Posts

Tony Keenan: Racing What Ifs: What if Michael O’Leary Preferred GAA?

A few months back, the figures for what each Irish county received in coaching grants from the GAA central funds over the past decade or so were revealed. Between the years of 2007 and 2018, Dublin was unsurprisingly clear with €17,916,477 in funding with Westmeath sitting a mid-table seventeenth on €871,420, over €17 million behind. These numbers caused the usual anti-Dubs sentiment but what if Michael O’Leary, Cork-born but Westmeath-based and whose horses run in the maroon colours of his county of residence, had decided back in the early- to mid-2000s that Gaelic Football or Hurling was going to be his sport rather than racing?

JP McManus has famously done both, his presence in the dressing room following Limerick’s first All-Ireland Hurling win in 45 years saying plenty about how much he has put into the county team. But for O’Leary it has always been about Irish National Hunt Racing with emphasis on the Irish National Hunt part of that; O’Leary has few runners on the flat and seems apathetic at best to having runners in the UK outside of Cheltenham and Aintree. So what has Gigginstown done for and to Irish jumps racing since David Wachman trained their first winner, Tuco in a Fairyhouse bumper, in 2001?

Trainers

Gigginstown have cycled through a vast number of trainers since their inception, taking an approach akin to how soccer clubs deal with their managers rather than the traditional loyalty that tends to be shown in racing. Their ‘results-based’ selection of trainers has seen handlers come and go with all the following having trained meaningful numbers for them in the past but no longer on the roster: Michael Hourigan, Paul Nolan, Charlie Swan, Charles Byrnes, Sandra Hughes, Colm Murphy, Philip Fenton, David Wachman, Tony Martin and Mouse Morris, the last-named now concentrating on pointers along with Colin Bowe and Brian Hamilton.

The last few seasons have seen consolidation in terms of Gigginstown trainers with only four yards now being used – Gordon Elliott, Henry De Bromhead, Joseph O’Brien and Noel Meade – and all are training a decent-sized group of their horses. Elliott is by far the most significant however and if not quite the chosen one, he still has the vast majority of the better horses. The impact of there being no such thing as Gigginstown on Elliott would be massive as his last five seasons' total winners alongside his Gigginstown-owned winners show:

The effect would not only be on numbers but on quality too. Taking 2017/18 as an example, Elliott had 27 horses that reached a Racing Post Rating of at least 150 in Ireland and 18 of those were Gigginstown-owned; the others were Campeador, Ucello Conti, Pallasator, Jury Duty, The Storyteller, Mala Beach, Mick Jazz, Diamond Cauchois and Doctor Phoenix, all of whom ran in different colours.

We can also be pretty sure that Mullins versus Elliott would not be a thing and the finales to the last two Irish National Hunt Trainers’ Championships at Punchestown would have followed the same pattern as the previous nine, Mullins winning with hundreds of thousands if not millions to spare. But Elliott has forced Mullins to change his methods over those past two campaigns and while the perennial champion is never going to be a Nigel Twiston-Davies, campaigning his horses aggressively, the clashes we have seen at Punchestown and Fairyhouse over the last two seasons have added greatly to the spectacle.

Hanging over all this is Michael O’Leary’s stated aim of wanting to make Elliott Champion Trainer at some point and his willingness to spend vast sums of money to achieve that which is something we will return to later on. That outcome would of course be one in the eye for Willie Mullins despite repeated claims from O’Leary that their relationship is fine; methinks the owner doth protest too much!

 

Finances

A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation might give us an estimate of what Gigginstown spend each season on training fees. During the 2017-18 Irish jumps season, they ran 220 individual horses so let’s say each was in full training for eight months at €1,800 a month, taking €50 a day as a base rate and including €300 for extras; that comes out at €3,168,000. One would be a little surprised if the owner of a budget airline couldn’t get some discount but there are certain basic needs for each horse that have to be met and there is only so much cost-cutting you can do. This wouldn’t include horses in various forms of pre-training, those that have yet to run or are recovering from an injury, so the figure may well be higher.

Your first 30 days for just £1

None of this is to mention the costs of acquiring the horses in the first place. Gigginstown do much of their buying through agents and trainers and sometimes privately so the extent of their spending is unclear but there have been a host of recent big-money purchases to run in their colours. Samcro cost £335,000 while Vision D’Honneur came close at €350,000 when currency rates are taken into consideration. There were a host of others that broke the 200k mark like Battleoverdoyen, Dream Conti, Run Wild Fred, Poli Roi and Sometime Soon.

With all this in mind, it is not unreasonable to wonder if they are propping up both the Irish National Hunt racing and breeding sectors; but Henry Beeby, Group Chief Executive at Goffs, is keen to point out that while ‘they are one of the biggest players and an overwhelming positive influence on Irish jumps racing’, there are also others like ‘JP McManus and numerous clients with Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls’ who are in the market for high-end jumping prospects.

Beeby went on to say that Gigginstown are ‘looking for the tops and in so doing are prepared to spend to buy, often having a high turnover of horses’ while JP McManus still holds the record for the most expensive jumps horse bought at public auction, Garde Champetre at £530,000 back in 2004. On the subject of what the O’Learys are like to deal with, his response was it can be ‘interesting’ and ‘they’re themselves’ which will come as no surprise to anyone!

When asked about a possible doomsday scenario were Gigginstown to pull out of racing tomorrow, Beeby said that while it would be ‘disappointing’ and he is ‘grateful’ to have them, he recalls a time when people worried about what would happen if ‘Robert Sangster never bought another yearling. The Sangster family are still involved in the game but at a much reduced level and we should never underestimate the resilience of the industry.’

 

Competitiveness

We have already had a Gigginstown-only race, the March 2017 Grade 3 Naas Directors Plate Novice Chase won by Ball D’Arc leading home Gangster, Prince Of Scars and Alamein, and it feels as if a maroon-and-whitewashed staying handicap chase is coming, the only impediment being that they may run out of different coloured caps!

It is reasonable to ask when does enough horses become too much and it seems that point has not been reached yet for the owners at least. Below are the numbers for Gigginstown-owned horses in Irish jumps races going back to 2007/8, just the time when Westmeath GAA could have done with a lift: included are their winners, runners and total prize money.

 

The only way is up it seems with basically every figure heading that way year-on-year. It is perhaps notable that things have taken another leap in the past two campaigns, coinciding with the split with Mullins in 2016.

Another area of competitiveness to consider is Cheltenham and what Gigginstown have contributed to Irish success at the meeting. They have had 27 Festival winners in all – Ireland would have won one, not all, of the three Prestbury Cups before 2019 without them, if anyone cares – which I found a little underwhelming in truth given the size of the operation. The first famously came with War Of Attrition in the 2006 Gold Cup but there have been some fallow years since. Things were good at the five Festivals before this one with four, two, two, four and seven winners but a solitary success for Tiger Roll from 39 runners last week has to rate a disappointment.

 

Fun

I appreciate there is little fun about Gigginstown for smaller trainers who are constantly being beaten by their battalions but an underrated aspect of the project is the humour they have brought to the game. Michael O’Leary loves trolling and is probably the least ‘racing person’ you can imagine and it is vastly more entertaining that he does this not anonymously behind a computer screen but from the position of the most powerful owner in the game.

The Apple’s Jade Mares’ Hurdle or Champion Hurdle decision, disappointingly short-lived as pointed out by Lydia Hislop in one of her recent Road to Cheltenham pieces, was just another in a long line of mock-controversies involving the quotable Ryanair boss; and his brother Eddie isn’t bad with the soundbites either.

There was Michael’s rant about Phil Smith’s handicapping of his horses in the 2017 Grand National being ‘utter drivel’ (the new Chief Handicapper Martin Greenwood really needs to up his game in the controversies stakes, this year’s National weights being disappointingly short on spats) along with his repeated reference to certain runners being ‘the worst horse I own’ often swiftly followed by a big handicap or even Grade 1 win for said animal.

Perhaps the truest controversy with Gigginstown came in 2013 when they were repeatedly pulling out horses on the day of the race with ground typically been given as an excuse. That stopped quite quickly in the end, perhaps someone in the then-Turf Club or Horse Racing Ireland having a quiet word, but not before O’Leary came out with one of his all-time best lines: ‘you’d swear we were spivs running around organising betting coups!’

*

So what have Gigginstown given Irish Jumps Racing? Different colour hats, everything trying, lots and lots (and lots) of horses, lots of good horses, trolling, a results-based approach, fun, vast sums of money on training fees and scary names. It’s quite a list really and I’m not sure Westmeath GAA would have been able to handle it!

- Tony Keenan