A toast to absent friends

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I ran into David Mullins at the Cheltenham Festival, 2002. He gave me a burly handshake and we hustled to the parade ring to see a Mullins horse run in the hurdle finale.

I kept thinking, “Does he have me mixed up with somebody else?” He talked to me like he knew me his whole life. I couldn’t place him or our friendship or when we met or why he was introducing me to his family like I was a brother.

We ordered pints of Guinness in the Turf Club, then downed them in one quick elbow bender as he grabbed me by the arm again and said, “Let’s go soak it all up. We won’t be back for a while.”

We bolted to the Great Lawn to see the winner come home in the fading light, and feel the buzz of Cheltenham one last time before we went home.

I think the Mullins’ horse finished second. I’m still not sure which Mullins it was; cousin, uncle, grandfather or brother. There are a lot of Mullinses out there. All from County Kilkenny, Ireland.

Sadly, there’s one less today.

David Mullins died Monday.

Mullins, 51, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April. In four short months, our friend, the horseman, the man who rallied for every cause, the dedicated father, the gregarious Irishman who never missed a laugh was gone.

It turns out I didn’t know him that well before Cheltenham; he knew me from riding a few races at High Hope and writing a paper about a sport he loved. That was good enough for him – we were friends. That was David Mullins’ world – everyone included.

I called him around Derby week, when it was setting in (for both of us) that he had cancer. I had put off calling him, then stumbled in conversation.

“Look, Sean, I’d have hated to have gotten hit by a truck and never felt all this love and support. All my friends, my family, the community have shown me what life’s about. They’re having a 24-hour church service, all my friends are going to church . . . can you imagine, my friends in church? It’s OK. If a positive attitude means anything, I’m going to beat it.”

That was Mullins. Still positive while the odds stacked against him.

He almost cancelled his annual Belmont Party, but his friends helped and made sure it happened. Over a hundred friends and family joined him at his house in Lexington, Ky. He had a big time.

He described it in an e-mail sent to all his friends in late June:

A number of friends, knowing how important the tradition of the Mullins Belmont Party was to our family, took it upon themselves to organize the greatest party ever. Most important, they even tidied up!

In and out of hospitals, Mullins studied the Racing Form, looking for mares to claim and sell at Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton’s fall and winter sales.

He knew horses. And the value of horses. His Doninga Farm sold Baby Zip, dam of Ghostzapper and City Zip, and sold Drina, the dam of Spain. Doninga topped the 2001 Keeneland November breeding stock sale in average, when selling Saoirse for $2.2 million. Doninga consigned Platinum Heights, the highest-priced yearling filly in North America in 2002

 He was sharp; I had sent him e-mails since that Cheltenham trip, “David, what do you think this mare is worth?” I sent him one about a Thunder Gulch filly, out of the Fourstardave family. I was wound up and said we need to get some money in an account and claim her. He wrote back, “You’re right, the breeding is excellent, but unless you know something I don’t know, she’s a he and I don’t think even us can fix that.”

I got an e-mail this morning about a mare for sale. Based in Europe, she’s related to Cool Coal Man, they asked me what I thought she was worth. I hit forward on my email screen and typed [email protected], then stopped, remembering the phone message from my friend Davant Latham. He said he was glad he reached my voice mail because he probably couldn’t talk, told me David had died and he told how much David talked about the trip he made to Saratoga a couple of summers ago.

Mullins and his runningmate Gerry O’Meara needed a place to crash at Saratoga so they flopped down on two couches at my carriage house across the street from the Reading Room. They brought their own pillows and blankets. I didn’t see them much, I was writing papers and they were living large in Saratoga. Every time I came home, they offered me a drink and begged me to stay awhile.

“We’re in good shape,” Mullins said the day after a Siro’s night, “for the shape we’re in.”

Again that was Mullins. Hung over, but never hung up.

He even tidied up.