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?
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.