From training a very small string of horses in the shadows of leafy Gowran Park racecourse in County Kilkenny, Tony Mullins has found himself in the desert environs of Riyadh where his stable star Princess Zoe (GER) contests the Longines Red Sea Turf Handicap.
The Mullins family are a racing dynasty in Ireland with their roots firmly in jump racing, and while the initial expectation may have been for Princess Zoe to go jumping, that plan most certainly changed as she rocketed up through the ranks of Flat racing’s staying division.
For Mullins, the entire experience has been slightly surreal but one he has very much embraced as Princess Zoe’s progress and preparations are constantly charted on his Twitter account.
“I know how much I love her but I just can’t believe how popular she is with everybody else,” Mullins says of the Jukebox Jury-sired seven-year-old’s adoring supporters from far and wide.
The journey has involved Mullins winning a Group 1 – the 2020 Prix du Cadran at ParisLongchamp – with Princess Zoe, and only just being denied a second by the best stayer in the world at the time, Subjectivist, in last June’s Ascot Gold Cup.
It was that run at Royal Ascot on fast ground that told Mullins he had a mare who could literally travel around the world, as his fears of her not being able to act as well on a quicker surface were allayed by her wellbeing immediately after the race.
Now in Riyadh, Princess Zoe’s story continues, and Mullins is almost pinching himself.
“For a stable like ours to have a star like this who keeps doing it for us… I think it might take Shakespeare to put it into words properly. It’s just unbelievable.”
And Mullins is not in Saudi Arabia just to make up the numbers. Her last run in the 2021 Prix du Cadran didn’t finish as connections would have hoped, but there was plenty of encouragement to take from so much of the race.
“Going to the Prix du Cadran last year, the day she was fifth, that is when she was at her best,” Mullins reflects. “She came down to the last bend that day on the bridle and I was so disappointed after the race because everything had gone perfectly until we got to that last bend.
“She did come home a little lame and we believe that something happened on the last bend. If she runs like she was training going into the Cadran, and her run in the Ascot Gold Cup obviously, we have a real live chance and that is very exciting for us.”
Mullins, who trains no more than a dozen horses, often calls on his brother Willie, Ireland’s record-breaking perennial champion jumps trainer, to allow him to gallop Princess Zoe with some of his high-class string, and it’s a system that works.
He says: “It can be a little awkward when I want to give Princess Zoe some work as we don’t have the horses to work with her, but I often bring her to Willie’s and we are able to work it out. It does work and if anyone was to give me another one like her we’d be able to work that out too!”
At home in Ireland, Mullins is part of racing folklore through his association with Dawn Run, a famous mare trained by his father, Paddy, who won both the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup at Cheltenham.
Mullins partnered Dawn Run to 15 of her 21 victories, but the pressure of overseeing Princess Zoe’s campaign trumps that of riding Ireland’s most famous mare.
“The responsibility was my father’s that time and I just had to sit up on Dawn Run, and I was always confident about that,” Mullins says.
“Now with my first real really good horse on the world stage I am nervous about this. It is a huge responsibility to get everything right and I’d rather be the jockey,” he jokes.
If Princess Zoe wins the prize on Saturday, even Shakespeare might struggle to capture this story in full.