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'Anyone can get a horse fit - it's placing them that separates the good and bad'

Brian Sheerin talks to a talented trainer priming an exciting team for Galway

Emmet Mullins: "I genuinely don't bet – no money leaves my pocket to back horses"
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This interview was originally published on Saturday for Members' Club Ultimate subscribers. Join Members' Club here and get access to more great interviews, insight comment and news exclusives every week

Never mind Mark Johnston's 'Always Trying', how about 'Keep 'Em Guessing?' Emmet Mullins is missing a trick by not having a stable slogan.

It's a stunning morning on the Curragh schooling grounds and the 31-year-old is putting the finishing touches to his Galway squad ahead of what promises to be a helter-skelter week with chances in all the big races.

Galway Hurdle fancy Zero Ten is here, as is Cape Gentleman, Crowns Major and plenty of others, but don't expect Mullins to point them out too freely.

Turbo, Rocco and Giraffe are all tacked up and ready to go without any questions asked but, make no mistake, this is not a pony club.

"Oh, they'd all have their nicknames. Tom, Dick and Harry are three horses who arrived recently," says Mullins, trying to keep a straight face. "Nobody will know their names until they run. We try to keep everyone guessing."

So much so that Mullins will never even sign for a horse in his own name at the sales.

He has carved out a reputation for running one of the tightest ships in racing but, before anyone jumps to any conclusions, there is a method to him separating homework from what happens on the racetrack.

"Nobody is under any illusion about what the horse should be doing when they don't know who or what they are riding," Mullins explains. "No one is expecting the horse to work to this level or that because he's so-and-so or if he's bred this way or that. There are no preconceptions. That way, nobody gets disappointed, only me."

Luckily for Mullins, there has been precious little to get disappointed about ever since he sent out his first winner, St Stephens Green, in a Kilbeggan bumper back in 2015 in the colours of the Mee family.

Last season was his best yet, largely because of The Shunter, who carried all before him by winning the Greatwood Hurdle, the Morebattle and the Paddy Power Plate, with that Kelso-Cheltenham double triggering a £100,000 bonus.

A major player in Wednesday's Galway Plate, The Shunter carried the colours of Paul Byrne, a close friend and ally of Mullins, to all of his big wins last season before being sold to JP McManus on the eve of the Aintree festival.

Paul Byrne: "I'm delighted for Emmet. We've been on a long journey together so it's unbelievable."

Byrne has a keen eye for a bargain. He picked up Rockyaboya, who won the Paddy Power Chase in 2013 for Emmet's uncle and champion trainer Willie and later sourced globetrotting mare True Self after she was second in a Warwick bumper.

Purchasing The Shunter was a triumph for perseverance as Byrne secured the horse after multiple failed bids.

"He was always a very sought-after horse," Mullins says. "I know plenty of the bigger trainers tried to buy him during the early days and a lot of money was turned down on two separate occasions. I suppose his form just tailed off but we all knew what he was capable of and Paul just never gave up on him. He put in a good few offers and eventually the price just came down to the right mark. Everything has a sell-by date.

"I still couldn't have predicted what he'd go on to do even after winning the Greatwood. I presume he will take his chance in the Plate, although we gave him an entry in the 2m6f handicap hurdle on the Friday as well. I think he's better over 2m4f on nicer ground."

And how will he take to Galway?

"He's climbed a lot of hills. He's come up the hill at Cheltenham and Kelso is a fair slog as well. He's also won at Downpatrick – I'd have no worries about the hill or about the two fences in the dip anyway. There's a lot of racing from the last fence at Galway – two and a half furlongs – so if you have an engine it's very important."

Mullins says Zero Ten is the most exciting horse he has trained

Given everything The Shunter has achieved for the stable, it speaks volumes that Mullins views Zero Ten as the most talented horse he has ever trained, and he is hoping Thursday's Galway Hurdle can represent a crowning glory for the horse.

"He likes Galway – he's won three times there. He's a tricky horse to keep right but he has a nice mark over hurdles. I actually thought that we should have gone for the Galway Hurdle two summers ago with him instead of the beginners' chase, but he won that anyway and everyone was happy, including the Mees, who target Galway every season.

"I still hope there's a nice pot in him. He's been away a few times just to try and tighten him up. Hopefully we can get him there in one piece and he can show people how good he is because, as far as I am concerned, he's always been the most exciting horse I've had to train, ability-wise. Hopefully he can show it on the track. He has a huge engine."

Mullins expects to have at least ten runners throughout the week. His team includes Connacht Hotel Handicap chance Crowns Major, Cape Gentlemen, who has the option of the Galway Hurdle and the Guinness Handicap Hurdle later in the week, Russian Diamond, who will be a short price in whatever beginners' chase he lines up in, and a host of potentially smart bumper horses.

"Carrarea, Lahinch Tree, The Gossiper and Shin A Bhfuil will all go for the winners' bumper. Willie has three in it and, the way Patrick is talking, it sounds like he might ride Ashroe Diamond in the race."

Patrick Mullins: 'Maybe next year' – did Sir Gordon feel the way I do about my holy grail? (Members' Club)

Mullins regularly calls upon his cousin Patrick, with the pair having a 29 per cent strike-rate when teaming up together. However, he admits his interactions with Willie would be far less frequent.

"I stay out of Willie's way – out of his line of sight – and there has been no crossfire so far anyway. We are competitors but, at the same time, Willie has been great for advice and would always be the first to congratulate you if you have a winner."

Emulating Willie, widely recognised as one of the greatest jumps trainers of all time, is not something that appeals to Mullins. Win, lose or draw at Galway, he will not go above his capacity of 29 horses for fear of standards slipping in the yard.

Zero Ten: the Mee family place a huge emphasis on Galway

He explains: "I am full up. I have horses coming out of my ears and there are a good few in pre-training yards waiting to get in. The phone rings most weeks with people wanting to send me horses but I have to turn them down. 

"We have some great owners behind us. I never have to worry about training for the people I train for. They are racing people and know what the game is about. They realise there will be good days and bad days and they will still pay me at the end of the month no matter what happens. That's a huge thing, having that quality of owner behind you. I couldn't see myself ever wanting to become as big as Willie. I'm happy with my own little niche. It's all my head could cope with."

Nobody could accuse Mullins of not making the most of the weapons he has within his arsenal. With a helping hand from Byrne, he has dreamed up and delivered on a number of ambitious plans, The Shunter's excellent campaign being the latest example.

Before that there was Japanese recruit Fujimoto Flyer, who was well placed to win a Listed juvenile hurdle for fillies in Byrne's colours at Auteuil before being sold to Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. There was also Duckett's Grove, a horse Mullins picked up in America with whom he managed to win a maiden first time out, the profits of his sale going towards a new gallop at his base.

One trainer, one jockey, one horse and one race to watch at Galway

Mullins puts a great deal of time and effort into studying the programme and an all-time strike-rate of 39 per cent in Britain illustrates his ability to target and plunder some major prizes.

"When it comes to the bigger targets, Paul would be a bit more adventurous but I'd never back down. If I think the horses are capable of doing what Paul is suggesting, I'd never shy away from a battle.

"We were planning on going to the Nakayama Grand Jump with The Shunter but I don't know if that will happen now that there has been a change of ownership. I went to Japan with Blackstairmountain for Willie and he's probably one of the first horses I've come across since that I think could do it. I never saw Ruby as excited as when he won the race on Blackstairmountain. He was ecstatic. I'd love to go back there one day.

"With Tornado Watch, we were willing to go to the American Grand National with a 119-rated handicap hurdler and we celebrated as if we won the race when we picked up $80,000 for finishing second. That was one of the best kicks we got in racing. Jury Duty won the race and he was probably the best horse who had ever run in the race on ratings. We were on the ball but we were probably a little unlucky that Gordon Elliott was also awake."

Elliott may have been awake with regards to the US but, when it comes to his British counterparts, Mullins believes a lot of trainers across the water are asleep at the wheel when it comes to campaigning horses.

Mullins: "It was amazing that, for all of the prize-money woes in England, when they put on that prize-money and bonus, nobody went for it."

"The Morebattle Hurdle was worth £75,000, just £5,000 less than the County Hurdle, and it had only 13 runners. There was a bonus on offer and none of the English trainers targeted it. Only three of our 12 rivals had entries at Cheltenham. It was definitely our target but it was amazing that, for all of the prize-money woes in England, when they put on that prize-money and bonus, nobody went for it."

Mullins adds: "Racing in Ireland is way more competitive than in Britain and, because of that, we think outside of the box. We put a huge emphasis on placing our horses. Anyone can get a horse fit. That's the easy part of training. It's keeping them healthy and placing them in the right races that separates the good from the bad."

Not only has Mullins plundered his share of prize-money during his relatively short training career but he has also orchestrated many successful gambles, to the point where there is real intrigue surrounding him now.

Indeed, even during Royal Ascot week a Mullins-trained coup at a run-of-the-mill Down Royal card sent the Racing Post website into something of a tizzy as his Shake Him Up, who had been backed at odds as high of 100-1, formed part of a lucrative treble for the stable.

"And there will still be people who will give out about it [the gambles]," Mullins quips. "Sure it's all people want and the media knows that. The amount of stories about supposed gambles and they're not gambles at all. Some of the gambles we've backed brighten up quiet days and it's all part of the fun of the game."

Asked if that meant he was happy to be viewed as a gambling stable, Mullins laughs: "I've no choice. But our operation is not half as sophisticated as people think it is. The majority of the stories I hear back about myself aren't true."

He continues: "I don't have a betting account. Never had one. I genuinely don't bet. My job is to train them. If any of my owners happen to win money punting on the horses, they can look after me if they want to. No money leaves my pocket to back horses."

Despite being one of the biggest donors to the IHRB last season, Mullins drives around in an Audi A7 Quattro, suggesting he and his team have the process down to a fine art.

Mullins, who picked up a record €6,000 ban when The Shunter was deemed a non-trier at Tipperary last summer followed by a €5,000 penalty for breaching Covid regulations, says: "Kelso paid for that car."

He adds: "They put up that generous £100,000 bonus and I said I'd make use of the money. I went and bought it before one of the gambles. Paul felt I was being a bit presumptuous."

Safe to assume that it will be another profitable week for Mullins at Galway.

This article was originally exclusive to Members' Club Ultimate subscribers. Read more great interviews here: 

Fran Berry: 'There's no point being on the TV if you can't stick your neck on the line'

David Menuisier: 'It's too easy to go into every battle. You won't win the Arc that way'

George McGrath: 'Everything went wrong at Newcastle – it was so bad it's forced a total rethink'

Jim Goldie: 'I couldn't get a licence as my horses were crap – now I think I have the best'

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Tom, Dick and Harry are three horses who arrived recently. Nobody will know their names until they run. We try to keep everyone guessing
E.W. Terms