“For those that think it’s lunacy to be able to talk to horses, it’s not that I think I can, I know I can.” There is no hiding the special connection between trainer Tony Mullins and his stable star Princess Zoe.
One of the fairytale stories of the 2020 flat racing season, this magical grey mare became a household favourite by winning five in a row.
The streak, which included two victories in a week at the Galway Festival, was completed by a Group One triumph in the Prix du Cadran on Arc weekend at ParisLongchamp. Mullins’ Princess had him “weak at the knees” in the build-up to that success.
Although this season has not quite gone to plan – finishing second in the Ascot Gold Cup and second in the Irish St Leger Trial – the Irishman has been even more impressed ahead of their title defence this weekend.
“I think she’s phenomenal at the moment and we’re definitely confident that she’s as good as she was for the Ascot Gold Cup and maybe, I think, a little better,” Mullins told Sky Sports Racing.
“I can’t believe that at her age she appears to still be improving. She loves her game.
“At Ascot we thought it was going to rain as we’d been promised all morning. It was good to firm and while she gave a brilliant performance on it, I don’t know if her confirmation would allow that again.
“I didn’t really enjoy Ascot because I was so nervous about the ground. Even after she was second, it was exciting but I was so worried about how she was going to be the next morning.”
Though Princess Zoe’s one and only trip to Britain did not result in victory, Mullins and the six-year-old developed an even deeper bond en route.
“Due to the Covid restrictions, I actually decided to drive the lorry that day myself. I’m glad I did because I learned more about the mare travelling with her than I think I would in a year training her. I learned about her habits and what she likes and what she doesn’t.
“I have a connection with her where she knows what I want.
“She knows she’s here as an athlete and when she gets out she’s very business-like about her work. She does everything you ask her, she’s just a dream.”
That intimate understanding of horses is something Mullins picked up from his father Paddy, whose training career spanned over fifty years and included six Cheltenham Festival winners, ten Irish jump trainers’ titles and an Irish Oaks.
The latter, coming in 2003 when Paddy was 84-years-old, involved a unique method of preparation for the winner, Vintage Tipple.
“When she was working the week before at the Curragh, he stood at her head in the box the whole way up and the whole way home,” Mullins explains. “Of course, my mother went mad when she heard.
“I remember talking to him the next day and, while he was a man of few words, he was very confident going to the Oaks that day. He knew he had everything right.”
Mullins Jnr had a similar feel heading to Paris last year. Those two Galway Festival wins had been followed up by Listed success back at the same track the following month, setting up Princess Zoe perfectly for a shot at the big time.
Mullins recalls: “The man that found her, Bernard Cullinane, said to me after she won twice at the festival in Galway: ‘This one is good enough to win the Cadran’.
“I didn’t fully agree with him but I said we’ll step her up to Listed class at the September meeting in Galway. I knew after she won that and came home a couple of days after and was better again.
“In the last five or six days before she left here for the Cadran she did some work that the likes of Willie [Mullins, brother] or Aidan O’Brien are used to seeing but I got weak at the knees. In my mind we had it won.”
Mullins is equally bullish about their chances this year, despite facing a star-studded field including legendary stayer Stradivarius and Goodwood Cup winner Trueshan.
“Her work now is definitely better than when she won last year,” Mullins says.
“I’m very confident that she will [defend her crown]. Trueshan is the biggest danger, but with that extra half mile we know we can do it and others have to prove it.
“She’s a very rare mare and I hope to prove it several times in the future.”
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