As part of Ireland’s greatest horseracing dynasty, Tom Mullins is possessed by an enduring passion for the sport of kings and it’s evident in his voice every time he speaks. We popped into his base, Doninga Stables in Goresbridge, County Kilkenny, for a chat with the personable, straight-talking trainer, who has ten Grade 1 winners under his belt to date.
For more than half a century, legendary trainer Paddy Mullins plied his trade from Doninga Stables. Paddy’s offspring – and indeed their offspring, too! – have inherited his love of horseracing and the Mullins family has become synonymous with the sport, enjoying extraordinary success both on the flat and over jumps.
Part of this astonishing dynasty, Tom Mullins, Paddy’s youngest son, has proven time and time again that he will get results when given the right horses … for example, he saddled Alderwood to back-to-back Cheltenham Festival successes, while Asian Maze won four Grade 1s, Oscar Dan Dan claimed the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle and Bob Lingon came in first in the Galway Plate. Court Leader and Some Article are other notable winners.
Father of National Hunt jockey David Mullins, who won the 2016 Aintree Grand National at the age of 19 on 33-1 maiden chaser Rule The World, Tom is son of the aforementioned Paddy and Maureen Mullins. He and all four of his siblings – Sandra, Willie, George and Tony – rode winners.
Tony was champion jockey in 1984. Willie, Tony and Tom have all trained winners at Cheltenham. Five of Paddy and Maureen’s grandchildren have also ridden winners. Emmet, son of George (who runs George Mullins International Horse Transport) has taken out a trainer’s licence. It’s a legacy that continues to grow and Tom – a genuine, modest and instantly-likeable individual, who speaks candidly and calls it as he sees it – admits that growing up in such an environment, where he was always surrounded by horses, listened to talk of horses and witnessed unprecedented success with horses – it was inevitable that he’d go down the path representative of the proud family tradition:
“It would have been very hard to escape it,” concedes the man who now runs Doninga alongside his wife, Helen. “I was always going to get into it, from the age of nine, really.”
For every winner, there are countless losers and the very nature of operating as a horse trainer is that it’s a numbers business first and foremost, where results of some degree have to be attained in order to justify one’s existence. Over the years, there have setbacks to go with the breakthroughs, disappointments to balance out the highs, both spills and thrills, no end of sleepless nights. Yet Tom is thankful for the living he’s had:
“It has given us a good life, horses have served me well,” he accepts. “It’s not an easy business and it’s far tougher now than it ever was, but it’s provided me with a living and also given me some of the best days of my life.”
Tom has 35 horses in Doninga at present and the dynamic of the yard has changed considerably in that approximately half of these are owned by the Kilkenny trainer himself and his wife. “It’s tough these days to get owners to pay you monthly, so you’re as well off owning them.
“It was probably around the time of the economic crash that I started to own a lot of them myself, out of necessity more than anything. There’s plenty of prize money out there at the moment and more of a chance for trainers to do that than there was six or seven years ago.”
Times have been hard for small trainers in Ireland and Tom has been openly critical in the past of the role Gigginstown House played in almost monopolising the sport and leaving others living off relative crumbs. “The billionaires and multi-millionaires are swamping the business,” he says. “They pick their trainers and then the rest of us are left to make do with whatever is left. If these billionaires and multi-millionaires don’t pick you, then you have to be prepared to train at a lower level; that’s the reality of it.”
It’s a game Tom was never prepared to play. “I don’t bully and I don’t get bullied,” he states. “It’s not good for my mental or physical health. I won’t do it. I’m more than happy to go down my own road and do my own thing.”
Dignity is more valuable than money and Tom Mullins is more concerned with having a good vibe at Doninga Stables. Today, he enjoys picking up his own stock at sales, trying to unearth champions or to turn a modest profit by moving the horses on.
“Every trainer aims to have a happy yard and happy horses,” he continues. “Mine is more of a selling yard now. That’s what you have to do if the billionaires and multi-millionaires don’t pick you. What I charge in training fees wouldn’t keep the yard going. If the owners to charge money to aren’t out there, it makes it tough. I have a few owners whose horses are getting placed and they aren’t for sale … but all of mine are for sale. It’s a tough market.”
There’s over six-and-a-half decades of training history at Doninga. Tom’s legendary father, Paddy Mullins, widely regarded as the godfather of modern Irish horseracing, took out his trainers licence in 1953 and Tom worked alongside Paddy for a time before he retired. It’s a privilege to inherit such iconic stables but it’s not all plain sailing:
“It’s not easy to upkeep. It’s an old yard which needs to be refurbished all the time and that’s costly. There are around 35 acres, dedicated to horses exclusively. Most of it is taken up with the two all-weather gallops – one sand and one woodchip. We employ seven people here, which is great, but you have to make sure you can find the wages every Friday and that brings its own pressure.”
The Mullins story is a brilliant one but it would be way off the mark to believe that any of them had anything handed to them in life. “Yeah, it’s a family dynasty like you said and there’s been plenty of success, with Dad and Willie obviously and Tony, and now David riding and Patrick and Danny, too. But nothing is handed to you. You have to keep proving yourself. It’s one thing being born into the industry, but you have to prove yourself on a weekly basis.”
For years, the shadow of Gigginstown has loomed over the industry. How does Tom feel about the news that the Michael O’Leary owned operation is winding down over the next five years: “When Gigginstown moved in, that was a game changer but there will be more of a spread in it now and more owners with a chance of winning a big race or two.
“My hope would be a that some new owners will come in with a few pound now and spread it around and there will be different winners and a better chance to win, which is healthy.
“A few people were cheesed off with the situation because the reality with the way things were was, if they bought new horses, where were they going to go with them to compete with those guys? The incentive wasn’t there because you couldn’t compete.”
When the dust settles and the industry readjusts, those with a genuine passion for horseracing will remain. Tom Mullins will be there. As will many members of his family. Genuine enthusiasm and passion triumph over all.
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Taken from Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 7 No 6, November 2019