Willie Mullins: Recapping the Irishman’s best performances at the Grand National Festival

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The Grand National Festival, held annually at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool, is one of the most prestigious and thrilling events in the horse racing calendar. With its rich history and notorious challenges, the Grand National captivates both racing enthusiasts and casual fans alike.

Throughout the years there have been a mix of outsiders and favourites that have reigned supreme, with Corach Rambler dominating the most recent race as many predicted, but you only have to look back at Noble Yeats winning in 2022 to know an upset to the horse racing odds is always on the cards.

To win the Grand National is to write your name in the horse racing history books. It’s crucial to understand the magnitude of the challenges presented by Aintree’s demanding fences. The likes of Becher’s Brook, The Chair, and the treacherous Canal Turn have thwarted many talented horses and jockeys, adding an extra layer of excitement and unpredictability to the races. Only a handful of the best trainers have managed to navigate their way to National success, with even the likes of Willie Mullins struggling with the Merseyside course.

The Irish trainer is often hailed as one of the greatest in the sport, and has left an indelible mark on the Grand National Festival. While he has achieved remarkable success at other major racing events, including the most winners at the Cheltenham Festival, it is Aintree that has proved the toughest test for his Closutton team.

Mullins only has one National win to his name but over the years has put together a number of memorable performances. While French breed Gaillard Du Mesnil could only manage third in this year’s race, Mullins has left Aintree with plenty of big moments throughout a lifetime of racing. With that in mind, read on as we look at some of the best Mullins runners in Grand Nationals.

Hedgehunter’s Dominance – 2005

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In 2005, Mullins secured his first-ever victory at the Grand National with the exceptional gelding, Hedgehunter. The race proved to be a defining moment in Mullins’ career and marked the beginning of his association with success at Aintree. It was also a revenge arch complete for Hedgehunter, who suffered a heart-breaking fall the year before.

Hedgehunter entered the Grand National at 7/1, boasting a strong record and an impressive partnership with jockey Ruby Walsh. The nine-year-old had already demonstrated his talent by winning the 2004 Grand National Trial at Haydock Park, showcasing his ability to handle Aintree’s demanding fences. After looking like it was going to be a close finish with Royal Auclair, Simply Gifted third and It Takes Time, Hedgehunter pulled ahead, powering clear to win by a good 14 lengths, which still serves as one of the most dominant displays in Aintree history.

“It went absolutely unbelievable for me,” Walsh said. “I was a bit lucky because at either Valentines or the one after he hit so hard I thought we were down but after that he was foot perfect. I was suppose I was very lucky when Tony McCoy was carried out.

“The horse was very brave to go and jump it considering there were three horses running down the fence. I had it in my head that I wasn’t going to move on him until I reached the Elbow and I was just sitting on him, praying something wouldn’t appear beside me going just as well.

“Nothing did and I give him a slap and he sprinted home. It doesn’t matter who you are if you are not on the right horse you might as well be in the weighing room. He is very good to carry more than 11st. It’s a magical feeling.”

Pleasant Company’s Thrilling Duel (2018)

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The 2018 Grand National provided another memorable chapter in Willie Mullins’ career as he trained Pleasant Company for the race. With David Mullins in the saddle, Pleasant Company engaged in a thrilling battle with Tiger Roll in the closing stages of the race.

With every fence cleared, the tension intensified, and the roar of the crowd echoed through the grandstands. Spectators held their breath as Pleasant Company, under the guidance of Mullins, and Tiger Roll, ridden by Davy Russell, pushed each other to the limit.

In a thrilling climax, the pair approached the iconic elbow turn, locked in a fierce battle for supremacy. The lead exchanged hands multiple times, neither horse willing to concede defeat. It was a true test of skill, courage, and determination.

As the finish line neared, Tiger Roll found an extra burst of energy, pulling ahead of Pleasant Company. Despite a valiant effort, Pleasant Company fell just short of victory, finishing a close second. Although the horse narrowly missed out on victory, the exhilarating duel highlighted Mullins’ ability to select and prepare competitive contenders for the Grand National.

Burrows Saint’s Resurgence (2021)

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While a large part of Mullins’ success is from his experienced horses, occasionally one of his future stars puts in a memorable shift. In 2021, Burrows Saint, under the tutelage of Willie Mullins, made a significant impact on the Grand National, showcasing immense potential and hinting at a bright future for the talented gelding. While victory eluded them on that occasion, the horse’s performance highlighted his ability to contend on the challenging Aintree course and left racing enthusiasts eagerly anticipating his future campaigns.

What made Burrows Saint’s performance even more remarkable was his age. At just eight years old, he displayed maturity beyond his years, suggesting vast untapped potential for future success. The Grand National is renowned for favouring experienced campaigners, but Burrows Saint defied expectations and held his own against more seasoned rivals, especially with Willie’s son, Patrick, in the saddle.

“I got a fantastic spin,” he said. “Burrows Saint jumped fantastic. I was chatting with Rachael going past the stands with a lap to go and we were both very happy where we were. We were side by side all the way. I was trying to get a lead off her but I couldn’t go with her after the second-last. He got very tired, maybe he didn’t stay.”

Mullins’ Grand National achievements have solidified his place among the elite trainers in the history of horse racing. While his triumphs at Cheltenham are renowned, it is at Aintree where his expertise truly shines. Year after year, Mullins meticulously selects and prepares his horses, aiming to claim more victories and etch his name further into the annals of the Grand National.