AINTREE 14-4-2018. Randox Health Grand National. TIGER ROLL and Davy Russell are greeted by owner Michael O'Leary of Gigginstown Stud after their win for trainer Gordon Elliott. Photo HEALY RACING/Racingfotos.com.

Grading the Trainers: Irish National Hunt Season 2017/18

Whatever your thoughts on the overall health or otherwise of the Irish jumps scene, the 2017/18 season will go down as a memorable one: Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott slugging it out from one big meeting to the next, though the culmination at Punchestown was ultimately underwhelming, writes Tony Keenan. Prior to this season, no trainer had reached €5 million in domestic prizemoney but both broke that total, Mullins with €5,968,275 and Elliott on €5,158,751. They are worthy of their top grades but how about the rest?

Willie Mullins – Grade: A (Last season: B+)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Mullins’s season was how much he changed his approach; where once he had been quite risk-averse in terms of campaigning, often putting the strongest horses in the weakest races, he now has to run them more often and in races that may be less suitable. Elliott is the reason for this and it was his sustained challenge for a first title that forced the champion to find another gear. Consider his winners, runners and prizemoney totals over the past four seasons:

 

Season Winners Runners Strikerate Prizemoney
2017/18 212 797 27% €5,968,275
2016/17 180 571 32% €4,580,200
2015/16 185 557 33% €4,489,105
2014/15 187 554 34% €4,225,253

 

In the three seasons prior to the last one, there was a comfort level with how Mullins was operating judging on the above figures though the 2016/17 totals took some getting in light of not having the Gigginstown horses. More of basically everything did mean a lower winner-to-runner ratio than previously however, falling from 59% in each of the last two seasons to 54%.

 

Season Individual Winners Individual Runners Strikerate
2017/18 131 243 54%
2016/17 109 184 59%
2015/16 121 191 59%
2014/15 109 179 61%

 

To go from 184 to 243 individual runners is a massive jump but he was still well-clear in terms of winner/runner ratio among all trainers with a meaningful sample. The table below shows the top ten with a minimum of 20 individual horses being the cut-off point.

 

Trainer Winner/Runner Ratio
W. Mullins 54%
C. Byrnes 46%
P. Dempsey 40%
G. Elliott 40%
J. O’Brien 40%
A. Fleming 36%
N. Meade 36%
H. De Bromhead 33%
J. Harrington 29%
D. McLaughlin 28%

 

Punchestown, as ever, was a triumph for Mullins and he would have broken the €6 million figure but for Paul Townend/Al Boum Photo-gate. It seems early to consider what might happen next season but he has started this new season quite strongly in terms of number of runners and will be keen to be well-clear should a late-autumn, early-winter lull kick in as it did last season. His hunger for retaining the title shows no sign of abating though perhaps winning a championship chase at Cheltenham could be even higher on the pecking order, Footpad looking his main hope in that regard.

Best Bit(s): A close run thing between Un De Sceaux and Faugheen. Memories of an ultra-keen hurdler seem long ago with Un De Sceaux and the ten-year-old who took in hard races at both Cheltenham and Fairyhouse was perhaps never better than when winning the Champion Chase at Punchestown; he isn’t as classy as a peak Douvan but has been much more durable. Following 665 days off, Faugheen won the Morgiana before bouncing at Christmas but the bounce-back is always the hardest part; it took three starts to get him back to Grade 1-winning level and while he wasn’t as good as the old Faugheen, he was probably up to the standard set in the Morgiana in November.

Worst Bit: The ‘where will he run next’ act with Yorkhill almost became a parody this season as the four-time Grade 1 winner never got within 30lbs of his best and landed the unique four-timer of going from a three-mile chase to a two-mile chase to a two-mile hurdle to a three-mile hurdle.

 

Gordon Elliott – Grade: A (last season: A-)

Only the most recency-biased critic would say Elliott had anything other than a magnificent season, recording the second highest winner total in Irish jumps history, winning two Grand Nationals and becoming the top trainer at Cheltenham for the second year running. The raw numbers of his season-on-season improvement are worth repeating:

 

Season Winners Prizemoney
2017/18 210 €5,158,755
2016/17 193 €4,380,705
2015/16 123 €2,568,750
2014/15 92 €1,546,070

 

This really was a case of losing nothing in defeat and while again priced as the outsider for next year’s championship, it sounds as if Michael O’Leary is going to double down on trying to help him win a title. I have no idea what he spent on new horses in the last year as those figures are only partly in the public domain but one gets the sense that whatever that number was, the next number will be bigger. Elliott is getting very reliant on Gigginstown at this point and below are the top 15 prizemoney horses for both he and Mullins in Ireland this past season; where 12 of the Elliott horses are owned by Gigginstown, Mullins has 12 different owners represented. With that in mind, it is hard to consider him an underdog of any type despite how he is sometimes represented.

 

Elliott – Top 15 Horses Mullins – Top 15 Horses
General Principle Un De Sceaux
Potters Point Faugheen
Apple’s Jade Bellshill
A Toi Phil Footpad
Outlander Next Destination
Doctor Phoenix Isleofhopendreams
Monbeg Notorious Meri Devie
Shattered Love Patricks Park
Folsom Blue Min
Mengli Khan Total Recall
Samcro Kemboy
Hardline Coquin Mans
Diamond Cauchois Rathvinden
Dortmund Park Djakadam
Dinaria Des Obeaux Al Boum Photo

 

What Elliott really needs to win a championship is more horses that can win open Grade 1 races; in 2017/18 he won three such races with Outlander, Mick Jazz and Apple’s Jade where Mullins won eight. Not only are these contests valuable during the season but they are the key to ‘winning Punchestown’ where each of the four big races are worth €275,000. The source of these horses isn’t obvious however; Samcro looks like he could be one but only if he stays hurdling (the prizemoney in novice chases is largely insignificant in the grand scheme) and possibly the two best Gigginstown horses – at least in terms of ratings – are in other yards, Road To Respect and Balko Des Flos. That pair respectively won €163,450 and €189,050 in Irish prizemoney last season which wouldn’t have been enough to bridge the ultimate gap of €809,524 but it would certainly have made things more interesting.

Best Bit: Doctor Phoenix cost £10,000 last May and was the value buy of the season, winning a Dan Moore and a Naas Grade 3, and he could well have beaten Un De Sceaux at Easter as he was trading odds-on before falling two out. Rising from a mark of 137 to 156, his prizemoney was maximised along the way which isn’t bad for a horse that used to have a Timeform squiggle.

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Worst Bit: Everything went to plan for Death Duty in the early part of the season as he won three times but the decision to run him over 2m1f at Christmas on yielding ground worked out badly. Taking on Footpad there looked an early shot in the championship rather than what was best for the horse in the long term and it came at a high cost.

 

Joseph O’Brien – Grade: B (Last season: no grade)

O’Brien is a different type of trainer to the Big Two, reliant more on JP McManus and being a dual-purpose yard in the truest sense, but the leap he took in prizemoney this past season is almost Elliott-like.

 

Season Winners Runners Prizemoney Champ. Position
2017/18 67 473 €1,419,319 3rd
2016/17 38 269 €710,244 5th

 

He basically doubled his prizemoney total but it needs pointing out that he had 48 winners by the end of October and managed only five domestic winners from January on; like so many, he was a bit player in the Mullins-Elliott drama of the winter season proper. Against that however is the fact that he had two big-priced Grade 1 winners at the Dublin Racing Festival in Edwulf and Tower Bridge and there are plenty of good prospects for the future here in the likes of Early Doors, Speak Easy, Rhinestone and Us And Them.

Best Bit: Rekindling is by far the high point during the period covered but, seeing as this should be jumps only, basically bringing Edwulf back from the dead to win an Irish Gold Cup was the other big achievement.

Worst Bit: The campaigning of Tigris River. Since he won the Galway Hurdle, he has been beaten: 22ls, 16ls, 27ls, 26ls, pulled up and 110ls. Last time at Punchestown was better and perhaps it’s all about the ground with him but a novel idea might be to run him less frequently on going that doesn’t suit. In any case, the handicapper hasn’t cut him much slack, still 4lbs higher than his Galway win.

 

Henry De Bromhead – Grade: B (Last season: B)

Despite seeming to go missing for various chunks of the season, overall it was a decent campaign for De Bromhead; he was good through the summer, had a quiet November, bounced back in December especially at Christmas before having a quiet end to the season at home. He did however win a Galway Plate with Balko Des Flos and manage to upgrade him into a Ryanair winner and became one of only two other Irish trainers along with Pat Kelly to have a Festival winner. Monalee too was good if unfortunate, falling twice in Grade 1s, while Ellie Mac winning the first race of the Leopardstown Christmas meeting was one of the more heart-warming stories of the season.

Best Bit: He may have been found a bad race at Aintree but getting Identity Thief back to a high level over three miles was an impressive achievement given how he’d looked gone at the game when reverting to hurdles in the spring of 2017.

Worst Bit: The blame for the campaigning of Petit Mouchoir this spring has to be laid somewhere though perhaps this isn’t the right spot; someone was responsible for riding tactics in the Arkle which looked overly-aggressive even if the horse can be very free. The decision to run him at both Aintree and Punchestown was a poor one in light of the hard races he had already had along with an injury and it is only sensible to wonder what mark this will have left.

 

Jessica Harrington – Grade: C (Last season: A+)

The most notable feature of Harrington’s season was a marked drop off in strikerate; the figures here refer to runners in both Ireland and the UK over jumps.

 

Season Strikerate
2017/18 9.1%
2016/17 13.9%
2013/14, 2014/15, 2015/16 combined 15.1%

 

I had initially suspected that last season – when she seemed to win every big race in sight from the turn of the year – was an aberration in terms of win rates but having combined the three seasons previous it is this past season that was different in the negative sense; 2016/17 had just been Harrington maintaining her previous standards albeit in better races. It didn’t help of course that she was without Sizing John from Christmas, staying chasers being the most fragile cohort of the fragile body of horses that are jumpers, but at least he had been maximised the previous season.

Best Bit(s): Supasundae danced every dance and to a degree made his own luck this past season; the trainer spotted a vulnerable Faugheen over two miles in January and her likeable hurdler duly ran to his level and won while things also fell his way at Punchestown. Forge Meadow also deserves a mention for an excellent middle part of the season; a hot mare that can lose it in the preliminaries, Harrington did well to get her back to form after three poor runs to start the season.

Worst Bit: Sizing John thrived on racing in 2016/17 but the decision to back him up at Leopardstown 18 days after winning the John Durkan is one connections might like to take back. Whether it played any part in the ‘hairline non-displaced fracture’ that ended his season is unknown but there was no real upside to running him over Christmas when he was already proven in such races. Supasundae may have revelled in such a campaign but he is a hurdler not a staying chaser.

 

Noel Meade – Grade: C (Last season: B+)

Meade now occupies a weird underdog position in Irish jumps racing which is strange for an eight-time champion trainer; the coverage of Bel Ami De Sivola’s win at the Fairyhouse Easter meeting reflected this as the RTE commentators seemed thrilled that he had managed a winner on the big stage even in a handicap. He managed only one runner at Cheltenham Festival in Road To Respect and in truth his season seemed to revolve around that horse.

Best Bit: Road To Respect winning at Christmas. Things didn’t go right for him after that win with the ground against him in the Gold Cup and his jumping not up to scratch at Punchestown but a Grade 1 win was a decent yield overall.

Worst Bit: His Down Royal return was very promising but Disko failing to make the track despite repeated assurances that he would be in the next big staying chase was disappointing.

 

The Rest

It very much is ‘the rest’ at this point and Pat Kelly probably deserves main billing; he has the best horse not trained in the top six yards with Presenting Percy who remarkably is 1lb away from being the best both over hurdles (rated 156) and fences (rated 165), Anibale Fly rated ahead of him for chases. There’s no doubt who’d be favourite for a race between that pair however and he deserves extra credit for taking a completely unorthodox route to the RSA and winning with bags in hand.

Charles Byrnes was one of the big risers from 2016/17 to 2017/18, going from nineteenth up to seventh, and having the second best winner/runner ratio. He won the Coral Hurdle at Leopardstown with Off You Go and bumpers were a big part of his season, winning seven such races from a total of 29 runners. Byrnes is a good trainer but almost certainly a better punter, not only knowing what he has but also getting a good gauge on the opposition. Consider his bumper winners below and the make-up of the fields they took on:

 

Winner Opening Show Starting Price Mullins Runners Elliott Runners
Balliniska Band 11/4 11/8 0 0
Balliniska Band 6/4 7/4 0 1
Minnies Secret 9/4 6/4 0 1
Mary B 9/4 5/4 0 1
Van Humboldt 11/10 8/13 0 1
Alpine Cobra 6/1 6/1 2 1
Thosedaysaregone 5/1 9/2 1 1

 

The opening show here refers to the on-course market but it is notable that he managed to find five bumpers all season where there were no Mullins runners and landed a late punt in four of them. He is clearly more concerned about runners coming from Closutton than Cullentra!

Another big riser was Denis Hogan, going from twenty-third in 2016/17 up to eighth this past season. He didn’t do it with particularly good horses either which is to his credit, Youcantcallherthat a standout with five wins but the likes of Eiri Na Casca winning thrice was a victory for good placing more than anything. Some better stock is coming into the yard, not least the siblings Moskovite and Moyhenna, though a recent win for Inis Meain remains elusive.

Philip Dempsey had a decent winner/runner ratio and good period between September and November when he had 11 winners while Alan Fleming maintained a high strikerate though lacked a really good horse. The whole Barry Connell operation remains a rather inscrutable one, willing to spend plenty on good prospects but not so keen on using the major trainers to handle them.

- Tony Keenan

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3 replies
  1. Simon Morrison-Peacock says:

    Hi Tony,
    An excellent and enlightening article,whilst the top two seem to be streets ahead at the moment with th big money operations behind them,I feel that Joseph O’Brien could well be soon a force to be reckoned with. His undoubted talent as a jockey has transferred seamlessly into the training ranks and whilst granted he has had a major start in life through his family,seems very much his own man in his training.
    Some people may see dual purpose yards as a fence sitting excercise but with the ever increased competition in racing and its global nature it is perhaps the place to be in the current environment. Whilst O’Brien senior has some undoubted talent on his hands,it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a horse appears in Coolmore that is unsuited to grade racing flat and is capable of better and further over obstacles. Then who would be in prime position to take on the “cast offs”? It’s just a thought but the more winners he has then his reputation will only grow and as such within the next 5 years we could well be looking at a 3 way Irish title battle and a more competitive sequence of racing in Ireland. This can only be good for Irish racing and the sport overall,the only downside to this maybe that some jewels that have slipped through the net and made it across the water here in the uk may be hoovered up by the top stables and the U.K. scene will be perhaps the poorer for it.

    Thankyou for a great article.

    Yours in Racing

    Simon Morrison-Peacock

    Reply
  2. Philip Clayton says:

    I enjoyed reading this but Mullin’s strike rate is remarkable by any standards anywhere on the globe. Given that most trainers amble along in the UK with a strike rate of 15% or lower, with the only a handful at the very top, in both codes, hitting above 20% season after season, a strike rate that is regularly over 50% is astonishing.

    Is this because Mullins is out on his own as a trainer, or does it demonstrate the extremely uncompetitive nature of Irish racing? It has reached a point where it makes the Premier League look like a level playing field. Worse, it makes it more and more difficult for a punter to win in the long-term becaue both trainers are multiply entering horses in the same ownership and the odds are not always a real guide to which is the best. We see the same with O’Brien on the flat.

    But the punters woes are nothing compared to those of other trainers. I don’t know what the answer is, but if some means cannot be found whereby ownership of racehorses becomes much more widespread, rather than being largely confined to Ricci, McManus and O’Leary then racing is going to wither on the vine as an occupation and a spectacle. We saw a race where I think all the horses bar one were running in the O’Leary or McManus colours; that was not an enjoyable sight at all.

    Reply
  3. davewood53 says:

    I really enjoy reading your thoughts, Tony. Though there aren’t that many actual (thoughts) here, you do prompt essential questions about Irish NH which recur from earlier articles of yours this year and revolve around a notion of decreasing competitiveness within training ranks; leading to greater numbers of races which, whilst they provide spectacle (hard to argue that the Irish GN or many of the Punchestown finishes weren’t exciting) have become a boring (my view) procession of same trainers/ same owners. If, as you suggest, O’Leary decides his bloated empire needs to encompass the trainers title as well, then the funnelling of his stock from a broader base of trainers into the Elliot yard may gather more pace and reduce the competitiveness (and interest) even further.

    As the statistical vignette around the Byrnes bumper horses demonstrates, a little life can be blown into the sport from a punting perspective – sadly, I’m sure this is a loophole that the big yards will look to close.

    Incidentally, I wondered what your take was on coverage of Irish racing’s move to Racing UK? Personally, whilst looking forward to HD pictures and fewer adverts, I’m not necessarily relishing a watering down of RUK coverage by cramming in more races on busy days – but I also wonder if moving from a more widely available channel to a subscription channel is necessarily helpful in showcasing Irish racing as a whole?

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your information and ideas.

    Reply

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