Mullins-O’Leary Split: Could Gordon Elliott be the big winner?
‘That’s the way it is’ - Willie Mullins and Gigginstown split over raised training fees
Recent developments could be good news for trainer Gordon Elliot. Photograph: Inpho
Michael O’Leary’s business success as boss of Ryanair has reportedly secured him billionaire status but his apparent unwillingness to pay more to Willie Mullins in training fees has the potential dividend of a significantly altered picture in Irish jump racing this winter.
Mullins’s unprecedented level of dominance has seen the legendary 60-year-old trainer cast an enormous shadow over his rivals in Ireland for much of the last decade. He has been champion ten times, including the last nine-titles in a row, become this country’s most successful trainer at the Cheltenham festival, and the sport’s most influential figure.
However, the loss of up to 60 horses is guaranteed to have a significant impact on any yard, even one with the remarkable strength in depth of Mullins’s Co Carlow stables, and especially when they contain some of the finest stars owned by O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud operation.
Where those horses ultimately wind up could make that impact reverberate even more.
Evidence strongly suggests Gigginstown’s first port of call when switching horses from other trainers is to the Co Meath stables of Gordon Elliott, the man who masterminded their Cheltenham Gold Cup success with Don Cossack last March, and the trainer who has been Mullins’s only significant rival in recent years.
Elliott has made no secret of his ambition to dethrone Mullins as champion trainer. The rise of the 39-year-former amateur jockey with no racing background since his breakthrough Grand National success with Silver Birch in 2007 has been remarkable and his ambition remains intense.
He currently leads in the Irish trainers championship with close to €1 million in prizemoney already secured, almost €100,000 ahead of Mullins. In the past, the Mullins empire started to crank into top gear from November onwards leaving everyone else in its wake. But boosted by an influx of more Gigginstown stars, Elliott’s capacity to put it up to his rival could be significantly boosted.
For instance the filly Apple’s Jade, described by Mullins as the finest juvenile he’s trained, is already as short as 6-1 for the Champion Hurdle in March and will be major string to the bow of whichever trainer eventually gets to plot her career. Don Poli, third to Don Cossack in the Gold Cup, is another Grade 1 star moved from Mullins and could be a potential Grand National contender.
The O’Leary team famously won the Aintree spectacular with Rule The World last April. They later retired the horse but Gigginstown aren’t renowned for sentiment when it comes to trainers.
Both Tony Martin and Sandra Hughes had horses removed during the summer with O’Leary’s brother Eddie bluntly pointing out that those trainers who get the best results are rewarded. In contrast Co Waterford based Henry De Bromhead is another trainer who has seen his numbers of Gigginstown horses expand this summer.
No-one could argue with the level of success enjoyed by Mullins with O’Leary’s runners in recent years but the trainer’s decision to raise his training fees appears to have proved a step too far for the champion owner.
“I put up my fees for the first time in ten years and Gigginstown chose not to pay them. I’m not willing to maintain the standards I have (without putting the fees up) so that’s the way it is,” explained Mullins who has had a turbulent number of days this week.
A British Horseracing Authority investigation into suspicious betting patterns on the back of an injury to Faugheen ruling him out of last season’s Champion Hurdle has stressed the trainer has done nothing wrong but weekend reports led to Mullins outlining how he is anxious for the matter to be resolved quickly.
On Gigginstown’s part, a statement outlined how the owner had “been unable to reach agreement with Willie Mullins on an increase in training fees.” It added that: “We have agreed with considerable regret to move the Gigginstown horses to alternative trainers for the coming 2016-17 season.”
A split over fees between the sport’s most powerful trainer and perhaps its most powerful owner might be construed as odd in many respects. But for those looking in it could ultimately prove to be value for money in terms of competition.