The Power of the Negative (2)

Punting Confessional: Creatures of Habit

Creatures of Habit

Creatures of Habit

The Punting Confessional – April 24th, 2013

In the equine/human equation that makes up any horse race, the animal is always the most important factor; their talent, much more so than any preference for ground, trip or otherwise reigns supreme. Of the Homo Sapiens involved however, the trainer is the vital person, more so than the jockey, an oft-overbet angle; one only need look at the amount of time spent by the respective roles with the horse, the trainer and his staff taking care of the beast night and day, the jockey (in most cases), appearing on its back for a matter of minutes.

The trainer plays a role in the horse’s condition as well as the selection of its races and in this article and next week’s follow-up I will look at some angles on trainers.

I abhor clichés but the idea of leopards never changing their spots has lots of truth when dealing with trainers; they are the great creatures of habit in racing. Some trainers are capable in some areas but not others and recognising these is a way to punting success. Knowing a trainer’s strengths and weaknesses is important as is not getting them confused.

Take David Marnane as an example, a relatively new trainer I respect. Marnane excels with his raiders in Dubai and the big English handicaps with Elleval the most recent example in Meydan this spring. On the day-to-day Irish handicaps however, where I do much of my betting, the Bansha trainer is not so good but the market is often framed around his ability in a totally different type of race.

Why this is so, I’m not sure. Perhaps English odds compilers and layers are guilty of availability bias and overvaluing events that happen in their own jurisdiction or maybe it is just the draw of familiar name in the midst of a field on unknown handlers with limited handicappers. In this regard, one is reminded of Philip Hobbs’ comment that training racehorses is little more than galloping them up a hill twice a day and I certainly think this is the case with ordinary types; there is no great skill involved, especially with flat horses that can be readied quickly, and overvaluing the role of the trainer could be a mistake.

This whole area of trainer specialisms should also be considered by prospective owners and they should match up the type of horses they have the trainers rather than blindly sticking with a handler to whom they have a personal connection; that said, it is worth remembering that some owners have more money than sense and racehorses are the definition of a discretionary spend.

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Of course, the really good trainers are ones that don’t specialise, not jack-of-all-trades but masters of all. They are few and far between however and unsurprisingly they are habitually found at the top of the trainers’ table. On the flat, Aidan O’Brien is as close as there is to one, doing well with juveniles, three-year-olds and older horses while winning across the distance spectrum too. His record in handicaps may not be so hot but he wins his share and he does well with tailoring individual campaigns around individual horses; he does not use the ‘one size fits’ all approach.

It is Willie Mullins however who really is the master trainer in this regard, excelling with juvenile hurdlers, bumper horses and staying chasers, as well as everything in between. While perhaps fewer of his classy novices progress as expected, in the main Mullins is better than everyone else in every category and isn’t afraid to push boundaries as was seen most recently with the victory of Blackstairmountain in the Grand Jump in Japan. This was a masterful piece of placing as much for the horse’s obvious limitations as anything else; the classic tweener horse, too high for handicaps and not good enough for graded contests, he would struggle to win a €30,000 race at home yet landed the world’s second richest jumps race on his travels.

Playing the bigger, though not always better, yards is another area of watching the trainers. With Mullins and O’Brien, I’m basically against them in the majority of Irish racing; despite their high percentage returns, their runners are often overbet relative to their form and I prefer to take them on with a more formful runner from another yard in the expectation (or is that hope?) that they will win often enough at rewarding odds to turn a profit. It’s a different story with the champion training pair go on their travels and I often find myself playing their horses at the big English meetings when the prices can be bigger; the competition is stiffer, no doubt, but parochialism tends to be at play too.

Among the better known handlers, Dermot Weld is an interesting case study in how he campaigns his horses at different tracks. Everyone knows about the dictatorship he applies at Galway each summer but his excellent record at Leopardstown is sometimes underrated. This angle is best appreciated when placed alongside his record at the Curragh, a track that hosts a similar standard of race and is his local track, yet the Weld figures at Leopardstown far outstrip those from the Curragh. For whatever reason – perhaps the promise of better ground as opposed to the gloppy Curragh – he tends to send his best horses at Leopardstown.

One also has to know when to admit defeat and I have long since done so with Jim Bolger; I find his methods incomprehensible. Bolger seems to mould his horses in his own image, tough and loving a challenge, but the problem is that not all horses respond to such methods; his best runners do though. No more than any other trainer, Bolger is a creature of habit as seen by his winning of the opening 6f 2yo race of the season at Leopardstown and on the bigger stage in the Dewhurst in recent years. In reference to the Leopardstown race, Bolger won it this year with Focus On Venice having previously started off the likes of Finsceal Beo and Parish Hall in the same race.

I’m not a great believer in trends but these trainer patterns have definite value, largely due to the trainers knowing what is required to win a typical renewal of the race and aiming the right sort at it. It is worth remembering however that such trends are not set in stone and a major change on a macro level can alter them; Willie Mullins rethreading the fabric of Irish national hunt racing is the best example. Whereas five years ago, Mullins was just another trainer (albeit a good one) that liked to target specific races, he now does well across the board and has won many races he previously failed in.

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