O’Leary leaving horse racing with Ryanair race left to run

Ryanair chief executive’s move is arguably good news for the airline’s shareholders

National hunt racing enthusiast Michael O’Leary celebrates after the victory of Balko Des Flos in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham last year. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

National hunt racing enthusiast Michael O’Leary celebrates after the victory of Balko Des Flos in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham last year. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

 

The decision by Michael O’Leary to withdraw from horse racing came as a shock to everyone and is a major blow to the industry, depriving it of an estimated €4 million-plus a year via breeders, trainers’ fees and other investment from his Gigginstown Stud.

But it is arguably good news for Ryanair shareholders, with O’Leary deciding to sacrifice his horse racing interests rather than his role as the chief executive and driving force behind the Irish airline as he seeks to free up time to spend with his family.

O’Leary clearly has a great interest in and passion for national hunt racing but with teenage children, something had to give.

Having turned 58 in March and with 25 years behind him as Ryanair chief executive, O’Leary would have been forgiven if he had chosen to disembark from an airline he has taken from nothing to become the biggest low-fares carrier in Europe.

Especially given the turbulence that Ryanair has experienced over the past couple of years, with profit warnings, pilots and cabin crew going on strike, unions securing recognition, and bungled pilot rostering leading to the cancellation of thousands of flights. Not to mention the uncertainty caused by Brexit.

Instead, in February of this year, O’Leary signed a new contract committing him to Ryanair until 2024. He is, however, planning to step back from the day-to-day running of Ryanair, taking on an overarching group role for a business that now also includes Laudamotion in Austria, and separate operations in Poland and the UK.

Some years ago, at a media briefing to discuss a bid for Irish rival Aer Lingus, O’Leary played it cool, suggesting that he wouldn’t lose any sleep if Ryanair’s offer failed to fly.

When it was put to him that Aer Lingus was a trophy he had long coveted, the response was typical O’Leary: “Jaysus lads, the trophies I want to put on the mantlepiece are the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, not Aer Lingus.”

Not anymore, it seems, but his race at Ryanair still has some distance to run.

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