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In March last year, immediately after Melbourne Cup favourite Vauban won the JCB Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham, champion Irish trainer Willie Mullins admitted he had “unfinished business in Australia”.
On Tuesday, he will attempt to finish that business when he saddles up two six-year geldings Vauban and Absurde in an attempt to win the Cup.
Willie Mullins faces the media after the barrier draw for this year’s Melbourne Cup.Credit: Getty Images
The master trainer rates Vauban the better horse but also gives Absurde an each-way chance of scratching the Melbourne Cup itch that has kept him occupied since he watched Vintage Crop’s win in 1993 while on holidays in Australia.
“We were supposed to leave the next day. I don’t remember what happened the next four days, and whatever happened the next four days draws me back,” Mullins said.
The 67-year-old first arrived with a horse in 2003 when Holy Orders became both a figure of fascination and mirth when he refused to run while in quarantine at Sandown.
Mullins tried everything from new jockeys and horse breakers and curators’ tractors to click the horse into gear but had to fall back on the “he’ll be right on the night” philosophy as the reluctant horse stood his ground.
Holy Orders eventually ran 17th and Mullins learned what was required to compete, returning in 2013 with Simeon, which finished fourth. He has been a regular visitor since, with Max Dynamite second in 2015 and then third in 2017, just in front of sixth placed Thomas Hobson that year.
Vauban, ridden by David Casey, at Flemington in the lead-up to the Cup.Credit: Getty Images
Wicklow Brave’s best in two starts was 10th, while Stratum Albion was 20th in 2020, meaning Mullins has trained horses to run second, third, fourth and sixth in the Cup … without saluting.
In late 2021, Mullins’ friend and French bloodstock agent Pierre Boulard bought Vauban, with Mullins confident he could make a dual-purpose horse, winning over both hurdles and on the flat. The pair didn’t tell anyone out loud, but they also had winning the Melbourne Cup on their mind.
“We thought, with the profile that he had in France, that he could improve enough to be a Melbourne cup horse, and he has done that,” Mullins said.
“When we look at those horses that we buy off the flat in France that is always in the back of our mind because we’re buying horses that stay.”
The pair have been friends since Mullins’ dad Paddy sent a horse, Dawn Run, to Paris and Boulard became the stable contact as he was the only Frenchman at the stable who could speak English.
When the duo pulled up at Werribee in a packed Lexus on Monday to watch Vauban and Absurde do their final work before the Cup, Mullins was on the phone. The demand for the champion trainer’s time and thoughts has been never ending since Saturday morning, when he flew in for the race.
He has met every request with a wry smile and a quip, despite boarding the plane at Dubai en route to Melbourne so tired he joked to others that he did not even have a drink on the flight. His preference was to sleep.
Bright as a button on Monday despite a sore knee, he limped out to the centre of the Werribee track to watch his pair work, completing the program they started in Australia when they arrived in quarantine on grand final day.
On the track, Vauban stands tall, nodding his head and staying in a straight line, while the more cantankerous Absurde throws his neck around like a seal on a rock as they trot to warm up.
The chestnut with the white fleck next to his eye then extends before exploding into a powerful gallop that blows the thoroughbred’s hair back, stunning track watchers sitting in a tired old Werribee grandstand blinking into the rising sun. Those out at Werribee say he then returned to the barn barely puffing.
Vauban has a tough constitution that developed while racing on both the flat and over fences in the UK, where he can ride on or off the pace, using both his stamina and turn-of-foot to wear his gasping rivals down. His work at Flemington last Tuesday had Victorian racing talking.
Mullins is rapt with what he has seen since he arrived in Australia and was surprised at the suggestion his horses had been worked hard.
Eyes on the prize: Champion trainer Willie Mullins has unfinished business in Australia.Credit: Justin McManus
“I didn’t think we worked hard. I would not put it down to hard work. It’s just normal for us, and I imagine [travelling foreman] David [Casey] always keeps a little up his sleeve working, so we hope what we are doing is going to work,” Mullins said.
“[Vauban] is tough and he is strong and what has really impressed me this year is how quickly he recovers from his gallops and his races. He just puts on weight, his appetite is huge, and he just does all the right things.”
As does Mullins, who gives little away when he speaks.
He has an endearing fondness for the term ‘razzmatazz’ when referring to the antics of Vauban’s owner Rich Ricci or jet-setting jockey Frankie Dettori. He is also guaranteed to deliver a quip with efficiency, reserving one on Monday to express his concern at the forecast of 30 degrees on Cup day.
“As everyone knows, the boiling point of an Irishman is 22,” Mullins said.
Racing has warmed to his personality – the sexagenarian not able to move more than 10 metres along the Yarra River on Monday before a fan asked him for a selfie. Mullins was, as always, generous, not only offering his face but conversation too.
Mullins is on a mission to finally get his hands on the Melbourne Cup.Credit: Justin McManus
Mullins’ outlook means Vauban (or Absurde) would be a popular winner but the question heading into the race remains the same as ever.
Will Vauban match Vintage Crop, Media Puzzle, Protectionist, Twilight Payment and Cross Counter and win as an international? Will he perform well – like Crime Scene, Max Dynamite and Prince of Arran have done – but not win?
Or will he face the ignominy reserved for Double Trigger, Oscar Schindler and Fame Game, which failed to deliver after entering the race as the talk of the town?
Can Absurde, which Vauban beat by seven lengths at Ascot, upstage his more fancied stablemate?
Mullins knows that, for him, the Melbourne Cup has become like an Olympic final. He must strike. There is no guarantee he will be back here next year, or the years after that.
“He’s the best chance we’ve ever had and will ever have,” Mullins said.
“I’ve just got everything crossed. Everything has just gone according to plan.”
Win or not, Mullins has made a good impression on Australian racing. Now it’s up to one of his horses to do the same.
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