When Gordon Elliott heard that Michael O’Leary was pulling the plug on the enormously successful Gigginstown House Stud operation, he’d have been forgiven for immediately checking if it was April 1.
Sadly, for Elliott, and so many others, it was the middle of May and this was no joke, with O’Leary revealing he is poised to end about a 20-year love affair with owning horses.
There are many words to describe O’Leary - colourful, charismatic, antagonistic, personable, enjoyable, one could go on and on.
There is no middle ground when it comes to O’Leary, you either love him or hate him. As a long-time card-carrying member of the politically incorrect brigade, I am firmly in the love camp.
O’Leary was very good for National Hunt racing because, obviously, of the vast amount of money he pumped into the game and also due to the massive profile he had away from the sport.
He has cited that spending more time with his four children and their activities and, as a result, having less time to be involved in racing, as the main reason he decided to now head down this road.
But, you suspect, it may run deeper than that. O’Leary’s involvement in racing, especially over the last decade, has cost him millions.
Flat racing, at least at the top level, is all about making money, no organisation does it better than Coolmore-Ballydoyle.
But National Hunt racing, at every level, is basically about throwing away money, sending more and more of it down a bottomless pit.
Buying horses at the sales and having well in excess of 200 in training simply costs a fortune year after year.
Last season Gigginstown won almost €4m in prizemoney here at home, maybe as much as €1m in Britain as well, but that would go nowhere near to balancing the books.
The way O’Leary and the only other owner in his league, J P McManus, spend on horse racing has to be regarded as the ultimate indulgence.
They are not in racing to make it pay; no it’s the thrill of winning, again and again and, you suspect, the bigger the day the bigger the adrenaline rush.
McManus has to be the most extraordinary owner in the history of National Hunt racing. He has been at this since I was a young man and that wasn’t today or yesterday.
O’Leary has been much later to the party, but what a party it has been. In a relatively short space of time he has seen his colours carried to victory on three occasions in the Aintree Grand National, in two Cheltenham Gold Cups, in four Irish Grand Nationals and won a huge number of other major races besides.
He’s never won a Champion Hurdle, but I can’t imagine he regards that as any sort of big deal and Gigginstown was never about winning hurdle races in any case.
Essentially, he has achieved all there is to be achieved in racing and has nothing to prove to either himself or, indeed, anyone else.
Did he sit down recently and ponder if he wanted to spend another 20 years investing millions in a pastime that has already given him more satisfaction than he could ever have envisaged?
Maybe, he concluded that continuing to behave in such a manner was, if not exactly unsustainable, hardly the most intelligent thing to do with his hard-nosed business cap on.
Now we are told the downsizing, prior to the disappearing, will take four or five years, but I’ll bet it will be done a lot faster than that.
O’Leary has acted honourably and given those who train for him at least some breathing space, as they try to come to terms with what is about to unfold.
For the likes of point-to-point merchants, sales companies and vendors his decision will have a more immediate and long-lasting effect.
But whatever way you dress it up the really big loser in all of this threatens to be Gordon Elliott. I think it is fair to say Gigginstown’s three other trainers will not be as concerned.
Henry de Bromhead, Noel Meade and Joseph O’Brien are much less dependent on Gigginstown largesse.
But Elliott has come up out of the ground like a mushroom and so many of his big-race wins have been owned by Gigginstown.
Those that quickly come to mind are War Of Attrition and Don Cossack in the Gold Cup and Tiger Roll’s back-to-back wins in the Grand National at Aintree. Talented and all a trainer as he undoubtedly is, Elliott’s rise to be the main challenger to Willie Mullins has been hugely facilitated by Michael O’Leary.
It may be no exaggeration to say that had O’Leary drawn stumps immediately it could possibly have put Elliott out of business! Certainly, it would, at best, have forced him to greatly reduce his operation.
O’Leary took 60 horses away from Willie Mullins literally overnight, but Mullins was able to shrug it off. Last season proved Mullins is stronger than ever.
Elliott will put as brave a spin as he can muster on this development, but will be well aware of the huge ramifications it has for him, sooner rather than later.
He is inextricably tied in with Gigginstown and replacing such an owner is virtually impossible.
Year after year O’Leary has provided him with many young horses, to go with so many up-and-coming and established stars, and it has to be a frightening thought that it is coming to an end.
Elliott now faces his biggest test since becoming so firmly established. It promises to be, quite simply, an uphill struggle.
And, of course, all of this will make Irish racing far less competitive. Since Mullins lost O’Leary, he has continued to thrive and shown an uncanny ability to repeatedly reinvent himself.
O’Leary’s decision has just made Mullins’ main opposition weaker, none more so than his biggest rival of all, Elliott.
You don’t have to be a genius to put forward the notion that Mullins will now be champion trainer until the day he retires!
HAS a horse that actually lost ever got a better drive than the one afforded Jett by Paul Townend at Killarney on Monday night?
I mean the eight-year-old is a seriously enigmatic character and I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him.
He was a nightmare for Townend from start to finish of this two-miles and five furlongs chase, hesitating and awkward at fences and generally testing the considerable skills of his pilot.
But Townend codded and cajoled and launched him at some of the obstacles, when clearly feeling he had no other choice.
Jett tried to make all, but looked destined for third place jumping the last.
Then Townend, however, managed to conjure another burst from his somewhat reluctant partner and Jett was a mere nose behind the winner, Peregrine Run, at the line.
It was almost an injustice the devil didn’t get back up!