Leopardstown in late December isn’t quite Cheltenham in mid-March but it is the end point of the first stage of the Irish national hunt season and the competition over the four days will be stiff, writes Tony Keenan. Many of the numbers covered below confirm this; it’s difficult for any trainer to beat market expectations, horses without a recent run tend to struggle, older horses have found it hard to win open graded races.
Willie Mullins doesn’t dominate Leopardstown to the extent he does Punchestown at season end but he still has more than twice as many winners as any other trainer in the last ten years.
Trainers at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival, 2006 – 2015
|H. De Bromhead||6/55||10.91%||-32.25||0.76|
That’s the top handlers but there are some negatives that are worth mentioning before digging deeper into some of those that do well. Eddie Harty (0 wins/2 places/34 runners) has a poor record as do Philip Rothwell (0/6/38), Michael Hourigan (1/6/36) and Tom Taaffe (1/8/43) in the period covered.
Pound for pound, or euro for euro, Gordon Elliot has the best recent record at the fixture. Of those with more than a handful of runners, Elliott is the only trainer with more than nine points of profit to level stakes which speaks to the level of competition the meeting attracts. And it’s not as if his strong record comes from a single big-priced winner; he’s turned a profit to level stakes in all but one year since 2009. No More Heroes is his big Grade 1 hope in the Neville Hotels Novice Chase on the 29th while Tombstone looks a big upside horse and could go for the Future Champions Novice Hurdle on the 27th; that could prove the race of the meeting if even half of the entries go to post.
One area where Elliott does particularly well is bumpers. He’s four from eight in those races since 2006 and the quality of horse he’s won with is notable; Bold Optimist was near Champion Bumper favourite after his win, Noble Endeavour is a 146-rated hurdler, No More Heroes is a Grade 1 winner while Space Cadet still has potential. Elliott has multiple entries in all of the bumpers over the four days but one to note is The Storyteller who shaped with distinct promise first time out over hurdles and both No More Heroes and Space Cadet won their bumpers reverting from maiden hurdles.
In terms of pure strikerate, only Dermot Weld comes close to Willie Mullins. The market however is well aware of Weld sending his best jumpers to meeting; his actual over expected is a mundane 0.78. He has had a winner in all bar one of the last six years despite relatively few runners and has run the likes of Hidden Universe, Unaccompanied and Windsor Park in recent years. Silver Concorde and Vigil are amongst his entries this time.
Mags Mullins didn’t make the top trainers list but she has done really well with a handful of runners; 9 of her 16 have placed with four winning. Of trainers with at least 10 runners since 2006 only the disgraced Philip Fenton has a better place strikerate and her record with fancied horses is strong, her five horses sent off 4/1 or shorter ran 11123. Both her stable stars Martello Tower and Ballychorus are likely runners next week.
As mentioned at the start, these four days are the end point of the initial part of the campaign and horses tend not to win here without a recent outing. The numbers below look at how long the Leopardstown Christmas winners were off the track before their victory; they exclude maiden races and bumpers as horses in those races can have a distinct ability edge that can negate fitness to a degree.
Days since Last Run 2010+ (excluding maiden hurdles, maiden chases and bumpers)
|Days Since Last Run||Wins/Runs||Strikerate||Actual/Expected|
|Between 2 and 15 days||11/148||7.4%||0.70|
|Between 16 and 90 days||67/725||9.2%||0.80|
|90 days or more||5/90||5.6%||0.66|
There isn’t so much a sweet spot in terms of when horses should have their last run before Christmas but coming off a long break is difficult in the handicaps and graded races and that’s even more marked when we dig deeper into the five horses that won off a three month break or more. Three of those horses won the 2m2f handicap hurdle for horses rated 80-116 on St. Stephen’s Day which is about the worst race of the meeting in terms of quality while the other two wins came in an ordinary handicap chase and a conditions hurdle. I wouldn’t be advocating backing fresh horses in that handicap hurdle but backing race fit runners in the better races seems the way to go.
Age Groups in Open Graded Races since 2004
It’s been a meeting for the younger horses in the non-novice graded races with those between four and eight winning 44 times from 278 runners for a strikerate of 15.8%; the actual over expected is 0.92 which isn’t quite profitable but might speak more to the larcenous percentages the Irish on-course layers work to at the time of the race. Horses nine and older are just 9 from 98 with a strikerate of 9.2% and an actual over expected of 0.64. The four horses to win graded races over Christmas aged in double figures were bona fide racing superstars (Big Zeb, Sizing Europe, Tidal Bay and Hurricane Fly) and the more typical older horses tend to struggle in the heat of competition.
Maiden Hurdles form a big part of the programme next week with six such races in all and they can be a really good source of finding good horses for the future. Back in 2007 and 2008, I did some statistics on maiden hurdles at this meeting and found it was really hard for horses to win without having had experience over sticks. That has changed lately with a lot more hurdling debutantes winning recently but is doesn’t seem to be a product of less competitive maiden hurdles; rather, trainers seem to be running a better class of horse in these races. It takes a good one to beat horses with experience and furthermore those with experience often tend to have fitness on their sides.
It is hard to spot any margin in backing hurdling debutantes in maidens – they are just 22/395 since 2004 for a strikerate of 5.57% and an actual over expected of 0.66 – but there is certainly an edge in following them into the future. The average peak official rating of the 19 horses that had a published mark afterwards was 142.4 and they included the Champion Hurdler Sublimity as well as Grade 1-winning hurdlers Voler La Vedette, Windsor Park and Identity Thief. Two more won Grade 2 races while a further four were graded placed and that’s not even to mention the likes of high-end handicapper Flaxen Flare. Any horse that can win one of these races without experience has the potential to be graded class.
- Tony Keenan