Ger Lyons continues his upward progression

Irish View: Half Term Report

The Irish Derby marks a rough halfway point in the turf season so now is a good time to take the temperature of what has unfolded thus far, writes Tony Keenan. Rather than simply go through 2017 on an event-by-event basis, I’m going to look at the top six trainers in Ireland presently and belatedly refer to an article I wrote on seasonal trainers back in May to put some data on the narrative and attempt to project forward into the rest of the campaign.

In that original piece – linked here – I looked at the 6,538 flat races run between 2010 and 2016 and divided the season in quarters: Spring (March and April), Early Summer (May and June), High Summer (July and August) and Autumn (September, October and the odd race in the November). I then went into which trainers did well in which part of the season. These numbers are reproduced below for the current top six trainers along with a brief look at the overall pattern of their typical season before considering what this might mean for 2017.

Before that however are the current standings in the trainers’ championship as of July 3rd:

 

Overall Table

Trainer Wins Runs Strikerate Prizemoney
A. O’Brien 47 233 20.2% €2,857,438
J. Bolger 34 255 13.3% €832,165
G. Lyons 27 163 16.6% €699,253
J. Harrington 23 136 16.9% €485,273
D. Weld 18 152 11.8% €349,160
W. McCreery 17 123 13.8% €342,648

 

In some ways the table is quite similar to the one that we saw at the end of 2016, in others it is very different. Aidan O’Brien was/is on top in both but the 2016 runner-up Dermot Weld – having had €2,886,538 in total prize last year, much of it Harzand-generated – is languishing in fifth. Bolger and Lyons are knocking around the same spots as last year albeit with better strikerates as is Willie McCreery. Jessica Harrington has taken things up a level or three though, her 23 winners this season already ahead of the 21 she had last year.

 

Aidan O’Brien

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 21.0% 21.0% 22.2% 22.9% 17.6%
2017 20.2% 19.2% 19.9% ? ?

 

The Pattern: O’Brien wins races, and lots of them, at every stage of the year. His strikerate drops in the Autumn but the same applies to almost all yards; field sizes tend to be bigger as trainers attempt to get runs into their horses before season end.

 

Aidan O’Brien keeps winning and the world keeps turning. Despite seven winners over the Irish Derby meeting including the main event, it was a disappointing weekend for Ballydoyle with news of injuries to Wings Of Eagles, Minding and Somehow, the last name fatally. Indeed, the whole plan of keeping older fillies in training has turned out badly in 2017; not only is Minding’s racing career in doubt but neither Seventh Heaven nor Alice Springs, Group 1 winners at three, have been seen lately and nor is there any sign of them returning.

Yet 2017 has still been an excellent campaign up to this point. Churchill excepted, Royal Ascot was a triumph and one that looks even better when placed alongside the broad failure of other Irish flat trainers to have winners or even runners at the meeting. Caravaggio, Winter and Highland Reel all won their Group 1s and gave notice that they will be doing more of the same through the summer though the pack may need to be shuffled a little regarding future targets, Winter one that could be going up in trip in the absence of Minding.

O’Brien even managed to get a good winner out of the morass of last year’s Derby with Idaho in the Hardwicke though extracting the same from US Army Ranger has proved beyond even him. The early two-year-old returns with the fillies have been good – September stands out here while Clemmie was good over the weekend – but the colts have been a little flat thus far with Murillo about the pick. Gustav Klimt, Amedeo Modigliani and others yet unraced may have more to add here though.

 

Jim Bolger

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 12.1% 12.7% 12.8% 14.0% 8.9%
2017 13.3% 10.6% 15.3% ? ?

 

The Pattern: Bolger gets his horses fit and runs them often so it is no surprise that his strikerate drops off at the end of the year; his peak time is High Summer before a trough in the Autumn.

 

Relatively speaking, 2017 started slowly for Jim Bolger, his 2017 Spring strikerate of 10.6% below his seven-season average of 12.7%. Things have changed and changed utterly in the last two months, to such a degree that he is operating at a healthy 13.3% return for the season. As ever, it is the robust nature of his horses that are carrying him; already in 2017 he has had ten horses win twice with the likes of Club Wexford, Clongowes, New Direction and Pirolo among those that are taking their racing well. That said, horses don’t have much choice in Coolcullen!

Turret Rocks and Glamorous Approach are decent standard bearers among the older horses but the real hope for Bolger is with his juveniles and it is a crop that should help cement his position in second place for 2017. His five two-year-old winners have him joint-third in terms of juvenile winners behind O’Brien and Harrington and none is more exciting than Railway Stakes second, Verbal Dexterity who coped surprisingly well with the drop back to six furlongs over the weekend and is sure to be much better over a trip.

 

Ger Lyons

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 14.9% 11.8% 15.9% 16.1% 13.2%
2017 16.6% 23.9% 13.2% ? ?

 

The Pattern: Lyons tends to train his horses to improve for a run in the Spring before operating at a consistent level for the rest of the year; in some ways, he is the metronome of Irish racing, his strikerates at different race distances backing this up.

 

The early part of 2017 was anything but typical for Lyons when placed alongside his records back to 2010. Unlike in previous years, he hit the ground running this time with a double on opening day at Naas including a win in the Lincoln. His strikerate through this Spring was more than double what it had been across the previous Springs. This may however have come at a cost as his Early Summer returns have been down on previous years.

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It is possible Royal Ascot played a part in this. Lyons had a right good go at the meeting, running five of his better horses, but all bar Treasuring in the Queen Mary underwhelmed. That said, his two winners over Derby weekend were bettered only by Aidan O’Brien and were more than Weld, Bolger or Harrington; Joe Murphy was the other trainer to have more than one winner across the three days.

The problem with Lyons progressing to the next level – and by the next level I mean consistently competing in Group 1s – is that his operation as currently constituted remains a selling yard. The type of horse he buys at the sales have an ability cap when placed alongside the blue bloods and there is always the chance that a good prospect will be sold on to jurisdictions like Hong Kong as was the case with Doctor Geoff earlier in the season.

 

Jessica Harrington

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 10.6% 14.0% 10.9% 11.8% 7.6%
2017 16.9% 29.4% 13.1% ? ?

 

The Pattern: As one might expect with a national hunt trainer aiming horses at spring festivals like Cheltenham and Punchestown, Harrington tends to have her horses ready early on; her historic strikerate is never better than in Spring. Those numbers tend to tail off as the year goes on with a massive drop in Autumn.

 

That Jessica Harrington would have a big 2017 flat campaign was hardly surprising; her horses were flying at the backend of the jumps season proper with a new gallop seemingly playing a big part in her improvement. Even so, the scale of her returns in the early part of this season have been hard to grasp, a strikerate of 29.4% much the best among any yard with a meaningful number of runners. As things stand, she has had 23 winners in Ireland this year and it looks like a formality that her previous best of 28 in 2011 will be left behind.

The two-year-olds have been the real flagbearers and as referenced already she is second to O’Brien in juvenile winners trained. Both her Royal Ascot favourites, Brother Bear and Alpha Centauri, were beaten but there were strong positives to be drawn from both; Brother Bear looked to find the ground too fast when hanging in the finish of the Coventry while Alpha Centauri is one for further judged on her run in the Albany. The National and Moyglare remain on the cards for both.

 

Dermot Weld

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 17.6% 21.5% 17.4% 18.4% 15.2%
2017 11.8% 14.6% 9.7% ? ?

 

The Pattern: Weld starts hot in Spring, very hot in fact, and then peaks again in High Summer; Galway of course is central to this July/August period. Autumn traditionally sees a dropping-off but not a seismic one by any means.

 

Unlike in previous years, Weld started cold in 2017 and it has stayed that way; his Spring strikerate was below his previous averages but it could be argued that his Early Summer numbers are even worse. Derby Weekend did not go well; Three Kingdoms offered some relief, as much as a 33/1 winner of a handicap can, but he went into Sunday’s card with a number of well-fancied runners and the best any of them could manage was fourth, both Zhukova and The Grey Gatsby filling that spot.

Zhukova is his best horse at the moment but she has clear limitations both in terms of ground and ability; it looks as if she was extremely well-placed to win a Group 1 at Belmont Park, a point made by her rider Pat Smullen since, and the trainer’s subsequent view that she might contend for an Arc were more fantastical that fanciful. It’s worth remembering that her single best piece of form might be beating US Army Ranger, a greatly devalued stock now.

It is hard to see a way back for Weld this year looking at his strikerates in previous years; it would be going against the grain to believe he can resuscitate his season and that could have a massive influence on the dynamics, market and otherwise, of Galway. The reasons for the down year here seem clear; his horses were sick earlier in the year and he simply doesn’t have the quality in 2017 which is something that can happen to any yard away from Ballydoyle. Eziyra and Making Light seem about his best three-year-olds and both have clear ceilings around Group 3 level.

One interesting knock-on effect in all this has been an opening up of the jockeys’ championship. Paddy Power rated this such a foregone conclusion at the start of the season that they had a market without Pat Smullen and who could blame them based on previous events. But every season takes on its own story and Smullen is only fifth in that table now with just seven winners separating the top six of Manning, Keane, Lee, Hayes, Smullen and Foley. Interesting times indeed and quite a few of those riders will be dreaming of winning a first title.

 

Willie McCreery

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 10.2% 9.0% 9.8% 11.4% 9.7%
2017 13.8% 9.3% 16.7% ? ?

 

The Pattern: Broad consistency has been the story with McCreery, his strikerates operating within similar parameters throughout the year.

 

McCreery got the full treatment from me last year so I won’t add much more now beyond to say that he has continued to improve and does well making his living around the periphery of the top trainers in good handicaps, lesser pattern events and conditions races. His overall strikerate has been better in 2017 than ever before and he benefits from having Billy Lee as his stable jockey; Lee is the most improved jockey around in the last three or four years and a major asset to any yard.

 

- Tony Keenan

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