Michael O’Leary’s popular reputation might be for penny-pinching but the Ryanair boss can be pound-profligate, at least weight-wise, even when it isn’t in his own interests. And all because of equality.
Irish National Hunt racing’s most powerful owner thinks the 7lb weight allowance mares get from their male opposition is unfair. Or at least it is in Grade One races. Allowances skew the picture he believes. If a horse is top class then they don’t need allowances made for them, whatever their sex.
“I’m not trying to be controversial but I think allowances at Grade One level are wrong,” he declared last year.
Sceptics might suspect such a position comes from O’Leary owning a lot of male talent among his Gigginstown Stud ranks. But since he also owns the highest-rated, most successful, and popular mare in the country, Apple’s Jade, it also presents an interesting take on an interesting question.
Racing after all takes a lot pride from the fact that its human stars, both male and female, compete on an equal footing. That makes it a rare sporting beast. The success of top jockey Rachael Blackmore in particular this season shows how exceptional talent can thrive without any allowances.
But for equine athletes it is different. The horses themselves, on both the flat and over jumps, are categorised differently according to their sex when there is a clash. Over jumps mares carry 7lbs less than their male rivals.
O’Leary isn’t alone is suspecting that’s unfair, at least in terms of the allowance being too much and perhaps swinging an advantage too decisively in one direction. The matter will be relevant for O’Leary and anyone even just having a bet on Leopardstown’s Day Three festival action.
Apple’s Jade defends her Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle crown just over an hour before another Gigginstown mare, Shattered Love, also gets a half-stone concession in the featured Savills Chase.
That, theoretically at least, represents a head start of up to five lengths. Plenty will be prepared to bet that no gelding is able to overcome that against two such talented mares when the difference between winning and losing can be cigarette-paper thin.
On Wednesday at Kempton, La Bague Au Roi became another Grade One winning mare in the Kauto Star Novices Chase. She won by a length and a half, getting 7lbs. It probably only fuels the suspicions of those who believe the allowances to be tipped too much in one direction, and always have been.
The question of allowances have consistently provoked debate, including the legendary Dawn Run getting a 5lb pull with males when landing a famous Cheltenham Gold Cup victory in 1986. Asking any male to give an outstanding talent like Annie Power 7lbs in the 2016 Champion Hurdle was also widely suspected to be asking too much.
However Ireland’s senior National Hunt handicapper believes such outstanding mares are the exceptions that prove the general rule.
“You get a Quevega, an Annie Power or a Dawn Run every now and again. But it’s a once every five years type of thing,” said Sandy Shaw.
“It’s not as though there are dozens of mares coming along and they’re mopping up Grade Ones.”
It's all a theoretical point although punters aren't alone in taking it into account. Annie Power's trainer Willie Mullins also weighed up the 7lbs before deciding to target his latest star mare Laurina at this season's Champion Hurdle.
It also begs the question if allowances are valid in championship events supposed to identify the best horses and not the best weighted. Or at the very least if 7lbs is too much. As with most things however it’s not a black and white matter.
Such allowances are part of an overall programme which in the last decade has tried to promote more opportunities for mares in general.
“Before, it you had a filly, it was a waste of time because you had no chance of beating the geldings. But there’s been a big push in the last ten years to improve things, with races likes the mares novice at Cheltenham and various others like it,” Sandy Shaw added.
Most importantly both handicappers and Horse Racing Ireland have to present a statistical case for such weight arrangements. When the allowance was raised from five lbs to seven lbs, historical examination showed underperformance by mares across the board was actually closer to 10lbs.
So for the half dozen geldings being pitched in against Apple’s Jade it could be said that it could be worse.
However this is a mare who put up a career best performance last time and looks to be still progressing despite a CV that already contains eight Grade One victories.
On official figures Apple's Jade and the former Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen come out level. But his career appears to be on the down-slope. And even in his pomp conceding half a stone to a peak form Apple's Jade would have been a major challenge.