PAUL MULRENNAN pinches himself when he lists the racing greats – his sporting heroes – like Lester Piggott, Pat Eddery and Frankie Dettori, who have all reached the 1,000-winner milestone.
Yet he now hopes to join the elite club this weekend after Groundworker’s victory at Hamilton earlier this week for North Yorkshire trainer Paul Midgley left him one short of the career-defining landmark.
“They are all racing legends who I grew up watching,” said the 37-year-old Boroughbridge-based rider, whose wife Adele is the main raceday presenter at Yorkshire’s tracks.
“I was very lucky to ride work with Pat Eddery when I started out with Brian Meehan. He was winding up as I was starting out. Just to be held in the same bracket as someone like him is unbelievable.”
York has always been special to Mulrennan and he would dearly love to make his own piece of racing history today at the track where he rode out his apprentice rider’s claim on Mick Easterby’s Blue Spinnaker.
More recently he recorded back-to-back triumphs in the Group One Nunthorpe Stakes on the now retired Mecca’s Angel for Michael Dods in 2015 and 2016 – he likened the reception after the second success to the ovation afforded to Frankel following the wonderhorse’s York win in 2012.
Yet these successes need to be set in the context of Mulrennan’s upbringing in the West London suburb of Ealing. Gaelic football was his first love – his parents hailed from Ireland – followed by a lifelong affinity for Chelsea Football Club.
He never sat on a horse until the age of 16 – his careers adviser suggested that he was a “bit on the short side” for a footballing career – but he proved to be a natural and moved North to make the most of the opportunities that exist in Yorkshire.
He has not looked back since recording his first success in 2001. Yet, at the same time, Mulrennan has also been unlucky with injuries – an occupational hazard in his sport.
The most recent came last summer when he fractured three vertebrae, and other injuries, when a horse spooked on the early morning gallops and he landed flat on his back. “It could have been worse,” he said philosophically.
After six months on the sidelines Mulrennan admits that he struggled to regain the winning momentum when he returned to the saddle earlier this year and recently sought the counsel of former Classic-winning rider John Reid, now a top jockey coach.
“I don’t care who you are, when you come back you have lost a lot of contacts,” he told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “You are almost starting from scratch again.
“I’m probably fitter and stronger than I have ever been thanks to the team at Jack Berry House, the Injured Jockeys Fund centre, in Malton, but it’s getting that racing brain, your timing and so on, back into gear. It takes time, and confidence, and you need to be riding winners.”
It is why the link-up with the aforementioned Reid, who won the 1992 Epsom Derby in 1992, is paying off. By his own high standards Mulrennan had had a slow start to the 2019 campaign and decided to travel to Lambourn to see the retired rider. The four-and-a-half-hour trip paid off and he is back in the winning groove.
“You’re never too old to stop learning. I went to see John Reid a couple of weeks ago and I’ve noticed a difference,” he reported. “He was showing me things on the equiciser – just little things – but they make a difference.
“Sport keeps moving forward all the time and sometimes you have to be man enough to ask for help. Now, with WhatsApp, I can send videos of me on the equiciser and he’s watching the racing all the time. It’s the little small details, sometimes you need someone to say, ‘boom, boom, boom’.”
With experience Mulrennen has also learned not to push his body to the limit. One of the taller jockeys at 5ft 8ins, he will not starve himself to weigh less than 8st 10lb. It is, he says, all about prolonging his career so his daughter Scarlett, nine, can watch her father win more big races.
“You look at jockeys like John Egan, Joe Fanning and Franny Norton – they are all in their forties,” he said. “Less is more. I don’t want to do ‘light’ because I want to ride for longer.
“We’re moving with the times and I think they will have to push up the minimum weights for races – the lads coming through are all much taller and heavier. The game’s changing and you have to stay ahead of it. There’s still a lot more to do, but we’re getting there.”
Next week Mulrennan is due to partner top sprinter Mabs Cross in the five-furlong King’s Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot. Injury meant he missed the horse’s agonising second-place finish to Alpha Delphini in last year’s Nunthorpe – and also the mare’s subsequent win in the Prix de l’Aabbaye at Paris Longchamp.
But he was pleased with her comeback run at Haydock on a track, and ground, that did not play to her strengths and he is looking forward to Tuesday’s race. Like his horse of a lifetime Mecca’s Angel, she is trained by Michael Dods who knows how to prepare sprinters for these big tests. “She has a massive chance. She’s in great form and I wouldn’t swap her for anything,” he added.
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