Willie Mullins reached 4,000 career winners when Bronn dug deep to take the opening race at Fairyhouse on Saturday.
The perennial champion National Hunt trainer, who began training in 1988 having served as assistant to both his father Paddy and to Jim Bolger - has become one of the most dominant names in National Hunt racing and is a 16-time champion.
Mullins is the most successful handler at the Cheltenham Festival with a record 88 winners.
The 66-year-old sent out his first winner at Thurles in 1988 and has won most of the major prizes both on home soil and in Britain during his 35-year career.
A winner of the Grand National with Hedgehunter in 2005, Energumene ensured he had a clean sweep of all of the championship races at the Festival when landing the Champion Chase in 2022.
His first Festival winner came when Tourist Attraction won the 1995 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and he has gone on to win the Cheltenham opener a further six times, while his name will always be synonymous with the Champion Bumper, a race he has trained the winner of on a remarkable occasions.
Other notable names to pass through Closutton include dual Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo, two-time Champion Hurdle hero Hurricane Fly, Faugheen, Florida Pearl and the all-conquering Quevega – the six-time Mares’ Hurdle winner.
Willie Mullins has trained some of the modern greats of National Hunt racing. After reaching the 4,000-winner mark worldwide, we pick out 10 of his best equine stars…
1) Florida Pearl
It is difficult to nominate Florida Pearl’s finest hour. Perhaps his fourth win in the Irish Hennessy (now Irish Gold Cup) as a 12-year-old, maybe his King George success over triple Gold Cup winner Best Mate or even when he justified all the hype as the Irish Banker in 1998 in the Royal & SunAlliance Novice Chase, having missed out hurdling altogether. One thing that is for sure is that he was Mullins’ first real top-class campaigner and it took a while before he would get another. The fact he won the Cheltenham Bumper at five and was still winning at the highest level seven years later was testament to his durability and Mullins’ skill.
2) Hurricane Fly
The list of multiple champions at Cheltenham runs long, Mullins himself has trained a few. However, those that win a championship race, lose the crown only to win it back are held in the highest esteem – think Kauto Star for example, and Hurricane Fly is on that elite list. Injury prevented him from running at Cheltenham until the third attempt, and he landed the odds in fine style in 2011. But when beaten the following year by Rock On Ruby, his reign looked like being short given he would be nine when trying to get his title back. But with nothing holding him back he won three Grade Ones in Ireland before turning up cherry-ripe in March where he was roared up the hill to become the first since Sir Ken in 1975 to regain the crown. While a further seven Grade Ones were won at home, he ran in the Champion Hurdle twice more when quicker ground than ideal and his advancing years saw him finish only fourth and third respectively.
It is fair to say the career of Quevega divides opinion. There are those who feel to win the same race at the Cheltenham Festival on six occasions, the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, is a feat that should be lauded from the rooftops. However, there are also folk who believe the way she was campaigned, making her seasonal debut in the race for the last five years, possibly denied racing fans the opportunity to celebrate her brilliance. That such a brilliant mare was kept in training until a 10-year-old was laudable, that she ran only 18 times for Mullins, four of those in the first six months, possibly not. Another argument which raged for years, not of Mullins’ doing, was the dilution of the Cheltenham Festival prevented her from running in either a Champion Hurdle or the Stayers’. We know she would have been competitive as she won the Punchestown version of the Stayers’ four times, beating the boys.
Nicknamed ‘Faugheen the Machine’, for a long time it was difficult to see quite how he would even be beaten for his first three seasons. On his debut for Mullins he won a bumper for 22 lengths, beating Josses Hill, who went on to be a very good horse for Nicky Henderson. As a novice hurdler he was imperious, winning all five, including what is now the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Surprisingly kept over hurdles the following season, despite Mullins repeatedly saying he wanted to see how he would fare over fences, he won the Champion Hurdle and followed up at Punchestown. The next campaign saw him suffer his first defeat, at the hands of stable companion Nichols Canyon, no mug and a Festival winner in his own right but nevertheless a huge shock. He returned to winning ways in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle and won the Irish Champion Hurdle but then the wheels fell off and he was off the track for 665 days. Despite the absence and the fact he was turning 10 in a month, he was a long odds-on favourite for his return in the Morgiana and duly bolted up but he was pulled up next time out and never quite recaptured the glory days, despite winning Grade 1s as a novice chaser at the age of 12.
5 Un De Sceaux
An absolute winning machine and certainly not a ride for the faint-hearted in his early days, he garnered a huge support by the end of his career. His front-running, bold-jumping style made him hugely popular and the fact he ran in England almost as much as Ireland meant the blue and orange scarves were seen all over. Incredibly, in races he completed when trained by Mullins, he was only out of the first two twice out of 30. Considering most of his career was spent in Grade 1 company, it speaks volumes for his ability first and foremost, but also his constitution. Given those unplaced efforts were in France over three miles and in the Ryanair Chase on ground quicker than ideal, he even had excuses. He did win the Ryanair, and also the Arkle while he also won the Clarence House three times and the Tingle Creek.
Whenever you hear the name Douvan you cannot help but think what might have been. From winning a Gowran novice hurdle in November 2014, he did not taste defeat until the Queen Mother Champion Chase in March 2017. In the intervening 13 races he looked unbeatable but several errors in the Champion Chase contributed to him returning lame. Not seen again until the corresponding race 12 months later he was still travelling strongly when taking a crashing fall four out. He did make Punchestown a month later when beaten by Un De Sceaux but was then off for another 569 days before winning the Clonmel Oil Chase only to never be seen again. One pointer to just how good he was is Sizing John. Having finished second to Douvan five times he stepped up in trip and subsequently won the Gold Cup.
7 Annie Power
It seems very harsh but it is probably true that Annie Power’s place in history will arguably be remembered more for her falling at the final flight with the Mares’ Hurdle at her mercy than for winning the Champion Hurdle 12 months later. She formed part of a hugely popular Mullins accumulator on the first day in 2015 and when the first three – Douvan, Un De Sceaux and Faugheen – all breezed in, the bookies were fearing a day of Frankie Dettori proportions. With the race in the bag approaching the last she took off a stride too soon, hitting the flight halfway up and coming down. Incredibly Mullins still won the race with Glens Melody. The following year she was a tremendously impressive winner of the Champion Hurdle and followed up at Aintree proving without doubt that in 2016 she was the best hurdler around.
Another who was not around long enough, in 14 races for Mullins he won 10, was second three times and fell once. A stunning winner of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2014 when Ruby Walsh said it felt like he was going around on wheels, he went chasing the following season. Surprisingly beaten at Leopardstown over Christmas when clearly not right, following a confidence booster he was sent off favourite for the Arkle and did not disappoint. Agonisingly beaten by Cue Card in the King George the season after, when he was caught on the line, controversy then ensued when owner Rich Ricci stated in the lead up to the Festival he would run in the Gold Cup only for him to ultimately line up in the Ryanair – and win by six lengths. Beaten when dropped to two miles at Punchestown, having fallen at Aintree, he tragically died in a freak accident at home later that year.
It may have taken a while to unlock the key to Allaho but when Mullins finally did, boy has he unleashed a monster. His two victories in the Ryanair Chase have come through accurate jumping at a relentless pace which soon sends his rivals into submission, a complete contrast to the way in which Un De Sceaux won the same race, with Ruby Walsh attempting to nurse him home. As he got older, Allaho also stayed three miles comfortably, as he showed when beating dual King George winner Clan Des Obeaux by 14 lengths at Punchestown.
10 Al Boum Photo
Despite a decade of dominance at the Cheltenham Festival, one race was a glaring omission on Mullins’ CV. The biggest of them all, the Gold Cup. Mullins had finished second no less than six times with the likes of Florida Pearl and Djakadam before, in 2019, a rather unheralded 12/1 shot finally scratched the itch. And then, to prove it was no fluke, Al Boum Photo went and repeated the dose 12 months later. By accident rather than design, for the first of his wins Al Boum Photo had only had one previous run, so Mullins did the same thing the next year, and the year after that so that between January 2019 and March 2021 Al Boum Photo only ran seven times which rather irked some of the sports followers but all Mullins would need to say is look at the results. In that period he lost twice, at Punchestown after his first Gold Cup and when trying to emulate Best Mate by winning a third at Cheltenham.