Willie top of the pile, but not alone in scoring well

Grading the Trainers – National Hunt Season 2015/16

We’ve had time to digest the national hunt season by now – some of us are already pining for its return – so let’s wrap up some grades for the Irish trainers this past campaign, writes Tony Keenan.

Willie Mullins – Grade: B+

Mullins is not just the Champion Trainer, he’s the super-duper, out-on-his-own, never-been-seen-before Champion Trainer. With that position comes deserved plaudits but also exacting standards, and while his achievements on the track were on a par with previous seasons at home and better than ever in the UK, there are some areas where he falls down, notably in dealing with the betting public through the media.

Mullins does lots of media stuff but much of it is pointless filler – see his weekly Racing Post column which sets the bar for useless trainer/jockey columns – and the rest misleading regarding targets. It’s not the responsibility of a trainer to privilege the betting masses ahead of their owners in terms of plans but the Champion Trainer does have a greater role than most in this sense and the disregard shown with the late switch of Vautour to the Ryanair and the even later withdrawal of Vroum Vroum Mag at Sandown did not reflect well on Mullins.

Of course Mullins supporters can rightly point to the overall Irish trainers table below and argue that is all that matters. The UK race tells a similar story and there can be no doubt that running Paul Nicholls so close is a feather in Mullins’ cap, regardless of ultimately finishing second.

 

Irish Trainers Championship 2015/16

Trainer Wins Runs Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
W. Mullins 185 557 33.2% +14.42 1.00
G. Elliott 123 791 15.6% -285.88 0.77
H. De Bromhead 48 296 16.2% -49.25 0.92
J. Harrington 47 244 19.3% +4.96 1.02
A. O’Brien 31 129 24.0% -13.33 1.04
N. Meade 30 220 13.6% -81.54 0.91
A. Martin 27 256 10.6% -125.84 0.73
A. Fleming 25 94 26.6% +10.05 1.09
J. Walsh 23 188 12.2% +58.88 1.29
P. Fahy 18 113 15.9% +54.31 1.50

 

 

One challenge Mullins faced in 2015/16 was injuries to key horses, something that he had largely avoided recently. He emerges with plenty of credit for dealing with the absence of the likes of Faugheen and Killultagh Vic, winning both the Cheltenham races they were favourite for at the time of injury with other horses. The late switchers/super-subs tended to do very well, notably Yorkhill to the Neptune and Annie Power and Vroum Vroum Mag for their respective Champion Hurdles, and no one comes close to Mullins in terms of flexibility of targets, allowing that he has the firepower to do so.

Yorkhill was one of a number of high-profile Closutton horses that ran at the three big spring festivals along with the likes of Apple’s Jade, Douvan, Djakadam and Vautour. Ordinarily, this would not be the Mullins way, the trainer preferring to concentrate on the home fixture at Punchestown. But with the UK trainers’ title on the line, a different approach was needed and one wonders if Mullins might have been better to leave some of his off after Aintree. Vautour and Yorkhill in particular weren’t at their best on their final start and the cost of attempting the triple peak required to win at Cheltenham, Liverpool and Punchestown may not be seen until next season.

Vautour, along with Un De Sceaux, was the great disappointment of the season for Mullins and he remains without a win in one of the championship chases at the Festival - you may rate the Ryanair one of those but I don’t. Wins in the Stella Artois 1965, Clarence House and Ryanair Chases were scant return for a pair so talented and their jumping was found out in other races. Strong travelling rather than good jumping tends to be a feature of the Mullins horses and while his fall/unseat rate over fences in Ireland and the UK was actually lower than previous seasons in Ireland (10.8% as against 11.4%) his runners seemed to make errors at the most crucial times.

Among those were Djakadam at Cheltenham in January, Valseur Lido in the Irish Hennessy, Un De Sceaux (repeatedly) and Min in the Supreme though the Valseur Lido unseat provided the best moment of unintentional comedy of the season as an enraged Ruby Walsh marched through the Leopardstown betting ring after the race, waiting for a punter to tackle him for coming off again; no one did, in case you’re wondering!

The lack of success in the championship chases at the Festival remains a knock against Mullins and failure again next season would be a blow, especially as he has the Frankel of the Jumps, Douvan, in his care. Everything about him shouts greatness, his times and sectionals and visuals, and he was the shining beacon in a stable of bright lights last season. Failure to build on that outside of novice company would be disappointing in the extreme.

 

Gordon Elliott – Grade: A-

The first of Elliott’s major achievements in the 2015/16 campaign was further bridging the gap between himself and Mullins at the top of the table; it is now down to 62 winners which seems a lot but it was 95 and 129 in the previous two seasons. That’s impressive stuff, even allowing for Mullins running more horses in the UK, and has led to a squeezed middle of the Irish training ranks with the top two taking up a large chunk of the available winners and the rest fighting for scraps.

Elliott does very well in placing his horses, particularly the limited ones, to win plenty of races; his race planning is excellent. The Game Changer is a case in point. Having previously been a frustrating hurdler for Charlie Swan, he racked up plenty of prizemoney last summer before returning to hit the frame thrice at Grade 1 level in the spring behind Douvan. That he ran so often is another feature of Elliott’s methods; his horses tend to take their racing well as I referenced in an article earlier in the season on trainers and their ability to get runners to the track.

Cheltenham was brilliant for Elliott, not least because he was able to send out a pair of handicap winners in Diamond King and Causes Of Causes, and in so doing won a long-standing battle with UK handicapper Phil Smith who, judging by comparisons between UK and Irish marks, had treated the trainer’s horses about as harshly as he could have. That both handicap winners came off different profiles, one a progressive stable switcher, the other a previous Festival winner seemingly out of form, is of further credit to the trainer.

The best was still to come at Cheltenham as Don Cossack won the Gold Cup; it may not have been the race it looked like being at the start of the season, the start of Festival week or even before Cue Card departed, but they don’t put asterisks in the record books beside big-race winners and staying steeplechases by their nature are attritional, be it on the day or in preparation. In winning the year’s feature chase, Elliott holds an edge on Mullins.

But this was not only an important success in the context of this season; it is likely to have consequences down the line. Gigginstown House Stud and Michael O’Leary have stated that their horses are to be awarded on performance-related criteria and over recent years it has been notable that Elliott has gotten more runners as the stocks of others have dwindled. The Gold Cup win is likely to see this pattern come into even sharper focus in the coming seasons.

 

Henry De Bromhead – Grade: B

2015/16 was largely in line with previous seasons for Henry De Bromhead, sending out 48 winners after 49 and 48 in the campaigns beforehand, and that levelling off is not something that pleased his principal patron Alan Potts who recently announced that he will have runners with a handful of other trainers next term. It is hard to avoid the notion that Potts is difficult to deal with – he constantly moves horses around – but apart from going back into the Willie Mullins fold, a bridge he has already burned it would seem, there are few better around than De Bromhead.

Identity Thief was the yard’s flagbearer and is was a good training performance to get him back to form for Punchestown; he remains a high-class chasing prospect having gone so far over hurdles in a short space of time but his effectiveness at Cheltenham remains a doubt. Sizing John continued in much the same vein as the previous season, winning in lesser races but chasing Douvan’s tail in better ones, while Smashing – who was stabled at Closutton at one point – was well placed to win four races including a pair of Grade 2’s.

De Bromhead has become more of a summer trainer in recent years and won a Galway Plate in 2015 with Shanahan’s Turn which might be his aiming to avoid some of the better Mullins horses in softer races; he has started this new season well already with three winners. The national hunt season ‘proper’ will tell the tale however with his number of Potts runners cut.

 

Jessica Harrington – Grade: B+

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Judging on my numbers from earlier in the season, Harrington is one of the ‘soundest’ trainers around in terms of getting her horses to the track, and she had a generally good season with the promise of more to come. Ttebbob was an early disappointment having shaped so well in his first two chase starts but in truth he was only really operating at the same level as his hurdles career.

Harrington went through the season winning plenty of good rather than big races though Punchestown was kind to her with most of her stable running well, notably Don’t Touch It who claimed the scalp of Yorkhill. Next season she will not only have Jezki back but can call on a deep bumper team from the past campaign; potentially the pick of them, New To This Town, suffered an injury in the Champion Bumper and may never be the same but there are plenty of others with a future.

 

Noel Meade – Grade: D

There is a sense that Meade could be awarded an incomplete grade for 2015/16, such were the injuries his horses suffered, with graded novice winners like Apache Stronghold and Very Wood failing to make it to the track at all and runners like Wounded Warrior, Snow Falco, Disko and Killer Miller having curtailed campaigns. But as I’ve written before, keeping horses sound is a skill and Meade had a disappointing season in this regard.

His record in graded races (see below) was as bad as it has been in recent years. He managed just three graded wins, a total he has dipped below just once since 2002/3, though he would surely have added to that total had Road To Riches not fallen at the second last in the Punchestown Gold Cup when going best. That fall was a suitable symbol of the season.

 

Irish National Hunt Graded Races – 2015/16 Season

Trainer Wins Runs Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
W. Mullins 46 142 32.4% +42.07 1.04
G. Elliott 12 81 14.8% -44.57 0.66
J. Harrington 6 30 20.0% +20.00 1.07
H. De Bromhead 6 32 18.8% -4.90 0.86
S. Hughes 3 17 17.7% +2.50 1.45
N. Meade 3 21 14.3% -14.13 0.64
J. Kiely 2 5 40.0% +29.00 4.55
G. Cromwell 2 4 50.0% +2.38 2.02
K. Lee 2 2 100.0% +3.00 2.50
A. O’Brien 2 15 13.3% -5.00 0.91

 

 

Mouse Morris – Grade: A

In terms of winner totals, Morris comes out only fair but winning an Irish National and a Grand National in the same season puts a lot of other things in the shade and to do so with a pair of relatively unfancied runners in Rogue Angel and Rule The World made it all the more commendable. Rogue Angel won a Kerry National, too, of course, and Morris did very well in valuable Irish handicaps this past season as you can see below, tying with the big two and with a much better strike rate and actual over expected.

Quite how the twice broken down, apparently non-staying Rule The World won at Aintree remains a mystery and added to the mystique of the National but no one will have been sorry to see the trainer have the winner after an incredibly exacting year on a personal level.

 

Irish National Hunt Handicaps worth €20,000 or more

Trainer Wins Runs Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
G. Elliott 4 59 6.8% -2.00 0.65
M. Morris 4 25 16.0% +9.00 1.62
W. Mullins 4 53 7.6% -27.00 0.92
H. De Bromhead 3 19 15.8% +22.00 1.95
T. Martin 3 38 7.9% -22.87 0.71
S. Hughes 2 20 10.0% +26.00 1.40
E. Harty 2 10 20.0% +8.00 1.52
C. Murphy 2 8 25.0% +4.00 1.77
N. Meade 2 24 8.3% -12.50 0.88

 

Tony Martin – Grade: D-

One handler that doesn’t come out well on the valuable handicap numbers is Tony Martin and while he won three of these races, two of them were before September last year. Anibale Fly winning at Punchestown put some gloss on the end of the campaign but this was a poor season for the Martin team and one has to assume there was a bug in the yard. Given that big handicaps are his bread-and-butter, it was disappointing that none of the potentially well-treated ones like Heathfield, Gallant Oscar, Noble Emperor or Marinero could make an impact in such races. Much better will be expected this coming season, starting at Galway perhaps. If something was amiss last term, he could have some very well handicapped horses, even by his own ‘well handicapped’ standards.

 

Aidan/Joseph O’Brien – Grade: B

Team Ballydoyle, or Team Piltown Hill to be more accurate, had a good national hunt campaign with Ivanovich Gorbatov the obvious highlight; it was a fine piece of training to get him right after a flat run in the Spring Juvenile though the cards fell his way on the day with the runner-up Apple’s Jade proving herself a better horse afterwards and not having a straightforward prep. The bumper team operated at a lofty strikerate all season with Sarah O’Brien a big beneficiary which gives hope for what is coming through for novice races while it would be a surprise if JP McManus doesn’t repay the Festival winner with further investment. Interesting times ahead and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see the three-headed monster of Mullins, Elliott and O’Brien fighting it out over the coming years for championships.

 

Alan Fleming – Grade: B-

Fleming is perhaps the most significant trainer around the bottom of the top ten being the primary trainer for Barry Connell. Indeed he’s the main show in town for Connell now and sent out 92 runners for him whereas his other trainers had just 40 which is a departure from previous seasons. Fleming operated at a high strike rate last term, second only to Mullins in the top ten, but the season was not without its challenges; there was controversy surrounding the departure of Adrian Heskin as Connell’s retained rider while the stable runners didn’t always progress from first to second start and there were also mass withdrawals at the Fairyhouse Easter Festival when the yard were under a cloud. It remains to be seen how successful Connell’s eggs in one basket approach will be into the future.

 

Other notables

Gavan Cromwell deserves mention for his training of Jer’s Girl all season and he gave an object lesson in maximising what you’ve got by avoiding Apple’s Jade and winning a pair of Grade 1’s at home when the bigger name trainers were aiming elsewhere. The likes of Pat Fahy and JJ Walsh also did well but final word must go to Paul Nicholls in England for his sterling effort in retaining his title in a to-the-line battle with Willie Mullins. All this came without a bona-fide Grade 1 horse in the yard and his excellence as a trainer was further proven by the ever-improving offshoots of his training tree, Dan Skelton and Harry Fry.

- Tony Keenan

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