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Monday Musings: The Record is On!

So the record is on, so much so that Paddy Power has paid out already, writes Tony Stafford. I’m not sure how many people got involved in betting that Aidan O’Brien would exceed the 25 Group or Grade 1 wins in a calendar year set by the late Bobby Frankel in 2003, but we’re all mighty interested, now it looks like happening.

In 2008 Aidan got to 23 and despite a large contingent (eight) at that Breeders’ Cup and a trio in the Melbourne Cup, he could not quite make the mark. The Ballydoyle stable will be aiming to complete the task in Europe, never mind what could be achieved at Del Mar next month.

The remarkable Roly Poly overcame (with help from a gently-rebuked, two day-banned, Ryan Moore) a difficult draw to make most and collect her third Group 1 with a battling performance in Saturday’s Sun Chariot Stakes. The same doggedness which enabled her to follow Winter home in the Coronation Stakes after seeing off the French 1,000 Guineas winner halfway round at Royal Ascot was fully employed once more.

It is that innate toughness and propensity to improve that characterises the O’Brien team. There are four Group 1 winning three-year-old mile fillies, with Winter supreme having won both English and Irish 1,000 Guineas along with the Coronation. Rhododendron and Hydrangea also collected at that level in the autumn and it is possible to rank all three superior to Saturday’s winner on some performances.

There is a similar story among the two-year-old fillies. Clemmie (Cheveley Park), Happily (Grand Criterium Jean Luc Lagardere, against the colts), Magical (Moyglare) and September are all highly-ranked and deservedly so.

On a lower level – but given time, who knows? Like Winter, Rhododendron and Hydrangea, Bye Bye Baby is a daughter of Galileo. Her dam, Remember When, by Danehill Dancer, was second in the Oaks but never won. She is, though, closely related to Group winners Wedding Vow and Beacon Rock.

Bye Bye Baby did not make the track until August 16 when she finished a modest sixth of ten in a fillies’ race on The Curragh. She returned there ten days later for a Group 3 and finished fourth. Two weeks on, she was caught late after making most in an 18-runner maiden at Leopardstown. Ryan Moore, who rode her there, had the mount again when she made her fourth appearance within six weeks in a maiden on the Cheveley Park/Middle Park/Cambridgeshire undercard and made all.

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After that race, Moore was suggesting she could easily cope with a raise in class and yesterday at Navan, she was one of a trio of Aidan O’Brien fillies in a Listed race, and made all to win comfortably. At the present rate of progress she could be in the top division in her stable next year when the Classics come round.

The advantage Bobby Frankel and anyone in the US had and has over anyone in Europe is that the big stables can have different divisions permanently based on either side of the country. So while nominally in California, a trainer could and often does have an assistant located in New York, Florida or the Mid-West, with a large team of horses to cover the race programmes and the multiple Grade 1 races on offer in the various regions.

For a stable based in Ireland, there are only 12 domestic Group 1 races, compared with 36 in Great Britain and 27 in France, so he has to travel. Germany with seven and Italy with one make up the grand total of 83 across Europe. At this point there are 11 more Group 1 races still to be run in Europe, seven in the UK, three in France and one in Germany. Ireland’s stock has been used up.

O’Brien has his eyes on the first of them, Friday’s Fillies’ Mile at Newmarket, where his quintet includes the top trio Happily, Magical and September, the last of whom it would seem may have freshness on her side. The potential squad also includes lesser winners Ballet Shoes and Sizzling, respectively third and fourth behind Bye Bye Baby yesterday.

Then comes Saturday’s Dewhurst, also at Newmarket. While such as Middle Park winner and second US Navy Flag and Fleet Review, sons of War Front, and Champagne winner Seahenge (Scat Daddy) could be contenders, Moore fears that a fit-again Expert Eye might give the edge to Sir Michael Stoute’s stable. Then again, maybe the top Coolmore fillies, among them Clemmie, could be waiting in the wings.

Most of the remaining opportunities come on the following Saturday on Champions Day at Ascot. In value order the Champion Stakes (£737,000 to the winner), QE II (£623,000), Champion Sprint and Champion Filly and Mare (both £340,000) are the Group 1 races, although O’Brien will be happy enough to collect the Group 2 Long Distance Cup and its £255,000 first prize with Order of St George after his excellent Arc fourth.

The money will also be on O’Brien’s mind. Last year he set astonishingly high marks when more than doubling his previous best earnings figures. From £3.56million from 16 wins in 79 races in 2015, he advanced to £8.13 million from 28 wins in 133 runs in Britain last year.

This time he stands only one winner shy (27) from three more runners, but can be perceived to be “lagging” a little on £6,586,278. The percentages are remarkably consistent, 20 in 2015, 21 last year and 20 again now. His best ever percentage-wise was way back in 1999 when his 11 winners came from 44 runs and realised £713,000!

What is equally surprising is that in each of the last three seasons, O’Brien runners have returned significant level-stakes profits, possibly reflecting that when he sends out multiple runners, almost all are there with a chance of victory. His profit this year is 18 points from 136 runs; last year it was 22 from 133 and in 2015, a massive 47 points profit from only 79 runs. That makes a combined 88 points from 348 runners, a yield of more than 25% on level stakes.

With John Gosden way back on £4.28 million (although Enable earned the team £2.44 million when winning the Arc) O’Brien would only need a couple of the major prizes and a sprinkling of the generous places available to meet last year’s demanding standards. Expect a mass attack on the Champion Stakes, QE II and the Fillies and Mares, although there will need to be an element of Breeders’ Cup consideration.

The last UK Group 1 is the Racing Post Trophy and there is usually a strong Ballydoyle representation in that. One disappointment about the Racing Post Trophy is that the minimum standard prizemoney for a European Group 1 race is a total of £200,000 and the race is worth precisely that with £113,400 going to the winner.

This might seem slightly embarrassing given that at Velifiendi racecourse in Istanbul, Turkey, last month five international races were staged over the two-day weekend and three of them, all designated local Group races were worth £98,000 to the winner and £170,000 in all, while the top two races on the Sunday carried total prizes of £385,000 and £260,000.

Either side of the Racing Post, France’s last three Group 1 races, all at Saint-Cloud, are the Royal-Oak on Oct 22, and the two Criteriums, the one-mile Criterium International and Criterium de Saint-Cloud (10 furlongs), both on the following Sunday. Germany ends Europe’s Group 1 calendar on November 1st with the Grosser Preis von Bayern in Munich.

On a different note, there was little slowing down in prices for bloodstock as evidenced by last week’s Tattersalls Book 1 at Newmarket, where a top price of four million guineas (£4.2 million) was paid by John Gosden on behalf of Sheikh Mohammed and Godolphin for a superb Galileo filly. As one member of Coolmore’s for-once foiled team remarked, “We’ve still got a few of them at home”. This week, starting today, Book 2 will let some of the merely seriously rich owners join in.

- Tony Stafford

The Ethics of Pacemaking

Is racing a team sport? That’s the question that lies at the heart of any discussion on the rights and wrongs of pacemaking, writes Tony Keenan. The instinctive answer is no. Take a hypothetical horse race: ten runners each with a different trainer, owner and jockey, each wanting to win at the expense of the others. Tactics play their part in this imaginary race but team tactics shouldn’t as there are no teams as such, only individual concerns.

Obviously this simplistic argument is complicated by the presence of multiple horses trained and/or owned by the same person or group of people. In some of these cases, particularly in Group 1 races, we see jockeys using their horses as part of the team and expend their mounts to facilitate a stablemate, often one with a bigger profile or shorter price. Some would argue this is simply the nature of team sport; in any team, different players play different roles and not everyone can score the winning goal with some needing to contribute to the build-up in the hope there will be enough reflected glory to go around.

This would be fine in racing apart from one obvious problem: it is essentially forbidden by the rules. Consider the Turf Club’s Rule 212 (a)

every horse which runs in a race shall be run on its merits and its subsection (i) the rider of every horse shall take all reasonable and permissible measures throughout the race to ensure that his horse is given a full opportunity to win or of obtaining the best possible place.

Horses that are ridden to cater for another runner in the field are bending if not breaking these rules which is not the same as to say that they cannot win. Indeed, horses that are ridden with something other their own winning chance in mind will often come home in front but that doesn’t mean that the intent (or lack thereof) wasn’t there. Proving that intent is tricky if not impossible but all this does highlight a strange blind-spot for the sport; we talk about how a certain ownership cohort may attempt to scheme out a race beforehand and perhaps even praise them afterwards for a well-executed plan. I’ve done it myself but it is difficult to get away from the view that such an approach contravenes the rules.

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Advocates of pacemaking will point to its chief benefit: a pacemaker ensures a fair and even pace where the best horse will win more often than not. This is a hollow sentiment and there are many examples of this not being the case. Take Churchill’s 2,000 Guineas in May, where his stablemate Lancaster Bomber set a steady gallop that would suit a horse who showed plenty of speed at two and work against the likes of Barney Roy and Al Wukair who wanted a stamina test at the trip. Regardless of your views on the relative merits of those three horses and their subsequent achievements, the Timeform sectional database suggests that the second and third were better on the day due to how fast they finished. Perhaps Churchill would have pulled out more – his style of running suggests as much – but I prefer to put my faith in the physics rather than the perception of idling.

At the other end of the pace spectrum is the overly-strong gallop and the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot is a reasonable if not perfect example. Harry Angel was forced to go a little faster than ideal in front with Intelligence Cross pressuring him (the sectionals suggest Intelligence Cross raced very inefficiently) which set things up for the closing Caravaggio who wanted a well-run race. That Intelligence Cross was spoiling Harry Angel and getting him racing a little keenly is another issue and the whole idea of manufacturing trouble and pacemakers dropping back to create lanes for stablemates coming through the pack is another grey area worth exploring.

A huge feature of jockey skill is in predicting how a race will be run; riders must be aware of how to ride the race as well as their horse and not be hidebound to the same tactics each day. The likes of Frankie Dettori have been roundly praised for setting his own pace in races where nothing else wants to go on but some of this skill is taken out of the equation when a percentage of the jockeys have a good idea about how the race will be run. This confers a massive advantage such as in the 2016 Epsom Derby when Ryan Moore on US Army Ranger was aware that Port Douglas was going to set fierce fractions and he could sit out the back and come late. This helped produce a clear career-best effort for his mount where Pat Smullen on the winner, Harzand, could only guess at what the pace might be.

Knowing the plan, and the plan working out, are of course two different things and often the internal chaos of a race will kick in and blow any predetermined approach apart; perhaps the intended frontrunner fluffs the start or maybe a really free-going sort tanks itself to the lead. We shouldn’t judge the issue on exceptional cases however and it is hard to argue that over time, broadly knowing how a race will be run is a huge edge for some riders and connections.

I realise all of this sounds horribly anti-Coolmore and Ballydoyle but that is not the intention; they are merely playing within the rules as currently applied and it is hard to fault them for that. Clearly the prime exponents of constructing a suitable pace (this might be a better way of describing it than ‘pacemaking’), they are not to be blamed as much as the authorities. As I wrote a few weeks back, the influence that Coolmore exert in Irish group races is growing all the time with their percentage of runners on the rise in recent seasons so we can expect to see even more of this in the near-future. There was even a Leopardstown maiden back in July where the pace was seemingly set to advantage their Coat Of Arms though he was ultimately unable to deliver!

As for solutions to this, I don’t really have any though less lionising of such team tactics might be a good place to start. No more than proving a non-trier, proving an attempt to choreograph a race is difficult for all that it may be obvious to onlookers. That is assuming a will to even go down that legislative route which seems unlikely in an Irish context; the Coolmore lobby in Ireland is powerful, prepotent even, and they are the ones that benefit most from the status quo. And even if trainers were asked to answer a case, they could argue – rightly – that their horse is simply a natural front-runner where the jockey got the fractions wrong or that a change in tactics was in order to spark an out of form animal. Unsatisfactory, that is for sure.

- TK

Irish Champions Weekend 2017: The Best Gets Better

Aidan O’Brien has had an unusual last couple of weeks, writes Tony Keenan. Rather than concentrating on preparations for Irish Champions Weekend, he’s been defending Ballydoyle work practices at the Labour Court and the decision there could yet have wide-reaching consequences for Irish racing. On the track however, it’s been business as usual for O’Brien with none of his rival Irish trainers causing anything like as many problems as the labour lawyers; so it seems sensible to expect a good number of winners for the trainer this coming weekend.

In truth, Irish Champions Weekend hasn’t been the best meeting for the yard since it took its current form in 2014. In that time, O’Brien has had nine winners in total with the other Irish trainers having 23, Dermot Weld doing best with six, and the now retired David Wachman next on three. UK-based trainers had 15 winners while Almanzor was the sole French success in last year’s Champion Stakes. Despite these historical figures I’m inclined to drink the Cool(-more) Aid and expect a massive weekend for Team Ballydoyle in light of what has been going on with the other main Irish trainers this season.

Excluding O’Brien, 2017 has been one of the worst years in recent memory for Irish trainers winning good flat races in the UK. Consider the following table which totals the record of non-APOB Irish trainers in UK races worth £10,000 or more since 2011:

 

Irish Trainers in UK Flat Races worth £10,000 or more (excluding Aidan O’Brien)

Year Runners Winners Strikerate
2017 (to date) 4 69 5.8%
2016 7 156 4.5%
2015 17 158 10.8%
2014 21 135 15.6%
2013 17 150 11.3%
2012 21 135 15.6%
2011 11 101 10.9%

 

This season is far from over of course but with roughly two months of it left it is going to be a struggle to beat even last year’s total of seven winners which itself was well down on previous years. Even the quality of the four winners has been below-par; two were handicap winners, The Tartan Spartan at Salisbury in April and Thomas Hobson at Royal Ascot, while the other two were Ken Condon-trained winners on soft ground, Elusive Beauty at Carlisle and Success Days at York, hardly the most competitive contests.

One could ask what this has to do with events at home but I would counter quite a lot. Irish trainers have long gone to England for better opportunities with their best flat horses but if you can’t win at home you are unlikely to start looking away for possible targets. Perhaps the most revealing figure above is greatly reduced number of runners in the better UK races, just 69 so far in 2017 with the previous five seasons all comfortably breaking three figures. Some major Irish trainers haven’t even been trying in the UK this year with Dermot Weld and Jim Bolger being notably absent with one and four runners respectively.

It has been an entirely different story with O’Brien. As you can see below, his tally of UK runners continues to grow. He looks certain to outstrip his previous highs in terms of runners with the winner total likely to follow and the last two seasons have basically seen a 35% increase in the number of horses he runs in England. O’Brien seems to have more good horses than ever before and he needs to find more good races in which to place them.

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Aidan O’Brien in UK Flat Races worth £10,000 or more

Year Runners Winners Strikerate
2017 (to date) 96 17 17.7%
2016 108 22 20.4%
2015 59 9 15.3%
2014 64 8 12.5%
2013 69 11 15.9%
2012 62 12 19.4%
2011 68 13 19.1%

 

This would be less of a concern to the other main Irish trainers were they succeeding in battening down the hatches at home, maintaining levels of success for upcoming seasons when better horses come along. This has not been the case however. Here we have a table of O’Brien’s record in Irish group races over the past five years and note how not only his percentage of runners in these races has grown but also how his percentage of winners has gone into the stratosphere in 2017.

 

Aidan O’Brien in Irish Group Races

Year Runners in Irish Group Races Total Runners % Runners in Irish Group Races Winners in Irish Group Races Total Group Races Contested % Wins in Group Races Contested
2017 (to date) 100 375 26.7% 23 50 46.0%
2016 117 484 24.2% 24 66 36.3%
2015 84 481 17.5% 20 65 30.7%
2014 112 474 23.6% 23 63 31.7%
2013 98 460 21.3% 22 62 35.5%

 

The evidence again points to him becoming more dominant in terms of runners and winners but the question is where this improvement has come from. An obvious answer is that it is a by-product of a down year for Dermot Weld and he has just picked up the races that would typically go to Rosewell; but a barely remarked upon point has been the retirement of David Wachman and the relocating of the horses he had in training as well as the ones that might have been destined for his yard.

I’m sure there were a few trainers with Coolmore associations – Fozzy Stack and Joseph O’Brien perhaps – that might have hoped for some of those runners but all of them seem to have finished up in Ballydoyle. Wachman may have had a nightmare time in his final season, finishing twenty-fourth overall in the championship and having only 118 runners, but this was by no means a small operation: the previous three years yielded 261 runners (sixth overall), 265 runners (ninth) and 293 runners (fourth) respectively. Nor was Wachman short on quality, training the likes of Legatissimo, Curvy and Again in recent seasons.

So a good-sized yard with well-bred horses was basically subsumed into Ballydoyle over the winter with Winter herself the obvious standard-bearer. O’Brien has had some strong crops of juvenile fillies in recent campaigns but this season’s might be the deepest which makes sense if he has gotten extra inmates from Wachman; that trainer was often given a sizable number of well-bred Coolmore fillies and had a good record with them. Despite his skill with such runners, it is hardly unrealistic to expect O’Brien to extract more from them: not only is he a better trainer than Wachman, he is a better trainer than anyone else too.

All of this could lead to a record-breaking year for O’Brien in terms of prizemoney won in Ireland. Below is a table of prizemoney earned by the big four Irish trainers of O’Brien, Bolger, Lyons and Weld over the past five seasons. I’ve included a figure for each yard for the current season along with a projected total that they might reach. The projected figure is simply a fast and loose calculation that pro-rates what they have done already across the rest of the season; in a typical Irish flat season running March to October/November, there will be roughly 940 races and we have had 720 to this point so we are just past the three-quarters point of the season.

 

Trainer 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 (to date) 2017 Projected
A. O’Brien 3,867k 4,878k 4,039k 5,190k 4,619k 6,077k
J. Bolger 2,204k 1,556k 1,790k 1,711k 1,217 1,601k
G. Lyons 737k 935k 1,579k 1,324k 1,148 1,510k
D. Weld 1,345k 2,232k 2,298k 2,886k 752k 989k

 

Obviously these projections are subject to error as trainers like Weld that have done poorly up to now may improve over the final two months of the season while others could regress. But what they do reveal is that a €6 million figure is very much in play for O’Brien which would be more than €800,000 ahead of his previous best. Some of that might be down to prizemoney inflation in a rising economy but not all of it can be put down to that.

The vagaries of training race-horses means that their form ebbs and flows but the increase in the number of O’Brien runners suggests there could be something more going on as he takes his career up another level. Certainly a look at the top 20 flat horses in Ireland per Horse Racing Ireland’s race administration website is a sobering experience for other trainers; O’Brien trains 17 of them with the other three – Jet Setting, Awtaad and Heartbreak City – either retired or deceased.

So where is Irish flat racing as we go into Champions Weekend 2017? Weld has had a down year and Jim Bolger has basically spent recent seasons flat-lining in terms of achievement. The interesting one – and the one who has hardly been mentioned yet – is Ger Lyons. As a younger man, he might be more ambitious than Weld or Bolger and there is a chance that he finishes second overall this season though how meaningful that achievement would be can be questioned as it would have come when the usual runner-up Weld was having a bad time.

The reality is however that there is a ceiling on what he can achieve as his yard is currently constituted. Subjectively, I view him as at least as good a trainer as Weld and Bolger in how he goes about his business but he needs a major patron that can take him to the next level. That opportunity has not presented itself yet but a winner or two over Irish Champions Weekend would hardly do him any harm though the going will not be easy with O’Brien in total control. That said, owners doing shocking things and moving horses wholesale from champion yards is not unfamiliar in Irish racing; it was just that sort of seemingly crazy move that breathed life into a long-dormant jumps trainers’ title this past winter.

- Tony Keenan

Racing What Ifs: What if Aidan O’Brien had trained Frankel?

The Frankel most readily associated with Aidan O’Brien these days is Bobby, the American trainer whose record of 25 Grade/Group 1 winners in a year seems in play for O’Brien at the start of each flat season, writes Tony Keenan. His associations with the equine Frankel were limited to providing foils to his brilliance between 2010 and 2012 along with training some of his offspring but what if the greatest horse of the modern era were paired with the greatest trainer of the same period? Henry Cecil could hardly have done any better with Frankel, a horse that satisfied every judge from visuals to time to form; but Aidan O’Brien would certainly have done things differently.

Nor is it a pipedream to imagine Frankel could have finished up in Ballydoyle. There was a time in past decade when Juddmonte would send ten of their mares to Coolmore sires and each would get first choice of the foals on an alternating annual basis. In 2007 it was Coolmore that had first preference and they selected Await The Dawn whose best effort came when winning the 2011 Hardwicke and was rated 121 at this peak. The following year was the turn of Juddmonte and the rest is racing history. But what if it had been Coolmore’s time to choose in 2008? Let’s roll back to that time and do some counter-factuals on what might have unfolded…

Would Frankel have been beaten on debut?

Much has been made of Aidan O’Brien’s record with juvenile debutantes this year with even the pick of his two-year-olds getting turned over first time and many the subjects of nursing rides. They are being trained with long term in mind at the moment though that pattern was not quite so marked earlier in the decade. Consider the record of two-year-old colts on debut out of Ballydoyle over the last 10 years:

 

Year Winners Runners Strikerate
2017 2 23 8.7%
2016 5 64 7.8%
2015 6 44 13.6%
2014 6 47 12.8%
2013 16 44 36.4%
2012 10 57 17.5%
2011 11 49 22.5%
2010 5 52 9.6%
2009 10 53 18.9%
2008 11 53 20.8%

 

2010, the year Frankel made his debut, was a particularly poor year for O’Brien-trained debutants though the overall trend in that time is more towards strikerates north of 17% than those close to 10% we see today. The obvious point to make here is that none of this may have mattered; Frankel had so much latent ability that it would have shone through from the start, regardless of tender handling or lack of fitness.

But plenty of O’Brien’s stars have still been beaten first time on the track as two-year-olds. Going back to 2010, the likes of Zoffany, Power, Camelot, Kingsbarns, War Command, Air Force Blue and Caravaggio have all won their first outing. But there is an equally strong – perhaps even stronger – list of those that got beaten, which includes Leading Light, Magician, Australia, Gleneagles, Highland Reel, Order Of St George, Churchill and Gustav Klimt, allowing that some of those were not bred to be sharp early. Frankel wasn’t either by the way; his dam took four starts to win while only two of his five siblings won as juveniles.

Being unbeaten is something that matters in racing especially when you are engaged in the business of stallion-making. It adds an aura, whatever that may be, along with a few euros to the early fees before the stallion has proven itself with actual progeny. But that is not the only part of it and it is worth remembering that had Coolmore owned Frankel they would have used him extensively themselves which doesn’t bring in money as such.

Where the unbeaten record does matter however is in race planning and deciding where the horse might run next. Choosing to race on as a four-year-old is an important decision and the potential reward of an enhanced reputation must be weighed against the risk of losing the unbeaten record and the certain loss of a year in the breeding sheds. With this decision comes pressure which is something we’ll return to later.

 

Who would have ridden Frankel?

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Tom Queally rode Frankel on all 14 of his starts and that was important; he was not a straightforward horse by any means, keenness just one of his issues, and having the same rider on board likely proved a help to his development. Whether such an option would have been possible had he been trained by Aidan O’Brien is unclear. 2010 was a transitional period at Ballydoyle, Johnny Murtagh in his last season there and seemingly with one foot out of the door, Joseph O’Brien only starting his career in the saddle and Ryan Moore not really on the Coolmore horizon just yet. It is worth considering who rode Group 1 winners for O’Brien in the UK and Ireland in this period:

 

Year 2010 2011 2012
J. O’Brien 0 3 9
S. Heffernan 2 6 2
J. Murtagh 9 0 0
R. Moore 0 2 1
C. O’Donoghue 0 1 0
J. Spencer 0 1 0

 

Joseph O’Brien was seventeen at the start of Frankel’s juvenile season and by the start of his three-year-old campaign he was still claiming five pounds; he would not ride out his claim until September 26th of that year. He rode Group 1 winners in 2011, starting with Roderic O’Connor in the Irish 2,000 Guineas and later on Maybe in the Moyglare and Camelot in the Racing Post Trophy. Still, he was a claimer for the first two of those wins and no amount of family connections were going to get him on Frankel as a three-year-old.

Neither Colm O’Donoghue nor Jamie Spencer were going ride him either and nor I suspect was Ryan Moore. Moore simply didn’t have the same connection with Ballydoyle in 2010/11 as he does now nor was the Ryan Moore of that period the same rider as we see today. He had ridden 19 Group 1 winners up to the end of 2010 as he was beginning to come into his pomp with an Epsom Oaks/Derby double on Snow Fairy and Workforce but Michael Stoute was his chief supporter at that time.

That leaves Heffernan and Murtagh. 2011 was the peak of Heffernan’s career arc in terms of Group 1 winners with So You Think a big ride to get along with Misty For Me. However, he was jocked off So You Think for Joseph O’Brien the following year which makes it hard to believe he would have held the mount on Frankel for three seasons. If there were a single jockey to ride Frankel throughout his time at Ballydoyle, it would likely have been Murtagh. He was proven at all the big tracks in all the big races and regardless of the issues that may have been going on at the time, both sides would surely have made it work. A horse like Frankel was too important to get wrong.

 

Where would Frankel have run?

In many ways, this is the most interesting part of the entire discussion and it might be best to start with some comparables, using the ten O’Brien-trained horses of recent times that most resemble Frankel. Even with them in mind however, this is far from straightforward as he could have gone a number of ways.

[Note: When I say signature races below, it does not necessarily mean the races the won but rather the races that defined them.]

Horse Careers Wins/Runs Peak OR Signature Races Four-year-old Season?
Rock Of Gibraltar 10/13 126 All the mile races No
Hawk Wing 5/12 137 Guineas, Derby, Lockinge Yes
George Washington 6/14 124 Phoenix, National, Guineas Yes (but…)
Dylan Thomas 10/20 127 King George, Irish Champion Stakes (x2), Arc Yes
Henrythenavigator 6/11 125 Both Guineas, Breeders’ Cup No
Rip Van Winkle 5/14 130 Sussex, QEII, Juddmonte Yes
Camelot 6/10 124 Triple Crown Yes
Australia 5/8 123 Guineas, Derby, Irish Champion Stakes No
Gleneagles 7/11 122 Both Guineas, St. James’s Palace No
Churchill 7/9 123 Both Guineas ?

 

As a two-year-old, Frankel had four runs: a maiden, a conditions race, the Royal Lodge and the Dewhurst. Had he been with O’Brien, things would have been broadly similar. He would have won his maiden (or not!) then gone for a lesser Group race before taking in the National Stakes and then the Dewhurst. There is a possibility he would have been given more time and fewer starts like a Camelot or Australia but this seems the likely campaign.

The start to his classic season would have been straightforward too as he would have gone straight to the 2,000 Guineas as is the case with almost every O’Brien colt that fits that profile. There would have been no prep run as Frankel had in the Greenham, a race Cecil credited with taking the freshness out of him ahead of Newmarket, and he could have been vulnerable there for missing that run. Regardless of that, then would have come the big decision: go for the Derby or stick to the mile. It is difficult to say which way he would have gone; Hawk Wing, Camelot and Australia went to Epsom and were generally successful while Rock Of Gibraltar, Henrythenavigator, Gleneagles and Churchill stayed at eight furlongs.

More difficult decisions would have followed as the options really would have opened up from the mid-summer. I strongly suspect the Irish Champion Stakes would have been on the cards as it is a race O’Brien has a deep association with; Frankel would have gone to Leopardstown regardless of whether he were going up or down in trip. The Arc seems much less likely – it is not a race where O’Brien runs many three-year-olds – nor would British Champions’ Day have been high on the list of potential targets. Henry Cecil had an affinity with that meeting, not least because it was central to the British calendar and was in its infancy, he and Frankel due much credit for launching the early runnings of that event.

Champions’ Day has been little more than an afterthought for O’Brien and Coolmore up to now. One meeting that is central to their plans however is the Breeders’ Cup and it is worth pointing out that seven of the ten comparable horses listed above ran at that meeting. It is vital for Coolmore to have winners there though where Frankel might have run is hard to call, the Mile, the Turf and even the Classic in the mix.

Let’s assume Frankel has got to the end of 2011 and his three-year-old season unbeaten and a call must be made on whether or not he remains in training. This is where the unbeaten record comes in; it is one thing to maintain such a record through the horse’s first two seasons when you have no real option but to race on, quite another to decide to continue at four when all manner of things could go wrong. Aidan O’Brien and the lads vacillate between risk-taking and risk-aversion at various times, as they should with no horse or situation entirely the same; but I strongly suspect they would have retired Frankel as a three-year-old as the risks were simply too high. The last two or three years may have seen more Ballydoyle horses stay in training but this was five years ago and their mollycoddling of something like Gleneagles suggests the unbeaten record may simply have been put away for posterity.

 

Frankel’s Ballydoyle Legacy: The Best Ever

Aidan O’Brien has had many horses which he has described as the best he has trained and we have even seen variations on the theme with him describing horses as the fastest, toughest and such like. There’s some recency bias in there along with sales talk but looking at the records of the pick of his recent stars one can see that it is actually quite difficult to say which was best. Many of them tend to cluster around peak official ratings in the high-120s and while Hawk Wing is the one with the best figure for his win in the Lockinge, others had more longevity and consistency.

Of course, training a horse officially rated 140 (Timeform rated him 147) that wins all his races renders all of this moot. The debate would be over and if only for that it would have been great for Frankel to have been trained at Ballydoyle!

- Tony Keenan

Monday Musing: The Coolmore Numbers Game

Life is basically all about choices, writes Tony Stafford. Do you turn left or right? When I collected my laundered shirts by Snaresbrook station on Saturday morning, with an immediate destination of Loughton to pick up Harry Taylor en route to the 2,000 Guineas and Newmarket, option one was to turn right and go via the A12 and M11.

But almost of its own volition, my car instead turned left and travelled the urban way through South Woodford, Woodford and Buckhurst Hill, all stops along the Central underground line, but avoiding the bottleneck at Debden.

Halfway there, at Woodford Green, it was impossible to miss the statue of that location’s former Member of Parliament, Sir Winston Churchill, cast in familiar bulldog pose and dominating a piece of greenery on the southern tip of Epping Forest. A few hundred yards on, Churchills fish bar, destined to be an impulse stop around 30 hours later for a celebratory cod fillet – no chips – offered a second nudge to possible events at turf’s HQ.

Classic winners are supposed to have “good names” and there is little doubt that the octet of 2,000 Guineas heroes trained by Aidan O’Brien, all for various combinations of the Mrs Sue Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith team, have that distinction in common.

King of Kings (1998), Rock of Gibraltar (2002), Footstepsinthesand (2005), George Washington (2006), Henrythenavigator (2008), Camelot (2012), Gleneagles (2015) and now Churchill all, bar maybe Foostepsinthesand, fulfil the nomenclature requirement and offer testimony to the language skills of Mrs Magnier, daughter of Vincent O’Brien.

More pertinently, as the late, great Vincent’s successor at Ballydoyle, Aidan (no relation) O’Brien has set the record for 2,000 Guineas victories, beating that set in the mists of time by John Scott, when that stable manager had neither the might nor the money of the Maktoums and the Qataris to contend with.

You say something, like “a record eighth win” quickly and as bald fact it deflects the enormity of the statistic. Nineteen years on from his first 2,000 Guineas triumph, it means that Aidan has won 40% of the possible opportunities in that timeframe. When you look at the potential fire power of some of the 200-strong teams around the UK and the almost bottomless pockets of a number of their patrons, such monopoly is truly embarrassing for his rivals.

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I took a minute before yesterday’s 1,000 Guineas to talk to Michael Prosser on just that point, and he trumped me with an even more unlikely one. I’d just taxed Aidan with the question: “Are you any good at maths?” hoping to confound him with the 40% thing, but in true character Aidan had first to apologise and then rush away to monitor one of his trio into the parade ring before the Classic.

Prosser said: “We have nine Group 1 races here and last year Aidan won six of them.” Add to that the weekend Guineas double of Churchill and Winter and that makes eight out of the last 11 and 73%!

One 2,000 Guineas which Aidan did not win was its 2011 version, dominated throughout by Frankel, named for a great horseman, New York-born Bobby Frankel, Prince Khalid Abdullah’s principal US trainer. Almost an equal part of the Frankel mystique, apart of course from the fact that he was never beaten in a three-year career, was that he was trained by Sir Henry Cecil in the closing phase of his own eventually life-ending illness.

Frankel, the racehorse, shares with Churchill and Winter, as well as Saturday’s impressive Jockey Club Stakes winner Seventh Heaven, a common factor in that all four are products of Galileo, the most potent of the stallions that have fuelled Coolmore Stud’s recent pre-eminence.

For some sections of the media – especially television – members of Frankel’s initial crop have been portrayed as embodiments and thus likely equals of their father, but in horse racing that sort of expectation can only be cemented on the racetrack, rather than in sentiment.

A number have already proved precocious, and four of his early stakes horses appeared with a fair degree of expectation in the two Classic races. Fair Eva and Queen Kindly both made good starts to their juvenile seasons, but were respectively only fifth and ninth in the 1,000, while Dream Castle and Eminent were fifth and sixth, close behind the principals the previous day. Two other sons of Galileo, shared the spotlight with dad on Saturday: Teofilo, the best of his first-crop sons, is the sire of Permian, runaway winner of the Listed Newmarket Stakes and Ronald R is by Frankel’s old racetrack rival, Nathaniel.

I cannot resist one statistical fact away from racing that further embellishes the amazing level of O’Brien’s achievements. Tottenham Hotspur, renowned as the true FA Cup team – “if there’s a “1” in the year, Spurs win the Cup” as the adage used to go, last won that competition in 1991 and the League Championship 30 years earlier! Not that you would think so with some of the coverage of that “sport” in recent months.

I’m sure there must have been a number of Churchills racing in the UK over the years and the Racing Post also lists a few reared and raced elsewhere. James Burridge, breeder and part owner of the great Desert Orchid, also probably held quite high expectations for the 1995-born son of Derby runner-up Carlingford Castle – behind Teenoso, Lester Piggott’s last winner of nine in 1983.

Lester was in the paddock before Saturday’s race, but I doubt he remembers the 1995 Churchill, sold for 700gns  to Keith Brown Properties, Hull, and a four-time raced non-achiever with a 31-length seventh, 69-length 12th before an unseated and pulled up ended his unremarkable time in action.

Also in the house on Saturday was Andy Smith, owner and bloodstock agent, who might just have got the best of the Frankel euphoria. Andy was the original owner, apart from David and Diane Nagle, the breeders from Barronstown Stud, of the filly, Toulifaut.

She won three times for the Jean-Claude Rouget stable before going under the hammer at the Arc sale, less than 24 hours before her date in the Prix Marcel Boussac. She changed hands for 1.9 million Euro, becoming the property of the Yoshida family’s Shadai Farm but was only eighth in the Boussac behind Godolphin’s Wuheida and fourth of six in her comeback run this spring.

There were critics of Ryan Moore’s performance on Rhododendron after he was briefly denied a run on the filly, but the way Winter strode clear up the hill, makes it less of a certainly that the favourite would have beaten her even with a clear run.

I am less than overjoyed that two days after he took a little each-way 20-1 on what has proved inspired information, Mick Quinn only passed on the news when Winter was already down to less than half that price. He can begin to make amends by getting a good run tomorrow night with Circuit at Leicester. She’s in the last, under Jamie Spencer, after which it’s off to Chester for three days and a switch of emphasis to Derby and Oaks trials. Phew!

- Tony Stafford