The jockey who made the jump to rallying

Jockey Danny Mullins relished the chance to go rallying and raise awareness of his friend Tomás McLoughlin's plight

Mullins jumping 1

The biggest, scariest jump? Take your pick. The yellow house in Ouninpohja? Maybe Colin’s Crest in Vargåsen. Or anything in Fafe. What about Becher’s Brook or The Chair?

Not exactly household names for us, but Irish jockey turned rally driver Danny Mullins is a man who knows all about flying a horse flat chat over a five-foot fence. The 31-year-old has been riding winners for the last 15 years. He’s seen it all from the saddle, so when the opportunity came to take a different ride, he was only too happy to slide in alongside one of Ireland’s most successful drivers Josh Moffett.

How scary could a Hyundai be when you’d faced down some of steeplechasing’s most terrifying moments?

 “Very few things in life compare to riding race horse at maximum speed,” Mullins told DirtFish. “But… the first day I sat in a rally car beside Josh, it frightened the living daylights out of me.”

Mullins action

When you’ve conquered your fear over the fences with little more than physics keeping you on a horse, you have a different perspective.

“As soon as I was out of the car,” he continued, “I thought: I want more of that!””

That’s how he ended up hiring a Ford Fiesta Rally5 from Tom Gahan Motorsport for last year’s Wexford Rally.

It was one thing to enjoy a ride with Josh Moffett, but quite another to dive in and drive one of Ireland’s toughest events.

“To step back,” said Mullins, “to go back to a junior level of something, to the infants’ side of rallying was something completely foreign to me. I’ve been lucky enough to ride some of the best jump horses around at the moment and doing that at the highest, the premium level is an unbelievable buzz. It’s not easy to go back to the beginning.”

Mullins finish

A pre-event test ahead of Wexford offered an insight into what was to come. Immediately Mullins drew comparisons between the two worlds.

“The similarities would probably be between flat racing and Formula 1 and jump racing and rallying,” he said. “In flat racing, the speed is higher, but it’s a slightly more controlled environment. That’s more like Formula 1. With rallying, you have to deal with more adversity – to be able to understand what’s coming and how it might change really quickly. That’s the same being a jump jockey: there are so many different things that can happen at any point; you have to be able to react, bring your body into that place and have your mind sharp.

“As soon as I started with the rally car, it was on the edge for me. Now, I know I’m nowhere near the speed some of the top drivers could have gone in that Fiesta, but pushing my own limit was such a buzz and getting that feeling back was just fantastic. It was something beautiful.”

Coming from a family fully immersed in the world of horse racing, taking the start of the Grand National or any of the Cheltenham Festival classics is nothing new for the Kilkenny rider. But lining his Fiesta up at the start of the opening stage in Wexford last September brought memories of his early years in the saddle flooding back.

To have that feeling back. It was something beautiful Danny Mullins

“When I rode my first few rides, the feeling was the same,” he said. “I got to the [start] line and I was just hoping that I knew what I was going to have to do. When you haven’t done something before, you’re sort of wondering that’s going to happen – there’s so much brain activity going on trying to think and be ready.

“Today, when I line up for even the biggest races, I just go in there, go with the flow and let it happen.

“When we were at the start of the first stage, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen all over again. There was that nervous excitement – it was a great feeling to have it back again.”

Mullins was immediately on the pace and went on to bring the car home in one piece and in the winners’ circle. He took a class win on his debut.

“It was fantastic,” he said. “I definitely would love to do compete again. Like I said, there are parallels.

“For me, if my horse isn’t balanced, no matter how hard I send them down to the jump, if he’s not getting over there with a proper rhythm then I’m not going to get away from [the jump] fast enough.

“I thought the car would be doing a lot of work for me, but now I understand in rallying you’re working so much with your co-driver – and Michael [Maher, co-driver] was great for me – on the notes to get the car balanced and set up before the bend to get out at maximum speed.”

Mullins Tomas

Another reason Danny enjoyed the opportunity to go rallying was the shine a light on the plight of his friend Tomás McLoughlin.

“I met Tomás a couple of months before the rally,” he said. “I was going to see him for the first time I remember thinking I was a bit tired, I’d been racing a lot and I was looking forward to going home and relaxing. Kind of feeling sorry for myself over something that’s nothing, something stupid really.

“I met Tomás later that day, he was just thrilled to be there. As professional sports people, every so often, we need to remember how lucky we are. Tomás is suffering from spastic quadriplegia – but he’s still able to give me that kick up the a*** I need every now and then. Here he is supporting me, I wanted to give some support back to him. I knew me doing the rally would bring exposure and I wanted to shine that light on him and what he’s going through.

For me to give back to him, it hopefully makes his life a bit better – but he’s a constant reminder of how easy we all have it and how much we can take for granted.”

For Mullins, life is hectic. He’s ridden four winners through December and his career continues. He’s looking to stay in the saddle until he’s 45. After that, he’s got some ideas…

“I’d love to do some more rallying when I hang my boots up,” he said. “It’s complicated when I’m busy with racing. For the rally, I thought I’d turn up to the test, then do the recce and  then get on with the rally. But there’s so much more preparation than I thought there would be, so much to do before the first stage.

“But that buzz… you never forget that buzz!”

Visit here to support the Tomorrow for Tomás charity.

Words:David Evans