Feidhlim Cunningham – From Trading Room to Training Yard
Racing and betting can be uncomfortable bedfellows, especially if you listen to some trainers about bookmakers, but the association does not seem to bother Champion Hurdle-winning handler Gavin Cromwell. Instead, Cromwell has been using the relationship to his advantage, employing former Paddy Power odds complier Feidhlim Cunningham as his race planner since 2018, writes Tony Keenan.
The pair first met in 2016 when Cunningham acquired Bottleofsmoke, a nine-race maiden, out of a Dundalk claimer in July that year. “He was rated 45 when we got him and we were thrilled to get him up to 68 and I got to know Gavin through that. We were plotting a course with him so I’d ring him and say there’s a race in four or five weeks that would suit and he always seemed appreciative of that. I hadn’t a clue about the training side but it worked well and he also managed to get a win out of a limited bumper horse at Stratford that I had with a few friends.”
Like many before him, Cunningham got into racing at college where he was a self-described ‘maths nerd’ but spent most of his time in University College Galway punting. After that, there were two years at a spread betting firm where the learning curve was steep. “You had to be so accurate there. At Powers, you could be 5’s about something that should be 10’s but you weren’t getting filled in by being too short on it whereas with the spreads, punters can lay the other side of it.”
There followed five years of odds compiling at Powers where he did “mainly Irish racing… learning plenty from the more experienced lads and as you watch racing everyday, your race reading improves.” He loved working there, “I was dying to go into work and did all the extra hours going”, but at the end of 2017 felt it was time for a change. That was where Cromwell came in and asked him if he wanted to place a few horses and two years later he’s still there.
A typical day for the racing manager starts on the gallops for first lot; this is a relatively new development as he tries to improve his knowledge of the pure training side. Cunningham is at pains to point out that his job is “racing manager rather than assistant trainer… my knowledge of the physical animal would be limited compared to lads working them their whole lives; I know that and Gavin knows that, I’m there to do the job of form.”
“From there, it’s back to the office for declarations at 10am, booking jockeys, declaring headgear, doing the entries for five or six days ahead before liaising with owners about their horses.”
Some parts of the job are not all that different from his previous occupation: “I’d be half pricing races up in my head and trying to rate them one to five in terms of quality to see what our best option is. I try to have a good idea what engagement we will take up from weights stage, the day after declarations while also keeping an eye on other horses’ entries.”
Other parts of the job are just “a lot of boring office stuff like vaccinations” but he often goes racing when the trainer needs representation; that can be a very nice part of the job when things work out, not so much when there is some explaining to do. Dealing with owners is something he enjoys, some of whom will take an active interest in placing their horses, while his background in the betting industry can be useful for those inclined towards a punt.
There is a plan for every horse in the yard, no matter their ability level, and those are done in conjunction with the trainer. “I give him a list of horses and he tells me when they’ll be ready. I can then make a plan, the odd time I’d try to twist his arm. Every horse has a target but those plans are flexible. If it is not working, we will just change it.”
Last year’s Bellewstown July meeting was a time when the plans of a number of horses came together, the yard managing seven winners across the four-day meeting. “We targeted Bellewstown as a festival last year and aimed to have as many runners primed for it as we could. We picked out a number of horses that would be suited to races there four to six weeks beforehand; it just meant that we would go there instead of an alternative race a week or two either side of it. It is Gavin's local track and thankfully things worked out, he got them there in great nick.”
Plans will typically start with the aim of winning a race in Ireland but if the horse is struggling, they are not afraid to travel. “The initial aim is to win at home but the likes of Dundalk can be very competitive in the winter and, as Gavin says, we want winners.” When placing horses in the UK, Cunningham says that the “fully transparent entries and declarations are a massive help to race planners as can see what is entered before the race closes. Not all trainers have time to look through every race and we’ve won several races in Britain because of that, the Perth Silver Cup with Callthebarman was one example.”
Cromwell’s yard has grown exponentially in recent years; from 18 winners in 2016, their winners have gone 28, 45, 88 in the three years since. They were one of six Irish National Hunt yards to have at least 100 individual runners last season along with Mullins, Elliott, de Bromhead, O’Brien and Meade. This spurt is by design: “when I came here, Gavin was saying he wanted to give it a real go, the aim is to keep growing, you either compete or you don’t. We have a great team in the yard. Jonathan Moore has come in as stable jockey and done really well for us; we have one of the leading conditionals in the country in Conor McNamara, who went from strength to strength last season, and we also have the valuable claim of Breen Kane. Everyone in the yard works extremely hard to achieve the best results that we can.”
Part of that scaling up might be getting the bigger owners on board: this is a yard that, outside of JP McManus, is made up of “the smaller man, the medium man, syndicates”. Cunningham points out that “22 of our winners last year cost ten grand or less, we don’t aim for that and would like a higher quality of horse but we work with what we have”. On the broader subject of attracting new owners he says, “you hope what you’re doing with your horses will be evident to lads, we purchased a couple of horses from big owners that we did well with and that might perk their interest. If you do it on the track, you hope these lads will come to you”.
Getting bigger is not without its difficulties and he warns that “you don’t want to lose the personal touch, and Gavin has time for everyone”. Cromwell is described as a “good delegator” and you get the impression he is not afraid to back his staff. He is “upfront with owners which people tend to appreciate”. He also says his boss is “a brilliant judge of when a horse is or isn’t right” though this is more “a feel thing” than rooted in data.
Cunningham says that Cromwell’s best trait as a trainer is that “he gets the best out of them. He is very level-headed, he doesn’t get too down on himself when things don’t go right and he doesn’t get carried away with success. You don’t see many leaving and doing better elsewhere. The job he did with Espoir D’Allen was different class. To win a Champion Hurdle in the fashion he did really put Gavin’s training abilities in the limelight. Every quality horse he has had has fulfilled their potential”. Darver Star was freakish in this regard – “you just can’t explain his rate of improvement” – but there are other highlights from his time in the yard.
Lever Du Soleil won four in a row in the UK last summer. “We had three picked out and knocked a fourth out of it too but it’s not every horse that can go over and back like that. Over there, the way penalties work, you’ve got more chance of running up a sequence. He went from 54 to 84 in 18 days and it’s funny, lads remember that even though it’s low grade, it captures the imagination”.
The late decision to run Jeremy’s Flame (finished second) in January’s Tolworth Hurdle was another proud moment. “She was a late entry for that race getting the allowance and from my time in Powers I am inclined to take on the talking horses that haven’t done it yet so she was entitled to take her chance. 6/1 for a Grade 1 and 6/1 for a handicap on her next start, that was a good bit of placing”.
Patience and looking ahead is important in his job. “Top Of The Charts won four times last season and from a race planning side there were only two hurdles in the whole calendar that were backing up where he could win at the grade and back up under the penalty within 6 days. That worked well when he won at both Down Royal and Clonmel in late August and early September.”
Finding the next one is a major part of his job and one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects. “With the horse-in-training sales, I’ll go through every single horse which is a fair task as there are 1,500 in some of them. I’ll make notes on everything, go to Gavin with a list of 40-50 that I think have upside, he’ll look at them physically and scratch three-quarters of them on physical aspects he doesn’t like, the other 15 we’ll bid on and hopefully come home with four or five.
“He is happy to back me on form and we have done well from these sales. Wolf Prince was a good one, he won twice and finished second in a Grade 1 juvenile hurdle last season while Running In Heels [despite being nine when she joined the yard] won four times in 2018 having been purchased for £2,500.” Cunningham says that one of his strengths is that he comes at it “from a betting & form approach, not taking lads’ word as gospel who might be down on the horse for one reason or another.”
Doing his own video form and analysis, he is inclined to ignore the noise and “go with the formbook or the angle we have that might see them improve”. There are times when he hears something negative afterwards from someone previously involved with the horse but “you have to back yourself and it has worked out so far.”
Tony Keenan was speaking with Feidhlim Cunningham, race planner for trainer Gavin Cromwell