Sport Horse Racing

Monday 27 January 2020

What is a major blow for Willie Mullins could do wonders for the health of Irish jumps scene

Willie Mullins (left) with Michael O’Leary in happier times after former Gigginstown stable jockey Davy Russell had guided Un Atout to victory at Naas in 2013. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / Sportsfile
Willie Mullins (left) with Michael O’Leary in happier times after former Gigginstown stable jockey Davy Russell had guided Un Atout to victory at Naas in 2013. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / Sportsfile

Johnny Ward

There was something mystical about those grainy sporting broadcasts of yesteryear; the commentator all raspy because of complications of live TV footage from some obscure, poor country.

George Hamilton in Albania comes to mind. In the same way, a YouTube clip of Danoli winning the 1997 Hennessy evokes a past that is long gone and yet was less than 20 years ago.

It's the noise, see. Leopardstown must have been heaving that afternoon as Danoli - which commentator Tony O'Hehir would hail as "the People's Champion" - beat Jodami and Imperial Call. Even reading those names now transmits an involuntary tingle.

Danoli was ridden by a journeyman in Tommy Treacy.

"I get hairs on the back of my neck thinking about the reception he got. Till the day I die I'll never forget it," Treacy told me in 2014.

His trainer, Tom Foley, is one of the nicest people I've had the fortune of meeting in any walk of life.

Danoli was no Faugheen. He was no Hurricane Fly. He was no Don Cossack. And the public loved him more than any of those three.

Foley is still training, Treacy not long retired, Danoli is gone, and so is the atmosphere when you go racing.

The Flat almost never generates the raw emotion of the 1997 Hennessy. When Flemenstar came along, the public warmed to him so readily that it took many in jumps racing by surprise. That affection was all down to trainer Peter Casey.

Willie Mullins is not to blame for National Hunt racing being more of a business than a hobby, dominated by the few, just two decades subsequent to Danoli.

Michael O'Leary still talks of it being his hobby, but the decision not to accept a 10pc rise in training fees last week illustrated his deference to the bottom line.

Both sides have been dignified with regard to media coverage of the split. Gigginstown issued a statement to RTE on Wednesday and have said nothing on record since. Davy Russell rode Grade One winners for O'Leary after he sacked him and U-turns in racing are to be expected.

What is especially staggering is that Mullins is on the record as expressing confidence that no jobs will be lost at Closutton.

In the days that followed, both Gordon Elliott and Mouse Morris were on Twitter seeking workers.

Pat Keane of the 'Irish Examiner' was especially fond of telling how he often had to get a line off a permit holder, effectively a part-time trainer, after a race.

Pat: "How many do you have in?"

Trainer: "About two or three."

These men's inability to count on one hand never ceases to make me smile. Now imagine asking another trainer and he sharply responds: "Sixty." Wednesday's news is the equivalent of that man coughing up his entire stable.

Mullins' placing of his horses is the stuff of genius, central to which is keeping them apart. Could you tell me what Rich Ricci's second colours look like?

Noel Meade is one of Mullins' closest friends in the game. He had a relatively poor season just gone, with less winners over jumps than Aidan O'Brien and about 30pc of what he was accustomed to.

There have been occasional rumours that Gigginstown were going to send fewer horses to Mouse Morris. Meade got 10 from Gigginstown, Mouse nine - this in the same month that Colm Murphy went out of business.

Like Eddie O'Leary, Meade did not want to utter much last week. Off the record, however, he spoke of being unable to do anything other than marvel at the sight of these beautiful young athletes being unloaded into his yard. One would nearly forget that Henry de Bromhead surrendered all of the Alan Potts horses recently.

This superbly talented trainer faced into a somewhat uncertain winter - or at least he did until Eddie rang up and asked would he take 15.

When Kilkenny claim Liam MacCarthy, and they usually do, the opposition supporters rarely wait around for an amateur captain to be presented with something he has scarified the past 12 months in pursuit of. I've been among them: formality is not especially compelling - nor the deja-vu of coronation.

When Willie wins the latest Grade One, there is scant fanfare. Polite applause welcomes the brave horse to the number-one spot. Most people at the track are elsewhere.

The 60-year-old is a gentleman and, from a journalist's perspective, nothing shy of a dream.

I certainly did not wish Wednesday's news on him, but he will recover. No livelihoods will suffer and for Morris, Meade, De Bromhead and Joseph O'Brien, it was a case of all your Christmases coming at once.

To varying degrees, the narrative has transformed. Some can praise the Lord - and they all got more than about two or three.

You probably knew nothing about the Irish Stable Staff Association's (ISAA) AGM having taken place last Wednesday and you might be one of the thousands in racing that the ISSA represents.

Apart from board members, five individuals reportedly showed up.

A bit like the Association of Irish Racecourses, ISSA - which gets State funds via HRI - is a body within racing that is enigmatic in its near anonymity.

I will look more into the ISSA in forthcoming weeks, but it is pretty telling that its AGM went completely over the heads of so many within the very body of workers who rely or at least should rely on it.

ISSA chief Bernard Caldwell is seeking an increase in trainers' payment of staff - many of whom are ill-educated, earn little more than a subsistence living, cannot envisage a life outside of racing and work hours that would make you cry.

There is growing discontent among the workers and this may manifest itself in welcome change over the next year or so.

Finally, it was encouraging to see Davy Russell issue a statement yesterday apologising for his behaviour in front of the Clonmel stewards,which saw him banned for 17 days.

"My conduct in the stewards room was entirely unacceptable and unwarranted and all I can do is to offer my deepest apologies to all who were affected by my behaviour - from the officials at the track, to the punters, the connections of both Little Folke and Solar Heat and the owners and trainers of the two horses that I was due to ride later on the card," he said.

As one of the senior riders in the weighing room, his behaviour was an abomination.

He has begun the road to redemption.

Ride of the week

Danny Mullins on Presenting Mahler at Sligo on Wednesday. Patiently steered by the in-form rider, the 11/2 chance pounced after the last, holding on to edge 1/3 chance Retour En France by a head.

No doubt beating the great Ruby Walsh gave Danny even greater satisfaction.

Quote of the week

"Whoever gets the horses will be a big challenge to me being champion trainer: they are a fantastic team of horses."

Willie Mullins reacts to the Gigginstown split. He is not wrong.

Tweet of the week

Tony Mullins (@tonymullins84)

Just thought I'd mention it that I am still training

If you don't follow Tony on Twitter, follow Tony on Twitter. Willie's brother was commenting on the day of the Gigginstown split. Emojis have yet to force their way into broadsheet journalism so his three 'winks' after the comment have to be explained in a laboured manner that do neither the emojis nor the tweet justice.

Gamble of the week

Glastonbury Song, a debutant at Dundalk on Friday. Bookmakers chalked up a 3/1 quote on Thursday night and between then and the race, the price pretty much did nothing but contract.

Ridden by Colin Keane for boss Ger Lyons, the son of Casemento bolted up at 4/6 despite blowing the start. How Lyons and owner Sean Jones keep sourcing relatively cheap horses, who turn out to be really smart, is astounding.

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