Attrition Rate in Irish National Hunt

Killultagh Vic a High Profile Casualty

Killultagh Vic a High Profile Casualty

Killultagh Vic was the first high-profile Irish horse to miss Cheltenham with injury but you can be sure he won’t be the last, writes Tony Keenan. We are in that horrible space between the conclusion of most of the trials and the start of the Festival where owners, trainers and, yes, punters live in terror of hearing that their horse will miss the meeting with a late setback.

It makes sense that injuries should occur at this time. No more than a human athlete getting ready for a career-defining event, the revs are being cranked up to the max in preparation and it is inevitable that a gasket or two will blow in the process. Some trainers has succeeded more than others in avoiding – or preventing – the last-minute injury; Willie Mullins stands out in terms of getting his Cheltenham horses to end point and punters can rightly have faith in backing one of his runners ante-post at a short price in the relatively safe assumption that they will get to post. But other handlers have not been so fortunate (though perhaps fortunate is the wrong word as it is surely a skill to keep horses sound).

Predicting which trainers’ runners will make or miss Cheltenham by looking at data is difficult if not impossible and it makes more sense to look at a more global sense of how successful they are in keeping their horses sound from season to season. In the table below, I’ve focussed on the top 15 Irish trainers in terms of winners sent out in the six seasons from 2009/10 to 2014/15, leaving out those who are no longer training, i.e. Dessie Hughes and Charlie Swan.

I found every horse they had in that period that acquired an Irish official rating of 130 or more and went through their racing career in totality regardless of whether it began before 2009 or continued beyond 2015. I was looking for how many ‘full seasons’ they had in their careers and I took a very loose definition of what a full season was: a season in which a horse ran twice or more in the Irish National Hunt campaign which takes the Punchestown Festival as its start and end point.

To my mind, this is quite a lenient definition of a full season – many owners would want their horses to run far more regularly – but I was giving trainers the benefit of the doubt and I didn’t penalise for a horse only running once in their first season as trainers often want to start them off slowly. With the number of full seasons and missed seasons I worked out a figure called ‘attrition rate’ which expresses as a percentage how often a trainer’s horses miss a season in relation to their career as a whole.

Take Tony Martin as an example. In the period covered, he has 131 full seasons from his 130-plus rated horses and six missed seasons; I add the two together to get a total season figure which is 137 and then divide the missed season number into it to leave an attrition rate of 4.4%. As a back-up figure, I also added in how many runs a trainer’s horses averaged per season over that period.

This methodology is far from perfect. Firstly, it looks only at horses rated 130 or more, but the data was so overwhelming that were I to look at them all I’d struggle to have it finished for Cheltenham 2017! It also supposes that every National Hunt horse threads the same campaign trail, starting its season in the autumn and running through to the late spring/early summer. This is not the case with summer jumpers and many horses will have a winter break to avoid the worst of ground.

Using my method, horses could miss two calendar years but only one racing season. Monksland, say, missed 730 days between December 2012 and December 2014 but raced three times in the 2012/13 season and the same in 2014/15 campaign so is only penalised for being absent in 2013/14.

Furthermore, trainers are not penalised for horses having a short career of a season or two but they are hit for getting a horse back off an absence of a season or two for just one run, despite the fact that this could be a major achievement if that horse has had serious problems. Despite all this, I think there is enough in the data to make it interesting to look at, if not necessarily of vast predictive value.

Trainer Horses Rated 130 Plus Attrition Rate Average Season Runs
C. Byrnes 19 15.9% 5.4
C. Murphy 13 10.3% 4.5
N. Meade 53 8.8% 5.0
W. Mullins 171 7.0% 4.2
R. Tyner 6 6.7% 4.7
M. Hourigan 16 6.5% 7.3
M. Morris 17 5.6% 6.0
T. Martin 39 4.4% 5.4
G. Elliott 58 4.3% 6.1
H. De Bromhead 36 4.1% 4.7
P. Nolan 22 3.2% 5.2
E. Doyle 7 2.6% 6.3
J. Hanlon 8 2.4% 5.6
E. O’Grady 27 1.6% 5.4
J. Harrington 31 1.6% 6.1


We’ll start with Willie Mullins as we generally do. He has a highish attrition rate and the lowest average season runs so comes out quite badly on these numbers though I doubt Rich Ricci, Graham Wylie et al will be moving their horses in light of them! In fairness, he has improved recently with most of his absentees coming in the early part of the period covered though it must be said that he has quite a few horses that are in danger of missing this campaign, the likes of Abyssial, Jarry D’Honneur, Champagne Fever and Analifet all on the easy list at the moment.

Charles Byrnes has a very high attrition rate, 5.6% higher than the next highest, so perhaps landing gambles takes its toll! His achievement in bringing the nine-year-old Solwhit back to win at Cheltenham and Aintree in 2013 was a notable one but it seems significant that so many of his best horses have missed chunks of time, the likes of Mounthenry, Pittoni, Trifolium, Weapons Amnesty and Our Vinnie all having stop-start careers.

Colm Murphy is another that comes out poorly on the numbers, having not only a high attrition rate but also a low average runs per season, though the reason behind this could be one discussed in a previous article of mine on fall/unseat rate where he came out as one of the highest in the country. Falls and unseats will clearly cause plenty of injuries.

One trainer who does quite well is Gordon Elliott, his horses generally sound and running often, and it needs to be pointed out that he gets quite a few stable switchers. That can be viewed positively or negatively; either someone else has done all the hard work or you have to rectify another trainer’s mistakes.

Noel Meade is having a torrid season in terms of injuries, with Road To Riches having a curtailed campaign and Apache Stronghold out for the year. His attrition rate, third overall, would suggest this is not uncommon. One thing to admire with Meade is that no one else comes close in terms of openness around his horses’ health and he must be praised for that.

In terms of positives, Jessica Harrington stands out as having a low attrition rate and a high average number of runs. I would put this down to two things: she tends to mix flat and jumps campaigns, the former clearly less attritional than the latter; and she will often give her horses mid-winter breaks to avoid the worst of ground, something she frequently references in stable tours.

Edward O’Grady has the name of being hard on his horses but the numbers suggest otherwise, coming in the equal of Harrington in attrition rate. Henry De Bromhead has relatively a low attrition rate too, albeit with not many average season runs, and tends to do well in keeping older horses sweet. Sizing Europe is the daddy of them all but the likes of Sizing Australia and Darwins Fox are further feathers in de Bromhead’s cap.

Finally, mention must go to Michael Hourigan. His attrition rate percentage is only average but he is brilliant in terms of getting runs into his horses, his average of 7.3 a full run per season better than anyone else. I won’t say his horses are always in form but at least they’re out there competing and it is notable that eight of his 16 horses rated 130 plus raced at least 30 times. There are some real heroes in there like Dancing Tornado and Church Island and of course A New Story who ran an amazing 110 times, often over staying trips, and was still racing at fifteen.

- Tony Keenan


Related Contingencies at the Cheltenham Festival

Multiple bets are sometimes viewed as the preserve of the desperate, with wise heads pointing out that there is nothing lucky about a Lucky 15, writes Tony Keenan. But, on occasion, punters can multiply their value rather than boost the bookmaker’s edge. Related contingency bets are one such example.

By and large, these bets are not allowed by bookmakers: in this Sunday’s Super Bowl, for instance, one cannot back the Denver Broncos to win and Peyton Manning to be MVP in a double at their current quoted odds, as the performance of the team’s most important player, the quarterback, is intrinsically linked to the outcome of the game. So instead of multiplied odds, a punter has to take a watered down price on both events happening, similar to that offered on a double for a team to win Euro 2016 and that side’s main striker to be the tournament top scorer as they are also linked.

Yet at Cheltenham next month, you can do just that. By backing two or more representatives of the same form line to win separate races you can multiply the strength of your opinion on a race being a hot piece of form and there are many examples of this happening at recent Festivals. Take the two and a half mile Grade 2 novice hurdle run on Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham in 2013 where At Fishers Cross narrowly beat The New One, the latter in front too soon, with Grade 1 winners like Coneygree and Whisper in behind. Two months later, the pair won the Albert Bartlett and Neptune respectively at the Festival and those watching back the Trials Day run could have, rightly as it turned out, assumed that one horse would be suited by going up in trip while the other would enjoy competing at the same distance on better ground where his speed would be seen to better effect.

An even better example occurred last year when the Grade 2 novice hurdle run at Leopardstown on the Irish Champion Hurdle undercard produced three Cheltenham winners; the second Martello Tower won ‘the run for the spuds’ (Albert Bartlett); the third, Killultagh Vic, won the Martin Pipe (benefitting from some lenient handicapping); and the fourth, Windsor Park, won the Neptune.

Perming those horses in multiple bets, even allowing that the Leopardstown winner Outlander would surely have been included, would have produced a bonanza, the trio returning 14/1, 7/1 and 9/2 (659/1 treble) with bigger prices available in the weeks beforehand.

Both examples were novice races which isn’t the greatest surprise. Connections of the beaten horse(s) can want to avoid the winner next time, and at the Festival they have the option to do so with races over further and shorter, as well as the handicap route and now even a mares’ alternative. There aren’t as many options for those competing in open company who may have to face off with the same opponent again, however.

Furthermore, value is created by a bias against beaten horses in novice races in particular. Punters want to be with last time out winners and especially sexy, unbeaten animals in novice events despite the fact that horses that were beaten last time may have run better in defeat, the idea here being that a horse that was failed to win last time won’t be winning any race at the Festival.

You don’t just need to focus on a single form line either as you can get a good idea of the strength of a crop of horses from a series of races. In 2012/13, the Irish novice chasers over middle distances and staying trips looked a decent group and Lord Windermere and Lyreen Legend fought out the finish of the RSA that spring after Boston Bob fell at the last; needless to say, I backed Texas Jack in the JLT that year, a horse I believed was the best of the lot, and he made no impact in the finish! A year later in 2014, the Irish hunter chasers proved a deep crop and provided the first three in the Foxhunters and were five lengths clear of the fourth; perming the four Irish horses that weren’t complete no hopers (those priced 40/1 or shorter) would have produced a tricast of £1812.28.

This type of thinking doesn’t apply to multiple bets alone as forecasts and tricasts can be used to produce the same related contingency end. Punters who fancied Sire De Grugy to win the 2014 Champion Chase, but wanted more than his SP of 11/4, may have cottoned onto the fact that it was Somersby in the Tingle Creek that gave him his closest race that season and it was the same horse that chased him home at Cheltenham at 14/1, the forecast paying £40.57, which was generous in light of that one’s tendency to run well without winning. While not a related contingency as such, you could also have backed both Sire De Grugy to win and Somersby without the favourite. Those ‘without’ markets, once the preserve of Irish on-course layers only, are something we might all need to be wise to at this year’s Festival with Willie Mullins rolling into the meeting with a number of short-priced favourites.

Finding the strong form lines, what American writer Steve Davidowitz calls a ‘key race’, is the difficult part but there are some sensible places to start. Form that is working out is an obvious point, though perhaps too obvious, and times, sectional and overall, might be of more use or at least be more hidden to the wider betting public. It boils down to good race-reading and sometimes the logical spots are best; meetings like Trials Day at Cheltenham or the Hennessy card at Leopardstown this weekend make sense as does the Betfair Hurdle meeting at Newbury.

As for this year’s possibilities, the Yanworth (Neptune) and Shantou Village (Albert Bartlett) double rather jumps out after Saturday; there are reasons for believing the second is better than the form with his run having come off a break and the ground against him. The sense that a horse can shape better than the form in defeat is a big angle and it could be for a number of reasons be it fitness, distance or ground, the last-named perhaps of most significance given that many of the trials will have taken place on ground vastly different to that encountered in March.

The Ivanovich Gorbatov maiden hurdle at Leopardstown at Christmas looks strong form and Let’s Dance, the second who seemingly went into the race with a massive reputation, could be worth looking at in forecasts with the JP McManus favourite in the Triumph; while those further down the field like Lagostovegas and Tocororo could pitch up in the Fred Winter. Long Dog and Tombstone on their run on the same card is an interesting combo with that pair likely to take in different Festival targets. In light of Vroum Vroum Mag dismantling the English mares at Ascot recently, with the likeable but limited Jennies Jewel chasing her home, looking at Irish mares to perm with Annie Power in the David Nicholson could be interesting and the market hasn’t really taken cognisance of this with the shortest priced Irish entry in the race outside the Ricci pair being 20/1.

One form line I am looking to follow at the meeting is the Clarence House Chase from Ascot. I think we saw the best version of Un De Sceaux thus far and Traffic Fluide was unlucky not to finish closer, not brilliant at the third last, conceding first run to a degree and barely getting a hard time to get within a short head of Sire De Grugy. The presence of the fourth Vibrato Valtat gives substance to the belief that Sire De Grugy ran his race as they’d been mixing it all season and suggests that Traffic Fluide, with improvement to come, may already be better than not only his stablemate but also Sprinter Sacre as that pair are closely matched. Another factor is the time argument – both Sire De Grugy and Sprinter Sacre have been underwhelming on the clock this season – and I want to be with Traffic Fluide in exotic bets at the Festival. The concern however is that he might run in the Game Spirit beforehand, win easily and thus become the biggest danger to Un De Sceaux in the market so it could be worth seeking out some ‘without’ prices at this point (as recommended in this Champion Chase preview).

- Tony Keenan