Monday 21 January 2019

Billy Keane: Big guns have the ammunition to quell any uprising of the little men

Grand National aim: Michael O’Leary and Bryan Cooper. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Grand National aim: Michael O’Leary and Bryan Cooper. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The British Army weren't likely to be caught out for a second time on this day 100 years ago. The year before, in 1916, the army were on the lash at the Irish Grand National in Fairyhouse when the rebels were taking over Dublin.

Dressed up, they were in plus fours and buttressed dresses, the circumference of a three-bed tepee. The British Army were punting and haberdashering while Ireland was being freed. My guess is that in 1917 all leave was cancelled.

There will be an army presence tomorrow. The winner will be led in by an army rider, but this time it's our army. And the horses are owned by the few. But nowadays, the few are the few of our own.

Michael O'Leary owns 14 of the Light Brigade. They are all togged out in the maroon and white of Westmeath, who won Division 3 of the National League last week. The O'Leary jockeys will wear 14 different coloured caps. For the race callers, it must be like the mother of quads trying to figure out the names of her kids.

Is it a good thing that one man should own so many horses? No it's not, but then again who can afford to develop horses for races like this? O'Leary pays his bills, even if it is also the case that he sets the price.

The certainty of payment is very welcome in a business where the rate of default is somewhere on the levels of sub-prime mortgages.

O'Leary is also quite ruthless and has pulled horses from trainers - some of whom were happy enough to be finished up with Gigginstown.

So it was then that O'Leary took all of his horses from Willie Mullins when Willie increased his prices by a modest 10pc for the first time in a good many years.

I didn't ask David Casey, the canny assistant trainer to Mullins, if there was bad blood between the two giants of Irish racing because he wouldn't answer me anyway. I understand, however, that the fall-out is more amicable than most other sporting splits.

It might be a bit like when the lad who won the Lotto was asked if he still loved his wife. "I still love her," he replied, "but I'm leaving anyway."

Like Easter Monday 1916, the side with the most ammunition will probably win. Mullins still has three runners.

Casey says: "Arbre de Vie is a novice and novices have a good record in the race. But Arbre de Vie has yet to win over fences. He is improving."

JP McManus has three in the race and three reserves. The six horses are trained by five different trainers. When JP buys a horse he nearly always leaves the horse in the stable. His kindness, generosity, big-heartedness and the fact he started out driving JCBs endear him to the public.

And here's one about O'Leary. He flew Anthony Foley home from France and never spoke about it or tried to get any publicity. There are more stories of good deeds which have been kept well under the Ryanair radar. He's complex, isn't he?

Horses are labour-intensive. And as the horses are kept in Ireland, so too are the jobs. There was a time when we didn't even have one horse trained here capable of wining at Cheltenham.

But for all that, you would be looking for someone who may not be as well off as the big boys. There will have to be confined races set aside for trainers who train in small stables. If there is a monopoly, then the public will lose interest.

Although I would be delighted too if Bryan Cooper or young Jack Kennedy won it for Kerry (and O'Leary).

The flat racing industry is controlled by a few big outfits who either breed or race most of the Classic winners. By contrast, in a handicap like the Irish Grand National, every horse has a chance.

I spent hours studying the form for the English National but didn't even get one in the first six. I got most of it back in the pub as nearly everyone knows an Arthur or drinks an Arthur. So I'm going for Bonny Kate.

We ran out of ice last night and the lovely Katy Hellard lent me some. I promise to pay it all back come next January.

I wouldn't put you off Arbre de Vie, the tree of life. Tips are a sure way to lose friends and readers. Don't go coming up to me saying "you made me back a loser".

If I was that smart I wouldn't be here cleaning toilets in the early hours on Easter Sunday and trying to fit a story about 30 horses in to a one-horse box. I've only just finished both jobs and would the scatter-gun with the bad aim please take up target practice.

My cologne is Eau de Domestos and when I stare into the laptop, the laptop stares back.

The conclusion is stick a pin or visit a seer, because the only time the winner of a horse race is the obvious choice is when the race is over.

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