It is scarcely credible but after a seeming six-month long winter, the Irish flat season is up-and-running. We need to get Punchestown out of the way to engage with it fully but let’s kick off with six important questions for the campaign ahead.
How does Aidan O’Brien build on a record-breaking 2017?
By taking over the world.
Aside from the obvious Group 1 record last season, Aidan O’Brien continued to tighten the screw on Irish Group and Listed races generally. Consider the table below which looks at his historical record in such races since 2012.
2017 saw O'Brien have more winners, and runners, in Listed and Group races than ever before which is a pattern - no pun intended - that seems likely to continue in 2018. The problem – and it is a high-class problem – is that there simply aren’t enough races in Ireland for all his horses even with them running against each other, so he will have to travel far and wide.
Ballydoyle runners in the UK are old hat by now but they aren’t quite so common in France and certainly not at this stage of the season; yet O’Brien sent three horses to Longchamp last Sunday and they weren’t slouches either, Magical and Rostropovich Group 2 winners, Flag Of Honour successful at Group 3 level. It seems doubtful that the French trainers were enthused by this development though they might at least be pleased that none of them won.
Of course, the apotheosis of this would be Mendelssohn winning the Kentucky Derby. My initial reaction after his UAE Derby rout was to pooh-pooh any thought of Churchill Downs success, as Meydan form tends not to be replicated outside its own bubble. But his Beyer figure was 106 with the last three winners of the race coming in at 105, 103 and 102 (thanks to Ron Wood for those numbers) and the best US middle-distance three-year-old at the moment is on 104.
Simon Rowlands in his Irish Field column had him on 128 (a different scale is used here) with the potential to go higher with Bolt D’Oro behind him on 127. So on the clock he is at least in the right ballpark and he is reasonably hardened too having had seven starts and plenty of experience away from the turf. The dream of the Run for the Roses may not be insane but regardless of that I suspect we are going to be seeing the O’Brien horses running in places they haven’t before this season.
What did last season mean for Dermot Weld?
Not a lot probably, but…
With 44 winners in all, Weld had his worst season for at least as far as Racing Post records go back and it is worth put the campaign alongside those that went before.
|Season||Winners||Strikerate||Prizemoney||Individual Runners||Trainers’ Championship|
All of his numbers were well down on the previous three years though he did quickly rebound from a relatively disappointing season in 2013 the following year. The bounce-back may not be assured in 2018, however, if we consider the following comment from a recent Racing Post stable tour at face value:
‘Weld says he has cut down on numbers this year to concentrate on quality rather than quantity.’ Furthermore, it is interesting that his total individual runners didn’t fall off completely last year; there are surely some unraced three-year-olds that he didn’t rush as juveniles when things weren’t going right (Jaega looked a good prospect from this mould at Leopardstown on Monday) but it doesn’t seem likely that he has dozens of them.
His patience with those horses could well be rewarded, but patience has its limits, which is something Willie Mullins knows all about; should Gordon Elliott retain his lead over him at Punchestown next week, he may regret being too patient in the early part of the jumps season proper. Weld is a little like this too. Since 2003, he has had just nine horses run in either of the English Guineas, the Oaks or the Derby. Their form figures read an impressive:104890281 with Refuse To Bend and Harzand the winners, so when they get there they tend to run well.
The issue is that they don’t get there often enough and playing the long game with three-year-olds basically denies the whole shape of the calendar; many of the races that matter are over by early June. That is something to bear in mind with the great bay hope Contingent who could be an Oaks filly but it was a little disconcerting for her backers to read in the same stable tour that ‘she’s still a bit backward in her coat and hasn’t done any fast work yet.’ She could have the quality but will she be ready in time to show it?
When does Ger Lyons finish second to Aidan O’Brien?
This year seems as good a guess as any.
Subjectively, and it is only subjectively, I think Lyons might be the second best flat trainer in Ireland right now; I emphasise right now as his historical achievements are not in same league as Dermot Weld or Jim Bolger but then he hasn’t been training for as long as them either. Bolger was second in the trainers’ championship last year but Lyons seems to have won the battle if not the war; he had 72 winners against 60 for Bolger with a strikerate of 19% against 11% for his rival. His problem was that he didn’t have Verbal Dexterity and his €233,280 in Irish prizemoney, with the difference between the two trainers at the line being €174,445.
Lyons’ problem is his ownership profile, which is currently constrained in getting his hands on a Group 1 horse like Verbal Dexterity, as such as Sean Jones and David Spratt just don’t have the buying power, astute though the latter certainly is at acquiring horses. And even if Lyons does get a horse that can compete at the top level, keeping him becomes an issue: Doctor Geoff was good in winning the Tetrarch on seasonal debut last season but was soon on the plane to Hong Kong. His rise from very little remains notable however and is worth charting below. While perhaps not quite in the Gordon Elliott league, it isn’t far behind.
Everything seems in place for Lyons to kick on and improve again. He has the training ability, he has the stable jockey in Colin Keane and he has the right attitude too. Rather than get defeatist about the power of the big yards, he wants to get up and at them, commenting in a recent AtTheRaces interview that ‘[Aidan O’Brien] is dragging us along in his wake [and] you try to follow him.’ But if he is to be another Gordon Elliott, who is going to be his Michael O’Leary?
Who should the Big Four be worried about?
The Big Two.
In truth, Aidan O’Brien shouldn’t be worried about anything bar what goes on in his own yard but if winners are to be taken from the likes of Weld, Bolger and Lyons then perhaps it will be Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott who do it. Below are their respective flat winners over the past five seasons:
Mullins is slightly further down the flat training route than Elliott but both ‘suffer’ from the same problem as Aidan O’Brien in that they have so many horses and not enough races. Elliott of course won the Railway Stakes last year with Beckford from his first team of two-year-olds in 2017 and had an interesting early runner on the level at Cork last Sunday. Scealai Aonair, formerly owned by the Irish President, was bought out of Dermot Weld’s yard for €10,000 and went with a deal of promise on his first start for Elliott’s own racing club.
For Mullins, last season on the flat was all about the summer festivals with winners at Killarney, Listowel and most notably Galway. The soft ground at the last-named track may have helped but his form figures of:134115 in the premier handicaps at that meeting were deeply impressive with Whiskey Sour winning two such races and Riven Light unlucky not to do likewise and nor could he be accused at going mob-handed at the fixture.
Where should the astute smaller owner go with his horse?
Step forward Richard O’Brien.
Before this becomes an advertorial, I want to point out that I don’t know Richard O’Brien apart from Twitter and, as my wife constantly points out, Twitter isn’t real! He’s a good follow on that platform, however, and has an excellent blog that keeps people updated on his runners. But more than that, the statistics bear out the belief that he had a really good maiden season in 2017, coming out best of all Irish trainers with a minimum of 50 total runners on the winners-to-runners ratio or as I prefer to call it ‘the keeping as many owners as possible happy’ figure.
|Trainer||Winner to Runner Ratio|
It is unlikely if not impossible that he will keep that return up and he probably benefits from having a small sample size to date, but it remains a notable achievement to finish ahead of Lyons and his namesake Aidan. Furthermore, he has done well with acquisitions from other yards - the likes of Alans Pride rising from a rating of 52 to 73, Tom Dooley from 46 to 65 and Beach Bar from 78 to 94. We have seen this movie before with trainers like Elliott, Mullins and to a lesser extent Lyons and it can be a good gauge of trainer ability.
Already this season O’Brien has won the Madrid Handicap with Dianthus and while running her in the 1,000 Guineas Trial at Leopardstown soon after could be considered a rush of blood to the head, it is worth pointing out that Jet Setting won the same race off a not dissimilar preparation, catching some of those from the big yards cold before going on to the win the Irish 1,000 Guineas. The result may not have been what they wanted but the thinking was right.
Why are they racing at the Curragh again this year?
I have no idea.
- Tony Keenan