It has been a turbulent week in Irish racing circles and, in the days dominated by the controversial process involved in the reappointment of Horse Racing Ireland CEO Brian Kavanagh, the news that two of the superpowers of National Hunt racing in Ireland have parted ways has kept the sport in the headlines.
Yesterday morning, trainer Willie Mullins revealed that leading owners Gigginstown House Stud is removing all 60 of its horses from his care with immediate effect, following a disagreement over fees.
While we must take on face value that this is the reason for the split — both parties have said that is the case — there are reasons to feel the partnership may not have been a great fit for some time.
Perhaps fee-related, Gigginstown House Stud was slow to send a horse to Mullins, or perhaps Mullins was slow to accept one.
Either way, it is only five years since the Closutton trainer first saddled a runner in the famous maroon and white silks.
Much success later, the partnership is no longer, and perhaps that suits both — and Irish racing.
Put yourself in the shoes of Gigginstown House and Ryanair supremo Michael O’Leary, a man who has amassed a fortune through his business nous, and did so with a no-nonsense approach.
Such a personality — the ultra-successful type — doesn’t suffer fools, and, one would imagine, likes to surround himself, for business purposes, at least, with people of a similar ilk.
While horse racing is his passion, it’s also business, and must be treated as such.
Mullins, the champion trainer every year since Noel Meade last claimed the title in the 2007, would have seemed a good fit for O’Leary and, since their first association, the partnership grew quickly.
But, despite such a significant numerical and, consequently, financial influence, Gigginstown has never been ‘top dog’ in the Mullins yard, a distinction which goes to another mega-rich owner, Rich Ricci.
And that must rankle more than just a touch for O’Leary, who has worked tirelessly to become the leading light in business, and whose Gigginstown House Stud has made similarly impressive strides in racing.
Over the past few seasons Mullins’ biggest headache has been the work involved in keeping his best horses apart, at least until the Cheltenham Festival.
Often times, Gigginstown must have felt like, and in many cases, they were the second string. In virtually every other stable, that would not be the case.
Mullins is at the top of his profession but if, indeed, the removal of the horses was a financial decision, Gigginstown knows better than most that there are many other fine trainers in the country, more than capable of doing the job.
The operation has never been fully dependent upon one trainer, and what better example than last season when Mouse Morris delivered the Irish and Aintree Grand Nationals, Gordon Elliott came up trumps with Don Cossack in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and Henry de Bromhead added Grade One success with Identity Thief.
These are not second-rate operations.
So, all is fine for Gigginsown and it’s a disaster for Mullins, right?
Not at all. A temporary blow to team Closutton, perhaps, but Mullins is not about to roll over and concede his title. Sure, the dynamic has changed, and Elliott, who has emerged as a genuine contender for the trainer’s title in recent seasons, will likely be a bigger threat this term and long in to the future.
But Mullins’ record in Ireland, Britain and France speaks for itself, and he was doing just fine before Gigginstown got on board. His domination of recent Cheltenham Festivals, in particular, will ensure those boxes will not be empty for long.
One always got the sense Gigginstown’s insistence in using their own jockey didn’t sit well in Closutton, and Mullins is not the type who needs or wishes to be told what to do with his horses.
Also, he enjoys all of Ricci and Graham Wylie’s best horses, but must share the Gigginstown spoils.
It’s a shame, perhaps, that there has been a split.
Together they could have been great, and, on occasion, promised to be so. But it’s an ill wind that blows no good, and the distribution of some high-class horses and many smart prospects can only be good for other yards, and for the competitiveness of National Hunt racing.
Apple’s Jade, who could be a Champion Hurdle contender in the making, immediately springs to mind as an exciting new recruit and she will be warmly welcomed by Elliott.
Elliott, Morris, De Bromhead and Noel Meade were predictable beneficiaries of the fallout, but it was good to hear Joseph O’Brien will also be on the roster.
It’s just a shame some other promising young trainers did not get a leg-up in their careers, but that, like the decision to move all 60 horses, is the prerogative of the bill-payers.
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