Another day, another dataset. Well, you've got to do something to pass the time, haven't you? I was thinking about how the National Hunt season 2019/20 ended so abruptly and how unsatisfactory it was; and then I began to think how unsatisfactory the whole Trainers' Championship is, to this scribe at least. Without for a second wishing to discredit the excellent Nicky Henderson, or his closest pursuer, Paul Nicholls, the barometer of success in this championship immediately discriminates against more than 99.72% of trainers (two with a chance, 716 others last season with varying degrees of no chance).
It is perfectly reasonable to assume that huge swathes of the majority have no desire to become Champion Trainer, but it is also fair to suggest there are scores of better than capable handlers who will never get the chance at the top table because of the self-perpetuating nature of its ranking system. A focus on volume and prize money rewards those with large yards full of expensive purchases; and how do you get such a cup which runneth over? By being atop the trainers' table.
Of course, everyone started somewhere and (most of) the names at the peak of the pile earned their place. Others further down the current list will one day join them and someone will wrest the crown from the districts of Seven Barrows and Ditcheat one of these days - for the first time since 2004/5. That season saw the last of Martin Pipe's 15 titles, interspersed mid-flow by a brace for 'the Duke', David Nicholson, and preceded by a further brace for... Nicky Henderson (and a single for David Elsworth thanks almost exclusively to Desert Orchid's heroics). So it is that, since 1985, only five trainers have been Champion. Proprietary stuff.
Back to the start and, as I was saying, I got to thinking about "who is the best?", a question where the 'who' varies depending on the definition of 'best'.
The formal understanding is the one with the most prize money accrued. Although that is on one hand somewhat crass, on the other it does seem to allow the cream to rise to the top - certainly in terms of quality and quantity. Both quality and quantity, however, are self-perpetuating functions of seniority: earned or otherwise, the answer is generally pretty much the same from year to year to year, which tells us little about the aspirants or the quietly very effective.
So I had an itch and I scratched it with a dataset. Not literally, of course.
Here's what I did next...
Because I wanted the findings to be vaguely meaningful, notwithstanding that they would be subject to conjecture, I looked only at trainers who sent out 100 or more runners in the 2019/20 UK NH season. From 718 to saddle at least one, that left a more workable number of 73.
And because I wanted, without ignoring the scale and class aspects, to partially normalise their overwhelming effect, I came up with some other (readily available) ranking factors. The factors I landed on appertained to betting and owner utility as well as the numbers game which completely besieges many trainers' thoughts from May to April each year.
For scale, I used runs, wins and places.
For owner utility - beyond the above - I selected earnings per run, winners to runners, win percentage and place percentage.
And for punter utility, I opted for starting price profit/loss.
There would be strong cases for a raft of other variables as well as, or in place of, those chosen; but this is my theoretical exercise and I hope the ones to have made the cut are at least reasonable.
So, against these eight measures, who is the champion trainer? Patience is a virtue. Let us first consider the best in each category.
Champion Scale Trainer
There is, for any conditioner of pedigree, a correlation between the number of runs and the number of wins/places: more runs will bring more wins and places. Simples.
Dan Skelton has a peerless propensity for volume. Last season he saddled over 250 more runners than the next on the list, Donald McCain. McCain's own scale speaks, well, volumes about his Lazarus-like comeback from the sudden loss of his major owners, Paul and Clare Rooney, less than five years ago. That split allegedly involved at least 60 horses, 52 of which had run in the previous season; so credit to McCain for rebuilding so rapidly.
Always keeping close tabs on each other, in third and fourth, are the titans Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls, with Messrs. Jonjo O'Neill, Evan Williams and Nigel Twiston-Davies rounding out the least secret seven in the sport.
The final trio in the top ten, and the only other three to send out more than 400 runners in the 2019/20 season, were Philip Hobbs, himself resurgent after a season in the doldrums two back; Colin Tizzard, and Neil Mulholland.
They've got the quantity, but how many winners came their way?
Unlike the Trainers' Championship, decided by prize money won, the Jockeys' Championship uses this metric: number of winners. If trainers were calibrated on the same gauge, would the winner still have been Nicky Henderson? Yes! And no...
Tied at the summit are the actual Champion Trainer, Henderson, and the Most Runners award winner, Dan Skelton. It seems quite fitting that there should be a confluence of quality and quantity between this pair that brings them together with the exact same number of victories - 118 - across the season.
No other trainer managed three figures, though of course the truncation of term almost certainly denied that noted fast finisher, Paul Nicholls, who might yet have inflicted some squeaky bum time on his nemesis through potent late salvos at Ayr and Sandown.
No Duckworth-Lewis here, result stands, weighed in.
Familiar names all completing the top ten, and some performances worthy of mention. Philip Hobbs' return to form was expected, perhaps, but the re-emergence of fellow Somerset resident David Pipe was probably less predictable. From 116 winners in 2014/15, Pipe contracted to 80 then 59 then 33 in the following three seasons. 44 was an improvement last term and, from a handful less runners this campaign, the most famous resident of Wellington boot-ed home 66 winners, an uplift of 50%.
Pipe was joined in the swinging 60's by Olly Murphy and Fergal O'Brien as well as the already mentioned McCain, Tizzard and O'Neill. Dr Richard Newland, much of whose work is conducted in the summer months, has a tough gig to replicate last season's sixty winners given jump racing is not mooted to return until at least July 1st. Others - indeed most - will be affected by that, too, though few target the summer programme as effectively as the Doctor.
Most Placed Horses (including winners)
The same top four as the most winners chart, but Fergal O'Brien gets a second name check, jumping into the top five for number of placed horses.
Given he was only 16th in terms of number of runners saddled, both his win and place counts are commendable.
And the Champion Scale Trainer is...
Congratulations go to Mister Big, Dan Skelton.
Top for number of runners, joint-top for number of winners, and top for number of placed runners makes Dan the runaway winner of this category.
Skelton was flanked on the podium by Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls, his former boss, who this time settled for silver and bronze respectively.
There were no major surprises lower down the scale top ten with the probable exception of David Pipe. After some regressive and lean years, it's great to see Nicholashayne back on the map.
Champion Owner Utility Trainer
The first category is arguably a touch superficial in some regards, so well done if you've made it this far! In my opinion, things are about to get a lot more interesting, even if that may only be relative...
There are four sub-categories that together will earn one trainer the gong for owner utility, a considerably more meaningful stripe upon any handler's shoulder. To remind you, the quartet are earnings per run, winners to runners, win percentage and place percentage.
Highest Earnings Per Run
Had I used earnings, as well as number of runs, wins and places, the overall table would have looked quite similar to the actual Champion Trainer table: that would have been self-defeating. But, by the same token, it is appropriate to consider earnings, in context.
So I took the seasonal prize money totals of our trainers and divided them by their respective number of runners. A great leveller.
As can be seen, that puts a whole different spin on proceedings. That scourge of the British Cheltenham Festival trainer ranks, Gordon Elliott, heads the list, and by daylight, too.
Elliott's Cotswold squad snaffled seven winners through the season, which was four fewer than his northern raiders purloined: always a happy hunting ground, Perth provided aplenty, accounting for 11 of Cullentra Stables' 28 UK 2019/20 wins.
Then follow NJH and PFN, at a respectful distance, as was often the case in mid-March (seems a very long time ago now).
But emerging from the long grass are some lesser lights able to compete better than equally with most on this more even sward.
Anthony Honeyball, whose yard is sponsored by geegeez.co.uk; Brian Ellison, another renaissance man this season; and Harry Whittington, propelled into the top eight thanks to the likes of Festival winner Simply The Betts and, in the same Brooks family ownership, Rouge Vif and Saint Calvados, all provided plenty of bang for their owners' bucks.
In the cases of Ellison and Honeyball, it is likely that initial purchase prices were significantly lower than the top three as well as Harry W. Further credit then is due.
Winners to Runners
If you're an owner, what do you crave more than anything else? To see your horse win. Ideally a big pot but, once reality kicks in, any pot will do. So who managed to make connections smile on the most regular basis?
Given that all of the trainers in the list sent out at least 100 runners, this is a representative table of those whose focus may be said to be on quality - at least race-winning quality somewhere on the ability spectrum - over quantity. It is also a nod to a handler's ability to place horses in the right races. To appear in this top ten anywhere is a huge credit.
For example, the likes of Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson can be marked up for their four-in-nine winners to runners ratios given the previously flagged scale of their operations. Dan Skelton, by comparison, comes in at number 21 with a slightly better than one-in-three winners to runners rate. That's respectable, especially given he saddled 212 individual horses last season; but it's not at the level of these guys on this measure.
Four trainers managed to win with more than half of all the horses they sent to the races, headed by Anthony Honeyball whose owners cheered their horses to victory at least once during the season slightly more often than four-in-seven. What makes this performance even more creditable is that Honeyball had a dismal campaign in 2018/19, when the yard was blighted by a stubborn virus for most of the year.
A close second was the revitalised Brian Ellison. What is remarkable about Ellison's season is not the number of winners - he recorded the same 34 total two seasons ago, and prior to that was in the high forties for two further seasons; no, it is the strikingly fewer runners which he sent out. It's a stark illustration, perhaps, of how fashion changes but consider that Ellison's 34 NH winners in the 2017/18 campaign came from 249 runs and 65 different horses whereas he matched the winner tally from just 117 runs and just 37 individual horses this time around.
Borders trainer Sandy Thomson and Grand National-winning summer specialist Dr Richard Newland keep their connections contented at a better that one-in-two rate, too.
All of the other handlers in the list - David Pipe, Chris Gordon, Fergal O'Brien and Olly Murphy - deserve mention for their excellent performance on this important measure of utility.
There is, perhaps unsurprisingly though statistically not necessarily, a strong link between the winners to runners key players and those with the highest win percentage based on wins to runs. To be clear, whereas winners to runners measures how many individual horses won during the season, win percentage is simply the number of all wins divided by the number of all runs.
The top pair, clear of their field, were again Brian Ellison and Anthony Honeyball, though in the reverse order this time. Both won at about 29% during the season, both recorded Impact Value scores around 2.5 (implying they won almost two-and-a-half times as often as the average in the training ranks).
Henderson's one-in-four win rate, on quadruple the number of runners as the top two, is also very impressive. No other National Hunt trainer of more than a hundred runners last term managed an IV of greater than 2, Jamie Snowdon's next best being 1.89.
To put those win strike rates into perspective, the average for all trainers last season was 11.79%.
If your horse cannot win a race, what is the next best thing? It is probably being placed.
There should be a link between win percentage and place percentage, though the latter often 'smooths the curve' on the basis that more horses make the frame than win and, therefore, the sample size is bigger.
There are new names in this top ten, though not the main man. He is Anthony Honeyball, whose consistency in the Owner Utility category cannot be overstated. Honeyball's Potwell Farm team made the frame more than half the time last season, the only trainer in the country to achieve that from greater than 100 runners.
Gordon Elliott's selective sailers came in next best (consider that Elliott ran 292 individual horses in Ireland last season, 80 more than did Dan Skelton in the UK, and you'll start to get a feel for the squad from which he can cherry-pick his raiding party) at just shy of 50%, with Fergal O'Brien a close third.
Brian Ellison, top for win strike rate, drops to fifth here, while Seven Barrows and Ditcheat, as well as Olly Murphy's Warren Chase Stables, are all again represented in the top eight.
New names to feature here, suggesting they may have been a touch unfortunate not to win a couple more last term, are Kim Bailey and Alex Hales.
And the Champion Owner Utility Trainer is...
Huge congratulations to Anthony Honeyball, whose average position of second, including two top rankings, across four sub-categories marks him down as a worthy winner of the Champion Owner Utility Trainer section.
To win with well over half of all horses, to make the frame with more than half of all runners, to win with two-in-seven of all runners, and to maintain sufficient quality whilst doing it to record the fourth-highest earnings per run is outstanding. Honeyball is clearly the boutique trainer in the country and it is not coincidence that geegeez.co.uk both sponsors the yard and syndicates horses within it.
Nicky Henderson again must settle for minor honours, third place this time behind the resurgent Brian Ellison in second. Paul Nicholls further demonstrates his consistency in fourth, though he might have snatched bronze had he been afforded the chance to reprise the late flourish of recent seasons in the final weeks of term.
Dr Newland, Fergal O'Brien, David Pipe, Olly Murphy (the only other trainer with whom geegeez.co.uk syndicates jumpers), Philip Hobbs and the hitherto unmentioned Nicky Richards complete the top ten. All performed impressively for their owners during the 2019/20 campaign.
Champion Bettor Utility Trainer
Just one category here, starting price profit/loss (SP P/L). For this pilot ranking piece, that will suffice as representative of punter utility, but it will likely be supplanted in future by something like exchange A/E, a more predictive metric performed on a truer market. That's for next time.
Profit/Loss at Starting Price
Isn't it funny how the minute one puts a bettors' slant on things the picture changes almost completely? Funny yes, but it also makes perfect sense. Those at the head of the official Champion Trainer table will almost always be the best known of their peer group, most of them relative household names to even casual bettors. That's precisely why they won't generally appear in this list: they are over-exposed from a betting perspective, though all will saddle great value bets in certain situations. That's for another day!
Brian Ellison's preeminence in this collective is a nod to his struggles in recent seasons. This is a guy who has achieved a Grade 1 and eight Grade 2 victories under National Hunt rules, all bar one of those since 2015. And yet his overall regression in recent times, highlighted above, has led to some juicy priced winners - and a +56.03 level stakes profit - as a result of a consistent run of form insufficiently accommodated by the market.
Last season's exchange Actual over Expected (Ex A/E) of 1.55 is likely not sustainable - and is a sore thumb when compared to his five season Ex A/E of 1.04. The latter figure remains solid enough, and it is to be hoped that 2019/20 was a turning point for a likeable man who is, clearly, a very, very good trainer.
In second place is Rebecca Menzies, like Ellison a dual-purpose trainer. +29.75 to level stakes will have been highly pleasing for yard devotees and, unlike the leader in this season, she also broke even last season. Ms Menzies has a two-year Ex A/E of 1.31.
The bronze position goes to Ben Pauling, which is remarkable when one considers that his team were badly out of form for a chunk of the campaign. Pauling is an under-rated trainer in my opinion, and he has some very promising horses for next term. With a clean bill of health, he should begin to challenge some of the more mainstream top tens.
Excellent punter performances, too, in the latter half of the top dozen from rankings regulars Honeyball, O'Brien and Pipe, who all remained in the black to level stakes at starting price.
Thus the Champion Bettor Utility Trainer is Brian Ellison. Ellison has had a brilliant season and this category award is fitting recognition of that.
Overall Top Ranked NH Trainer 2019/20
We've seen which handlers have performed best in terms of scale, and owner and punter value. Those are the constituent components that inform the overall rankings. There is no weighting, no magic algorithm to contrive an outcome. Arguments, perfectly credible ones at that, can be proffered about the validity of the chosen variables: isn't that the fundamental point - to be arguable - of a ranking or rating system? And, with those caveats in place, it is time to reveal the 2019/20 Geegeez Champion National Hunt Trainer.
The winner is...
The master of Seven Barrows is the official Champion Trainer for the season just passed, and he is top ranked in the Geegeez list also. Having set out to create a level playing field for anyone who saddled 100+ runners in the campaign, I'm not entirely sure whether to laugh or cry at the fact that the final answer is the same as the deeply unsatisfactory - to me at least - method of awarding Champion Trainer honours.
Henderson can be a touch divisive, often projecting an aura of bumbling naivety in stark contrast to his long-term elite level performance. But that performance, matching quantity with quality, is just about peerless whichever way you dissect it. A level stakes profit at exchange prices in the last two seasons is the cherry on top of Henderson's impressively accomplished cake.
In second and third are Fergal O'Brien and David Pipe, the former consistently climbing the ranks, the latter back in the big time. Both had excellent campaigns by a number of measures and are applauded.
O'Brien went from a 12% to a 19.4% win rate, bettering his previous best of 18.35% in the 2016/17 season. He also recorded his best ever number of winners. Pipe has been mentioned numerous times in the above despatches, and rewarded numerous loyal and big-spending owners in 2019/20. He has some exciting novices to look forward to next term as well as his usual batch of interesting handicappers.
Very close to them - note in the full table below the left-hand average score column from which the rankings are produced - in fourth and fifth are Paul Nicholls and Dr Richard Newland. I suspect Nicholls' win percentage and earnings per run may have improved enough in a full season to bag third but that, as we know, is not how the cookie crumbled.
Given the loss of at least a sizeable chunk of the summer jumping this year due to the coronavirus hiatus and a focus on flat racing when the sport returns, it might be expected that while Nicholls could elevate to the podium, Dr N will do very well to hang on to his excellent top five finish.
In joint-sixth place are Anthony Honeyball and Nigel Twiston-Davies. Honeyball should have more horses/owners, his finishing position testament to the brilliant job he, Rachael and the team do with the small but select group in their care. Naturally, that would bring the challenge of maintaining performance levels on greater volume, but if there is a trainer in the top ten deserving of such a challenge it is him.
Twiston-Davies, meanwhile, had the lowest win and place strike rates of the top ten in spite of achieving his own best win rate since the 2007/8 season. A winners to runners ratio of 40% is perfectly respectable except when placed next to Honeyball's season-leading 57.5%. The latter, clear top in the Owner Utility section, has some very exciting novice hurdlers and chasers to work with next term, including two mares for geegeez.co.uk syndicates, one of which is already a Listed bumper winner.
In eighth place is Olly Murphy. Incredibly, Murphy is in just his third season training, and he's managed to marginally improve his win strike rate from season to season while scaling up in parallel. Overall runner numbers were down a touch this term, obviously due in large part to the lost six weeks caused by Covid-19, but this was a breakthrough cycle for the Wizard of Wilmcote as he recorded his first Grade 1 success with Itchy Feet in the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase. The Cheltenham Festival was frustrating but Olly has an exciting team of youngsters for next season and he looks very likely to continue his ascendance when jumping resumes.
It will be fascinating to see if Brian Ellison, in ninth, can sustain his effort into the new season. He has bundles of back class but recent struggles and a group of horses that may be handicapped towards the upper end of their ability means he'll probably need to acquire new stock to stay competitive in the rankings. I hope he does.
The likes of Philip Hobbs, Dan Skelton and Nicky Richards are all bubbling under, though Colin Tizzard's 15th place can be considered an underachievement. So too, to a lesser extent, can the rankings of Jonjo O'Neill and Donald McCain: given the firepower they have, earnings per run of around £1,250 are disappointing.
The full table is below so you can look for your favourites and see how they fared. Click the images (two halves) to enlarge them.
I'd very much welcome any comments and suggestions, on the process rather than the results - data are data, after all.