Wednesday 19 June 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Michael O'Leary is a man used to winning - with horse racing, he finally met his match'

‘Michael O'Leary, the man who has taken on the aviation industry, governments, trade unions and assorted naysayers and won every time, has finally met his match'. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
‘Michael O'Leary, the man who has taken on the aviation industry, governments, trade unions and assorted naysayers and won every time, has finally met his match'. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Michael O'Leary has lost. That's not something that happens very often.

Maybe it's never happened before. But his announcement last week that Gigginstown Stud will be wound down over the next few years is an admission of defeat in a fierce battle which changed the face of Irish racing. The Ryanair boss has run up the white flag.

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The battle began in September 2016 when Willie Mullins decided to put up his training fees for the first time in ten years. O'Leary's Gigginstown Stud, who had 60 horses at the trainer's yard, hoped some exception might be made for them. Mullins didn't agree, declaring: "I'm not willing to try to maintain the standards I have without putting up fees so that's the way it is. Everyone that comes into my yard is treated the same. We've evolved our methods of training, which obviously costs a lot, and we're not prepared to sacrifice that."

So O'Leary took up his horses and walked. They were distributed among a number of trainers, but most of them and the best of them went to Gordon Elliot who had won the Gold Cup for Gigginstown with Don Cossack earlier that year and finished second to Mullins in the trainers' championship.

The implications of the move for the balance of power in Irish racing were eloquently illustrated by Paddy Power's immediate move to make Elliott favourite for the 2016-'17 trainers' championship. Battle was joined, a joust between Mullins and Elliott which also functioned as a proxy conflict between Mullins and O'Leary. It became one of the most compelling battles in Irish sport.

Before Gigginstown's defection, Mullins' position at the head of Irish National Hunt racing had seemed unassailable. Now, with O'Leary throwing money around like snuff at a wake and Elliott saddling horses in previously unprecedented numbers - 13 runners in the 2018 Irish Grand National, almost a third of the field in the 2019 Grand National, 1,234 runners in the 2016-'17 season to Mullins' 527 - all changed utterly.

In 2017 and 2018, Elliott was leading trainer at Cheltenham and went into the season finale, the Punchestown Festival, holding a sizeable lead over Mullins in the battle for the Irish trainers' title. Twice Mullins overhauled him, the second time so comprehensively it seemed to somehow turn the tide back in favour of the older trainer.

The season just gone was different. Mullins was top dog at Cheltenham and had the trainers' title sewn up going into Punchestown. There was also a notable decline in the performance of the Gigginstown horses. In 2018, O'Leary had seven winners at Cheltenham. This year he could only win one of out 28 at the sport's premier Festival.

It was a significant humiliation and another followed at Punchestown with Gigginstown bagging a mere two victories, one in a lowly bumper, while the sport's other leading owner JP McManus took nine.

O'Leary's statement that he wants to quit racehorse ownership to spend more time with his family shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. I know from personal experience that there comes a time when you regret losing opportunities to be with your kids.

Yet there is plenty of speculation about the other reasons behind this precipitous withdrawal. The financial demands on O'Leary are mentioned but that seems unconvincing, given that few leading owners go into racing with profit in mind.

The announcement has to be seen in the context of what, from Gigginstown's point of view, were debacles at Cheltenham and Punchestown. To ignore that is to ignore the huge role played by pique and caprice in Michael O'Leary's racing decisions.

Both those qualities are part of the Ryanair man's psychological make-up. He is a man with a whim of iron. That was evident in the summary way he sacked Davy Russell and in the alacrity with which he withdrew his horses from Mullins' yard. The latest decision comes from the same stable.

There's no point pussyfooting around Michael O'Leary. Banging on about the great contribution he's made and the journey he's undergone and the friends he's made along the way in racing seems insultingly condescending to a man who is as pure an example of a winner as Irish society has ever bred.

'Why is Michael O'Leary pulling the plug on Gigginstown?' may be no more mysterious a question than, 'Debbie McGee, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?' O'Leary is not just a ferocious competitor, he's the competitive spirit in human form.

When he refused to pay the increased fees at Closutton and took his horses away, he was essentially saying to Willie Mullins, "You need me more than I need you. Wait and see." There were times when O'Leary looked to be right about that. But eventually he was proved wrong. I'm not sure he could stomach that.

It is remarkable that Mullins was able to not just absorb the loss of the Gigginstown horses, but to come back stronger than ever. In the last two months he has seen a successful end to his long quest for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, won a first ever Irish Grand National and set a prize money record for a National Hunt season. Now he has seen the greatest threat to his supremacy admit defeat. He should buy a lottery ticket while he's at it.

This was a clash of the titans, a battle of wills between two men pre-eminent in their own fields who are used to getting their own way. "It's definitely a clash of personalities, neither of them will be dictated to," said Tony McCoy at the time of a split the great jockey did not think was entirely about money.

Mullins did not hide his disappointment at O'Leary's defection but the words he used the day it happened, "I wish them the best, it's the way it is, we move on," which sounded fatalistic at the time now have the ominous ring of Michael Corleone telling someone he'll catch up with them later.

Today it's Gordon Elliott who finds his plans for the future must be reappraised in the light of Michael O'Leary's actions. The gradual winding down of the operation means the consequences will not be immediately apparent but it may be that the Meath trainer is facing into his own years of the great test. Henry de Bromhead and Noel Meade will also find themselves severely weakened by the Gigginstown withdrawal.

We have just witnessed the end of an extraordinary era in Irish racing. Perhaps the apotheosis of the Mullins-Elliott/O'Leary rivalry occurred at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival when both camps seemed to drive each other to new heights and split 12 wins between them as Irish trained victors outnumbered English ones 19-9. That's a figure we're unlikely to ever see again.

The departure of O'Leary will leave a massive hole in Irish racing. His 922 runners here last season was surpassed only by McManus's 994. It's a long way down to hedge fund manager Barry Connell in third place with 111 runners, and just seven winners. Mullins' leading owner Rich Ricci had only 92 runners.

O'Leary has been champion owner for the last five seasons and in that time has spent millions buying horses, from Irish point-to-point winners to French graded hurdle winners. It's impossible to see any individual operation repeating that level of investment. From the point of view of racing as an industry, his exit is very bad news.

From the point of view of racing as a sport, things might be a bit different. The battle between Elliott and Mullins resulted in smaller trainers being badly squeezed. When Elliott saddled an enormous amount of horses, Mullins responded. In 2015-'16 they sent out a combined total of 1,348 runners. By this season that had become a whopping 2,105.

The effect of this, with meetings and races which formerly wouldn't have seen much of the big two now saw them descend mob-handed, was to restrict opportunities further down the food chain. In 2015-'16 the trainers ranked from 11-20 in the championship won a total of 151 races. Last season that was down to a mere 80.

This was at a time when the number of National Hunt trainers is declining, falling by over 10 per cent to 93 last year with proven performers like Charlie Swan, Sandra Hughes and Colm Murphy quitting in recent seasons. The absence of Gigginstown may open up things not just for trainers but for owners previously reluctant to take on the massed forces of Mickey O's maroon army.

We shall see. One thing is certain. Michael O'Leary, the man who has taken on the aviation industry, governments, trade unions and assorted naysayers and won every time, has finally met his match. Who'd have thought his nemesis would look like a Kilkenny man in a fedora?

As Alex Ferguson found when he tried to take on John Magnier, it doesn't matter how big you are in your own territory. When you get involved in racing, you're dealing with very serious people.

Managers' careers decided by people who know a lot less about football than they do

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Chris Hughton. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

When Chris Hughton steered Brighton to Premier League safety this time last year, it was hailed as not only a fine achievement in itself but also a rebuke to Newcastle United and Norwich City for sacking him in the past.

How foolish those short-sighted folk at St James’s Park and Carrow Road seemed then. Now that Brighton have become the third Premier League club to show Hughton the door, the picture isn’t so clear.

It is, however, striking how little concrete difference there’s been between last season, hailed as a triumph, and this season, treated as a disaster. Last season Brighton finished 15th with 40 points and clinched survival with two games to spare. This season they finished 17th with 36 points and clinched survival with one game to spare.

It’s been suggested that Brighton became a much more fearful and less adventurous team but they actually scored one more league goal. A below-par finish to the season has also been invoked as a reason for the manager’s dismissal and it’s true that six points from the last ten games is poor enough.

But so was the nine points garnered in the same period last season. And this season Brighton had the excuse of an FA Cup run which took them all the way to the semi-final and a surpassingly gallant defeat against Manchester City.

Maybe Hughton’s achievement last season was overpraised, the emotional high point of securing safety with a home win over Manchester United putting a retrospective gloss on everything.

Or maybe the team overachieved on their first season back in the top flight and did well to avoid the fate of Huddersfield, 16th last season and just relegated with the fourth lowest points total in Premier League history.

Managers who specialise in overachievement find themselves in a Catch-22 situation. By bringing sides up a level they increase the chances of their own dismissal. The career of Neil Warnock, who’s won promotion for six clubs and been sacked by three of them, is a classic example of this. It’s not that Warnock, or indeed Hughton, gets ‘found out’ at the top level. It’s that the teams they manage often don’t belong there.

Who’d be a boss?

When Chelsea lost 4-0 to Bournemouth and 6-0 to Manchester City a couple of months back, Maurizio Sarri was football’s favourite fall guy. Every pundit eager for a cheap laugh made a smart comment about ‘Sarri Ball’ with the gleeful relish of a toddler delivering a dirty word in front of adult company.

Kepa Arrizabalaga’s refusal to be substituted in the League Cup final seemed to put the tin hat on things. Sarri, who resembles a beleaguered small-time fence from The Sweeney at the best of times, seemed an utterly ineffectual figure, a dead manager walking.

Yet since that League Cup final Chelsea have played 17 matches and lost just two of them. A third-placed league finish ahead of Spurs and Arsenal is an honourable achievement and the Blues are also in a Europa League final.

They’re in that decider largely because of two penalty shoot-out saves against Eintracht Frankfurt by Arrizabalaga, Sarri having decided to ignore the advice of those who declared that the ’keeper “should never play for Chelsea again” after the Wembley kerfuffle. He doesn’t have the luxury of grand emotional gestures because he does this thing for a living.

Sarri may yet be sacked by Chelsea, especially if his side loses to Arsenal in the Europa League final. He’ll have to plan for that game without the key figure of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, seriously injured on Thursday in a pointless American friendly Sarri never wanted to play.

The manager’s display of fury after the injury will do him no favours with the Chelsea top brass who are probably smacking their lips at the prospect of installing Frank Lampard in his place.

Lampard has done well at Derby County but a prime motive behind such a move would be its popularity among the fans. They like to be liked, the guys who pull the strings.

Hughton is in the running for the West Bromwich Albion job and if he gets it only a fool would bet against him propelling the Baggies back into the Premier League. But whatever happens, one thing is sure.

The future of Chris Hughton, and of Maurizio Sarri and every other manager, will be decided by people who know an awful lot less about football than they do.

The Last Word: McCall's strong CV shouldn't be ignored

Saracens’ third Champions Cup final victory in four years confirms Mark McCall as one of the most successful Irish managers in any sport ever. Yet this achievement largely goes unmentioned on these shores. Conor O’Shea probably gets more praise for making Italy worse than McCall does for his role in the creation of perhaps the most powerful club team in the history of these islands.

Perhaps this is partly to do with the feeling on this side of the border that Ulster Protestants, even if like McCall they’ve represented Ireland at international level, don’t really count as Irish unless they’re as famous as George Best or Alex Higgins. The financial strength of Saracens has something to do with their dominance yet the most impressive thing about the champions is how their outstanding individuals have been welded into a unit. McCall coaxes a level of consistency from their stars which the likes of Itoje, Farrell, Kruis and the Vunipolas have not always delivered for Eddie Jones.

So it’s odd that McCall is never mentioned in connection with the Irish manager’s job. It may turn out that we’d have been better off with Owen Farrell’s club boss than Owen Farrell’s dad.

* * * * *

There’s a strong European flavour to the Milwaukee Bucks team which won its first game of the NBA Eastern Conference final series against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night.

Bucks star player Giannis Antetokounmpo, born in Athens of Nigerian parents, is odds on to become only the second player from this continent to be named season MVP. The Greek international may be the best basketball player in the world right now and is joined on the starting five by Nikola Mirotic, a Montenegrin who represents Spain at international level. Turkey’s Ersan Ilyasova has been impressive off the bench.

So has Pat Connaughton, whose grandparents come from Galway and whose parents fly an Irish flag outside their home in the Boston suburb of Arlington. Connaughton, who was also a top baseball prospect while at Notre Dame, holds dual citizenship and has been approached to play for Ireland. The Bucks, who haven’t won an NBA title since 1971, are fancied to contest this year’s final against the apparently invincible Golden State Warriors.

* * * * *

It’s worth keeping an eye on the Polish League results today because Piast Gliwice are on the verge of becoming European football’s most unlikely champions. In their 74-year history Piast have never won the league or cup and have only spent seven seasons in the top flight where last term they finished 14th.

They enter today’s final round holding a two-point lead over mighty Legia Warsaw, who’ve won five of the last six titles, and knowing that a win over Lech Poznan will give them the title. A key figure in their season has been former Motherwell midfielder Tom Hateley, son of Rangers great Mark and grandson of Liverpool striker Tony. Sure we might hit for Gliwice tonight if they win.

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