Of all the words used to describe Michael O’Leary, the irascible boss of Ireland’s Ryanair budget airline, one you don’t hear too often is “fast”. But by God he can be quick when he wants to be. Here at the Cheltenham races he is fairly pelting through the crowd to the owners’ and trainers’ enclosure, where one of the 50-odd racehorses he has acquired over the last decade, Mr Cracker, is getting ready for the first race of the day.
The pace is striking for a man of average build with a sedentary job a few days from his 50th birthday. It is as if he is being chased by a gang of livid Ryanair passengers, of which there rarely seems a shortage. In fact, only two people are puffing along behind him: an FT photographer and me. Eventually he stops to let us catch up. “You have to be quick,” he says semi-apologetically. “Otherwise every gobshite is stopping you to ask, ‘What tips have you got for us today?’”
At last we make it to the enclosure. No gobshites in here. Just a nervy throng of skittish horses, anxious trainers and watchful owners, chatting quietly as their jockeys head out on to one of Europe’s most famous racetracks.
Cheltenham is not like Royal Ascot. As O’Leary likes to say, the crowd here doesn’t quaff. It slugs. This is the mecca of national hunt or jump racing. And because it is dominated by Irish and British-trained horses, but set in the tweedy heart of England’s Cotswolds, there is a cheerful undertone of Anglo-Hibernian rivalry. Especially when an Irish horse wins, as one is doing now up on the huge video screen O’Leary is watching.
Unfortunately for him, it isn’t Mr Cracker. But it is Irish and today is St Patrick’s day, and a huge cheer erupts from outside the enclosure. “If you can’t enjoy this, you should never go racing,” says O’Leary, gazing happily at a crowd dotted with the occasional man dressed as a leprechaun in green and orange tights. “This is as good as it gets.”
The Irish are on a huge roll. Their horses won six out of seven races the day before. Two were from O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud, part of his estate near the town of Mullingar, an hour’s drive west of Dublin. Mullingar is central to his attachment to horse racing. The maroon and white that his jockeys wear come from the county football team. He grew up on a farm there and his parents still live close by.
The morning’s Racing Post reports that after one of O’Leary’s wins the previous day, he tearfully paid tribute to his father, Ted, who used to own racehorses himself but is now being treated for cancer. “I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t bred it into me,” O’Leary said. He looks more cheerful today as he explains how his father “had a couple of good horses over the years”, but none that made it to Cheltenham. O’Leary might not have either if it weren’t for his brother, Eddie, a quieter, bulkier version of Michael, bustling around nearby.
O’Leary says the two of them, along with their three sisters and brother, were all packed off to riding school at the age of four. O’Leary fell off on about day two and decided that was enough. “I was bright. I realised I could get hurt doing this, so I stopped straight away.” But Eddie was a “very good rider, did show jumping, all that kind of stuff”, and now manages the Gigginstown operation. “He runs the stud, buys all the horses, does all that,” says O’Leary. “I just write the cheques. We have an appropriate division of labour!”
O’Leary is worth millions thanks to his 3.7 per cent stake in Ryanair, which is just as well since one of his winners yesterday, First Lieutenant, cost €255,000, the most O’Leary says he has ever paid for a horse. It is barely a decade since O’Leary bought his first horse, Tuco, which won several races before getting killed in an Irish jumps race. “When he got killed we went out and bought another one that week to replace him,” O’Leary says matter-of-factly. The new horse was War of Attrition, which won the Cheltenham gold cup, the Wimbledon of jump racing, in 2006.
O’Leary once said that “War”, as the retired horse is now affectionately known, had given him the best days of his life, apart from the birth of his children. This got him into trouble at home, he says with a mock scowl. “My wife asked me, ‘What about our wedding day?’ I said, ‘No, that was a bloody nightmare.’ Wonderful result, just a pain in the arse of a day.”
O’Leary can sound sweeter when he talks about his horses. “They’re lovely animals,” he says. “They’re like humans: you can’t tell which one is going to be a winner from looking at them. Flat racing is much more driven by pedigree, whereas with jump racing, almost every top jumps horse isn’t related to anything.”
They also bring him to a world far from the 24-7 mayhem of running a budget airline. Outside, O’Leary may be the voluble boss of Ryanair, forever threatening to charge fat passengers extra when he isn’t trying to put coin locks on aircraft toilets. But here, he is the man. “Hello Michael!” people call. “Well done, Michael!” Everyone wants a chat. Trainers. Other owners. Racecourse bosses. Charlie McCreevy, Ireland’s former finance minister (now a Ryanair board member).
O’Leary doesn’t seem to be here to socialise, though: in the winner’s enclosure a bit later, we are standing a short half head away from Princess Anne and Zara Phillips. O’Leary doesn’t talk to either, not even when Princess Anne passes inches from his nose. “Isn’t that Princess Anne?” I ask. “Ah yes, she’s usually here,” he says nonchalantly. Finally, it is time for one of the day’s biggest races, the Ryanair Chase, which carries a generous prize of £260,000.
O’Leary insists he would sponsor Cheltenham even if he didn’t love racing. “We carry an awful lot of people over here every year for the races, it’s a very good association for us,” he says. But when Ryanair is a sponsor, you need to be ready for surprises. Last year, as O’Leary was collecting a trophy, a heckler yelled: “Charge him a quid for picking it up!” Another asked how much it would cost him in “excess baggage”. Today, during the Ryanair Chase, a man gets on to the track to protest against Ryanair’s treatment of its cabin crew. He is promptly carted away. Afterwards, O’Leary brushes it off. “If some idiot wants to try and make some publicity for himself, let him.”
And then it’s time for the next race. O’Leary is gone, tearing off to see his horse in action, leaving the rest of us to stand and watch his rapidly disappearing back.
Pilita Clark is the FT’s aerospace correspondent