What the Mullins/Gigginstown split means for National Hunt racing
The National Hunt racing world was stunned on Wednesday morning by the news that Champion Owner Gigginstown House Stud are removing 60 horses of their horses from the care of Champion Trainer Willie Mullins.
It represents the highest-profile owner-trainer split in many years in Irish racing and has the potential to fundamentally alter the entire balance of the National Hunt racing world.
The reason given for the split by Willie Mullins is that his decision to raise his training fees, reportedly for the first time in 10 years, did not go down well with Gigginstown and this was why they had decided to take their horses away from him.
It will seem remarkable to many that such a powerful and successful partnership could come to an end based on something as seemingly innocuous as a rise in training fees, but this isn’t the first time that Willie Mullins and Gigginstown House have allegedly had issues with regard to training fees.
It has been a persistent rumour in Irish racing circles that Gigginstown essentially name their own fixed price that they are willing to pay all of their trainers to train their horses. The vast majority of trainers are willing to play ball with this out-of-the-ordinary policy, such is the quality of horse that Gigginstown send in their direction.
However, it is worth noting that it wasn’t until the 2010/11 season that Gigginstown, who at that stage had grown to an operation with over 100 horses in training with over 20 trainers and had secured their first Champion Owner title the previous season, sent a horse to the Champion Trainer Willie Mullins.
Industry chatter suggested that the reason why they had not combined to that point was that Mullins had been unwilling to train horses for the amount Gigginstown were willing to pay him.
Whether it was Mullins or Gigginstown that blinked first in this regard is not a matter of public record, but from numerically small beginnings with Sir Des Champs, Samain and Lovethehigherlaw that season, the Mullins/Gigginstown relationship has grown season-on-season ever since to the point where the team combined for 50 winners in the last campaign.
So, what will this seismic split mean for National Hunt racing?
The immediate reaction of many racing enthusiasts on social media was that while it was sad to see such a successful relationship come to an end, the removal of the Gigginstown talent from Mullins’s hands could well serve to increase competitiveness in a National Hunt scene that some perceive as being dominated by Mullins to an unhealthy degree.
One thing for sure is that while losing 60 such high-quality horses would be a hammer blow to any other National Hunt trainer in the game, such is the strength and depth of his team of owners and horses, Willie Mullins is better equipped than anyone to absorb such a blow and still come out on top.
To quantify the size of the blow that Mullins will be taking, the statistics reveal that Gigginstown-owned horses provided approximately 25% of the winners and prize money secured by Mullins-trained horses in Ireland and just under 15% of the prize money that Mullins-trained horses earned in Great Britain during the 2015/16 season.
However, while it is a blow that Mullins is well equipped to take, it is one that could be a game changer in Ireland depending on where the horses are sent. In statistical terms, Mullins was in his most dominant position in Irish National Hunt racing during the 2012/13 and 2013/14 seasons. At the end of the latter campaign, he had secured greater prize money and winner totals than his three closest pursuers combined, with his powerhouse owners Rich Ricci, Gigginstown House and Graham Wylie supplying only just over half the winners he saddled.
While Mullins’s performance has continued to steadily increase in the seasons that followed, particularly in terms of the success he has had in Great Britain, what has happened in the bigger picture of the Irish National Hunt training ranks is that Gordon Elliott has very much picked up the chase of Mullins.
Having saddled 56 winners in Ireland in the aforementioned 2013/14 campaign, Elliott sent out 123 winners last season, securing more than double the number of winners and prize money of the third-placed trainer Henry de Bromhead.
Given that Elliott has a long-standing relationship with Gigginstown and indeed has had the most Gigginstown horses of any trainer for a number of years now, it is no surprise that he will be the main beneficiary of this news.
Elliott will reportedly receive at least 20 of the 60 horses in question including the Grade 1 winners Don Poli, Apple’s Jade and Blow By Blow. Such a significant boost to Elliott’s firepower at the direct expense of Mullins has the potential to draw them significantly closer together in the race for Champion National Hunt Trainer in Ireland.
Indeed, while Elliott will get the pick of rather than all of the Gigginstown horses from Mullins, it is very interesting indeed to note that if one was to transfer all of the wins and prize money accumulated by Gigginstown-owned horses for Mullins in Ireland in 2015/16 over to Elliott during that campaign, Elliott would have been crowned Champion Trainer with 32 winners and over €300,000 more than Mullins.
While such comparisons are obviously not as black and white as that, it illustrates how much of a game changer this news has the potential to be in Ireland.
Time will disclose whether this huge news represents a watershed moment in the National Hunt landscape or whether it is just a bump in the road for the Willie Mullins juggernaut that will continue to rule the scene as he has for many years now.
However, while Mullins focused an unusual amount of attention on the British trainer’s championship at the backend of last season, he might just have an even tougher battle on his hands on the domestic front in 2016/17.
One thing for certain is that as interesting as it already was, Irish National Hunt racing just got much more interesting.Follow @kevinblake2011