John Duggan
John Duggan

12.26 15 May 2019


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A roll of honour that reads: three Aintree Grand Nationals, two Cheltenham Gold Cups, 27 Cheltenham Festival winners, 91 Grade 1 winners, seven times the leading National Hunt owner in Ireland.  Perhaps Michael O'Leary had nothing else to achieve in National Hunt racing since his first winner in 2001.  Perhaps we shouldn't be looking for something in a story that isn't there and take him at his very reasonable word that he wants to spend more time with his family.  Irish racing owes him nothing.  We were spoilt.  The industry as a whole will have to pick up the pieces following the unexpected news that he plans to wind down his Gigginstown operation over the next four to five years.

Who is going to suffer?  Well if the Racing Post estimated the investment of Gigginstown in Irish racing at €15 million per annum, then it's a lot of breeders.  It's a lot of sellers.  It's trainers such as Gordon Elliott, who saddled over 100 runners for O'Leary last season, and Henry De Bromhead, and Noel Meade.  The decision is as big as JP McManus pulling out of racing.  The decent thing was for O'Leary to give notice, which he did, but it will reverberate.

Willie Mullins has demonstrated that it is possible to lose Gigginstown horses and still thrive.  The split from O'Leary in 2016 was a blow for Mullins, but he has remained Champion trainer and won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Irish Grand National and Punchestown Gold Cup this season, all with different owners.  It's important for the long term health of Irish racing that it's not dominated by a select band of big players and that's the only silver cloud in the dark lining, given O'Leary's tremendous support for the home game, which prevented horses being sold to England.

What's required now is a big PR push from Horse Racing Ireland and all stakeholders to attract new owners to the game; big hitters, syndicates, those that can conjure alternative story lines to suck in the wider public.  Horse Racing Ireland have been excellent at promoting the human side of the game and the departure of a big kahuna is the opportunity in a crisis to place new faces into the shop window.

One thing I always respected about Michael O'Leary was that he had no interest in betting.  It meant that if you backed a 33/1 shot of his, it had no reflection on the horse's chance.  I backed General Principle at those odds in O'Leary's colours to win the Irish Grand National last year.  What I won't miss is seeing too many of his horses in one race.  It screamed 'monopoly' in my head, but that wasn't Gigginstown's fault.  They just had too much firepower.

We'll miss seeing the Westmeath maroon and white silks that carried 'War of Attrition' and 'Don Cossack' to Cheltenham Gold Cup glory.  We will miss the straight talk from O'Leary that carried from Ryanair to the racetrack.  However, this is a wind down, not an immediate ceasing of operations.  It's not East Germany yet.  That means 'Tiger Roll' could turn up at Aintree next year and bid to equal 'Red Rum's' tally of three Grand Nationals.  What a story that would be.

 


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