Over the stable door: Ryanair boss takes flight from top Irish trainer

Jo Foster sorting out the tack at her stables at Menston near Leeds.
Jo Foster sorting out the tack at her stables at Menston near Leeds.
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It is being deemed a break up of Brangelina proportions in the racing world. Champion Irish racehorse trainer Willie Mullins has had 60 of his 200 horses in training removed by their owner, the Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary this week.

Mullins confirmed the split had been caused by a dispute over training fees, which he had increased for the first time in ten years. O’Leary, whose horses run in the familiar maroon and white colours under the Gigginstown Stud banner, is refusing to pay the increased rate.

A statement released by the Ryanair boss earlier this week stated: “As Gigginstown House Stud has been unable to reach agreement with Willie Mullins on an increase in training fees, we have agreed – with considerable regret – to move the Gigginstown horses to alternative trainers for the coming 2016/17 season.” The main beneficiary to the fall-out will be Gordon Elliott who has been sent 20 horses.

The softly-spoken Mullins is an unassuming man. He oozes understated dignity through every pore. He has a tremendous eye for detail and a memory to match. We met briefly 17 years ago in a boggy Galway Festival bar, me with my pals – merry and cornered by some rather friendly locals – he, with his sparkly eyes throwing his trilby on the bar, came to our rescue by pretending my friend was his daughter and he hoped we weren’t getting bothered by these fellows.

Our spontaneous pantomime performance was an ice breaker and even now he will still stop to say ‘hi’ across a crowded paddock. That is a gentleman. At school Mullins was always keen to follow in the family business and train racehorses. His mother Maureen remembers when he was six-years-old and had two ponies. “Every day he would ride them and he would tell you something about them the others wouldn’t. On his final day at college, he went to a place in Dublin where they told you what career you should follow. The man who saw William said he had never examined a student with so much attention to detail.”

Now, 45 years later, Mullins has been champion trainer in Ireland for the last nine seasons and 11 times in total. He won the 2015-16 title by securing close to 4.5 million euros in prize money, running 200 horses throughout the season. He has trained 48 Cheltenham festival winners since 1995.

In March 2015 he brought 60 horses across to Cheltenham from his Co Carlow yard – more than his father Paddy ever managed to have in training. He was nearly crowned the leading handler in Britain last season and was only denied by Paul Nicholls on the final day.

Somehow it may be there is more to the break of a partnership than meets the eye.

Mullins and his staff have waved goodbye to the Group One winners Don Poly, Apple Jade, Outlander and Valseur Lido this week. It has left his hopes of regaining the Irish Champion Trainer title for a 12th season significantly weakened. He still has plenty of group winning jumpers owned by Rich Ricci, former head of corporate and investment banking at Barclays and other big owners.

Maybe the outspoken O’Leary was none too happy at seeing other top class horses trained by Mullins beating his own time and again? It is unlikely Mullins will ever let on.