The Punting Confessional – May 1st 2013
To continue last week’s discussion of the role of the trainer as a punting angle, it’s probably fair to say that the bigger names are doing an entirely different job to those at the bottom end of racing’s food-chain; the top yards have the luxury of long-term planning and aiming their horses at targets often months in advance whereas for those with lesser animals it’s more a case of run them when they’re fit and any sense of sort of strategy will be on a much smaller scale.
One tried-and-tested method of the bigger yards is the prep race, an approach that in general doesn’t apply with a lowly handicapper with the possible exception of their seasonal return. Particularly on the flat, where all that matters is that a stallion prospect wins its Group 1 in order to boost potential breeding income in the future, top horses can meet with defeat in a prep race in a lesser group contest; the horse may be the most talented runner in the field but not hit its peak on the day and punters need to be wise to this, especially in the early part of the season.
Aidan O’Brien is certainly one that takes this approach, tending to leave plenty to work on for debut, and so too does Michael Stoute; I’m thinking particularly of the improvement Stoute garnered from Workforce between his run in the Dante and his record-breaking Derby win in 2010.
Should you wish to read more on these sorts of ideas and the role of the trainer in general, Chapter 8 in Steve Davidowitz’s excellent ‘Betting Thoroughbreds for the 21st Century’ called ‘The Trainer’s Window’ is worth looking up with perhaps the most interesting line of all in the section coming from the American trainer Jerry Hollendorfer: ‘Every race takes something out of a horse, or puts something into him.’
There’s so much in that simple phrase and I think it is something that bigger trainers really grasp in their use of prep races as a means to an end whereas often the smaller trainer, perhaps less experienced with a good horse, fails to understand, asking their potentially decent sort to do too much too soon.
That said, this idea of over-facing a horse, i.e. fast-tracking it into a class of race that can be beyond it too early, can happen to the best of trainers, even someone like Willie Mullins in his handling of Mikael D’Haguenet. Anyone who watched him lumber over his fences at Punchestown Saturday just gone would have seen a horse that was a shadow of the 2009 Neptune winner, an unbeaten novice season that included three Grade 1 wins.
I suspect the key to his downfall was his fall on chasing debut in the 2010 Drinmore as he hasn’t looked the same horse since and surely starting his career over fences in an ordinary novice, especially as he was coming off an injury, would have a been a better approach? Such are the decisions upon which a racing career can hang though Mullins has many more success stories than sob stories.
The bigger trainers understandably attract more attention in the media than the lesser ones but punters need to be careful of those that are particularly media-friendly as their runners are often overbet. Just because a trainer is good for a quote and might be the sort of person to go for a pint with does not mean one should back their horses and in general the runners from lower profile yards tend to be underestimated by the market.
A few years back Nick Mordin conducted a study that revealed the number of column inches received by a horse (or in this case mentions in the Racing Post database) was directly linked to their market position in subsequent big races which backs up my belief that runners from media-friendly trainers tend to be underpriced; instead, punters would be better to focus on lower profile handlers. In Ireland the best example of a trainer that talks bigger than he actually is would be Paul Nolan as his strike-rate shows him to be no better than mediocre.
Noel Meade is another beloved of the press-pack – indeed he seems a genuinely nice guy and is certainly forgiving seen has he’s put up with the antics of Paul Carberry down the years – but his runners are often shockingly short in the betting and he is someone I would find extremely difficult to make pay.
I wrote last week about becoming aware of a trainer’s patterns with their horses and how they like to win their races but it could be argued that losing patterns are at least as important; there is no trainer that excels in every field, just like there is no human that does the same, as anyone who has seen me attempt to either sing or dance would attest. Again, Meade is a good example with his record at the Cheltenham Festival throughout his career; for whatever reason, perhaps that he trains his horses for early season targets, his runners just do not perform in the key four days of March.
This is by no means a personal attack on Meade, or indeed any trainer; I am merely pointing out that they all have flaws and one can go broke backing a trainer in races they struggle to compete in.
To conclude, I’ll go back to Davidowitz’s book for perhaps the best idea with trainers, the niche angle. In a short chapter called ‘The Money Tree’ he writes about an obscure trainer called Glenn Smith whose overall figures were poor but had a sixty per cent strike-rate with first-time starters and absentees, despite their workouts showing no sign of form. This sort of angle is something that will dip under the radar of most punters and if you can cotton on to one then you too could have a found a money tree.
As to a couple for Ireland: always note Bill Farrell’s runners in Curragh handicaps as the trainer excels with aiming his best horses (which admittedly would be viewed as limited by most other handlers) at races there; in the midst of the Weld hegemony at the Galway Festival, respect Kevin Prendergast horses in the big mile handicap on the Tuesday and the equivalent seven furlong race on Saturday; he may not aim good maidens at the track but his record in those races in enviable, with Vastonea adding to it last year.