Wicklow Brave is the sort of horse where it’s proper to thank his trainer for just showing up.
“Our pleasure,” Willie Mullins said from Ireland Thursday, about the time his 10-year-old cleared quarantine in New York and headed to the Far Hills Races course in New Jersey. Wicklow Brave, and English-bred is the 3-1 favorite in Saturday’s $450,000 American Grand National and might just be the versatile racehorse in the world. He’s won 17 of his 58 starts, earned $1,323,663, traveled the world, won races of all descriptions.
“I’d say his career is unprecedented,” said Mullins, the 13-time Irish champion National Hunt trainer. “Starting off in bumpers, winning over hurdles, going back and winning on the flat, then more hurdling and now chases. He won at Cheltenham, he won a St. Leger . . . His record is as good as any horse you’d want.”
Take a breath and follow along:
- The foal of 2009 was bred by Juddmonte Farm’s Millsec Limited in England, cut out to be a flat horse as the son of Beat Hollow and the Rainbow Quest mare Moraine. As a yearling, he sold for $14,000 at Tattersalls, and two years later was purchased by Mullins and agent Harold Kirk as an unraced 3-year-old at the Tattersalls Ireland Derby Sale. They spent $54,000 and were hoping for a decent horse take to bumpers and perhaps hurdle starts. They got so much more.
“We bought him unbroken, he was a flat horse who went to National Hunt sale,” said Mullins. “We liked his page, we liked the horse, he was nice, not the typical big chaser. We bought him as a bumper/hurdle horse and that would have been a great career for him. We’d have been happy with that. He just progressed to a lot more. No one could foresee what he was going to do.”
- Wicklow Brave lost his first two starts as a 4-year-old, finishing ninth and second in big bumper fields at Punchestown. At Galway in June, he ousted 19 others to start a five-race winning streak, two more on the flat to cap 2013 and his first two hurdle starts the following season.
- His 2015 consisted of a dozen starts, a mix of hurdle and flat races. He won the County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in an 8-length romp, added a 2-mile flat win at Gowran Park and another flat triumph at Listowel. At York he tried the Ebor, a classy staying flat race, and finished second. Next out, he landed in Group 1 company and was third behind Order Of St. George and Agent Murphy in the Irish St. Leger at The Curragh. At Ascot he settled for third again, this time in the Long Distance Cup on British Champions Day. Back to jumping, he finished third in the Grade 1 Morgiana and Fighting Fifth hurdle races.
- In 2016, he stayed on the flat and stared down some of the best in the game. He didn’t blink, ousting Order Of St. George in the Irish St. Leger and traveling to Australia’s Melbourne Cup. The “Race that stops a nation” didn’t go so well, as Wicklow Brave checked in 22nd of 24.
- Undaunted, he returned to hurdling in 2017 and was seventh in the English Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham and then won the Irish Champion Hurdle at Punchestown to become a rare Group/Grade 1 winner on the flat and over jumps. Back to the flat and on to America, he finished fourth in the Belmont Gold Cup at Belmont Park and after a fourth to Order Of St. George in another St. Leger, headed back to Australia for starts in the Caulfield Cup (12th) and Melbourne Cup (10th of 23).
- At age 9, he finished second in the Irish Champion Hurdle, won three times on the flat over the summer, won over hurdles again in September and was seventh behind Apple’s Jade at Fairyhouse in December.
- This year, he opened with back-to-back seconds over hurdles – at Naas and in the Coral Cup at Cheltenham. He fell over hurdles at Fairyhouse in April and was third behind Buver D’Air in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Punchestown in May. What does a 10-year-old hurdler sitting at 154 in the handicap do after that? Goes chasing of course. Over the bigger and stiffer Irish chase fences, Wicklow Brave won at Ballinrobe in May, Galway in August and Listowel in September.
Which brings us to this weekend, and another flight across another ocean for another challenge.
“He’s used to traveling, he does that well,” said Mullins. “I suppose it’s a nice prize to try for. He’s won a Grade 1 hurdling, he’s won a Grade 1 on the flat, I don’t know if they will call this a Grade 1 chase but this was an opportunity for him and it would mean a great deal (to win). He’s always jumped his hurdles really well, and we were very pleased with him, so chasing was something he could do. Nothing surprises me about him really.”
Not now. To summarize, Wicklow Brave has won five hurdle races, three chase races, three National Hunt flat races (bumpers), six flat turf races. He’s raced in Ireland, England, the United States and Australia. He’s won at least one race in each of his seven years on the track. He’s been ridden by amateurs/apprentices and some of the biggest names in racing – Ruby Walsh, Paul Townend, Frankie Dettori, Ryan Moore, William Buick and Javier Castellano among them.
The achievements flabbergast even his trainer, who listed the St. Leger as his favorite win just because of the unlikelihood of it.
“He minds himself,” the trainer said. “He’s a great character and he never allows me to work him too hard. When he’s not happy he lets you know. He’s anything but nervous, very sure of everything he does, so he is. He enjoys training, enjoys his racing. We give him long breaks. I often think if a horse is given enough time between races it extends their career.”
Mullins expects a good effort, though he knows the depth of the field led by last year’s winner Jury Duty from Irish trainer Gordon Elliott’s barn, and top-class Americans Scorpiancer, Moscato, Surprising Soul and Iranistan.
“Inexperience, maybe,” Mullins said when asked about what he worries about. “That might be the only thing, but he has ability and the ground won’t bother him. Just the experience jumping your type of fences, but we wouldn’t see that as a problem.”
Townend, who has won six races on Wicklow Brave, will be aboard again Saturday.
NOTES: Mullins, whose horses Shaneshill and Nichols Canyon finished second and third in the 2016 Iroquois, will not make the trip to New Jersey for Far Hills. His son Patrick will oversee things on the ground. Owned by the Bruton Street partnership, Pravalaguna will be difficult to handle in the Peapack off five prior jump wins including an August score at Cork. Mullins considered trying the Grand National with the French-bred 7-year-old mare, but opted for the softer spot. “She would be competitive in the other race too,” Mullins said, “but Paul has ridden her to four wins (in five starts together) and if we ran in the other race he would have ridden Wicklow Brave so we will go with the mares race.” . . . In addition to Mullins and Elliot, international trainers with runners include Dermot Weld and Nicky Henderson. Last year, Elliott and Emmet Mullins went 1-2 in the Grand National with Jury Duty and Tornado Watch . . . The race is worth $270,000 to the winner . . . For the second consecutive year, Far Hills offers full pari-mutuel wagering on-site and via simulcast and account wagering providers. The menu includes a cross-country pick with Belmont Park featuring races four, five and six at Far Hills (the novice hurdle, flat stakes and Grand National) and races nine and 10 at Belmont (the Ticonderoga and Empire Distaff stakes).
For a little more on Wicklow Brave, check out Racing Post article from August.