Saturday 24 March 2018

Michael O'Leary: Enthralled by thrill of the chase

Michael O'Leary's love of big chasers has been a godsend for many in Irish racing, writes John O'Brien

CHELTENHAM, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 17: Owner Michael O'Leary and his wife pose with War of Attrition after they win The Totesport Gold Cup Steeple Chase during the Cheltenham Festival Day 4 at Cheltenham Race Course on March 17, 2006 in Cheltenham, England. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
CHELTENHAM, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 17: Owner Michael O'Leary and his wife pose with War of Attrition after they win The Totesport Gold Cup Steeple Chase during the Cheltenham Festival Day 4 at Cheltenham Race Course on March 17, 2006 in Cheltenham, England. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

ON Wednesday morning, Davy Russell made the short trip from his home near Cashel to Pat Doyle's yard outside Holycross. Doyle had a handful of new recruits, a bunch of three-year-olds picked up at the sales, that were ready for their first serious work-outs and the jockey's first impression was hugely favourable. "Absolute beauties," Russell says smiling. It is mornings like these, he says, that make you happiest to be alive.

Doyle is an important cog in the machine-like operation that is Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud. O'Leary's brother, Eddie, buys the best young horses at the sales and they are sent to Dot Love and Ciarán Murphy in Mullingar to be broken and pre-trained. Then they go to Doyle to be tested on the point-to-point circuit, the best of them distributed to trainers around the country to be ridden by Russell in the top races in Ireland and the UK.

While racing doesn't promise the bumper dividend -- in fact it is almost inevitably doomed to be a loss-making enterprise -- O'Leary is habitually guaranteed from his airline business but that doesn't mean Gigginstown is any less meticulously run. "To be sure," Russell says. "I just don't get a call telling me something's been done. You always know where you stand. There's a meeting for every decision that's taken."

Russell has been Gigginstown's retained jockey since 2007, but the association goes back to his amateur days when he rode Tuco, O'Leary's first horse, in a point-to-point. Tuco was killed at the Fairyhouse Easter meeting in 2002, but it didn't sour O'Leary's appetite for the sport.

Within a year he had bought another handful, among them a promising Presenting gelding called War of Attrition, purchased after he had fallen at the last in a point-to-point at the Horse and Jockey when set to win on the bridle.

Within three years War of Attrition would deliver O'Leary a Cheltenham Gold Cup with his first runner in the race and repeating that feat represents the high watermark of what his racing business is about: a Hangar 6 that remains within his grasp.

Because he can afford to lose, O'Leary is in the lucky position of being able to buy young horses and give them all the time they need to fulfill their potential. The Gold Cup was only the 16th race of War of Attrition's career and such light campaigns are often the making of his best horses.

"That's the dream for him alright," says Philip Fenton who trains several Gigginstown horses. "Small horses don't really do it for him. He's looking for fine big types who might develop into good staying chasers. If you had a horse and it wasn't 16'1 or 16'2 and couldn't carry the weight to run in a Gold Cup then you wouldn't bother ringing him."

For a young trainer like Fenton, the arrival of Gigginstown as a major force in Irish jump racing is a godsend. A few years ago Fenton trained Dix Villez to win two point-to-points, but the horse subsequently moved to Paul Nolan. O'Leary softened the blow by telling Fenton to get in touch if he ever had another good horse. When Last Instalment ran away with a point-to-point at Lemonfield last year, Fenton was soon on the phone to Eddie O'Leary. This season the six-year-old has developed into one of the smartest young staying chasers around.

As an owner the comparisons between O'Leary and JP McManus are hard to resist but the differences between them are considerable. "They're two different men at different stages of their lives," says Shane Donohoe, a former Gigginstown trainer. "For JP, racing is a passion. He was brought up with it. For Mick, it's more of a hobby. A good way to kill time."

It is a subtle but critical distinction. Although horses were in his blood, O'Leary never displayed too much interest in the sport until he started buying horses nearly a decade ago. McManus, in contrast, is a man living his childhood dream, forking out huge sums to acquire good horses and distributing them among a wide band of stables across the country, often seemingly with no apparent concern for the financial return they might bestow.

With O'Leary you sense more of a concern for the bottom line and a more rigidly structured plan behind his operation. A few years ago he splashed out €250,000 for First Lieutenant and, despite his considerable fortune, he still balked at such an outlay and it remains his most expensive purchase. O'Leary isn't foolish enough to imagine racing will ever enhance his fortune, but keeping his losses to a minimum would be a key part of the plan.

In racing, there is a general consensus among those who work with him: he can be demanding but never less than fair. Increasingly, there is a noticeable policy to use the top stables -- Mullins, Meade, Elliott, Hughes, Nolan -- and while Eddie runs the show it's not uncommon for trainers to field calls from Michael offering his opinion on his horses. "If your phone rings at 7.0am on a Sunday morning, there's only one man on the end of it," laughs Donohoe. "Nine times out of 10 it'll be Mick."

That O'Leary currently has the best crop of young horses in the country isn't all that surprising. It's not just that Eddie can call on decades of experience in buying and selling racehorses, but that every trainer and dealer in the country knows that O'Leary is at the other end of the line whenever they have a horse that would fit the ideal Gigginstown profile and it helps that they know precisely what he wants.

Trainers know too that if they get the chance and deliver, O'Leary will stay faithful. During the week Tony Martin spoke about selling O'Leary Bog Warrior and Gift of D'Gab. "Luckily, they asked me were they any good and I said they were," Martin said. "On the strength of that they kept coming forward and, thankfully, everything has gone right and we've had a great run of luck."

The horses keep galloping and the luck keeps rolling. For Russell, his eye firmly set on his first jockeys' title, the only downside is the inevitable head-scratching when Gigginstown horses come face to face in the top races. Three weeks ago, he faced an agonising decision between riding First Lieutenant and Bog Warrior at Fairyhouse. He stayed loyal to last year's Cheltenham Festival winner and watched Bog Warrior saunter to an impressive victory.

So be it, he thinks. "It was very unfortunate for me, but nobody lost on the day. First Lieutenant is still there and Michael still won the race. Like, people were saying Bog Warrior is this and he's that. I didn't need people to be telling me how good Bog Warrior was. I know how good First Lieutenant is as well. You can't win them all."

Over Christmas Russell will spend the four days in Leopardstown and that bothers him slightly because he knows Willie Mullins is likely to aim the exciting Sir Des Champs, another winner at Cheltenham in March, at the Greenmount Park Novice Steeplechase in Limerick on Monday and, being hungry and ambitious, he wants to ride them all. Not even O'Leary's fastest plane could manage such a feat, though.

As much as possible, O'Leary likes to keep his best horses apart but with so many of his best horses fitting a similar profile, that becomes virtually impossible approaching the business end of the season. Luckily enough, Russell thinks, Bog Warrior is versatile enough that he can tackle the 2m Racing Post Novice Steeplechase on Monday, thus swerving a clash with First Lieutenant and Last Instalment in the Fort Leney Novice Chase a day later.

And there's the week's headscratcher. First Lieutenant or Last Instalment? "It's very much ground-dependent," says Russell. "If the ground turns up very soft, I'd probably be leaning towards Last Instalment. If it stays dry I'd be more likely to stay with First Lieutenant. But I won't be in a rush to make a decision one way or the other."

The rest of the week pans out nicely. Beautiful Sound gives him a fighting chance in the typically competitive Paddy Power Steeplechase on Tuesday, while Wednesday carries the rich promise of Colm Murphy's Quito De La Roque in the Lexus and a potentially mouth-watering clash with Rubi Light and Joncol. "They've looked after him," Russell says of his potential Gold Cup contender. "He's made great strides this year but Leopardstown is a place where you find out things. I need to find out about him myself."

In every conceivable way -- his size and his scope and in the tender way he has been handled -- Quito De La Roque fits the ideal Gigginstown profile and you'd have to think long and hard before placing your faith anywhere else.

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