Walsh remembers the magic of O’Brien, as Mullins goes for British crown

By Sports Desk April 16, 2024

Ted Walsh believes even if Willie Mullins does not manage to emulate Vincent O’Brien by being crowned champion trainer in the UK when based in Ireland, both have played their part in changing the face of National Hunt racing.

Given the feats will be over 70 years apart – O’Brien was champion trainer for successive seasons in the early 1950s – Walsh feels it is difficult to compare their achievements.

However, he is left in no doubt that just like O’Brien, Mullins is destined to be remembered as a man who changed his sport.

“It’s very hard to compare anything like that because the prize-money was totally different,” said Walsh.

“Willie has never been that bothered about it, he admits it, but now he’s in front he may as well have a good go. He was very close one year when Vautour fell at Aintree (2016), if he had won Willie would have been champion.

“Whether Willie is champion trainer in England or not – it would be a great achievement, but he’s the real deal whether he does it or not.”

O’Brien was a pioneer who after dominating the National Hunt scene in the 1950s and 1960s, later switched his attentions to the Flat, winning the Triple Crown with Nijinsky in 1970. He remains the last man to win the Triple Crown.

“Vincent won three English Nationals with three different horses three years in a row (Early Mist 1953, Royal Tan 1954 and Quare Times 1955), three Champion Hurdles with Hatton’s Grace (1949–1951), the Gloucester Hurdle at Cheltenham used to divide and in 15 years he won 11 of them!” said an incredulous Walsh.

“Of course after doing all that he went and did the same on the Flat!

“He told me once that he always travelled first class on the train because there was a chance of meeting someone with money! He met John McShane on a train going to Doncaster for the sales and he bought him Ballymoss and Gladness. Ballymoss he won an Irish Derby, the Leger and the Arc and Gladness won the Ebor and the Ascot Gold Cup the following year.

“Vincent set the standard. I knew him, but whenever I saw him I would say ‘Hello Mr O’Brien’ – it was never Vincent. My father knew him well, he was from a similar area to us.”

The victory of I Am Maximus in Saturday’s Grand National means Mullins holds an advantage over Dan Skelton and Paul Nicholls, setting up a fantastic finale with Closutton set to be well represented at Ayr and Sandown over the next two weekends.

“Like Willie is now, Vincent was a hero, everybody looked up to him. I remember growing up as kid listening to my dad and my uncle Ted talking about Vincent,” said Walsh, who won the National with Papillon in 2000.

“I’d say it was pretty similar in those days of people getting sick of Vincent winning, he didn’t quite dominate Cheltenham like Willie does – but I’m sure people were sick of it!

“It was a huge achievement Vincent winning the UK title, I don’t know if he was the first man to try, but he was the first to do it. But Vincent did so many things first.

“He was the first to fly horses from Ireland, the first person to put in an all-weather gallop in Ireland and now everybody has them. He was a pioneer, he brought the sport forward years.

“Like Willie really, Willie has changed it as well but the scale of what he is doing makes it different. Transporting the horses now is different, they have lovely lorries with air conditioning, the roads are so much better so that makes it easier. Everything has moved on.

“I wouldn’t say one fellow was better than the other, but Vincent set the ball rolling and it hasn’t been done by anybody since Vincent.

“When I was growing up Vincent was inaccessible, he was almost treated like royalty, but Willie is the most approachable fellow, he’s very good for the sport and he’s a great ambassador for racing.”

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