Irish Flat Season 2017: Winners and Losers

Champions Day and the Breeders’ Cup are to come but the domestic turf season in Ireland is effectively over with only five meetings left. so now is a good time to take stock before we go full bore into national hunt mode. 2017 will go down as a good year with Enable, Aidan O’Brien’s drive for 25 and Keane versus Smullen among the memorable stories, though we probably could have done without rain spoiling play on many of the major race days. Rather than grade the trainers again this year I’ve decided to go with a winners and losers approach, a change being as good as a rest and all that.


Winner: Aidan O’Brien

Breaking Bobby Frankel’s record of 25 Group 1 winners in a season has been coming for a while with O’Brien but there was the suspicion that it would take a perfect storm of circumstances to finally get over the line. In reality, that unique set of conditions didn’t unfold as the trainer had plenty go wrong this season; his best horse from 2016 (Minding) had to retire early on, his dual Guineas winner Churchill failed to build on early successes while the pick of his juvenile colts (Gustav Klimt) never got to compete at the top level.

Yet it is almost inevitable that O’Brien will break the record anyway and even in an age of Group 1 inflation it rates a sizeable achievement. The trainer himself is apparently nonplussed by the whole situation and has always struck me as having a keen sense of living in the present; he always seems to think one of his current crop is his best ever! But racing is a sport with an especially rich history attached and it is worth celebrating.

As a side-note, one also has to admire his appreciation for each and every one of his big winners and it seems the feeling of winning has not gotten old for him despite its frequency. Perhaps that simply comes with the territory of dealing with horses and the manifold disappointments they provide but I would certainly have his attitude over the stony-faced ‘celebrations’ of Jim Gavin after Dublin’s All-Ireland win.


Loser: Dermot Weld

With 40 winners at the time of writing, Weld is in line for his lowest total since at least 1988 and probably before that; 1988 is as far back as the Racing Post database for season totals goes back. Not only is it his worst tally in nearly 30 years but it is significantly below his next lowest tally of 61 winners in 2004. Zhukova’s win in the Man o’ War at Belmont back in May will likely rate the high-point but even that was a lacklustre affair as she beat a motley crew of four opponents in a race that was run early due to a thunderstorm.

Galway was clearly disappointing with just two winners for the yard though a pair of successes over Irish Champions Weekend for Eziyra and Shamreen were warmly received. To be fair to the trainer, he flagged things up from an early stage, stating that his string were suffering with a virus back in May and indeed his number of runners has been well down on previous years. Pat Smullen was an obvious victim of the down campaign but it is to his credit that he has still managed to make the jockeys’ championship such a tight race given the relative lack of firepower from a yard that is typically his strongest supporter.


Winner: Johnny Murtagh

Murtagh will likely finish 2017 with fewer winners than in 2016 but overall he’s been a much improved trainer in recent seasons after a rocky start to his new career; none of this comes as the greatest surprise given the resilience he has shown in both personal and professional spheres throughout his life. What is most impressive about his operation is that there is a plan in place and for him it is all about the two-year-olds; far too many trainers seem to approach the campaign piecemeal with no sense of overall objectives.

But in 2017 Murtagh has sought to exploit an opening in the programme book and the trainer had every right to recently tweet out that his 57% winner to runner ratio with juveniles paces the field in 2017, ahead of Aidan O’Brien on 48% and Ger Lyons on 45% with the next best on 33%. I’ve been critical of Murtagh’s placing of horses here in the past but his methods with juveniles this season are beyond reproach; he managed to win Plus Ten races (races where there is an extra £10,000 to winner along with the usual prizemoney) with all eight of his juvenile winners with three – Golden Spell, Guessthebill and Too Familiar – winning two such races. None of his two-year-olds are stars, far from it in fact, but to basically double their prizemoney on 11 separate occasions is exemplary race planning.

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Loser: David Wachman

David Wachman might well be enjoying life to the full now and good luck to him if so but the racing professional in him may regret the timing of his decision to retire at the end of 2016. The likes of Rain Goddess and White Satin Dancer were good prospects for this season but the campaign would likely have been all about Winter, already a four-time Group 1 winner for Aidan O’Brien with the potential of more to come this Saturday.

Some might argue that her success is simply a by-product of her move to Ballydoyle but while O’Brien is clearly the superior trainer of the two, that is to do Wachman down a little as he showed he could skilfully manage a similar type when he had Legatissimo in her classic season of 2014. It is also likely that he would have had some of the excellent juvenile fillies that currently reside in Ballydoyle under his care and it is hardly a ridiculous suggestion that Clemmie may have been one of those given he trained both her dam Meow and sister Curlylocks before the brother Churchill ever came along.


Winner: Brendan Duke

Despite making no meaningful impact on the trainers’ championship, Duke will go down as one of the stars of 2017 for his campaigning of Warm The Voice... and I mean his media campaign as much as anything! The horse has been a good juvenile, winning three times including a premier nursery at Listowel and getting black-type when third in the Beresford, but the real story has been Duke’s interviews both in print and on TV.

His raw enthusiasm for horses and the sport have engaged many and his openness is a lesson to other trainers. There’s a wonderful sense of humour in there too and a sharp knack for the one-liners from comparing Warm To Voice to an ice-cream (‘he loves himself so much he’d lick himself’) to commenting on the difficult choice Kevin Manning would face at Newmarket next May when he had to pick between Duke’s stable star and Verbal Dexterity.


Loser: Camelot

One of the most overrated horses of this century, Camelot seems likely to prove little better as a sire with the his best progeny topping out at a Racing Post Rating of just 100 and a single Listed race being the most high-profile success to date. It is early days for a horse that stayed 14 furlongs as a three-year-old and perhaps his stock will do better in time but it does seem significant that Aidan O’Brien has yet to train a winner sired by his one-time star.

His three Irish winners have instead been trained by Patrick Prendergast, Jessica Harrington and Gavin Cromwell with the pick of his Ballydoyle-based runners thus far being the limited Lucius Tiberius; after I backed said horse recently, a fellow punter remarked that he could not be any good with a name like that! Camelot has however sired winners in Russia and Italy and that might be where he finishes up for all the brilliant naming possibilities offered by Arthurian legend.


Winner: Galway

It rained plenty in Galway during race week with racing taking place on varying degrees of soft across the seven days but that did little to quell enthusiasm for all that crowd numbers and bookmaker turnover were slightly down. The big players may have won the Plate and Hurdle with Willie Mullins also taking home the top trainer prize but a greatly reduced Weld factor led to a number of winners on the flat from unexpected sources, most of which came with their own stories.

Among them were Bubbly Bellini hitting another marker on the way to 20 career wins, Cascavelle providing Robbie McNamara with a first Galway winner, Remarkable Lady winning for Team Rogers and Browne on Hurdle Day, Perfect Soldier bringing the house down for Michael O’Callaghan and his Racing Club and of course Warm The Voice and Brendan Duke. The Fahey brothers too had an excellent week and it is winners like this that breathe life into the grassroots of the sport and encourage potential owners to get involved.


Loser: The Curragh

The decision to race on at the Curragh amidst building works was a debacle from the outset and became all the more unsatisfactory as we had to listen to mealy-mouthed justifications about maintaining the integrity of the racing programme. Leopardstown was the obvious alternative and arguments about the proximity of 12-furlong start to a bend and lack of a straight sprint course rang hollow when we consider some of the compromises that have been made elsewhere. A decision to hold the Curragh’s programme at another track would have created a welcome novelty factor akin to Royal Ascot at York in 2005 but instead we got a lot of bad will towards the course.

By the end of the season it was difficult to find anyone outside of the decision-makers who were in support of the Curragh continuing to race. The weather certainly didn’t help with feature days like the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and second day of Irish Champions Weekend blighted by rain but the fact that the track failed to reach capacity for the last two meetings said plenty. In any case, the Curragh’s susceptibility to bad weather was hardly news to anyone who regularly attends the track and we have to endure more of the same in 2018. A bad situation, made all the worst by the unnecessary nature of it all.


Winner: Colin Keane

Regardless of the outcome of the jockeys’ championship, Colin Keane has been a big winner in 2017, rising from champion apprentice just three seasons ago to be one of the biggest players in the weigh-room at just 23. His record in the saddle has been one of continual progression, his winner totals rising from 1 in 2010, to 9, 12, 42, 66, 75 and 90 in the succeeding seasons with 90 his current total. 2017 may have been a down year for the Weld/Smullen connection but that shouldn’t take away from Keane’s achievement and top-level sport is all about grasping opportunity when it presents itself.

Central to that achievement is that he is competing without the support of either Ballydoyle or Rosewell and is bidding to become the first champion jockey since Declan McDonogh in 2005 to reach the top when based with a stable other than the big two. It points not only to Keane’s ambition but also to Ger Lyons, who has to be commended for taking on a prospective champion so early and putting him in a position of responsibility.

- Tony Keenan


Sunday Supplement: The Slipped Triple Crown

Tony Stafford

Tony Stafford: Sunday Supplement

Sunday supplement 

by Tony Stafford

Nice bloke that Lee Westwood. Supports Nottingham Forest, you know. I was in the box at Doncaster on Saturday and had a nice chat with him. While I was watching the closing stages of the golf last weekend when he played so well in company with Rory McIlroy, I didn’t get the impression of what a big bloke he is. No wonder he had plenty of the beef on his plate. Nice catering at Doncaster.

He said on the telly after his great effort that he would be going home for the week before returning for the $10million shoot-out in the Players Championship, starting on Thursday. I hope either he or Rory wins it.

Lee probably needs it more, especially with Hoof It recovering from a Hobday operation and Mrs Lee – sister I believe to Andrew Coltart, she’s neat and Scottish anyway – needing a few dollars to pay for the move to Florida.

Mrs Lee looks a very nice lady, with a bit of a wee sparkle in the eye. Whether it’s because she recently read THAT book, you know the saucy one that people like her who “never read” have read and the one you see people with on the bus and the tube. I don’t even know the name of it and cannot be bothered to track it down via google!

At one time, while I got down to the serious business of choosing whether it would be summer pudding or that chocolate concoction that would round off my repast – I’d started with the smoked salmon – Lee’s famous trainer, Mr Michael Easterby, he of the interesting trousers and many thousands of acres, emerged over the threshold.

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“Lee, he’s got another horse for you”, said someone, a frivolous comment that threatened to make Mrs Lee bridle with Scottish anxiety at the waste of more good money. But that soon passed over.

If I can relate a Mick Easterby story, which also emanates from a day at Doncaster, in this case a summer evening, and concerns a case of mistaken identity.

I was at Doncaster to witness a runner for Prince Ahmed Salman’s Thoroughbred Corporation – the green and white stripes that no longer adorn the British turf, following his sad death a decade ago. In those days, along with Willie Carson I was part of the entourage, dealing among other things with securing boxes at the last minute, and it was in one of said boxes that we watched a two-year-old win a seller with alacrity.

I suggested this horse could have potential and was despatched to bid for it at auction. The easy part was getting it, the hard part trying to work out who would train it. Then the Prince had a brainwave, saying: “Who’s that funny guy? He’s a trainer from the north.”

Always willing to help, and with the capacity always to make two and two five, I had a Eureka moment. Mick Easterby! I suggested. And so, through the good offices of his nephew Tim, who trained for Thoroughbred Corp at the time, the two-year-old found its way to Mick. There was no great outcome in terms of results from the horse, but a couple of weeks later at Newbury, closure of sorts was effected.

“There’s the trainer I was talking about!” exclaimed the prince, pointing to an exceedingly portly gentleman, at least 35 years younger than Mick and dressed rather more sartorially, given that his bulk necessitated similarly generous garments to my own. It was Charles Egerton, Etonian, future London Marathon hero and like Easterby a genius trainer, but landed gentry rather than lifelong-scrimping Yorkshire landowner.

I related the story to Mick for about the third time on Saturday, and Lee listened with some gentle amusement. Don’t suppose it took his mind off next week’s $10 million possible payoff, or his upcoming responsibility at the St Leger winner’s presentation.

Like all of us in that particular box, Lee will have been rooting for Camelot, along in his case with Nottingham Forest.  Later, long after the presentation to Simon Crisford for Encke, whose turn of foot at the crucial time was the difference as Camelot did not instantly find the acceleration that had characterised all his earlier efforts, I saw Forest had fallen behind, but I didn’t want to upset our golfing hero.

In the car on the way home, they had gone 2-0 down, but rallied to 2-2. Lee’ll be happy.  Among the inner circle of the Camelot brigade, only Paul Smith, son of Chelsea fan Derrick, shares my and my pal Harry Taylor’s Arsenal allegiance, but his team’s 6-1 romp was almost an ironic sidebar to the deprivation of history for the great horse.

This defeat will be considered, like most Premier League reverses, in black and white by most people. In truth it will make no difference to his status as a great or even his future prospects at Coolmore stud as the true successor to his own recently deceased sire Montjeu. To win what he has in the style he achieved it was far out of the ordinary.

Earlier, as I stood on the balcony on the far point of the stand’s fourth floor looking over the daunting five-furlong straight, I must say I felt trepidation at what this horse was attempting. In my and indeed Michael Tabor, John Magnier and Derrick Smith’s lifetime, only Nijinsky (1970) followed Bahran (1935) as a Triple Crown winner.

On Saturday, it was not just the quality of horse that stood in the way of Aidan, Anne-Marie, Joseph and the three other young O’Briens’ making history, it was some exceptional trainers, John Gosden, Sir Henry Cecil, Mahmood Al Zarooni, David Lanigan, Tommy Carmody/ Johnny Murtagh and William Haggas that challenged the favourite.

In the pre-parade I was struck by the size and strength of all the runners, even pacemaker Dartford, and when I talked briefly to William Haggas when the Highclere team, which included Tory ex-minster Michael Howard, stepped away, he said: “It would be a great race, even without Camelot”.

He like me considers the St Leger – brought to new vibrancy by the ever-astute Mike Dillon and sponsors Ladbrokes – virtually a two-mile race, and it was in that context that Camelot’s initial inability to quicken instantly should be judged. I prefer to remember his brave, albeit unavailing last-furlong effort which clawed back almost all the three lengths by which Mikael Barzalona went clear of him.

It was an event to round off that amazing summer of sport and if not the right result for all of us in that box, and most racing fans, it showed the enduring appeal of horse racing. There’s no certainty in racing, just as Rory McIlroy must be aware there’s no certainty in golf. Especially if Mrs Lee reads that book again!