Donn's Articles » Michael O’Leary

Michael O’Leary

You can see Hangar 6 from Michael O’Leary’s office, a monstrous grey skyline-dominator that has left Cheltenham in the halfpenny place as a generator of column inches of late. The battle ended during the week, Ryanair waved the white flag on Hangar 6, and the 300 jobs that they would have created had they been allowed to buy or to lease it from the DAA will now apparently go elsewhere, probably to Spain or to Germany. The loss of the jobs has been generally perceived as another governmental own goal. Michael O’Leary may have lost the hangar, but there is little doubt who won the Public Relations war.

If PR was the Serengeti, Michael O’Leary would be the lion. Image is key, and O’Leary is a master projector. The Ryanair rhythm beats through every artery of the organisation: the low-fares airline, cheap flights, cheap hotels, cheap car-hire, from the creaky front doors at the company’s HQ, and the foyer that is more Moore Street than Wall Street, to the jeans and open-neck shirt that its supremo wears as a matter of course, all the way to the tea and the coffee that is served in disposable cups – and he wallows in it.

“No expense spared here!”

The racing interest is in evidence, but you have to look hard. Perched unobtrusively on the cabinet behind his desk, strategically positioned behind the family photograph, is a picture of War Of Attrition and Conor O’Dwyer jumping the last fence in the 2006 Cheltenham Gold Cup with Hedgehunter and Ruby Walsh in pursuit. That was some day.

“Died and gone to heaven,” he says meaningfully. “I was standing in the parade ring, just in front of Trevor Hemmings, who owned Hedgehunter, all the time watching War. He was going well, Conor was on the outside, took it up going down the hill, all of a sudden he was two or three lengths clear, he’s turning into the home straight, fuck it, he’s gone too early, Conor you’re gone too early, you’re gone too early! And then you’re trying not to start shouting and screaming like a big lunatic. Coming to the second last, he’ll fall, he’ll fall, no he’s over it okay, last fence, he’s going to fall. He’s over it. Going up the hill, oh Jesus he’s going to get caught on the line, then lo and behold he wins.”

Pauses, looks you straight in the eye, re-lives the moment.

“Now what do you do?”

Pauses again, but you know it’s rhetorical.

“You just go nuts. It’s amazing. It was a great day. Anita was there, everyone was there, it was just one of the great days. Actually, I probably should have stopped then. No matter what you do, it’s all downhill after that!”

As a youngster, horses passed Michael by. Growing up just outside Kanturk in County Cork, his father always had a couple of horses around, his uncles, were steeped in horses, but young Michael didn’t want to work with them, he didn’t want to ride them, he simply had no interest. He does remember watching the Grand National as a kid, and he remembers that, when Captain Christy won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1974, his dad won quite a lot of money, and they had a bit of a party, but there the relevance ends. It is the party he remembers, not the Gold Cup. Dawn Run’s Gold Cup in 1986 was the first time Cheltenham really resonated.

“I was an apprenticed accountant in KPMG at the time,” he recalls. “I was bunking off lunch, down in the bookies in Camden Street. She was the first Irish Gold Cup winner in my consciousness, she was the first Irish winner since Davy Lad I think.”

Strange the way life works out. Three Irish Gold Cup winners later, and it was O’Leary himself who was stepping up onto the podium to pick up the most coveted trophy in National Hunt racing.

“Once I had made a few pounds, I thought I’d love to have a good jump horse. I was 40, I played a lot of football, I played a lot of golf, then you decide, I’d like to do something else. Fine, we’ll get a good horse, but I only want a good one. I’m in a fantastic position in that, firstly I have the money to waste on it and not worry too much about it, and secondly, I have someone in my brother Eddie who actually has a fairly good eye for a horse, has a fair idea who the bullshitters are and who are the straight fellows, and so you do it sensibly, or at least as sensibly as you can. We’re sensible about standing in a shower and tearing up £50 notes.”

Tuco was the first horse that O’Leary owned, a highly talented Scenic gelding who was trained by David Wachman to win the Goffs Land Rover Bumper on his racecourse debut in 2001. He won his maiden hurdle the following season, won the Grade 3 Johnstown Hurdle, then fell at the third last in the Grade 2 Powers Gold Label Hurdle at Fairyhouse. Dead.

Michael probably should have got out of the game then, he reckons, he probably should have seen sense. Instead, he decided that, if something like this was going to happen again, the horse would not be the only one that he owned.

“It was a very bad way to start,” he says, “in that I had a really good horse. You should really start with a bad horse and learn. We bought five or six horses after that, and War was one of them.”

War Of Attrition goes in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham on Thursday. Trained by Mouse Morris, he has been something of a revelation since switching back to hurdles, winning his last two races, both Grade 2 contests. Nevertheless, it will be an arduous task for the now 11-year-old. O’Leary has decent chances of having a winner in the Cotswolds next week, particularly with Carlito Brigante in the Triumph Hurdle and Weapon’s Amnesty in the RSA Chase, but there is no doubting where his main focus lies.

“War is our most important runner,” he says. “I think he was very unfairly treated by the handicapper in the English National, I don’t have any time for Phil Smith and all the bloody excuses he comes out with every year. The Irish horses are getting penalised going over there, because for five or six years we had a very good record in the National. After Hear The Echo (who collapsed and died on the run-in) at Aintree last year, he was rated a stone higher than his Irish rating, I am never ever going back to Aintree with a horse that is weighted too highly again. It’s the John Smith’s Grand National, not the Phil Smith’s Grand National. It’s the same at Cheltenham, I don’t understand why Irish horses are going over there carrying 10lb or 12lb penalties. If you don’t want Irish horses in the handicaps, just say so.

“War looks transformed again over hurdles, he seems to really enjoy it, the way he jumped around Navan the last day, he was having a ball. I’ve got agreement from everybody, though, come May, come hell or high water, he’s retiring. We’ll run him in the World Hurdle, I would hope that he might run into a place, then we’ll run him at Punchestown, then retire him, hopefully in one piece.”

This is one War he would dearly love to win.

© The Sunday Times, 14th March 2010