Monday 18 December 2017

Comment: Mullins title hopes resting on National showdown with old ally Michael O’Leary

Mullins with Michael O’Leary. Photo: Damien Eagers
Mullins with Michael O’Leary. Photo: Damien Eagers
Trainer Willie Mullins. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Johnny Ward

Confusion threatened the Fairyhouse press-room yesterday - and we racing hacks, what the American journalists self-deride as "degenerates", never like to admit to being anything other than on top of our brief.

One race caller on today's Irish National asked how I procured an image of Gigginstown's silks for today's feature, which was doing the Twitter rounds on Saturday evening. Fourteen runners, 14 different hats - what looked like the Horse Racing Ireland "design your colours" page while on some sort of hallucinogenic.

He said he heard otherwise, to the extent that three Gigginstown runners were actually going to sport the same jersey and hat; that is, they would not be possible to tell apart on man-made colours alone. The commentators debated this with another, agreeing there was no point worrying until matters were clarified today.

Writing in his column here, Patrick Mullins conceded that Gigginstown's assault on the National was "going to make life very difficult for everybody else".

In defence of Michael O'Leary, just the runners alone have cost him €70,000 in the National before the ball is tossed up.

That the race is worth €500,000 gives Willie Mullins an out. He trails Gordon Elliott (top) now by €306,365 in a trainers' title race that had become an irrelevance up until September, when O'Leary took all his horses from Mullins, citing increased training fees.

Back in 2000, when Ryanair launched its website, O'Leary was sceptical about what would within a year be taking three-quarters of the airline's bookings. He put it out for tender, apparently getting some quotes in the region of £3.5m to do the job.

O'Leary, being O'Leary, settled on two men, or at least one man and a boy: 17-year-old secondary school student John Beckett and 22-year-old dentistry student Thomas Lenihan.

"When the job was done," wrote late Sunday Independent writer Alan Ruddock in the brilliant Michael O'Leary: A Life in Full Flight, "O'Leary tried to hardball Beckett and Linehan, offering to pay £12,000 instead of the agreed £15,500."

He has long threatened airports that Ryanair would pull out due to charges, and that is how his business works.

He insisted recently that he would be happy to have a runner with Mullins again - at an agreed fee.

That there is €270,000 today to the winner means that, with the champion trainer responsible for three runners, all in with a realistic chance, the title battle may hinge on what happens on Easter Monday.

Elliott has ten participants, but many of them look to be quite literally making up the numbers.

Mullins was born in Co Kilkenny and, while he seems to have virtually no interest in hurling, the comparison with Brian Cody is not too far off the ball.

The hegemony of dominance has suddenly crumbled, an upstart threatening a new reign.

Trainer Gordon Elliott. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Trainer Gordon Elliott. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

"Michael O'Leary, Ryanair's controversial chief executive, isn't an easy man to like," wrote the Racing Post's David Ashcroft yesterday, "which makes it harder to warm to the sight of a field awash with his Gigginstown House Stud colours."

It's a point that can be debated, since any man who once told The Late Late Show that the customer "is nearly always wrong" should be lauded like a saviour.

But Mullins does not have him any more, and the lack of action seen by Vautour (which died), Faugheen and Annie Power has left him short of aces, trying to get by with the next rungs down.

Elliott, who has come from basically nothing, is - says his friend and fellow trainer Gavin Cromwell - "seriously driven". So is Mullins, who went from almost winning the British title last season to probably surrendering the one that was as secure as your average prisoner on death row.

The odds-on Yorkhill was supposed to bring him €59,000 closer yesterday in a Ryanair Gold Cup that, true to the confusing narrative of the campaign, went to the sponsor in the shape of the Noel Meade-trained Road To Respect.

Yorkhill looked a certainty, only to throw it all away by jumping violently left. That was a blow, but Punchestown is still upcoming, with its dozen Grade Ones and a team that was basically spared Aintree combat.

Elliott, he will admit, is shorn of true champions at the moment, with Don Cossack retired and Don Poli (ex-Mullins) injured. Yet he has snared these lucrative handicap chases in Ireland all season.

Mullins is quietly plugging away. If Elliott wins the National today, though, they'll be paying out - with less reluctance than when O'Leary coughed up to Beckett and Lenihan.

Irish Independent

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