Wednesday 23 October 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Gigginstown once changed Irish racing - their departure will change it all over again'

Michael O'Leary (right) with Davy Russell (left) and his wife Anita (centre). Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
Michael O'Leary (right) with Davy Russell (left) and his wife Anita (centre). Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In racing, misgivings run for as long as you care to listen, but maybe the most resilient always finds a way back to that natural urge of genuflecting to its powerful owners.

Michael O'Leary's phased loss to National Hunt will have implications, not just for the yards of marquee trainers like Gordon Elliott, Henry De Bromhead and Noel Meade, but right down to the rustic environments of point-to-point and maiden hurdles races where young horses running promisingly can translate into small lottery wins for those who own them.

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Money is the great strength that men like O'Leary and JP McManus and Rich Ricchi bring to a sport full of tough human existences.

In the case of Gigginstown Stud, the approach has always been resolutely unsentimental and business-like. From the firing of jockeys Davy Russell and Bryan Cooper to the essential downgrading of someone like 'Mouse' Morris, trainer of Rule the World for that hugely emotional 2016 Grand National win for Gigginstown not long after Morris's son died in a freak accident, Michael and Eddie O'Leary have never made much secret of the prime, organising principle of their operation.

It is one forever declaring flatly that, if you couldn't get a Gigginstown horse to win, somebody else would.

Morris has been training just point-to-point horses for them of late while, famously, Gigginstown removed a large string of horses from Willie Mullins's yard three years back after a disagreement over training fees.

Michael O'Leary has always communicated a view that, if he could see this game from above, his involvement in jump racing would make little sense. Famously, four of the first horses he ever owned had to be put down, Gigginstown's owner once observing of the sport:

"The owner is the mug at the bottom of the food chain. As long as you know that, you'll be okay.

"But you have to know you will lose your money. Which makes me an idiot."

And yet, there has always been a sense too that racing could play with his emotions in a way no business deal ever could. For a man who can seem breathtakingly self-regarding, he became teary-eyed at mention of his four children immediately after that Aintree win for Rule the World.

The sport has, thus, always seemed something more than an expensive hobby to him.

And his money has been one of the fundamental reasons too for a change in the dynamic of great National Hunt meetings, not least the Cheltenham Festival where Gigginstown had a remarkable seven winners in 2018. If his brother Eddie's eye was scalpel-sharp on bargain yearlings, two, three or four-year-olds, the brothers haven't been averse to writing big cheques for elite horses too (2018 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle winner, Samcro, was purchased for just under €400,000).

That was a change unimaginable before Gigginstown's establishment, the very best thoroughbreds seldom ending up in Irish yards.

O'Leary's passion is, unmistakably, for racing over fences as distinct from hurdles though. In other words, for the great staying, chase prizes like the Aintree Grand National (they've won three of the last four renewals through Rule the World and double-winner, Tiger Roll) and Gold Cup (won with War of Attrition and Don Cossack).

For Elliott especially, news of their intention to 'run down' their reputed 250-strong string over the next four or five years will be a particular blow, given it was he who inherited most of those removed from Mullins' yard three years back, an influx enabling him to challenge the Closutton maestro so strongly for last year's trainers' title.

No question, running Gigginstown like a corporation hasn't been to everyone's taste in the sport. If someone like McManus keeps horses in a reputed 65 different (many tiny) yards - some of them as apparent acts of generosity - the O'Learys' treatment of Morris typified a resolutely unsentimental approach to business.

Equally, the Ryanair Chief Executive has been notoriously blunt in his dealings with some of racing's different layers of administration.

He once described the reasoning of The British Horseracing Authority's Head of Handicapping, Phil Smith, as 'utter drivel'. And O'Leary threatened to the take the Turf Club to the High Court in 2013 after the Mullins-trained, Devils Bride, was sanctioned under 'non-runner penalties' rules.

"You'd swear we are some bunch of spivs running around organising betting coups," O'Leary raged in the face of criticism for their policy of multiple declarations.

Inevitably, the sheer scale of the Gigginstown operation has led to grumbles too, no fewer than a dozen O'Leary horses going to post for the recent Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse. Such a preponderance of maroon in the field didn't exactly communicate a picture of a sport in rude health.

And yet, Gigginstown's departure looks set to leave a financial vacuum that will ripple from top to bottom of a sport so hopelessly beholden to its moneyed owners.

Or, then again, maybe O'Leary is just being mischievous. Maybe the man who, only last month, opened a free bar on a Ryanair flight out of Liverpool after Tiger Roll's successful Aintree Grand National defence, toasting Elliott and Russell in the process, was simply intent on throwing people off the scent of Gigginstown's next big plan.

Willie Walsh, after all, hadn't been long in the CEO's seat at British Airways when O'Leary told him that War of Attrition handn't 'a hope' of winning the 2006 Gold Cup. Walsh didn't believe him, putting a £100 bet down. The horse duly won at 7/1.

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