheltenham winners, but nothing excited me like this one. Everything we did moved us on to the next level. There was never a setback. It all happened so fast it was unbelievable.”
Naturally, it’s tougher at the top and though she put up that excellent performance at Ascot, Zoe failed to win in four starts last season. That however, hasn’t deterred her trainer.
“She had a 110 rating after her 2020 season and she finished last season at 114. That backed up what I thought, that she had improved. Unbelievably, the indications are that she has improved again. Danny (Mullins, son) rode her for that piece of work at Leopardstown and he thought the same.
“I was devastated she got beaten in the Cadran on her last start. I was so confident going into the race and while watching it, because until she came to the bend into the straight, I thought it was a formality, and then she just stopped.
“Something happened to her. Joey didn’t feel anything and I didn’t see anything but she came home with a swollen leg so something obviously hit her on the bend. I’ve watched the race back a thousand times and I can’t spot it but something had to have happened. I promised I’d never let myself get as confident again before a race but the important thing is she was absolutely fine, and she’s flying now.”
It’s just over three years since Mullins last did this piece with Daragh Ó Conchúir. In that interview, the trainer talked about moving towards the flat scene. He made a particular point of bemoaning Gigginstown and J.P. McManus numerically dominating the big handicap races year round, and also pointed out a severe staffing problem.
The outlook of Irish jumps owners has changed somewhat, not because the authorities did anything about it Mullins says, but because it naturally fizzled away, but the staffing situation has got worse.
“It’s chronic,” he asserts. “It’s not just an awkward situation, it’s chronic. I’m all for lads earning what they can but no matter what the smaller trainers give them, the big boys will just up their training fees, and up their wages and give them more.
“At the moment, in National Hunt racing, in the smaller yards, it’s literally wife, husband and child and maybe two lads in the yard. The situation is double chronic. We can’t get working visas for people. There are loads of Brazilians and Pakistanis that would love to come and work but even the ones that are here, they are just centralised in those major yards.
Tony Mullins with son Danny after a winner at Dundalk \ Healy Racing
“If you go and look at the championship there, the top three lads are handling at least 350 horses each. When you get below that there might be a few and then literally a few more places down, you’re down to lads with 20 horses or less. That can’t be healthy.
“Hours don’t matter to our people. It’s getting them. Jesus, some of those stable lads and girls, they work so hard and they’re brilliant at it. They go off to Sligo there for hours of a drive and they’re back late and then they’re riding out the next morning.
“They’re iron men and women and they don’t mind it and we all do it. Since the thing got centralised to these few trainers, we can’t get the extra staff to work in our yards to compete. Eventually that is going to cause a twin tower situation - it will topple over in the end. So while everybody is saying in the papers, ‘Oh it’s great the Irish are beating the lard out of England,’ that could turn very quickly still.”
He says that Princess Zoe’s exploits haven’t swung a major difference to his string of horses and it’s still as hard as ever to compete in Ireland. The suggestion that buying store horses at a viable price is no longer viable given the emergence of the point-to-point buy-sell model is replied to in a typical Tony Mullins manner.
“You could put it in any fancy way you like but it’s about the big cheque books wiping everyone out of the game. That’s what it is. Don’t worry about putting fancy explanations on it.
“Now there are lads that have benefited from the point-to-point scene. I think they’re brilliant, they’re doing their job and they’re bringing along beautiful horses but I think it is very important that there is a broad base and that was certainly narrowed down by the big cheque books and I think that’s not healthy for the game and it should have been addressed. The IHRB could do more - a monopoly shouldn’t be allowed.”
In the meantime, Mullins, like every Irish jumps racing fan, is enjoying the purple patch this sector is moving through at Cheltenham. He is a big attraction at preview nights around the country, so many will be disappointed to hear he’s cut down on them this year, with Paddy Power swooping in to sign him up for their Cheltenham content.
Nonetheless, he has typically strong views. The best place to start is with Honeysuckle, who has moved into the same bracket as Dawn Run for many. Mullins is the perfect man to ask.
“I believe she’s in that league but now she has to go and do it,” he says. “She has that will to win, or never get beat, she’s won over two miles and she’s won over two and a half. She jumps a hurdle like she might jump a fence. Her record is unbelievable. I would say she’s the first one since Dawn Run that could match her ability. She hasn’t done it yet but I believe she could do it.
So what’s the Tony Mullins banker for Cheltenham?
“It’s still too early for me,” he replies. “Lads are on to me on Twitter asking me for an antepost tip. It’s hard enough to back a winner at Cheltenham when the flag is dropped, never mind a month in advance.
“But listen, I love Allaho. I think he’ll win. And, having praised Honeysuckle, I think she’ll have to be all we think of her to beat Appreciate It. This is not a forgone conclusion because this fella will take a lot of beating. I’d have no problem with him going there first time up, that’s not an issue for a trainer of Willie’s calibre.
“I think Kilcruit will win the Supreme as well. He’s a horse with a real high cruising speed and he looked more like himself the last day. It’s a hot race but I think he’ll win it.”
You can just hear the howls and cheers from the crowd at a preview night. But that’s Tony Mullins for you. As his Twitter bio says, “anybody who knows me will know that all opinions are my own.”
And while he’ll take a strong stance on horses he fancies for Cheltenham, he seems even stronger on Princess Zoe’s bid for riches in Saudi.
“The interesting thing, amazingly, she has only run once for us left-handed, which was her first run in Navan, and that was the day she got beat,” he says. “But all her work riders tell me she goes better left handed. We’re hoping that’s another little ace we have to play.
“There’s a Japanese horse in there and I think an Argentine horse as well but mostly, we’re running against horses we’ve been competing with and beating already in Europe. I think she has improved again. We’re going there with our head held high and we feel we have a winning chance.”
The next generation of the Mullins dynasty
I’m immensely proud of the next generation already. It’s amazing how they’ve become horse men of renown at such a young age. The Mullins are just horses, horses, horses. I remember an aunt of mine giving out to me one day when I couldn’t go to somebody’s wedding. She said: “That’s right of course, you can’t die or get married on the day of the races in the Mullins family!” It’s what we do and we all love it and it’s great we’ve had so much success at it, it’s unbelievable.
Crowds coming back to racing
I was talking to Dublin businessmen in the last fortnight. The excitement in their voice of the enjoyment they got out of coming down to the Thyestes, it was just unbelievable. There was nearly relief in their voices getting back to meeting their friends again, backing losers and quite happy backing losers as long as they were there. Our game is just brilliant and you’d be amazed how many people are into it.
Paddy Kehoe and Philomena Crampton
The first time I met Paddy, we had a horse my dad trained called Park Lad running in Tramore. It’s amazing, ever since everything we’ve touched together just worked out like Party Playboy, Grabel winning the biggest jump race run in the 20th century. Paddy is a punter firstly. He says that himself. He loves to back his horses, he’s been backing Zoe away again for Saudi. Philomena has been there all the time as well. I know Philomena as long as I know Paddy. When Paddy is all the time talking about punting, Philomena is the steady one who says the mare’s well-being is more important than anything.