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Michael O'Leary interview: Ryanair and Gigginstown chief shooting from the lip

Richard Forristal finds the pugnacious owner pulling no punches

Michael O'Leary: opinionated and outspoken owner was in top form in our 2018 interview
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Published in the Racing Post on February 1, 2018

Any temptation to interpret Ryanair's transition into a more customer friendly, responsive, union-recognising behemoth as a reflection of its CEO's evolution as a man is misguided.

Michael O'Leary has not changed. The airline over which he presides has: ultimately because the pragmatist in him either embraced the idea that it needed to or was convinced that he needed to.

"It happened because our customers or our people wanted us to do it," O'Leary responds when asked about the stark transformation in identity.

In the wake of an uncharacteristic management malfunction that has resulted in the region of 700,000 customers' flights being cancelled between September and March after a monumental blunder with pilots' rosters, some reports suggested a fractious board meeting left O'Leary on the brink.

O'Leary at Ryanair's Dublin headquarters: "I've no plans to retire, although I don't plan to work in Ryanair until I'm 95 years of age, either"

However, he is still there and Ryanair's share price has recovered pretty spectacularly.

"I'm not going anywhere," he booms in trademark matter-of-fact style from across the table in his glass-encased office high up in the budget airline's headquarters in Dublin.

"I've no plans to retire, although I don't plan to work in Ryanair until I'm 95 years of age, either."

Redoubtable and inimitable, O'Leary is also steadfastly unshakeable.

Throw what brickbats you will at him, he'll keep on doing what he does. He's in the results business, always and ever. Nothing more, nothing less. 

Gigginstown House Stud owner Michael O'Leary with Davy Russell and Gordon Elliott

"Couldn't care less as long as I win Graded races," he retorts in a heartbeat when asked if commentary that implies the success of his omnipotent Gigginstown House Stud leviathan has negative consequences concerns him.

"I'm only in it for the wins. You can understand why people are critical of the domination of owners, but I'm never quite sure why they aren't critical of the domination of trainers. Willie [Mullins] has dominated everything for the past ten years – rightly so, as he's a genius. 

"Gordon [Elliott] will dominate things with him for the next ten years, unless Joseph [O'Brien] moves in. It's like every other industry. Ryanair dominates the airline industry in this country. Why? Because we run the best airline – and the others all fall by the wayside.

"The greatest response of all is Gordon Elliott: no leg-up, no nothing. A self-made man. He's a genius at what he does. Instead of whining about there being no opportunities, why don't they do what Gordon did? Put them on a box and take them to Ayr and build up your business that way."

Sean Flanagan debriefs winning owner Michael O'Leary (left) and trainer Noel Meade after winning the Christmas Chase on Road To Respect

So it goes during an audience with the opinionated 56-year-old. His default delivery is the categorical variety with which we are all familiar, a curious distillation of passion and pragmatism that lends itself to a no-frills interview.

"The Leopardstown move is a brilliant move," O'Leary declares of this weekend's eagerly awaited inaugural Dublin Racing Festival, at which rising star Samcro will be among the Gigginstown heavy artillery expected to play a central role.

"Putting those two days together over one weekend and bringing in the big handicaps is brilliant, and this nonsense about English trainers not supporting the weekend is just that – nonsense. The good news is that we have most of the best horses here in Ireland.

"For eight or ten years, horses like Jodami were winning the [old] Hennessy and we hadn't a horse in it. It's the same fellas whining about the concentration of owners here in Ireland – yadda, yadda, yadda. It's all me, JP [McManus] and Rich Ricci or whoever. Do you want the horses here or do you want them all sold to England?"

The touch paper is lit and the five-time champion owner, who has already run nearly 200 horses this term as he underpins Elliott's bid for a first trainers' title, is on a roll.

By now he is well used to feeling compelled to be defensive about his relationship with an industry for which he possesses a genuine devotion, and there is no sense of animosity to the discussion.

O'Leary and wife Anita after Road To Respect's victory at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival

You put it to him that such a concentration of power might undermine that industry's foundations, with participation levels having dropped continuously over the past decade.

"Rubbish," he counters. "The industry is concentrating around a number of very large and very successful point-to-point producers. The reason for what you've seen in the last ten years is not because of ownership, it is because of the worst recession we've had in history.

"In the past, everybody had a mare in the field – dawdie da – but it's the nature of every business that it concentrates around who are the best producers, and the point-to-points have become much more professional. The Doyle brothers, Colin Bowe, Pat Doyle, Wilson Dennison – they are now taking horses off to England and selling them for €300,000.

O'Leary with fellow jumps giant JP McManus at Cheltenham

"The only issue for people in Ireland is, do you want me, JP and to a lesser extent Rich Ricci buying them and training them here in Ireland, or do you want them all to go to Highflyer [Bloodstock] and Nicky Henderson and Nigel Twiston-Davies, like happened ten or 15 years ago, with no Irish winners at Cheltenham?

"And it will come back to that, because eventually JP and myself and others will die or get fed up of it and be replaced by some rich people in England who will buy all the horses. Then the Irish will be back to, 'Jaysus, we've no horses in Ireland!'"

So what does the future hold?

"I think it will become very, very centralised, concentrated around four or five very, very large, successful trainers, and probably the same number of owners. Jump racing will go exactly the same way as the Flat in that sense."

But are there not more opportunities for smaller-scale operators on the Flat in Ireland now, with Dundalk all year round and the international markets?

"Not for owners. Very few owners make any return on their money on the Flat, and on the Flat you are only in it for the money. With jumps, you are in it because you love jumps and losing money.

"They have the international market on the Flat but it's no different to the jump racing, except in jump racing it's the point-to-point guys. They are buying stores now at an average of €40,000 or €50,000 and are getting €200,000 or €300,000 for them if they win a point-to-point.

"And there's a realistic prospect they could get much more than that because there's an open market for it now with the likes of the Brightwells sales."

The position of O'Leary, whose mammoth operation is managed in tandem with his brother Eddie of Lynn Lodge Stud, as a practically irreplaceable benefactor of the Irish jumps scene, along with JP McManus, is unquestionable.

From his vantage point, he doesn't perceive the struggle for indigenous staff as a negative.

"Let's not look back on the past through rose-coloured spectacles," says the man whom reports suggest joined the billionaires' club in 2016.

"The reason racing is not considered an option now is because in Ireland you have so many more education prospects and job opportunities.

"I would argue you have a much healthier industry in Ireland now. There is too much of this looking back. Now we have better racing, facilities, racetracks, and we should celebrate it, because we will look back in 20 years' time and watch what Willie and Gordon did over the last ten or 15 years and see it as a golden age. Like, will we ever go to Cheltenham again and win 19 races? No.

"Yet all we hear is moaning. 'Ah, the model is broken. It's terrible. Blah blah.' No – it's brilliant."

'I love Tony Mullins dearly, but . . .'

Over the past year, Tony Mullins is one of those who have been most vocal in opposition to the manner in which someone with O'Leary's resources can throw a multitude of darts at valuable handicaps.

From the Kerry National to the Troytown and from the Galway Plate to the Aintree Grand National, the Mullingar-based, Kanturk-born owner has won pretty much all of them.

Mullins has even suggested the reason Gigginstown ran as many 13 of the 28 runners in last year's Irish Grand National was specifically to deny others a berth in the €500,000 event as the trainers' dust-up reached a climax. In the event, of course, Our Duke won for Jessica Harrington anyway.

"I love Tony Mullins dearly," O'Leary says as his face breaks into a smile, palpably relishing a verbal joust.

"But the brother of Willie Mullins complaining about somebody dominating jump racing – come on! Sure, for the last five or six years Willie would have five of the six runners in a Grade 1."

O'Leary with trainer Mouse Morris and jockey David Mullins after Rule The World's 2016 Grand National victory

But are handicaps not a little different, given they are supposed to give everyone a fighting chance?

"I entirely understand that, but the reality is that I buy 50 or 60 horses a year and I'm trying to buy Grade 1 horses. It's inevitable that if I'm trying to keep what I think are horses who could progress to be Graded horses I'll finish up with ten or whatever in the Irish National who are rated above 140 but below 160. It's not like I'm running Don Cossack in the Irish National.

"And we don't handicap our horses – they're trying their hearts out from the start and they're completely exposed.

"Rule The World is the best example of them all. He had run in 15 chases and never managed to win one. He ran in Graded races and was second in an Irish National. He got into the English National off second bottom weight a year later and was 33-1. There's a horse with no chance – completely exposed – but he won. That's why we run them.

"So, like, Tony is wrong – but it wouldn't be unusual for Tony to be wrong in his opinionated views! If you block owners from having more than five runners in a race or whatever, all you do is devalue the race.

"Besides, if you're going to limit me, are you going to limit trainers as well – who's going to limit Willie to just two horses in a Grade 1? That's the sort of artificial bulls*** that's never going to work."

'We were perfectly right to cut them off'

O'Leary's emphatic and uncompromising outlook extends to his roster of trainers and jockeys. He now relies on five trainers, having had runners for 17 different handlers four years ago, and, while he reiterates that the split with Willie Mullins over fees might one day heal, there is nothing new to report at this stage.

"Look at the people we have left in the last number of years," he says of those dispensed with for performance reasons. "None of them has turned it around and built it up afterwards. We were perfectly right to cut them off."

Does having fewer trainers suit the Gigginstown operation better?

"No. It's the same number of horses and we run the risk that, if one trainer gets a bug and it runs through the yard, we would be in trouble. In an ideal world I'd like to have more trainers but, apart from Joseph, there aren't any new trainers coming through in the jumps scene.

"I understand how difficult it is and I think a lot of them now think that it would be easier to make money doing the point-to-pointers. I'm sure there will be younger, hungrier people coming through doing what Gordon did, but they certainly won't be in their mid-50s whining about how hard life is."

O'Leary, who takes issue with the description of his methods as ruthless, adopts a similarly demanding policy with his riders.

Bryan Cooper, who guided Don Cossack to that memorable 2016 Gold Cup success but rarely seemed secure in his position, was unceremoniously relieved of his retainership last year, with his predecessor Davy Russell and Jack Kennedy currently heading the pecking order.

O'Leary and Willie Mullins at Punchestown in 2013 before their high-profile split, which the owner concedes may one day heal

O'Leary says he does expect to appoint a retained rider again – maybe two – but that might not happen for a while yet.

Asked if he had the chance over again would he handle the sacking of Russell and the appointment of a 21-year-old Cooper any differently, he is adamant he wouldn't.

"I don't regard anything we do as ruthless and, if you are good enough, you are old enough. 

"The challenge for the good guys when they're young is: how do you handle the success, how do you handle the money, how do you handle the birds, how do you handle your weight?"

He adds: "Davy used to have problems with his weight and it used to drive us nuts. He'd waste away to get down to ride some crappy handicapper and his head would be fried. He'd p*** it all away to lose two pounds! He clearly wasn't performing when we let him go, but he turned it around and now he's riding very well.

Bryan Cooper: "He can find his way back, but he has to work hard. I've said that to him"

"Bryan was a little unlucky that Dessie [Hughes, his mentor] died when he did. I think if Dessie guided him for a couple of more years it might have helped. He hadn't been performing for a considerable period of time when we let him go.

"The hardest thing for a young fella is, when you get a lot of success young, what happens to the hunger? Talking about being hungry is only talk – demonstrate it.

"Racing in Ireland is dominated by Ruby [Walsh], Barry [Geraghty] and Davy. What characterises all three? Extreme professionalism and weight management. They're all married and settled, and you need that maturity."

He adds: "Bryan can find his way back, but he has to work hard and I've said that to him. As Gary Player said, the harder you work, the luckier you get. Don't be telling me about injuries and all that.

"McCoy got savage injuries over the years, so has Ruby. They work harder. Who is up in the clinic in Santry I'd say four times a week doing rehab? Ruby. The other fellas are all feeling sorry for themselves."

O'Leary with Ruby Walsh: "Who is up in the clinic in Santry I'd say four times a week doing rehab? Ruby. The other fellas are all feeling sorry for themselves"

Having warmed to his theme, O'Leary continues: "What has happened to all the jockeys between the ages of 25 and 38 in Ireland? There's going to be a huge opportunity in the next few years when Ruby and Davy and Barry will be gone, but there's a group of young jockeys coming through and they need to work harder, be tougher and build themselves up.

"There's Sean Flanagan, who was gone but has dug his way back out again, and Paul Townend, who has put in the hard yards with Willie and is very professional and good at what he does. But what about the rest of them? They need to stop worrying about their hair and start worrying about winners."

The results business, folks. It's not for the faint-hearted.

More RP Classics:

Great racing coups: the fascinating tale behind the infamous Gay Future gamble

When we put your questions to Sir Mark Prescott, the master of Heath House

Lester Piggott Q&A: the 11-time champion jockey stars in a brilliant interview

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The challenge for the good guys when they're young is: how do you handle the success, how do you handle the money, how do you handle the birds?
E.W. Terms