The Irish Outsider : Ryanair’s O’Leary hits a spot of turbulence

O'Leary in happier times

O’Leary in happier times

The Irish Outsider – Wednesday, December 4th 2013

Controversy around Gigginstown House Stud’s unofficial reserve system, an approach of declaring multiple runners in big Irish races then withdrawing one or more depending on ground conditions on the day of the race, has been brewing for a while and it appears the issue has come to a head.

The first sign the authorities may have to take the issue seriously occurred at Cork on November 3rd when the withdrawal of Road To Riches was referred to the Turf Club by the racecourse stewards and stronger action was taken by the Fairyhouse stewards on November 21st when Devils Bride, a non-runner due to a change in ground, was suspended for two days and his trainer Willie Mullins was fined €200.

Unsurprisingly, Michael O’Leary’s response was swift and hard-hitting, saying that they’re not a crowd of “spivs running around organising betting coups. We don’t punt our horses…We’ve broken no rules…if we don’t get it overturned at the Turf Club we’ll go to the High Court”. Strictly speaking, there was nothing incorrect in his statement but that doesn’t necessarily make it right.

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It is a truism to say that Gigginstown is good for Irish racing. One has to respect how they bring horses along from the very start of their careers, often beginning at the grassroots of point-to-points, instead of buying over ones that have already done it on the track like JP McManus or Barry Connell.

The employment they provide in racing yards throughout the country is immense; in the 2012/13 national hunt season, they had runners with fifteen different trainers. Having a finger is so many stables, many of them powerhouses like Willie Mullins, Dessie Hughes and Tony Martin, obviously opens up the possibility of chicanery and strokes but, as the owner says, they don’t plot horses up and they run their charges straight; while Gigginstown runners may be backed on occasion it tends to be form punters’ money rather than support from connections.

There is a sense then that Gigginstown keep the Irish show on the road but does this entitle them to bend the rules to suit their own ends? Not for me. Humans are hardwired for this sort of moral mediocrity, a cognitive bias sometimes called moral licensing, where we feel doing something good entitles us to do something bad, a balancing of the scales if you will.

At a basic level, it could be something as simple as eating a slice of cake after going to the gym or taken to its extreme, someone like Lance Armstrong believing he was entitled to dope given all he did for cancer research. It is this sense of entitlement that O’Leary is displaying here.

When participating in a sport, it is only fair that one should abide by the rules, in spirit as well as letter. We all know sports where authorities are not respected and how detrimental this can be. A problem arises however when one does not respect the rule-makers (and I can tell you, I don’t with Irish racing’s leaders) and someone feels they are bigger than the game. O’Leary could likely buy and sell Irish racing but that doesn’t make his bully boy tactics right and threats of a High Court action – a warning that will likely strike fear into the Turf Club given their poor track record in such cases – reek of ‘I’m going home and I’m taking my ball with me.’

It is times like this when I wonder if Major League Baseball don’t have it right in having anti-trust laws in place which place them beyond the reach of such cases; this is a sport after all and the courts have better things to be at than concerning themselves with minutiae of racing’s inner workings. And anyway, isn’t it often the side with the best solicitors that win these cases? If so, there is only going to be one outcome.

It should be pointed out that this is hardly the greatest issue facing Irish racing at present; there are much more pressing concerns such as altering perceptions of integrity in the game, the average punter still carrying the belief that it’s all bent. The Turf Club may be able to post the results of inquiries on their website within fifteen minutes of them happening but are still unable to ask the right questions.

What the Gigginstown problem represents however is much more important. Irish racing has a long history of placating the big boys but appeasement never really works in the long run and it is to the benefit of all that the game is run in a transparent and fair manner with the same rules applying to everyone. This is an interesting test case when the Turf Club gets a chance to work in punters’ interests as it is they, more than anyone, who are suited by knowing what will run in a given race.

That said, the concerns of punters, despite all they contribute to the sport, both directly and indirectly, have never been at forefront of the Turf Club’s mind.

Realistically, I can only see one outcome for this case: O’Leary, by hook or by crook, will get his way. By challenging the Ryanair chief, the Turf Club will only make him more entrenched in his views; here is a businessman who has taken on governments without flinching so a board of racing types is unlikely to faze him.

That the letter of the law is in his favour shouldn’t matter though, as he needs to look at the broader health of the sport, regardless of how much respect or otherwise he has for the authorities, rather than focus on what he feels he is entitled to.

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