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Tony Keenan: Training by Gender

About two years ago I wrote about the main Irish flat trainers and how successful or otherwise they were with horses over various trips; it has taken some time, too long in fact, but I now want to follow up and look at the records of those handlers with different genders, writes Tony Keenan. With this in mind, I looked at all Irish flat races between 2012 and 2017, turf and all-weather, which took in 6,727 races and 72,409 runners in all. The average field size for these races was 10.76 runners making the average strikerate 9.29%. Below is a breakdown of all those races, first by simple gender, and then by more specific horse type.

 

Gender

Winners

Runners

Strikerate

Actual/Expected

Impact Value

Male 4,195 41,867 10.02% 0.82 1.08
Female 2,532 30,542 8.29% 0.77 0.89

 

Horse Type

Winners

Runners

Strikerate

Actual/Expected

Impact Value

Colt 1,388 9,620 14.43% 0.85 1.55
Horse 48 355 13.52% 0.87 1.45
Gelding 2,759 31,892 8.65% 0.81 0.93
Filly 2,1111 24,929 8.47% 0.77 0.91
Mare 421 5,613 7.50% 0.78 0.81

 

A few universal truths emerge from this. Male horses make up a bigger proportion of the fields during this time, 58% versus 42% for females, and they win more often too. Keep this in mind later on when looking at the records of different trainers; a trainer may have a lower strikerate with fillies and mares than they have with colts, horses or geldings but it could still be better when compared to the overall horse population.

During this article, the focus will be on the top ten Irish trainers between 2012 and 2017 in terms of total winners trained; I’ve taken out David Wachman because he has since retired which leaves Aidan O’Brien, Dermot Weld, Jim Bolger, Ger Lyons, Michael Halford, Eddie Lynam, Willie McCreery, Jessica Harrington, John Oxx and Kevin Prendergast. Below are their respective records with fillies and mares in the period covered and the order is taken from their total winners in that time.

 

Trainer

Winners

Runners

Strikerate

Actual/Expected

A. O’Brien 187 1,236 15.13% 0.80
D. Weld 233 1,159 20.10% 0.90
J. Bolger 167 1,616 10.33% 0.76
G. Lyons 81 452 17.92% 1.05
M. Halford 96 887 10.82% 0.77
E. Lynam 78 643 12.87% 0.89
W. McCreery 125 1,122 11.14% 0.92
J. Harrington 68 817 8.32% 0.73
J. Oxx 66 523 12.62% 0.76
K. Prendergast 55 568 9.68% 0.78

 

The first thing that jumps out is that Aidan O’Brien isn’t the best at something in Irish flat racing, Dermot Weld is clearly superior in terms of strikerate and winners trained. Ger Lyons is next in strikerate though with relatively few female runners in that time: despite training the fourth highest total winners in this time, he ran the fewest fillies with the next trainer (John Oxx) having 71 more. Willie McCreery is the opposite, running the fourth most fillies and mares in this time and having one of the better actual over expected figures. Of the top ten, Jessica Harrington comes out worst in strikerate, her figure of 8.32% only marginally better than the national average of 8.29% when you would expect the main trainers to be comfortably beating that.

Next let’s compare those strikerates with both their overall records and how they do with male runners.

 

Trainer

Overall Strikerate

Male Strikerate

Female Strikerate

A. O’Brien 21.28% 25.06% 15.13%
D. Weld 17.18% 14.68% 20.10%
J. Bolger 12.32% 14.38% 10.33%
G. Lyons 17.23% 17.02% 17.92%
M. Halford 12.44% 13.36% 10.82%
E. Lynam 11.78% 11.43% 12.87%
W. McCreery 10.27% 7.54% 11.14%
J. Harrington 9.70% 11.30% 8.32%
J. Oxx 13.42% 14.35% 12.62%
K. Prendergast 9.62% 9.56% 9.68%

 

The expectation here based on the overall horse population is that trainers should do better with colts and geldings so it is the yards that deviate from the norm that are most interesting. That Weld has a much better record with females than males was surprising though the McCreery figures were much more expected; my anecdotal sense looking at his runners was that he did well with fillies and mares. Ger Lyons is a really unusual case in that his strikerate is consistent across the board but that was also the case when looking at distance in the previous article. Bolger, along with Harrington, doesn’t do as well when compared with their record with males.

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To wrap up looking at the top ten trainers as a whole, let’s consider how their stables are broken down in terms of male and female runners. The overall population is 58% male and 42% female in this time so they are the base rates to work off and perhaps also bear in mind whether trainers with good/poor strikerates are training too many or too few fillies and mares.

 

Trainer

% of Males

% of Females

A. O’Brien 61.9% 38.1%
D. Weld 53.9% 46.1%
J. Bolger 49.1% 50.9%
G. Lyons 76.9% 23.1%
M. Halford 63.9% 36.1%
E. Lynam 50.7% 49.3%
W. McCreery 24.2% 75.8%
J. Harrington 46.1% 53.9%
J. Oxx 46.0% 54.0%
K. Prendergast 50.8% 49.2%

 

Some of these trainers seem to have things spot-on; Willie McCreery’s yard is predominately female and while some of this may be self-fulfilling it does make sense. Dermot Weld has more than normal percentage of fillies and mares but it does look as if a few of these trainers might be leaning too much towards females, notably Jim Bolger and Jessica Harrington.

But it’s Ger Lyons that is the really strange one. Despite having the second-best strikerate with fillies and mares, his yard is heavily stacked towards males; unlike Bolger and Harrington, he probably isn’t training enough fillies.

The trainer says this is because his has traditionally been a selling yard and without black type it is difficult to sell fillies. Furthermore, Hong Kong – where a number of his horses have been exported to – have no real interest in fillies. That said, he has been buying more fillies in the last two years and in 2017 he had 22 winners from 115 female runners, whereas his previous highs were 13 winners (2013 and 2015) and 80 runners (also 2013).

Lyons has had Group race success with fillies this year courtesy of Who’s Steph and Lightening Quick, and that is reflected in his overall record with different genders in the better races. Furthermore, his sole Group 1 winner to date was the filly Lightening Pearl. Below is his record in UK and Irish Group and Listed races between 2012 and 2017 by gender.

 

Gender

Winners

Runners

Strikerate

Level Stakes

Actual/Expected

Male 21 198 10.6% -75.15 0.67
Female 13 94 13.8% -26.14 0.98

 

Weld however remains the best with fillies and mares and has had nearly twice as many female than male Group and Listed winners in UK and Ireland between 2012 and 2017, 70 versus 36. Those looking for a punting angle might consider linking this back to the training for distance article; Weld is not a trainer of sprinters but does well over longer trips. Below is his record over varying distances with female runners in the period covered.

 

Distance

Winners

Runners

Strikerate

Level Stakes

Actual/Expected

5f – 6½f 15 158 9.49% -79.52 0.58
7f – 8½f 101 532 18.99% -108.50 0.88
9f plus 121 485 24.95% -26.96 1.01

 

In the period covered, McCreery has managed only one male Pattern winner as against 14 female winners of such races; his best horse to date, Fiesolana, came around the start of this time and may have helped in bringing more fillies and mares in. In terms of betting on his fillies and mares, age is something to consider as seen in the table below. One word of warning however: the massive level-stakes profit is due to some big-priced winners including 66/1, 25/1 and 16/1 (three times). Still, his strikerate is markedly better with the older ones.

 

Age

Winners

Runners

Strikerate

Level Stakes

Actual/Expected

2yos 25 255 9.80% -84.77 0.86
3yos 49 517 9.48% -161.82 0.76
4yos plus 53 376 14.1% +77.24 1.17

 

The red herring in the whole group however is Jessica Harrington, her overall strikerate with fillies and mares the worst of the top ten trainers. This is despite her best flat horse to date, Alpha Centauri, being a filly and this could be a case where the numbers cannot be trusted. If we look at her 18 Listed and Group winners between 2012 and 2017, we see that 11 were by fillies and mares and that includes the talented pair Bocca Baciata and Jack Naylor. Maybe she is good with the better fillies but not so much with the ones down the pecking order.

This is only one way of measuring a trainer’s success with fillies and mares and there are obviously other methods of doing it, getting black type for a high proportion of their female runners something that springs to mind. Still, we are working off a reasonable sample size of six years racing, and it raises some interesting questions, not least about whether or not trainers sell themselves as being good with fillies. I suspect Willie McCreery already does and Ger Lyons should do it a bit more.

- Tony Keenan

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.

 

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.

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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

 

Marsha seeks Chantilly Double Delight

Several have managed it, the last being Lochsong in 1993 and 94. And on Sunday, Marsha will be the latest to attempt back-to-back victories in the Prix de l’Abbaye.

Texanita, ridden by the celebrated Yves Saint-Martin, was the first to achieve the feat in the mid-1960s. Trained by the outstanding Francois Mathet at his yard in Chantilly, the handler was to become the most successful in the prestigious sprint’s history, with eight victories recorded in less than two decades.

Gentilhombre matched the achievement for his Leicestershire trainer Neil Adam in the mid-70s. Brilliant at three, the horse was even better at four. He improved as the season progressed, ultimately winning the July Cup, the Diadem Stakes at Ascot and then taking his second Abbaye in a course record time.

Dermot Weld was next to train a back-to-back winner. Committed was a powerful mare, who at three began to dominate in her own country of Ireland. A year later Weld unleashed her throughout Europe, and was rewarded with success at York in the Nunthorpe and then at Longchamp in the Prix de l’Abbaye. She repeated the trick in France a year later, before heading over the Atlantic on a brief foray to America. She was later to become a successful broodmare in the United States.

Though hugely talented, Committed’s achievements were comfortably surpassed by the mighty Lochsong, who dominated sprinting in the early to mid-1990s. Trained by Ian Balding, she was a huge filly who simply bullied her opponents into submission. During a barn-storming period in 1993-94, she captured every sprint worth winning, including the l‘Abbaye twice.

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And now is the turn of Marsha, as she attempts to add her name to the illustrious and select list of dual-winners. Since last year’s thrilling success, Sir Mark Prescott’s talented speedster has won two of her five starts, with last month’s victory in the Nunthorpe arguably a career best display. She got up in the dying strides to defeat another outstanding filly in Lady Aurelia, and on the back of that performance is understandably a short-priced favourite for Sunday’s Chantilly renewal.

Battaash was something of a disappointment at York, having previously kicked Marsha aside in the Group Two King George Stakes at Goodwood. That victory came in testing conditions, though he’d proved himself just as swift when hammering a decent field in the Coral Charge at Sandown. The Charlie Hills trained three-year-old is currently second favourite, and I’m finding it tough to split the pair.

The race has been dominated by Brits in recent times, winning six of the last eight. The trend is likely to continue if the markets are to be believed. Signs Of Blessing appears best of the French, though the six-year-old has often come-up a little short at this level. If sprints were run at five and a half furlongs, I fancy he’d be as good as any. Unfortunately, he seems to lack the speed for five and often the stamina for six. Another frustrating performance may well lie ahead.

Don’t be surprised to see Finsbury Square go close at a decent price. He may well prove the best of the home team, as he often enjoys a trip to Chantilly. He’s won four times at the track and is yet to finish outside the top four, including when a very close fourth in last year’s renewal. Find a bookie that pays each-way the first four, and it could be your lucky day.

But it’s the Brits that I fancy will be celebrating yet another Prix de l’Abbaye success on Sunday afternoon, as Marsha looks to make history, with Battaash a possible party-pooper. With luck in running, the pair may well fight out a thrilling finish.

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.

 

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%

 

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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

Irish View: Half Term Report

The Irish Derby marks a rough halfway point in the turf season so now is a good time to take the temperature of what has unfolded thus far, writes Tony Keenan. Rather than simply go through 2017 on an event-by-event basis, I’m going to look at the top six trainers in Ireland presently and belatedly refer to an article I wrote on seasonal trainers back in May to put some data on the narrative and attempt to project forward into the rest of the campaign.

In that original piece – linked here – I looked at the 6,538 flat races run between 2010 and 2016 and divided the season in quarters: Spring (March and April), Early Summer (May and June), High Summer (July and August) and Autumn (September, October and the odd race in the November). I then went into which trainers did well in which part of the season. These numbers are reproduced below for the current top six trainers along with a brief look at the overall pattern of their typical season before considering what this might mean for 2017.

Before that however are the current standings in the trainers’ championship as of July 3rd:

 

Overall Table

Trainer Wins Runs Strikerate Prizemoney
A. O’Brien 47 233 20.2% €2,857,438
J. Bolger 34 255 13.3% €832,165
G. Lyons 27 163 16.6% €699,253
J. Harrington 23 136 16.9% €485,273
D. Weld 18 152 11.8% €349,160
W. McCreery 17 123 13.8% €342,648

 

In some ways the table is quite similar to the one that we saw at the end of 2016, in others it is very different. Aidan O’Brien was/is on top in both but the 2016 runner-up Dermot Weld – having had €2,886,538 in total prize last year, much of it Harzand-generated – is languishing in fifth. Bolger and Lyons are knocking around the same spots as last year albeit with better strikerates as is Willie McCreery. Jessica Harrington has taken things up a level or three though, her 23 winners this season already ahead of the 21 she had last year.

 

Aidan O’Brien

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 21.0% 21.0% 22.2% 22.9% 17.6%
2017 20.2% 19.2% 19.9% ? ?

 

The Pattern: O’Brien wins races, and lots of them, at every stage of the year. His strikerate drops in the Autumn but the same applies to almost all yards; field sizes tend to be bigger as trainers attempt to get runs into their horses before season end.

 

Aidan O’Brien keeps winning and the world keeps turning. Despite seven winners over the Irish Derby meeting including the main event, it was a disappointing weekend for Ballydoyle with news of injuries to Wings Of Eagles, Minding and Somehow, the last name fatally. Indeed, the whole plan of keeping older fillies in training has turned out badly in 2017; not only is Minding’s racing career in doubt but neither Seventh Heaven nor Alice Springs, Group 1 winners at three, have been seen lately and nor is there any sign of them returning.

Yet 2017 has still been an excellent campaign up to this point. Churchill excepted, Royal Ascot was a triumph and one that looks even better when placed alongside the broad failure of other Irish flat trainers to have winners or even runners at the meeting. Caravaggio, Winter and Highland Reel all won their Group 1s and gave notice that they will be doing more of the same through the summer though the pack may need to be shuffled a little regarding future targets, Winter one that could be going up in trip in the absence of Minding.

O’Brien even managed to get a good winner out of the morass of last year’s Derby with Idaho in the Hardwicke though extracting the same from US Army Ranger has proved beyond even him. The early two-year-old returns with the fillies have been good – September stands out here while Clemmie was good over the weekend – but the colts have been a little flat thus far with Murillo about the pick. Gustav Klimt, Amedeo Modigliani and others yet unraced may have more to add here though.

 

Jim Bolger

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 12.1% 12.7% 12.8% 14.0% 8.9%
2017 13.3% 10.6% 15.3% ? ?

 

The Pattern: Bolger gets his horses fit and runs them often so it is no surprise that his strikerate drops off at the end of the year; his peak time is High Summer before a trough in the Autumn.

 

Relatively speaking, 2017 started slowly for Jim Bolger, his 2017 Spring strikerate of 10.6% below his seven-season average of 12.7%. Things have changed and changed utterly in the last two months, to such a degree that he is operating at a healthy 13.3% return for the season. As ever, it is the robust nature of his horses that are carrying him; already in 2017 he has had ten horses win twice with the likes of Club Wexford, Clongowes, New Direction and Pirolo among those that are taking their racing well. That said, horses don’t have much choice in Coolcullen!

Turret Rocks and Glamorous Approach are decent standard bearers among the older horses but the real hope for Bolger is with his juveniles and it is a crop that should help cement his position in second place for 2017. His five two-year-old winners have him joint-third in terms of juvenile winners behind O’Brien and Harrington and none is more exciting than Railway Stakes second, Verbal Dexterity who coped surprisingly well with the drop back to six furlongs over the weekend and is sure to be much better over a trip.

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Ger Lyons

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 14.9% 11.8% 15.9% 16.1% 13.2%
2017 16.6% 23.9% 13.2% ? ?

 

The Pattern: Lyons tends to train his horses to improve for a run in the Spring before operating at a consistent level for the rest of the year; in some ways, he is the metronome of Irish racing, his strikerates at different race distances backing this up.

 

The early part of 2017 was anything but typical for Lyons when placed alongside his records back to 2010. Unlike in previous years, he hit the ground running this time with a double on opening day at Naas including a win in the Lincoln. His strikerate through this Spring was more than double what it had been across the previous Springs. This may however have come at a cost as his Early Summer returns have been down on previous years.

It is possible Royal Ascot played a part in this. Lyons had a right good go at the meeting, running five of his better horses, but all bar Treasuring in the Queen Mary underwhelmed. That said, his two winners over Derby weekend were bettered only by Aidan O’Brien and were more than Weld, Bolger or Harrington; Joe Murphy was the other trainer to have more than one winner across the three days.

The problem with Lyons progressing to the next level – and by the next level I mean consistently competing in Group 1s – is that his operation as currently constituted remains a selling yard. The type of horse he buys at the sales have an ability cap when placed alongside the blue bloods and there is always the chance that a good prospect will be sold on to jurisdictions like Hong Kong as was the case with Doctor Geoff earlier in the season.

 

Jessica Harrington

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 10.6% 14.0% 10.9% 11.8% 7.6%
2017 16.9% 29.4% 13.1% ? ?

 

The Pattern: As one might expect with a national hunt trainer aiming horses at spring festivals like Cheltenham and Punchestown, Harrington tends to have her horses ready early on; her historic strikerate is never better than in Spring. Those numbers tend to tail off as the year goes on with a massive drop in Autumn.

 

That Jessica Harrington would have a big 2017 flat campaign was hardly surprising; her horses were flying at the backend of the jumps season proper with a new gallop seemingly playing a big part in her improvement. Even so, the scale of her returns in the early part of this season have been hard to grasp, a strikerate of 29.4% much the best among any yard with a meaningful number of runners. As things stand, she has had 23 winners in Ireland this year and it looks like a formality that her previous best of 28 in 2011 will be left behind.

The two-year-olds have been the real flagbearers and as referenced already she is second to O’Brien in juvenile winners trained. Both her Royal Ascot favourites, Brother Bear and Alpha Centauri, were beaten but there were strong positives to be drawn from both; Brother Bear looked to find the ground too fast when hanging in the finish of the Coventry while Alpha Centauri is one for further judged on her run in the Albany. The National and Moyglare remain on the cards for both.

 

Dermot Weld

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 17.6% 21.5% 17.4% 18.4% 15.2%
2017 11.8% 14.6% 9.7% ? ?

 

The Pattern: Weld starts hot in Spring, very hot in fact, and then peaks again in High Summer; Galway of course is central to this July/August period. Autumn traditionally sees a dropping-off but not a seismic one by any means.

 

Unlike in previous years, Weld started cold in 2017 and it has stayed that way; his Spring strikerate was below his previous averages but it could be argued that his Early Summer numbers are even worse. Derby Weekend did not go well; Three Kingdoms offered some relief, as much as a 33/1 winner of a handicap can, but he went into Sunday’s card with a number of well-fancied runners and the best any of them could manage was fourth, both Zhukova and The Grey Gatsby filling that spot.

Zhukova is his best horse at the moment but she has clear limitations both in terms of ground and ability; it looks as if she was extremely well-placed to win a Group 1 at Belmont Park, a point made by her rider Pat Smullen since, and the trainer’s subsequent view that she might contend for an Arc were more fantastical that fanciful. It’s worth remembering that her single best piece of form might be beating US Army Ranger, a greatly devalued stock now.

It is hard to see a way back for Weld this year looking at his strikerates in previous years; it would be going against the grain to believe he can resuscitate his season and that could have a massive influence on the dynamics, market and otherwise, of Galway. The reasons for the down year here seem clear; his horses were sick earlier in the year and he simply doesn’t have the quality in 2017 which is something that can happen to any yard away from Ballydoyle. Eziyra and Making Light seem about his best three-year-olds and both have clear ceilings around Group 3 level.

One interesting knock-on effect in all this has been an opening up of the jockeys’ championship. Paddy Power rated this such a foregone conclusion at the start of the season that they had a market without Pat Smullen and who could blame them based on previous events. But every season takes on its own story and Smullen is only fifth in that table now with just seven winners separating the top six of Manning, Keane, Lee, Hayes, Smullen and Foley. Interesting times indeed and quite a few of those riders will be dreaming of winning a first title.

 

Willie McCreery

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 10.2% 9.0% 9.8% 11.4% 9.7%
2017 13.8% 9.3% 16.7% ? ?

 

The Pattern: Broad consistency has been the story with McCreery, his strikerates operating within similar parameters throughout the year.

 

McCreery got the full treatment from me last year so I won’t add much more now beyond to say that he has continued to improve and does well making his living around the periphery of the top trainers in good handicaps, lesser pattern events and conditions races. His overall strikerate has been better in 2017 than ever before and he benefits from having Billy Lee as his stable jockey; Lee is the most improved jockey around in the last three or four years and a major asset to any yard.

 

- Tony Keenan

Irish Angle: A Trainer for Every Season

The vagaries of trainer form, those often-elusive shifts in the wellbeing of a yard’s horses, have never done anything for me as a punting angle, on Irish racing at least. With a limited programme book relative to the UK, the sample sizes are just too small be to be meaningful and fleeting veins of form seem to be constantly beyond a bettor’s grasp; it is only with hindsight that we can recognise a good or bad period. What looks like a pattern is often just noise and certainly the perception of a trainer going badly would not put me off a bet.

But what if we could broaden the sample a little and try to predict when a stable will go in or out of form? Discussions of trainer form tend to be limited to what the trainer is doing in the current moment or the weeks previous but what if we look back at how they did at the same time of the season in the previous years? At least this way we have a much greater number of races to evaluate and we can see if form at different parts of the calendar is repeatable from season to season.

For the purposes of this article, I used the excellent HorseRaceBase database [though this research can now be done using Geegeez' own Query Tool (£) - Ed.] to look at Irish flat races run with the traditional flat season from 2010 to 2016, a total of 6,538 races. I divided the season into four sections: Spring (March and April), Early Summer (May and June), High Summer (July and August) and Autumn (September, October and the odd race in the November). Not all seasons are equal however as the distribution of races far from even:

 

Stage of Season Number of Races Percentage of Races
Spring 804 12.3%
Early Summer 1,951 29.8%
High Summer 2,179 33.3%
Autumn 1,604 24.6%

 

I’m going to present the top ten trainers from each point of the season with all the usual measures with overall strikerate used as the key figure before going deeper on a trainer or two that could be worth following within that period.

 

Spring

Trainer Wins Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
D. Weld 88 21.4% -56.82 0.96
A. O’Brien 91 20.9% -74.77 0.83
F. Stack 38 20.4% -7.06 1.11
J. Oxx 27 17.3% -12.59 0.90
J. Harrington 21 14.0% -8.66 1.10
K. Prendergast 29 12.9% -72.19 0.83
J. Bolger 66 12.7% -75.93 0.85
P. Deegan 28 12.6% +67.96 0.98
G. Lyons 28 11.8% +10.16 0.92
K. Condon 14 10.3% -19.67 1.07

 

The early months of the flat season present an interesting challenge for trainers and there are pros and cons to having their horses ready from the start. Some of your opposition will be playing the long game and aiming to peak their horses later on in the year and if you can try to acquire soft ground types there are some relatively uncompetitive races out there. However, there simply aren’t very many of those races, March and April making up just 12.3% of the overall total, and even if you train a big winner you will be in competition with national hunt racing for column inches. A hot start in the first two months might feel great at the time but there is an opportunity cost here; it could be a long, lean summer if a trainer goes for everything early as their horses become badly handicapped and/or suffer a loss of form.

Two trainers that have long proved willing to pay that cost are Fozzy Stack and Paul Deegan. Obviously Stack has only recently taking out the licence in his own right but by all accounts things are basically as was in his Golden yard from when his father held the license. He wasn’t hanging about again in 2017 with seven winners in the first two months of the season and that’s something that has been a long-standing pattern with this operation; taking the season in four stages listed above, strikerate goes from 20.4% in spring to 15.9% and 16.1% in the two summer phases before dropping to 10% in autumn.

Paul Deegan’s horses are never better than early in the season, his average strikerate of 8.3% rising to 12.6% in the March and April period. The summer stages are rough on him though with May/June returns of 6.7% and 5.2% in July/August before a rebound of sorts at the backend with his autumn strikerate back up to 10% flat. Perhaps his horses take time to overcome their early exertions or it could be a case that the ground is most suitable at the start and finish of the season.

 

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Early Summer

Trainer Wins Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
A. O’Brien 215 22.2% -122.81 0.89
D. Weld 143 17.4% -192.88 0.87
J. Oxx 68 16.9% -119.95 0.80
G. Lyons 106 15.9% -22.34 0.99
C. O’Brien 27 12.9% -6.11 1.07
J. Bolger 123 12.8% -161.62 0.86
F. Stack 36 11.7% -78.21 0.77
K. Prendergast 54 11.2% -175.69 0.73
E. Lynam 39 11.1% -96.87 0.88
J. Harrington 49 10.9% -154.00 0.81

 

Summer races, be they in the early or late high season, are by definition easier to win as they simply attract smaller field sizes; the average strikerates for all horses in this period is typically around 9% whereas that number drops towards the end of the campaign as trainers rush to run their horses before the turf seasons dwindles to nothing.

One trainer to make the most of these opportunities is Charles O’Brien and it was a surprise to see him rank fifth overall in strikerate at this time of the year as his general rates of return are mediocre; this is a trainer who has had just one Group race winner since 2011. But come May and June his horses appear to find form and it isn’t just the result of one or two fluky good years; in the past seven seasons, he has managed an actual over expected of 1.0 or greater five times. Though without a winner thus far in 2017, he could be about to hit form.

 

High Summer 

Trainer Wins Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
A. O’Brien 247 22.9% -235.56 0.91
W. Mullins 29 21.3% -30.60 0.87
D. Weld 165 18.4% -255.95 0.86
A. Slattery 22 17.9% +26.33 1.60
J. Oxx 72 17.2% -91.68 0.81
G. Lyons 96 16.1% -113.91 0.94
J. Bolger 121 14.0% -202.06 0.87
E. Lynam 54 13.7% +37.87 0.95
J. Murtagh 30 13.6% -23.59 0.90
D. Hogan 19 13.6% -3.22 1.09

 

Rightly or wrongly, high summer in Irish racing means one thing: Galway. It is thus no surprise to see trainers that do well at this meeting, like Willie Mullins and Denis Hogan, in the overall top ten for this time of year. The racing at Galway is very competitive with races there frequently over-subscribed but if you have your string in good order aiming at that meeting then the knock-on effect is that they will win at the many other fixtures that are on around this time.

Mullins is a high strikerate trainer by any definition of the term as we saw this past national hunt season when he retained his title despite having appreciably fewer runners than Gordon Elliott. Of his 29 winners in the period covered, seven of those came at Galway where he was top trainer last year, finally ending the reign of Dermot Weld. And remember, this doesn’t include his winners under national hunt rules! Hogan, incidentally, trained five Galway winners from his total of 19.

Andy Slattery is another trainer that does well at this period of the season but while he did have two winners at Galway in 2016 it seems more a by-product of his star horses peaking at this stage of year. Ucanchoose won six times in the months of July and August while An Saighduir won five times; both of those appear on the downgrade now but Creggs Pipes (three wins) and Sors (two wins) might fill the breach. It needs pointing out that Slattery seems to be suffering a hangover (or natural regression if you prefer) from last year’s excellent campaign and is without a winner in 2017.

 

Autumn

Trainer Wins Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
A. O’Brien 191 17.8% -307.69 0.88
D. Weld 125 15.2% -185.97 0.85
G. Lyons 68 11.7% +11.69 1.00
M. Halford 81 10.7% -196.25 0.89
J. Oxx 40 10.4% -163.00 0.69
K. Condon 26 10.4% -52.93 0.91
E. Lynam 40 10.3% -128.76 0.85
P. Deegan 34 10.2% -42.47 0.97
F. Stack 23 10.0% -60.92 0.83
W. McCreery 38 9.7% -48.62 0.90

 

Almost every trainer sees their strikerate drop off at the end of the season for one simple reason; races are harder to win as the field sizes balloon. As mentioned above, Deegan is someone who sees a bounce-back while the Stack’s 10% return at this time may not be as bad as it seems; the point of comparison here probably shouldn’t be his earlier numbers but those of other trainers around him.

The reason for races being more competitive at this time of year is clear and can be seen best by placing the national hunt and flat seasons alongside one another. When the jumps season concludes, jumps racing just carries on; after Punchestown, there’s another meeting two days later and there are plenty of classy races through the summer at tracks like Killarney and Galway. When the flat stops, it stops and trainers are left with the sole option of the all-weather; to Dundalk or a winter break, you might say.

Readers may have noticed I have avoided referring to the major yards throughout this article; it was intentional as I want to return to those bigger yards next time where I will also look at what if anything all this might mean in the current campaign.

- Tony Keenan

Grading the Irish Trainers: 2016 Edition

Grading the Trainers – Flat Season 2016

Readers who’ve come across previous editions of this piece will know the story by now as I evaluate the seasons of the top trainers, writes Tony Keenan. A quick reminder on some of the criteria: achievements are relative, big races matter more than bad ones, data is important. All numbers included cover the Irish flat turf season (though races outside the jurisdiction are covered too) and should be correct up to last Friday; any errors are mine alone. Let’s begin with the top ten (well, eleven) trainers by number of winners trained. The last column of the table is an interesting figure I found on Irishracing.com and is an individual winner/runner ratio; it gives the percentage of horses that the trainer ran in the year that won at least one race which seems a sensible baseline as a measure of keeping owners happy.

Irish Trainers Championship 2016

Trainer Wins Runners Strikerate P/L Actual/Expected Winners/Runners
A. O’Brien 114 550 20.7% -128.88 0.86 49%
D. Weld 83 425 19.5% -124.74 0.88 41%
J. Bolger 56 480 11.7% -123.86 0.79 34%
G. Lyons 53 325 16.3% -53.30 0.90 47%
M. Halford 31 342 9.1% -52.3 0.69 27%
W. McCreery 29 243 11.9% -52.3 0.97 29%
J. Murtagh 28 207 13.5% -9.00 1.02 41%
K. Prendergast 20 127 13.6% +31.95 1.03 35%
J. Harrington 20 247 8.1% -36.5 0.79 25%
A .Slattery 18 119 15.1% +14.83 1.26 42%
J. O’Brien 18 131 13.7% +7.35 1.01 52%

 

Aidan O’Brien – Grade A+ (2015 Grade: B)

The drive for twenty-five, Bobby Frankel’s record of Group 1 wins in a year, has dominated recent conversation about Aidan O’Brien’s season and it remains in play with the Breeders’ Cup and the big Asian races still to come. That such a tally is even possible rates this a season for the ages but perhaps the most notable achievement in 2016 has been O’Brien’s ability to re-invent his training methods; there was a time when the trainer would have balked at running a filly against colts in Group 1 class, much less keeping a four-year-old filly in training specifically for that purpose.

But adapting and changing is something O’Brien has always done well and having spotted that he lacked a top-class middle-distance colt he decided to slot Found and the three-year-old Minding into that role with plenty of success. O’Brien still tends towards ‘sales talk’ even when speaking of fillies, laughably describing Found as ‘the most genuine horse I’ve ever seen’, but when you cut through the bullshit you have to acknowledge his greatness. Without wishing to take away from Found’s win and O’Brien’s 1-2-3 in the Arc, it was a weak renewal, and whereas all she seems to do is finish second while all Minding does is win, regardless of trip or ground. It would be no surprise to see Minding prove herself better than Almanzor in 2017 as that Irish Champion Stakes looks tarnished by track bias.

There have been other success stories with Alice Springs proving the surprise O’Brien improver: she went from plateauing Group 2 type to three-time Group 1 winner. Nor is there any shortage of promise for next season with Churchill and friends too many to name portending more Group 1 success, not to mention another super-strong crop of fillies. Caravaggio, the star of the early juvenile campaign, seems almost forgotten at this point which is scarcely believable.

In terms of pure stallion-making, it hasn’t been the greatest O’Brien season with The Gurkha the only colt from the Ballydoyle classic generation that would have any notions of grandeur in the breeding sheds; taking him from maiden in April to dual Group 1 winner in July was improvement at the rate of light-speed and all the more impressive given his backdrop of colic. Air Force Blue was the season’s biggest disappointment, the Champion Two-Year-Old proving more Air Force Blew [Out], but an exam doesn’t need to be perfect to get an A. Talk of someone else taking the reins at Ballydoyle seems long-distant now.

 

Dermot Weld – Grade B+ (2015: C+)

If Dermot Weld could pause his season at the end of June, all would be right in the world of Rosewell. Harzand, with the help of the weather gods who rained on him as required, was a dual Derby winner with dreams of an Arc, while Tattersalls Gold Cup winner, Fascinating Rock, was on a break ahead of an autumn tilt at a pair of Champion Stakes and Found about to enhance his form. Neither of those horses won after June with Harzand bombing in both his subsequent starts, and news reaching us of his retirement to stud today; and, Fascinating Rock having only one more run.

The signs of a poor second half to the season were soon apparent with Weld losing his top trainer status at Galway to Willie Mullins. That is something many a flat handler would be sanguine about but Weld’s role as chief curator of his own legacy must have made it hard to bear. His strikerate pre- and post-June were markedly different: in the first four months, he was hitting at a rate of 22.8% but it has dropped to 17.1% since.

Weld enjoyed continued success in black type races with a better strikerate than Aidan O’Brien; the figures below include all Listed and Group winners during the Irish flat season up to last weekend and Zhukova proved a major improver, albeit disappointing on Champions Day at Ascot. That was a card that summed up the second part of Weld’s season with both his runners failing to operate on the ground and Fascinating Rock a subsequent non-runner because of the going.

 

Trainers in Irish Listed and Group Races 2016

Trainer Wins Runs Strikerate P/L Actual/Expected
A. O’Brien 36 170 21.2% -39.61 0.88
D. Weld 16 75 21.3% -23.35 0.94
J. Bolger 7 84 8.3% -38.31 0.68
M. Halford 6 28 21.4% -3.15 1.24
W. McCreery 4 34 11.8% -8.50 1.23
G. Lyons 4 43 9.3% +1.50 0.58
K. Prendergast 3 10 30.0% +1.13 2.19
A. Keatley 3 12 25.0% +7.25 2.14

 

Jim Bolger – Grade: C- (2015: B-)

Numerically, Bolger’s win totals are broadly in line with previous seasons; he had 64 and 61 winners in the 2014 and 2015 respectively and currently sits on 56 winners for 2016. The issue is more one of quality as he’s struggled in better races; as seen above his strikerate in Listed and Group races is 8.3%, the worst of the top eight trainers. He didn’t have a winner in the UK this term either and 2010 (and 2004 before that) was the last time that had happened.

Official ratings have Tribal Beat as the best Coolcullen horse of 2016 on 116, rather underwhelming looking at previous seasons, though four-time winners Stellar Mass and Ringside Humour alongside big improver Qatari Hunter (who rose from 74 to 107 in the ratings) were real stars. Tribal Beat only ran twice this campaign with Bolger on record as saying he was hard to train and absent stars proved a theme for the season: Pleascach, who ran seven times in 2015, only made her return over Arc weekend while the likes of Herald The Dawn, Smash Williams and Sanus Per Aquam all missed time having shown plenty the previous year. Keeping horses sound is of course a skill, one that Bolger tends to do very well in the main, his horses thriving on racing hard and often but it does seem to have been an issue this season.

 

Ger Lyons – Grade B- (2015: B)

2016 could be described as a consolidation year for Ger Lyons which is a polite way of saying it was a neutral campaign, neither here nor there. Firstly, the good. Ardhoomey was well-trained all season, winning four times culminating at Group 2 level and rising 19lbs in the weights and all this against a backdrop of wind problems which Lyons had written plenty about in his blog; that blog is one of the more forward-thinking approaches in Irish racing and we probably know more of his horses than any other trainer. As with Bolger, his winner totals are broadly in line with previous seasons and he comes out very well on win/runner percentage, third amongst the top ten trainers behind only the two O’Briens.

It is hard to find a horse that Lyons has handled badly and there is a sense that he largely maximises what he has though the Frankel colt Lightening Fast (out of the yard’s Group 1 winner Lightening Pearl) failed to win in three starts which stood in contrast to how the freshman sire’s runners did in the UK. Endless Drama and Psychedelic Funk were also disappointing after promising starts to the season but might not have been much good in any case; the trainer has a slight tendency to overrate his horses. Finally his return in Listed and Group races was poor relative to previous years and other top ten trainers.

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Mick Halford – Grade: C (2015: C-)

One often gets the sense with Halford that it’s a numbers game and his overall strikerate reflects this; at 9.1% it is second worst of the top eleven and his winners-to-runners percentage is poor too. There is too much reliance on Dundalk for a top five trainer; of his 44 winners since the start of 2016, 21 came on the all-weather. Ger Lyons was someone who used Dundalk in the early days but it was more a springboard to better things whereas Halford seems to have stagnated there.

As for 2016 highlights, a Royal Hunt Cup winner in Portage was massive for the yard and it’s a pity the horse has only had one run since. One area where Halford did prove selective was in Irish black-type races; he had 6 winners from 28 runners, good for fourth in that table, and in sharp contrast to his overall strikerate.

 

Willie McCreery – Grade: B+ (2015: A)

McCreery built on an excellent 2015 this season, again thriving in Premier Handicaps as seen below. While relatively few trainers can compete in Pattern races, many more can aspire to at least having a runner in a Premier Handicap and they remain one of the best proving grounds for trainer skill. McCreery finished joint-top in terms of winners trained in Premier Handicaps last year and to repeat the dose in 2016 was impressive.

 

Trainers in Premier Handicaps 2016

Trainer Winners Runners Strikerate P/L Actual/Expected
W. McCreery 3 18 16.7% +15.00 1.58
A. Slattery 3 12 25.0% +23.50 2.46
A. Martin 2 12 16.7% -1.67 1.43
G. Cromwell 2 9 15.6% +15.50 2.90
J. Bolger 2 22 9.1% -13.50 1.05
D. Weld 2 25 8.0% -17.00 0.52
W. Mullins 2 6 33.3% +10.00 2.82

 

One big feature of McCreery’s success this year has been the emergence of Billy Lee as a top class jockey, the rider doing very well to finish in the top five of the jockeys’ championship given neither of his previous main supporters, David Wachman and Tommy Stack, provided him with a winner.  Lee remains one to watch and the longer McCreery can hold on to him the better it will be for his horses. Not everything this year was plain sailing, particularly a mid-season slump when winners were hard to come by; while there remains a suspicion the trainer left a bit on the table with both Downforce and Aridity, but overall this was another strong campaign.

 

Johnny Murtagh – Grade B+ (2015: D)

After a promising start, Murtagh’s training career took a backward step last season, and the former jockey could be forgiven for wishing for a return to the saddle; it’s a lot easier riding them than being responsible for every aspect of their life. 2016 was more like it and the addition of the Ballygallon Stud horses certainly helped; recent Listed winner Hawke was the standout but the breeding operation provided five winners in total, a sizable number given the strength of the string.

Sister Blandina was well-trained and well-placed too, winning first on her travels at Bath in May off 52 and recently registering her fourth victory of the season off 81 at Navan. Duchess Andorra was a victory for perseverance, winning a Group 3 at Gowran Park on her twenty-second career start having taken ten runs to break her maiden for Joanna Morgan. As for disappointments, Eddystone Rock finished his campaign with the feeling of unfinished business; having beaten subsequent Listed winner Laganore easily conceding 8lbs, he missed an engagement in the English Cambridgeshire where he looked a major player.

 

Kevin Prendergast – Grade: B+

The octogenarian Curragh trainer enjoyed a mini-revival though it was all about one horse, Irish 2,000 Guineas winner, Awtaad. Unbeaten in four starts in Ireland, he couldn’t really translate that form in his runs abroad (a pattern with the trainer as a whole) but he gives the Shadwell operation a decent stallion prospect into the future as well a classy broodmare proposition: Awtaad was the first foal out of Asheerah and his half-sibling Aneen promised plenty in winning a Curragh maiden earlier this month. Aside from that family, Penny Pepper winning a Premier Handicap over Derby Weekend was about the highlight.

 

Jessica Harrington – Grade: B

I have to admit that Harrington’s season rather passed me by but on winner numbers it was a quietly good year; her strikerate and winners/runners ratio are not so good however. Bocca Baciata was the starlet, getting Group 1-placed behind Minding under a clever ride in the Pretty Polly, while she has a few half-decent two year olds going into next year including Khukri and the well-named Tinder. One thing worth pointing out is the seemingly horrendous value the owners of the former Mill House LLC seem to get on their purchases. Apart from Khukri (cost 130,000gns), the rest of their runners this season were largely forgettable and cost plenty: Grandee (110,000gns), Mulligatawny (135,000gns), Unyielding (150,000gns), John Honeyman (120,000gns), Barnacle Bill (€90,000), Aphonsus (175,000gns). The last-named was trained by John Oxx, the others by Harrington.

 

Andy Slattery – Grade: A+

Having never trained more than seven winners in a season, Slattery has had a sublime year with 18 wins and his Creggs Pipes rates up there with the most improved horses of the season; she went from down the field in a Cork handicap in May off 77 to Listed and Galway Mile winner, now rated 106. Slattery owned Galway in his own way, winning arguably the two big flat prizes of the week (Planchart won the only black type flat race of the week, the Corrib Stakes) and Sors was another fine advertisement for his skills with sprinters, winning thrice at the Curragh including the Rockingham from out of the handicap. Notably honest with the media, Slattery had such a fine year one could almost forgive him for failing to get a win out of Ucanchoose!

 

Joseph O’Brien – Grade: A+

I covered Joseph O’Brien earlier in the season and the only change since has been for the positive; Intricately has won the Group 1 Moyglare, which is working out well. O’Brien Jr. has the best winner/runner ratio of any of the top trainers, surpassing even his father, and that’s all the more impressive because he trains plenty of ordinary handicappers. Furthermore, his totals don’t reflect the full campaign as he had winners earlier in the season under his father’s name. Quite simply, a rookie season above all others.

 

Others of note:

It is amazing and a little sad that just a season removed from training Legatissimo and Curvy, David Wachman (2015: A) is retiring from training. 2016 was terrible with just one win before July but he leaves a legacy of being a fine trainer of fillies as well as some very promising two-year-olds: the likes of Rain Goddess, Winter, Intern, Rekindling and, lately, White Satin Dancer have shown plenty this season.

Michael O’Callaghan (2015: B+) had a decent year, punctuated with some spectacular gambles – Intrepid Prince at Galway and Holy Cat at Leopardstown spring to mind – but Adrian Keatley was the new trainer who really stood out. Not only did he send out the cheap purchase Jet Setting to win the Irish 1,000 Guineas but he got her back to form to win the Concorde Stakes in fine style under a Group 1 penalty. Furthermore, only Aidan O’Brien and Pat Shanahan trained more UK winners from the Irish training ranks this flat season with 9 wins from 38, a tidy strikerate of 23.7%.

Outside of the big names, Johnny Levins, Denis Hogan and Damien English did well around the margins. Joe McGrath winner, Tithonus, made massive improvements in 2016, building on a fine all-weather campaign to win four times and went close on the Racing Post Trophy undercard at Doncaster too. Tribal Path for English was the biggest improver of the year, starting the year on 53 and now rated 87; bizarrely he ran on the same Cork card in March that featured Jet Setting and Harzand!

- Tony Keenan

Almanzor – A Class Act

Almanzor powered to a stunning success in the Irish Champion Stakes, getting the better of Aidan O’Brien’s wonderful filly Found in a pulsating finish.

This was one of the most eagerly anticipated races of the season. A clash of both ages and of nations, saw high-class colts and fillies from France, the UK and Ireland battle for the prestigious prize.

Ebediyin and Success Days set a ferocious pace, such that dual Derby winner Harzand had to be scrubbed along early to maintain a prominent position. Turning for home the front pair paid for their exertions and were swallowed up by a bunch of classy pursuers.

Highland Reel and then New Bay looked to hold every chance inside the two-furlong mark, but it was Found and Almanzor, challenging widest of all, that swept past the pack to fight out the finish. And it was Jean Claude Rouget’s French Derby winner that had the most potent finishing kick. Found gave her all, but for the fifth time in a row, had to settle for the runners-up spot in a Group 1. Almanzor had just under a length to spare at the line.

Ballydoyle’s Classic winning filly Minding, kept on well on the inner for third, without ever looking likely to trouble the front two. Andre Fabre’s New Bay finished back in fourth.

Rouget is having a season to remember, and said of his impressive winner: “He doesn't look very tired. Christophe told me it was quite an easy race for him.We'll see now if he goes to Ascot or to Chantilly for the Arc. We'll decide after a good night!”

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Having given the winner a perfect ride, Christophe Soumillon, the man for the big occasion, said: “He's a great horse. I've won on him a few times and I knew today he was going to run a great race. The pace was strong and he was very relaxed at the back. When I asked him to go he had a strong turn of foot.”

Rouget went on to add: “He's a fantastic horse. I was very relaxed like him in the first part of the race. When I saw him coming on the outside I thought he could challenge for the victory and he did. For me at the beginning we chose this race because I thought he was more a mile-and-a-quarter horse, but with the champions you can do anything.”

Reflecting on the victory yesterday, the French trainer appeared to be favouring Ascot with his classy colt, when saying: “He is getting better and better. Since the Prix du Jockey Club he has climbed the steps. Ten furlongs for me is a good trip. For me the option is the English race, because of the distance and we have two weeks more. If he was mine he would run at Ascot. He could run in the Arc next year."

It helps of course that Rouget has a perfect replacement for the Arc, in his talented filly La Cressonniere. Speaking of his French Oaks winner, he said: “She is fine in Deauville with my other horses and is preparing for the Arc. She is very fresh and in very good shape. She is a great champion. All she does comes easy to her."

Harzand’s Arc challenge looks less certain after Saturday. Not only was he somewhat disappointing in the Irish Champion, but the dual Derby winner also picked up a slight injury during the race. Dermot Weld confirmed that plans are now on hold, when speaking to At The Races yesterday: “I've not had time to review the race yet, but he was badly chopped early on. He's very sore this morning and lame. His right hind leg is badly bruised, and it was a brave performance considering what happened. We will have to see how he is before making any decision on the Arc.”

Found now appears Ballydoyle’s main Arc contender, and her consistency at the highest level would certainly give the team hope of another huge run. One O’Brien filly that could still play a major role in the French showpiece is Yorkshire Oaks winner Seventh Heaven. The yard’s Arc challenge looks somewhat threadbare, with the colts in particular appearing sub-standard this year. O’Brien’s fillies have been more impressive, and she looked mightily progressive at York, beating Found comfortably in the process.

The weekends action may well have focused the minds of many, though plenty of tough decisions are still to be made with regards to season end targets.

Class Shines Through at Newcastle & Curragh

It proved to be a ‘Blue Day’ at Newcastle on Saturday, with Godolphin landing the John Smith’s Northumberland Plate thanks to a scorching finish from the Charlie Appleby trained Antiquarium.

Connections are going through a purple patch at present, though few would have given Appleby’s four-year-old much hope at the furlong pole with Brian Ellison’s Seamour seemingly streaking clear. Local trainer Ellison, born in Newcastle, must have thought his dreams were coming true, but just as victory seemed assured, James McDonald found daylight on Antiquarium and the gelding quickened in the style of a class act.

Travelling in midfield throughout the contest, the winner hit traffic problems two furlongs from home, and for a moment looked unwilling to go for a gap. Nevertheless, when he finally hit top gear, the response was devastating. By the time he hit the line he had actually won with a fair amount in hand. Appleby's assistant trainer James Ferguson said: “James has given him a fantastic ride. There was a moment of worry halfway up the straight, but with the benefit of hindsight we can say we weren't panicking. There's a £100,000 race for him at Goodwood, so we'll look at that. He'll be as effective back on turf.”

Appleby analysed the performance on the Godolphin website, saying: “Antiquarium ticked a lot of boxes today, and we were hopeful of his chances. James McDonald has given the horse a fantastic ride. He is a world-class jockey, who has won big races all over the world, and I am delighted that he has ridden a winner for Godolphin in such an historic race. This was the race we had targeted and I think that he will be able to translate this level of form back to turf. The fact that he has now won over this distance also opens up a few options.”

He looks a young stayer with a bright future, and Godolphin have certainly had their fair share over the years. A step up in class is likely with the likes of the Goodwood Cup and the Doncaster Cup later in the season both realistic options.

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Ellison was understandably gutted to have come off second best, in a race he would dearly love to win. “Seamour was going too well,” said a despondent looking trainer. “He looked the winner a furlong out. He is a good horse and it's a shame he got caught. At least he has run his race and there is a good race in him.”

Just an hour after the Newcastle showpiece, the Epsom Derby winner Harzand attempted to land his second Derby at the Curragh. And the Epsom form was duly confirmed, when after a terrific tussle Dermot Weld’s colt fought off Aidan O’Brien’s Idaho to win the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby. The winning distance was just half a length at the line, though the winner always looked likely to hold off the persistent challenge laid down by Ballydoyle’s colt.

After the famous win, Weld said: “A lot of people thought Harzand didn't have speed but he showed today that he had. He's a proper horse and the first two picked up and really quickened. Pat [Smullen] gave him a great ride. It's been a very special day. The horse will have a good break now and will be aimed at the Arc.”

He looks to have all the attributes required for a serious crack at the French showpiece. He travels well through a race; quickens off a strong gallop and has shown that he loves a battle. He has also proved that he can handle any ground conditions. The Aga Khan last won the Arc back in 2008, thanks to wonder-filly Zarkava.

If Harzand was proving himself King Of The Colts, then 24 hours later we were treated to another sparkling display by this summer’s Queen. Minding has been outstanding this term and again looked peerless when romping home in the Group 1 Pretty Polly Stakes. It’s fair to say that the opposition failed to capture the imagination, but the filly could do no more than win emphatically, and this she most certainly did. The 1m2f trip looked ideal and many will be hoping to see her in the Nassau at Goodwood before a possible shot at the colts in the Juddmonte International at York in August. She’s a class act.

Dermot’s Derby Dreams Come True

Given a perfect ride by Pat Smullen, it was Harzand for Dermot Weld and the Aga Khan, that fought off Ballydoyle’s US Army Ranger in a thrilling Investec Derby at Epsom.

Decision making proved vital in delivering Weld his first Epsom Derby, and it was Smullen who got it right when it mattered, positioning the winner perfectly throughout. Whilst Ryan Moore found trouble of his own making, getting US Army Ranger trapped behind a wall of horses, before rapid progress left him short of that crucial final kick when it mattered most.

Harzand was held in midfield for much of the race, mostly in seventh or eighth place, with Smullen sensibly keeping him off the rail. Steering him wide to make his challenge just outside the two-furlong pole, he set off to chase down Idaho, hitting the front just beyond the furlong pole. Moore on the other hand had been forced to switch his mount around the whole field having held up the favourite at the back of the field, near the rail, for much of the race.

Moore must have known he was in trouble approaching the two-furlong pole, as once he’d finally got his mount into the clear he’d gifted the eventual winner a decisive five length advantage. That gap narrowed dramatically to just a length by the furlong marker, but that surge from US Army Ranger could not be maintained.

Harzand appeared to find more when challenged, hitting the line a length and a half to the good. Just maybe, even had O’Brien’s hope been ridden more prominently, he may still have come off second best. Nevertheless, few could argue that the favourite had been given plenty to do, and unexpectedly so, bearing in mind that he is stoutly bred, and there were no worries of him needing to be held up to see out the trip.

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A Dermot Weld success had looked extremely unlikely earlier in the day, when Harzand spread a plate, causing pain to the hoof and the need for ice to be applied for several hours. “It’s wonderful to win our first Derby,” said Weld. “We had a huge worry this morning and he was a very doubtful runner right up to about an hour before the race. Idaho is a horse I really rate and in the Ballysax there were five Group winners in that race and it had the form to win the Derby.”

Smullen was also winning his first Epsom Derby, and was understandably thrilled with the success, saying: “It's unbelievable, it’s what dreams are made of, more so for me to ride the winner for the boss - it makes it more fitting. I'm just delighted to ride the winner for him; he's the world's best trainer. The trouble we had this morning I didn't think I'd have a ride at all. It's a whole team effort, I've always said it.”

Aidan O'Brien felt a lack of experience may have proved costly for US Army Ranger, when saying: “I thought he behaved very well in the preliminaries but he was a bit babyish early in the race. Ryan felt that as well, but I wouldn't make any excuses. We'll see how our horse is but we would definitely be looking forward to our lad running again.”

The momentous nature of the victory, for one of racing’s great dynasties, was not lost on His Highness Aga Khan, when after the race he said: “This is a major gift for everybody who works with me in this wonderful activity. To win a fifth Derby for the family is obviously very historic. This is a great race with a great history. It’s been that way for three generations of my family.”

The success made it a famous five for the Aga Khan, matching the achievement of his grandfather. The first of those five came in 1981, thanks to the prodigious Shergar.

The ‘Best of the Best’ Dazzle on Champions Day

Simply Sensational

Simply Sensational

They’d been doing it all season, so no one should have been surprised to see Muhaarar and Solow come out on top in their respective Champions Day events.

Charlie Hills’ outstanding sprinter may have run his last race, but if that is the case he certainly ended his racecourse career in style. Storming to the front nearing the furlong pole, he quickly put the race to bed with Henry Candy’s previously unbeaten Twilight Son the best of the rest.

“I just want to do it again. It went in a flash. I think that was his best performance,” was the reaction of jockey Paul Hanagan. A thrilled trainer commented: “He’s been a privilege to train. He has the will to win, the most beautiful temperament and great looks.”

Another who scores highly on the good looks chart is French sensation Solow. The strikingly powerful grey was again far too good for the opposition in winning the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. Never flashy, the five-year-old merely does enough to win and was recording his ninth victory on the bounce, five of those at Group 1 level. Hitting the front a furlong from home, he was always doing enough, and had around a length to spare at the post.

The race had been billed as a showdown with the 2,000 Guineas winner Gleneagles, but sadly the match-up never fired. Months on the side-lines, coupled with unfavourable ground conditions prevented the colt from showing his best. Once again the antics of trainer Aidan O’Brien will not have endeared him with race fans. ‘Will he run or won’t he run’, has become a tedious side show during the summer, and the trainer dragged out the latest decision virtually until the opposition were heading to the stalls.

In his piece in the Racing Post, Alastair Down called it ‘as unfathomable as it was irritating’. Such ‘dilly-dallying’ has clearly not helped the horse. Continually being ‘stoked up’ ready for a run, to then be ‘eased off’ after yet another withdrawal, has been one of the few disappointments of the Flat season.

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Just half an hour later, the Ballydoyle team suffered further frustration when yet again Ryan Moore gave Found a mountain to climb in the Champion Stakes. As in the Arc a few weeks earlier, Moore decided that his best chance of success was to place the filly plumb last and wait as long as possible before making any kind of forward move. The tactic failed at longchamp, and failed again at Ascot. Dermot Weld wasn’t about to complain as his Fascinating Rock took full advantage.

His successful colt, ridden by a man at the peak of his powers in Pat Smullen, found plenty in the final stages to hold off O’Brien’s filly along with favourite Jack Hobbs. Smullen made his move two furlongs out and crucially got first run on Moore. The four-year-old never looked like being caught, appreciating both ground conditions and the trip.

Weld has become a master at landing such a successful foray. “I like this place,” he said after the win. “Fascinating Rock is a very good horse. He always had the potential to do what he did today. I have been planning this race for about six months.” With the plan landed, sights will now be set on a similar plot next season.

For Jack Hobbs the future also looks bright. Unable to fend off a more mature winner, he looks sure to be at his best after a winter of strengthening into that powerful frame. “He’s a big overgrown kid, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with him,” said Gosden after the loss.

Simple Verse took the female lead role on the day, with a thrilling success in the Fillies and Mares. It took every yard of the mile and four furlongs to get on top, but her win backed-up the terrific victory in the St Leger. Her improvement throughout the season has proved nothing short of staggering, though we should not be surprised as trainer Ralph Beckett is as good as any in producing top class fillies.

An excited trainer said after the win: “I’m thrilled for all the team. We were worried that the track doesn’t really suit her, because the straight is too short.”

Hugo Palmer pointed to conditions being against his star filly Covert love, when saying: “She’s been beaten two and a half lengths on ground she loathed. The world will be her oyster next year.” In all fairness the Prix De l’Opera winner has had a busy campaign, and may not have been at her absolute best on Saturday. She has proved to be one of the leading lights during a dazzling summer.

The weather gods played their part in delivering a wonderful Champions Day. Scheduling will always be a contentious issue, but all would agree that Saturday’s spectacular proved to be exactly that.

Qipco Champion Stakes – Is Jack Flash Enough?

The Stunning Jack Hobbs

The Stunning Jack Hobbs

Will the trip make a blind bit of difference to Jack Hobbs, when he aims to add the Group 1 Qipco Champion Stakes to his Group 1 Irish Derby success?

Tapped for toe by Golden Horn in the Dante back in May, he visually made more of a race of it when stepped up in trip for the Epsom Derby. Indeed, had he not been slightly squeezed up on the rail that day, he would surely have got nearer to his outstanding stable companion.

Arguably his best performance came at a mile and half in the Irish Derby, when staying on powerfully to pull well clear of Storm The Stars. There’s no doubting this powerful colt is a smooth traveller, but it appears to be his sustained finishing effort, rather than a burst of acceleration, that is his greatest asset.

Having said that, his only career defeats have come at the hooves of one of the best colts of a generation. Golden Horn is an outstanding champion and it’s pretty clear that Jack Hobbs is the second best three-year-old colt over mid-distance trips. It does slightly niggle however, that this son of Halling could be vulnerable to a speedier type over this 1m2f trip.

Noble Mission took last year’s race, and he was undoubtedly better at 10 furlongs than 12. Farhh won in 2013 and never ran beyond 10 furlongs. Frankel was famously running at the trip for only the second time when winning in 2012. Twice Over rarely ran at any other distance, whilst New Approach may have won a Derby but had won the Irish Champion before success here.

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My point is clear, in that it invariably takes a 10 furlong specialist to win the Champion Stakes. A mix of speed and stamina appears to be crucial with emphasis on the former. So does Gosden’s colt have enough ‘Va Va Voom’ to win Saturday’s showpiece?

His pedigree remains a concern for me. He’s a son of Halling, and although his father was a terrific 10 furlong exponent, the offspring have invariably proved better over further. On the dam’s side of the family we find the wonderful Swain. Twice a winner of the King George, successful in the Coronation Cup and the Prix Foy, he did also win the Irish Champion Stakes, but was undoubtedly at his best at 12 furlongs. Earlier in the campaign I felt sure that Jack Hobbs would develop into a St Leger contender.

So if he was to be vulnerable to a speedier type, who in Saturday’s field is capable of taking advantage? The betting suggests that Aiden O’Brien’s Found is best placed to pounce. She certainly has the class to go close having finished a close runner-up to Golden Horn in the Irish Champion Stakes. There’s also speed in the pedigree on the dam’s side with the influence of Red Evie, who in her pomp won Group 1’s in the Matron Stakes and the Lockinge.

She was stepped up in trip for the Arc and would surely have gone close with a clear passage. But this trip should prove perfect for a filly that was only just touched off in the Group 1 Coronation Stakes over a mile at Royal Ascot back in June.

The Corsican is another that should be suited by the trip, though he would probably have preferred a slightly quicker surface. Arguably his best performance this summer came when fourth in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes. On that occasion Jim Crowley found himself trapped behind a wall of horses, and by the time he had switched wide the front two had flown. He lacks instant acceleration, but is a powerful galloper, and if in touch and in the clear nearing the two furlong pole, he’ll make his presence felt.

Finally any horse sent over by Dermot Weld deserves the utmost respect. His Free Eagle was third in the race last year, and this time round he looks set to run Fascinating Rock. Sure to be suited by the trip, he split Al Kazeem and Postponed when runner-up in the Group 1 Tattersalls Gold Cup in May. That performance gives him every chance here and it would come as no surprise to see him in the shake-up.

Jack Hobbs is clearly an outstanding racehorse, and the market reflects that. John Gosden has swept all before him this summer, especially in middle-distance events. However, the colt was clearly being prepared for a tilt at the Arc before ground conditions at Longchamp ensured Golden Horn’s participation. Jack Hobbs may well have come here anyway after racing in France, but for much of the summer the target was undoubtedly a race across the channel at 12 furlongs.

It would come as no surprise to witness an unstoppable Jack Hobbs on Saturday, but likewise I would not be shocked to see him pipped at the post by a swifter opponent. It’s set to be a cracker.

Ectot Trainer Lellouche hoping for Royal Ascot Success

Lellouche's Ectot

Lellouche's Ectot

Élie Lellouche knows what it is to win Europe’s great races. He’s even tasted success in a Gold Cup on these shores, though not at Royal Ascot. For when the French trainer, based at Lamorlaye near Chantilly, brought Westerner over for a famous victory in 2005, the race had been rerouted to York due to major alterations taking place at Ascot.

Born in Tunis in 1952, Lellouche took out his trainer’s license in 1979. It was in the 1990’s that his career took off, thanks in the main to the association with powerful and controversial owner Daniel Wildenstein. It was his horse Espervier Bleu that became the yard’s first major winner when he took the Group 1 Prix Lupin in 1990. He then won the Group 2 Prix Niel, before narrowly missing out to Saumarez in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Pistolet Bleu was the stable’s next ‘big thing’ winning the Group 1 Criterium de Saint-Cloud in 1990 and finishing third in the Arc the following year. He also added to his Group 1 haul in 1992 when running away with the Prix de Saint-Cloud, a race Espervier Bleu had taken a year earlier.

The best was yet to come for Lellouche, when in 1996 the wonderful Helissio finally captured that elusive Arc. A stunning summer had seen the three-year-old beat Swain in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, before impressing in the Prix Niel at Longchamp. However, his run in the Arc was simply irresistible, out-classing a field which included Pilsudski and Swain, and storming home to finish five lengths clear.

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In more recent times, the Wildenstein colt Westerner, became the first French trained winner of the Ascot Gold Cup, though of course not at Ascot. A superstar for the yard, winning five Group 1’s, he had the class to drop back in trip and finish runner-up to Hurricane Run in the 2005 Arc.

Over the past few years Planteur and Beauty Parlour brought further Group 1 success to the stable and now Lellouche looks to Ectot to move through the gears.

He’s a huge beast, and it’s likely that we will see a far stronger horse this season. Disappointing in last year’s Arc, he had the look of a non-stayer that day, though his previous win in the Prix Niel coupled with a stout enough pedigree suggest otherwise. How he performs in Wednesday’s Prince of Wales’s Stakes will clearly focus the trainer’s plans for the season ahead. It would be no surprise to see him flourish and become a serious Arc contender in October.

Wednesday’s race is a tough ask for a seasonal debut. Dermot Weld’s Free Eagle remains race favourite, and his run in the Champion Stakes last October is probably the strongest form on display. The Grey Gatsby and Ectot are next best in the market. John Gosden can do no wrong at the moment, and his Western Hymn has come in for huge support in recent days. The same can be said for France’s Gailo Chop, who chased home the impressive Solow at Longchamp last time.

This year’s royal meeting looks an absolute cracker, with Lellouche’s classy colt just one of a number of ‘French fancies’ heading across the Channel. The man from Lamorlaye will be dreaming of finally gaining that Royal Ascot victory, at Ascot!

Ger Lyons and Colin Keane – Partnership Flourishing

Colin Keane - Champion Apprentice

Colin Keane - Champion Apprentice

While Dermot Weld and Pat Smullen continue to set the pace in the Irish Trainers and Jockeys Championship, a relatively new partnership continues to flourish.

Ger Lyons and 18-year-old jockey Colin Keane have enjoyed a terrific start to the season, with last year’s champion apprentice going from strength to strength.

Lyons has shown great faith in the stylish young jockey and with good cause, as Keane looks set to become a leading light in the years ahead. The trainer has been in the game long enough to know how fortunate he is to have Colin as part of his team.

The Co Meath trainer grew up across the road from the late Peter McCreery in Clane, Co. Kildare. He worked for McCreery throughout his school years and at the age of 20 travelled to America to gain racing experience. Sadly the Flat jockeys curse; escalating weight; became a major issue, and after a spell as a work rider he was shipped back to the UK to launch his career as a jump jockey.

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Four years and 50 winners later he retired after a serious injury whilst riding at Newcastle. He returned to Ireland and started training in 1994. His Glenburnie Stables in Dunsany Co. Meath stands on 60 acres of land. Grass paddocks, an all-weather gallop, a short sand gallop, and a new horse exerciser, all help to ensure the yard competes at the highest level. The stables are situated just 20 miles from Dublin, perfectly placed among the principal Irish Racecourses.

A cracking supportive team includes assistant trainers Andrew Duff and Ger’s brother Shane. The yard can also boast one of Irelands very best Head Lad’s in Martin Horan. In April he won the Leadership Award at the Irish Stud and Stable Staff Awards sponsored by Godolphin. It’s a huge achievement on a personal level and a terrific tonic for the yard.

Added to this of course, the stable have the Champion Apprentice of 2014. Former pony racing champion Colin Keane now 18, had his first winner under rules just three years ago, when partnering No Trimmings for his father Gerry.

Speaking of his early experience riding horses, Keane said: “My father trains horses so there was always ones for me to sit on and ride. I suppose I rode my first horse when I was around five or six. I attended the Carmel Smith Equestrian Centre in Kilmessan from an early age. My parents opened their own riding school after my father moved his training operation to Navan. I started pony races at the age of 11 and stayed at it for five years. It’s a brilliant place to learn and develop the skills you need to be a professional jockey.”

Keane became an apprentice at 16 and rode for his father before securing the dream job with Ger Lyons. “The plan was for me to head to England and ride there but I got in with Ger and as long as things are going this well I would rather stay here at home.”

And things certainly couldn’t have gone much better. Keane took the champion apprentice title with 54 winners for the season. He came within three of Joseph O’Brien’s record set in 2011. This season looks set to be another cracker. Currently second in the jockeys table behind Smullen, he rode another double at the Curragh on Sunday, including a win on the promising filly Ainippe.

With the backing of powerful owners Qatar Racing, quality rides should be plentiful, and with Royal Ascot just around the corner, the stable will be hoping the likes of Endless Drama, Cappella Sansevero and Ainippe could mix it on one of the great stages. Keane will be hopeful of an opportunity to impress on one of the stable stars. He certainly has the talent to hold his own at the highest level.

Fastnet Rock – Australia’s Leading Stallion

Fastnet Rock wins in Oz

Fastnet Rock wins in Oz

One of the Southern hemisphere’s most successful stallions is now making an impact in Britain and Ireland. Fastnet Rock is part of the prolific Coolmore operation, and has gone down a storm since retiring to stud in 2005.

His racing career was cut short, but he had already made a substantial impact in Australia. Sired by Danehill, he started racing in 2004. Unable to hit the target as a two-year-old, his career hit top gear at three, becoming one of the top Australian sprinters. He won a host of Group races including the Group 1 Lightning Stakes and Oakleigh Plate in February of 2005.

His trainer Paul Perry hoped Fastnet Rock would repeat the successful English raid of the sensational Choisir, who he brought to these shores in 2003. He was sent to the UK to prepare for the Group 1 Golden Jubilee Stakes and the July Cup, but sadly suffered from travel sickness and failed to run. The decision was then made to retire him to stud.

Standing at Coolmore Stud Australia in New South Wales, his career to date has been outstanding. In 2007 he covered 257 mares, and in 2008 another incredible total of 248 at a fee of $82,500. In 2012 that fee started to go through the roof as his progeny started to dominate the major events. His fee rose to $220,000, making him the most expensive stallion in Australia.

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He has sired almost 20 individual Group 1 winning horses.  His successful crop include the terrific filly Mosheen, winner of the Group 1 Australian Guineas and VRC Oaks at Flemington in 2012, on her way to over $2,500,000 in career prize money.

Sea Siren was his next flying filly and she also managed famous Group 1 victories in 2012, most notably when becoming the first three-year-old filly to win the Group 1 Doomben 10, 000.

The Group 1 Thousand Guineas at Melbourne has gone to Fastnet Rock fillies in 2009, 2011 and 2014. The Australian Guineas went the sire’s way in 2010 and 2012. Success has also come in New Zealand with Planet Rock and Rock ‘N’ Pop taking the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas in 2011. Atlante kept the Fastnet success going when winning the New Zealand 2,000 Guineas in 2013.

Finally it’s time for Britain and Ireland to feel the Fastnet force. As is often the case, it’s a filly that is making the greatest impact, with Aidan O’Brien’s Diamondsandrubies a fancied contender in the Epsom Oaks after her six-length demolition in the Cheshire Oaks at Chester. “We’re delighted with that performance,” said Coolmore’s UK representative, Kevin Buckley. “She settled into the race really nicely, Ryan said he got a good feel from her. When he pressed the button she responded well and went away to score in decisive fashion.”

Fascinating Rock is another of the progeny set to have a fruitful season. Dermot Weld’s colt failed to cope with a step up in trip last season, finishing down the field in the Epsom Derby. Back to back victories this season have come at a mile and then a mile and two furlongs. The trainer believes the horse has matured well from three to four, and he is set to win more Group races during the summer.

At York today William Haggas runs the three-year-old Rive Gauche, another Fastnet filly who could well improve with age. She ran just once as a two-year-old, finishing a promising fourth in a fair maiden at Newmarket.

It would be a major surprise if we failed to see a number of Fastnet Rock youngsters, coming to the fore over the next few seasons. The likes of Californiadreaming and Timbuktu have started their careers in promising fashion. However, experience in Australia and New Zealand appears to show that the progeny are ‘slow burners’ and hit their stride at three. Therefore, the likes of Rive Gauche and Sir Michael Stoute’s Disegno, could be among the eye-catchers this summer.