Tuesday 25 June 2019

Michael Verney: 'Willie Mullins can have the last laugh as O'Leary opts to call it a day'

Mullins with Michael O’Leary. Photo: Damien Eagers
Mullins with Michael O’Leary. Photo: Damien Eagers
Trainer Willie Mullins. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

The parade ring is always an interesting place following big festival races and while pleasantries are exchanged between winning and losing connections, Michael O'Leary must have grown tired of being on the wrong end with Willie Mullins.

Revelations earlier this week that O'Leary will phase out his powerful Gigginstown House Stud operation in the coming years, to spend time with his young family, shook the racing fraternity to its core, but perhaps it isn't as surprising at second glance.

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When the Ryanair chief executive removed 60 of his finest horses from Mullins's care in the autumn of 2016 after a dispute around a rise in training fees, it looked like it could signify the changing of the guard, with young rival Gordon Elliott the chief benefactor.

Mullins was hit hard with the likes of Outlander, Don Poli, Sir Des Champs and Apple's Jade leaving Closutton and heading for pastures new but it still couldn't prevent him from landing the next three Irish jumps trainers' championships.

The first two were achieved in extraordinary circumstances as he overhauled what looked like insurmountable deficits to catch Elliott before adding last season's crown with a certain degree of ease.

The biggest fish in the National Hunt pond may have exited his Carlow yard but that wouldn't stop Mullins as he dug his heels in for an almighty fight which he had no intention of losing.

As O'Leary watched each of Mullins's 11 Punchestown Festival winners stride in to the winner's enclosure, the thoughts of regularly pitting his wits against the 13-time champion trainer must have stopped him in his tracks a little and forced him to rethink his investment.

O'Leary - who had just two Punchestown successes and was without a winner on the last two days of the festival - was unlikely to mend bridges with Mullins and return with his tail between his legs.

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His sole Grade One success of the week was on the first day as Elliott's Delta Work won the Champion Novice Chase, while the other was courtesy of Noel Meade's Sixshooter in a lowly bumper.

Conversely, 10 of Mullins's Punchestown winners came in different colours (the previous year there were 14 different owners for his record-breaking 18 victories) as he quickly adapted to adversity and overcame it.

Realising that one owner doesn't make or break a yard, Mullins took the setback on the chin and bolstered his team significantly with a host of owners joining forces. And the 62-year-old then proceeded to achieve spectacular results.

The likes of Mrs Joanne Coleman (Klassical Dream), Simon Munir and Isaac Souede (Footpad), Tony Bloom (Penhill), Sullivan Bloodstock Limited (Laurina) and Paul McKeon (Relegate) had Cheltenham Festival winners in the last two years, and many others have helped to negate what looked like a certain disaster.

Aside from Tiger Roll emulating Red Rum with back-to-back victories in last month's Aintree Grand National - and the early-season heroics of wonder mare Apple's Jade - it's fair to say that last season was not what O'Leary had planned.

Paltry

His seventh title as Irish champion owner was secured - his fifth in succession - but a sole Cheltenham Festival winner will not have sat well and surely made him reassess the fortunes he has pumped into racing.

That came via Tiger Roll in the Cross Country Chase - not the type of illustrious prize O'Leary got into the racing game to chase - and with nearly every major jumps accolade already to his name, his interest had begun to wane.

Given his ruthlessness - he sacked both Davy Russell and Bryan Cooper as Gigginstown's No 1 rider over cups of tea while also relieving Mouse Morris of his services despite providing him with a first Gold Cup and maiden Aintree Grand National - it must be hard to digest how Mullins has reinvented himself and successfully swam against the tide.

Perhaps that same ruthlessness helped O'Leary to pull the plug - admirably giving his trainers sufficient time to adapt, a luxury which was not afforded to Mullins - before taking another battering from Closutton.

Everyone loves competition and rivalry but it's no fun to regularly get punched in the face either and while O'Leary's absence will hurt Irish racing for the foreseeable future, he may have sensed that taming the Mullins beast is even too big a task for him.

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