Michael O’Leary’s capacity for wrong-footing people is renowned but by any standard the Ryanair boss’s decision to withdraw from racing over the next five years is a stunning blow to the sport.
If Gordon Elliott and the other trainers for O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud team are the most public faces of this dramatic step, then many more will be affected.
O’Leary has spent millions over the last two decades indulging his passion for National Hunt racing.
Those millions have percolated into the sport’s bloodstream, from breeders, to point-to-point owners aiming to sell the next potential Gold Cup winner, to sales companies and those employed to pre-train young horses that will carry Gigginstown’s famous maroon silks.
All that takes place even before such animals enter training. Hundreds of jobs are tied up in preparing O’Leary’s huge string from a handful of training yards that also include Joseph O’Brien and Henry De Bromhead.
In the jumps season just ended, and which saw him crowned top owner in Ireland for a seventh time, 225 individual horses carried O’Leary’s colours. It’s stark statistical evidence of Gigginstown’s overwhelming influence.
That influence has helped contribute to a golden era for the sport in terms of major success for horses trained in Ireland.
Unlike his great rival JP McManus, who has hundreds of horses trained in Britain as well, O’Leary has focused on Ireland although always with the ultimate aim of trying to win at the Cheltenham festival in March.
War Of Attrition’s victory in the 2006 Gold Cup ignited a splurge of investment trying to repeat the feat. A decade later Don Cossack managed to also win jump racing’s ‘Blue Riband.’
In that same year, Rule The World landed the Aintree Grand National and just last month Tiger Roll completed back-to-back wins in the world’s most famous race steeplechase.
An unprecedented hat-trick, one to trump even the legendary Red Rum, could await Tiger Roll at Aintree next year, by which time O’Leary’s policy of not buying anymore young stock will have started to bite.
The old racing adage is that the only ones to make a small fortune in horses is to start with a big fortune. O’Leary has always said he aims to cover the cost of training his massive string with prize money and writes off their purchase price.
But many other wealthy owners have also poured millions into the horse game without a fraction of the success O’Leary has enjoyed. So for many in the sport the question will be why now?
In Tuesday’s statement the renowned businessman put it down to his young children and how their activities mean he can’t go racing as much. Those close to him say he now spends much more time helping to train the U-11’s at Mullingar rugby club than he does at the racetrack.
But with so much at stake for so many, other speculative theories are inevitable, with perhaps significance getting read into Tiger Roll being Gigginstown’s sole winner at Cheltenham in March. That was quite a slip from seven winners the previous year.
There are already suggestions too that O’Leary may have tired of sniping about how his dominance has changed the face of the sport and not always for the better in terms of competition.
What was once racing’s option for the smaller owner and trainer has been transformed by a concentration of resources into a tiny elite of owners and trainers which has paid off in terms of unprecedented Irish success at the major festivals.
However, mass Gigginstown entries, such as having a dozen runners in the Irish Grand National at Easter, have produced criticism. It’s hardly unknown for powerful men to be thin-skinned when it comes to public flak.
It’s not impossible that might have cooled O’Leary’s passion for the sport a little, although this move could ultimately be another expression of him making his mind up and wasting no time acting on it.
In 2016 it saw him sensationally split from champion trainer Willie Mullins in a dispute over training fees. That wrong-footed the sport then but it pales in comparison to this ultimate split.
Ultimately the more mundane reality may be that O’Leary’s decision is simply a sign of a very rich man deciding he’s had enough of what has always been his hobby.
He once declared his idea of a good time to be tramping around a mucky point-to-point field in the middle of winter.
It is a more down to earth hobby than many other of the country’s richest people, but one that has still set him back millions.
That investment has paid off for O’Leary with remarkable success on the racecourse. It is success that has been enjoyed by many others who’ve followed his horses and a sport which has thrived in the reflected glory.
But now the countdown to O’Leary’s leaving has begun.