Willie Mullins won four races at the Cheltenham Festival Thursday, which might be a career to some people rather than simply a day. But win four Mullins did. The Irish trainer sent out Yorkhill, Un De Sceaux, Nichols Canyon and Let’s Dance to victories, erasing a winless two days to start the world’s biggest steeplechase meet.
It certainly wasn’t the first time a Mullins did something improbable in racing, and won’t be the last.
Twenty-seven years ago next month, Mullins’ father Paddy won the richest jump race ever held in North America with Grabel. The 7-year-old mare ousted eight others in the $750,000 Dueling Grounds International Hurdle at what is now Kentucky Downs in Franklin, Ky. The British-bred mare (ridden by Willie’s brother Tony and co-owned by their mother Maureen) rallied from mid-pack to take the lead three fences from home before turning back America’s Uptown Swell by 2 1/4 lengths at almost 8-1. Behind them came classy English hurdler Nomadic Way and Cheltenham Festival winner Regal Ambition among others.
Created as a way to get a pari-mutuel license from the state of Kentucky, which required live racing, Dueling Grounds was built as a steeplechase course and used its entire purse structure in one day –on jump races – which really wasn’t the state’s intention. A year later, the big race was worth $250,000. In 1992, there was one jump race (worth $30,000) and by 1993 the racing was all on the flat. The track went through a variety of ups and downs including use as a bingo hall and a concert site, and didn’t race at all in 1997.
The checkered past is fitting, given that the site hosted duels, including one featuring Sam Houston, in the 1800s. The Mullinses drew first in 1990, taking down the $312,224 winner’s share for co-owner Paddy Kehoe.
When Willie Mullins ran two horses – including Nichols Canyon – in the Iroquois last year, he listened to a question about Grabel and smiled.
“I’ve been to a few Breeders’ Cups but my father brought Grabel to the Dueling Grounds years ago,” he said. “We were here for the beer that time.”
And for the money. Grabel came into the race with five consecutive wins in Ireland – a flat race at Gowran Park, the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown, a handicap at Naas, a listed race at Leopardstown and the Ulster Champion Hurdle Trial at Down Royal. The Americans never had a chance. She paid $17.60, the Irish had their beer and then some.
The race was worth a third of its enormous purse – still a record in North America and about double the value of Thursday’s Stayers Hurdle at Cheltenham – the next season (when won by Victorian Hill) and soon gone entirely. The all-turf track closed for a few years, re-emerged as Kentucky Downs, even hosted a few jump races (none worth $750,000) and now boasts a successful five-day live meet in September under the direction of owners Corey Johnsen and Ray Reid.
Willie Mullins, who rode Grabel to two hurdle wins as an amateur, was 33 at the time and just starting out as a trainer after a career as an amateur jockey and assistant to his father and Jim Bolger. Mullins went on to become one of the most successful trainers in history with more than 100 winners in each of the past 10 seasons. He’s won races all over the world, including four at Cheltenham Thursday, and was part of a historic day in Kentucky back in 1990.