Michael O’Leary team not ruling out return to having horses in Mullins yard

Chris Cook at Cheltenham
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Trainer Noel Meade, left, and owners Michael and Anita O’Leary after their victory with Road To Respect at Cheltenham on Thursday.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images</span>
Trainer Noel Meade, left, and owners Michael and Anita O’Leary after their victory with Road To Respect at Cheltenham on Thursday. Photograph: Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Michael O’Leary’s long wait to get his hands on his own trophy continues. The Ryanair chief executive owned his fourth runner-up in the Ryanair Chase on Thursday and had the vexing experience of being beaten by the man with whom he had a very public rupture just six months ago, Willie Mullins.

Still, O’Leary maintained a brave face, even a happy one, as he watched Mullins mount the podium after Un De Sceaux had held off the late charge of Sub Lieutenant by a length and a half. “Lots of you are trying to stir things up between me and Willie,” he told reporters, resignedly.

But neither man will play along with suggestions of continuing tension. Mullins was among the first to congratulate the owner after Apple’s Jade beat two Mullins-trained horses on Tuesday. Here, with the positions reversed, there was more glad-handing.

Pressed about the split with Mullins that saw him redistribute 60 horses among other trainers in September, O’Leary laughed. “I fall out with people over fees all the time. He’s just one in the pile.”

Some observers thought they detected a churlishness in the fact that O’Leary did not himself hand over the trophy to Mullins but O’Leary insisted, and a racecourse official confirmed, that he had not conducted presentation duties after this race for a full decade. “When I go up there, I want it to be as the winning owner,” he said.

O’Leary’s brother, Eddie, who manages his racing interests, suggested there was no reason why their maroon silks might not return to Mullins’s Carlow yard at some stage in the future. “As you see, we’re best of pals,” he added after shaking the trainer’s hand.

He had no ready explanation for the lifeless effort produced by Empire Of Dirt, a fancied runner in the Ryanair, who could finish only fourth, but said it at least spared the brothers any further agonising over whether they had picked the right race. On this showing, Empire Of Dirt could not have won anything this week.

If there is a man with whom Michael O’Leary really does have a problem, it is Phil Smith, the senior British handicapper, whose setting of the weights for next month’s Grand National so provoked the owner that he withdrew his three best horses at the earliest opportunity. That added a piquancy to O’Leary’s success here with Road To Respect, who won a handicap by six lengths and therefore appears to have been leniently treated by Smith’s team.

“I’m going to have to be nice to Phil Smith, apparently,” O’Leary told a TV reporter, genially. But he rowed back on that moments later. “Look, that’s nothing to do with his handicap rating,” he said of Road To Respect’s success. “He’s transformed for better ground here and it’s the ground that’s made the difference. And it’s a joy!”

But he doubted that Smith himself had compiled the weights for this race, suggesting mischievously that his horse would then have had an extra 10lb.

Nearby, a scoreboard showed that Irish-trained horses were outscoring their British rivals by five to zero on the day but the winning owner spurned an invitation to say how proud he was to be part of the successful raiding party. “That Irish, British thing is a fucking load of nonsense,” O’Leary said.

“It irritates the shit out of me. Nobody cares about the Ireland, England thing. If you’re an owner, you just want to have a winner here. Whether it goes down as Ireland or England, does it really matter? No.

“It’s been a great day. Willie and Ruby dominating. They would pick the Ryanair day to transform themselves! At least we got one little humble handicap.”

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