If the form book reveals anything at all, it is that Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, does not do humble. He does not do regret, concession or introspection either. And as for apologies …
So what, exactly, will O’Leary do if his colours are first past the post for the second year running in Saturday’s Grand National? He kicked up an almighty stink back in February when the weights for this year’s race were published, when he seemed to accuse Phil Smith, the handicapper, of nurturing a bias against horses from Ireland in general and the very best horses from Ireland – that is, the ones O’Leary tends to own – in particular. Come the day, however, O’Leary still has five of the 40 horses in Saturday’s field, five chances to become the first owner to win consecutive Nationals with different horses since 1954.
If it happens, might he pause in his moment of history to concede the handicapper is not out to get him?
The answer is probably not and in any case the likelihood is that it will never be known. O’Leary’s five runners are relative outsiders, the owner having backed up his words with actions two months ago and withdrawn Don Poli and Outlander, the most obvious National types in his string, at the first opportunity.
Eddie O’Leary, Michael’s brother and racing manager, held out little hope for their challenge here on Friday. “It was the better ones we took out,” he said. “We’ve a little squeak, that’s all.” He also stands by the decision to scratch Don Poli, the favourite for the race at the time, and the criticisms that surrounded it.
“Our problem is not how Phil handicaps the horses,” O’Leary said, “it’s that he won’t publish the ratings. He can rate them as he sees fit, but why not publish the ratings, so that everything is above board and open? That’s our one and only point.
“It appears to be a cloak-and-dagger handicap at the moment. Phil’s said in recent years he wanted to encourage the better horses in but he’s pushed them out this year. Don Poli was born for a Grand National.”
While quality is increasingly important in the National, quantity is a fair substitute in a race with a devilish sense of humour. Rule The World, O’Leary’s winner 12 months ago, was a 33-1 shot without a previous victory over fences to his name. This time O’Leary’s contenders are priced at 25-1, 40-1, 50-1 and 66-1 twice but their combined odds are roughly 10-1 – about the same chance, in other words, as the favourite.
So it is entirely possible that O’Leary will stride into the winner’s enclosure at Aintree on Saturday, as bullishly self-confident as always and with no hint of regret for the controversies of February. In racing as in business O’Leary does things his way and few would dispute that his way gets results.
In business O’Leary’s drive and single-minded determination have made him one of the wealthiest men in Ireland. “Do we carry rich people on our flights?” he once said in response to an interviewer’s question. “Yes, I flew on one this morning and I’m very rich.” And like many of the super-rich down the centuries, he has been drawn to the glamour and uncertainty of the Turf. What is different about O’Leary, though, is his attitude. Where many racing billionaires of the past were cash-rich but time-poor, and happy to leave the day-to-day detail to their trainers, O’Leary seems as hands-on in his hobby as he is in his day job.
It is hard to imagine JP McManus, for instance, moaning about the weights allotted to his National horses or suggesting that the handicapper is out to get him. Hard to imagine either that he would walk away from the most successful trainer in Ireland in a dispute over training fees, as O’Leary did when he split with Willie Mullins a few months ago.
O’Leary’s ego does not stretch to a belief that it is possible to show a profit from racing but the businessman in him strives to cut costs and reduce losses at every turn.
He once took part in a Q&A on Twitter and his first tweet, to one of his own employees, was: “Get back to work you slacker, or you’re fired.” There is a similar lack of sentiment in his racing operation. Trainers whose results do not measure up to expectations can be dropped without a second thought. Sandra Hughes saddled Thunder And Roses to win the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse in April 2015, just a few months after the death of her father Dessie, a National Hunt legend as both jockey and trainer. But that counted for little a season later when O’Leary decided to remove all his horses from the stable, and Thunder And Roses will run for Mouse Morris at Aintree on Saturday.
They are O’Leary’s horses, of course, bought and paid for, and he is entitled to stable and campaign them as he chooses. His immense investment in recent years has also injected staggering sums into the Irish racing economy. If he walked away tomorrow, Irish jumps racing would collapse.
But there is no sign that he will. If anything, O’Leary’s investment in racing seems to increase year on year, as immensely wealthy owners with three-figure strings, once much more common on the Flat, continue to take control of National Hunt as well.
Five of the last nine Nationals have been won by owners with 50 or more horses in training and the days of the small stable and the Aintree fairytale are beginning to fade. The future belongs to the super-rich multi-millionaires like O’Leary and even the Grand National, the sport’s great leveller, may be powerless to resist.
Chris Cook’s tips for Saturday
1.45 Whataknight 2.25 Brio Conti 3.00 Forest Bihan 3.40 Value At Risk 4.20 Supasundae 5.15 Lord Windermere (nap) 6.15 So Celebre
1.40 Bolving 2.15 Gold Mountain 2.50 Buy Me Out 3.30 Petite Power 4.05 Star Trouper 4.40 Peckhamecho 5.35 Roksana 6.05 Mont Des Avaloirs
2.00 Burren View Lady (nb) 2.35 Horroob 3.10 Ruby Wednesday 3.45 Eqtiraan 4.15 War Glory 4.50 Look My Way 5.40 Dubai Horizon
2.05 Ami Desbois 2.40 Golden Investment 3.20 William Money 3.55 Lord Wishes 4.30 Applaus 5.00 Sky Full Of Stars 5.45 Civil Unrest
6.20 Toy Theatre 6.50 Qatari Riyals 7.20 Faithful Promise 7.50 Midtech Star 8.20 Cold Fusion 8.50 Percys Princess 9.20 Top Of The Bank