Tony Keenan is the Irish correspondent for geegeez.co.uk. His thought-provoking articles challenge not just punters but also practitioners of the sport in Ireland, many of whom read Tony’s articles.

Tony Keenan: Why I’m Worried About Gambling

I’m worried about gambling. Not my own gambling per se, though a couple more winners would always be appreciated, but where the whole pursuit is going, writes Tony Keenan.

The 2010's were the decade when gambling in Ireland and beyond became normalised. It was hardly an illicit, back-street hobby in the early 2000's but recent years have seen it become utterly mainstream through its ubiquity, from TV ads to football sponsorship, odds making their way into conversations like never before. Technology was the great enabler of this expansion: why go to a betting shop when you could have ten of them in your pocket?

Today, where there is sport, there is betting. It was ever thus for racing and indeed this has been its primary attraction for many (myself included) but it is something new for many sports. This normalisation of gambling may have been the greatest achievement of betting companies, opening up markets and customers that were hitherto unavailable to them, but it seems that a tipping point is about to be reached if we are not already there; have they been too successful in this process and about to be hoist by their own petard?

Sympathy for bookmakers has always been in short supply, the profession ranking close to politicians and solicitors in the public’s eyes, but the last few years have seen a sharp swing in sentiment against them. Our society now demands transparency when much betting market activity is cloudy but campaigners like Brian Chappell and Paul Fairhead, and newspapers like The Guardian, have done sterling work in bringing abject abuses into the light.

They are to be commended for this and have played their part in forcing welcome regulatory changes in the UK, from reduced stakes on FOBTs to banning the use of credit cards for online accounts, with limitations on VIP programmes perhaps to come. Self-regulation by betting companies doesn’t work, such attempts inevitably at odds with commercial concerns and there has been a certain acceptance of this from the firms themselves, publicly at least. They have had to take some pain and there will be more to come but while they needed a kick, a kicking even, do they deserve to be kicked to to the kerb?

Punters need bookmakers unless the whole model of betting in these islands is going to change drastically, and my worry now is that gambling will be used as political capital by those who don’t really understand the area. Gambling and betting companies (and, by extension, punters) are the easiest of targets for politicians looking to score points.

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To the forefront of all this is the very real issue of problem gambling. It is a difficult topic to write about, not least because I have thankfully never been there and hope I never will be. The fear of losing everything is something that lurks in the background with most if not all serious gamblers. That fear is not necessarily a bad thing either; fear can be a great motivator first of all but also act as a regulator if tempted to stake too heavily when we may believe we have a huge edge; racing punters are still betting on animals running around a field.

Nor am I any expert in the statistics of problem gambling which seem to throw up mixed messages and, in any case, those numbers could be wrong: losing a lot of money, often in the most private of fashions, does not seem like something people would want to disclose. It is a concern for society as a whole, perhaps even a public health issue, but most figures seem to bear out the truth that it affects a minority of gamblers and how we deal with the whole gambling area should not be dictated totally by the few when the many it brings joy to many.

I love gambling, particularly gambling on racing, which remains the ultimate betting puzzle with all its variables. I won’t pretend that every aspect of it is good. It can be a self-inflicted emotional roller coaster with losses hard to take, while it comes at a significant time cost if doing it seriously; there are other more productive and beneficial things we could alternatively be at. But, for me at least, the positives outweigh the negatives: among other things, it teaches us how to lose (frequently) and can make us learn to be disciplined, while I have made some of best friends through gambling and racing.

There is also the issue of freedom. Irresponsibility is present in most aspects of life from eating to drinking to driving to internet use; there are many things that aren’t particularly good for you when done to excess and a life spent gambling is hardly contributing much to society. But it is fun and if the majority of people who partake are enjoying it without doing significant harm to others, they should be allowed to continue.

This freedom may well be curtailed in the near-future however, perhaps significantly so. Unlike the UK, Ireland has no Gambling Commission yet but it is coming in some form and how quickly it is expedited will be determined by the next government, which may be less than sympathetic to betting interests. The most popular party in the most recent elections on some measures, Sinn Fein, stated in their manifesto that they would "conduct a short review of the gambling sector and introduce reform to the sector", allowing that these manifestos are often not worth the paper they are printed on after the voting is done.

Any new laws would surely aim to protect the vulnerable which is both a worthy and necessary goal, but should also be cognisant of the fact that not all gambling is problem gambling. The concern would be that regulators could be people with an anti-gambling agenda or may have no grasp of the area and thus the rules could be badly thought out or too draconian.

What form these regulations may take is unclear. An increase in betting tax (perhaps passed on to the punter) would be an obvious one, especially as Horse Racing Ireland have been lobbying for it for a while now. But any new rules seem likely to be more wide-reaching than that - some sort of source-of-funds/affordability check perhaps on the cards. This could be applied on or soon after registration for an online account or appearance in a betting shop and would make it virtually impossible for people to bet beyond their means but at the same time prevent people betting at a scale they are comfortable with.

The amount a punter can bet may be linked to their salary. So a person earning €39,000 (the average industrial wage in Ireland at the end of 2019) may be allowed to lose 10% of that in a year; I am guessing completely here, the figure may be much lower or higher. There is obviously a big difference between turning over that €3,900 in a given period and actually losing it all, but would the regulators know that? A punter can make a tank of that size go a long way in terms of time and they might, heaven forbid, even increase it.

Staking is a very broad church and I would not describe myself as remotely high-staking but nor do I want to do this for fivers and tenners at a time; there has to be some tangible reward for success. I realise gambling regularly can inure you to the value of money and you probably need to be a little loose, not thinking about stakes in terms of cups of coffee, nights out, even holidays. Bookmakers telling you what you can and cannot stake is one thing as there will always be ways and means of getting around their restrictions but government regulation might be something different entirely.

One thing that seems certain is that winning punters of any sort, whether they be making a living or simply getting a few quid, won’t be considered in this. That group have a tendency of finding a way but this could present yet another stumbling block with any sort of increased customer due diligence likely to work against them.

Ultimately, these laws in some form seem inevitable. One would hope that they will be constructed by people who have a real sense of subject matter and that punters won’t get caught in the crossfire between politicians and betting companies where betting volume just gets driven underground, which brings a wealth of other potential problems. Perhaps gambling should never have been allowed to become so utterly normalised but I would not want to see it demonised either.

- TK

Tony Keenan’s Top 10 Races of the Decade (ish)

It’s the end of the decade so forgive me for some reflection and self-indulgence as I look back on my favourite races of the last ten years or so, the ‘or so’ an important part as I’ve included two from 2009 – it’s my top 10 so I can do what I want!

There were two criteria for inclusion: I had to be at the track that day so, for instance, there is no Frankel who I never saw live; and I couldn’t have backed the winner. The latter was to avoid this becoming an exercise in delicious after-timing which is about as interesting as someone going through their Cheltenham ante-post ‘portfolio’ in December.

In almost all cases, I’ve backed another horse in the race but after the initial disappointment/shock/horror/disgust of being on a loser, the value of the race for whatever reason became apparent in hindsight. Here they are, then:

 

  1. Sea The Stars – 2009 Champion Stakes

Every rational part of my being says that Frankel would have beaten Sea The Stars had they met: Frankel had a higher official rating upon retirement, beat better horses and was better on the clock. And yet, the fan/patriot in me – call it what you will – thinks, you know what, maybe, just maybe, there was so much still in the tank with Sea The Stars that he might just have beaten The Big F.

Regardless of this perhaps idle fantasy, seeing the superstar Sea The Stars at Leopardstown in September 2009 in the flesh was a real treat, albeit one that had been in doubt in the run-up to the race with the weather. It was his sole Irish run as a three-year-old, a tilt at the Irish Derby having to be aborted due to – again – weather, and while it is one thing to see a nascent star as a two-year-old at your home tracks, it is quite another to watch them in their pomp, readily dismissing the massed ranks of Ballydoyle who certainly did their part in building his legacy, never failing to re-oppose despite previous defeats suggesting they may have been better running elsewhere.

 

  1. Thousand Stars – 2009 Bar One Racing Handicap Hurdle

This Saturday was one of those days you really wonder what you’re doing at the racetrack, fog having lingered overnight, and all the post-race analyses referencing ‘poor visibility’, the following day’s Hatton’s Grace having to be abandoned. The old saying about ‘a bad day at the races is better than a good day at work’ springs to mind and there was something memorable about the ghostly sport there with its intermittent coverage of the horses and Des Scahill basically opting out of commentating.

Thousand Stars himself really went on after this, winning the County Hurdle later that season before finishing third to Hurricane Fly at Punchestown, and presaging a long career at the top level over hurdles across a variety of trips. He was also one of the early Willie Mullins switchers, something that was to become a feature of Irish jumps racing over the next decade. Bizarrely, this was one of a few ‘fog meetings’ I’ve managed to make in that time; I was at Leopardstown later that year for the third day of the Christmas meeting that was called off halfway through along with the 2013 Thyestes won by Djakadam. On a related issue, please never mention the 2008 York Ebor meeting in my presence, the sole time I made the journey to that track. What a magpie.

 

  1. Long Run – 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup

2011 was the first Festival I was attended, and the Gold Cup was its crowning glory, Long Run versus Kauto Star versus Denman with some Imperial Commander mixed in too. The two Nicholls stars were on the downgrade at this stage, but the fire still burned or at least could be stoked for Cheltenham in March; while Long Run was never to reach the same heights afterwards which said plenty of how hard the second and third made him go. That the rider Sam Waley-Cohen became the first amateur jockey to win the race in 30 years added another layer of significance to the race.

The only other Festival I’ve made was 2016, where the roar that went up when Thistlecrack hit the front in the Stayers’ Hurdle was huge; but this was of a different order. You couldn’t get near the stand for 20 minutes before the race, but we had our position to soak it up and anyone will tell you this sort of moment, on this sort of scale, doesn’t happen in Irish racing. I’ve never been to a big soccer match, some major Monaghan GAA matches as close as I’ve managed but I’m not sure they compare!

  1. Rebel Fitz – 2012 Galway Hurdle

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Ok, so I lied. There is going to be one after-time in here as I did back Rebel Fitz in the 2012 Galway Hurdle and he was a badly needed winner. The race was on August 2nd and that July, when it rained incessantly, was – and still is – the worst punting month of my life. I put that down to the ground making things difficult for mid-summer flat racing; well, that’s my theory anyway.

Rebel Fitz had won the Grimes Hurdle at Tipperary and after some humming and hawing about whether he’d go to Galway, he pitched up as a well-backed second favourite at Ballybrit. He was travelling so well out of the dip that it was simply a case of Davy Russell getting a clear run which he did and then struck the front over the last, but in a moment of premature jock elation Russell eased up near the line and started celebrating only for something to come out of the pack. He held on but the photo finish call was one of the longer few minutes of my life.

The horse to come at him was the then four-year-old Cause Of Causes, at that time owned by the Timeform Racing Club, while the veteran Captain Cee Bee was third. I don’t think this was quite peak-Mick Winters – that came the following year with Missunited – but the trainer certainly knew how to celebrate and I did my best to imitate him in town that night. Funnily enough, I can’t recall much of that.

 

  1. Chicquita – 2013 Irish Oaks

This one is all about the jockey, Johnny Murtagh. Chicquita was, to put it mildly, quirky; ok, let’s be straight, she was a dodge. On her first start as three-year-old, she had fallen after running through a hedge to avoid victory before posting an excellent second to Treve in the Prix de Diane, coming from a long way back before hanging. The ability was clearly there but she would need a master ride to extract it and she got just that from Murtagh who dropped her right on the line to beat Venus De Milo, my bet in the race.

Murtagh, especially during his time at Ballydoyle, had a habit of winning on ungenuine horses. There was nothing I hated more than when he went to the front on a runner I had opposed due to attitude concerns only for the horse to get into a rhythm and never be headed; I’ve seen that movie tens of times. Chicquita herself made a record €6 million at the sales later that year, in no small part due to Murtagh’s excellence. I hope he got a tip!

 

  1. Treve – 2013 Arc Prix De L’Arc De Triomphe

I attended the Arc for the first and only time in 2013 with a good pal (always a decent start) though the weekend had a none too auspicious start; heading to the track on Saturday, news came through that our ante-post bet Novellist had been ruled out with injury. The couple of days racing at the old Longchamp was fine though I did feel a little cut off from the wider racing world; it wasn’t quite that I wanted to see the bumper at Tipperary’s Super Sunday on the big screen but there seemed to be a complete lack of awareness about anything else that was going on. Maybe that’s the point.

Anyway, I digress, which, in fairness, is probably the point of this whole exercise! Treve was magnificent in landing her first Arc when everything about race-reading said she couldn’t win with what went wrong, but she came home five lengths clear. Having sweated up, she raced wide and was very keen, her jockey making a premature move at a time when the pace was lifting, and yet she still managed to cruise to the lead and win without being asked a question. Wow.

 

  1. Hurricane Fly – 2015 Irish Champion Hurdle

Hurricane Fly definitely brought me more financial pain than joy over the years but he was a constant in top-class hurdles races for the first half of this decade and I managed to be there for his first Irish win in the Royal Bond (when I was on Donnas Palm) and his final one, this race (where I was on Jezki). He won some uncompetitive contests en route to his record haul of Grade 1’s but he raced against some very good horses too, his career intersecting with the likes of Solwhit and Faugheen amongst others.

Jezki was his foil though and it looked like being that one’s day at Leopardstown in January 2015 as Hurricane Fly seemed in bother two out when tight for room and his old rival cruised to the lead, but a mistake at the last ended his chance and, as so often in the past, the Fly found a way to win. If ever a horse deserved a statue.

 

  1. Almanzor – 2016 Champion Stakes

Objectively speaking, Almanzor’s Champion Stakes was the best and deepest flat race run in Ireland in the past decade: the best running of what is typically the best race, year in, year out. It brought together a who’s who of middle-distance horses that season, subsequent Arc winner Found, seven-time Group 1 winner Minding, the Derby winner Harzand and future globe-trotter Highland Reel amongst them.

Christophe Soumillon gave the winner a beautiful ride, arriving late and wide, and while his mount didn’t build on it during an injury-spoiled four-year-old campaign, for that moment and a few weeks later at Ascot he was the best of his generation, a rare French raider in Ireland these days.

 

  1. Sizing John – 2017 Irish Gold Cup

Leopardstown is probably my favourite track. The viewing is excellent there, I like how the facilities are laid out and it has quality racing, flat and jumps. It’s the place I went racing first and typically the track I visit most often in the year. Being on course for this meeting, the final Irish Gold Cup before the Dublin Racing Festival was launched the following year, wasn’t the smartest move as the weather was appalling with the place empty by the time of the bumper. To compound matters I had brought my soon-to-be wife, which seemed like a good idea at the time.

We were treated to Sizing John having his first run over three miles, however, Robbie Power riding with a mix of confidence and concern for stamina, only arriving at the last to lead. That race was his second in a four-month period when he was basically unbeatable, ultimately winning three versions of a Gold Cup in that time. Upped in distance, he finally stepped out of the shadow of Douvan and, while he has been mainly on the side-lines since, his legacy is secure. Enjoy them while they’re here.

 

  1. Pat Smullen Champions Races for Cancer Trials Ireland 2019

There were some very good horses running on the second day of Irish Champions Weekend in 2019, Pinatubo and Kew Gardens among them; but the meeting was more about man than beast this year. Pat Smullen had gathered the great and good of retired riders, some recent, some not so recent, to take part in a flat handicap over a mile, which culminated with the winning-most jockey of all-time, Tony McCoy, holding off Ruby Walsh in a driving finish.

Few will remember the names of the moderate-to-decent handicappers that ran in the race, but it would be hard to forget the atmosphere on the day despite the miserable weather. Racing, generally such a factional sport, joined together on the day for a most worthy cause, jockeys going around with buckets asking punters to dig deep, everyone doing their small part in the face of what can be an unbeatable illness.

- TK

National Hunt Season Preview 2019/20

Strictly speaking, the 2019/20 jumps season began back on May 5th but for most everything that has happened since then and through the summer has been shadow-boxing, writes Tony Keenan. There were good races at Galway along with graded races sprinkled across other country tracks but the best of Irish national hunt racing didn't get going until Down Royal last weekend, and will really start firing when moving on to the traditional winter tracks like Navan, Fairyhouse and Punchestown. So, what are the things to look out at those venues across the next few months?

 

Paul Townend – How does he handle the pressure?

Townend is already a two-time champion jockey, those wins coming last season and in 2010/11, though both were largely the by-product of Ruby Walsh injuries. Judging on the pace he has set in the first six months – 49 winners through the end of October – he should be winning again entirely under his own steam, that figure broadly in line with what previous champions have had at this stage of the year in the season of their victories.

Like last time, when Rachael Blackmore was his biggest danger, he faces a somewhat unusual challenger in the shape of presumptive champion conditional Darragh O’Keeffe who has set a record pace in his own grade; but, in reality, if Townend stays sound the title is his to lose.

There will be pressure to retain his title, but one suspects that won’t matter as much to the jockey as his desire to perform on the big day, a point he made clear in a September Irish Field interview with Daragh Ó’Conchuir. Townend opined that "the big thing would be the Grade 1's [and] if we can get one of them on the board early it’d be a big help".

He went on to say that even a short time without one of those big winners can put a weight on a rider’s shoulders: "You carry that. You mightn’t be riding any worse but it’ll be there in the back of your mind: ‘you need this’. I think it comes with any sport, a big result is the only way to deal with it."

Townend knows what this feels like as there have been times over the past few years when there have mini-droughts of this type; when standing in for Ruby Walsh at the 2017 Christmas Festival at Leopardstown, he won a Grade 1 on the first day with Footpad but after that the likes of Min, Nichols Canyon, Yorkhill and Faugheen were all beaten. Then there was Al Boum Photo-gate at Punchestown, a ride that remains unexplained to this day, the jockey never satisfactorily dealing with the reasons behind it in public.

There have been many times over the past decade where Townend has been the lead jockey at Closutton but on those occasions Walsh was always coming back; that is no longer the case and he can expect to be second-guessed about many things over the coming months.

Walsh himself was no stranger to that – his propensity for falling off at the last, whether variance or something else, was much discussed – but one thing he rarely got wrong was in choosing the right horse. That’s a whole other layer to the pressure the Mullins job brings and, while the trainer should be a help in that regard, he has plenty of other jockeys most of whom are related to him.

 

Gordon Elliott – What can he do to prepare for Gigginstown leaving?

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This is not quite year one AG (After Gigginstown) for Gordon Elliott, the champion owner set to phase out his racing interests over the next five years, but nor it is unreasonable to think that this might be the biggest challenge of Elliott's career. Aside from those trainers that operate privately, there can hardly be a big yard that is more dominated by a single owner than Elliott’s: of the 312 individual runners he had in 2018/19, 103 (or 34%) were owned by Michael O’Leary.

Those 103 horses were concentrated towards the top, his top six horses in terms of Irish prize money earned all being Gigginstown-owned; while 12 of his top twenty fitted the same criteria. Comparing what is happening to him and the Gigginstown move away from Willie Mullins in autumn 2016 is apples and oranges, with Elliott losing the horses gradually, but it is interesting nonetheless.

In the previous season, 2015/16, Mullins ran 191 individual horses with 42 (or 22%) owned by Gigginstown; none of his top five prize-money horses ran in the maroon and white while only five of his top twenty did so. Mullins was able to rebound quickly in terms of overall stable size, running 184 individual horses in 2016/17 and 212 in 2017/18.

Where Mullins had to deal with their departure overnight, Elliott gets time and, though that may seem an easier proposition, it brings its own challenges as he has to balance doing the best for the Gigginstown horses still in training (and perhaps hoping against hope that further success will change O’Leary’s mind) while at the same time building for the future.

There are pressures to do with his staffing too with many members likely hired just to cope with the huge Gigginstown numbers. They will understandably be worrying about their futures. Perhaps it will be a case that other owners – who may be easier to satisfy – will be willing to come on board now that Gigginstown are leaving, Elliott doing well to attract the likes of Cheveley Park into the yard.

In any case, it’s been a long time since Gigginstown weren’t a massive part of the Cullentra House operation, and how Elliott begins to deal with their phased departure is something to keep an eye on.

 

The Two-Mile Chase Division: Who will rise to the top?

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the two-mile chase division has been stale over the past few seasons – looking at a great horse like Altior going on a 19-race unbeaten run is hardly a bad thing – but it has certainly been static. There was the odd flash of fragility with him last term, at Ascot when jumping markedly left and when rather falling in during the Champion Chase, but it seems as if he is destined to go up in trip in any case now.

The usual suspects will be hoping to fill the void but the likes of Min (Cheltenham form figures: 225), Politologue (Cheltenham figures: U0442) and Sceau Royal (Cheltenham figures: 1016213) would all be sub-standard winners of a Champion Chase and it seems much more likely that the top two-miler of 2019/20 emerges from last season’s novice crop.

The Arkle winner would seem the most sensible place to start but there is the distinct possibility that Duc De Genievres was the third best two-mile novice chaser in his yard last season and while he was brilliant on the day at Cheltenham, clearing 13 lengths ahead of the second and officially rated 163 afterwards, he had won just once in eight previous starts for Mullins in a race without the likes of Le Richebourg and Dynamite Dollars.

Both Cilaos Emery and Chacun Pour Soi seemed thought of as his clear superiors last term but they have had their issues too, neither able to stay sound for long enough to put a full season together lately. Keeping them both right will be a challenge but the chances are that one will stay intact and hopefully it will be Chacun Pour Soi who is amazingly already rated 167 over fences despite only having had two chase starts; it seems almost obscene but that mark is merited.

 

The Ground: What will we get this winter?

The past few campaigns have seen the going flip from season-to-season; in 2017/18 it was all soft ground whereas last season it was all fast and now we are back to a period of slow ground again. Good ground defined last season in many ways, and it is notable in all the recent stable tours how many trainers have commented on it between horses that never got their ground, horses that didn’t run at all on it, or horses that got injured.

The facts of last season are worth repeating. In the 2018/19 Irish national hunt season, 87 (or 84%) of graded non-handicaps were run on going described as yielding or faster, a massive chunk of the pattern. Dublin Racing Festival was spoiled by it, the form of that meeting not working out anything like as well as it had previously; Fairyhouse just about coped with it, while Punchestown got lucky with some rain and was likely the pick of the big three Irish spring meetings, at least in terms of valuable form for this season.

Plenty of horses will have been convenienced or inconvenienced by this. Readers will have their own views on who those horses may be but for me the likes of Sharjah, Ornua and even Kemboy got their ground for most of the season while the likes of Moyhenna, Ministerforsport and Discorama are three that didn’t.

Moyhenna is a particularly interesting case. After a promising start to her chasing career on soft ground, she became disappointing in three runs on faster but her trainer managed to find her some heavy ground at Limerick in March where she bolted up by 25 lengths. By that point she was in such good form she was able to defy better ground in a valuable handicap chase for mares back at Punchestown and is one to keep on side should we get a bad winter, her form figures on ground Timeform describe as soft or worse reading 334112421.

Those are horses that ran away during last winter despite not having their ground, but some trainers were more circumspect and just didn’t run their horses at all. Willie Mullins for one took that approach with his bumper horses, running just 17 bumper debutants from the start of December to the end of the season which resulted in him having just one runner in the Champion Bumper.

Across the same time period in the previous season, Mullins had run 30 such first-time starters and had five runners in the Champion Bumper. He was still able to win the Punchestown equivalent of that race with the experienced Colreevy, but one suspects that he has a backlog of bumper horses, a year more mature now, ready to go this winter.

- TK

Tony Keenan: Focus for Optimal Betting Decisions

Over the summer, I read a book called ‘The Organized Mind’ by Daniel Levitin, a handbook of sorts on how to get by without being overwhelmed in an age of information overload, writes Tony Keenan. Levitin’s central idea is that we should offload information from the brain onto the physical world, be it in the form of compiling a to-do list if we struggle to recall all that has to be done or simply buying a key hook if you constantly lose your car keys.

Along with simple advice like that, there are detailed explanations on the importance of sleep and illusion of multi-tasking: Levitin is ‘death’ on the latter, saying that rather than increasing productivity, multi-tasking leads to less work and sloppier work. Multi-tasking is all about trying to do too much at once, asking the brain to make lots of decisions when there is a finite limit on the amount of information it can absorb.

This, I think, is where betting comes in as it is essentially a decision-making game. For Levitin, the best decision-making comes from using something called optimal complexity theory, the idea that too little information is no good but so is too much. This applies with any decision we make, like buying a house or car say. Having too many parameters to consider leads to confusion in decision-making, with humans apparently unable to process more than ten variables for any choice, the optimal number being closer to five.

Consumers (and punters) make better choices when they get to control the parameters they get but that isn’t always easy as research shows that people are unable to ignore information that isn’t relevant to them. This is one of the dilemmas facing the modern racing punter. Racing has always been a complicated sport and is getting more complicated, or at more more information rich; whatever your thoughts on sectionals, striding and horse weights, there is only going to be more data coming.

Sorting between what is important and what is noisier is the challenge, especially when most analysis of an individual race is time-bounded from declaration stage to post-time. With all this in mind, I spoke to three experienced punters about the handful of factors they believe are optimal for their analysis and some variables they believe are overrated.

Nick is a UK-based punter who has been betting for nearly 40 years and tends to focus on better handicaps, dismissing maidens, juvenile races, claimers and anything below Class 4 with the aim of being what he calls ‘a happy backer with uncluttered thinking.’ Watching replays of races is at the core of what he does, paying more attention to the first half of the race than second.

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“First of all, I see the performance [on the day] and think what is the right kind of race or track for the animal in question. In the end you must live or die by your judgment even if it is sometimes wrong, there are certain horses you see and think that’s got County Hurdle or Ayr Gold Cup written all over it.”

He uses niche angles (my term, not his), “trying to look at things in a different way and the more you look or read, sometimes these things come to you.” He cites the example of the old Breeders’ Cup Marathon when one of the commentators jokingly mentioned that the US horses would ‘need oxygen’ over the staying trip which put him onto the non-US horses that won several of the later renewals of the race.

He is less keen on the usefulness of the draw. “With rail movements and selective watering, draw biases are changing so much unless it’s on a round course and even then there are places like Chester that can have their rail so far out that it wasn’t a disadvantage to be drawn high. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be too dogmatic about these things and keeping up with every course is difficult.”

Pre-race pace analysis is another variable Nick thinks is of questionable value. “Analysis of how the race might be run is probably read by all now, including connections, and I think this leads to races being run differently to how we might think. There seem to be fewer pace burn-ups than there used to be, and I can’t remember many big handicaps being won by hold-up horses; my tracker is full of them to my cost!”

Like Nick, Irish-based ‘Paul’ (not his real name) says “the number one is watching the replays of all the races and while it can be a grind nonetheless it has to be done.” He goes on, “I don’t tend to spend much effort on time or sectionals as there is little or no data available on Irish racing anyway so there’s no point in worrying too much about it.”

Handicaps are among his favourite races to play in though he rarely backs a horse first time in one as “a lot of horses coming from maidens have never really been asked to race hard. Most of them might never have been ridden out in a finish with four or five taps of the whip, and a first run in a handicap is usually much more competitive than anything they’ve been doing in maidens.” He does like “horses dropping in grade from a 0-75 handicap into a 0-65”, something that can be missed a little.

With such variety among the Irish tracks, ‘Paul’ often looks at “horses for courses with the quirky tracks like Tramore, Galway and Kilbeggan.” The weather also plays a part in his betting with the Met.ie website in constant use. “The ground can change very quickly at places like Roscommon which can be helpful when backing ones in the morning knowing the rain may be due and softer ground will hamper the market leaders.”

In common with the previous two punters, ‘Matthew’ (again, not his real name) believes in the value of replays, watching “pretty much every race, every day” while making as many notes as possible, but knowing that obviously unlucky horses aren’t going to be much use as he bets late and that information will already be in the market. Betting mainly on UK races, he places a lot of importance on “knowing the track quirks” and “any biases caused by pace, wind, kickback or uneven going can be rich source for finding bets.”

‘Matthew’ was a relatively early adopter of sectional times, on board since the early part of this decade, and says they “are very useful when looking at lightly-raced types because most maidens and novices are so sl0wly-run that speed figures don’t cut it.” With young horses, he looks out for “ones that are held up and/or slowly-way and the pace has a [finishing speed] of say 105% or more, but they make a move into the race and maybe flatten out with the overall time-figure not looking great.” He cites A’Ali on debut at Ripon as a good example of this where “Spartan Fighter dictated against a favoured rail while A’Ali made up a couple of lengths on the bridle in the hot part of the race which is typically the three-furlong pole to the one-furlong pole in most slowly-run races.”

‘Matthew’ uses a database and he says “it is great for throwing out bad theories you have as well as working out when angles are being adjusted to by the market.” He also uses it for sire and trainer stats as well as “pace stats by course and distance which can point in the direction of more biases.”

As with Nick, he finds “the draw is an overrated factor by pundits [and] normally the market has adjusted for it and if anything tend to over-adjust so wide draws can be a smidgen of value.” Another factor he thinks is overbet are “horses that look like they will improve going up in trip” and he much prefers “a horse that’s gone too fast recently dropping in trip.”

So that is what some of the judges think are optimal factors for making betting decisions, what about you?

- TK

Tony Keenan: A chat with Fran Berry

It is hardly controversial to say that sports coverage relies too much on former participants, that group all too often bringing bias to their analysis and sometimes tending away from criticism of current players, be they jockeys or trainers, even when it is obviously deserved, writes Tony Keenan. Racing is not the worst sport for this – watch ‘Match of the Day’ or ‘The Sunday Game’ and you will struggle to find a panellist that didn’t play the game – but even so I hardly fill with enthusiasm when I hear of another ex-jockey embarking on a career in TV, wondering if they’re going to be one of those ‘how many winners have you ridden?’ types.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, when on one of his first shifts for Racing TV, Group 1-winning former rider Fran Berry questioned, in the most polite way possible (because he tends to do things politely), the attitude of a few of the runners on the card. There is no mileage in calling anyone’s horse a dodge – not least because almost every dog has its day – but, as Berry says, talking about when he was riding horses with temperament in the past, "you might call a horse ungenuine but often there’s an underlying physical problem and a year later you find out it’s a bleeder or has had its wind done or is retired with injury.

"But as a jockey (or a punter or an analyst) you’re dealing with the here and now and when you’re aboard one like that you weigh up everything, but sometimes you’re just riding them for a place and just hope everything falls right. Horses can take heart by passing a few but while ultimately they might lie down in the end, you have to try to make it as easy as possible for them."

Berry had been out of Ireland for a few years, riding in the UK from 2016 before injuries sustained in a fall at Wolverhampton in January this year called time on his race-riding career. Having ridden extensively in both jurisdictions, he sees some differences between the two.

"Riding in the UK, you could be taking 600 or 700 mounts a year, you do your form (it is apparent Berry is a form nerd!) and replays and things but in most cases, you won’t have sat on them before the race. So, you have to be guided by what people are telling you and get a feel going to the start which is a tight window of time.

"In England, there are massive time constraints on jockeys. I had a driver and not to have one is a false economy. The likes of Oisin Murphy and Harry Bentley have form men which is a good idea and could be cheap at any price when you’re taking ten rides a day for different trainers. You can know too much but I’d rather that than know too little."

The weighing room in Ireland has changed a lot since Berry moved to the UK three years ago; so much so that a former colleague remarked to him recently that he was over in Ireland for a ride and barely recognised any of those riding against him.

"There’s been monumental change in the ranks lately: Pat Smullen is gone, I left, Joseph O’Brien came and went, Donnacha has come in. That’s left some big holes but also more opportunities for lads, Billy Lee being one who has come to hand. Really there’s been more change in the last three years than in the previous two decades apart from Mick Kinane and Johnny Murtagh retiring."

Race-riding in Ireland also has some essential differences from the UK.

"The lack of pace in Irish racing relative to English is very noticeable, with races tending to be much truer run in England. A lot of that is down to the tracks, Irish tracks are often sharper tracks and lend themselves to getting out early and taking a position. Riding in Ireland is a lot tighter, it’s a contact sport really with lots of barging and battling for position."

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This close-packed style of racing is something that is often celebrated by practitioners, Ted Walsh commenting on RTE recently how much he liked to see jockeys riding ‘tight’, the recent Galway Hurdle a good example of this.

About pace and sectionals, Berry sees this as more of a rest of the world thing that is coming into UK racing, but not really an Irish thing yet.

"I learned more about pace riding abroad in Singapore, Macau and especially Japan where every horse is chipped. Analysis of sectionals has become more prevalent with At The Races and particularly Simon Rowlands, and trainers in the UK are into them and will often be using their own form man."

When riding, Berry says that "subconsciously you try to gauge how strong the gallop is, be it fast, medium or slow, but telling much more than that in-race is difficult." However, he feels that pace is only one part of race-riding and making a move to counteract a slow pace can be counter-productive.

"It is easy to say when analysing a race afterwards that the jockey had to know they were going slow and should have moved up but that can be difficult depending on where you’re positioned. Let’s say you’re sixth on the rail. Mid-race moves are generally inefficient ones, on occasion I’ve tried to wheel forward and get in, but the other riders see you doing that and quicken up. You’re also dealing with an animal, and mentally setting them alight at that point comes at a cost, they may do too much and have nothing left for the finish."

Even planned changes of tactics from the outset can be present difficulties.

"Wind issues are a massive thing with horses now and that plays a part in tactics, it seems every second horse over jumps wears a tongue-tie while in the UK loads of horses have wind operations. Those horses have to be ridden accordingly, some like to get out and into a rhythm whereas some choke and if you ask them too soon, they flip their palette and don’t finish out their races and might need exaggerated tactics."

Much of Berry’s thinking on how horses should be ridden and educated comes from his time spent with John Oxx where "it was massive to have a good experience first time out, to drop them in and have them running through horses, teach them something that will stand to them so you can ride them wherever you want next time."

Berry believes sectional times can be "great for teaching lads the ideal scenario but in the race itself those riders have got to use their own judgement along with knowledge of the horse they’re riding."

When asked about whether the jockey feels the pace themselves or the horse gives you the signals, he says "if you know the horse, and it’s usually pretty good to travel, unless there’s something up with it and it’s not travelling well then you know the pace is too fast."

In general, he says "you can’t beat riding a track a few times to know what it’s about. If I’m somewhere for the first time, I’ll walk it and look for landmarks as in reality it’s difficult to see the furlong poles. A sponsor’s board will be bigger and is a better visual marker and that’s something useful especially at tracks with long straights like York where the temptation is to get racing too soon; you see the stands and think you’re already there."

Race-riding and form is something that still fascinates Berry and we certainly drew a few strange looks from other customers while watching random replays and looking at sectional time spreadsheets in the coffee shop where we met. The Irish Derby won by Sovereign came under discussion and Berry pointed out that "the Curragh Derby track is much shaper than the Plate (outer) track so if you’re too far back, they’re always getting away from you."

He also ventured an interesting point-of-view regarding what Ryan Moore on Anthony Van Dyck and Chris Hayes on Madhmoon may have been thinking when the leaders got away from them. "They are probably thinking that if I go now, I am only going to bottom my own horse so whatever chance I have of winning [if the front-runners come back], I’m not going to set it up for another one. If you do that, you’re getting the same result or worse anyway and trying to roll five out at the Curragh when the downhill part starts means you won’t get home."

The Irish Oaks also came under discussion as did the much-vaunted but latterly disappointing Visinari. Iridessa was well-fancied for the Oaks but disappointed and for Berry "she’s doing something out of character in the straight. She’s usually a strong traveller and should be tanking in a slowly-run mile-and-a-half race but she’s ill-at-ease and you can tell from Wayne Lordan’s body language that he’s not happy. Her head is coming up and the hind legs are fluent, the jockey is getting no push behind the saddle and her action is falling apart as her stride shortens."

On Visinari (who he describes as "James Willougby’s horse"’!), Berry is more interested in watching him after the line in the July Stakes than the race itself.

"Look at how narrow he is compared to the Aidan O’Brien horse [Royal Lytham], that one is a real stocky, forward-looking horse. Visinari is big long rake, narrow at the neck, unfurnished and was galloping on his head, going up and down. I suspect if you see him in the ring, it’s likely he hasn’t levelled off, the front and back section don’t match up. That lack of physical strength might be what beat him; he could be a horse for next year though you would need to see him in the flesh as he may always look like that."

I could have gone on all day watching back various replays and asking for more of Berry’s views, but politeness made me draw the line at pulling up random low-grade Irish races to see what he thought about how a horse had handled the trip or ground or track. As something of a fellow form nerd, I suspect he might have had a view though!

Fran Berry is an analyst on Racing TV and writes a weekly column on the Sporting Life.

 

Tony Keenan: Blinkered Thinking

When I first got into racing seriously way back when, I remember being absolutely death on horses with temperament, writes Tony Keenan. High head carriage, tail flashing, hanging, you name it, I wanted to be against it and lord help anything wearing blinkers as I subscribed to the old belief that they were the badge of a rogue. My attitude has softened somewhat since (though not totally) as I have realised that like most things in racing, the use of headgear is far more complicated than that though the universal truth that horses in headgear win less and are generally worse bets than those without still applies.

The table below covers all Irish flat racing from 2010 to 2018, turf and all-weather, a total of nearly 10,000 races and is broken down by different types of headgear. Unless otherwise stated, all figures in this article refer to that nine-year period.

Performance by headgear worn, Irish racing 2010-2019

Performance by headgear worn, Irish racing 2010-2019

 

Different headgear is used for different reasons: blinkers, cheekpieces and visors typically used to sharpen horses up, hoods often intended to have the opposite effect and settle a buzzy type. They are used on all sorts of horses too, among them lazy horses, out-of-form horses, temperamental horses and keen horses and can on occasion have a transformative effect.

For the purposes of this article, I decided to look at how the main Irish flat trainers (and by ‘main’ I mean the 30 trainers who have had most runners on the level this decade) tend to use headgear. I won’t bore you with the full 30 trainers but below are the top five and bottom five along with other relevant people in order of how frequently they use headgear.

 

The top five would all be regarded as mainly training handicappers and with such horses small margins matter; a little tinkering around the edges with headgear, trying something new here and there, could make the difference between getting a win out of a horse in a season or not. Dermot Weld stands out as the main user of headgear of the bigger yards with most of the other major trainers in the bottom half of the table, Kevin Prendergast someone who seems to avoid using equipment like this if possible.

Trainers often have strong preferences one way or the other about which headgear they use and during the rest of the article I’ll go through the main four headgear types (blinkers, cheekpieces, visors and hoods) and look at who does and doesn’t use them. Just because a trainer uses headgear a lot, it does not mean that they are successful with it; I wonder if, like doctors who tend to prescribe the same treatment when they see a certain set of symptoms, trainers too have their default or ‘go-to’ headgear.

 

Blinkers

Use of blinkers, selected Irish trainers, 2010-2019
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Use of blinkers, selected Irish trainers, 2010-2019

Dermot Weld is a prolific user of blinkers considering the make-up of his stable, if not a particularly discerning one: his overall win strike rate and actual over expected are 16.9% and 0.85 respectively in the period covered but they drop to 11.6% and 0.68 with the blinkers. He basically never uses cheekpieces with just two winners and four places from 36 runners though Falcon Eight did improve on that record at Sandown last weekend.

On the other hand, Andy Slattery is someone who seems to manage both volume and efficiency, returning a high actual/expected despite running lots of horses in blinkers, though a lot of that is down to his stalwart Ucanchoose who has won seven times wearing that accessory. When his horses take to blinkers they really take to them though and Cityman is one that has improved for their application lately.

It is interesting to see both Johnny Murtagh and Michael Mulvany both have good actual/expected figures considering how sparingly they use blinkers while it also worth pointing out the negatives, the following yards having sub-0.6 actual/expected numbers in blinkers: John Murphy (0.6), Kevin Prendergast (0.58), Pat Martin (0.58), Pat Flynn (0.5),  Andy Oliver (0.34) and Tracey Collins (0.27).

 

Cheekpieces

Use of cheekpieces, selected Irish trainers, 2010-2019

Use of cheekpieces, selected Irish trainers, 2010-2019

 

Kevin Prendergast clearly won’t even let cheekpieces into his yard, having not run a single horse in them since 2010, while it is interesting to note that both Slattery and Weld, who use blinkers regularly, rarely go for this piece of kit.

Michael Halford is just outside the top five in terms of cheekpiece usage rate at 19.5% (versus using blinkers only 4.0% of the time) and several of his better horses in years past - like Quinmaster, Russian Soul, Hujaylea and Invincible Ash - ran in them.

Adrian McGuinness uses blinkers an awful lot but his record with cheekpieces is much better; with blinkers he has a win strikerate of 6.4% and an actual over expected of 0.65 whereas with cheekpieces he is 11.6% and 1.11. Saltonstall – previously a high-class handicapper with Halford – seems to have come back into form for the cheekpieces on his last two starts.

As to the negatives, the following trainers all have sub-0.60 actual/expected figures with cheekpieces applied: Weld (0.52),  Joe Murphy (0.51), Pat Flynn (0.5), and Slattery (0.42), Tracey Collins (0.36) and John McConnell (0.28).

 

Visor

Use of visor, selected Irish trainers, 2010-2019

Use of visor, selected Irish trainers, 2010-2019

The visor is much less extensively used than either blinkers or cheekpieces and I didn’t include the bottom five here in usage rate as some trainers don’t bother with them at all; the likes of Jim Bolger, Ger Lyons, John Murphy and Andy Slattery have never used them in the period covered.

It is worth mentioning that the visor is a positive with Aidan O’Brien-trained runners (15 winners from 61 runners with an actual/expected of 1.23) and Patrick Prendergast also does well with it (21 from 138 runners for an actual/expected of 1.16) so perhaps we will see more John Oxx-trained horses in it going forward.

 

Hood

Use of hood, selected Irish trainers, 2010-2019

Use of hood, selected Irish trainers, 2010-2019

Like the visor, hoods are still not all that widely-used but Edward Lynam is a name that interests me here as the hood is the piece of headgear that his horses run best in; his actual/expected rates with blinkers, cheekpieces and visors are 0.63, 0.74 and 0.45 respectively which jumps to 1.03 with the hood. That would fit with his reputation as a trainer of sprinters.

Garvan Donnelly is the name that doesn’t make the top 30 Irish trainers in the period covered but he does well with his hooded runners (10 winners from 85 runners with an A/E of 1.2) while last mention must go to the blinker king Andy Slattery whose horses have not responded well to the hood (1/41 with an A/E of 0.21).

- TK

Tony Keenan: 2018/19 Irish Jumps Season Review: Four Things

I’m belatedly getting around to wrapping up the Irish jumps season but don’t feel quite so bad for being two weeks behind everyone else with probably the most significant event of the campaign happening last week, Michael O’Leary announcing that Gigginstown would be wound up within five years. Let’s start with that.

 

  1. Gigginstown Going

As a viewer of and writer about Irish racing, Gigginstown and the O’Learys has been box office for the last decade or so, their impact on the game covered elsewhere on the site in March. The retirement of Ruby Walsh will likely be the event that 2018/19 is most remembered for – in the grand scheme of things, no one really cares about owners – but in terms of impact on the broader sport it doesn’t come close to Michael O’Leary’s decision.

The reasons for his move have already been much discussed with some, myself included, wondering if wanting to spend time with teenage children is the real motivation, that age group typically wanting to avoid their parents as much as possible, but ultimately that is all speculation and a bit like the split with Willie Mullins, we may never know the truth.

But one thing that has been evident over the last few years is a rising tide of negativity against Gigginstown domination with some of that coming from medium-sized trainers who have struggled without O’Leary patronage. Those murmurings likely had no impact on O’Leary judging on how he conducts himself in business and those trainers may now be looking forward to a brave new world of more horses in their yard, cheaper horses at the sales and the chance of winning better races. All I can say is: be careful what you wish for.

Much of racing is made up of different interest groups, many of whose interests are in straight opposition with others, but as a punter I will miss Gigginstown massively. The ‘bet the blue cap’ system became a running joke as their second and third and fourth strings won race after race but it said a lot for how their horses were campaigned. There is often a sense when betting that someone will know more than you but with their horses it never felt like it was so much more that you didn’t have a chance with a formbook.

Gordon Elliott looks the big loser in all this and he will find it disheartening that around this time last year O’Leary promised to spend even more to help make him Champion Trainer. Mullins versus Elliott has not been perfect but it is eminently preferable to the Mullins versus himself period we had in the early part of the decade. Elliott forced Mullins to run his good horses more if he wanted to retain his position as Champion Trainer and the concern would be that he reverts to cautious type if the competition wanes.

As to the bloodstock side of things, I refer back to a line from Henry Beeby, Group Chief Executive at Goffs, in my previous piece on Gigginstown when he said there was a time when people worried about what would happen if ‘Robert Sangster never bought another yearling’ and ‘we should never underestimate the resilience of the industry.’ I hope he’s right.

 

  1. The Rachael and Henry Show

Rachael Blackmore was always going to be the story emerging from Knockeen this season, the narrative of unheralded female jockey amidst pioneering campaign much preferable to good trainer having career season; so let’s start with the runner-up in the jockeys’ championship without underplaying the role of Henry de Bromhead.

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The rise of Blackmore could be seen coming early in the season after a fine period in the summer and it was one of the most joyful things about 2018/19; she seemed to relish each big race success, never taking it for granted, her status as one not to the racing manor born endearing her to fans of the sport. With her success there was no drop off in work ethic, indeed she may have worked harder than ever, taking 615 mounts in Ireland over the course of the season. Sean Flanagan was next best with 511, and no other Irish-based jockey had more than 486 rides.

Perhaps this is peak-Rachael, and if it is what a peak it was, but I would be far from sure of that and it is notable that her biggest wins of the season (three Grade 1s, one of them at Cheltenham, along with another winner there) came on novices which was the strength of the de Bromhead yard this past season.

The narrative around de Bromhead for years has been that his horses jump well and while that is a compliment, he will likely be pleased that this season they became good winners as well as good jumpers. His 98 winners and €1.962 million in prizemoney was a clear lifetime best – 68 winners and €1.589 million prizemoney his previous top in 2016/17 – and the most notable aspect of his total was how much of it came from novices.

He won 73 races in the UK and Ireland with novices this past season from 105 total winners, behind only Mullins, Elliott, Dan Skelton and Nicky Henderson in novice winners; and those novices like Minella Indo, Honeysuckle and A Plus Tard went on to compete in (and win) the best races. The departure of Gigginstown will be a blow but he is not completely reliant on them with only three of his top ten prizemoney earners in Ireland running in maroon and white.

They were Sub Lieutenant, Judgement Day and Nick Lost, hardly the most progressive trio for all they were placed to pick up plenty of cheques in 2018/19, and his better horses and prospects run for other owners, some of them new to the yard like Cheveley Park and Kenneth Alexander. Having early success for those two won’t do the trainer any harm.

 

  1. Good isn’t much good

A dry winter meant fast ground for much of the national hunt season proper with all its attendant moaning and withdrawals. It also meant a lot of recycled form, the same horses running against each other under similar conditions from week to week, and if I ever see another two mile handicap chase with Kildorrery, Impact Factor and Duca De Thaix running against each other it will be too soon.

On a serious note, a season where 84% of the pattern was run on goodish ground is not ideal; of the 104 graded non-handicaps in 2018/19, 87 were run on yielding or faster. It was a rare opportunity for good ground horses that had little chance to show their best the previous wet winter but ultimately jumps racing is not designed to be run on a fast surface; the horses are too big, the impact of jumping, particularly over fences, is too much.

There was pressure on courses to water ahead of major meetings with some getting it right, Fairyhouse at Easter and the Punchestown Festival generally coming in for praise, and others not so much, Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival plagued by withdrawals. The track were in an invidious position with frost in the run-up to the meeting and forecast rain not falling but one notable factor was how form from that meeting worked out.

Certainly it wasn’t the bonanza of 2018 when eight Festival winners emerged from the meeting with only two successful this time around. Klassical Dream and Envoi Allen were the pair, and they are about the two most exciting younger jumpers in Ireland right now. Apple’s Jade was one that wasn’t the same afterwards though there may have been seasonal reason for that and the meeting did no harm to the likes of Supasundae and Min judged on their Aintree exploits.

One does worry if a warmer climate in these islands might be as big a threat as there is to national hunt racing. Punchestown is one track that is quite forward-thinking in this regard, an announcement made in The Irish Field before their big meeting that they were expanding their reservoir with a view to future-proofing their water source ‘to provide almost ten times the current water storage capacity’ while also investing in ‘a long-term irrigation system’. If this season is anything to go by it will be needed.

 

  1. The Spread of Graded Success

When previewing the jumps season, I had noted the growing domination of Mullins and Elliott in graded races (hardly revelatory, I know) but one interesting feature of this past season was a greater spread of Graded success as seen in the following table which suggests a reversal of a pattern that seemed to be going only one way:

Perhaps the ground played its part – Mullins for one seemed reluctant to risk many of his horses on a decent surface and also went through a quiet spell around the New Year – and it will be fascinating to see how the dwindling influence of Gigginstown will impact this.

But whatever the reason it was a positive to see the likes of Peter Fahey, with Gypsy Island and Timeforwest, Colin Kidd with Rashaan, Pat Doyle with Kaiser Black, and Dermot McLaughlin with Santa Rosa land graded successes. The most significant ‘smaller trainer’ graded win however was likely Espoir D’Allen for Gavin Cromwell, allowing that the horse had won such races the previous season, as he used it as a springboard to Champion Hurdle success.

Another interesting feature of the pattern race season was the return of UK horses winning some of our best prizes, nine raiders winning (from 24 runners) which was a high as far as I could research back; since 2012/13, those totals have been six, five, one, seven, three and one. They weren’t all in the big races or at the big festivals, the likes of Bedrock (twice) and Saint Calvados among those that won more run-of-the-mill races that typically wouldn’t attract overseas runners.

There were old boys coming back for more – Simply Ned at Christmas and Unowhatimeanharry at Punchestown – but La Bague Au Roi was anything but at the Dublin Racing Festival and it will be interesting if these successes see more raiders coming across this coming winter.

- Tony Keenan

Tony Keenan: Irish Flat Season 2019 Preview

You might have guessed this already but more than anything in horse racing, it is the role of the trainer that fascinates me, writes Tony Keenan. We can wonder about the influence of various factors in trainer success, some of which are very obvious, others of which we will never know; no more than a punter, if a trainer has an edge, they can hardly be expected to comment on it publicly.

(A somewhat random aside: I read recently that Thady Gosden – son of John – had spent some time at the Joseph O'Brien yard and while I appreciate O’Brien Jr. seems a thoroughly decent man, there surely had to be the temptation to either: one, fill him with misinformation to take back to Gosden Senior, or, two, lock him in a darkened stable with a fire and a poker to extract the secrets of what his father does so well. I have never understood this part of racing where one trainer allows a rival, actual or potential, access to their yard. It must be because they’re all lovely people.)

One thing we can do however is look at the broad sweep of success trainers have over a period of time. Below I have put together the records of the top 20 active Irish flat trainers (with one exception, Patrick Prendergast, for reasons that will become apparent) and their turf runners in Ireland over the past decade; Dundalk is not included. It necessarily leaves out some relevant figures – notably Fozzy Stack – but should offer a decent overview of what has happened since 2009.

It deals with winners only which is a pretty blunt instrument but one that most trainers seem to apply as a measure of their own success. A clatter of winners doesn’t always equal success however; Aidan O’Brien had a record-breaking season at home in 2018 but most (including the trainer himself) would have regarded the campaign as a down year if not a failure. Ken Condon had only seven turf winners last year but one of them was Romanised in the 2,000 Guineas so 2018 might even prove the best of his training career. But in the main, winners figures are useful, especially when compared to what went before.

 

That’s a whole lot of numbers right there so the Cliff Notes version is below:

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This does give us a fair overview of what has happened over the last ten years or so, which yards have risen and which have fallen, what rising stars made it and who never got there (hint: it’s very difficult to make it in Irish flat racing). The decline of the veteran pair John Oxx and Kevin Prendergast are patterns that jump out immediately as is the gradual rise of Ger Lyons, while a recent jump from Jessica Harrington and the rapid growth of Joseph O’Brien are also notable.

Atop the table for the decade and every year of it is, of course, Aidan O’Brien. 2018 was represented as a disappointing campaign for Ballydoyle, a mid-season bug impacting a number of horses, his record outside of Ireland significantly worse than previous years and the yard a little thin on stars, relatively speaking (see last season’s flat season review for more on this). But at home, it wasn’t just business as usual but a record-breaking season with 143 winners on the turf, his previous best being 124 in 2013.

From the point-of-view of the other major Irish yards, it was both disappointing and surprising that they weren’t able to exploit this brief chink in the Ballydoyle armour with the likes of Weld, Bolger and Lyons having down seasons to one degree or another. Perhaps his continued success at home, numerically at last, allowed O’Brien to remain quite sanguine about his horses being sick though experience does seem to have brought confidence whereas in times past he may have let it rattle him a little. If anything it was his son who took advantage of any slippage, his win in the Irish Derby standing out, though much of Joseph’s success came in lower grade handicaps with acquisitions from other yards. Aidan can at least console himself that should things ever go belly-up at Ballydoyle, he can have an assistant trainer post on the hill!

It is hard to get away from the belief that 2019 will be another big year for O’Brien, Sr. He has a huge team of horses, the spring has been kind weather-wise and his stars all seem healthy, none of the big guns ruled out yet. His early returns have been good with the likes of Magical, Le Brivido, Flag Of Honour and Sergei Prokofiev running well on seasonal debut.

One of O’Brien’s old rivals in the best races was John Oxx and his 2019 could be one of the most fascinating of all, Patrick Prendergast having come on board as assistant trainer and taken his team of horses with him. Plenty wondered at Prendergast’s motivation for this move, viewing him as a trainer on the up with Oxx the main beneficiary of the new setup. I don’t think it’s as simple as that as the John Oxx name still has some cachet while there is also succession to think about with Oxx aged 68.

It is also important to note that while Prendergast trained his first Group 1 winner in 2018, these successes have proved largely useless in elevating mid-range trainers to a higher plane. There have been numerous examples of Irish trainers winning their first Group 1 race this decade and it doing little or nothing for them in terms of getting more winners or horses in the short-term. Ger Lyons won the 2011 Cheveley Park with Lightening Pearl; he trained 31 winners that year and 24 and 29 the following years. Eddie Lynam won the Nunthorpe with Sole Power in 2010; he had 10 winners that year and 13 and 9 respectively the next two seasons.

It was a similar story with Mick Halford and Jessica Harrington in 2010 as they won Group 1 juvenile races with Casamento and Pathfork and while it could be argued that all those trainers making the top-level breakthrough around that period was awful timing with a view to attracting new owners as they may have cannibalised each other’s opportunities, neither Adrian Keatley nor Ken Condon seem likely to ‘kick on’ from recent Classic victories. Both Lyons and Harrington have gone to another level since those wins but that was because of their broad body of work rather than one win or horse and Prendergast may well have been wise to learn that lesson from recent history.

One thing Oxx may be hoping to get from Prendergast is an edge with juveniles; Oxx has trained only one two-year-old Group winner since 2013 and if there is a single cause for his decline this might be it. His patience, once seen as a virtue, now seems a black mark for prospective owners. Oxx did have a reasonable record with juveniles in the early part of the decade but that dwindled to nought in the last five years with only nine two-year-old winners from 137 runners (6.6% strikerate) between 2014 and 2018; in that period, Prendergast was 21 from 196 (10.7% strikerate).

Last season, with Skitter Scatter playing a big part, Prendergast finished tenth in the trainers’ championship, Oxx only thirty-eighth. Combining their prizemoney would have brought them up to eighth overall. Oxx commented in a recent interview that he felt he had only seven horses that could win a race going into last season (eight won in the end) but combining his and Prendergast’s numbers puts them in a better place for 2019. Oxx ran 35 horses, Prendergast 28, and 63 total horses would have left them just behind the O’Briens, Weld, Bolger, Lyons and Harrington last year. In the same interview, Oxx said they had 75 horses in for the season and while all of them won’t run, they should be significant players.

To conclude, let’s look at a yard or two that might be due some regression, be it positive or negative. One way to do this might be to compare what a trainer did last season versus the broader picture of the last ten years but sometimes that gives a false impression. Using an approach like that, one might think that the likes of Jessica Harrington and Johnny Murtagh are due to drop off now while someone like Mick Halford or Kevin Prendergast will bounce back. The reality is that both Harrington and Murtagh are simply yards on the up, the former in particular having taken a leap seemingly out of nowhere, never having more than 28 winners prior to 2017 but having 40 in each of the past two years.

I do think that strikerate could be informative here is it takes less account of the actual of number of horses in the yard; a trainer might be able to maintain a broadly similar return regardless of how many individual runners they have from season-to-season, allowing that there are outliers now and then. So below are the ten-year strikerates of the top 20 active turf trainers versus what they did last year.

 

 

The majority of the differences are too small to be statistically significant though the numbers for Oxx and Patrick Prendergast are interesting in light of what is discussed above. The one that stands out however is Harry Rogers who had a terrible 2018 but might be about to improve on that this year. Smaller yards like his can be a hostage to fortune and the dry summer of last year hardly suited his horses, many of whom prefer an ease. I must admit to being a bit of a fanboy of this stable as I like how his horses run frequently when they are fit and better days should be ahead.

- Tony Keenan

Tony Keenan: Racing What Ifs: What if Michael O’Leary Preferred GAA?

A few months back, the figures for what each Irish county received in coaching grants from the GAA central funds over the past decade or so were revealed. Between the years of 2007 and 2018, Dublin was unsurprisingly clear with €17,916,477 in funding with Westmeath sitting a mid-table seventeenth on €871,420, over €17 million behind. These numbers caused the usual anti-Dubs sentiment but what if Michael O’Leary, Cork-born but Westmeath-based and whose horses run in the maroon colours of his county of residence, had decided back in the early- to mid-2000s that Gaelic Football or Hurling was going to be his sport rather than racing?

JP McManus has famously done both, his presence in the dressing room following Limerick’s first All-Ireland Hurling win in 45 years saying plenty about how much he has put into the county team. But for O’Leary it has always been about Irish National Hunt Racing with emphasis on the Irish National Hunt part of that; O’Leary has few runners on the flat and seems apathetic at best to having runners in the UK outside of Cheltenham and Aintree. So what has Gigginstown done for and to Irish jumps racing since David Wachman trained their first winner, Tuco in a Fairyhouse bumper, in 2001?

Trainers

Gigginstown have cycled through a vast number of trainers since their inception, taking an approach akin to how soccer clubs deal with their managers rather than the traditional loyalty that tends to be shown in racing. Their ‘results-based’ selection of trainers has seen handlers come and go with all the following having trained meaningful numbers for them in the past but no longer on the roster: Michael Hourigan, Paul Nolan, Charlie Swan, Charles Byrnes, Sandra Hughes, Colm Murphy, Philip Fenton, David Wachman, Tony Martin and Mouse Morris, the last-named now concentrating on pointers along with Colin Bowe and Brian Hamilton.

The last few seasons have seen consolidation in terms of Gigginstown trainers with only four yards now being used – Gordon Elliott, Henry De Bromhead, Joseph O’Brien and Noel Meade – and all are training a decent-sized group of their horses. Elliott is by far the most significant however and if not quite the chosen one, he still has the vast majority of the better horses. The impact of there being no such thing as Gigginstown on Elliott would be massive as his last five seasons' total winners alongside his Gigginstown-owned winners show:

The effect would not only be on numbers but on quality too. Taking 2017/18 as an example, Elliott had 27 horses that reached a Racing Post Rating of at least 150 in Ireland and 18 of those were Gigginstown-owned; the others were Campeador, Ucello Conti, Pallasator, Jury Duty, The Storyteller, Mala Beach, Mick Jazz, Diamond Cauchois and Doctor Phoenix, all of whom ran in different colours.

We can also be pretty sure that Mullins versus Elliott would not be a thing and the finales to the last two Irish National Hunt Trainers’ Championships at Punchestown would have followed the same pattern as the previous nine, Mullins winning with hundreds of thousands if not millions to spare. But Elliott has forced Mullins to change his methods over those past two campaigns and while the perennial champion is never going to be a Nigel Twiston-Davies, campaigning his horses aggressively, the clashes we have seen at Punchestown and Fairyhouse over the last two seasons have added greatly to the spectacle.

Hanging over all this is Michael O’Leary’s stated aim of wanting to make Elliott Champion Trainer at some point and his willingness to spend vast sums of money to achieve that which is something we will return to later on. That outcome would of course be one in the eye for Willie Mullins despite repeated claims from O’Leary that their relationship is fine; methinks the owner doth protest too much!

 

Finances

A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation might give us an estimate of what Gigginstown spend each season on training fees. During the 2017-18 Irish jumps season, they ran 220 individual horses so let’s say each was in full training for eight months at €1,800 a month, taking €50 a day as a base rate and including €300 for extras; that comes out at €3,168,000. One would be a little surprised if the owner of a budget airline couldn’t get some discount but there are certain basic needs for each horse that have to be met and there is only so much cost-cutting you can do. This wouldn’t include horses in various forms of pre-training, those that have yet to run or are recovering from an injury, so the figure may well be higher.

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None of this is to mention the costs of acquiring the horses in the first place. Gigginstown do much of their buying through agents and trainers and sometimes privately so the extent of their spending is unclear but there have been a host of recent big-money purchases to run in their colours. Samcro cost £335,000 while Vision D’Honneur came close at €350,000 when currency rates are taken into consideration. There were a host of others that broke the 200k mark like Battleoverdoyen, Dream Conti, Run Wild Fred, Poli Roi and Sometime Soon.

With all this in mind, it is not unreasonable to wonder if they are propping up both the Irish National Hunt racing and breeding sectors; but Henry Beeby, Group Chief Executive at Goffs, is keen to point out that while ‘they are one of the biggest players and an overwhelming positive influence on Irish jumps racing’, there are also others like ‘JP McManus and numerous clients with Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls’ who are in the market for high-end jumping prospects.

Beeby went on to say that Gigginstown are ‘looking for the tops and in so doing are prepared to spend to buy, often having a high turnover of horses’ while JP McManus still holds the record for the most expensive jumps horse bought at public auction, Garde Champetre at £530,000 back in 2004. On the subject of what the O’Learys are like to deal with, his response was it can be ‘interesting’ and ‘they’re themselves’ which will come as no surprise to anyone!

When asked about a possible doomsday scenario were Gigginstown to pull out of racing tomorrow, Beeby said that while it would be ‘disappointing’ and he is ‘grateful’ to have them, he recalls a time when people worried about what would happen if ‘Robert Sangster never bought another yearling. The Sangster family are still involved in the game but at a much reduced level and we should never underestimate the resilience of the industry.’

 

Competitiveness

We have already had a Gigginstown-only race, the March 2017 Grade 3 Naas Directors Plate Novice Chase won by Ball D’Arc leading home Gangster, Prince Of Scars and Alamein, and it feels as if a maroon-and-whitewashed staying handicap chase is coming, the only impediment being that they may run out of different coloured caps!

It is reasonable to ask when does enough horses become too much and it seems that point has not been reached yet for the owners at least. Below are the numbers for Gigginstown-owned horses in Irish jumps races going back to 2007/8, just the time when Westmeath GAA could have done with a lift: included are their winners, runners and total prize money.

 

The only way is up it seems with basically every figure heading that way year-on-year. It is perhaps notable that things have taken another leap in the past two campaigns, coinciding with the split with Mullins in 2016.

Another area of competitiveness to consider is Cheltenham and what Gigginstown have contributed to Irish success at the meeting. They have had 27 Festival winners in all – Ireland would have won one, not all, of the three Prestbury Cups before 2019 without them, if anyone cares – which I found a little underwhelming in truth given the size of the operation. The first famously came with War Of Attrition in the 2006 Gold Cup but there have been some fallow years since. Things were good at the five Festivals before this one with four, two, two, four and seven winners but a solitary success for Tiger Roll from 39 runners last week has to rate a disappointment.

 

Fun

I appreciate there is little fun about Gigginstown for smaller trainers who are constantly being beaten by their battalions but an underrated aspect of the project is the humour they have brought to the game. Michael O’Leary loves trolling and is probably the least ‘racing person’ you can imagine and it is vastly more entertaining that he does this not anonymously behind a computer screen but from the position of the most powerful owner in the game.

The Apple’s Jade Mares’ Hurdle or Champion Hurdle decision, disappointingly short-lived as pointed out by Lydia Hislop in one of her recent Road to Cheltenham pieces, was just another in a long line of mock-controversies involving the quotable Ryanair boss; and his brother Eddie isn’t bad with the soundbites either.

There was Michael’s rant about Phil Smith’s handicapping of his horses in the 2017 Grand National being ‘utter drivel’ (the new Chief Handicapper Martin Greenwood really needs to up his game in the controversies stakes, this year’s National weights being disappointingly short on spats) along with his repeated reference to certain runners being ‘the worst horse I own’ often swiftly followed by a big handicap or even Grade 1 win for said animal.

Perhaps the truest controversy with Gigginstown came in 2013 when they were repeatedly pulling out horses on the day of the race with ground typically been given as an excuse. That stopped quite quickly in the end, perhaps someone in the then-Turf Club or Horse Racing Ireland having a quiet word, but not before O’Leary came out with one of his all-time best lines: ‘you’d swear we were spivs running around organising betting coups!’

*

So what have Gigginstown given Irish Jumps Racing? Different colour hats, everything trying, lots and lots (and lots) of horses, lots of good horses, trolling, a results-based approach, fun, vast sums of money on training fees and scary names. It’s quite a list really and I’m not sure Westmeath GAA would have been able to handle it!

- Tony Keenan

Tony Keenan: Cheltenham Festival Reprise 2018 (Take Two)

I had a look back at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival right after the meeting last March but eleven and a half months on we know a lot more so let’s see what has changed and if there is anything that might be of use in two weeks’ time.

 

  1. Festival Form

Year on year, the best guide to Cheltenham winners is regarded as the previous year’s Festival. The test provided by the meeting is unique and horses that respectively thrive and wilt there can be expected to do the same again. Yet while last season’s Festival form generally worked out for the rest of 2017/18 campaign, it hasn’t carried through quite so well into 2018/19.

Of the 28 horses that won at Cheltenham 2018, eleven have won a race of some sort in the current season which seems on the low side. More than that, few have won a race of consequence with only three winning at Grade 1 level: Buveur D’Air, Altior and Delta Work. Two of the 28, Benie Des Dieux and Penhill, have not run at all.

Their under-performance as a group is likely ground-related. The winter and spring of 2017/18 was an aberration for its extreme wet weather, this past winter has been an aberration for its mild and dry weather. It seems reasonable to question how well the soft and heavy ground form will translate to watered good-soft next month given it hasn’t done so for much of the campaign,

 

  1. Exception One: The RSA

In isolation though, the form of racing’s bay pimpernel, Presenting Percy, in the RSA might be working out best of all. Last year’s staying novice chasers are a strong crop and from the first four in this race alone we have had Monalee finish second in a Grade 1 at Christmas before winning the Red Mills Chase, Elegant Escape land the Welsh National, and Ballyoptic come second in a Scottish National.

Al Boum Photo fell when likely to come third, and won a Grade 1 subsequently at Fairyhouse and should have had another at Punchestown before looking better than ever at Tramore on New Year’s Day. Even those Irish novices indirectly related to Presenting Percy’s form like Snow Falcon, Dounikos, Invitation Only and Rathvinden have won valuable races in 2018/19.

Presenting Percy looked much the best of that crop last season so this is exactly what you’re looking for if you’re backing him, allowing that there are other concerns with him, particularly his lack of chase experience.

 

  1. Exception Two: Delta Work

While allowing that a batch of form may not be working out on the whole, one still needs to judge each horse on its individual merits. The Pertemps Final has not proven a strong race on balance but the winner might be the most successful of all last year’s Festival winners relative to expectations (though we’ll get to Altior anon).

Since his Festival win, Delta Work has been narrowly beaten in a Grade 1 novice hurdle before winning thrice over fences, two of them Grade 1s, the form looking strong as he beat Le Richebourg. All told, he seems to have a leading chance in the RSA where he will have a slight experience edge over Santini.

There is one niggling concern and that is the lack of a recent run. Historically a horse being without a run in the calendar year was a negative in the RSA but this is likely more to do with the individual than profiling the typical race winner. Delta Work has come off a break three times since joining Gordon Elliott and the improvement has been clear: Timeform have him improving 12lbs, 1lb and 18lbs for those runs while Racing Post Ratings have those figures at 4lbs, 14lbs and 28lbs.

None of those breaks came mid-season which may negate the concern a little while one can also argue that he was all ready to run in the Flogas at the Dublin Racing Festival so should have been kept plenty fit at home. As a backer though, it remains a worry.

 

  1. Exception Three: Altior

Altior is Altior and he just wins as he has again done through three starts this season. On those rare occasions he does look vulnerable, it seems down to pace and specifically not getting the strong gallop he wants, as in the 2017 Arkle when he traded at 8/11 in-running having been sent off 1/4.

Looking back at last year’s Champion Chase, the most striking thing is that there is now a Special Tiara-sized hole in the race, that stalwart setting the gallop in the last five runnings of the race and invariably at a generous pace. There is no such horse among the 18 entries for this year’s race with Un De Sceaux likely to go the Ryanair route.

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That would leave a horse like Saint Calvados potentially making the running and, realistically, he can’t go the pace Altior ideally wants on decent ground. There is also the possibility of Altior making his own running as he did at Ascot last time but that may bring its own problems as he jumped left there, so a race that hitherto looked a foregone conclusion may actually be tactically fascinating.

 

  1. The Gold Cup

Despite only two horses really getting into the race, last year’s Gold Cup was an epic with Native River becoming the first horse this century to win the race having been beaten in it on his first attempt previously (Kauto Star won, then was beaten, then won again); 66 others had tried, thank you Matt Tombs and your excellent Cheltenham Guide for that stat. With the race run on heavy ground and at a strong gallop, it actually suited the experience and toughness that the winner had in spades as the race developed into an old-school Gold Cup slog with the best stayer coming out on top.

That has not been the way in most recent Gold Cups however as younger horses typically come to the fore, often second-season chasers and it is worth remembering that the three that chased Native River home last year fit that category. With the race very likely to be run on better ground this year, it might be more prudent to expect more of a new-style Gold Cup with the winner being a Sizing John rather than Synchronized type.

All of this may make life tough on Native River who is in danger of being outpaced on better ground as he has been in his runs at Haydock and Kempton this season; the stiffer track will help but will it be enough to compensate for the going? This might be a race where the younger horses like Presenting Percy, Clan Des Obeaux and Kemboy to come to the fore.

 

  1. The Samcro Problem

In his weekly Irish Field column on time analysis, Simon Rowlands rated Samcro’s Ballymore win as the best hurdling performance at last year’s Festival and the form stacks up too, with the placed horses going on to win Grade 1 novice events at Aintree and Punchestown. It was visually impressive too with Jack Kennedy’s mount travelling best all the way and the horse finding himself in front sooner than ideal.

That was his best performance to date, better than anything he has done dropped to two miles in four starts since, and it was also the race in which his stamina was most drawn out over 21 furlongs on soft ground. Originally pegged as a future Gold Cup horse, the two-mile experiment has palpably failed but Gordon Elliott seems to have been leaning toward the stamina route for a while now, entering him in the Long Walk back in December when all the chat about him was Champion Hurdle.

In general, the comment that a horse wouldn’t run in a race unless it is flying at home is trite but it might just apply here; he remains one of Gigginstown’s great hopes and is off a troubled season so they are unlikely to run unless he can deliver a big performance. With that in mind, we could get Ballymore Samcro in a few weeks and that would put him right in the Stayers’ Hurdle mix.

 

  1. Mullins and the Gold Cup

Willie Mullins has never won the Gold Cup in 22 attempts (again, stat courtesy of Matt Tombs), six of his finishing second, and it seems likely he will go four-handed at the race this year with Bellshill, Kemboy, Invitation Only and Al Boum Photo. All have it to prove on the track however judged on last year’s evidence and that of previous Festivals.

That applies to Bellshill more than most having been beaten a combined 58 lengths on his three course starts. The first two of those came in the Champion Bumper and the Supreme so it could be argued that the trip was too sharp for him in both cases but he did quickly bounce back at Aintree afterwards which is concerning. His run behind Might Bite in the RSA was better though again the downhill part of the track may not be for him but he did at least give the lie to his preferring a right-handed track by winning a Grade 1 at Leopardstown last time.

The evidence for the other three not operating at the track is more flimsy but none were at their best here last year. Neither Kemboy nor Invitation Only jumped well enough in the JLT, though the argument can be made they needed further, while Al Boum Photo fell when looking set for third in the RSA.

 

  1. Mullins and Fallers

The jumping of the Mullins horses attracted plenty of comment last year with ten of his runners falling across all races; when looking at the last three Festivals, his total number of fallers at the meeting is 14 with Gordon Elliott a distant second on five, Colin Tizzard, Venetia Williams, Jonjo O’Neill and Paul Nicholls with four each.

Those numbers are raw and from a small sample size but there are all sorts of layers to this. Unseats, say, are not included and are mainly caused by jumping errors nor are pulled up efforts that may have been brought about by mistakes. Some trainers may have more runners over fences than hurdles which would produce more fallers and so on.

Yet faller rate is something the BHA seem to place plenty of stock in as their report on the 2018 Cheltenham Festival included the following recommendation:

individual trainers…who have an incidence of fallers significantly higher than the historical average will be required to engage constructively with the BHA to consider the drivers of, and actions to improve, high incidence rates.

Perhaps it’s just me but that does sound like the authority is telling trainers how to train their horses which is a particularly grey area but they are the regulator after all: their racing, their rules. One wonders if Willie Mullins has been ‘engaged with’ on this and what that ‘engagement’ would be.

It is easy to question what right have the BHA to tell the all-time leading trainer at the Festival how his horses need to jump but there are two other factors here. First, Mullins has said that neither Douvan nor Rathvinden had schooled much ahead of last year’s meeting while comments from some associated with the yard suggest nothing has changed this term; owner Colm O’Connell saying after Bachasson’s New Year’s Eve win that ‘he hadn’t seen a hurdle or fence since [he fell in] the Gold Cup.’

And second, Mullins does have the highest fall rate when compared to similar trainers. Looking at those trainers who had the most runners in all UK and Irish jumps races between the 2015/16 and 2017/18 seasons, Mullins comes out worst with a fall rate of 4.7%. Colin Tizzard is next with 4.1% followed by Evan Williams on 3.9% and Henry De Bromhead on 3.6%. The average for that entire group which takes in a sample of 31,917 runners is 3.1%.

I suspect that the jumping of his horses will be under close scrutiny in a fortnight’s time and this might be one of the most interesting aspects of the meeting especially given quite a few of his horses won’t have had the racecourse practice they might have had in a previous season with the weather as it is.

 

  1. The Irish in Handicaps

I’m just going to leave these two tables out there for anyone who wonders about Irish horses being badly treated in the Festival handicaps. Also, there were a record number of Irish-trained horses entered in Cheltenham handicaps this season.

 

Festival Handicaps 2018

Trained in… Winners Runners Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

Ireland 5 53 9.4% 13 24.5% +27.00 1.21
Elsewhere 5 166 3.0% 27 16.3% -101.00 0.56

 

Festival Handicaps 2014-2017

Trained in… Winners Runners Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

Ireland 17 222 7.7% 57 25.7% +20.50 1.11
Elsewhere 25 741 3.4% 111 15.0% -338.00 0.62

 

 

  1. Gordon Elliott in Handicaps

Of the 22 Irish-trained handicap winners since 2014, nine were trained by Gordon Elliott. That is some going. Elliott has won a wide variety of handicaps with different types of horses but one approach he used to great effect last year was running novices, an approach he uses with some success at home too, the likes of Duca De Thaix (twice), Dallas Des Pictons and Roaring Bull winning examples this season.

Since 2014, his open handicap runners that were novices at the time have a finishing string of 20975PU3111001. That doesn’t include runners in confined races like the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase and the Fred Winter Novices' Handicap Hurdle, the latter of which he has won twice and may well have had a third had Campeador not fallen at the last in 2016.

Three of his winners last season were novices running in open handicaps (Delta Work, The Storyteller and Blow By Blow) and he has a number of options that could do the same this year among them the aforementioned Duca De Thaix and Dallas Des Pictons.

- Tony Keenan

Tony Keenan: On having a mare…

Just before Christmas, a pal got in touch to say he had bought a national hunt filly to go into training and was wondering if I had any stats on trainers that do well with jumping fillies and mares, writes Tony Keenan. My first thought was that he must really be stuck for another opinion and the second was that Willie Mullins completely bosses this scene; he agreed on both counts but said that he was inclined to go to a smaller yard than Closutton.

One can certainly see why someone would want to have a national hunt filly or mare in the current climate. There has been not so much an expansion as an explosion in the race programme in Ireland for these horses in the last few years; in the noughties, there were typically 10 Listed or Graded races a season for fillies and mares but the number is more than double that now. It tracked up to 13 between the 2010/11 and 2014/15 season but has since jumped to 16 in 2015/16, 19 in 16/17 and 23 last season. These Graded races are supported by a series of mares-only handicaps, too, with one being held next Sunday at the Dublin Racing Festival.

These enhancements have been driven by Horse Racing Ireland with a few obvious aims: more and better mares in training, chiefly, which in turn suits breeders as it drives demand for fillies at the sales with programmes like the ITBA National Hunt Fillies Bonus Scheme (offers a €5,000 bonus for winning  a mares-only bumper, maiden hurdle or beginners’ chase in Ireland) also playing a part.

Strictly speaking, there are not more mares in training than before but that is due to the drop in the overall horse population; 2007/8 was the season of the most national hunt runners in Ireland and fillies/mares ran 6,235 times that year while they ran 4,549 times last season. As a percentage figure, the number has been gradually going up, however; it was high at 28.1% back in 2007/8 but since dipped down to 25-26% in most of the intervening seasons until more recently. Over the last two campaigns, the percentage of national hunt fields made up of female runners has gone back up to 27.8% and 28.9% respectively, the last figure an all-time high from what I can see, so from that point-of-view the programme changes have been a success.

Things are less clear on the subject of whether the current crop of mares are better than before. Anecdotally there seem to be lots of good mares around – Apple’s Jade, Laurina, Benie Des Dieux and Shattered Love say – but they don’t win Pattern races against the geldings as often as they used to. In the noughties, there were a number of seasons when mares broke double-figures in Graded/Listed wins against the males and this was a time when there were fewer Pattern races; in 04/05 there were 11 such winners, in 06/07 13 winners, in 07/08 14 winners, in 10/11 11 winners. Since then – which comprises the period when the changes were made to the programme book – the totals have been: eight, five, one, three, six, eleven and five.

Whether this is a bad thing is open to discussion. Certainly there seems to be less acceptance of mares-only races from the wider jump racing public, at least in the sense that they would prefer to see them mix it against the geldings. We have the situation where obviously talented mares like Quevega are better known for the races they missed than the ones they took part in though her typically shortened campaigns were as much to do with physical issues and trainer caution as her gender. The scepticism towards mares-only races from jumps racing fans might also be down to them not being around that long; these races are nowhere near as embedded as their equivalents on the flat and on the level you rarely have anyone saying an Oaks filly should run in the Derby, allowing the best of them often to compete against the colts later. Or maybe it’s just the lore of the likes of Dawn Run that persists over jumps.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the programme alterations, one trainer has been at the forefront of using these new races to his advantage: Willie Mullins. Consider the table below of the top Irish trainers with fillies and mares by strike rate from the 2013/14 season through to 2017/18. All trainers on the list had at least 50 runners. For reference purposes I have also included some of the other big trainers in a separate mini-table too.

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Simple strike rate is quite important here – at least in terms of a mare getting its first win – as for many owners getting a winning bracket on the page is what it is all about. Aside from Willie, Mags Mullins is a trainer who comes out well from these figures; she may be just ahead of Gordon Elliott in terms of win percentage but her place strike rate is excellent, a very clear second overall. Having seven-time winner Ballychorus was important for her but she had 12 individual winners in the period covered.

Of the bigger yards, Gordon Elliott, like Willie Mullins, has realised that running plenty of mares is a competitive advantage and Jessica Harrington is another trainer for whom mares make up a sizeable proportion of total runners. That is not the case for Noel Meade, Joseph O’Brien or Henry De Bromhead though Meade maintains a good strike rate with his female runners.

It can be interesting to note the comparative strike rates of trainers with male and female runners. Consider the 10 trainers with the most runners in Irish national hunt races in the five seasons prior to this one:

 

 

As with the flat, female runners win at a lower rate than males as a rule so a trainer who is coming close to their male strike rate is doing well; Mullins is three percentage points better with mares. One thing that stands out here, at least relative to the piece I did on the flat trainers during the summer, is how broadly consistent the big trainers are with both genders. In terms of strike rate anyway, it doesn’t seem to matter with Mullins, Elliott, Meade and Harrington though De Bromhead does seem better with geldings. That is from very few female runners, though Honeysuckle (a Grade 3 winner at Fairyhouse on Saturday) is doing her best to improve those numbers.

In the Graded and Listed scene, Mullins has been utterly dominant. He has won 42 such races between 2013/14 and 2017/18 with one-twos in 15 of those, akin to Aidan O’Brien in some equivalent flat Group races. Gordon Elliott is next in with 10 Listed/Graded winners, Jessica Harrington has had five, while no one else had more than two.

Mullins seems to have been consciously increasing his numbers of female runners over the last few years to take advantage of the growing opportunities. In the past five seasons, his total female runners each campaign has gone 122 > 110 > 121 > 153 > 212 and already this season he is at 228. In the period covered, 22.8% of all his runners were female which is at the upper end of the bigger trainers. Jessica Harrington had the most with 39.5% but there were trainers like Noel Meade (8.3%), Tony Martin (5.9%) and Mouse Morris (1.7%) who train very few mares. Meade is someone whose overall numbers suggest he should be training a few more and, along with the two Mullins (Willie and Mags) and some smaller yards like Terence O’Brien, that is where I might look to put one into training.

Needless to say my friend completely ignored my advice and went elsewhere but at least he gave me an idea for an article!

 - Tony Keenan

Tony Keenan: A [National Hunt] Trainer for all seasons

The very best racehorse trainers are those who constantly adapt and are flexible in their methods; but the reality is that most handlers – like most human-beings – try to find something that works and repeat it, writes Tony Keenan. So, for many yards, the ebb and flow of their season follows a familiar pattern, hitting peaks at certain times, settling into troughs at others.

There are likely a number of reasons for this. As alluded to above, with most things in life it is easier to repeat something you have done before than achieve success in something new. For many yards, the big races – or at least the right races for their specific type of horse – will come at the same time every year. Connections too may have an influence; owners could want their horses aimed at certain festivals or tracks.

This is not to say that trainers exert total control over when their runners are at their best. Unseasonal ground, such as we have had recently for jumpers, may force a change in approach while a trainer could also find themselves with a different type of horse than they previously had. Worst of all, a yard could get a virus– as happened at Ballydoyle this flat season – which sets them back and forces them to almost reboot the campaign.

But, in the main, there are some patterns to be observed on the seasonality of trainer form. For the purposes of this article I have looked at the five Irish National Hunt seasons prior to 2018/19 which provided a decent sample size of 7,067 races. I broke the calendar year into two-month sections and while this is a little arbitrary it also makes sense: November/December marks the start of the jumps season proper, January/February is trials season, March/April is spring festival time, both May/June and July/August are summer jumps, the latter taking in Galway, while September/October is neither here nor there.

To start with, below is a table of the top 10 active trainers in terms of winners trained in the five season period and how their overall strikerate compares with their bimonthly figures. Rather than go into each now, I will refer back to this as I go within each section where there is a table of the trainers who perform the best within each window in terms of overall strikerate. To qualify, a trainer must have had a minimum of 50 runners across the five seasons.

 

Trainer Total Winners Overall

Strikerate

Jan-Feb Mar-Apr May-Jun Jul-Aug Sep-Oct Nov-Dec
W. Mullins 950 30.2% 30.8% 22.4% 28.6% 32.6% 30.6% 36.1%
G. Elliott 674 15.9% 16.6% 12.7% 14.9% 12.5% 22.1% 17.4%
H. De Bromhead 273 14.9% 15.0% 7.5% 18.0% 15.3% 21.0% 13.2%
N. Meade 239 13.7% 13.1% 10.6% 14.4% 13.7% 19.7% 11.9%
J. Harrington 198 13.2% 15.1% 10.9% 16.7% 12.2% 13.8% 11.9%
T. Martin 118 9.7% 8.1% 13.4% 9.6% 16.3% 7.6% 5.9%
J. O’Brien 105 14.2% 11.7% 6.3% 17.4% 19.2% 15.5% 11.5%
R. Tyner 85 9.2% 7.5% 11.1% 7.3% 5.1% 11.7% 9.4%
C. Byrnes 82 13.5% 13.3% 10.2% 15.9% 18.6% 12.1% 12.5%
P. Nolan 77 8.9% 7.5% 12.1% 6.9% 6.7% 13.6% 7.1%

 

November/December: Peak Mullins(es)

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

W. Mullins 751 271 36.1% 56.9% -117.16 0.94
M. Mullins 60 11 18.3% 50.0% +5.50 0.98
G. Elliott 979 170 17.4% 41.0% -145.06 0.93
A. Fleming 77 13 16.9% 29.9% -10.71 1.29
T. Walsh 59 9 15.3% 35.6% +83.75 1.23
E. Bolger 104 14 13.5% 31.7% -40.72 0.96
H. De Bromhead 401 53 13.2% 37.2% -70.23 0.82
Tom Mullins 109 14 12.8% 29.4% -10.62 1.29
C. Byrnes 136 17 12.5% 27.2% -82.30 0.91
J. Harrington 362 43 11.9% 29.3% -91.04 0.88

 

It’s hardly a surprise but Willie Mullins has the best strikerate in all bar one of the six periods though this is his peak-time, returning a 36.1% win strikerate versus a baseline figure of 30.2%. He seemed a little behind in getting his true winter horses out in 2018 but an across-the-card six-timer at Punchestown and Cork the Sunday before last suggests that is about to change. Willie is not the only Mullins to do well at this time of the year as both Mags and Tom have healthy figures too, the former landing a valuable feature handicap hurdle with Salty Boy at Navan over the weekend.

Willie Mullins has dominated the Christmas racing in Ireland in the past five seasons with 60 winners between December 26th and 29th in the period covered, Gordon Elliott unsurprisingly next best with 38. There are some smaller festive trainers to note too though; JJ Walsh has seven winners (all at Limerick) from 85 runners, Robert Tyner has six winners from 35 runners and Pat Fahy has four winners from 25 runners in the period covered. Fahy might just be one of those trainers who can adapt; his Dunvegan was an impressive winner at Fairyhouse on Saturday, running to a standard that would have seen him hard to beat in any Christmas maiden hurdle, but his trainer was keen to get an earlier run into him ahead of a tilt at the Grade 1 novice at Naas in early January.

 

January/February: We need to talk about Joseph

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

W. Mullins 636 196 30.8% 54.7% -8.07 0.95
J. Dreaper 55 10 18.2% 47.3% +1.06 0.97
A. Fleming 67 12 17.9% 44.8% -1.78 0.98
G. Elliott 687 114 16.6% 39.0% -211.05 0.91
J. Harrington 232 35 15.1% 34.5% +49.97 0.93
H. De Bromhead 246 37 15.0% 31.3% -110.75 0.96
T. Walsh 51 7 13.7% 31.4% -28.44 0.71
C. Byrnes 105 14 13.3% 25.7% -23.53 0.91
N. Meade 252 33 13.1% 31.8% -73.70 0.85
P. Fahy 116 15 12.9% 31.9% +1.85 1.23

 

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The first two months of the year have the lowest number of races of the six periods covered, fixtures generally quite sparse after Christmas in particular and meetings at this stage of the season more likely to be abandoned due to the weather. It’s an important time for horses getting ready for Cheltenham, however, as most will have their final prep run at this time and it is no surprise to see proven Festival trainers like Mullins, Elliott, Harrington, de Bromhead and Meade all maintaining good returns.

Things haven’t been quite so good for Joseph O’Brien, thus far at least. This period last year saw perhaps the best moments of his [National Hunt] training career to date as Tower Bridge and Edwulf landed a shock Grade 1 win apiece at the Dublin Racing Festival. But in the main O’Brien struggled against the likes of Mullins and Elliott around this time and indeed in the whole jumps season proper: consider the table below which looks at his returns in the period covered split into six-month periods:

 

Months Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

November – April 34 338 10.1% 45.0% -94.35 0.73
May – October 71 404 17.6% 29.0% -58.80 0.89

 

I am sceptical about whether this summer/winter jumps split will continue for O’Brien. When he started training, the quality of his horses was not as high as it is now and his good record with summer types was likely a product of him simply realising what they were capable of and putting them in weaker races that they could win, most of which were in the summer; as a consequence they became badly handicapped by the time winter came around.

Furthermore, the better younger horses he has been sent as time has gone on are now rising through the ranks: the bumper horses of two seasons back, now novice chasers, and such like which will give him more firepower for the valuable races. This view seems supported by his figures for November and December in the current season: 20 winners from 93 runners for a strikerate of 21.5%.

 

March/April: The spring lull

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

W. Mullins 692 155 22.4% 44.1% +34.54 0.98
J. Dreaper 57 10 17.5% 45.6% -13.53 0.90
J. Kiely 52 9 17.3% 32.7% +27.63 1.68
T. O’Brien 62 9 14.5% 35.5% -3.62 1.07
T. Gibney 57 8 14.0% 29.8% +49.00 1.57
P. Fahy 107 15 14.0% 32.7% +27.00 1.14
J. Dempsey 61 8 13.1% 31.2% +14.00 1.14
S. Crawford 69 9 13.0% 37.7% -15.99 1.03
T. Martin 207 27 13.0% 29.0% -64.67 0.99
E. Doyle 162 21 13.0% 35.2% +7.85 0.99

 

By far the most interesting facet of the spring returns are the records of the main trainers of Irish horses for the Cheltenham Festival: Mullins, Elliott, De Bromhead, Harrington and Meade. Each of them have one of their lowest strikerates of the year at this time: Mullins at 22.4% from an average of 30.2%, Elliott 12.7% from an average of 15.9%, De Bromhead 7.5% from an average of 14.9%, Harrington 10.9% from an average of 13.2%, Meade 10.6% from an average of 13.7%.

There are likely a few reasons for this. Most, it not all, of their best horses will be running at Cheltenham and if they do run back quickly from that meeting they may be over-the-top for the season. The horses they're not running at Festivals are obviously not as good, which opens the door for other trainers (the top 10 for this period has more small trainers than any other time of the season). Finally, particularly in the past two seasons, both Mullins and Elliott have been more willing to have multiple runners in the same race during this spell because there was a trainers' title on the line. That will have further lowered their overall strikerates.

 

May/June: Early summer is Henry time

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

W. Mullins 315 90 28.6% 52.1% -55.19 0.92
H. De Bromhead 284 51 18.0% 37.7% +13.21 1.03
J. O’Brien 98 17 17.4% 44.9% -8.44 0.85
E. Bolger 58 10 17.2% 41.4% -17.56 0.98
J. Harrington 215 36 16.7% 40.9% -30.18 0.86
C. Byrnes 88 14 15.9% 39.8% -27.81 0.91
A. Fleming 51 8 15.7% 43.1% -18.92 0.67
M. McNiff 85 13 15.3% 40.0% +13.00 1.48
T. Gibney 60 9 15.0% 28.3% +85.63 1.52
G. Elliott 612 91 14.9% 37.1% -116.07 0.84

 

This time of the year allows some yards to kick on from a good Punchestown but Henry de Bromhead is one trainer who seems to actively target it, running Mullins close in terms of number of runners. Not unlike Joseph O’Brien, de Bromhead shows some fairly significant summer/winter splits as evidenced below. Perhaps he has decided that this is the best opportunity he will have to beat Mullins and Elliott when their best horses have finished up for the summer.

 

Months Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

November – April 111 929 12.0% 33.3% -358.33 0.77
May – October 162 907 17.9% 29.1% -37.42 0.99

 

July/August: Galway, Galway everywhere

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

A. O’Brien 62 22 35.5% 53.2% +9.78 1.24
W. Mullins 426 139 32.6% 55.4% -45.67 0.99
J. O’Brien 177 34 19.2% 48.0% -6.41 0.91
D. Weld 69 13 18.9% 53.6% -28.59 0.73
C. Byrnes 86 16 18.6% 34.9% -1.40 1.05
J. Kiely 97 17 17.5% 37.1% +6.06 1.20
E. O’Grady 89 15 16.9% 31.5% -10.22 1.02
T. Martin 178 29 16.3% 37.1% -55.07 1.04
H. De Bromhead 347 53 15.3% 34.9% -24.26 0.94
Tom Mullins 87 13 14.9% 37.9% +0.07 1.07

 

The high summer period in Ireland will always be about Galway: the build-up, the meeting itself and the aftermath. It has become a more important meeting for Willie Mullins of late (both over jumps and on the flat) though this in the only period of the year when he fails to top the strikerate table, albeit only beaten by an all-time great handler who doesn’t train jumpers anymore, Aidan O'Brien.

A few of the obvious Galway names make the top 10 here – Weld, Byrnes and Martin along with the underrated Tom Mullins – though Gordon Elliott is conspicuous in his absence, this period typically his worst of the year. At least some of this is by design, however, the trainer commenting when asked about Galway this year that he was more interested in having winners at Navan in November!

 

September/October: Elliott puts in the winter groundwork

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

W. Mullins 324 99 30.6% 49.7% -31.59 1.01
M. Winters 86 20 23.3% 40.7% +17.09 1.36
G. Elliott 530 117 22.1% 45.7% -109.69 0.89
H. De Bromhead 276 58 21.0% 46.0% -26.37 1.00
J. Dempsey 50 10 20.0% 44.0% +7.60 1.68
N. Meade 285 58 19.7% 47.7% -100.27 0.87
E. Doyle 82 15 18.3% 39.0% +9.58 1.34
J. O’Brien 129 20 15.5% 41.1% -13.95 0.89
J. Harrington 210 29 13.8% 36.7% -5.27 0.91
P. Nolan 110 15 13.6% 27.3% -4.52 0.97

 

If the summer is a quiet time for Elliott, September/October is anything but; this is the stage of the year where he lays the groundwork for the winter, comfortably outstripping Mullins in terms of runners and winners trained. Not once in the previous five seasons has he dipped below a strikerate of 20.4% in these two months, though this year is a case in point for not getting too carried away with seasonal numbers; past performance is no guarantee of future success and all that stuff.

In 2018, Elliott has 27 winners from 150 runners for a strikerate of 18.0% with the fast ground meaning he was behind with some of his horses. Many of them needed their first run in a big way – look at the way the likes of Apple’s Jade and Delta Work came forward from their respective seasonal debuts – and that is something to monitor over Christmas. Sometimes what is happening in the current season (see Joseph O’Brien at the moment) is more important than historical data, interesting though it is to attempt to divine patterns in it.

- Tony Keenan

2018/19 Jumps Season: Four Things to Note

The National Hunt season, official or ‘proper’, has a number of starting points but the Morgiana card at Punchestown seems to represent as good a beginning as any, writes Tony Keenan. This year, however, things may not get going until we receive a substantial blast of rain and, with some forecasts suggesting that may be coming this week, now seems a reasonable time to set the scene for four story lines set to unravel over the next five and a half months.

  1. Rachael Blackmore, Record Breaker

Rachael Blackmore is already a record breaker: her 56 winners thus far in 2018/19 are far ahead of the previous best tally in a season by a female rider, Nina Carberry’s 39 winners in 2009/10. That is comparing apples and oranges, however, as Carberry was an amateur and limited in terms of the number of rides she could take, though that brought some advantages too: she generally only took a mount when it had at least some chance of success.

Blackmore hasn’t always had that luxury and as recently as last season was taking rides wherever she could find them. Consider the final table in the jockeys’ championship from last season with the added column of number of trainers ridden for:

 

Jockey Winners Rides Yards ridden for
D. Russell 119 588 56
P. Townend 83 419 65
J. Kennedy 63 325 26
R. Walsh 61 214 22
S. Flanagan 59 514 84
P. Mullins 54 155 22
M. Walsh 51 378 56
A. Lynch 39 591 104
R. Power 38 307 42
Danny Mullins 35 431 94
R. Blackmore 34 375 88

 

There are a few points of interest here.

First, Andrew Lynch continues to be one of the hardest working riders in racing, breaking three figures in terms of different stables ridden for, while at the other end of the spectrum, neither Ruby Walsh nor Patrick Mullins take many outside rides, relatively speaking. Jack Kennedy also rode for a surprisingly small number of other yards. But Blackmore is right up there in terms of yards ridden for, third overall to Lynch and Danny Mullins of the top 11.

That shows willingness to graft but her endgame is to reach a stage where she doesn’t have to do that so much and instead gets on better horses for the top yards; with Gigginstown giving her plenty of opportunities already and a link-up with Willie Mullins too, that point may not be far away.

Winning the jockeys’ title will be difficult but it is not the 100/1 chance that Paddy Power rated her back at the end of August, that company now having her at 9/2. A more realistic aim in the short-term might be a Grade 1 and/or Cheltenham Festival winner. Nina Carberry was the first female jump jockey to win a Grade 1 in the UK and Ireland when taking the Champion Bumper at Punchestown in 2006, a feat she repeated in 2007. Lizzie Kelly was the first woman to win a Grade 1 chase  in the UK and Ireland when Tea For Two won the 2015 Kauto Star Novice Chase and the same horse gave her another in the 2017 Aintree Bowl. Since then, Bryony Frost won the same Kempton race on Black Corton last season.

Carberry and Katie Walsh, two of the Irish jockeys Blackmore is commonly compared with, have seven and three Festival winners respectively. The first of Carberry’s wins came in the 2005 Fred Winter with the remaining six coming against amateur competition (four wins in the Cross Country, two in the Foxhunter), something Blackmore is restricted from. Meanwhile, Walsh won both County Hurdle and a Champion Bumper, races that might be just up Blackmore’s street given the numbers Willie Mullins tends to throw at them.

 

  1. Ruby at the last, part two

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Ruby Walsh coming off horses at the final obstacle is becoming a thing again but part of that is the narrative: of the ten mounts he has fallen or unseated from in 2018, only two were at the last but they were in consecutive races at Naas recently. That eight of those ten rides were sent off favourite means his spills inevitably attract more attention than any other rider but what is clear is that Walsh has fallen or unseated off a far greater percentage of his mounts this year than previously. The figures below take in his rides in all National Hunt races in the UK and Ireland by calendar year.

 

Year Falls/Unseats Mounts Fall/Unseat Rate
2011 25 472 5.3%
2012 29 583 4.9%
2013 28 537 5.2%
2014 13 249 5.2%
2015 18 430 4.1%
2016 20 385 5.2%
2017 19 366 5.2%
2018 10 69 14.5%

 

A large part of this is just messing around with numbers; this season’s figures represent a small sample size and it is highly unlikely that he finishes 2018 with such a high rate though there isn’t much of the year left. What is interesting is that his fall/unseat rate is so consistent throughout his career, and even looking back as far as 2003 he only once went over 5.9% for a full year.

Over that period it is also notable that not once between the years of 2003 and 2009 did he take fewer than 700 rides; since than he has only gone over 500 mounts twice. Part of that is injury, part of it is reduced workload after he left Paul Nicholls in 2013, and part of it is also choice.

If the past few weeks are anything to go by, those choices are going to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the winter. Already we have seen Walsh opt not to ride the beginners’ chases over the weekend of November 10th and 11th nor did he ride Kemboy or Camelia De Cotte over fences at Clonmel last Thursday. He also bypassed possible mounts in the Florida Pearl Novice Chase on Sunday, one of which included the winner Some Neck, ahead of Faugheen running the Morgiana Hurdle.

All of this might help Walsh’s longevity but one thing the past few weeks have shown us is that it is difficult to predict when a chaser might fall; even the best jumper, or what might have appeared the best jumper, can fall as was the case with Footpad. There is such a degree of randomness in fallers that not even one of the greatest jumps jockeys may be able to predict them.

 

  1. Festivals, festivals, everywhere

2018 will be remembered as a year without a spring - where winter, with the help of Storm Emma, stretched out through April and then everything turned balmy in May. That meant that all of the spring festivals were run on soft ground and we also had a new meeting, the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown, to kick the whole thing off.

Such festival races, often run at a strong gallop, take plenty out of horses and there was a trainers’ title on the line too, Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott taking each other on with more frequency than might typically have been the case as the battleground moved from Leopardstown to Cheltenham then back to Fairyhouse and Punchestown.

I made it 24 horses that took in all three of Cheltenham, Fairyhouse and Punchestown with the list as follows: Getabird, Sharjah*, Pietralunga, High School Days, Invitation Only*, Al Boum Photo*, Dounikos*, Shattered Love, The Storyteller*, Blow By Blow, Outlander*, Tycoon Prince*, Josies Orders, Cut The Mustard, Dawn Shadow, Squouateur*, Bleu Berry, Scarpeta, Duc Des Genievres*, Real Steel*, Barra*, Let’s Dance, Augusta Kate and C’est Jersey. [The ones with an asterisk also ran at Leopardstown so may have had an extra-hard time of things].

Of those 24 horses, 13 were trained by Mullins, eight by Elliott and three by others which, to my mind, is clear evidence of Mullins being affected by Elliott: five seasons ago, when his title was not under threat, there is no way Mullins would have run his horses so frequently. It will be fascinating to see how this cohort of horses does in 2018/19 and while in some ways it was entirely natural for them to run in these races, it may not have been beneficial that they ran in all of them.

Each will need to be judged on a horse-by-horse basis and while the likes of Sharjah were able to bounce back and win not only a Galway Hurdle but a Morgiana, others tailed off completely. Dounikos, for instance, was pulled up at Cheltenham, Fairyhouse and Punchestown while Scarpeta ran a really promising race in the Neptune but didn’t build on it at all afterwards and finished up his season getting beaten at 2/5 on the flat.

 

  1. Mullins, Elliott and the rest

The emergence of Mullins and Elliott as super-trainers has been felt in every aspect of the Irish national hunt scene but nothing has been altered more than the graded race landscape. Consider where we were in 2010/11. That season, there were 99 graded non-handicaps jumps races run in Ireland. Willie Mullins had 88 runners and Noel Meade was next with 44 out of a total of 717 runners, their combined percentage coming out at 18.4%. 148 different trainers had runners while 40 had a graded winner.

Compare that to the last three seasons:

 

Season Total Runners Mullins and Elliott Runners Mullins/ Elliott

Percentage of Runners

Individual Yards with a Runner Individual Yards with a Winner
2015/16 615 223 36.2% 106 28
2016/17 683 291 42.6% 110 18
2017/18 712 366 51.4% 90 13

 

Last season may prove an aberration in terms of number of yards that managed a graded winner as already in 2018/19, 12 different yards have won such a race, among them some unexpected names like Iain Jardine, Colin Kidd, Aidan Howard and Gavin Cromwell. Gordon Elliott, surprisingly, has only won one graded race to this point in the season, the Lismullen Hurdle with Apple’s Jade.

There was a time when a win or two in such a race would sustain a smaller yard for the season but now they are struggling to even manage a runner; we are in a very different place to 2015/16, much less 2010/11.

- Tony Keenan

Tony Keenan’s Flat Season 2018 Review: Good Year, Bad Year

Naas on Sunday marked the end of the flat turf season in Ireland and while the diehards will carry on at Dundalk through the winter, now is the time for wrapping up the year that was, writes Tony Keenan. So, for one more week we’ll have no talk about the return of ‘proper racing’ (though I’ve never gotten what is improper about the flat), and now look back at who I feel were some of the winner and losers of 2018.

Good Year: Joseph O’Brien

There have been a few headline moments this past year for O’Brien the Younger, notably Latrobe in the Irish Derby and Iridessa in the Fillies’ Mile, while it is probably worth mentioning Rekindling winning the Melbourne Cup too as it fell just beyond this piece in 2017. The first of those was about the pick, not least for the post-race scenes at the Curragh when Aidan O’Brien, always gracious in defeat, was positively joyous that his two sons had combined to thwart the Ballydoyle team.

One thing that stands out with Joseph thus far is a penchant for big-priced winners of major races, something that was also evident over jumps last season though I have to admit to being rather underwhelmed by how he did in the 2017/18 national hunt campaign; yes, he was third to Mullins and Elliott but it was at a distance and his winners after the autumn were infrequent. The point that he is a dual-purpose trainer needs reiterating and to make it to top three over jumps and now top two on the flat is a major achievement, even allowing that he has been given an opportunity available to no one else.

That opportunity can be overplayed a little however as his yard isn’t that packed with bluebloods when you break it down; he had 11 horses run to an official rating of 100 or more this season though a number of those like Drapers Guild, Reckless Gold, Light Pillar and Damselfly barely scraped over three figures. Rather his successful season has been backboned by handicaps, breaking Jim Bolger’s record of 40 handicap winners in a flat season back in 1990 with a total of 44. Below is a table of trainers by Irish handicap winners in 2018.

 

Trainer Winners Runners Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Actual/
Expected
J. O’Brien 44 259 17.0% 107 41.3% 1.03
J. Murtagh 23 118 19.5% 52 44.1% 1.18
J. Bolger 20 196 10.2% 61 31.1% 0.89
A. O’Brien 18 73 24.7% 30 41.1% 1.30
J. Harrington 17 125 13.6% 42 33.6% 1.05
G. Lyons 13 139 9.4% 40 28.8% 0.65
D. Hogan 12 142 8.5% 41 28.9% 0.82
M. Mulvany 12 80 15.0% 30 37.5% 1.26
J. McConnell 12 98 12.2% 24 24.5% 1.50

 

Johnny Murtagh is another to come out very well here, along with Michael Mulvany and John McConnell, but one of the most interesting facets of O’Brien’s team of handicappers is how many of them have won at least two such races. Below is a list of his multiple handicap winners from 2018 with a few added extras, notably the source of horses. Of the 12 O’Brien horses that won multiple handicaps this year, eight were handicapped elsewhere and included some well-regarded trainers like Eddie Lynam and Mick Halford. Should O’Brien or his buyers coming knocking again soon, other trainers might well ask themselves should they really be selling or at the very least should they be charging a premium!

 

Horse Handicap Wins Initial Rating Current Rating Difference Previous Yard
Rockfish 4 45 71 +26 N/A
Waitingfortheday 4 57 85 +28 J. Feane
Perfect Tapatino 3 59 82 +23 D. English
Song Of The Sky 3 50 72 +22 J. Murphy
Pedisnap 3 47 69 +22 M. Halford
Camile 2 45 59 +14 P. Rothwell
Downdraft 2 88 101 +13 N/A
Focus Of Attention 2 66 80 +14 E. Lynam
Rockabill 2 76 84 +8 N/A
Best Not Argue 2 52 81 +29 J. Murphy
Eagle Song 2 77 95 +18 N/A
Tuamhain 2 53 75 +22 K. Prendergast

 

 

Good Year: Donnacha O’Brien

Donnacha was a clear winner in the riposte of the year category: when asked about his best trait as a rider, he responded ‘being Aidan O’Brien’s son!’ Riding for the top two yards in the country in 2018 made him very hard to beat in the jockeys’ championship and his 111 winners in 2018, while not outlandish historically, puts him up there in recent times. Colin Keane had 100 winners last year while Pat Smullen had 115, 103 and 108 in the three previous seasons respectively with Joseph O’Brien’s 126 in 2013 the best tally of late.

Those numbers are one thing but Group 1's are a bigger deal and Donnacha rode six this year having had two in total coming into the season: Saxon Warrior in the 2,000 Guineas, Forever Together in the Oaks, Latrobe in the Irish Derby, Fairyland in the Cheveley Park, Ten Sovereigns in the Middle Park and Magna Grecia in the whatever it is called now at Doncaster. With someone his size, the clock is always ticking in terms of longevity but he’ll be hoping to retain his title in 2019.

 

Bad Year: Aidan O’Brien

Picking at Aidan O’Brien is probably churlish in the extreme but it is all relative; this is a trainer who could run FOUR Galileo fillies in a backend Leopardstown maiden a few weeks back. There was always likely to be some regression from the record-breaking campaign in 2017 with his Group 1 tally falling from 28 to 14. More than anything it was consistency that the yard struggled for as those 14 top-level wins came from 13 different horses. There were some excellent individual performances but none of them really carried it from race to race with only Kew Gardens winning two Group 1's. In an ideal year, O’Brien would have a handful of horses that roll through three or four of these races.

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A sickness in the yard certainly didn’t help (Ger Lyons is an honourable mention behind Donnacha for quip of the year when he said "I wish my horses were as sick as Aidan’s") but that didn’t really manifest itself at home as he actually broke the record for most winners trained in an official Irish flat season with 152. The volume was there but not so much the top-level success as only Lancaster Bomber and Flag Of Honour won Irish Group 1's in 2018 and they came in two of the weaker races, the Tattersalls Gold Cup and the Irish Leger.

His record in UK might have been the most disappointing part of the season, however, at least compared with previous seasons (see below). But as always with Ballydoyle, there is loads of optimism going into the following spring; since the start of September, they won 15 Group or Listed races for juveniles and look in a good spot heading into 2019.

 

Aidan O'Brien Runners in UK, by year

Year Winners Runners Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Actual/ Expected
2018 24 225 10.7% 70 31.1% 0.72
2017 32 165 19.4% 69 41.8% 1.07
2016 28 133 21.1% 70 52.6% 0.98
2015 17 79 21.5% 37 46.8% 0.96
2014 11 81 13.6% 24 29.6% 0.82

 

 

Bad Year: The rest of the Big Four

The end-of-season trainers’ table since 2014 has mostly been about the Big Four of O’Brien, Weld, Bolger and Lyons; well, perhaps the Gigantic One and Large Three might be a better way of putting it. This season looks different with Aidan O’Brien top then Joseph a distant second followed by Jessica Harrington, Bolger, Lyons and Weld at respectful distances with a mile back to the rest. Consider the records of the three trainers concerned over the past three seasons compared to this one:

 

Trainer 2015 Winners and Prizemoney 2016 Winners and Prizemoney 2017 Winners and Prizemoney 2018 Winners and Prizemoney
D. Weld 76/€2.29 million 87/€2.88 million 44/€1.24 million 53/€1.34 million
J. Bolger 61/€1.79 million 59/€1.71 million 60/€1.85 million 46/€1.48 million
G. Lyons 60/€1.57 million 53/€1.32 million 72/€1.68 million 57/€1.40 million

 

Of the three, Lyons might be the one where there is the least concern. A lot went into helping Colin Keane with the jockeys’ championship last year and there may have been a hangover of sorts but he did manage to get some powerful new owners into the yard which is likely to pay off long-term though Qatar Racing departed mid-season. Weld didn’t really bounce back from a poor 2017 when his horses were sick though did say early in the season his numbers were down while Bolger had his lowest winner total since the 38 he had in 2006.

One thing for sure is that neither Aidan nor Joseph O’Brien are going anywhere and if anything they are getting stronger. A look at the best horse on official ratings for Weld (Eziyra on 111), Lyons (Psychedelic Funk on 110) and Bolger (Twilight Payment on 109) tells a story. In the overall pecking order of official figures in 2018, those three horses came in at joint-32nd, joint-39th and joint-44th respectively showing how tough it is to compete with Ballydoyle in pattern races.

 

Good Year: Patrick Prendergast

With some of the major yards having down seasons to one degree or another, there was a window of opportunity for the smaller trainer and Patrick Prendergast was one to take advantage. Skitter Skatter was the obvious standout, her brilliant season culminating in a Moyglare success, but he also managed a career-best win total of 19 in the calendar year, 16 having been his previous best. Furthermore, his previous best prizemoney of €313,888 (again last year) was smashed with a figure of €625,365.

The training and placing of Skitter Skatter was quite straightforward, the filly being particularly genuine and her race programme picking itself; but the handling of Cedars Of Lebanon proved a bit more complicated. She won a Bellewstown maiden in mid-summer before the wheels came off a little afterwards, but Prendergast was able to coax her back to form, winning two more races before season end, the last a sales race worth €70,000 to the winner. Not only that but he got a sixth career win out of handicap stalwart, Canary Row.

 

Good Year: Michael Mulvany

Mulvany could reasonably be described as a journeyman trainer going into 2018, never having registered more than seven winners in a year, but this season was something different as he more than doubled his previous best with 16 in all. Quite a few of those came at the summer racing tracks like Sligo and Ballinrobe and he had his team in rude health in the middle of the season, registering a first across-the-card treble at Tipperary and Bellewstown in July along with a maiden winner at the Galway Festival. However, the high-point of his year came back in the spring when On The Go Again won the Cambridgeshire and followed it up with a Listed win in the Heritage Stakes.

None of Mulvany’s horses are anything approaching expensive buys, if they have been bought at all; the likes of On The Go Again, Silver Service, My Silver Nails and Early Call were all home-bred. Of his other winners in 2018, Premier League wasn’t sold for €3,500, Stormy Tale cost €2,000, Prove The Point came in at €2,500 while Wichita Line was bred by the owner. Only Passing Trade, who went through the ring at €34,000 and 15,000 guineas on separate occasions, broke the five-figure mark.

 

Bad Year: The Saturday of Irish Champions Weekend

Crowd numbers at day one of Irish Champions Weekend at Leopardstown were an acceptable 14,226 but those figures always look poor when compared with the masses the cram into Listowel the previous day, regardless of the quality on show so let’s give that a pass. The card didn’t lack for quality either with two of the best around, Roaring Lion and Alpha Centauri, taking part.

Rather, the issue was the ground, so fast that Ger Lyons described it as "far too quick with an awful cover of grass…without question the fastest we’ve raced on at Leopardstown this summer". He took a number of his horses out, which could have been a wise call when both Alpha Centauri and Saxon Warrior had to be retired soon after their respective runs on the surface. Perhaps it was simply an unfortunate coincidence and the course may have been in a difficult position with watering and mixed weather forecasts but it wasn’t a good outcome from one of the banner fixtures of the year.

 

Good Year: Colm O’Donoghue

It wasn’t a perfect year for O’Donoghue by any means, topped and tailed by a weird clash with the Order Of Malta staff at Dundalk and a seven-day ban for careless riding at Naas, but what unfolded in between was likely beyond his greatest hopes when he left Ballydoyle. He had his last ride for Aidan O’Brien on July 26th last year having had only seven rides for the yard all of that season, his most recent winner for ‘the lads’ coming back on Seventh Heaven in the 2016 Yorkshire Oaks.

The reasons for his departure have never been revealed but it is clear he was never going to be the main rider there, unlike with Jessica Harrington, and his timing could hardly have been better as it coincided with the rise of Alpha Centauri, a filly who on the clock at least was the pick of her generation. I’m So Fancy was another star turn for the rider, winning three times, and he managed to avoid what might have seemed an obvious backward step after Ballydoyle.

 

Bad Year: The Ordinary Irish Flat Racing Fan

There is a distinct possibility that this person doesn’t exist in any great number but let’s define him or her for a moment: they work in something other than racing but follow the sport closely, enjoy going to the track quite regularly at weekends and watching lots of it on TV. The 2019 fixture list with its increase in blank summer Sundays, especially for flat racing, didn’t cater for this person at all and while no one doubts there is a stable staff crisis with the Ballydoyle/Work Relations Commission decision lurking in the background, I’m not sure ceding prime weekend days was a good move. The decision to move the August fixtures at the Curragh to Friday evenings was equally curious, especially as the Naas road at that time of the week is a nightmare. Not only that but some of the tracks (like Kilbeggan and Down Royal that are generally well-attended) lost Friday evening fixtures as a result and will see their attendances drop in their new spots.

The other concern for Irish racing fans is change in TV coverage from January 1st 2019 and it is the uncertainty here that is worrying.  RUK has more than its share of good presenters and analysts along with innovative programming like ‘Luck on Sunday’; what it doesn’t seem to have is space to fit all the Irish racing along with its current UK portfolio. The single most important thing in racing coverage is to see the race live on TV, preferably not in a split screen, as it just isn’t the same on a laptop. Not everything about the At The Races coverage of Irish racing was perfect but they got those basics right and had the time and space to go deeper too, often interviewing smaller trainers and giving a real insight into what they were doing. Let’s hope RUK can do something similar.

- Tony Keenan

Tony Keenan: On course bookies “not an endangered species”

It’s hard to find people with something positive to say about the on-course betting market in Ireland, writes Tony Keenan. Turnover in the ring has fallen from €202 million in 2007 to just €60 million last year as punters favour off-course and online while the exchanges are widely considered the place where significant late money is traded. Brian Keenan, one of the youngest on-course layers at 29, is not so negative however. When asked if there was any good news about the market on Irish tracks, he was more sanguine than you might expect.

‘I suppose we’re a bit like the farmers in that we portray things as worse than they actually are. Everything isn’t rosy in the garden, far from it, but we’re not the endangered species some people think. The game is in trouble with the industry days, midweek in the winter, but from my point-of-view the festivals are getting better and better. My turnover is up year-on-year the last three years and I don’t know exactly why.’

That is good news for him but with the broader turnover in the ring down to less than 30% of what it was a decade ago, it seemed reasonable to ask if the figure of €60 million last year was correct and if so how could some bookies be making a living? This is against the backdrop of leading layer Daragh Fitzpatrick saying in a recent Irish Field interview he would turnover €600,000 at Galway alone which seems to leave little for the smaller operators. ‘Some lads can’t be making a living. I think you have to be turning over ten grand a day and that’s on an ordinary day and trying to win 5-6%. David Power leaving the ring in 2017 did impact those figures heavily though as he was a major layer.’

Keenan spoke to me before a midweek fixture at Punchestown a few weeks back, one of eleven tracks he stands at along with Leopardstown, Fairyhouse, the Curragh, Kilbeggan, Listowel, Down Royal, Galway, Roscommon, Ballinrobe and Sligo, holding multiple pitches at most. The meeting wasn’t quite an 'industry day' as there was a pair of Grade 3's on the card, but in terms of crowd it wasn’t much better than some of those bleak midwinter meetings that few want to bet on and fewer want to attend.

He described himself as a bookie with an opinion ‘which costs me some days’ and says he is a diligent form student, particularly of race replays. Having studied Food-Agribusiness at UCD, he had initially thought he would follow the ‘standard route’ into employment but time spent working for Daragh Fitzpatrick on-course opened his eyes to other possibilities and he was soon looking for a life less ordinary. ‘The job is not easy but it’s rewarding, it’s like a drug on the bigger days and you can suffer on the smaller ones. There are probably easier ways to make a living but this is mine and I’m proud of it.’

One of the things that stands out is how much he loves racing; he is not like another on-course bookie who asked him at Galway why Ruby Walsh wasn’t riding Limini in the old GPT! He talks of his passion for the big national hunt days, the clashes like Hurricane Fly and Jezki, saying that while ‘Hurricane Fly was a pain in the neck [as a bookie]’ that it was racing is about; ‘this is what the public need to see.’ While he has respect for his colleagues who ‘grind out a day’s wages, surviving on an ordinary pitch trying to nick a few quid’ that sort of money-trading approach isn’t for him. For him, it’s all about all about raising turnover and as he goes through the costs of business, both capital and day-to-day, it becomes apparent why.

‘First, you’ve got your pitch. Really good ones are expensive, for example the best pitches at somewhere like Ballinrobe are worth €50,000 with the mid-range ones about €8-10,000. The better ones at Galway could be valued at €100,000-€200,000 and Kevin McManus bought the Dick Power one at Leopardstown for a quarter of a million recently. Places like Clonmel and Thurles, not so much, and bar the top ones they aren’t much use. I suppose it’s like everything in retail these days; the good spots are busy, the bad ones aren’t just worthless, they cost you money.’

‘Day-to-day, you pay five times admission which also applies when you are absent and there is a levy of 0.25% on turnover; a full-time bookmakers turns over a couple of million quid in the year. Your IT service and on-course tech supports is €30 per day and there’s a €20 link fee if you have another slave pitch and then there’s staff and diesel. Basically, you’re not going to have any change out of a monkey for an average day.’

With all this in mind, Keenan thinks ‘you have to hold money.’ To him, you ‘can’t trade €100 at 5/2 and be betting it back at 11/4, there isn’t enough turnover to do that and just take a margin.’ Furthermore, he says he has ‘no interest in doing that anyway.’ But why should punters play with him or other on-course books when they have a myriad of other options? It is fine to say that the ring adds colour to a racecourse but that only goes so far; it might be nice to go to your corner shop for a chat with the proprietor but if your groceries are costing an extra €15 a week most customers will eventually go elsewhere.

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Perhaps surprisingly, Keenan agrees with this. While he says one of the USPs of the on-course bookmaker is ‘the personal touch’ and ‘there will be a fella coming to me with anything from a fiver to a ton and I’ll boost it from 100/30 to 7/2 when it is 4.3 on the machine’ he acknowledges that it is a nicety rather than anything else. ‘We can’t expect punters to bet a horse at 9/4 when it’s 3.7 on Betfair; you have to compete. The way I try to compete (and it’s working at the minute) is more pitches and better pitches to have more turnover and try to hold more money. I know everyone plays at their own level and I’m far from one of the biggest layers, with plenty of lads in a different league, but I have to hold money at big meetings.’

He is pro-free Wi-Fi on Irish tracks, saying that ‘we have to give punters choice.’ There are occasions when he might not fancy something that is 2.38 on the machine and ‘I’ll put up 6/4 and if someone wants €400, €800, €1000 that’s no problem. It won’t be every race or day but I have to live by that.’ He cites a recent maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse where he laid Sometime Soon to a punter €2,500 to win €2,000 and 30 seconds later the horse was 4/9 and 2/5. ‘That wasn’t a bet I was particularly looking to lay but I’m there to lay bets and it’s part of the reason my turnover is up, same with people like Daragh Fitzpatrick and the O’Hares. People know where they can get a bet though I’m not for a second saying I’m only laying those sorts of stakes, I will lay the lad that wants two quid too.’

He goes on to point out that punters playing off-course or online won’t get away with betting two and a half grand at 4/5 on horses that go off 4/9 too often. On the subject of knockbacks on-course he says ‘there is no one who is banned with me.’ He says ‘there are a couple of lads that are very difficult to beat but I’ll bet a fella to win a couple of grand, not because I think I can beat him as sometimes I’ll have to ship some of the liability on.

’There are times ‘when you’re beat into a corner and you just have to take it but that is what you’re here for; if you don’t hold money you can’t win it.’

‘I can only speak for myself but you have to lay a bet. It really doesn’t always suit you and sometimes you have to take the penalty but you can’t be happy to only lay a punter when it suits. Some of us didn’t cover ourselves in glory in recent years, knocking punters coming in to have €50/100 on a horse and saying no because the price was gone on the machine… You have to respect a punter, lads know when they’re been taken for a ride.’ Again, he reiterates he is not only there for big punters though: ‘the target market is everyone, beggars can’t be choosers.’

Despite complaints from other on-course layers, most notably Sean Graham, that Tote lreland are given an unfair advantage by Horse Racing Ireland, he doesn’t really see them as the competition.

‘The challenge for us is mobile betting and punters need to know that – in many cases – we are the place to bet in the 15 minutes prior to the off.’

This is the time when most turnover is done and he points out that ‘we often offer better prices than are available on the app but punters don’t compare the different sets of odds and there is no commission either.’ He thinks the on-course bookies don’t make this widely known enough, struggling in the face of the advertising machine of big betting, but it needs saying ‘that while we’re not always the best price, we’re not always the worse either.’ He says that ‘I’ll often be overbroke in those big handicaps one the first five in the market, 5/1 a favourite that is 1.8 in the place.’ It may be a different story if you want to back something at 14/1 plus but the key here is choice and many will want to back one of the front few in the market.

Of course, for punters to note this difference in odds they need to be at the track and that is a problem. ‘We need people racing and have to work with racecourses to make that happen. Traditionally the on-course books and tracks didn’t have a good relationship and the Dundalk dispute didn’t help that.’ He singles out some racecourse managers for praise like Conor O’Neill at Punchestown and John Flannelly at Ballinrobe. Ballinrobe is a track Keenan is particularly fond of, saying that despite the quality of racing there ‘it is packed to the rafters and you do loads of tickets there with lots of small punters. To help do out bit, we gave out a 1,000 free fiver bets at their last meeting.’

Keenan is less positive on some of the major tracks believing that are too content with their SIS money and don’t work hard enough. While he loves the festivals at Leopardstown and wouldn’t miss the quality summer Thursday flat meetings for anything, ‘if they didn’t have the music there, the place would be practically empty.’ He thinks a 13,000 attendance for the Saturday of Irish Champions Weekend was far from praiseworthy, especially when contrasted with the 37,000 that made it to the Friday of Listowel.

‘The difference there is that locals like Pat Healy are proud of their town and racetrack, they work hard at everything and get the basics right and are in touch with the ordinary guy. They get local sponsors, give out tickets and get a crowd in.’ He goes on to say that his nearest track, Roscommon, did just that at an early October Monday fixture with local businesses bringing clients and staff and he did 600 tickets in all.

On the day I met him at Punchestown, turnover was nothing like as vibrant. After the sixth race, he reported things as ‘middling’ having done 110 tickets and was losing €1,800 on the day after making the mistake of laying the Jamie Codd-ridden Sizing Rome at all rates from 5/1 to 7/2 in a handicap race for amateur riders; ‘I never learn in these races, it’s all about the jockey!’ That race, despite being the worst in terms of quality on the card, was his biggest loser which says something about the Irish betting public; they like to bet on good racing, particularly good national hunt racing, but they have some weird predilections too.

‘Bumpers, bumpers, bumpers’ says Keenan when asked about what is popular with his customers, ‘even on a poor day the bumper can come alive.’ So it was at Punchestown when he took 45 tickets on the final race and he got a result too with the Liz Doyle-trained Chapmanshype beating a trio of horses from the Mullins, Meade and Peter Fahey yards, all of whom had been well-backed to one degree or other. That turned a losing day around as he won €2,400 on the race to put him €600 in the black but reported that ‘today is almost as quiet as it gets but that’s the reality of midweek racing outside the summer.’

Getting crowds to the track is not something Keenan believes has been particularly well-facilitated by the 2018 fixture list. ‘I don’t like being Mr Negative here but the fixture list hammered us. The decision to move a lot of what were summer Sunday fixtures at the Curragh to Friday evenings doesn’t recognise how hard it is to get out of Dublin on a Friday. We have more than enough bad days so you need to spread the good days out but Laytown is in the middle of Listowel and the first day of Irish Champions Weekend clashes with it too.’ On the subject of the Dublin Racing Festival, he says ‘bigger is better with the festivals but I imagine the likes of Naas and Navan [who have meetings around that time] have seen their attendance impacted’ and the meeting needs to be supported; he strongly believes that racing needs to be competitive and was not a fan of the recent upgrading of a novice chase at Limerick on December 26th, saying ‘if the track needs to be rewarded, do it in some other way but Leopardstown is where it has to be at over Christmas.’

As so often with Irish racing, the subject of integrity comes up and for Keenan it is as much a concern for bookmakers as punters. He references a recent beginners’ chase at Galway won by Voix Du Reve in which the winner and two Gigginstown horses had it between them from an early stage as the other 13 runners played no meaningful part in the race.

‘The aesthetics of that are poor. A woman came in to back a 66/1 shot in the race with a bookie beside me for a fiver and he gave her a free bet, handed her the fiver back and told her to keep her money. That’s fine for people who know the game but it looks terrible.’ He goes on to say that while Irish racing is ‘by and large fairly clean’ events like the withdrawal of Ballycasey from the Galway Plate ‘don’t help.’

‘One punter had €400 on Saturnas with me at 12/1 or 14/1 earlier in the day because Ruby was riding.  Whereas a lot of us knew there was a good chance he would switch; what does that fella think about racing afterwards? Willie Mullins bent the rules there, maybe I’d do the same, but if the rules don’t cover this, they need to be changed. It was the same with Carlingford Lough previously but nothing changed in the interim; there seems to be no hunger to alter the rules.’ For him, the Irish stewards are too tolerant of excuses, merely noting them but rarely carrying them forward into future enquiries. ‘People in racing don’t like being questioned. Look at the James Doyle ride in the Arc, I think it was a good ride but anyone questioning it got hammered even if they were being logical as some don’t like the status quo being challenged.’

Keenan questions whether the authorities have younger people working for them and thinks ‘about how incidents like this are perceived on social media. Take Paul Townend on Al Boum Photo, he made a mistake, mistakes happen. But social media and rumours go wild, people were saying to me that he pulled it which was obvious nonsense but the stewards released no report and there was no comment from the jockey himself or Willie Mullins. Why not tell us what happened, what decisions were made and why? This stuff isn’t life or death, it’s only racing but transparency makes it better for everyone.’ One gets the sense that for Brian Keenan it might be a little more than ‘only racing’ but his overall point holds.

- Tony Keenan

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