New Year’s Day, 2011. Beginning another round of the calender in Fairyhouse. Same as it ever was. Except in that case it was anything but that. For about 18 months beforehand, dad and his best friend, the late former undertaker Oliver Cunningham, were tipping around with a few horses in training with Tom Taaffe.
Spruce Cottage was by a long way the best of them. Having been second to the subsequently very useful Character Actor in a Bumper on debut at Fairyhouse, some rather juicy offers – for the time – were waved away as the feeling (sadly prophetic) that one as good might never even come near these shores.
You can imagine, then, the buzz there was at the prospect of having a runner at the first fixture of the new year at the local track. So much so that there was talk of availing of the services of Paul Carberry to partner the Dushyantor gelding but unfortunately Tony Martin got to his agent Ciaran O’Toole before Tom and so Andrew McNamara took the mount in the turquoise and dark blue silks.
Now, Spruce didn’t win that day and to be honest that was the last decent race he ran before he broke down and Ollie passed away suddenly. They are days that will never forgotten in this seat and the yearning to experience such feelings will take a very degree of pulling up. Especially after observing some of the thrills and spills on display during the Christmas racing. Even if it was only via the gogglebox.
Many column inches have been devoted in this space and other places considered to be ‘better’ by some, to the growing influence of a shrinking number of increasingly big owners on National Hunt racing here in Ireland.
It’s a scourge – in fairness probably a necessary one – which has clouded the Flat scene here for a long time. In that, most of the big – and not so big now – prizes go to either Coolmore or one of the Arab operations. Though in fairness even they have spread their stock around either through the Godolphin banner or Prince Khalid Abdullah’s familiar green, pink and white attire.
The green and gold hoops and white cap of J,P, McManus are instantly recognisable to anybody with even a scintilla of interest in or knowledge on horse racing. It’s thought that the great man has over 400 horses in training between Ireland, Britain and France. For a long time, that left him on a different stratosphere to everybody else in terms of horse ownership.
Until, that is, the maroon jacket and white star, maroon cap and white star of Gigginstown House Stud loped into town like a new Sheriff marking his territory. I don’t know if there’s a Leading Owners championship in Britain, but what is certain is that the ‘contest’ here was only notional until Michael O’Leary’s flying horses entered the fray.
If there is one negative about the McManus operation, it can be his propensity at buying horses from ‘ordinary’ owners that have already run (and possibly won). Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Limerick’s finest. Have absolutely no doubt, those who have the honour and pleasure of doing business with the man from South Libeerties will be handsomely rewarded for so doing, and not just in financial terms either.
And, also to J.P.’s unending credit, even if he does make what we’ll call retrospectively purchase an animal he leaves it with the current trainer. Which is more than can be said for some who buy horses after they’ve run. For example, after Willie Mullins took the highly unusual move of sending Panic Attack to Market Rasen to win his Bumper under Paul Townend, the horse was bought by an English owner of considerable clout, Bryan Drew. Who transferred the animal from Closutton to the Nickleshane base of David Pipe. Why anyone would do such a thing is beyond me – it’s the racing equivalent of a footballer transferring from Liverpool to Sunday League football.
Aside from McManus and Gigginstown, a new phalanx of wealthy owners with considerable teams of horses are starting to take over the jumps racing here. To me at least, that’s a very sad and slightly worrying development. If crowds ever are allowed back to fixtures – and that wouldn’t be wagered on as long as Dr Doom is leading the nation around by the snout – the ordinary folk will be the strangers.
Look, obviously there are two sides to every story. Yes, having some of these financially well endowed owners in a yard will create more jobs – both in the establishment concerned and across potentially many spin-off industries also. Think of straw from farmers, feed from agents and manufacturers, who in turn get their raw material from tillage farmers. And so the production line continues, all because an owner puts either new or further investment into a trainer.
Not that he needs it, but, the rejuvenation of Rich Ricci plus the addition of runners from fairly sizable British owners like Cheveley Park Stud and Mike Gretch and Tony Bloom have left Willie Mullins with even more bullets to fire. Two of the three above also have horses with Gordon Elliott while Cheveley Park also employ Henry De Bromhead.
Simon Munir and Isaac Suade, Sean Mulryan and his wife Bernadine and John and Michael O’Flynn are among the other owners to have several trainers with sets of their silks. At this point, it must categorically be stated that in no way does this writer have any ‘beef’ with any of the owners mentioned. In fact, as has been discussed above, the boon they can be to several sectors of the economy is wholly understood.
However, concerns owing to same are genuine also. Firstly, if as is predicted and feared, the country goes into recession on foot of Covid related chaos, how many of the now-prominent owners will fade away? In some cases, again. Of greater concern, though, is what will become of the many – racing staff included – if the few attain even more leverage?
If, as he has been telling anyone who’ll listen, Michael O’Leary is getting out of racing (though from what I’m hearing it may be a move sideways rather than away) the infusion of new owners like those mentioned in this piece could be up to and including salvation for some of those trainers who’ve had Gigginstown horses for nigh on two decades. Indeed, it wouldn’t take Stephen Hawking to come up with the theory that some of the newer top players in the market brought on stream – either by accident or design – to fill the void which will be left by the Westmeath magnate’s departure. If it does turn out to be that.
A horse called Ginto went to post in the Bumper at Fairyhouse this evening. Having been an impressive winner of ‘Point’ across the road in Tattersalls Farm, the animal changed hands for a staggering €475,000 at a recent Cheltenham online sale. Bective, Co Meath businessman Noel Moran and his wife Valerie. And didn’t win. Finishing second to what – in my time of being immersed in horse racing anyway – was the first horse Sean Mulryan had in training with Willie Mullins.
The Moran horses seem to be exclusively in the care of Gordon Elliott in Ireland – the couple are actually yard sponsors for the Cullentra House team – and with the aforementioned trainer’s protege across the water, Olly Murphy. Elliott is also one of a number of trainers with steeds belonging to Brian Acheson, under the banner of his business Robcour – in their care. The man from the beautifully named Little Island in Co Cork has lent his seemingly growing support to Elliott and De Bromhead.
More significantly though, the black, white and pink silks are now in the tack rooms of several trainers who have not had the backing of the Ryanair chief’s equine empire – Jessica Harrington, ‘Mouse’ Morris and – perhaps most significantly – those who would be considered ‘smaller’ operations – Peter Fahey and James Motherway. Even though, for instance, the last-named is an Irish Grand National winning trainer courtesy of Bluesea Cracker.
At this juncture, a modicum of clarification is required. Michael Morris was of course an integral part of the Gigginstown operation for many years. He not only trained winners of the Irish and English Grand Nationals and the Cheltenham Gold Cup for the O’Learys, he also played a huge role in the sourcing and preparation of their point-to-point horses. So too did Elliott but the difference was that whereas when the horses were taken out of Willie Mullins’s, the vast majority thereof went to the Summerhill native, when those in ‘Mouse’s place were moved on they weren’t replaced.
Meaning that for a while it appeared the decorated Tipperary trainer may fade out of the sport’s higher echelons and that simply couldn’t be allowed to happen to a person of Michael’s status in the sport. Something emphasised by the fact that nearly all of the young horses he has sent out for J.P. and Robcour and the O’Flynns have all won. What’s more significant, however, is that Mr Acheson seems to be the type of man who will send more horses to a handler if results are forthcoming.
If Gigginstown are departing the scene, Irish racing needs as much new investment across all sectors of the industry. But, what cannot happen is for that investment to turn jump racing in the direction of elitism. In recent weeks and/or months Robcour have snapped up Soviet Pimpernell in Peter Fahey’s and – hugely significantly – Aspire Tower (pictured above) trained by Henry De Bromhead.
Sitting at home on New Year’s Day, not being in Fairyhouse, for the first time in two decades, gave a man too much time to think and I couldn’t get Aspire Tower out of my head. Of course those who were fortunate enough to be the precocious 5-year-old’s original owners will have been very well looked after financially, but sometimes money isn’t everything.
One cannot help thinking of it as so near and yet so far. Chances are I may never make it back to the Spruce Cottage days. But being able to experience them is something that wouldn’t be traded for all the Guinness in St James’s Gate. It may well be the Sport Of Kings, but it would be nothing if it wasn’t the people’s sport as well.