Sport Horse Racing

Tuesday 21 May 2019

Roy Curtis: 'O'Leary's bombshell revelation is more than turbulence for Irish racing - it is an engine fire'

Michael O'Leary.
Michael O'Leary.

Roy Curtis

If Irish racing was a passenger on a Ryanair jet, this would be the terrifying moment when the fasten seatbelt sign would illuminate, an oxygen mask would drop, and an urgent instruction to assume the brace position would come from the cockpit.

Michael O’Leary’s bombshell revelation that he is to withdraw from the sport represents something far more grave than transient turbulence; this is an engine fire, a windscreen blowout at 35,0000 feet; a catastrophic systems failure.

O’Leary, via his hugely successful Gigginstown Stud operation, and his great rival JP McManus, are the twin engines that keep National Hunt racing in Ireland airborne.

With the colourful 58-year-old closing down his operation to spend more time with his young family, Irish racing - at least at the elite level - is left to somehow fly on one wing.

Both men have invested gargantuan sums in thousands of high-grade horses (O’Leary has many hundreds in training at any one time). In the same way that Sheik Mansour’s petrodollars have elevated Manchester City to the Premier League glory, the Ryanair CEO’s deep pockets have facilitated Ireland’s conquering of Cheltenham and Aintree.

Essentially, O’Leary’s riches brought the equine equivalent of Kevin de Bruyne and Sergio Aguero to these shores.

He has won the last two Grand Nationals with the miraculous Tiger Roll. He is a dual Gold Cup winner. Each mid-March, the Cotswolds blossoms in shades of his maroon and white colours.

For an idea of the scale of his operation, consider this: since May 2015, he has had 610 winners from 3,406 runners, collecting a shade under €16m in prize money.

The knock-on effect across Irish racing to his departure will be incalculable. You could fill the stands at Punchestown or Leopardstown or Galway with all the trainers, jockeys and breeders requiring a stiff whiskey this evening.

Gordon Elliott could hardly be any more painfully winded if he had taken a full force kick to the solar plexus from Apple’s Jade. For Jack Kennedy or Davy Russell, it will be as wounding and concussive as any fall at Becher’s Brook.

Elliott is a masterful trainer who saddled a remarkable 212 winners in 2018. The vast majority were uniformed in maroon and white. For all his obvious talent as a horse whisperer, he will have noted, with a shudder, the precipitous slide endured by another highly regarded Meath handler, Tony Martin, on losing O’Leary’s patronage.

One small mercy is that the Gigginstown operation will be phased out over five years, though it will stop buying young horses with immediate effect.

Trainers will have a little time to sound an SOS, but rescue is by no means guaranteed to follow. Any notions of a similarly ambitious and wealthy sugar daddy galloping over the horizon are fanciful.

It will not surprise students of the aviation business to hear that O’Leary carries his ruthless philosophy to the paddock. He withdrew 60 horses from champion trainer Willie Mullins’s Closutton stables in a row over fees. Russell was summarily sacked as his retained jockey (he would soon return on a freelance basis) over a cup of tea just before the 2014 New Year.

But, equally, his patronage is a foundation stone on which the boom years of Irish racing have been constructed.   

As recently as 1989, Ireland did not have a single winner at the Cheltenham Festival; in the two previous years, there was a solitary success for the travelling masses to toast.

In those bleak days, sending an animal across the sea to Prestbury Park offered not much more chance of a happy ending than sending it to the abattoir.

O’Leary, along with McManus and the flamboyant American, Rich Ricci, was at the vanguard of the new wave of moneyed owner who sharply recalibrated the odds.

From that solitary win over the course of three Cheltenhams 30 years ago, there have been a record-shattering total of 50 Irish successes at the last three Festivals.

In a post-O’Leary world, the fear is that the champagne might fall more than a little flat.

A contrary, upbeat view is that the small owner, marginalised by the well-heeled mega-patrons, might bounce back to prosper in a new equine democracy.

And has not the incomparable Mullins, recently crowned champion Irish trainer for a 13th time at the end of a season which yielded Cheltenham Gold Cup glory with Al Boum Photo, emphatically illustrated there can be vibrant life after Gigginstown.

The strong suspicion is that Willie's flawless reputation, the scale of his operation and his genius offer him an immunity to crisis unavailable to even the best of his rivals.

Realistically, a great deal of the better-bred animals that Gigginstown would have bought will now find themselves housed in English stables, rather than with Elliott, Henry De Bromhead or Mouse Morris.

And so, for Irish racing, this cannot easily be shrugged aside as mere passing turbulence. 

The fear is that the black box data for May 14, 2019 might confirm it as the day the glory days for the sport in Ireland, like a doomed airliner, smashed into the side of a mountain.

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