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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.

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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

Monday Musings: An Unconventional National

Did you enjoy the Grand National meeting? I did, although it was one of the less conventional Aintree experiences of my existence, writes Tony Stafford. I didn’t go up until the Friday; disappeared north-easterly after racing, only returning to Liverpool the following morning. Then, instead of watching the race first hand, with some friends, I followed the first five races on the big screens of the Sir Thomas Hotel by the waterfront before setting off home, and listening to the big race on the car radio.

Top-class racing often doubles up with entertainment these days, especially in the summer, with many other tracks following the example of the long-established Newmarket Nights. At the Cheltenham Festival, arrivals at the main entrance were treated to a highly-talented female duo performing from a rooftop above the doorway and in the Sir Thomas, the gaps between races were filled with a brilliant singer/guitarist, Paul Hand, who must have sung more than 30 numbers in his six stints before making way for each of the race commentaries.

At least 100 party-goers were booked for lunch, but our local host, Scouser Bob, had the inside track and manage to persuade the management to allow us to order some food to go with the cocktails – J2O’s in my case. The snag was that half our group had to leave in time to get to Anfield, so the food did not arrive before they left. It hadn’t come by the time we set off at 4.45 either, but sometimes the anticipation is good enough.

It is only by going racing that you get the full experience, of course. On Friday, in the owners’ room – thanks Alan Spence for the tickets! – there was a premium on seating, but an accommodating gentleman who I was sure I’d seen many times before, made room for a little one.

Upon my inquisitiveness, he said he was a friend and near neighbour of Paul Nicholls who always kindly manages to get tickets for himself and his wife, who appeared not to be at the track. His name was John Bolton and he said I might have heard of him in relation to the Frankie Dettori seven-timer back in 1996.

I hadn’t, but on my return home I looked back and sure enough, there were stories on the internet of the fateful day 22 years ago when John was going racing at Ascot while his wife Mary was spending the day shopping in London. Mary was the Dettori fan and somehow they decided on a bet involving doubles and an each-way seven-horse accumulator.

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The bet, struck with Ladbrokes, actually came to a theoretical £930,000, but the couple were more than happy to accept the firm’s then daily limit of £500,000. John Bolton seemed a thoroughly-genuine, under-stated chap and it was no surprise when reading the back story to discover Mrs Bolton worked with disadvantaged children.

I felt I also had a little input, in that at the time I had just finished ghosting Frankie’s account of 1996, A Year in the Life. In those days pages were not as easily changed as nowadays, and the full run was already set, if not in stone, in type. We had to add a chapter starting something along the lines of: “Just when I thought….” As you can guess, the relevant volume is no longer in my possession.

I digress… The 2018 Grand National will be memorable for many reasons. I expected it to be something of an easy touch for Total Recall, but it didn’t take a clairvoyant to realise he wouldn’t be winning after the first few fences when his jumping technique proved totally inadequate. I doubt he’ll have a Recall next year.

Listening rather than watching, there was the feeling that there was a fair amount of carnage, but analysis of the result tells us that of the 38 horses that set off, only six actually fell, one of them because he was short of room.

Five more unseated their riders, and two of these, including my 66-1 long-shot Lake Windermere, were badly hampered. You could hardly blame the only two to be brought down, including the strongly-fancied Blaklion, who ended the hopes of connections, his legion of backers and his breeder Mary Morrison, when taking the opening fence right in the path of Perfect Candidate, the only other victim there.

Thirteen more pulled up, including Total Recall who got to the second last before being allowed by Paul Townend to ease off. Of the 12 finishers, my other each-way shot was the fellow (to the winner Tiger Roll) Gigginstown representative Road to Riches, at 50-1, who was a gallant sixth. Should have gone to Specsavers – certainly not to William Hill, who only paid down to fifth!

There will have been plenty of British-based trainers who would have been having a bit of a giggle when thinking back only just over a year to the bleating of Gigginstown’s boss Michael O’Leary, saying Phil Smith, the soon-to-be-retired senior BHA handicapper, was treating his (and other Irish) horses unfairly. O’Leary went as far to say he wouldn’t allow his trainers to run them in those circumstances. The Irish had the first four over the line, and five of the first six (eight of the twelve finishers in all).

Maybe it’s a shame he didn’t stick to his guns, as he does in the management of his airline, Ryanair, where if you want something remotely extra it’s a case of pay, pay, pay! Scouser Bob passed on a nice joke on Saturday. Michael O’Leary went into a bar, and outside there was a notice saying: Guinness 50p a pint. “Is that right?” says O’Leary. “It is,” replies the barman. “I’ll have a pint, then” says O’Leary. “Will you be wanting a glass with that?”

The weather for much of the country has been anything but a joke. Going across the Moors from the Cumbrian village of Tebay adjacent to the M6 across to Wilf Storey’s in Muggleswick, all the streams were running fast and there were still on Saturday morning the last isolated remnants of what by all accounts has been snow of biblical proportions.

It’s only now starting to dry out with temperatures creeping into double figures and at Hedgeholme Stud, the new location for the Raymond Tooth mares and young stock, evidence of what has gone before remains obvious.

The good news, though, is that the three foals so far born are thriving and the very flashy Mayson – Lawyers Choice colt, thus a full-brother to Sod’s Law, who ran well enough when fourth on his Kempton comeback last Wednesday, and half to Dutch Law, looks well up to the family standard.

Anyway, as I look across the rooftops from my office this morning there’s a bright sky promising more Flat-racing friendly weather for Newmarket and Newbury this week, and also less demanding ground for Cheltenham and, hopefully, Ayr’s big Scottish Grand National meeting.

Not much went wrong for Nicky Henderson with his host of Aintree Grade 1 wins, but one that should have won but didn’t was Theinval. If he turns out quickly again at Ayr on Friday there must be  very high hopes of a successful recovery mission.