NEIL MULHOLLAND has come a long way in the past decade since a horrific fall at Wetherby left him unconscious for 45 minutes – and his whole future hanging in the balance.
Now the former North Yorkshire rider is regarded as one of Britain’s best young trainers thanks to horses like The Druids Nephew, a leading Crabbie’s Grand National contender.
His star steeplechaser certainly has the right credentials after the eight-year-old won Cheltenham Festival’s three-mile handicap chase last month in emphatic style.
Mulholland’s first victory at National Hunt racing’s showcase meeting, he reports his horse to be “in good order” following an impressive piece of work yesterday.
“It’s my first runner in the National and it means everything. It’s what we do the job for,” the confident 34-year-old told The Yorkshire Post.
“We schooled him over the National fences last week and he took to them. He has got a good cruising speed which he showed in the Cheltenham race which was very competitive from the off. If your horse can travel, and not be down on its head over the first fences in the National, I think it could be a big plus.”
Mulholland’s infectious confidence, enthusiasm and know-how – he is a hands-on handler who often drives his own horses to the races – are three plusses likely to rub off on big-race jockey Aidan Coleman, who takes the ride in place of Barry Geraghty, who is one of a clutch of senior jockeys on the injury sidelines.
This, after all, is a trainer who thought nothing – as a precocious 12-year-old – of writing to the Ballydoyle stables of Classic-winning trainer Aidan O’Brien asking for some work experience in the school holidays.
There was some nifty explaining to do when O’Brien’s secretary telephoned the Mulholland family home in Northern Ireland offering the youngster a chance of a lifetime – the youngster’s parents were oblivious to the letter. Under O’Brien’s tutelage, he soaked up information like a sponge.
After riding out his claim, Mulholland then moved across the Irish Sea to team up with West Witton trainer Ferdy Murphy. It was an opportunity that served him in good stead for his future career.
The pair would spend the afternoons studying the form book. “He rode a good few winners, but he was always going to make it as a trainer,” said Murphy, who is now based in France. “He was very good assessing a horse’s fitness and he understood the programme book. I’m not surprised by his success, he had the right mindset.”
Mulholland recalls the crack. “It was certainly an education. Keith Mercer and Davy Russell were riding there at the time, I certainly learned about the business side of racing.”
Mulholland’s riding career came to an abrupt halt at Wetherby in 2004 when a hideous fall from a horse called Atlantic Hawk left him unconscious for 45 minutes with multiple injuries – the ambulance needed a police escort to get the stricken jockey to Leeds General Infirmary where it was initially feared that he had suffered a broken neck and brain damage.
His family feared more for his future than he did, and his time on the sidelines recovering from a badly broken left leg probably hastened his successful move to the training ranks in 2008-09.
However, the transition has been a seamless one – the ultra-consistent Midnight Chase helped put Mulholland on the map and he hopes The Young Master could be a Hennessy and Gold Cup contender next season.
Based five miles from Bath, Mulholland also has high hopes for recent Wetherby winenr Carole’s Destrier, who lines up in Friday’s Group One novice chase.
As for The Druids Nephew, this is a horse who was purchased at the Doncaster Sales by Andy Turnell, the man who saddled Maori Venture to Aintree glory in 1987.
He was acquired by West Country owner Robert Atwell, who runs The Stonehenge Druidsbanner syndicate with a group of friends and they had no hesitation in switching the horse to Mulholland when Turnell retired because of ill health.
The decision to run The Druids Nephew on Saturday is also indicative of Mulholland’s mindset as the most calculating of trainers. He did not want to make any rash decisions in the aftermath of Cheltenham; he wanted to assess his horse’s well-being. “I could have had a runner before in the National, but I’d rather have a proper runner,” he said. “You always want to be in this position – but it doesn’t happen by right. You have to work for it.”