O'Leary gambles on retainer route
IT seemed an unnecessarily cruel blow for Davy Russell that on the day his departure as No 1 rider to Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown Stud was announced he should be beaten on an O'Leary hotpot in the first race at Tramore while just minutes later Bryan Cooper, the talented 21-year-old set to be appointed his successor, would steer another home in the opener at Fairyhouse. It wasn't the way anybody wants to start a new year.
While expressing profound disappointment, Russell was adamant it had been an amicable parting over a pot of tea at Punchestown. For all that, though, rumours of an impending split had first surfaced some time back and, while not an obvious harbinger of what was to come, the sight of Russell riding Charles Byrnes' Sea Light at Leopardstown on St Stephen's Day while Cooper rode in the Gigginstown colours did strike many as odd.
Whatever the truth, Russell has not, at 34, become a bad jockey overnight. Others who have lost or moved on from big retainers will attest -- Kieren Fallon, Paddy Brennan, Johnny Murtagh, especially Johnny Murtagh -- that there is plenty of life to be lived after the big job has passed. It would be hard to argue that Russell isn't a vastly superior rider now than he was 10 years ago.
It would be interesting to see odds on Russell enjoying more winners than O'Leary at this year's Cheltenham Festival. It's not as ludicrous as it sounds. Russell should pick up plenty of good rides, maybe the odd Gigginstown mount among them, and right now O'Leary's Cheltenham hand, even before the blow of Sir Des Champs' injury, does not appear as formidable as you'd expect. He has chances with First Lieutenant in the Gold Cup and Don Cossack in the Sun Alliance Chase. Beyond that, though, the pickings in the big races appear slim enough.
In any assessment of Gigginstown's performance, O'Leary could start by wondering at the wisdom of keeping a retained jockey at all. It is not a common practice in jump racing, and on the Flat in England where it is more prevalent, the results hardly offer a resounding endorsement.
The most successful racing partnerships have always been between trainer and jockey: Dreaper and Taaffe, O'Brien and Piggott, Cecil and Cauthen, Pipe and McCoy.
To that list you can add Mullins and Walsh. There are several reasons for Willie Mullins' dominance of Irish racing in recent years, but the craft and input provided by his retained jockey should not be underestimated. Ruby Walsh's knowledge of the horses, distilled from the time he spends on the gallops every morning, getting to know their tics and idiosyncrasies, is a critical factor in the stable's success. It helps too, of course, that the jockey is blessed with a wonderfully astute racing brain.
O'Leary does things differently and that is his prerogative. But spreading your horses around the country and then insisting the same jockey rides them just seems a touch counter-productive. In Cooper he has secured a precocious talent with an admirable work ethic, but you still wonder if he is going about it the right way. Time will tell.