Michael O’Leary couldn’t ride two horses, so he made the right decision for his family

Ryanair chief set to join quiet revolution in fatherhood, ongoing for the last 50 years

Aintree Grand National winner Tiger Roll at the homecoming in Summerhill,  Co Meath. Pictured are trainer Gordon Elliott, Michael O’Leary and his wife Anita with their children Zac and Tiana holding the Cup. Photograph: Óisín Keniry

Aintree Grand National winner Tiger Roll at the homecoming in Summerhill, Co Meath. Pictured are trainer Gordon Elliott, Michael O’Leary and his wife Anita with their children Zac and Tiana holding the Cup. Photograph: Óisín Keniry

 

There was consternation in Irish racing circles last week when Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary announced he will be phasing out his Gigginstown House racing team over the next five years to spend more time with his family.

O’Leary’s largesse, estimated at €4 million a year, has been spread across the industry in Ireland. The impact will be felt from the humble endeavours of point-to-point breeders to trainers such as Gordon Elliott who have enjoyed considerable success with O’Leary and will now have to find replacements for 60 of his horses.

The response in the industry has been one of incredulity and a deal of cynicism – O’Leary is bored after winning the Grand National three times and the Gold Cup twice in a relatively short period of time, he has 83 Grade One victories, he has fallen out of love with the sport, he had only one winner at Cheltenham this year. He’s O’Leary the ruthless operator who is cutting the industry loose as he cut Willie Mullins loose.

Every explanation has been advanced except the one O’Leary offered when announcing his phased withdrawal.

“As my children are growing into teenagers I am spending more and more of my time at their activities and I have less and less time for National Hunt racing, a situation that will continue for the foreseeable future.”

The reaction in Irish racing to his departure is summed up by Ruby Walsh who said: “I don’t think anyone will benefit from this situation. It’s a loss for Irish racing. There is no winner.”

But there are winners.

O’Leary’s children will benefit from their father being around for them. Do they not count?

There are expectations on fathers that were not there a generation ago

The general reaction to O’Leary’s decision is redolent of the old attitude when “spending more time with the family” was the last refuge of the disgraced politician and a euphemism for them having nothing better to do with their time.

There are expectations on fathers that were not there a generation ago. The world has changed. No Grand National or Gold Cup winner can ever compensate for missing children’s nativity plays, concerts, county finals, piano recitals or féis ceoils.

Money is no substitute for not being present for your children, nor for the disappointment children feel when parents are absent from important events in their life.

In his great song Cat’s in the Cradle, Harry Chapin summed up the consequences of fathers not being around for their children when they are growing up.

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
When you coming home, dad?
I don’t know when
But we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then.

Later in the song, the father reflects on pivotal events in his child’s upbringing.

My son turned ten just the other day
He said, thanks for the ball, dad, come on let’s play
Can you teach me to throw, I said, not today
I got a lot to do.

Children expect their fathers to be around for them. In a previous generation, O’Leary might have hidden behind his wealth and his status as an excellent provider for his family to pursue his equine obsession.

My generation of fathers are expected to participate fully in the lives of our children

For many years he has been training his own children and others as an under-age coach at Mullingar Rugby Club. He asks for no special favours and neither does he receive them; the children he trains could not care less about who he is. The sideline is a great leveller.

My generation of fathers are expected to participate fully in the lives of our children. We change nappies, bathe our children, tell them bedtime stories, cook, clean, wash for them and wipe their snotty noses.

We do not expect bouquets for it. Nobody gets praised for doing what is expected of them in the first place, yet those expectations are a step change from the past.

The quiet revolution in fatherhood which has gone on over the last 50 years does not get the attention it deserves.

The world of fatherhood has changed. This is partially a consequence of changes in the workplace with more women going out to work, but also because society demands more of fathers than their traditional role of being a provider.

When I was growing up in the seventies, you would be hard pressed to find a father who changed a nappy let alone one who would admit to it. Today, the opposite is true; expectations on fathers have changed and for the better.

Too many successful men have expressed regret late in life that they were not there for their children growing up as if it was the price of success that had to be paid.

O’Leary would not be the first wealthy businessman to realise that, while his money is inexhaustible, his time is not.

Racing can wait.

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