‘And the mare is beginning to get up.’ With those seven words, racing commentator Peter O’Sullevan sent a shiver of delicious anticipation up a million spines across Ireland and Britain. Dawn Run, arguably the most outstanding filly of the 1980s, was accelerating to the finish line of the 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup under Jonjo O’Neill.
Within seconds of Mr O’Sullevan’s words, Dawn Run had made turf history and become the first horse to win the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup. It was the biggest Gold Cup prize ever raced for and the biggest crowd Cheltenham had yet known.
Her win was something of a coup for her trainer Paddy Mullins, dubbed the quiet man of Irish racing by the British press. He had been given the Cork-born mare to train by her owner, the redoubtable Charmain Hill, when she was a three-year-old. Paddy had educated her in the art of the Bumper and in 1983 she won the Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree. The following year, she became the Queen of the Champion Hurdle when she won an extraordinary hat-trick of the Irish, English and French Champion Hurdles. Paddy’s son Tony Mullins rode her on the latter occasion, taking her straight to the front and holding her there for a jaw-dropping three miles and one and a half furlongs to win by six lengths.
Paddy’s team at the Doninga Stables in Goresbridge, Co. Kilkenny, nursed her back from a sprained tendon over the course of 1985. And in 1986, she thrust ahead to score the Gold Cup in what is considered one of the greatest races of all time. Her success was made all the more dramatic by the Queen of Cheltenham’s sudden death that summer following a horrific fall in the French Champion Hurdle. It was a profoundly sad day for everyone at the Mullins yard.
Paddy’s grandfather James Mullins was born in 1860 and farmed near Graiguenamanagh, Co. Kilkenny. When the racecourse at Gowran Park was founded in 1914, he was one of the original directors. A wood stood at each corner of the new course, planted by the Annaly family who owned the land. The woods were rather prophetically shaped as hearts, clubs, diamond and spades respectively. Looking on Google Maps in 2022, I hallucinate a hint of a diamond, a hint of a club and a lake that could arguably be a spade.
James and his wife Mary Anne had thirteen children, of whom eight survived. Their son William, or Willie, was born in 1889 and relocated his family to Doninga, just outside Goresbridge, on Christmas Eve 1923. Amongst those who moved with him were his five-year-old son Paddy. And that house is the same long, low white farmhouse where Paddy and his wife Maureen live today.
At its peak, Doninga was the biggest National Hunt yard in Ireland, and Paddy was the country’s most successful National Hunt trainer.
His childhood was very much an equestrian one. His father was Joint Master, with Dr O’Brien, of the Mount Loftus Harriers and Paddy was their whipper-in for most of the 1940s. He gradually progressed from pony clubs to show-jumping to point-to-points. As an amateur, he won twenty-five point-to-points and a further fourteen times, under Rules, on the Flat, over hurdles and in chases.
From 1940 to 1953 Paddy worked as assistant trainer to his father. In April 1953, just four months after he took over his father’s licence, he saddled and rode his first winner with Flash Parade in the La Touche Memorial Cup at Punchestown.
During a training career that spanned fifty-two years, Paddy trained innumerable big-race winners on both the Flat and over jumps. In 1967, his 7-1 shot Vulpine, ridden by Matt Curran, won the Irish Grand National. Paddy won the National again twelve months later with Herring Gull, who also won the 1968 Tote Novice’s Steeplechase to give Paddy his first Cheltenham victory. He won his third Irish National with Dim Wit in 1972 and his fourth with Luska in 1981.
In October 1973, The Times published Paddy’s picture for the first time, a nod to his extraordinary triumph on the flat when Hurry Harriet, a mare of comparatively humble origins, sprang a 33-1 shock to win the £36,000 Champion Stakes at Newmarket.
‘That race was the highlight of my career’, said Paddy. ‘She beat Allez France, the best filly in Europe.’ Paddy’s son Tom, then nine years old, was standing beside the telephone watching the race when Hurry Harriet’s owner, Dr. Malcolm Thorpe, rang from Canada to get the result.
‘The race was still in progress so I held the phone near the television so that he could listen to the commentary but, with all the shouting, he hardly heard a thing. I can recall explaining to him afterwards how she had won the race.’
As The Times put it, her victory was a reminder that ‘a small stud or stable is every bit as capable of playing a leading role in racing as those massive affluent empires which we tend to hear so much about’.
Grabel is quite probably the most successful horse you’ve never heard of. Paddy picked her up in Doncaster for £1,000, recalling her grandmother, Slap Up, a promising flat racer whom he had trained for the Vigors family. Grabel won twenty six races for Doninga but none more profitable than the first ever Dueling Grounds International Hurdle which took place at Kentucky Downs in 1990. It was the richest steeplechase ever run in North America and Grabel scooped the $750,000 prize. The horse was trained by Paddy, owned by Maureen (and E.F. Keogh) and ridden by their son Tony. T’was a lively night for the Mullins clan down Kentucky way.
Meanwhile, Paddy’s success at National Hunt level continued when Sean Treacy of Borris rode the first of many wins for Doninga, taking Nagrada past the post in the Galway Hurdle, a victory made all the sweeter for the fact that the winning owner was Paddy’s brother, Captain Luke Mullins, Clerk of the Course at Galway. ‘I loved Galway,’ said Paddy, ‘and I suspect Galway loved me. It was a very lucky track for me, and I never had any major misfortune there. I wouldn’t miss going down there for diamonds.’
In 1977, Counsel Cottage survived a shaky final jump to win the Sun Alliance Novices Hurdle by three lengths and give Paddy his second Cheltenham win. The Master of Doninga also won the National Hunt Chase twice – with Hazy Dawn in 1982 and with Mack’s Friendly in 1984, both times with son Willie Mullins in the saddle.
Paddy is a man who has studiously avoided the limelight, preferring to let his charges feel the heat of the camera flashes. He officially retired in 2005 at the age of 86, handing the yard over to his son Tom. He remained on top of his game to the very end, often mounting an Aidan O’Brien-style multiple entry challenge on the feature races, a method which frequently proved worthwhile.
In 2003, the octogenarian secured his first Classic success with 12-1 shot Vintage Tipple, under Frankie Dettori, in the 2003 Irish Oaks. Her victory was particularly electrifying given that Paddy restored her to health after she had sustained a hairline fracture of her cannon-bone.
One of the most remarkable things about the Mullins family is that they have all ridden racecourse winners. Paddy and his four sons were well known on the track. His daughter Sandra McCarthy also won several races, including the Rose of Tralee ladies’ race in Tralee. But arguably the most stylish of them all was Paddy’s wife Maureen who, on her first and only contest, rode to victory in a charity race at Gowran Park seated upon a white stallion called Razzo Forte.
Paddy Mullins passed away in his 92nd year on 28 October 2010.
Extracted from ‘Sporting Legends of Ireland’ (Mainstream, 2010) by Turtle Bunbury, with photographs by James Fennell. The book was nominated for the William Hill Irish Sports Book of the Year Award 2010.
NB: My mother had a brief and very unsuccessful racehorse in training with Paddy by name of Lixio. A foal sired by Appiani out of Camp Follower, who I recall at Lisnavagh from my youth. He was named by my grandfather, a Classics enthusiast, who recalled that camp followers on the Appian Way in Roman times were called lixae. Still, Lixio sounded like a cough medicine. My parents’ friends reckoned it was a smashing foal, Victor McCalmont amongst them, so they shot off to Newmarket to sell him and took everybody they knew out to dinner the night before in the expectation of great riches. There was no bids the following day. To the great surprise, there was no bids when they brought the foal to Goffs either. Eventually, Paddy Mullins agreed to take a half share, and train him for a year, on the basis that they would split the winnings. Lord and Lady Rathdonnell dutifully trotted off to Ballinrobe to watch their fine steed do absolutely nothing. At Leopardstown, the horse did so badly that one veteran racegoer said he had never seen a horse being ‘that last.’ His third and final race was at the Curragh where he came fourth. When pressed by a pal why he did not use his whip, the jockey explained it was a ‘no whip race.’ Eventually they brought the horse back to Goff‘s where he sold for £300. My father did not have the heart to split the cheque with Paddy Mullins, so he just sent him a cheque for £300 and wrote ‘Sorry, Rathdonnell.’
1 x Gold Cup 1986
1 x Champion Hurdle 1984
2 x National Hunt Chase
1 x RSA Chase 1968
1 x Cheltenham Novice’s Chase 1977
1 x Cleeve Hurdle 1988
4 x Irish Grand National
(1967, 1968, 1972, 1981).
1 x Champion Stakes 1973
1 x French Champion Hurdle
(Grande Course de Haies) 1984
1 x Irish Oaks 2003
4 x Champion Four Year Old Hurdle
( 1980, 1986, 1987, 1991)
2 x Champion Novices’ Hurdle
2 x Irish Champion Hurdle
3 x Arkle Novice Chase
( 1968, 1971, 1983).
2 x MCR Hurdle 1989, 1990.
6 x December Festival Hurdle
( 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1994)
2 x Deloitte Novice Hurdle
1 x Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle 1983
Thyestes Chase 1972
3 x Galway Plate: 1986, 1992, 2004.
4 x Galway Hurdle
1 x Aintree Hurdle: 1984
Texaco Sportstars Hall of Fame 2003.
Texaco All-Star Award 1984