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“It’s the pinnacle of the sport”: Danny Mullins on attempting to ride that elusive Cheltenham winner

When I called Danny Mullins on the Wednesday evening before the Beast from East roared through the country, I felt bad.

Momentarily I’d taken the Kilkenny-born jockey away from his new love, the mother of dragons, Daenerys Targaryen.

His latest injury – a wrist operation – allowed him the time to catch up with Game of Thrones, but the going is a lot slower now he is back riding.

He said: “I broke the scaphoid last May but kept riding, eventually it flared up. They took a bone graft out of my arm and put in a screw as well.

“I was optimistic it would only be three weeks but ended up at six.”

There is a conversational tone in which all jockey’s talk about excruciating injuries, that leaves the casual punter with their jaw on the floor.

His biggest injury, a fractured knee cap in 2016, is no different.

“In fairness the actual injury wasn’t that sore,” Mullins explained.

“When it happened over in Newbury, I got it X-rayed, took a few Panadol and got a flight from Heathrow that night.”

He does admit though, after Dr. Tadhg O’Sullivan completed an operation on the knee, it was “a different level of pain.”

Despite the injury, Mullins has form this season. 32 winners in Ireland, a handful in England and he picked up the American Grand National back in October.

He said: “It’s basically a handicap hurdle, it’s their biggest race of the year for 400,000 dollars so it was a nice pay day.

“It was (Mr. Hot Stuff) an 11-year-old close to retirement , but it came good on the day.”

The odd trip to America is nice, but the focus is firmly fixed on 11th March, the opening day of the Cheltenham festival.

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“It’s like maybe in rugby terms walking out for the Lions, or for hurling it’s like walking into Croke Park, it’s the pinnacle of the sport,” Mullins admitted.

“You have Punchestown and Fairyhouse here (Ireland), they’re growing every year but, for maybe the wider audience, everybody looks at Cheltenham.

“It stops most people in their tracks to pay attention. They’ll buy the papers for a week and watch the racing.”

No winners yet, but there have been numerous second places. I asked him whether a win at Cheltenham would mean more than a normal Grade one.

“Definitely,” was the response.

“Even to ride a handicap winner at Cheltenham would be fantastic – every jockey wants winner at Cheltenham on their CV.”

Mullins though is far too ambitious to dream of just one winner at Cheltenham, and he is aware enough to know that.

“Everybody wants to get their name on the board, but you once you have it, you want to get it again and again.”

He speaks with a confidence and ambition you would probably expect of any jockey or trainer with his surname.

The nephew of the famous trainer Willie Mullins and the son of another trainer Mags Mullins, Danny accepts the support has helped get him opportunities, but he had to take them.

Starting out on the flat at 7st 8 as a 16-year-old, he had over 70 winners before a growth spurt eventually led him to take his career over fences.

“I got about two years properly riding on the flat and then I just shot up. I was tiny,” Mullins laughed.

“If I was still that height I’d probably, well hopefully, I’d be sitting on a beach in Dubai living the high life that flat jockeys get to live.”

His success didn’t make the transition easy. He couldn’t claim anything, starting at a level weight with the likes of Tony McCoy, Barry Geraghty and Ruby Walsh.

It didn’t stop him getting retained and subsequently let go by Barry Connell in 2015.

He said: “I had a big job riding for Barry Connell a great few years a couple of grade one winners for him.

“I got the sack. He’s been happy enough with his operation since, thankfully my career has gone up and up.”

Mullins doesn’t speak with any bitterness, and indeed the position he has now as a freelance – but close to Willie’s yard – has its advantages.

It’s too early to say which horses he’ll be able to ride, and with Walsh and Paul Townend, it won’t be the pick.

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He admits he is – at best – third of Willie’s choice of riders, but it is no bad thing:

“There is still a realistic hope that I could ride a winner from Willie.

“This year in any other stable in the country, the number one rider would be in a similar or maybe even a worse position.

“They couldn’t be as hopeful heading over there if the right thing happened on the day that they could win.”

He will ride Debouchet for his mother on Wednesday, unless the ground becomes ultra-soft. Beyond that, he will be generally fighting it out with his cousin David Mullins.

David shot to fame as the youngest ever Grand National winner at just 19 in 2016, and has made hay at times this season with Danny, Walsh and Townend out at the same time.

“Early in the year he had a very quiet spell for a rider of his ability, but it just goes to show when you get the horses underneath you, things will happen and he made the most of them for sure,” Danny said. 

“There’s definite competition between us, it’s both of our livelihoods we wouldn’t give each other an inch during the race.

“But no matter what the result seems to be we’d still give one another a phone call to see where we are going for dinner after the racing.”

Speaking to Danny, the things that really stand out are a professionalism and a self-belief that underpin everything he does.

When asked about weight, which has plagued the careers of many jockeys, he cuts through the notion it is an almost impossible task.

His diet consists of porridge and a green tea in the morning followed by small bits of food often, gaining the energy needed without adding the fat.

 “For me now its second nature but there are still plenty of lads who haven’t really got their head around and you see them struggling every day and it’s just not fun,” he said.

Smart nutrition is just one thing. After his knee injury, Walsh put him onto Enda King in the Santry Sports Clinic and he hasn’t looked back.

“The amount of gym work he’s had me doing even after that injury and with all the other minor injuries between now and then has been fantastic.

“I think in my first 16 rides back I had four proper falls and if you are not physically fit enough you can’t take those falls.

“Every fall is different, you’re going to be fired at the ground but it’s the way you are able to absorb the impact.”

There is a humility to him. When asked if he would like to take over from Ruby when he finishes, he quickly admits that Townend is in pole position.

For now, he is happy to ride as many winners as he can, but that doesn’t mean the drive to be the main man isn’t there.

“I’d love to have a stable of horses and be looking forward to Cheltenham with maybe four or five real good rides,” he said.

“People say Ruby is under serious pressure with all the good rides, but if you want to be a good jockey that’s what you dream of, you don’t worry about the pressure you just dream of riding the good horses.”

Going into the festival he thinks Douvan will race and is currently a great price, and if you want a banker, Laurina in the Mare’s Novice is where to look.

Featured image via Danny Mullins

Danny Ruddock
Danny is a 25-year-old graduate from University College Dublin. An aspiring sports journalist currently studying for his NCTJ qualification in St. Marys University. Born and raised in Ireland his main interests lie with Rugby, Golf, Cricket or any Irish athlete that does anything of note. When possible he still turns out for Barnes Rugby club in Barnes Elms. After a brief venture into the business world, he is looking to turn something he is truly passionate about into a full-time career. A keen blogger he is now looking to develop his writing skills in a professional environment, through both the Sports Gazette and placements throughout the year.
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