Irish trainer Willie Mullins answered his phone on the third ring. Maybe the second. I was impressed. A late-afternoon call from America was probably not high on his list of things to manage last Thursday, but he answered and we talked for 10 minutes.
If we hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t feel so bad today.
I called Mullins to interview him about Wicklow Brave, the favorite for Saturday’s American Grand National at Far Hills in New Jersey. When I saw his name in the entries, I remember thinking, ‘We have to write about him.’ The 10-year-old was bidding to add another achievement to a career overflowing with them – Group 1 win on the flat, Grade 1 win over hurdles, two starts in the Melbourne Cup, three wins over chase fences this year, $1.3 million earned, legions of impressed fans.
Mullins talked about finding the horse at a sale as a 3-year-old hurdle/bumper prospect, about getting so much more, about how well Wicklow Brave minded himself, about how the son of Beat Hollow was never nervous, about the unique experience of being attached to one of the world’s best Thoroughbreds.
“He enjoys training, enjoys his racing,” the trainer told me.
The article ran on our website, led a small package of stories previewing American steeplechasing’s championship day. Nothing special, the article hopefully let some of our readers in on what a special animal they were about see in action. Wicklow Brave was Rafael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo, Eliud Kipchoge – or racing’s version anyway – and he was coming here. I was glad I’d made the call. I hoped Mullins was happy he picked up the phone. He called back to tell me he knew a Joe Clancy in Ireland who was a singer. We’re not related, or I don’t think we are.
The trainer wasn’t making the trip to New Jersey, leaving the race-day preparations to his son and assistant Patrick. Wicklow Brave was ready, Mullins said. He’d give a good accounting of himself.
And he did. Until time and fate and luck and whatever it is that takes gallant horses away from the game too soon caught up to him. In front at the last fence and maybe, probably going to win, he fell – leaving the victory to Brain Power for England and trainer Nicky Henderson. Veterinarians diagnosed a broken shoulder, and Wicklow Brave was euthanized. He joined a sad list of greats to go out in a race: Ruffian, Go For Wand, Warm Spell, Divine Fortune, Best Mate and so on.
I wasn’t there, I never met Wicklow Brave, never saw him. But while sitting in the stands at a University of Maryland-Indiana University football game for Parents Weekend, I felt the impact. Brwooff. That pit-of-the-stomach, no-air feeling. I was fine, then I was not. I get it when I hear bad news, usually about something I can’t control. An accident, a tragedy. It’s not always about horses.
If you’re in racing, you see horses get hurt. If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t be in racing. But that doesn’t make it easy, and it surely doesn’t make you callous or uncaring. That’s what critics will try to make you believe. You know the line: “If you’re OK with racing, then you’re OK with horses getting hurt, dying, all of it.” You can be in racing and not be OK with it. It can rip you apart, but you can get up in the morning and go to work. You have to. Other horses need your attention. You need to do something. I imagined the Mullins yard in County Carlow Sunday morning. Work was surely done, but it was a damper, colder, sadder, emptier place than it was the day before.
This being 2019, the news went far beyond an Irish horse farm or a New Jersey race course. Thanks to technology, the race was seen all over the world. If Wicklow Brave had flown that last fence like he did all the others and charged to another win, he’d have been cheered from Far Hills to Fakenham, Unionville to Uttoxeter, Camden to The Curragh, Lexington to Leopardstown.
Instead, we’re left with tributes, photos and video of past glories, people like me trying to make sense of it. And failing.
Wicklow Brave died Saturday. I feel for anyone who knew him. The racing world is emptier without him. But I’m glad Willie Mullins answered the phone.