Irish Season Review 2015: Grading the Trainers

Grading The Trainers – Irish Flat Season 2015 Review

Racing is an unusual sport, the winners emerging throughout the season rather than solely at the end, and while there are a few cards left to be played over Champions Day and the Breeders’ Cup, now is a fair time to take a broad view of the Irish flat campaign. The flat calendar comprises around 1,000 races and as of this weekend there are just 80 left to be run with the Pattern basically complete, there being only one group race remaining.

To grade trainers on what they achieve relative to each other is a pointless task; Aidan O’Brien would be an A almost every year with a sliding scale after him and you’d end up producing a slightly altered version of the trainers’ championship. But there is more at play here than mere numbers and different standards apply to different trainers, so sometimes the best barometer for a trainer is themselves and what they have previously achieved.

There are a few criteria at play in my analysis. Numbers matter but they’re not the only thing. Group races matter, especially Group 1’s and, further to that, the handling and placing of key horses is huge. Big meetings, particularly Galway, matter whereas Roscommon on a summer Monday barely registers. Premier handicaps matter as they’re often the best measure of a trainer who doesn’t have a host of blue bloods.

 

Aidan O’Brien – Grade: B

2015 has been a curate’s egg for O’Brien. His best horse Gleneagles exemplified this, going through the top three-year-old mile races unbeaten before drawing plenty of ire for a trio of high-profile defections from the Sussex, International and Irish Champion Stakes. His legacy remains up in the air and one wonders if he might even stay in training at four in a bid to get his ground.

O’Brien’s record in domestic Group races has continued to be strong:

Trainers in Irish Group Races – 2015

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/
Expected
A O’Brien 80 20 25.0% +19.51 1.19
D Weld 42 10 23.8% -12.76 0.98
J Bolger 49 5 10.2% +15.11 0.67
G Lyons 27 4 14.8% -10.62 1.14
E Lynam 13 3 23.1% +5.50 1.37

 

A notable feature here – and one punters are likely thankful for – is the positive actual over expected return which is meaningful too as there is a decent sample size; that’s unusual given the typical profile of the yard’s runners and might have something to do with the jockey confusion during the year. Things started with Ryan Moore then Joseph stepped in with a healthy dose of Heffernan and O’Donoghue mixed through as weights dictated.

Of course O’Brien is not judged on pattern race winners but on Group 1s and particularly the Derby. In that regard, he failed in 2015. Despite seeming to have a strong hand going into the winter, ten lengths was the closest his main representative Giovanni Canaletto could get to the winner at Epsom and

the Curragh. Neither John F Kennedy nor Ol’ Man River came close to delivering on their potential, hardly running to better than 100 in seven combined starts.

Found too was a disappointment. The best of her generation at two when she beat Ervedya (a three-time Group 1 winner in 2015), she has managed just a single Group 3 win in a three-runner race this season, leaving the impression of unfulfilled potential. She certainly suffers by comparison with Ervedya though she did run with credit against the boys in the Irish Champion.

Perhaps the high point of O’Brien’s season was the second day of Irish Champions Weekend where he landed a big race treble with Minding, Air Force Blue and Order Of St George; and an underrated aspect of his 2015 was a marked uptick in his record with jumpers, particularly bumper horses. Since the start of the 2015/16 national hunt season, his runners have hit at 31%; regardless of who is training them, that’s an impressive strikerate.

It would be remiss not to mention the difficult circumstances O’Brien has faced this year with rumours circulating about his future at Ballydoyle, rumours he has dealt with in a dignified manner. Such speculation will always be part of this sort of position but to mention the likes of David O’Meara in the same breath is doing O’Brien a significant disservice; he has achieved too much for that. And with three juvenile Group 1s already in the bag and the chance of two more this weekend, it’s likely he’ll be achieving more of the same next year.

 

Dermot Weld – Grade: C+

Had this piece been written in late April, then Weld would have been a clear A+ but the road is long and he may have shot his bolt too early though in his defence the trainer did state he had a team of soft ground horses that needed to be out early.

But overall this has been a moderate season for Weld - Free Eagle just about rescuing it at Royal Ascot – and I have long thought that he doesn’t win enough Group 1s given the quality he has in his yard. The placing of high-profile horses is vital to rating a trainer and the call to run Free Eagle in the Arc was a poor one with the Champion Stakes, over a trip and track the horse excels at and against much weaker opposition, a better option.

Forgotten Rules has been campaigned no better. Despite Weld continually saying that he wouldn’t run him on fast ground, he pitches up in the Ascot Gold Cup and while that’s forgivable – it is Royal Ascot after all – the decision to run him ten days later in the Curragh Cup was one of the worst calls of the season given the cotton-wool treatment he’d had up to then. It looked a run borne out of frustration which rarely ends well. His subsequent effort in the Irish Leger is not as bad as it looks, his jockey giving him a bad ride, but has plenty on his plate to get back on track at BCD. Incidentally, that was one of the few poor rides Pat Smullen gave all season; he’s been an A+ though many of his big wins came for trainers other than Weld.

Galway was disappointing for Weld. He may have won the top trainer prize but it was an award he scarcely merited as it was achieved more on his number of horses placed in ordinary races than on the quality of races he won. A few of the trainer’s better horses missed portions of the season, notably Zawraq and Mustajeeb, but keeping horses sound is a skill too.

 

Jim Bolger – Grade: B-

Godolphin must love Jim Bolger; he’s about their best trainer though the bar is not high there. Their Pleascach has been the standout horse at Coolcullen this season, given a typically aggressive Bolger campaign, and while the returns didn’t quite reach Lush Lashes level, winning the Irish 1,000 Guineas and the Yorkshire Oaks in a strong year for three-year-old fillies is a decent haul.

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Away from here though, it’s been an ordinary year for Bolger. Lucida was among the best of her generation but failed to win a Group 1 and there is an argument for jockey error playing its part in that, Kevin Manning not seen at his best in either of her final three starts. He moved prematurely into the teeth of a strong gallop in the 1,000 Guineas before not moving quick enough at Royal Ascot while he seemed to be unaware of the slow pace in the Falmouth.

Bolger’s juveniles have been disappointing too, not least because of his hyping of them early and it looks a case of confusing geese with swans. Round Two was described as ‘everything you would like in a racehorse’, Sanus Per Aquam was ‘the auld fella [Teofilo] reincarnated’, Herald The Dawn was ‘a very nice type of horse.’ High, even hollow, praise for a trio of Group 3 horses.

 

David Wachman – A

Perhaps the best test of a trainer is how they handle a really top class horse and if there has been a knock against David Wachman it’s that his stars have shone brightly but all too briefly. That was true of the likes of Damson, Again and Sudirman but certainly not of Legatissimo who has been expertly campaigned in 2015.

She promised a bit at two without screaming Group 1 winner but has been a revelation this season, starting out at a high level and progressing from it, her most impressive performances arguably her last two at Goodwood and Leopardstown. There’s a case to be made that she should have won five Group 1s on the trot, beaten by a short head in both the Oaks and the Pretty Polly, and her versatility over different trips is rare. That she achieved all this in a deep year for three-year-old fillies is even more meritorious and she might even have won a Group 1 against colts had she been given the chance; she goes to the Breeders’ Cup with a leading chance of ending her season on a high.

Curvy was another fine example of Wachman’s skill with fillies, improving from a mark of 72 to 111 now. Her form has tailed off a little but she has had a long season while Hint Of A Tint, for all that she blotted her copybook at Tipperary on Sunday, has been well-trained to win a pair of premier handicaps having previously been fragile. She was one of three Galway winners for the yard and that gets points too.

 

Ger Lyons – B

I’m biased with Ger Lyons, being a fan of both his training methods and straightforward interaction with the media, and 2015 was another steady year for him. Previously an outspoken critic of Galway, he landed two good handicap winners at the meeting this summer with Sacrificial and Waipu Cove, both of whom look up to Listed class at least. The former went close at Royal Ascot too, ‘winning’ his side in the Britannia, while he also had a good winner with Glass House over Irish Champions Weekend.

Ainippe, however, deserves pride of place. She’d looked an all-out speedball at two and unlikely to progress at three but she won a pair of Group 3s this season and capped it off with a third in the Matron Stakes. It was a brave call to supplement her for that race – the trip was further than she’d raced over before and the ground was on the slow side – but connections were rewarded with Group 1 black type and a hefty share of prize-money.

 

Michael Halford – C-

With Halford, it’s more quantity that quality so this looks another underwhelming season. He ties for the lead in handicap winners with Ger Lyons, and Hasanour was an early-season star but it takes a lot of volume to get to where he is and the lack of Pattern race success has to be a black mark.

It’s a long time since Casamento won the Racing Post Trophy, 2010 in fact, and the trainer hasn’t kicked on from there. Indeed, one could argue he’s gone backwards having managed only three group winners since Casamento, and is 0/17 in Irish Group races this year. And it’s not as if he doesn’t have the owners; numbering Godolphin and the Aga Khan among his patrons, he really should be doing better. Success at Dundalk and in Dubai is all well and good but those meetings are in their own bubbles, the action less competitive than the mid-summer turf, and more is expected.

 

Willie McCreery – A

2015 should have been a down year for Willie McCreery. His star mare Fiesolana had gone off to the paddocks and she contributed a lot over the past two seasons, winning four races in 2013 before landing the Group 1 Matron Stakes last year. That’s a major loss for any yard, much less one without power owners, but he has managed to thrive nonetheless, already having two more winners in the turf season than he had in all of last season.

His handicap record is notable; he is second only to Garvan Donnelly in terms of strikerate and actual over expected among those trainers with at least 25 handicap runners, outstripping many better known yards. He does even better in premier handicaps:

 

Trainers in Irish Premier Handicaps 2015

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
W McCreery 16 4 25.0% +17.5 2.27
D Wachman 10 3 30.0% +21.0 1.99
M Halford 30 3 10.0% -8.0 1.00
A Oliver 2 9 22.2% +4.5 2.47

 

These are the most valuable handicaps of the Irish flat season and there have been 28 of them so far in 2015 with the average field size being 14 runners; they are not easy to win. Yet McCreery won four of them and with four different horses and while the likes of Fact Of Folklore and Shrill had upside going into their races, his other winners Tylery Wonder and Colour Blue looked plenty exposed.

 

Michael O’Callaghan – B+

O’Callaghan only began training in 2012 and with ten Irish flat winners this season he’s already more than doubled his previous win total. He has to prove he’s something other than a trainer of juveniles – since starting his career, his strikerate is 13.6% with the youngsters, 11.0% with everything else – but he’s certainly very good with two-year-olds and has a number of horses with significant potential next year like Blue De Vega and Moral High Ground.

The trainer (or connections) also deserves credit for one of the shrewdest bits of placing of the year with Now Or Never, the yard’s wide-margin Galway maiden winner on soft ground. After that win, she was doubly entered over trials meeting for Irish Champions Weekend in the Debutante and Futurity, the former confined to fillies on a Saturday, the second open to colts on a Sunday. Looking at the forecast for rain, O’Callaghan declared her for the Futurity which cut up badly and finished up being run on soft ground while the Debutante was a deep field and finished up being fought out by Ballydoyle and Minding, both Group 1 winners since. Now Or Never made the running in the slowly-run Futurity and got valuable black type for finishing second, connections rewarded for a brave and clever play.

 

Eddie Lynam – B-

It’s been a ‘meh’ season for Lynam for all that his number of winners has been broadly in line with previous totals but he was always going to struggle with the retirement of Slade Power. Winning a first turf race in Ireland with Sole Power rates as a high point and that it came over Irish Champions Weekend so much the better but the disappointing recent runs of Anthem Alexander have been a downer after so much early promise.

 

Johnny Murtagh – D

A great jockey does not a great trainer make as a look at the list of the top trainers in either code will tell you and, after Johnny Murtagh’s third season in the driving seat, the jury remains out on his training career. His Irish runners have hit at a rate of just 6% in 2015 and big winners have been thin on the ground despite the presence of some good owners that are willing to spend. The absence of Andrew Tinkler runners hasn’t helped but there are still plenty of expensive purchases in the yard.

Murtagh’s placing of his horses leaves a bit to be desired too. Running Stroll Patrol back four days after her Scurry win in a Naas Listed race seemed rushed; the first race was run at a strong gallop and she was a three-year-old against her elders so may have needed time to recover. The decision to take Kasbah to Wolverhampton for a £7,000 race only six days after she wasn’t even entered in a winnable Curragh premier handicap was a poor call too; she bolted up on the all-weather and would surely have gone close in the more valuable and higher profile Irish race. Murtagh doesn’t have that many highly rated horses in his yard – Kasbah is one of them – so it is important to maximise their potential and win the best races possible.

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