The split took the racing world by surprise. Willie Mullins, national hunt's top trainer, parted company this week with Gigginstown House Stud, the racing operation owned by Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary and run by his brother, Eddie.
It ended a relationship that has delivered 158 winners, 16 of them at the highest – grade one – level; 11 at the Punchestown festival; and four at the Cheltenham festival.
According the Racing Post, one out of every three Mullins-trained/Gigginstown-owned runners in Ireland had won a race in the last five years.
The split comes at a time when both are at the top of their game. Mullins has been champion national hunt trainer in Ireland for the past nine years and came close to adding the British title last season.
For its part, Gigginstown scored a remarkable treble last spring, winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Don Cossack, the Irish Grand National with Rogue Angel and the Aintree Grand National with Rule the World, (ridden by Mullins's nephew, David). It was the first time a single owner had won all three in the same year.
The crux of the split is fees. Gigginstown reportedly pays an agreed rate for the horses they have in training and will not increase it. Mullins wanted to put up his fees for the first time in 10 years. The O’Learys did not want to compromise while the trainer said he could not maintain his standards without upping his charges. As a result, Gigginstown moved 60 horses from his supervision this week.
One observer says O’Leary and his brother have a businesslike approach to racing. “[The O’Learys] put a value on something and that is what they are prepared to pay. If you are going to put up your fees, then you run the risk of them moving their horses,” he says.
From Mullins's point of view, he has other, equally important owners, such as former Barclays executive Rich Ricci and Graham Wylie, the co-founder of software giant Sage, to think about. People familiar with racing say treating one client more favourably risks damaging relationships with the others.
The issue of fees has come up indirectly between the pair before. Gigginstown did not have any horses in training with Mullins until the 2010/11 national hunt season. At that stage, the O’Learys had more than 100 horses running in their colours and had won their first Chelteham Gold Cup – with War of Attrition in 2006 – while Mullins had established himself at the top of the training ranks.
It was suggested that up to then the O’Learys were unwilling to pay his fees, even though he was getting results, while he was unwilling to agree to their terms. Either way, the pair came to what turned out to be a successful agreement that lasted until this week.
The other element of any deal with Gigginstown is results. In May, they removed horses from the yards of Sandra Hughes on the Curragh and Tony Martin in Co Meath. Eddie O'Leary afterwards told the Racing Post that theirs is a "results-based business". Hughes won last year's Irish Grand National for the O'Learys with Thunder and Roses.
Martin trained two Cheltenham festival winners for them, Rivage D’Or in 2015 and Savello in 2014, and had plenty of success for Gigginstown on the domestic front. These results indicate the O’Learys set the bar high for their handlers.
Racing’s economics play a part in all this. Gigginstown is not associated with landing gambles, so the only real return they can expect is prize money. In the 2015/16 Irish national hunt season, which ended in April, the O’Learys’ operation topped the owners’ table with €3 million in prize money. In Britain, they won £1.6 million.
Gigginstown’s victories in both countries’ richest races inflated these figures. The operation won about €2 million in Ireland in 2013/14, when it did not win the Irish Grand National. In 2014/15 its British prize money came to £517,000. Given that no owner can expect to win Gold Cups and Grand Nationals every year, those figures are a more realistic indication of the returns they can expect.
Even allowing for trainers and jockeys each getting 10 per cent of prizes for winning, these are still large sums. Nevertheless, they are unlikely to cover the cost of maintaining large numbers of racehorses, so it makes sense that Gigginstown would try to control this expense while pushing for the best results possible.
Unlike a lot of owners, who tend to stand back and let the trainers get on with it, the O’Learys are pro-active, getting a say in where the horses run and what their likely targets should be.
One source says they like to see their horses run. “They like to have them fit, they run them on their merits and they want to run them right through the season.”
While they might have a hard-nosed approach, they have a reputation for being straight. They stick to their side of whatever bargain is struck with trainers. As a consequence, plenty of stables are happy to do business with them. A number of them will share the 60 horses moved from Mullins’s yard.
Gordon Elliott, Don Cossack's handler and Mullins's only credible challenger for the trainers' championship, will be the biggest beneficiary. Those he is getting include Don Poli, tipped as a possible Grand National runner, and Blow by Blow, a novice thought to have a big future. Another trainer will be Mouse Morris.
Waterford-based Henry de Bromhead, who split with one of his big patrons, mining millionaire
, in the summer, is also in line to train some of the ex-Mullins horses, as is Joseph O’Brien, son of champion flat trainer Aidan O’Brien.
Nobody in racing believes Mullins will have any difficulty in filling the 60 boxes left empty in his stable. He maintains his partnerships with Ricci and Wylie, Nicholas Peacock's Wicklow Bloodstock, and he recently began training for hedge fund manager Simon Munir, who is already a successful owner in Britain.
In their statements this week, both parties left the door open to resuming their relationship at some point.
While they might have been taken aback by the split, few in the Irish racing industry would be surprised should the partnership be reformed again in the future.