Monday 14 October 2019

Michael Verney: 'Grassroots to suffer most from Michael O'Leary's long goodbye'

The winner of the 2019 Randox Health Aintree Grand National Tiger Roll is led through the village of Summerhill in County Meath with trainer Gordon Elliott, left, and owner Michael O'Leary. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
The winner of the 2019 Randox Health Aintree Grand National Tiger Roll is led through the village of Summerhill in County Meath with trainer Gordon Elliott, left, and owner Michael O'Leary. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

THERE’S an old adage in racing that the best way to make a small fortune is to start with a big one and that’s worth remembering as Gigginstown House Stud owner Michael O’Leary starts his long goodbye before walking away from the game in “four or five years”.

Much like buying a speed boat or a luxury car, owning racehorses is done for the thrill of it and anyone who thinks they can be profitable is usually on a fast track to the poor house.  

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The outspoken Ryanair chief’s decision to gradually scale back his operation has been met with varying receptions as many are quite happy to see his colourful personality exit the sport of kings but it’s hard to get away from the damaging implications it has for the Irish racing industry.

The staggering amounts of money which O’Leary has put in to racing on these shores – it takes approximately €4 million to run the stud annually – will be felt most by those at the grassroots of the industry.

It’s a day which many prayed would never happen as O’Leary – along with JP McManus – is the biggest fish in the National Hunt pond with the sheer scale of their equine purchases changing the face of Irish racing in the last decade or so.

His absence from the market, no longer buying store horses or young horses, changes the game completely for pinhookers (someone who buys a thoroughbred racehorse for the sole purpose of reselling it, ideally for profit), breeders and point-to-point folk.

Some will say that the market may become more affordable for smaller trainers and middle-of-the-road owners, but that’s far from certain.

The quality may not remain at the same lofty standards if those producing cannot command the same fee they once could, while there’s a fear that many of our best horses may now be purchased from England and sent into training there.

Gigginstown continuously ploughed profits back into racing – which seeped down through the channels and helped the industry thrive and the Irish jumps game reach new heights – and those at the bottom may now suffer.

What O’Leary did was admirable as jumps racing and flat racing are poles apart.

Champions on the flat have long and fruitful careers in the breeding sheds whereas the vast majority of jumps horses are gelded, meaning profit after retirement is not a runner.

Nobody knows what the post-Gigginstown era will resemble, but sweeping changes are certain with incalculable effects to Gordon Elliott as the Meath trainer must ensure that more than 100 horse boxes are ready to be filled when O’Leary’s horses gradually exit over the coming years.

Elliott has been synonymous with the maroon and white Gigginstown silks – which have landed a whopping 83 Grade One victories and counting – but the Cullentra handler faces a unique challenge which he scarcely could have planned for.

O’Leary has helped to enable Elliott’s rise by supporting the expansion of the 41-year-old’s facilities in his pursuit of Willie Mullins as Irish champion jumps trainer but if those boxes are not occupied, many employees will be relieved of their duties.

Elliott, along with Noel Meade (another stable with significant support from Gigginstown), is one of the biggest employers in Meath and several wealthy owners will have to be attracted for both to remain as vibrant as they are at present.

The general consensus from those close to O’Leary is that the decision comes as his passion for racing is on the wane and having achieved nearly everything possible in the jumps sphere in a relatively short period of time, one can see why.

This could be the right time to cut his ties after enduring a difficult time at the Cheltenham Festival – where subsequent back-to-back Grand National hero Tiger Roll was his sole winner in the lowly Cross Country Chase – as well as Punchestown.

Given his typically ruthless nature, it’s worth noting that he hasn’t cashed out and sold the 225 horses which raced in Ireland last season, instead allowing the six trainers involved adequate time to restock and regroup.

Mullins was not afforded such luxuries when O’Leary’s 60 horses were taken from his care in autumn of 2016 due to a dispute over training fees and it caused him to rethink his approach with remarkable results.

The Closutton maestro is unlikely to take any joy in O’Leary’s departure but their conflict saw him expand his number of owners and fight off Elliott’s quest to be champion trainer in extraordinary circumstances two seasons in succession before running away with the title last season.

Yesterday’s news could conceivably allow Mullins to reign as champion until the 62-year-old eventually calls time on his career and the O’Leary episode has proved to be one of the best things that happened him as it seemed to light a fire under him.

Trainers without O’Leary’s patronage have tended to struggle since his arrival so a door that was closed to smaller trainers may also now have been opened, but there’s also a chance that the Cork native will change his mind in time.

The 58-year-old has a history of rowing back on previous decisions and as one hack commented, "most parents are trying to get away from their teenage children".

The odds on a comeback wouldn’t make you rich, much like owning racehorses.

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