Thursday 26 April 2018

National Hunt's version of Aer Lingus-Ryanair battle brings welcome dose of unpredictability

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

Eamonn Sweeney

If Michael O'Leary was a superhero - and let's face it there's probably a cape in a wardrobe in Gigginstown which he tries on for size from time to time - he'd probably be called The Disruptor. Mister Ryanair may be a tremendously shrewd operator but he also has a love of shaking things up by saying or doing something just to make life a bit more exciting and unpredictable for himself and the rest of us.

In this respect his decision to withdraw the Gigginstown Stud horses from the Willie Mullins stable because the trainer has raised his fees for the first time in ten years is a classic O'Leary manoeuvre. Arguing that the money can hardly mean anything to a man as rich as O'Leary is missing the point. This is a man, after all, who when he wasn't happy with the charges being levied by established airports simply took his business to their more obscure rivals and made a success of the move. Essentially what he's saying is that Willie Mullins needed Gigginstown more than Gigginstown needs Willie Mullins.

Of the 60 horses being withdrawn, 20 will go to Gordon Elliott and the rest are being shared out among Mouse Morris, Henry de Bromhead, Noel Meade and Joseph O'Brien. But it's Elliott who'll get the best of them, including Champion hurdle contender Apple's Jade and Don Poli, who finished third in this year's Cheltenham Gold Cup.

If there's one trainer you'd imagine O'Leary would regard as his kind of person it's Elliott. The parallels are irresistible. Elliott is a young man who's worked his way up from the bottom and has ambitions to take on the mighty oligarch at the top of the heap. It's Aer Lingus and Ryanair all over again. Add in the fact that Elliott trained Don Cossack to win the Gold Cup for Gigginstown earlier this year and you can see why, training fees aside, the move must appeal to O'Leary.

It's a move which should greatly enliven the jump racing scene. Mullins is an undoubted great, as good a National Hunt trainer as there's been in this country since Vincent O'Brien was saddling them over fences. But lately things have been a bit predictable, the question at Cheltenham being not whether Mullins would dominate but exactly how dominant he'd be.

Now it seems that there is a serious rival to Mullins's dominance. It may be early in the National Hunt season but right now Elliott is leading the Irish trainers championship, which Mullins has won for the last nine seasons in a row. The O'Leary decision confirms the impression that a serious battle is in the offing at the top of the sport.

This is all for the good but it does put new pressure on the massively ambitious Elliott. It is, after all, one thing to say that you've always wanted to present The Late Late Show and another to do it as well as Gay Byrne. His credentials as heir to Mullins will be fully tested from here on in.

On one level Mullins may even welcome this new challenge. Of late his massive achievements have often been greeted with a 'what do you expect, it's Willie Mullins, doesn't he have it all sewn up?'. The presence of a genuine challenger will mean no-one can say that anymore. Great performers need great rivals to make their star shine at its brightest. As Ali needed Foreman, O'Dwyer's Kerry needed Heffo's Dubs and Arkle needed Mill House, it may turn out that Willie Mullins needed Gordon Elliott. And Michael O'Leary.

It's been a great week for Irish racing because unpredictability and competition are the spice of sport. Before the last big flat meetings of the season, at The Curragh and Leopardstown, all the talk was of how Aidan O'Brien was fancied to win all five Group One races.

It would have been a brilliant achievement but how much more satisfying it was to see O'Brien come away with just two victories, French trainer Jean-Claude Rouget denying him the Champion Stakes, son Joseph wiping his eye in the Moyglare Stud Stakes and one Willie Mullins saddling a surprise winner of the St Leger. It showed once more that there are no certainties in sport and it warmed the cockles of the heart.

Because, as Michael O'Leary has spent his life proving, people do like a choice.

Sunday Indo Sport

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