Tag Archive for: Donald McCain

National glory for Amberleigh House was so special to Aintree’s most famous family

It is hard to mention the Grand National without the name McCain following close behind and 20 years ago the race’s most famous family wrote their name into the Aintree record books for a fourth time thanks to Amberleigh House.

Ginger McCain was arguably the man who helped shape the destiny of the world’s most great steeplechase, with his charismatic personality and masterful handling of the great Red Rum breathing life into the marathon event at a time when many questioned its existence.

McCain had already tasted National glory on three occasions with the legendary Red Rum by the time Amberleigh House set about trying to conquer Aintree, but it had been over 30 years since the horse that had defined the Southport handler’s training career had first etched his name onto the Grand National’s roll of honour.

The McCain family of course had heard every tale possible about Red Rum, but Amberleigh House – who was very much a part of the family and had a love of Aintree befitting of a firm McCain favourite – would cement his decorated trainer’s legacy and give Ginger’s son Donald just a glimpse of how the halcyon days of Red Rum may have been.

“I remember everything about that day and we were all very involved with Amberleigh,” said Donald McCain.

“I rode him out every day and my wife looked after him every day.

“It was great for dad because everyone called him a one-horse trainer. He was never bothered by it because he would say ‘what a great job I made of that one’.

“We had one good horse in the yard at the time and a lot of time and investment went into him and it meant an awful lot to all of us. We made the best job of him we could.”

Donald McCain won the National himself with Ballabriggs
Donald McCain won the National himself with Ballabriggs (Martin Rickett/PA)

Amberleigh House would be one of Ginger McCain’s final runners in the Grand National before he passed the baton over to son Donald in 2006 and although the younger McCain would go on to win the Grand National himself with Ballabriggs in 2011, it is still that 2004 triumph that sticks in the forefront of his memory.

He added: “It was quite surreal and it was literally from the elbow where it all happened so it wasn’t a very long period of time, but it was just very, very special.

“For us as a family, we grew up around a retired Red Rum but weren’t around when he was winning and to get to feel a bit of that was very special and to this day it would be the best day I’ve had in racing, even better than the day I won it with Ballabriggs.

“There was a McCain way but that is probably gone now to be honest. We knew what an Aintree horse was and how to get one ready for Aintree and train them for that one day. But things have changed so far now that I don’t think that even comes into it the same now.”

Amberleigh House competed round the famous fences on 11 occasions failing to complete only twice – when brought down in his first crack at the big race in 2001 and when pulled-up on his final start before retirement in 2006.

Graham Lee struck up a productive partnership with Amberleigh House
Graham Lee struck up a productive partnership with Amberleigh House (David Davies/PA)

He was ridden for the majority of those assignments by Graham Lee, the crack jump jockey turned Flat pilot who formed a dynamic partnership with the foot-perfect stayer.

The 20-year anniversary of the duo’s finest hour comes poignantly at a time when Lee is recovering from the life-changing injuries suffered in a fall at Newcastle last November and there is little doubt about Lee’s importance to the Amberleigh House story.

“Graham was a very high-class jump jockey and what has happened to him is very sad,” continued McCain.

“We all think about him all the time and he managed to carve a second career on the Flat, but he was a very good jump jockey, one of the best around.

“He was a big part of Amberleigh House and they were made for each other, they were a pleasure to watch together the pair of them.”

Amberleigh House's defeat to Clan Royal in the Becher Chase was significant in him landing the National
Amberleigh House’s defeat to Clan Royal in the Becher Chase was significant in him landing the National (Martin Rickett/PA)

With Amberleigh House and Lee’s biggest day still to come, it was the pair’s defeat at the hands of Clan Royal in that season’s Becher Chase that proved instrumental to Grand National glory, helping shape riding plans for the big race itself a few months later.

“I think losing that Becher Chase won us the National and I think Graham would say the same,” said McCain.

“He got beat a short head in the Becher Chase that season by Clan Royal and it was the shortest of short heads.

“If you looked at Clan Royal he was twice as big as old Amberleigh and we were distraught to be honest. They were ding dong from the top of the straight and the two of them came clear and it was a fantastic finish.

“To be honest losing that I think helped us win a Grand National as I had a good talk with Graham and we decided Amberleigh only had one little burst of acceleration in him and there was a general consensus that sounds cocky now, but don’t hit the front until the elbow.

“If you watched Graham a few years later he tried to do the same on a horse of Ferdy Murphy’s who just didn’t stay. He arrived at the last with a chance on Big Fella Thanks in Ballabriggs’ year and tried to do a very similar thing with him.”

It was Becher adversary Clan Royal that was sent off the 10-1 co-favourite for the 2004 Grand National with Amberleigh House 16-1 in the market.

Jonjo O’Neill’s charge looked to be in the process of obliging favourite-backers when jumping to the lead two out, with Amberleigh House still having plenty to do among those still attempting to complete the course.

A repeat of the previous year’s third seemed the best Amberleigh House could hope for, but the complexion of the contest was about to change, with Clan Royal and Martin Pipe’s Lord Atterbury running out of steam and Lee executing the McCain plan to perfection as Amberleigh House and his trademark white noseband closed the gap on the lung-busting run to the line.

“I think he was fourth from the back of the Canal Turn and you’re looking behind to see if something was going to come and do him for fourth and then I just thought at the second-last he was staying on but just took two more strides to jump it,” explained McCain.

“If he had jumped it two strides sooner I would have thought we had a real chance and then Hedgehunter fell at the last and I thought ‘we’re going to be third again in the Grand National’.

  • 1973 Red Rum
  • 1974 Red Rum
  • 1977 Red Rum
  • 2004 Amberleigh House
  • 2011 Ballabriggs

“Then halfway up the run-in everything changed, it was the most amazing day.

“There was only one man who would ever know how confident he was and that was Graham himself. But it was a case of we didn’t want to get there too soon and the one thing I can imagine is he would have been getting the most wonderful ride off him, as you will never see another horse jump Aintree better than Amberleigh House – and I mean the old Aintree, not the one we’re on about now.”

It was a case of third-time lucky for Amberleigh House and a National win that McCain thought had maybe passed the horse by after his gallant third to Monty’s Pass 12 months prior to his glorious afternoon on Merseyside.

However, the pint-sized National hero would keep coming back for more of the famous spruce, never letting his side down when faced with the challenge of the National fences.

“The year before he was third in the race he was very tired afterwards, he was absolutely drunk and we had to take him away out of the winner’s enclosure,” said McCain.

“You kind of wondered if that was his chance of winning the Grand National gone. He didn’t know where he was for about 20 minutes so it is to his credit he came back and he just loved the place.

“He was just the most amazing little horse and Amberleigh was so good to jump round there, he was as good as you ever see. You never really didn’t expect him to get round which was a fairly big thing at the old Aintree. He was only 15’2 and half an inch but as good a jumper as you would ever see – he was just so good round there.”



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Maximilian to miss remainder of the season

Maximilian, one of last season’s leading novice hurdlers, will miss the entirety of the current campaign due to injury.

The seven-year-old has won five of his seven starts to date for trainer Donald McCain and the Owners Group and was last seen finishing second in Grade One company at Aintree.

The form of that race could hardly have worked out better, with the winner Apple Away, third-placed Iroko and fourth home Stay Away Fay all making the mark over fences this term, and Maximilian himself was due to embark on a novice chasing campaign before injury intervened.

Connections had initially he hoped he would return to competitive action early in the new year, but have now had to draw stumps for the season.

“Unfortunately he won’t be back until next autumn,” said the owners’ racing manager Dan Downie.

“It’s obviously frustrating, but the main thing is he’ll be fine and it’s one of those things really.

“It would have been interesting to see how he got on, but hopefully we’ll have a much more positive conversation in a year’s time.”



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Charlie Maggs enjoys valuable victory on Geromino

Geromino provided 10lb conditional jockey Charlie Maggs with a notable success in the £50,000 bet365 Handicap Hurdle at Doncaster.

Attached to Donald McCain’s yard in Cheshire, just like twin brother William, he was riding only the fourth winner of his career.

Geromino has been chasing of late and on his run behind subsequent Cheltenham winner Homme Public at Wetherby in October, he looked quite well handicapped off just 126 back over hurdles – especially when Maggs’ 10lb allowance was factored in.

However, there were some smart rivals amongst the opposition, chiefly top weight Tommy’s Oscar and Charlie Longsdon’s Rare Edition, who ran against the best novices last season.

Charlie Maggs returns on Geromino
Charlie Maggs returns on Geromino (Nick Robson/PA)

Maggs judged things perfectly on the front end, though, and despite McCain fearing the loss of the hurdles in the straight due to low sun would work against the good jumper, it appeared to work in his favour.

First Impression, who cruised into contention, did not find as much as initially seemed likely and was beaten half a length, with a neck back to Rare Edition, who made late gains.

“Gary (Fitzpatrick, owner) is a great supporter and the old horse is just high enough in the handicap, and he’s a little horse for fences,” said McCain.

“I thought I’d give him a run over hurdles but when I went down to the last to watch the race with Gary and they started taking the hurdles out, I was moaning because he’s such a good jumper.

“But when you think about having a 10lb claim in a Flat race, it’s a lot and the horse is so genuine.

“Charlie judged it great. I’m very lucky, as I’ve got a great team of jockeys, led by Brian (Hughes), there’s Theo (Gilliard), Peter Kavanagh, William and Charlie and Abi (McCain), they’re a great bunch.

“Charlie and his brother have been coming every weekend since they were 12 and they’ve just turned 18. Charlie doesn’t have an agent yet because he’s not lost his 10lb. Will has had a few more winners because he’s lost his 10lb and Richard Hale looks after him. We’ll save his 10lb for nice races.”

Maggs said: “I’m delighted, he battled all the way to the line.

“He was happy in front, so I just let him bowl along and he was good. He’s a hardy horse and he kept going.

“That’s my fourth winner and it’s good to win a race like that.”



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Injury sidelines chasing prospect Maximilian

Maximilian’s novice chasing career is temporarily on hold, with the seven-year-old set to miss the first part of the season through injury.

Trained by Donald McCain, Maximilian built up a fine reputation as a staying novice hurdler last season winning three times, including when scooping Grade Two honours in Doncaster’s River Don Novices’ Hurdle.

He finished second to Apple Away in the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree on his final start of the campaign, with impressive Warwick scorer Iroko and Cheltenham Festival winner Stay Away Fay behind in third and fourth respectively and was due to embark on a novice chasing campaign this term.

Having seen Storm Babet curtail plans for a chasing bow at Carlisle, Maximilian’s season has now met with further interruption after suffering a setback which will keep him sidelined.

“He’s picked up an injury so he won’t be out for a few months,” said Dan Downie of Owners Group, to whom Maximilian belongs.

“It’s not a big thing, but he will need some time off, so it’s just frustrating really.

“He will come back at some point and it will just be a case of giving him time. I’m not too sure on the timescale exactly. He definitely won’t be out in the next few months.

“The plan was to go novice chasing with him and I think that would still be the plan.”



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McCain prefers Pattern-race options for Minella Drama

Minella Drama is unlikely to take up his option in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, with trainer Donald McCain instead looking at graded races.

The eight-year-old performed with great credit on his comeback at Aintree on Sunday when beating all bar shock winner Jetoile in the Old Roan Chase under a big weight.

McCain was one of many who felt the race lost some of its lustre with all the fences in the home straight being omitted due to low sun – especially as his horse was in front a long way out.

“He ran an absolute screamer and a lot of people have said some very nice things about him,” said McCain.

Jetoile wore down Minella Drama in the long home straight
Jetoile wore down Minella Drama in the long home straight (Tim Goode/PA)

“I think everybody who watched the race kind of had the same view – it doesn’t matter now of course – but given he’s such a good jumper, it’s just a shame they took all the fences out because it’s a long way home for his first run of the year.

“But it is what it is, we’ve always had a lot of faith in him, he’s a good horse and I’d just love him to have his big day somewhere.

“The Paddy Power wouldn’t be my go-to, to be honest. He was put in it in case we couldn’t get started somewhere but it’s not the obvious race, I don’t think.

“We’ve got races like the Peterborough Chase (Huntingdon, December 10), the Ascot one (1965 Chase, November 25) and I even put him in the Betfair Chase (Haydock, November 25) in case certain things didn’t turn up, because what he does do is turn up, every day. He runs up to his mark every day.”



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Brian Hughes only looking forward after banking third championship

Brian Hughes is preparing to thrust himself straight into another title bid ahead of being crowned champion jockey for the third time on the final day of the season at Sandown on Saturday.

The Northern Irishman first claimed the title at the end of 2019-20 season and while he was defeated by Harry Skelton the following year, he regained the trophy at the end of last term.

This campaign’s 164 winners (before racing on Friday) falls some way short of last year’s total when Hughes reached and passed the significant milestone of 200 winners ridden in a season – joining Peter Scudamore, AP McCoy and Richard Hughes in a small band of riders to have done so.

Lost fixtures due to challenging weather conditions and a slight dip in the form of his mounts are the possible causes for the lower number this term, but Hughes’ relationship with trainer Donald McCain continues to provide plenty of success for both parties.

Hughes aboard Minella Drama at Aintree
Hughes aboard Minella Drama at Aintree (Mike Egerton/PA)

Hughes said: “It’s good to be champion again. Plenty of hard work. We didn’t get to the number we did last year, but we’ll try harder next year!

“We missed a lot of days racing with bad weather, and you’d have to say the horses weren’t running as well as they were the season before, even though they haven’t been running badly.

“We get on great, Donald’s a brilliant trainer. He’s got a great team and a bunch of loyal owners who have supported the yard and me through that.

“It’s great, I enjoy riding Donald’s horses and we’ve had a lot of success throughout the past couple of seasons. Hopefully we’ll have a few more successful seasons to come.”

Hughes also puts forward his agent Richard Hale as a key figure in his career, with the leading northern-based agent doing a sterling job in balancing all of the champion’s riding commitments for the various stables he is connected to.

Hughes at Doncaster
Hughes at Doncaster (Mike Egerton/PA)

“That’s Richard Hale’s job, I have little to do with that,” Hughes said of the organisation of his rides.

“I just play dumb and he sorts it all out! He keeps all the balls in the air and luckily it works, we’ve done it for a few years now and he keeps everything going forwards. ‘I don’t know, speak to Richard’ – that’s my party line!

“He’s been my agent for the last 18 years – he’s a friend as much as an agent. I put total trust in him and what he puts me on, I ride. We never have any problems.”

Though a constant on northern and midlands racecourses, Hughes is occasionally absent on some of the sport’s biggest days of racing as he will opt to take a ride with a winning chance at a smaller meeting rather than partner an also-ran in a higher-profile race.

This is an approach that has been numerically successful for the rider and he does not see the merit in taking outside rides with slim chances when there are better opportunities elsewhere.

Hughes holding the trophy last season
Hughes holding the trophy last season (Nigel French/PA)

“Everyone wants to ride the big-race winners and win the competitive races and it’s not that I don’t want to. Donald buys a lot of horses and we’re hoping to drop on a couple of good, Graded horses,” he said.

“If you don’t ride for the people who have them, it makes it fairly hard to get on them.

“I want to be competitive and ride winners, I don’t want to be there for a social runner. When I’m not going to be competitive somewhere, I won’t go. If I’ve got a good ride I’ll be there in a heartbeat.

“I go where I’m required to go, that’s my job. I’m not looking at anyone with envy. Wherever you’re going you want to be competitive, if you can’t get on any good rides then it’s sort of pointless to go.”

At 37 Hughes considers himself to be in the autumn of his career and it is that motivation that will push him to hit the ground running throughout the summer to try to bank more winners in pursuit of a fourth title this time next year.

Sedgefield Racecourse – Tuesday April 19th
Brian Hughes at Sedgefield (Nigel French/PA)

“We’ll start and try to get winners on the board. We’ll just just keep rolling on, I don’t have many years left to ride so I’ve got to ride while I can,” he said.

“I’m 38 in June, 40 is not going to be far away. It doesn’t seem like any time at all since I came to England in 2005.

“There’s not many jump jockeys go on much past 40, maybe early 40s but on the Flat they go to 50. I just don’t want to take anything for granted.”



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Minella Trump aiming to enhance McCain family’s National record

The name McCain is synonymous with Aintree success and on the 50th anniversary of Red Rum’s first triumph on Merseyside, Donald McCain will bid for his second Randox Grand National victory with Minella Trump.

Ginger McCain won the world’s most famous steeplechase four times thanks to Red Rum’s hat-trick in the 1970s and Amberleigh House’s win in 2004, while the younger McCain added his name to the Grand National record books when saddling Ballabriggs to strike in 2011.

McCain has been missing from the Grand National start sheet since Across The Bay was pulled up in the race in 2015, but the Bankhouse handler could have found the ideal horse to end his National hiatus in style.

Minella Trump and Brian Hughes jump the last to go on and win the Lyn And Holly’s Big Birthday Celebrations Novices’ Chase at Catterick
Minella Trump and Brian Hughes jump the last to go on and win the Lyn And Holly’s Big Birthday Celebrations Novices’ Chase at Catterick (Tim Goode/PA)

Minella Trump returned from a 10-month absence over hurdles at Bangor recently, but has won eight of his last nine outings over the larger obstacles and will fulfil an ambition of the handler to provide long-standing owner Tim Leslie with a Grand National runner when lining up at Aintree as a 66-1 chance.

McCain said: “He’s in good nick and it was good to get the run into him the other day (at Bangor). It wasn’t ideal to run over timber but there was nowhere else to go unless you want to get involved at Cheltenham.

“I’d sooner he’d have run in a chase, but there wasn’t one so we went over hurdles. He did what we wanted him to do in that he’s had a good blow and he’s come back in good shape. We’re all happy.

“He’d done a lot of racing and won a lot of races, so we just gave him a good break. It’s not been that smooth in that we’d have liked to have got a run in when it was appropriate, but the ground was very heavy and there was nowhere to go, so we’ve had to do things slightly different – but it’s never smooth.

“He’s a great little horse and I don’t know if he’s going under the radar a bit, as he knows how to win. He’s probably not the most impressive when he’s doing it, but that’s probably the reason why he keeps managing to win, because he’s never doing it by too far. We’ve got a good racing weight in a big field handicap, so it’s a positive for sure.

“He’s beaten some smart horses, including the Grand National favourite Corach Rambler. He’s had a much smoother journey to Aintree and that sort of stuff and looks a thorough stayer and so on, but Minella Trump is in good nick and we’re looking forward to getting him there.”

Trainer Donald McCain is bidding for his second victory in the Randox Grand National
Trainer Donald McCain is bidding for his second victory in the Randox Grand National (Simon Marper/PA)

He continued: “We’re not there yet of course, but it would be very nice to have our first runner for a few years.

“It will be very special to have it for Tim Leslie, too, as it’s been an ambition of his since I started training to have a runner in the race. To get there and have a runner for him would be fantastic as he’s been a wonderful supporter.”



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Haydock hero Richmond Lake stakes Aintree claim

Richmond Lake may have earned himself a place on Donald McCain’s squad for Aintree next month following a dominant front-running display at Haydock.

The seven-year-old carried the colours of the late Trevor Hemmings to a couple of victories over hurdles last season and was runner-up to the top-class Jonbon in a Grade Two at Haydock in January.

His chasing career got off to a fairly inauspicious start at Carlisle in the autumn, but he had since won at Wetherby and finished second at Ayr and he was a 5-2 shot for his return to Merseyside in the Bob ‘Few Scoops’ Kerslake’s 70th Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase.

Ridden by Theo Gillard, deputising for suspended champion jockey Brian Hughes, Richmond Lake was sent to the lead from the start of the two-and-a-half-mile contest – and while he showed a marked tendency to jump left, he was accurate enough at his obstacles to keep the pressure on the chasing pack.

Ned Tanner attempted to make a race of it in the straight, but McCain’s charge ultimately had far too many guns and was good value for the winning margin of four lengths.

“That is just him (jumping left). We went to Carlisle for his first run over fences and it was a bit of a horror show to be honest because he does go that way, but he is a talented horse,” said the Grand National-winning trainer.

“I know he went that way again today, but he jumped like a buck and picked up really well.

“He’s got an engine and it’ll be Aintree or Ayr for him now. We’ll get him home and see, but I would have thought it’ll be one or the other.”

Fourofakind provided fledgling trainer Harry Derham with the 10th winner of his debut season in the Haydock Park Welcomes Racing To School Maiden Hurdle.

Fourofakind with connections after winning at Haydock
Fourofakind with connections after winning at Haydock (Ashley Iveson/PA)

Previously placed at Taunton and Newbury, the four-year-old was the 4-5 favourite to make it third time lucky on Merseyside and readily pulled 12 lengths clear of his rivals in the hands of Paul O’Brien.

Derham said: “I’m very pleased with how the season is going and I’m extremely pleased for this horse and the group of owners.

“There’s a few professional golfers in there, headed up by Ken Comboy, who is Graeme McDowell’s caddy. I met him at a Pro-Am 10 years ago, we’ve kept him in touch, he said he’d support me when I set up and he did.

“I’m going to take this horse to Ascot on April 2 now if I can. There’s a juvenile handicap hurdle worth a few quid and I feel like a competitive handicap can improve him a bit.”

The Molson Coors Juvenile Hurdle ended up being a match, with Alan King’s Tuddenham Green (evens) readily accounting for the Venetia Williams-trained Jolly Nellerie (4-5 favourite).

Winning jockey Daryl Jacob said: “He’s not a horse for making the running really and he just had a look at the first because of the nature of the race.

“We didn’t know how good Venetia’s horse was, but our horse is a nice stayer and I thought he was good over the last four hurdles.”

Dan Skelton and conditional jockey Tristan Durrell combined to land the Every Race Live On Racing TV Handicap Hurdle with 13-2 chance Alnadam.

Rated as high as 145 over fences at his peak, the 10-year-old made the most of a more lenient hurdles mark of 121 with a two-and-three-quarter-length success over the well-backed Hasty Brook.

Skelton’s assistant, Tom Messenger, said of the winner: “He had a bad fall last season at Perth and took a while to get going this season.

“We’ve gone back over hurdles and he ran much better last time and has done better again. He’s taken a bit of rebuilding this season and it’s nice to see it pay off. He’ll stick over hurdles.”

Equus Dreamer (6-1) galloped his rivals into submission in the Tim Molony Handicap Chase, making much of the running under David Bass and saving just enough to see off 13-8 favourite Your Own Story by half a length.

Equus Dreamer won the three-and-a-half-mile handicap chase
Equus Dreamer won the three-and-a-half-mile handicap chase (Ashley Iveson/PA)

Kim Bailey’s assistant, Mat Nicholls, said: “He’s never run over three and a half miles before and we said to David ‘make sure he gets the trip’. He was obviously confident!

“He’s always raced behind the bridle and when the second horse came to him, you just suspected he had something up his sleeve.

“He jumps really well and ought to improve, but he does want soft ground.”

Bailey and Bass doubled up with the visored Broomfield Present (8-1) in the Old Boston Handicap Hurdle, while the concluding Haydock Park Racecourse Handicap Chase went the way of Grey Diamond (100-30).



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Maximilian all set for Stay Away Fay rematch at Aintree

Donald McCain will relish the challenge of taking on Stay Away Fay again at Aintree as Maximilian bids to frank the form of his Doncaster victory.

The Paul Nicholls-trained Stay Away Fay impressed when taking the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham last week, having previously been beaten a length by McCain’s charge in the River Don Novices’ Hurdle on Town Moor.

Winner of three of his four stats over hurdles for the Owners Group 099 syndicate, the seven-year-old bypassed Cheltenham in favour of the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle on day two of the Aintree Grand National Festival.

“It’s a great form boost,” McCain said of Stay Away Fay’s success.

“Obviously Paul and everybody thought they should have won on the day (at Doncaster) – we’ll see if he’s right.

“We are running at Aintree. I don’t care who’s running against us!

“Paul’s horse won well. It was nice to see. He was good and Harry (Cobden) gave him a good ride and he won very well.”

McCain is happy for Maximilian to play the underdog again at Aintree and he goes there a fresh horse, having last run in January.

He added: “We didn’t want to go to Cheltenham as we always wanted to go to Aintree.

“Touch wood at the moment he gets there in once piece and everything is good at the moment. I’m very happy with him.

“I don’t think Maximilian will ever be impressive in anything he does, but he keeps winning and that’s very important.

“He saves a bit for himself and those kind of horses go under the radar a bit, but that’s fine – that suits us.”



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Maximilian team to skip Festival date in favour of Aintree

Donald McCain’s classy hurdler Maximilian will skip the Cheltenham Festival in favour of an Aintree outing.

The chestnut was a point-to-point winner and has looked highly promising since starting out under rules, winning two bumpers and his first two starts over hurdles.

Then stepped up in class for the Grade Two Winter Novices’ Hurdle at Sandown in December, the gelding was beaten for the first time in his career when third to Henri The Second.

He bounced right back to form the next time, however, tackling an extended three miles to win the Grade Two River Don at Doncaster at the end of January.

After that victory McCain suggested Cheltenham would not be a priority despite the horse holding an Albert Bartlett entry, with Aintree the preferred option later in the season.

Maximilian at Sandown
Maximilian at Sandown (Steven Paston/PA)

Dan Downie of Owners Group echoed that idea as the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle, a Grade One run over three miles and half a furlong, looks to be the ultimate target.

He said: “He’s been going very well, everything is good with him and he’s come out of his race well.

“The plan will be to hopefully run at Aintree in April. That’s a little way away and we might find something in between, but Cheltenham is not happening and we know he won’t go there.

“We were really pleased with him at Doncaster. He’s a horse we’ve always liked but he’s a bit of a enigma in some ways, he’s not very flashy at home and he races quite lazily.

“You never quite know and at Sandown he was a bit disappointing, but I think that tacky ground just didn’t suit him and he was obviously much happier at Doncaster.

“I think he is a real stayer and that will be his game.”



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Owners Group looking forward to festival targets

Success continues to breed success for the Owners Group syndicate, who enjoyed their most successful weekend to date with five winners last week.

Donald McCain’s Maximilian landed the Grade Two River Don Novices’ Hurdle at Doncaster and the Paul Nicholls-trained duo of Stage Star and Hacker Des Places claimed handicaps at Cheltenham.

They were supplemented by the victories of Unit Sixtyfour at Fontwell and Richhill at Southwell on Sunday for the microshare syndicate.

Dan Downie, racing manager of the syndicate, said: “It was a very good weekend. We’d had a slow start to January, like everybody because of the weather, and we thought it was going to be a busy weekend but to have five winners was extraordinary.

“Donald told me Maximilian got a bigger cheer coming back in than when he won the Grand National!”

Despite winning a notable trial for the Albert Bartlett, though, Maximilian will skip the Cheltenham Festival and wait for the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree.

“I loved the way he looks after himself, he’s not particularly flashy and he’s almost lazy the way he goes through a race but he jumped the last, came alive and he’s got a lot up his sleeve it looks like,” said Downie.

“Donald said he’d almost given up and I started to think that, but then Brian (Hughes) gave him a squeeze and he came back on the bridle again. He’s very good. He races like a real staying hurdler. He wouldn’t be the biggest in the world and while all options are open, he does look a staying hurdler at this stage.

“We’d spoken previously about where we’d like to end up this year and we’re happy to miss Cheltenham and aim for Aintree with him.”

Stage Star jumped impeccably at Cheltenham
Stage Star jumped impeccably at Cheltenham (David Davies/PA)

Stage Star, a Grade One-winning novice hurdler, looked a class apart when defying top weight in the usually informative Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase at Cheltenham.

“Stage Star was very impressive. On a day like that when everything goes well, he looks very good,” said Downie.

“To be fair to him, he has had excuses when he’s been beaten but he looked a very good horse on Saturday. It’s not like he just throws the towel in.

“We’ve had brief conversations with Paul but nothing is concrete. He will go to Cheltenham but we haven’t discussed it more than that really.

“Hacker Des Places is very tough, too. He’s not very big but he’s a strong traveller, he jumps well and loves those big fields and hopefully the Betfair Hurdle should suit him down to the ground.

“The aim is to just keep going and not lose sight of everyone who is involved, that’s the point. It’s not to get them involved, it’s to keep them involved.

“The horses are selling really well and I hope it is giving people a chance to get involved as we know how expensive having a racehorse is. Hopefully it is doing the job for everyone.”



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Maximilian promises plenty in the long term with Doncaster triumph

Graded winners are a little rarer these days for Donald McCain since the glory years of Peddlers Cross and Overturn, so he was cherishing the success of Maximilian in the Albert Bartlett River Don Novices’ Hurdle at Doncaster.

Having lost his unbeaten record at Sandown last time out, McCain gave the seven-year-old a wind operation but openly admitted he thought it was going to be a big ask for his charge a long way from home on Town Moor.

Champion jockey Brian Hughes is that for a reason, though, and nursed the 13-2 chance into contention approaching the second-last in the Grade Two affair.

Hurricane Bay and Stay Away Fay were tough competition, but Maximilian stuck gamely to his task and prevailed by a length.

He was roared back into the paddock by scores of members of his Owners Group syndicate, a group who have supported McCain well.

McCain is not struck on a Cheltenham bid, however, and Aintree seems more likely.

“I nearly walked away with a circuit to run. He’s got that in him, he can switch off,” said McCain.

“He’s one of those staying hurdlers who races off the bridle and saves plenty for himself.

“If he’d gone clear he’d have probably pulled up, like those good staying hurdlers when he hits the front he thinks he’s done enough.”

Maximilian and jockey Brian Hughes with winning owners
Maximilian and jockey Brian Hughes with winning owners (Ricard Sellers/PA)

He went on: “He hated the ground at Sandown, he wasn’t right afterwards but he was still third in a Grade Two, we’ve always had a lot of faith in him but he’ll never be flash.

“We’ll go for a big novice, but I’m not a massive Cheltenham fan. He’s a long-term horse and I’ve not got hundreds of these. Aintree would be first choice, I think.

“He jumps like he’ll jump a fence, but I just wonder if he’s one of those real staying hurdlers.

“The Owners Group are great, I’m lucky to have a few for them. It’s the same wherever they run. It just works.”

Tommy’s Oscar with Ann and Ian Hamilton
Tommy’s Oscar with Ann and Ian Hamilton (Ricard Sellers/PA)

Tommy’s Oscar stamped his class on the MND Association Race For Research Lightning Novices’ Chase with a smooth performance.

A Grade Two winner over hurdles, he was just below the very best last season but promised to take high rank over fences.

A win at Carlisle and a second in a hot event at Cheltenham to Banbridge offered plenty of encouragement on that front, but reverting to hurdles for the Fighting Fifth did not quite work out.

Due to a lack of opportunities he was in a limited handicap at Newcastle most recently, conceding lumps of weight to Since Day One, who took him on at levels on this occasion and the tables were well and truly turned.

Tommy’s Oscar strides away from the last
Tommy’s Oscar strides away from the last (Ricard Sellers/PA)

Harry Fry’s favourite Boothill loomed to the front early in the straight but Danny McMenamin was full on confidence on Tommy’s Oscar (7-4) and came between horses pulling double.

Two good leaps at the last two fences sealed the deal by five and a half lengths for Ann and Ian Hamilton’s star.

“He wants better ground and a flat track. He wasn’t giving away loads of weight today, either,” said Ian Hamilton.

“He tends to jump right, but didn’t do that until the last today when he was in the clear.

“I don’t know what we do now, we may have to wait until Aintree. He’s not a Cheltenham horse. There’s nothing I can see that we can run him in, it’s been the case all season which was why he ran at Newcastle giving all that weight.

“Ann and I are getting on, we don’t want to be travelling with him to the other end of the country.

“We haven’t had a great season, our horses are badly handicapped, but this lad is good.”



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Trainer Profiles: Donald McCain

We head to Cheshire to meet the next trainer in this Profiles series, and welcome Donald McCain. As with previous pieces I will be sharing nearly ten years of UK National Hunt racing data from 1st January 2013 to 31st October 2022. The vast majority of the stats I share with you can be sourced by members using from the Geegeez Query Tool. All profits / losses have been calculated to Industry Starting Price and I will quote both SP and Betfair SP returns where appropriate.

Donald McCain Brief Bio

Born in 1970, Donald McCain is the son of the legendary trainer of Red Rum, Ginger McCain. He took over from his father in June 2006 having worked as his assistant previously. He also rode in his youth and, over the years, gained experience in the racing business when working for Luca Cumani, Sir Michael Stoute and Oliver Sherwood. As a trainer he has won the Grand National (2011 with Ballabriggs) and enjoyed success at the Cheltenham Festival six times, albeit before the period of study for this piece (2006 to 2012). In fact, between 2009 and 2012 his overall win strike rate stood at 19.2% - this is worth noting when looking at the last ten years which I plan to do right now!

Donald McCain Overall Record

Let's break McCain's win record down first by year:

 

 

Overall, SP losses have equated to 21p in the £ over this 10-year period; to BSP it has been nearer 11p in the £. As we can see, from 2015 to 2020, with the exception of 2017, the win strike rate dropped quite markedly. However, there has been a very positive uptick, or so it seems, in the past two seasons. This recent improvement has been mirrored when we study the win and placed (Each Way) percentages:

 

 

So McCain’s journey as a trainer seems to have gone from early highs to modest lows and now to new highs. Any trainer can have fluctuations from year to year so it will be interesting to see whether the stable can maintain their stronger recent form in the next year or two.

Time to dig a bit deeper.

Donald McCain Performance by Race Distance

Splitting his performance by distance first:

 

There is not much to be gleaned from the race distance splits: a slightly better win percentage at shorter distances, but returns and A/E indices across the three groups are similar. If we split the distances stats comparing chases with hurdle races, we see the following win percentages:

 

 

Again, we see remarkably similar figures. This seems to suggest that McCain doesn't specialise, and is equally adept at training all types of horses.

Donald McCain Performance in Chases

I want to dig into chases races in more detail. Let me start by splitting them into handicap and non-handicap contests:

 

As can be seen in the table, there are considerably more handicap runners and, overall, they have proved far better value. To BSP, losses in handicaps are down at around 5p in the £. Below is a course breakdown of McCain's chase record in terms of strike rate at tracks where he has had at least 75 runners:

 

 

The strike rates are in a fairly narrow range, except for Aintree, where McCain has had just one winner in 76 chase races. He has made an SP profit at three courses – Catterick, Kelso and Musselburgh.

One course that is not on the list is Perth, but his chase record there is worth sharing. He has an excellent strike rate at the Scottish track of 30.4% thanks to 21 wins from 69 runners. Profits to SP stand at £27.23 (ROI +39.5%). To BSP, returns edge up to 50% (50p in the £). He picks up winners there consistently despite averaging only seven runners at the track a year. He has saddled at least two winners in eight of the last ten years and, in one of the other years (2020), he didn’t send any runners there at all.

If we combine the yard's chase record at all Scottish tracks, they have saddled 67 winners from 310 (SR 21.6%) for a profit of £39.52 (ROI +12.8%). Exchange returns increase by just over 9p in the £ to 22p.

Before moving on, here are a few extra chase nuggets worth noting:

1. Horses having their second chase start have secured 37 wins from 162 (SR 22.8%) for a small SP profit of £12.01 (ROI +7.4%); BSP profits stand at £28.58 (ROI +17.6%);

2. Chasers returning to the track within two weeks of their last run have won 37 races from 129 runners (SR 28.7%) for a profit of £48.83 (ROI +37.9%); profit to BSP is £65.24 (ROI +50.6%);

3. Horses aged 6 or 7 have been far more successful in chases than other ages. 6 and 7yos have combined to score 19.5% of the time (165 wins from 848); all other ages combined (4, 5, and 8+) have won 12.4% of the time (93 wins from 747).

Let's take a look at hurdle races now.

Donald McCain Performance in Hurdles

Let’s start once again with handicap versus non handicap splits:

 

This time we see a much better win percentage in non-handicap hurdle races but without too much of a differential in returns as far as Industry SP is concerned. However, to BSP, non-handicaps have lost just 3p in the £, compared to 13p for handicaps.

A course breakdown now and I am sticking to courses that have had 85 or more runners in hurdle races. I have chosen 85 as the ‘cap’ as I wanted to include the Scottish course Ayr (where there were 86 runners in the study period). I have ordered the courses by win strike rate percentage:

 

 

Aintree results are poor once more, as are those at Market Rasen. From a positive perspective, the Scottish courses tend to sit near the top of the table in terms of strike rate once again, although there is none of the overall profit that we saw in the chase data. Two courses have shown a profit to SP (Bangor and Newcastle) and the Bangor data is worth digging down into. Firstly, McCain's hurdle record at the Welsh course by year:

 

 

There was a dip in 2015, part of the period when the yard struggled, but the other nine years have seen strike rates above 18% which suggests he targets this course somewhat; in seven of the ten years there was a profit to SP, and in eight of the ten years a profit to BSP. These are consistent hurdle profits at Bangor rather than simply a couple of huge priced winners skewing the P&L column. Indeed, if we focus on horses priced 8/1 or shorter McCain’s hurdle performance at Bangor is extremely good:

 

 

Those are excellent numbers and, for the record, returns to BSP edge just over 40p in the £.

Bangor, McCain and hurdle races should definitely be on our radar in the future.

Donald McCain Performance in National Hunt Flat races

Here are the figures for all National Hunt Flat races (bumpers):

 

These are very modest figures from a betting perspective in spite of the decent strike rate. Losses to BSP were also steep at a painful 26p in the £. This suggests he has not had many big priced winners in this sphere and that is indeed the case. McCain runners priced 10/1 or bigger in bumpers have won just twice from 135 for a loss of £103.00 (ROI -76.3%). Ouch.

His performance at the front end of the market is not too bad, however; horses priced 3/1 or lower have won 34.9% of their races losing just 4p in the £ to SP and breaking even to BSP. Having said that, odds-on runners have won just 41% of the time losing a hefty 32.8p in the £.

Here are three more NH Flat race stats for stable that readers may find useful:

1. McCain has had just 15 NHF runners at Musselburgh but eight have won; he is 10 from 32 at Carlisle as well;

2. Jockey Brian Hughes has a 23.6% win strike rate in these races for McCain;

3. Horses that have had three or more previous career runs (that includes flat/AW races) have won just 11% of races losing over 60p in the £ to SP; 54p in the £ to BSP.

Donald McCain Performance by Starting Price

We have seen a small amount SP data already, but let us now look at all races as a whole:

 

 

The win strike rates go down uniformly as the price bands increase – it would be weird if that wasn’t the case. Industry SP losses have been the smallest with the Evens to 15/8 bracket, but there doesn’t seem a pattern to returns as a whole. However, I would definitely steer clear of his bigger priced runners (14/1 or bigger) – even to BSP you would have lost 20p in the £. This is much higher than the average loss across all 14/1 + runners which stands at around 13p.

Donald McCain Performance by Running Style

A look at run style next. To begin with let us see the proportion of runners that fit a specific run style. Geegeez breaks these run styles into four:

Led – front runners, horses that take or share an early lead; Prominent – horses that track the pace close behind the leader(s); Mid Division – horses that race mid pack; Held Up – horses that race at, or near the back of the field early.

Here are the splits for McCain:

 

 

We can see the preferred running style seems to be tracking the early pace (prominent runners); that position has accounted for nearly 40% of all runners from the stable. The early leader / front runner percentage is also high at over 27% which is good to see. Regular readers of my articles will know that horses that take the lead early win more often than any of the other run styles. Not surprisingly, this is the case for McCain as we look at the win strike rates across all run styles:

 

 

Around one in four of McCain's front runners have won, whereas just one in 14 of his hold up horses have passed the post first. Indeed, if you had backed all of his hold up horses you would have lost a whopping 43p in the £ to SP.

I want to look at favourites now in terms of their success rate by run style:

 

 

The win percentage for hold up horses that start favourite is extremely poor and would have lost you a remarkable 49p in the £. Once again front running favourites do best, and comfortably so.

Before moving on, I have looked at front running performance across different courses to see if front runners have done better at some courses than others. The graph below compares all courses where McCain has had at least 40 runners that have taken an early lead (I have rounded the %s to the nearest whole number so it fits more neatly on the graph).

 

 

There is quite a range of success here: excellent at Ayr (18 winners from 44), much less so at Aintree (two wins from 46). As we have seen, McCain's overall Aintree stats are poor so this will come as no surprise.

Donald McCain Performance by Jockey

Onto some jockey analysis now. A look at any jockey who has ridden at least 100 times for McCain since 2013, with the proviso that they have had at least one ride for the stable in 2022. I have ordered them by number of rides starting with the most:

 

 

Stable jockey Brian Hughes has by far the best strike rate. Losses of 13p in the £ were incurred to SP; with BSP, this improves to 4p in the £. Theo Gillard is in profit but a 40/1 winner makes all the difference between a profit and a loss.

As far as Hughes is concerned here are some stats worth noting:

1. Hughes has a 32% success rate on front runners;

2. On favourites he has essentially broken even; clear favourites have just nudged into profit;

3. In races of 2m1f or less he has secured a strike rate of over 24% with marginal 2% losses to SP; 11% profit to BSP;

4. Horses priced 3/1 or less (SP) have provided a BSP return on 6% (6p in the £);

5. Hughes when riding a horse who is having their first career start has a strike rate of one in three and a profit to BSP around the 35p in the £ mark.

Let's summarise the key findings from this research...

Donald McCain – Main Takeaways

It seems that Donald McCain is moving in the right direction once more. It will be interesting to see if he is able to sustain success around the 20% win mark again this season – early signs suggest he will be close.

 

I hope you have found this piece useful.

Best wishes for the remainder of the festive period, and wishing you a very Happy New Year.

- Dave Renham



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Run style analysis of a selection of National Hunt trainers

Regular readers will know of my interest in the impact of run style and, in this article, six National Hunt trainers come under the spotlight as I look for running style patterns which might lead to profitable angles, writes Dave Renham. The trainers in question are Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson, Jonjo O’Neill, Donald McCain, Venetia Williams and Alan King. I have looked at data between January 1st 2015 and December 31st 2021, seven years in total.

Before I start in earnest, however, a quick recap of running styles for all new readers and how Geegeez can help with understanding them.

The first furlong or so of any race sees each horse take up its early position and soon the horses settle into their racing rhythm. Normally these positions do not change too much for the first part of the race. The position each horse takes early can be matched to a running style - www.geegeez.co.uk has a pace section on its racecards that highlights which running style each horse has taken up early in a race. There are four run style groups, as follows:

Led – horses that take the early lead (the front runner). In National Hunt racing you generally get just one front runner, but occasionally there may be two or more horses disputing the early lead;

Prominent – horses that track close behind the leader(s);

Mid Division - horses that take up a more midfield position;

Held Up – horses that are held up near to or at the back of the field.

These running styles are assigned a numerical figure ranging from 4 to 1; Led gets 4, Prominent 3, Mid Division 2 and Held Up 1. Having numbers assigned to runners helps greatly with analysis as you may have seen in previous articles.

 

Run Style Analysis: All races

To begin with, let's take a look at all National Hunt races combined, breaking down the running styles of all horses for each of our six trainers. Connections, most notably the trainers, can clearly have a significant influence on the running style of their horses: most will give instructions to their jockeys before the race telling them how they would prefer the horses to be ridden.

Below, the table shows which percentage of each trainer's runners displayed one of the four running styles. I have included the figure for ALL trainers (1527 trainers combined!) as the 'control':

 

As can be seen there is quite a contrast; both Alan King and Jonjo O’Neill are clearly largely averse to sending their runners into an early lead. In contrast Donald Mc Cain, Venetia Williams and, to a lesser extent, Paul Nicholls seem happy to send a decent proportion of their runners to the front early.

In terms of their success with early leaders / front runners – all of them exceed 20% when it comes to strike rate (see graph below). For the record, 20% is the average winning figure for front runners in all National Hunt races.

 

Henderson and Nicholls have a simply stunning record with front runners – a strike rate for both of pushing 40%. Now I have mentioned before that if as punters we had access to a crystal ball pre-race to see which horse would be taking the early lead, it would be a license to print money. Here are the hypothetical profit/loss figures for the front runners of the six trainers to once again prove that point:

 

Combining all trainers in the list would have yielded an SP profit of £394.91 to £1 level stakes. Now, as we know, predicting which horse is going to take the early lead is far from an exact science. However, with some detailed analysis of the trainers in the race, as well as the horses concerned there will be opportunities to maximise our chances of nailing down the likely front runner.

 

Run Style Analysis: Chases

I have noted in previous pieces that front runners in chases make the biggest profits in terms of National Hunt racing, so let us see how our six trainers perform in these races. Here are their win strike rates with front runners in chases. In the table I have included their All races front running SR% to facilitate comparison:

 

Similar figures for each trainer although Alan King’s figure drop about 5%.

And here are the hypothetical profits from identifying and backing these front runners in chases over the course of the seven years in the sample:

 

All six trainers would have been in profit to SP – a combined profit of £350.38 to £1 level stakes indicates why chases are so ‘front runner’ friendly.

I have also looked at the percentage of their runners which displayed a front running style in chases – as with the All Race data I shared earlier, two trainers (King and O’Neill) are far less likely to send their charges to the front early:

 

It still staggers me every time I see trainers that send a low percentage of their runners to the front early. Just one in twelve of Jonjo O’Neill’s runners goes into an early lead in a chase. However, when they do, they win nearly 25% of the time (one race in four). Compare this to his record with hold up horses in chases. Nearly 45% of all Jonjo O’Neill’s runners in chases are held up early – but just 11% go onto win. It’s nuts! [For all that there might be other reasons for holding certain horses up on some occasions - Ed.]

Hold up horses do not perform well in chases either – to illustrate this here are the chase records of the six trainers with their hold up runners:

 

The summary on hold up horses is low strike rates and huge losses all round. This group will, of course, include a subset of no-hopers though, in relation to such high profile trainers, there will be fewer of these than for most other handlers.

 

Run Style Analysis: Hurdle races

Generally speaking, hurdle races do not offer as strong a front running edge as chases, but it is still preferable to lead early compared with other running styles.

With that in mind, let us review the hypothetical profits from our trainers' front runners in hurdle races:

 

Some good strike rates for Nicholls, Henderson and King, but not the wall to wall profits seen in the chases analysis.

It is noticeable that, as a whole, the six trainers send out a smaller proportion of front runners in hurdle races as compared to chases. This will be in part due to typically smaller field sizes in chases then in hurdles, but that doesn't fully account for the differentials. The graph below illustrates:

 

Alan King has sent just less than 4% of his hurdlers into an early lead despite these runners scoring 35% of the time. As a comparison, his held up runners (which account for 37% of all King's hurdlers) won just 13% of the time.

 

Run Style Analysis: Full Summary

To conclude, I'd like to share the individual trainer win strike rate data across all four running styles in different race types. I have included National Hunt flat races, too. These races do not give front runners as strong an edge although they still perform better than any of the other three running styles.

The table below gives a very clear picture as to why run style is so important. It shows the significant edge front runners have overall; it also shows that prominent runners perform far better than horses that race mid division or are held up.

 - Dave Renham

 



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