Tuesday 23 July 2019

Liam Collins: Doing it for the kids - there's more to life than racing for outsider O'Leary

The Ryanair boss has forsaken the glittering prizes of the turf for normal family life, writes Liam Collins

FAMILY GUY: Michael and Anita O’Leary, with their four children, horse trainer Gordon Elliott and grooms Karen Morgan and Louise Dunne escort 2019 Aintree Grand National winner Tiger Roll through Summerhill, Co Meath. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
FAMILY GUY: Michael and Anita O’Leary, with their four children, horse trainer Gordon Elliott and grooms Karen Morgan and Louise Dunne escort 2019 Aintree Grand National winner Tiger Roll through Summerhill, Co Meath. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Socially, in business and in horse racing, Michael O'Leary has always been the outsider, the one who did it his way, without heed to what others thought of him.

He wore a rugby jersey when other plutocrats appeared in Savile Row suits, he drove a taxi for efficiency when other tycoons appeared in their chauffeur-driven Bentleys or Rolls Royces - and he never lost his broad Westmeath accent, even when his mentor Tony Ryan affected plummy Tipperary tones in keeping with his financial standing.

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Not for him the top hat and tails of Royal Ascot where the establishment gather every summer or even breeding foals for blue riband events like the Derby and the Oaks.

O'Leary's racing interests are in National Hunt, the sport's poor relation where the thrills and spills that draw ordinary folk to the racecourses of Ireland and England are more important than 'the sport of kings' and the bloodlines of great sires that have helped make flat racing magnates like John Magnier a billionaire.

His Gigginstown Stud in Westmeath, managed by his brother Eddie, grew out of an old estate he acquired in the first flush of the €17m he made in performance-related bonuses as chief executive of Ryanair between 1994 and 1997. This was before the airline, in which he had an 18pc stake, went public and catapulted him into the big league with an estimated fortune of €865m today.

Gigginstown Stud is owned half and half by O'Leary (58) and his wife Anita (48) through a company called Tillingdale, which in 2012 was re-registered as unlimited, which means it does not have to provide financial details of its business dealings.

But it is estimated that O'Leary's racing interests cost about €4m a year to run and maintain through breeding and a network of trainers. His short and happy career in racing has led to a string of successes on the racecourses of Ireland and England, the highlights of which have been prestigious trophies like the Grand Nationals in both countries and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Michael O'Leary has been around racing all his life. As a young lad he used to cycle out to the Tally-Ho stud at 6am during his summer holidays to work for his uncle Tony O'Callaghan, who still runs the famous stud farm near Lough Ennell, outside Mullingar.

With horse racing in his blood and his newly acquired wealth, he virtually re-built Gigginstown - a run-down Westmeath manor house - turning the estate into a manicured breeding ground for his horses, which were then farmed out to various trainers.

Success was far from instant but gradually his vast wealth and his association with two men - Willie Mullins and Mouse Morris - began to pay off. War of Attrition, trained by Morris, won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2006 carrying his maroon, Westmeath GAA-themed colours to victory in that and a string of other races over hurdles and fences.

But his unbelievable work ethic, his 2003 marriage to Anita Farrell and four subsequent children, not to mention managing his vast fortune, takes time and energy. Of all these pursuits, racing took its toll on his private life - because big wins mean huge media interest.

Racing is a sport where personality is valued above everything. Was O'Leary ever going to maintain his interest in racing after he had conquered the great National Hunt prizes with horses like Don Cossack, Rule The World, Apple's Jade and Tiger Roll?

"There were signs there along the way," says Ted Walsh, who comes from Irish National Hunt royalty and is a keen observer of the sport. "Michael and Anita have four kids that are growing up - and the only one that appears to have an interest in racing is Michael."

Families steeped in Irish racing devote almost all of their time and energy to the sport from the lowly point-to-point meetings in obscure parts of the country to the great racing festivals of Ireland and England. Unless you have that sort of commitment you aren't regarded as "real" in the racing fraternity.

It was noted that O'Leary missed the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse this year and the Dublin Racing Festival, where his new star Apple's Jade won, because he was "doing stuff with the kids".

There are usually two types of fathers, those who are deeply involved when their children are very young, or those who have more time and energy when they are growing up. Who knows what kind of work/life balance Michael O'Leary had, but it can't have been easy building one of Europe's biggest airlines and being part of a growing family at the same time.

It is also likely that the teenage children of one of Ireland's richest men find the attractions of a big city more to their taste than the delights of rural Westmeath.

"You need to be in love and dedicated to racing 24/7," added Ted Walsh. "I don't think it was a financial decision either. You don't get to be as clever as Michael O'Leary by thinking that getting involved in National Hunt racing is a wise business decision. It's not to make a profit, it's a passion."

As an owner O'Leary was up there with JP McManus, regarded as his chief rival in plundering the great prizes of National Hunt racing, and Rich Ricci, the colourful financier who has become interlinked with the gentlemanly trainer Willie Mullins. And it could be the 2016 "split" with Mullins which defined Michael O'Leary's relationship with horse racing.

What was that all about? A man with the wealth of O'Leary looking for a cut-price deal from the trainer because of the large number of horses he had in his yard?

These questions were never fully resolved when O'Leary peremptorily pulled his horses from Mullins's yard and the split sent a shiver through racing circles. It just isn't the kind of thing you do. Racing is a sport where €1m deals are done on a handshake or a nod, and where tradition and etiquette are sacrosanct.

But Michael O'Leary has never been quite like anybody else. It's almost as if he knows what the rules are and then deliberately sets out to break them, or at least bend them to his own will. Like his more outrageous pronouncements, he does this with smiling abandon, relishing the shock value and the repercussions.

Of course, it may all be simple fatigue. Last year, the O'Leary colours were carried by 225 different horses during the jump season. He had 12 runners in the Irish Grand National at Easter and his horses are omnipresent on Irish racecourses.

After 50 years around horses, maybe Michael O'Leary has had his late mid-life crisis and wants to find time for something new. Inside Gigginstown House, nearly all the walls are decorated with oil paintings of old men and old horses. So, maybe, O'Leary just wants to get away from the oppressive past and find something new to stimulate his fertile imagination.

Whatever the reason, the decision to divest himself of his racing interests wasn't lightly taken. Horse racing is a long-term and expensive project and O'Leary is one of the first to get out ahead of the bailiffs.

With his commitment to stay on as CEO of Ryanair until 2024, maybe the Squire of Gigginstown has decided that no man, no matter how smart he is, can serve two masters.

'A man with a whim of iron' Eamonn Sweeney on O'Leary, Sport Section back page

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