O’Leary’s blink allows racing to maintain appearances

Both sides, it seems, have stepped back from the brink of a fight

Michael O’Leary with  jockey Ruby Walsh

Michael O’Leary with jockey Ruby Walsh

Mon, Dec 2, 2013, 06:00

As disputes go, it might not be as big as the Cuban missile crisis but the gasps of relief to be heard around the Curragh this morning will be no less heartfelt now that a disagreement between Michael O’Leary and the Turf Club hasn’t turned into a war.

Both sides, it seems, have stepped back from the brink of a fight that had the potential to explode far beyond the bare essentials in scale and implication. The blinds have been drawn, preventing a rare public glimpse into racing’s realpolitik. And to the great relief of the Turf Club, the Ryanair boss blinked first.

It won’t be officially presented that way of course. Instead a matter that had the potential to put Ireland’s highest-profile businessman and racing’s regulatory body on the road to the High Court is now being downplayed as a trifle, requiring nothing more than a clarification into the Turf Club’s non-runner rules.

O’Leary has apparently got his clarification and so has withdrawn an appeal that was to have been held today. Case closed. Everyone pals again. But O’Leary blinked.

That the Ryanair boss, famously not a man to back down from a scrap, is prepared to do so is less a sign of mellowing than perhaps belated recognition that he and the Turf Club had found themselves painted into their respective corners over a matter that had been chugging along for much of the year as a mildly diverting disciplinary quirk but moved centre stage when O’Leary chose to put it there.

Multiple declarations
O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud operation has been following a policy of multiple declarations for some time, often putting three or more horses into a race, a reflection of the huge number of horses the champion owner has. What has developed on the back of that is a pattern of non-runners, sometimes accompanied by a juggle of jockeys, which has come to be regarded as O’Leary effectively adopting his own “reserve” system.

Twelve days ago in a race at Fairyhouse where Gigginstown had two declared runners, one of them, Devil’s Bride, was taken out citing a change in ground conditions. This is one of many reasons a horse can legitimately be a non-runner but on this occasion the stewards decided the alteration in the going was insufficient for such a move and, as per the rules, suspended him from racing for two days and fined his trainer Willie Mullins €200.

And that, most people thought, was that – until O’Leary came out swinging. He said he was going to continue to use multiple declarations, that he was going to appeal the Devil’s Bride penalties and if the Turf Club didn’t reverse them he would take it to the High Court.

“You would swear we are some bunch of spivs running around organising betting coups,” he announced with characteristic vigour.

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