Indomitable O’Leary ready to fly higher and higher

One of racing’s best-known faces is set for battle with a top-class team and one specific aim – to win the race he sponsors himself

In the parade ring at the festival last year. Photograph: Joe Giddens

In the parade ring at the festival last year. Photograph: Joe Giddens

 

To the uninitiated tuning in to see what all this Cheltenham panic is about, Michael O’Leary will be among the festival’s most recognisable faces, a guarantee of attention on the Ryanair boss’s every step.

And as someone hardly unfamiliar with PR, O’Leary is normally an accommodating epicentre to shoals of trailing microphones, presenting a well-practised weary detachment from what’s happening on the track, often reheating the old line about his involvement with horses and racing – “I just write the cheques.”

It’s a typically snappy line from the man whose Gigginstown Stud operation goes into Cheltenham 2015 with one of the most powerful teams of the week and defending the leading owner title it somehow managed to win a year ago.

Four winners on the final day retrieved that festival, the run-in to which had been dogged by the Philip Fenton anabolic steroid controversy, a saga which inevitably embroiled O’Leary since Fenton trained his major Gold Cup contender, Last Instalment.

On the day, Last Instalment was pulled up injured, never to race again. And on the back of a dramatic “blue-riband” finish, one of the most remarkable accomplishments the famous course has seen in modern times got comparatively overlooked.

An 82,654/1 four-timer with Tiger Roll, Very Wood, Don Poli and Savello represented a remarkable display of ownership clout and a vivid illustration of O’Leary’s central importance to Irish racing right now, one of a handful of people prepared to invest millions in horses trained at home but with one ultimate aim in England in March.

“This is the home of jump racing and every horse we buy, every horse we run in Ireland all winter, it’s all about here,” said the world-renowned businessman who nevertheless admitted he would have swapped the four for the Gold Cup.

It was War Of Attrition’s 2006 Gold Cup victory which famously cemented O’Leary’s relationship with the sport, a relationship that sees him happily tramp around muddy point to point fields during the winter and which on the grander scale sees him with realistic hopes of a dream double this week.

Road To Riches is a new and valid Gold Cup contender and Don Cossack is favoured to win one of the Day Three highlights, no less than the Ryanair Chase, a race O’Leary has been trying to win since starting to sponsor it a decade ago.

A win for the favourite on Thursday would throw up a range of PR opportunities which O’Leary can be relied upon to exploit to the max. “I’d love to win the Ryanair. I’ve been second in the race three times and have never managed to win it,” he admitted. “I’d like to win just so I could present it to Anita (his wife) and then I’d get a big snog out of it. That’d be the height of it.”

Such a dismissal is classic O’Leary but a fast mouth and the capacity to gurn on cue sometimes means the extent of his racing passion gets overlooked.

Talk to professionals within the sport and the importance of Gigginstown’s investment to Irish racing is hard to overstate. “F---ed,” is one blunt description of how racing would be here if O’Leary decided to turn off the money-hose in the morning.

Along with JP McManus, O’Leary’s vast numbers of horses – estimated at almost 200 – are in a wide variety of yards throughout Ireland, keeping plenty trainers in business, while his preparedness to pay out for the best young prospects on the point to point scene has become fundamental to that industry too.

The business model he presents is straightforward, hoping to cover the costs of keeping his horses in training by winning enough prizemoney and writing off their purchase cost as a rare personal extravagance, or “gone money” as he has described it.

After that O’Leary likes to present his role as merely showing up at the races, which is another snappy line but off-beam to those who know him.

Trainers talk about regular phone calls and texts, some either impossibly early in the morning or late at night, pinpointing upcoming opportunities or entry suggestions which, when delivered in O’Leary’s famously brusque style, can hardly come across as mere requests. Not that many complain, and it’s not just a willingness to keep the rich owner happy either.

“It’s hard to appreciate from the outside how much of an input he has,” says the Champion Hurdle winning trainer Colm Murphy. “He absolutely knows every one of his horses and what races might suit them. Considering the business demands he has, it’s incredible: 10 minutes after getting a text from him about a horse, you can see him on the news buying a 100 million Boeing!”

Publicly O’Leary prefers to give the impression his younger brother Eddie is the Gigginstown mastermind. Eddie O’Leary’s long experience within the bloodstock industry, principally as a “pinhooker” – buying buying foals and yearlings and selling them on to go racing – but also as owner of Lynn Lodge Stud near Killucan, Co. Westmeath, makes him an ideal adviser for a brother reportedly worth up to half a billion Euro.

But those dealing with them insist it is very much a team effort between the two men.

“Michael is very hands-on, very knowledgeable when it comes to the programme book,” says Mouse Morris who trained War Of Attrition to that famous blue-riband success. “The man has such a brain he can get through in two minutes what it would take the rest of us half an hour to decide. I hate to admit it, but its brains – that’s the difference!”

A difference between Gigginstown and other owners is a disdain for handicap races. It is Graded races O’Leary is interested in, the quality events. So with little interest in getting horses handicapped there is a general acceptance amongst punters that there is a minimum of “just out for a run” plotting among the battalions of runners that carry the famous maroon colours.

It was a point vigorously made by O’Leary over a year ago when a relatively innocuous two-day Turf Club suspension for one of his lesser charges, Devils Bride, over a late withdrawal from a race at Fairyhouse briefly threatened to go nuclear, with the owner threatening to take racing’s regulatory body to court.

“You would swear we are some bunch of spivs running around organising betting coups,” he protested. “We don’t punt our horses. I have no interest in that.”

The matter quickly petered out but it proved again how quick O’Leary can be on the trigger. His former jockey Davy Russell found that out on New Year’s Eve 2013: after riding a winner at Punchestown, a post-race cup of tea with his boss wound up with Russell losing his job.

Shortly afterwards Bryan Cooper was appointed. Russell says he’s still waiting for a “why” but he didn’t complain publicly and significantly it was he that Gigginstown turned to at Cheltenham last year when Cooper was injured. Not getting on the wrong side of the owner though is a priority for racing’s establishment as a whole.

Along with McManus, the American Rich Ricci, and to a lesser extent Barry Connell, Graham Wylie and Ann Potts, O’Leary comprises an ownership elite which dominates National Hunt racing to an unprecedented level in Ireland.

That dominance invites monopoly accusations, and sometimes a perceived lack of competition during the winter, but the elite’s willingness to invest in young talent, and keep it in training in Ireland, pays off in spades during Cheltenham.

That Ireland’s most popular and important race meeting takes place in England has long been a curio and one that has only deepened in recent time with the visitors reaching double figure winner tallies in three of the last four years, hardly coincidental with the investments made by the top owners.

The concentration of Ireland’s best horses among a tiny group of owners means Cheltenham has become the finish line for a long process of competition between that tiny group, back to when today’s best were mere fledgling talents on point to point fields in Ireland or learning the ropes around tracks in France.

Gigginstown’s top hopes this week range from a Sligo point to point winner like Road To Riches to the hugely exciting novice Don Poli, beaten in a race in Auteuil on St Patrick’s Day two years ago and who now looks to have the steeplechase world at his feet. O’Leary’s 2012 festival winner Carlito Brigante was a moderate horse on the flat for Coolmore, winning just one of ten starts.

“You’d have to get up early in the morning to catch Gigginstown out when they’re buying horses,” says Mouse Morris, and the evidence will be all over this week’s action.

And with so much riding on a single week any attempt at wry bemusement by even as accomplished a performer as O’Leary doesn’t entirely convince

“He’s like anyone’s who is very successful; he knows what he wants, and he only wants the best,” says Colm Murphy.

In many of this week’s races, he looks to have just that.

Michael O’Leary’s Priority Cheltenham Boarding:

Don Poli - RSA Chase - 2.05 Wednesday: A proven festival performer unbeaten over fences and whose Grade 1 Christmas success at Leopardstown could hardly have been better advertised by the runner up Apache Stronghold. Trainer Willie Mullins is already talking about him as a potential Gold Cup horse: possesses huge promise.

Don Cossack - Ryanair Chase - 2.40 Thursday: Once described as an ‘aeroplane’ by trainer Gordon Elliott, the giant German bred looked to have failed to build on his novice potential until emerging a transformed character this season. Unbeaten in four starts and the conditions of the race his owner sponsors might have been penned with Don Cossack in mind.

No More Heroes - Albert Bartlett Hurdle - 2.40 Friday: Regarded as potentially exceptional ever since winning a bumper by thirty nine lengths. Blotted his record at Leopardstown in January but subsequently ‘scoped’ badly so that race is worth writing-off. The three mile trip should suit him perfectly and better ground should not be a worry to a son of Presenting.

Road To Riches - Gold Cup - 3.20 Friday: Steeplechasing’s blue-riband is Gigginstown’s ultimate prize. O’Leary believes he used up all his luck with War Of Attrition’s 2006 success but he came close again two years ago with Sir Des Champs and Road To Riches’ Lexus Chase form looks the best of any Irish contender. Has the favourite Silviniaco Conti to beat.

Roi Des Francs - Martin Pipe Conditional Hurdle - 4.40 Friday: Not one of the quality festival races but Gigginstown have won it twice with quality horses - Sir Des Champs (2011) and Don Poli (2014.) Roi De Francs won the same Clonmel Grade 3 Don Poli did last year and looks similarly progressive. Has form on better ground too.

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