Grading the Trainers – Flat Season 2016
Readers who’ve come across previous editions of this piece will know the story by now as I evaluate the seasons of the top trainers, writes Tony Keenan. A quick reminder on some of the criteria: achievements are relative, big races matter more than bad ones, data is important. All numbers included cover the Irish flat turf season (though races outside the jurisdiction are covered too) and should be correct up to last Friday; any errors are mine alone. Let’s begin with the top ten (well, eleven) trainers by number of winners trained. The last column of the table is an interesting figure I found on Irishracing.com and is an individual winner/runner ratio; it gives the percentage of horses that the trainer ran in the year that won at least one race which seems a sensible baseline as a measure of keeping owners happy.
Irish Trainers Championship 2016
Aidan O’Brien – Grade A+ (2015 Grade: B)
The drive for twenty-five, Bobby Frankel’s record of Group 1 wins in a year, has dominated recent conversation about Aidan O’Brien’s season and it remains in play with the Breeders’ Cup and the big Asian races still to come. That such a tally is even possible rates this a season for the ages but perhaps the most notable achievement in 2016 has been O’Brien’s ability to re-invent his training methods; there was a time when the trainer would have balked at running a filly against colts in Group 1 class, much less keeping a four-year-old filly in training specifically for that purpose.
But adapting and changing is something O’Brien has always done well and having spotted that he lacked a top-class middle-distance colt he decided to slot Found and the three-year-old Minding into that role with plenty of success. O’Brien still tends towards ‘sales talk’ even when speaking of fillies, laughably describing Found as ‘the most genuine horse I’ve ever seen’, but when you cut through the bullshit you have to acknowledge his greatness. Without wishing to take away from Found’s win and O’Brien’s 1-2-3 in the Arc, it was a weak renewal, and whereas all she seems to do is finish second while all Minding does is win, regardless of trip or ground. It would be no surprise to see Minding prove herself better than Almanzor in 2017 as that Irish Champion Stakes looks tarnished by track bias.
There have been other success stories with Alice Springs proving the surprise O’Brien improver: she went from plateauing Group 2 type to three-time Group 1 winner. Nor is there any shortage of promise for next season with Churchill and friends too many to name portending more Group 1 success, not to mention another super-strong crop of fillies. Caravaggio, the star of the early juvenile campaign, seems almost forgotten at this point which is scarcely believable.
In terms of pure stallion-making, it hasn’t been the greatest O’Brien season with The Gurkha the only colt from the Ballydoyle classic generation that would have any notions of grandeur in the breeding sheds; taking him from maiden in April to dual Group 1 winner in July was improvement at the rate of light-speed and all the more impressive given his backdrop of colic. Air Force Blue was the season’s biggest disappointment, the Champion Two-Year-Old proving more Air Force Blew [Out], but an exam doesn’t need to be perfect to get an A. Talk of someone else taking the reins at Ballydoyle seems long-distant now.
Dermot Weld – Grade B+ (2015: C+)
If Dermot Weld could pause his season at the end of June, all would be right in the world of Rosewell. Harzand, with the help of the weather gods who rained on him as required, was a dual Derby winner with dreams of an Arc, while Tattersalls Gold Cup winner, Fascinating Rock, was on a break ahead of an autumn tilt at a pair of Champion Stakes and Found about to enhance his form. Neither of those horses won after June with Harzand bombing in both his subsequent starts, and news reaching us of his retirement to stud today; and, Fascinating Rock having only one more run.
The signs of a poor second half to the season were soon apparent with Weld losing his top trainer status at Galway to Willie Mullins. That is something many a flat handler would be sanguine about but Weld’s role as chief curator of his own legacy must have made it hard to bear. His strikerate pre- and post-June were markedly different: in the first four months, he was hitting at a rate of 22.8% but it has dropped to 17.1% since.
Weld enjoyed continued success in black type races with a better strikerate than Aidan O’Brien; the figures below include all Listed and Group winners during the Irish flat season up to last weekend and Zhukova proved a major improver, albeit disappointing on Champions Day at Ascot. That was a card that summed up the second part of Weld’s season with both his runners failing to operate on the ground and Fascinating Rock a subsequent non-runner because of the going.
Trainers in Irish Listed and Group Races 2016
Jim Bolger – Grade: C- (2015: B-)
Numerically, Bolger’s win totals are broadly in line with previous seasons; he had 64 and 61 winners in the 2014 and 2015 respectively and currently sits on 56 winners for 2016. The issue is more one of quality as he’s struggled in better races; as seen above his strikerate in Listed and Group races is 8.3%, the worst of the top eight trainers. He didn’t have a winner in the UK this term either and 2010 (and 2004 before that) was the last time that had happened.
Official ratings have Tribal Beat as the best Coolcullen horse of 2016 on 116, rather underwhelming looking at previous seasons, though four-time winners Stellar Mass and Ringside Humour alongside big improver Qatari Hunter (who rose from 74 to 107 in the ratings) were real stars. Tribal Beat only ran twice this campaign with Bolger on record as saying he was hard to train and absent stars proved a theme for the season: Pleascach, who ran seven times in 2015, only made her return over Arc weekend while the likes of Herald The Dawn, Smash Williams and Sanus Per Aquam all missed time having shown plenty the previous year. Keeping horses sound is of course a skill, one that Bolger tends to do very well in the main, his horses thriving on racing hard and often but it does seem to have been an issue this season.
Ger Lyons – Grade B- (2015: B)
2016 could be described as a consolidation year for Ger Lyons which is a polite way of saying it was a neutral campaign, neither here nor there. Firstly, the good. Ardhoomey was well-trained all season, winning four times culminating at Group 2 level and rising 19lbs in the weights and all this against a backdrop of wind problems which Lyons had written plenty about in his blog; that blog is one of the more forward-thinking approaches in Irish racing and we probably know more of his horses than any other trainer. As with Bolger, his winner totals are broadly in line with previous seasons and he comes out very well on win/runner percentage, third amongst the top ten trainers behind only the two O’Briens.
It is hard to find a horse that Lyons has handled badly and there is a sense that he largely maximises what he has though the Frankel colt Lightening Fast (out of the yard’s Group 1 winner Lightening Pearl) failed to win in three starts which stood in contrast to how the freshman sire’s runners did in the UK. Endless Drama and Psychedelic Funk were also disappointing after promising starts to the season but might not have been much good in any case; the trainer has a slight tendency to overrate his horses. Finally his return in Listed and Group races was poor relative to previous years and other top ten trainers.
Mick Halford – Grade: C (2015: C-)
One often gets the sense with Halford that it’s a numbers game and his overall strikerate reflects this; at 9.1% it is second worst of the top eleven and his winners-to-runners percentage is poor too. There is too much reliance on Dundalk for a top five trainer; of his 44 winners since the start of 2016, 21 came on the all-weather. Ger Lyons was someone who used Dundalk in the early days but it was more a springboard to better things whereas Halford seems to have stagnated there.
As for 2016 highlights, a Royal Hunt Cup winner in Portage was massive for the yard and it’s a pity the horse has only had one run since. One area where Halford did prove selective was in Irish black-type races; he had 6 winners from 28 runners, good for fourth in that table, and in sharp contrast to his overall strikerate.
Willie McCreery – Grade: B+ (2015: A)
McCreery built on an excellent 2015 this season, again thriving in Premier Handicaps as seen below. While relatively few trainers can compete in Pattern races, many more can aspire to at least having a runner in a Premier Handicap and they remain one of the best proving grounds for trainer skill. McCreery finished joint-top in terms of winners trained in Premier Handicaps last year and to repeat the dose in 2016 was impressive.
Trainers in Premier Handicaps 2016
One big feature of McCreery’s success this year has been the emergence of Billy Lee as a top class jockey, the rider doing very well to finish in the top five of the jockeys’ championship given neither of his previous main supporters, David Wachman and Tommy Stack, provided him with a winner. Lee remains one to watch and the longer McCreery can hold on to him the better it will be for his horses. Not everything this year was plain sailing, particularly a mid-season slump when winners were hard to come by; while there remains a suspicion the trainer left a bit on the table with both Downforce and Aridity, but overall this was another strong campaign.
Johnny Murtagh – Grade B+ (2015: D)
After a promising start, Murtagh’s training career took a backward step last season, and the former jockey could be forgiven for wishing for a return to the saddle; it’s a lot easier riding them than being responsible for every aspect of their life. 2016 was more like it and the addition of the Ballygallon Stud horses certainly helped; recent Listed winner Hawke was the standout but the breeding operation provided five winners in total, a sizable number given the strength of the string.
Sister Blandina was well-trained and well-placed too, winning first on her travels at Bath in May off 52 and recently registering her fourth victory of the season off 81 at Navan. Duchess Andorra was a victory for perseverance, winning a Group 3 at Gowran Park on her twenty-second career start having taken ten runs to break her maiden for Joanna Morgan. As for disappointments, Eddystone Rock finished his campaign with the feeling of unfinished business; having beaten subsequent Listed winner Laganore easily conceding 8lbs, he missed an engagement in the English Cambridgeshire where he looked a major player.
Kevin Prendergast – Grade: B+
The octogenarian Curragh trainer enjoyed a mini-revival though it was all about one horse, Irish 2,000 Guineas winner, Awtaad. Unbeaten in four starts in Ireland, he couldn’t really translate that form in his runs abroad (a pattern with the trainer as a whole) but he gives the Shadwell operation a decent stallion prospect into the future as well a classy broodmare proposition: Awtaad was the first foal out of Asheerah and his half-sibling Aneen promised plenty in winning a Curragh maiden earlier this month. Aside from that family, Penny Pepper winning a Premier Handicap over Derby Weekend was about the highlight.
Jessica Harrington – Grade: B
I have to admit that Harrington’s season rather passed me by but on winner numbers it was a quietly good year; her strikerate and winners/runners ratio are not so good however. Bocca Baciata was the starlet, getting Group 1-placed behind Minding under a clever ride in the Pretty Polly, while she has a few half-decent two year olds going into next year including Khukri and the well-named Tinder. One thing worth pointing out is the seemingly horrendous value the owners of the former Mill House LLC seem to get on their purchases. Apart from Khukri (cost 130,000gns), the rest of their runners this season were largely forgettable and cost plenty: Grandee (110,000gns), Mulligatawny (135,000gns), Unyielding (150,000gns), John Honeyman (120,000gns), Barnacle Bill (€90,000), Aphonsus (175,000gns). The last-named was trained by John Oxx, the others by Harrington.
Andy Slattery – Grade: A+
Having never trained more than seven winners in a season, Slattery has had a sublime year with 18 wins and his Creggs Pipes rates up there with the most improved horses of the season; she went from down the field in a Cork handicap in May off 77 to Listed and Galway Mile winner, now rated 106. Slattery owned Galway in his own way, winning arguably the two big flat prizes of the week (Planchart won the only black type flat race of the week, the Corrib Stakes) and Sors was another fine advertisement for his skills with sprinters, winning thrice at the Curragh including the Rockingham from out of the handicap. Notably honest with the media, Slattery had such a fine year one could almost forgive him for failing to get a win out of Ucanchoose!
Joseph O’Brien – Grade: A+
I covered Joseph O’Brien earlier in the season and the only change since has been for the positive; Intricately has won the Group 1 Moyglare, which is working out well. O’Brien Jr. has the best winner/runner ratio of any of the top trainers, surpassing even his father, and that’s all the more impressive because he trains plenty of ordinary handicappers. Furthermore, his totals don’t reflect the full campaign as he had winners earlier in the season under his father’s name. Quite simply, a rookie season above all others.
Others of note:
It is amazing and a little sad that just a season removed from training Legatissimo and Curvy, David Wachman (2015: A) is retiring from training. 2016 was terrible with just one win before July but he leaves a legacy of being a fine trainer of fillies as well as some very promising two-year-olds: the likes of Rain Goddess, Winter, Intern, Rekindling and, lately, White Satin Dancer have shown plenty this season.
Michael O’Callaghan (2015: B+) had a decent year, punctuated with some spectacular gambles – Intrepid Prince at Galway and Holy Cat at Leopardstown spring to mind – but Adrian Keatley was the new trainer who really stood out. Not only did he send out the cheap purchase Jet Setting to win the Irish 1,000 Guineas but he got her back to form to win the Concorde Stakes in fine style under a Group 1 penalty. Furthermore, only Aidan O’Brien and Pat Shanahan trained more UK winners from the Irish training ranks this flat season with 9 wins from 38, a tidy strikerate of 23.7%.
Outside of the big names, Johnny Levins, Denis Hogan and Damien English did well around the margins. Joe McGrath winner, Tithonus, made massive improvements in 2016, building on a fine all-weather campaign to win four times and went close on the Racing Post Trophy undercard at Doncaster too. Tribal Path for English was the biggest improver of the year, starting the year on 53 and now rated 87; bizarrely he ran on the same Cork card in March that featured Jet Setting and Harzand!
- Tony Keenan