Michael O’Leary is used to making news but the headlines created by his announcement yesterday that he is to exit National Hunt Racing are ones that reflect the blow to the sport that represents.
He has been one of very few key players whose investment in and passion for the sport have driven Ireland’s success to previously undreamt of highs.
In the three years between 1987 and 1989 Irish trainers had a total of two winners at the Cheltenham Festival, seen as the high point of the sport. 30 years on that number between 2017 and 2019 has climbed to a record breaking 50 winners.
He wasn’t there throughout all those three decades but he was a major player since Zaffrani became his first winner in 2001 and Tuco his first jumps winner at Thurles on the 14th February 2002.
That win sparked a love affair with the sport which has driven it higher ever since.
225 horses in his ownership, under the banner of Gigginstown Stud, raced in Ireland during the most recent season.
He has been the most successful owner in each of the last five years and seven of the last ten.
Prior to his arrival on the scene with such firepower the title had been held by JP McManus for 14 years.
His enthusiasm to race, and to buy quality horses matched that of McManus and the pair dominated the sport between them.
O’Leary’s winding down of his operation will take place over a period of five years. The impact will be felt first though in the sales rings where he will not be buying new horses with immediate effect.
Horses like Tiger Roll and Samcro will continue to wear the famous maroon colours with a white star but every one that retires will be a step closer to the end.
All of his horses have been trained in Ireland, with a variety of trainers sharing the bounty. They have been led by Gordon Elliot in County Meath who has been the closest challenger to Willie Mullins in terms of the Trainers Championship.
“We wish to sincerely thank all our trainers and their teams for the enormous success we’ve enjoyed over the past decade, but as my children are growing into teenagers I am spending more and more of my time at their activities and I have less and less time for National Hunt racing, a situation that will continue for the foreseeable future,” he said in breaking the news yesterday.”
“I hope that by running down our string over an extended four or five-year period it will give our trainers ample time to replace our horses without disruption.”
Sport is cyclical and dominance is rarely a perennial benefit but O’Leary has boosted the sport here to an enormous degree.
His patronage will take some replacing but that is the challenge facing first the likes of Goffs and Tattersalls in the sales ring, then through Elliot and de Bromhead in terms of trainers and all the other parts of the industry.
It is a daunting challenge but one they will shake themselves down for once the immediate shock of O’Leary’s departure has faded.