Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake discusses last week’s huge news for Irish racing with Gigginstown House Stud announcing they will be winding down their operation.

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WHAT THE GIGGINSTOWN EXIT MEANS FOR IRISH NATIONAL HUNT RACING

Last week the world of National Hunt racing was stunned by Michael O’Leary’s announcement that his Gigginstown House Stud was to begin winding down its racing operation.

He revealed that he won’t be buying any new horses with immediate effect and would gradually be getting out of racing over the course of the next five years. He cited wanting to spend more time with his family and having achieved all he set out to achieve in racing as being the main reasons for taking this decision.

Considering Gigginstown House Stud has been crowned Champion National Hunt Owner in Ireland seven times, has had their silks carried to Grade 1 success on 91 occasions since entering the sport less than 20 years ago and currently has approximately 300 horses in training, it is difficult to recall a case of a more successful operation declaring their intention to exit the sport whilst at the peak of their powers.

Some have attempted to put a positive spin on the news, but that is all it is, spin. There is no question whatsoever that this news is a net negative for National Hunt racing, particularly so in Ireland. The question is how much of a negative it will prove to be for the industry, the sport and the individuals directly and indirectly impacted by it.

The sector of the industry that will be the first to test the effects of this news will be the store horse sales in the coming weeks. Gigginstown have been the leading player at these sales for many years and their decision not to participate in them going forward will have an immediate impact.

Of course, there will always be buyers there for the class of horse that Gigginstown tended to buy in this market, but who are they and how strong will they be? Removing a buyer that spends in the region of €5m every year in what isn’t a huge market can only have a negative impact.

The bloodstock market is renowned for its pessimism and resilience, but the suggestion that Gigginstown’s exit will bring about a sudden surge in the numbers of owners seeking to buy store horses at the higher level of the market now that the biggest player has stepped out of the ring seems fanciful indeed.

It is also worth bearing in mind that many of the stronger buyers of store horses are not end users, they are point-to-point traders that buy in the hope of later selling them to the likes of Gigginstown. With one of the biggest players in the game now out of the market for point-to-pointers too, those traders are unlikely to be as strong in their bidding at the store sales.

If the results at the store sales are down, that hits the pinhookers in the pocket, who in turn will have less money to reinvest at the foal sales. That in turn hits the pocket of the National Hunt breeders who will not be as flush to reinvest in mares and nomination fees. This whole industry is connected and when one of the biggest end users in the game exits the market, the negative impact inevitably trickles right down to the grassroots of the industry.

Samcro wins for the O'Leary brothers
Michael and Eddie O'Leary hold hands celebrating Samcro's 2018 Cheltenham Festival win

Away from the wider financial implications of this news, it is likely to have a major impact on the Irish National Hunt landscape in particular. For one, while Gigginstown was unflinchingly loyal in its support of Irish racing, those that buy the horses they otherwise would have bought are far from certain to be as supportive of racing in Ireland.

The net result is all but certain to be that more of the best store horses sold in Ireland will go on to be trained in Britain. The impact of this is likely to take a couple of years to be felt, but will inevitably have an impact on the balance of power between Britain and Ireland in National Hunt racing.

Gigginstown have been one of the primary drivers of what has been a golden era for Irish National Hunt racing and there is every chance that history will look back on their exit from the game as being the turning point in that era.

The man that will be hit hardest by this news is unquestionably Gordon Elliott. His rise up the training ranks has been driven by relentless ambition, but has been helped along in no uncertain terms by the substantial support of Gigginstown.

When Gigginstown split with Willie Mullins in September 2016, Elliott was the main benefactor and his dependence on them has only grown since then. Indeed, Elliott had 320 individual runners under National Hunt rules in Ireland last season and 106 of them were owned by Gigginstown. He is even more reliant on them in terms of his best horses, with O’Leary owning 13 of his 20 highest-earning horses in Ireland.

While it would be ill-advised to doubt Elliott on any front given what he has achieved in his career, the task of replacing such a big percentage of the quantity and particularly the quality of horses that Gigginstown brought to the table will be a very big ask.

Willie Mullins showed that it could be done when very quickly recovering from the immediate loss of all 60 horses they trained for Gigginstown in September 2016 and Elliott will have the benefit of a gradual weaning from Gigginstown which Mullins didn’t have. However, it will be very difficult for him and the news represents a hammer blow to his ambitions to overtake Willie Mullins in the years ahead.

A thought must also be spared for Noel Meade and Henry De Bromhead for whom Gigginstown-owned horses made up 35% and 32% of their individual runners under National Hunt rules in Ireland last season. Horses carrying the maroon silks made up similar percentages of both their top 20 earners last season, too.

Beyond the financial and competitive ramifications of Gigginstown’s gradual exit from the sport, Michael O’Leary will be greatly missed as a personality. Not everyone likes his ways and plenty have taken his tongue-in-cheek comments far too seriously over the years, but he is one of the very few owners in the game that made for a really entertaining interview every time a microphone was put in front of him.

It may well be true that big owners come and go in racing, but owners that make such a substantial investment in Irish National Hunt racing and are truly interesting characters that are willing to play to the gallery as Michael O’Leary does are very rare indeed.

The sport will be an awful lot poorer for his absence and he will be greatly missed as a participant, but at least we can look forward to a few more years of their participation before bidding them farewell.

One can only hope for the sake of Irish National Hunt racing that he reconsiders his decision in the years ahead.

IRISH RACING IMPROVES RESERVE SYSTEM

Back in January, the shortcomings of the reserve system in Irish racing were discussed in detail in this space. The IHRB had initiated a consultation process on the subject back in September and nothing else had been heard about it since then, but recent months have seen a couple of quiet changes being made to the system.
 
Last month, the final deadline for when reserves can get into a race was brought forward to 11am on the day of the race for all racing from February 1st to October 31st and for all floodlit racing at Dundalk and to 10am on the day of the race from November 1st to January 31st. This means that the field will be finalised at those times regardless of any late non-runners that are declared after those times. This serves to reduce the uncertainty that the reserve system can bring about due to late changes being made to the fields.
 
Another change that the IHRB made at that time was that it is no longer permitted for a rider declared on a runner to be switched to a reserve that gets a run, barring their original mount is a non-runner. This means that a situation such as that which played out in last year’s Galway Plate where Ruby Walsh jumped off his original mount and onto the favourite Patrick’s Park after he got into the race as a reserve at the last minute can no longer happen.
 
Tomorrow’s meeting at Sligo will see the latest change implemented for the first time, with it being the first meeting where all reserves will be given a draw number at the time of declarations. This will remove the uncertainty and confusion of the old system whereby the stall which a reserve started from could change a number of times during the course of a day due to additional non-runners in the race.
 
While one can still debate whether the reserve system is necessary in the first place, these changes make the current reserve system less open to manipulation and more palatable to the betting public. If there was to be one suggestion for how it could be improved again, they should consider bringing the deadline forward to 10am for all races to reduce the possibility of confusion on what time applies when, but on the whole the IHRB are to be commended for making positive change on this issue.

Kevin Blake
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