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O’Leary has apparently got his clarification and so has withdrawn an appeal that was to have been held today.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.

Turf Club detractors – and there are many – expected the regulatory body to back down for many reasons but perhaps mostly because of the financial realities that Irish racing is based on. The Government’s justification for subsidising racing comes in terms of prestige and employment. Both are fundamentally tied up in keeping happy that small but select group of wealthy owners prepared to invest colossal sums of money in horses.

On the flat, the strength of the Coolmore Stud behemoth is overwhelming. Over jumps, a handful of hugely influential owners are headed by O’Leary and JP McManus.

O’Leary has reputedly up to 200 horses in training – a financial bulwark for any number of racing yards in Ireland, especially during a recession. And his horses are campaigned with a notable absence of “spivery” in terms of messing around getting them handicapped.

Young talent
His willingness to pay for young talent also means the dream of a big sale is what keeps many small operators going on the point-to-point scene.

Seeing that talent graduate to the big time at Cheltenham becomes the most public barometer of a multi-million euro investment that ranges from top to bottom.

So the doomsday scenario for racing officialdom has always been a situation where regulation clashes with the realpolitik of not upsetting the applecart. After all, the danger with a wealthy owner getting the hump or going the legal route is that he might eventually say, “To hell with racing”. Contemplating the impact of that is what keeps officials on antacids.

It’s not a peculiarly Irish thing either.

The danger of having both promotion and policing effectively under the one administrative umbrella was vividly shown up in Britain earlier this year when the British Horseracing Authority rushed to present a “lone-gunman” face to the world over the steroid scandal at Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin stables. They managed to keep British racing’s biggest investor on-side, but ultimately at what cost to their credibility?

In this case the Turf Club’s credibility could hardly be seen to survive such a blatant threat by O’Leary. Its critics always maintain they go after the little guy and not the big one. Being seen to run scared of one of the biggest owners of all would have only emphasised the perception that racing is run for and by a golden circle at the top.

“It’s like marriage,” one trainer said yesterday. “Everyone knows wives are in charge. But a shrewd wife sometimes allows the husband to appear like he is.”

O’Leary’s blink allows racing to maintain appearances, a reminder perhaps that one cannot make half a billion on bravado alone. As for what continues to go on behind the blinds, who really knows?

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