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Tony Keenan: Irish Flat Season 2019 Preview

You might have guessed this already but more than anything in horse racing, it is the role of the trainer that fascinates me, writes Tony Keenan. We can wonder about the influence of various factors in trainer success, some of which are very obvious, others of which we will never know; no more than a punter, if a trainer has an edge, they can hardly be expected to comment on it publicly.

(A somewhat random aside: I read recently that Thady Gosden – son of John – had spent some time at the Joseph O'Brien yard and while I appreciate O’Brien Jr. seems a thoroughly decent man, there surely had to be the temptation to either: one, fill him with misinformation to take back to Gosden Senior, or, two, lock him in a darkened stable with a fire and a poker to extract the secrets of what his father does so well. I have never understood this part of racing where one trainer allows a rival, actual or potential, access to their yard. It must be because they’re all lovely people.)

One thing we can do however is look at the broad sweep of success trainers have over a period of time. Below I have put together the records of the top 20 active Irish flat trainers (with one exception, Patrick Prendergast, for reasons that will become apparent) and their turf runners in Ireland over the past decade; Dundalk is not included. It necessarily leaves out some relevant figures – notably Fozzy Stack – but should offer a decent overview of what has happened since 2009.

It deals with winners only which is a pretty blunt instrument but one that most trainers seem to apply as a measure of their own success. A clatter of winners doesn’t always equal success however; Aidan O’Brien had a record-breaking season at home in 2018 but most (including the trainer himself) would have regarded the campaign as a down year if not a failure. Ken Condon had only seven turf winners last year but one of them was Romanised in the 2,000 Guineas so 2018 might even prove the best of his training career. But in the main, winners figures are useful, especially when compared to what went before.

 

That’s a whole lot of numbers right there so the Cliff Notes version is below:

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This does give us a fair overview of what has happened over the last ten years or so, which yards have risen and which have fallen, what rising stars made it and who never got there (hint: it’s very difficult to make it in Irish flat racing). The decline of the veteran pair John Oxx and Kevin Prendergast are patterns that jump out immediately as is the gradual rise of Ger Lyons, while a recent jump from Jessica Harrington and the rapid growth of Joseph O’Brien are also notable.

Atop the table for the decade and every year of it is, of course, Aidan O’Brien. 2018 was represented as a disappointing campaign for Ballydoyle, a mid-season bug impacting a number of horses, his record outside of Ireland significantly worse than previous years and the yard a little thin on stars, relatively speaking (see last season’s flat season review for more on this). But at home, it wasn’t just business as usual but a record-breaking season with 143 winners on the turf, his previous best being 124 in 2013.

From the point-of-view of the other major Irish yards, it was both disappointing and surprising that they weren’t able to exploit this brief chink in the Ballydoyle armour with the likes of Weld, Bolger and Lyons having down seasons to one degree or another. Perhaps his continued success at home, numerically at last, allowed O’Brien to remain quite sanguine about his horses being sick though experience does seem to have brought confidence whereas in times past he may have let it rattle him a little. If anything it was his son who took advantage of any slippage, his win in the Irish Derby standing out, though much of Joseph’s success came in lower grade handicaps with acquisitions from other yards. Aidan can at least console himself that should things ever go belly-up at Ballydoyle, he can have an assistant trainer post on the hill!

It is hard to get away from the belief that 2019 will be another big year for O’Brien, Sr. He has a huge team of horses, the spring has been kind weather-wise and his stars all seem healthy, none of the big guns ruled out yet. His early returns have been good with the likes of Magical, Le Brivido, Flag Of Honour and Sergei Prokofiev running well on seasonal debut.

One of O’Brien’s old rivals in the best races was John Oxx and his 2019 could be one of the most fascinating of all, Patrick Prendergast having come on board as assistant trainer and taken his team of horses with him. Plenty wondered at Prendergast’s motivation for this move, viewing him as a trainer on the up with Oxx the main beneficiary of the new setup. I don’t think it’s as simple as that as the John Oxx name still has some cachet while there is also succession to think about with Oxx aged 68.

It is also important to note that while Prendergast trained his first Group 1 winner in 2018, these successes have proved largely useless in elevating mid-range trainers to a higher plane. There have been numerous examples of Irish trainers winning their first Group 1 race this decade and it doing little or nothing for them in terms of getting more winners or horses in the short-term. Ger Lyons won the 2011 Cheveley Park with Lightening Pearl; he trained 31 winners that year and 24 and 29 the following years. Eddie Lynam won the Nunthorpe with Sole Power in 2010; he had 10 winners that year and 13 and 9 respectively the next two seasons.

It was a similar story with Mick Halford and Jessica Harrington in 2010 as they won Group 1 juvenile races with Casamento and Pathfork and while it could be argued that all those trainers making the top-level breakthrough around that period was awful timing with a view to attracting new owners as they may have cannibalised each other’s opportunities, neither Adrian Keatley nor Ken Condon seem likely to ‘kick on’ from recent Classic victories. Both Lyons and Harrington have gone to another level since those wins but that was because of their broad body of work rather than one win or horse and Prendergast may well have been wise to learn that lesson from recent history.

One thing Oxx may be hoping to get from Prendergast is an edge with juveniles; Oxx has trained only one two-year-old Group winner since 2013 and if there is a single cause for his decline this might be it. His patience, once seen as a virtue, now seems a black mark for prospective owners. Oxx did have a reasonable record with juveniles in the early part of the decade but that dwindled to nought in the last five years with only nine two-year-old winners from 137 runners (6.6% strikerate) between 2014 and 2018; in that period, Prendergast was 21 from 196 (10.7% strikerate).

Last season, with Skitter Scatter playing a big part, Prendergast finished tenth in the trainers’ championship, Oxx only thirty-eighth. Combining their prizemoney would have brought them up to eighth overall. Oxx commented in a recent interview that he felt he had only seven horses that could win a race going into last season (eight won in the end) but combining his and Prendergast’s numbers puts them in a better place for 2019. Oxx ran 35 horses, Prendergast 28, and 63 total horses would have left them just behind the O’Briens, Weld, Bolger, Lyons and Harrington last year. In the same interview, Oxx said they had 75 horses in for the season and while all of them won’t run, they should be significant players.

To conclude, let’s look at a yard or two that might be due some regression, be it positive or negative. One way to do this might be to compare what a trainer did last season versus the broader picture of the last ten years but sometimes that gives a false impression. Using an approach like that, one might think that the likes of Jessica Harrington and Johnny Murtagh are due to drop off now while someone like Mick Halford or Kevin Prendergast will bounce back. The reality is that both Harrington and Murtagh are simply yards on the up, the former in particular having taken a leap seemingly out of nowhere, never having more than 28 winners prior to 2017 but having 40 in each of the past two years.

I do think that strikerate could be informative here is it takes less account of the actual of number of horses in the yard; a trainer might be able to maintain a broadly similar return regardless of how many individual runners they have from season-to-season, allowing that there are outliers now and then. So below are the ten-year strikerates of the top 20 active turf trainers versus what they did last year.

 

 

The majority of the differences are too small to be statistically significant though the numbers for Oxx and Patrick Prendergast are interesting in light of what is discussed above. The one that stands out however is Harry Rogers who had a terrible 2018 but might be about to improve on that this year. Smaller yards like his can be a hostage to fortune and the dry summer of last year hardly suited his horses, many of whom prefer an ease. I must admit to being a bit of a fanboy of this stable as I like how his horses run frequently when they are fit and better days should be ahead.

- Tony Keenan

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%
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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.

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

On the Ger Lyons / Qatar Racing Split

According to David Redvers, racing and bloodstock manager for Qatar Racing, the reason for the split between his bosses and Ger Lyons was a ‘difference of opinion', writes Tony Keenan.

We may never get the full story of why Lyons is no longer training for Qatar Racing though the usual reasons for owners and trainers parting company all spring to mind: finances, disagreements over the campaigning of horses, personality clashes, and so on. In any case, neither racehorse trainers nor multi-millionaire owners are known for their meekness, and if racing history has shown us nothing else it is that these break-ups are almost inevitable.

That said, the news came as a surprise early last week. Lyons gave Pearl Bloodstock, the early iteration of Sheikh Fahad al Thani’s racing interests, their first winner, courtesy of Wade Giles, eight years ago and no trainer in the UK or Ireland has had more runners for them since 2010. Pearl Bloodstock came into being that year and has since been largely subsumed by Qatar Racing, which started in 2012, to the point where they currently have 15 and 94 horses in training respectively. While we can’t know why this separation happened we can make some sort of judgement on the results Lyons achieved for his owners in the period between 2010 and today.

Qatar Racing has a huge cast in terms of the different UK-based trainers they employ but it was interesting to note that, with the exception of Lightning Fast who goes to Johnny Murtagh, the rest of the outgoing Lyons horses were to be split between Andrew Balding, David Simcock and Ralph Beckett, a trio Redvers described as ‘our core group of trainers.’ Lyons had been the core Irish-based trainer up until last week so they are perhaps the best people to compare him with to see whether he was successful or not with the Qatar runners. One could, I suppose, put him alongside Aidan O’Brien but in many ways that is a pointless exercise as every trainer in the world suffers in comparison to O’Brien (though Lyons did have a better winner to runner ratio than the champion in Ireland last year and that is my starting point here).

Winner to runner ratio looks at each horse a trainer ran in an individual domestic season to see if they managed a win; if a trainer ran 30 individual horses and 10 of them won then their ratio would be 33%. In Ireland last season on the flat, only five trainers with at least 50 total runners had winners to runners ratios of 45% or more: Richard O’Brien, Lyons, Aidan O’Brien, Willie Mullins and Adrian McGuinness. With this in mind, I looked at the winner to runner ratio of Lyons, Balding, Simcock and Beckett with all their Qatar/Pearl horses. Remember however that the totals are not individual horses but individual horses with individual seasons; a horse like Lightening Pearl say would appear in two season totals as she raced in both 2011 and 2012. These numbers go from 2010 through to 2017.

 

Trainer Winners Runners Winner to Runner Ratio
G. Lyons 45 90 50.0%
A. Balding 23 45 51.1%
D. Simcock 16 41 39.0%
R. Beckett 26 66 39.4%

 

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The message here is clear; Lyons (from twice as many runners) has a similar ratio to Balding with the pair clear of Simcock and Beckett. An obvious knock against Lyons and possible reason why Qatar Racing may have wanted to look elsewhere was his lack of Group 1 winners; to date, his sole top level winner was Lightening Pearl in the 2011 Cheveley Park. Below are the comparative records of the four trainers at Group 1 level in the UK and Ireland since 2010 which includes all their runners, not just those for Qatar/Pearl.

 

Trainer Winners Runners Strikerate
G. Lyons 1 26 3.8%
A. Balding 2 58 3.4%
D. Simcock 4 59 6.8%
R. Beckett 2 35 5.7%

 

Simcock and Beckett come out best here but these are really small sample sizes. It is also worth pointing out that Qatar Racing are hardly serial Group 1 winners across their whole team of trainers; per their website, they (Qatar/Pearl) have had 15 Group 1 winners worldwide since coming into being in 2010. Six of those were in the UK or Ireland – Simple Verse (twice), Elm Park, Just The Judge, Lightening Pearl and Charm Spirit – with the last-named not running in their colours at the time. It might be better to look at their overall record in other Listed and Group races too; these races with their black-type are important for any burgeoning racing/bloodstock concern and alongside that offer a much bigger sample size. These figures include all Group 2, Group 3 and Listed races in the UK and Ireland since 2010.

 

Trainer Winners Runners Strikerate
G. Lyons 45 322 14.0%
A. Balding 56 505 11.1%
D. Simcock 33 309 10.7%
R. Beckett 37 330 11.2%

 

Lyons has the best strikerate here with a reasonable gap back to the other three though it could perhaps be argued that the Irish races are softer than the UK ones. In general, the story of Lyons’ career thus far has been quite a few very good horses without a great one and that does seem to be the case when we look at his top 10 horses owned by Qatar/Pearl, with Racing Post Ratings (RPR) used to measure their ability. Alongside them are the top 10 Qatar/Pearl horses trained in the UK and hopefully it is complete as they have owned a number of animals in partnership with other owners and breeders.

 

UK-trained top 10 with peak RPR Lyons-trained top 10 with peak RPR
Strong Suit (126) Cappella Sansevero (112)
Lightening Spear (122) Brendan Bracken (112)
Arod (121) Wades Giles (111)
Roaring Lion (118) Lightening Pearl (111)
Spirit Quartz (118) Chemical Charge (111)
Trade Storm (118) Cannonball (108)
Simple Verse (118) Queen Catrine (106)
Pearl Secret (117) Magnolia Beach (106)
Pallasator (116) Ainippe (106)
Hot Streak (116) Sacrificial (105)

 

Not even the best Lyons horse would have made it into the top 10 in the UK but obviously that group of horses comes from the entire UK operation which encompasses a large number of animals. The numbers bunched around the 110 mark for Lyons does back up the lots of very good horses/few great horses theory. Again it is worth pointing out that Qatar/Pearl hasn’t actually had the array of top-notchers one might expect with just three breaking the 120 RPR figure.

It’s often said in sport that winning heals all ills; no matter how badly players and management are getting on, if the team is winning then most if not all is forgiven. This isn’t always the case in racing however as we saw with Michael O’Leary and Willie Mullins back in 2016; Gigginstown were winning plenty of races with their horses in Closutton but the decision to leave was still made. It looks to be a similar case with Qatar/Pearl and Lyons as looking at the numbers above it is hard to argue that the trainer wasn’t making a good job of things; whatever the reason for the splits, it probably wasn’t results.

This may have been coming for a while, though, as it was surprising to read that Qatar/Pearl only had eight horses in training with Lyons this season which was down on the 16 individual runners he had for them in each of the three previous seasons. So while no yard wants to lose an owner like this, the loss may not be felt quite as keenly as it initially appears and in any case Lyons has added some high profile new patrons in Khalid Abdullah and George Strawbridge. In sum, I think he’s going to be alright.

- Tony Keenan

Irish Flat Season 2018 Preview: 5 Ws and 1 H

It is scarcely credible but after a seeming six-month long winter, the Irish flat season is up-and-running. We need to get Punchestown out of the way to engage with it fully but let’s kick off with six important questions for the campaign ahead.

How does Aidan O’Brien build on a record-breaking 2017?

By taking over the world.

Aside from the obvious Group 1 record last season, Aidan O’Brien continued to tighten the screw on Irish Group and Listed races generally. Consider the table below which looks at his historical record in such races since 2012.

Season Winners Runners Strikerate
2017 44 215 21%
2016 34 175 19%
2015 26 118 22%
2014 31 179 17%
2013 35 152 23%
2012 22 153 14%

 

2017 saw O'Brien have more winners, and runners, in Listed and Group races than ever before which is a pattern - no pun intended - that seems likely to continue in 2018. The problem – and it is a high-class problem – is that there simply aren’t enough races in Ireland for all his horses even with them running against each other, so he will have to travel far and wide.

Ballydoyle runners in the UK are old hat by now but they aren’t quite so common in France and certainly not at this stage of the season; yet O’Brien sent three horses to Longchamp last Sunday and they weren’t slouches either, Magical and Rostropovich Group 2 winners, Flag Of Honour successful at Group 3 level. It seems doubtful that the French trainers were enthused by this development though they might at least be pleased that none of them won.

Of course, the apotheosis of this would be Mendelssohn winning the Kentucky Derby. My initial reaction after his UAE Derby rout was to pooh-pooh any thought of Churchill Downs success, as Meydan form tends not to be replicated outside its own bubble. But his Beyer figure was 106 with the last three winners of the race coming in at 105, 103 and 102 (thanks to Ron Wood for those numbers) and the best US middle-distance three-year-old at the moment is on 104.

Simon Rowlands in his Irish Field column had him on 128 (a different scale is used here) with the potential to go higher with Bolt D’Oro behind him on 127. So on the clock he is at least in the right ballpark and he is reasonably hardened too having had seven starts and plenty of experience away from the turf. The dream of the Run for the Roses may not be insane but regardless of that I suspect we are going to be seeing the O’Brien horses running in places they haven’t before this season.

 

What did last season mean for Dermot Weld?

Not a lot probably, but…

With 44 winners in all, Weld had his worst season for at least as far as Racing Post records go back and it is worth put the campaign alongside those that went before.

Season Winners Strikerate Prizemoney Individual Runners Trainers’ Championship
2017 44 13% €1,246,600 121 4th
2016 87 20% €2,886,538 149 2nd
2015 76 19% €2,298,005 139 2nd
2014 92 22% €2,232,310 134 2nd
2013 63 15% €1,345,515 129 3rd

 

All of his numbers were well down on the previous three years though he did quickly rebound from a relatively disappointing season in 2013 the following year. The bounce-back may not be assured in 2018, however, if we consider the following comment from a recent Racing Post stable tour at face value:

Weld says he has cut down on numbers this year to concentrate on quality rather than quantity.’ Furthermore, it is interesting that his total individual runners didn’t fall off completely last year; there are surely some unraced three-year-olds that he didn’t rush as juveniles when things weren’t going right (Jaega looked a good prospect from this mould at Leopardstown on Monday) but it doesn’t seem likely that he has dozens of them.

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His patience with those horses could well be rewarded, but patience has its limits, which is something Willie Mullins knows all about; should Gordon Elliott retain his lead over him at Punchestown next week, he may regret being too patient in the early part of the jumps season proper. Weld is a little like this too. Since 2003, he has had just nine horses run in either of the English Guineas, the Oaks or the Derby. Their form figures read an impressive:104890281 with Refuse To Bend and Harzand the winners, so when they get there they tend to run well.

The issue is that they don’t get there often enough and playing the long game with three-year-olds basically denies the whole shape of the calendar; many of the races that matter are over by early June. That is something to bear in mind with the great bay hope Contingent who could be an Oaks filly but it was a little disconcerting for her backers to read in the same stable tour that ‘she’s still a bit backward in her coat and hasn’t done any fast work yet.’ She could have the quality but will she be ready in time to show it?

 

When does Ger Lyons finish second to Aidan O’Brien?

This year seems as good a guess as any.

Subjectively, and it is only subjectively, I think Lyons might be the second best flat trainer in Ireland right now; I emphasise right now as his historical achievements are not in same league as Dermot Weld or Jim Bolger but then he hasn’t been training for as long as them either. Bolger was second in the trainers’ championship last year but Lyons seems to have won the battle if not the war; he had 72 winners against 60 for Bolger with a strikerate of 19% against 11% for his rival. His problem was that he didn’t have Verbal Dexterity and his €233,280 in Irish prizemoney, with the difference between the two trainers at the line being €174,445.

Lyons’ problem is his ownership profile, which is currently constrained in getting his hands on a Group 1 horse like Verbal Dexterity, as such as Sean Jones and David Spratt just don’t have the buying power, astute though the latter certainly is at acquiring horses. And even if Lyons does get a horse that can compete at the top level, keeping him becomes an issue: Doctor Geoff was good in winning the Tetrarch on seasonal debut last season but was soon on the plane to Hong Kong. His rise from very little remains notable however and is worth charting below. While perhaps not quite in the Gordon Elliott league, it isn’t far behind.

 

Season Winners Strikerate Prizemoney Trainers’ Championship
2017 72 19% €1,858,035 3rd
2016 53 16% €1,324,590 4th
2015 60 18% €1,579,343 4th
2014 48 19% €935,715 4th
2013 35 14% €737,065 5th
2012 34 15% €549,890 7th
2011 43 12% €669,369 7th
2010 26 9% €456,976 9th

 

Everything seems in place for Lyons to kick on and improve again. He has the training ability, he has the stable jockey in Colin Keane and he has the right attitude too. Rather than get defeatist about the power of the big yards, he wants to get up and at them, commenting in a recent AtTheRaces interview that ‘[Aidan O’Brien] is dragging us along in his wake [and] you try to follow him.’ But if he is to be another Gordon Elliott, who is going to be his Michael O’Leary?

 

Who should the Big Four be worried about?

The Big Two.

In truth, Aidan O’Brien shouldn’t be worried about anything bar what goes on in his own yard but if winners are to be taken from the likes of Weld, Bolger and Lyons then perhaps it will be Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott who do it. Below are their respective flat winners over the past five seasons:

Mullins Season Elliott
18 2017 12
7 2016 6
11 2015 1
7 2014 7
10 2013 4

 

Mullins is slightly further down the flat training route than Elliott but both ‘suffer’ from the same problem as Aidan O’Brien in that they have so many horses and not enough races. Elliott of course won the Railway Stakes last year with Beckford from his first team of two-year-olds in 2017 and had an interesting early runner on the level at Cork last Sunday. Scealai Aonair, formerly owned by the Irish President, was bought out of Dermot Weld’s yard for €10,000 and went with a deal of promise on his first start for Elliott’s own racing club.

For Mullins, last season on the flat was all about the summer festivals with winners at Killarney, Listowel and most notably Galway. The soft ground at the last-named track may have helped but his form figures of:134115 in the premier handicaps at that meeting were deeply impressive with Whiskey Sour winning two such races and Riven Light unlucky not to do likewise and nor could he be accused at going mob-handed at the fixture.

 

Where should the astute smaller owner go with his horse?

Step forward Richard O’Brien.

Before this becomes an advertorial, I want to point out that I don’t know Richard O’Brien apart from Twitter and, as my wife constantly points out, Twitter isn’t real! He’s a good follow on that platform, however, and has an excellent blog that keeps people updated on his runners. But more than that, the statistics bear out the belief that he had a really good maiden season in 2017, coming out best of all Irish trainers with a minimum of 50 total runners on the winners-to-runners ratio or as I prefer to call it ‘the keeping as many owners as possible happy’ figure.

 

Trainer Winner to Runner Ratio
R. O’Brien 56%
G. Lyons 55%
A. O’Brien 53%
W. Mullins 48%
A. McGuinness 45%
P. Prendergast 42%
J. Feane 41%
J. Oxx 41%

 

It is unlikely if not impossible that he will keep that return up and he probably benefits from having a small sample size to date, but it remains a notable achievement to finish ahead of Lyons and his namesake Aidan. Furthermore, he has done well with acquisitions from other yards - the likes of Alans Pride rising from a rating of 52 to 73, Tom Dooley from 46 to 65 and Beach Bar from 78 to 94. We have seen this movie before with trainers like Elliott, Mullins and to a lesser extent Lyons and it can be a good gauge of trainer ability.

Already this season O’Brien has won the Madrid Handicap with Dianthus and while running her in the 1,000 Guineas Trial at Leopardstown soon after could be considered a rush of blood to the head, it is worth pointing out that Jet Setting won the same race off a not dissimilar preparation, catching some of those from the big yards cold before going on to the win the Irish 1,000 Guineas. The result may not have been what they wanted but the thinking was right.

 

Why are they racing at the Curragh again this year?

I have no idea.

- Tony Keenan

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.

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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%

 

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.

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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.

 

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

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.

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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.

 

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

Godolphin hold the key to Lockinge success

The Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes at Newbury is the highlight of this weekend’s action.

The one-mile contest forms part of the Qipco Champions Series, which sees three-year-old’s kept away from the older horses until the generations clash in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood. From Newbury’s showpiece, attention will turn to Royal Ascot and the Queen Anne Stakes, won last year by the season’s outstanding miler Solow.

First run in 1958, the Lockinge Stakes was raised to Group 1 status in 1995 and has gone to numerous outstanding milers in its illustrious history. In 1972 the race was won by one of the greatest milers of them all, Brigadier Gerard. In a dazzling career over three seasons, he was only defeated once in 18 starts. Trained by Major Dick Hern and ridden in all his races by Joe Mercer, the horse became a phenomenon, with arguably only Frankel matching his astounding achievements.

Sir Henry Cecil’s extraordinary champion won all 14 of his career starts, though it was not just the victories that impressed, rather the style of those victories. Frankel was a monster on the racetrack, and his win in the Lockinge of 2012 typified that destructive manner of success. On that occasion he crushed an outstanding miler in Excelebration. Given the perfect tow into the race from stable companion Bullet Train, the mighty colt was sent on by regular pilot Tom Queally just inside the two-furlong mark. Frankel devoured the turf, pulling five lengths clear at the post.

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This legendary pair were as good a miler’s as we are ever likely to see, though most that win the Lockinge are top-class and become multiple Group 1 winners. Last year’s race went to the 2014 Guineas winner Night of Thunder. That victory made it two in a row for trainer Richard Hannon, having taken the 2014 renewal with Olympic Glory.

Between them, Hannon senior and junior have trained four of the last six Lockinge Stakes winners, and Godolphin have become the most successful owners, thanks to two victories in the last three renewals. Tomorrow the teams unite with Toormore looking to go one better than 12 months ago, when he was pipped at the post by Night of Thunder. He’s likely to go off as favourite having won his seasonal return at Sandown in the Group 2 Bet365 Mile. He’s undoubtedly classy, though his only Group 1 success came as a juvenile in the National Stakes at the Curragh.

His latest win came at the expense of another Godolphin pair in Dutch Connection and Belardo, though it would come as no surprise should that form be reversed. At Sandown Dutch Connection travelled like the best horse through the race before tiring late on, whilst Belardo was given a rather mediocre ride, being left with far too much ground to make up in the latter stages. Charlie Hills trains the former and is adamant that soft ground will be far from ideal. The opposite is true of Roger Varian’s son of Lope De Vega, and I’d expect a huge run from Belardo should the ground at Newbury remain testing.

Ground conditions are sure to play a huge part in proceedings. Limato was strongly fancied before the rains arrived, and is now drifting considerably in the markets. He’ll be tackling a mile for the first time, and has never run on ground officially slower than good. His trainer, Henry Candy, will walk the course on Saturday before committing the horse to the race.

Kodi Bear on the other hand, will love conditions if they remain testing, and has been backed accordingly. His stunning success in the Group 2 Celebration Mile last August came in testing ground, though he failed to reproduce that kind of form when stepped up to Group 1 company in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Champions Day. As much as conditions look set to suit this fella, I fancy he’s not quite good enough to win at this level.

In a race that has been dominated by four-year-olds in recent times, Ger Lyons has an intriguing contender from Ireland in the form of Endless Drama. Another son of Lope De Vega, he was a close second to Gleneagles in the Irish Guineas last May, before injury put an end to his three-year-old campaign. Returning in a Group 1 is far from ideal, but his pedigree suggests that conditions should be fine, and he had Belardo behind him in the guineas. He’s a huge beast and remains an exciting prospect.

But it’s Godolphin that appear to hold the strongest hand, as they look to add to their six previous victories. Favourites have a great record in the Lockinge, with five of the last six successful. Nevertheless, I have a feeling that the form of Toormore’s Sandown win will be turned on its head. I’ll likely back both Dutch Connection and Belardo, with both four-year-olds having the potential of improving past the likely favourite. I fear Ger Lyons Irish raider, though the lack of a prep-run will stop me from backing him.

Many of these will head to Royal Ascot, when the ground is likely to be much quicker. I’d be surprised if Dutch Connection and Endless Drama don’t prove to be the best of the bunch as the season unfolds.

Grounds for optimism – As Vega offspring impress

There’s been much talk of Galileo in recent days after the stallion’s dominance in the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket. It was also his dam that produced 2000 Guineas winner Galileo Gold.

Though Galileo is undoubtedly an outstanding stallion, and likely to take have more than his fair share of top level winners throughout the summer, other stallions will also make an impact at the highest level. One that’s set to continue to establish himself among the best is the ex-Andre Fabre inmate Lope De Vega.

The talented colt was a terrific racehorse, making an instant impact on the track as a juvenile, and continuing on an upward curve during the early part of his three-year-old campaign. He won two of his three outings as a two-year-old, with his only defeat coming in the Group 1 Prix Jean Luc Lagadere, when finishing fourth behind Siyouni on good ground.

His first start at three came in the Prix De Fontainebleau in April 2010, a recognised trial for the Poule d'Essai des Poulains; the French 2000 Guineas. He finished a promising third behind the Aga Khan pair of Rajsaman and Siyouni. In May he arrived at Longchamp as a 10/1 shot for the Guineas. Drawn wide, he came with a swooping run to beat Richard Hannon’s Dick Turpin, who had previously finished runner-up in the Guineas at Newmarket.

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He followed up his first Group 1 success by stepping up in trip to take the Prix Du Jockey Club at Chantilly in stunning fashion. The race was run on good to soft ground, and Lope De Vega appeared to revel in the conditions. In completing the French Classic double he was emulating his own sire Shamardal who had taken both events in 2005. He failed to spark in the remainder of his campaign and was retired to stud at the end of the season.

Lope De Vega started his new career as a stallion at the Ballylinch Stud in Ireland in 2011. The latter part of his racing career had not gone well, yet he remained a Group 1 winner and it was hoped that he would become a success at stud. He was to make a huge impact, becoming the Champion First Crop Sire in Europe for 2014, with Belardo his leading juvenile thanks to victory in the Dewhurst Stakes. His 2015 juveniles continued the success with more high profile victories including Blue De Vega’s group win at Leopardstown.

Though Belardo somewhat under-achieved at three, he remains a horse of huge promise when conditions are in his favour. He needs to ‘get his toe in’ to be seen at his best, as was the case when chasing home Solow in the QEII at Ascot last October. He looks capable of further group success at around a mile when the ground is testing.
It’s refreshing to have an exciting stallion that doesn’t reside with the usual powerhouses of Darley, Coolmore, and Juddmonte. Lope De Vega is backed by a number of breeders, both in Europe and in Australia. Ammerland, Ballylinch, and SF Bloodstock are major breeders who support the horse every year in the Northern Hemisphere.

Gestut Ammerland was founded in 1989 by Dietrich Von Boetticher. Numerous outstanding horses have been campaigned by the German stud including Hurricane Run, Borgia, Boreal, Grey Lilas and dual Classic-winning mare Golden Lilac. Their association with Lope De Vega will give hope of more exceptional horses to come.

Progeny that look set to make an impact this term include the aforementioned Irish trained Blue De Vega. He finished runner-up on his seasonal debut at the Curragh, and has an entry in the Irish Guineas along with the Epsom Derby. It’s likely he’ll be seen to best effect on a more testing surface. The horse is trained by Michael O’Callaghan for Qatar Racing and partners, and their racing manager, David Redvers, spoke after the Curragh run, saying: “Blue De Vega’s run was very promising. He needed it and it will put him spot on. He also needs further, so we’ll come back for the Irish Guineas.”

One that is set for a return after almost a year off the track is Ger Lyons promising four-year-old Endless Drama. He was last seen chasing home Gleneagles in last year’s Irish Guineas. That was a huge performance, and he had Belardo behind him that day. If he returns fit and well, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be competitive in group events. He’s entered in the Lockinge and then has dual entries at Royal Ascot.

One colt that has already impressed this season was the John Gosden trained Linguistic, who won at Newmarket in April. The three-year-old may well head for the Dante, and should the ground at York be on the soft side you’d have to give him a chance. He’s by a Montjeu mare and has the potential to take high order.

It’s an exciting time for a stallion that remains a relatively new kid on the block. Watch out for his progeny when ground conditions suit, at trips close to a mile.

Grading The Trainers – Irish Flat Season 2015 Review

Racing is an unusual sport, the winners emerging throughout the season rather than solely at the end, and while there are a few cards left to be played over Champions Day and the Breeders’ Cup, now is a fair time to take a broad view of the Irish flat campaign. The flat calendar comprises around 1,000 races and as of this weekend there are just 80 left to be run with the Pattern basically complete, there being only one group race remaining.

To grade trainers on what they achieve relative to each other is a pointless task; Aidan O’Brien would be an A almost every year with a sliding scale after him and you’d end up producing a slightly altered version of the trainers’ championship. But there is more at play here than mere numbers and different standards apply to different trainers, so sometimes the best barometer for a trainer is themselves and what they have previously achieved.

There are a few criteria at play in my analysis. Numbers matter but they’re not the only thing. Group races matter, especially Group 1’s and, further to that, the handling and placing of key horses is huge. Big meetings, particularly Galway, matter whereas Roscommon on a summer Monday barely registers. Premier handicaps matter as they’re often the best measure of a trainer who doesn’t have a host of blue bloods.

 

Aidan O’Brien – Grade: B

2015 has been a curate’s egg for O’Brien. His best horse Gleneagles exemplified this, going through the top three-year-old mile races unbeaten before drawing plenty of ire for a trio of high-profile defections from the Sussex, International and Irish Champion Stakes. His legacy remains up in the air and one wonders if he might even stay in training at four in a bid to get his ground.

O’Brien’s record in domestic Group races has continued to be strong:

Trainers in Irish Group Races – 2015

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/
Expected
A O’Brien 80 20 25.0% +19.51 1.19
D Weld 42 10 23.8% -12.76 0.98
J Bolger 49 5 10.2% +15.11 0.67
G Lyons 27 4 14.8% -10.62 1.14
E Lynam 13 3 23.1% +5.50 1.37

 

A notable feature here – and one punters are likely thankful for – is the positive actual over expected return which is meaningful too as there is a decent sample size; that’s unusual given the typical profile of the yard’s runners and might have something to do with the jockey confusion during the year. Things started with Ryan Moore then Joseph stepped in with a healthy dose of Heffernan and O’Donoghue mixed through as weights dictated.

Of course O’Brien is not judged on pattern race winners but on Group 1s and particularly the Derby. In that regard, he failed in 2015. Despite seeming to have a strong hand going into the winter, ten lengths was the closest his main representative Giovanni Canaletto could get to the winner at Epsom and

the Curragh. Neither John F Kennedy nor Ol’ Man River came close to delivering on their potential, hardly running to better than 100 in seven combined starts.

Found too was a disappointment. The best of her generation at two when she beat Ervedya (a three-time Group 1 winner in 2015), she has managed just a single Group 3 win in a three-runner race this season, leaving the impression of unfulfilled potential. She certainly suffers by comparison with Ervedya though she did run with credit against the boys in the Irish Champion.

Perhaps the high point of O’Brien’s season was the second day of Irish Champions Weekend where he landed a big race treble with Minding, Air Force Blue and Order Of St George; and an underrated aspect of his 2015 was a marked uptick in his record with jumpers, particularly bumper horses. Since the start of the 2015/16 national hunt season, his runners have hit at 31%; regardless of who is training them, that’s an impressive strikerate.

It would be remiss not to mention the difficult circumstances O’Brien has faced this year with rumours circulating about his future at Ballydoyle, rumours he has dealt with in a dignified manner. Such speculation will always be part of this sort of position but to mention the likes of David O’Meara in the same breath is doing O’Brien a significant disservice; he has achieved too much for that. And with three juvenile Group 1s already in the bag and the chance of two more this weekend, it’s likely he’ll be achieving more of the same next year.

 

Dermot Weld – Grade: C+

Had this piece been written in late April, then Weld would have been a clear A+ but the road is long and he may have shot his bolt too early though in his defence the trainer did state he had a team of soft ground horses that needed to be out early.

But overall this has been a moderate season for Weld - Free Eagle just about rescuing it at Royal Ascot – and I have long thought that he doesn’t win enough Group 1s given the quality he has in his yard. The placing of high-profile horses is vital to rating a trainer and the call to run Free Eagle in the Arc was a poor one with the Champion Stakes, over a trip and track the horse excels at and against much weaker opposition, a better option.

Forgotten Rules has been campaigned no better. Despite Weld continually saying that he wouldn’t run him on fast ground, he pitches up in the Ascot Gold Cup and while that’s forgivable – it is Royal Ascot after all – the decision to run him ten days later in the Curragh Cup was one of the worst calls of the season given the cotton-wool treatment he’d had up to then. It looked a run borne out of frustration which rarely ends well. His subsequent effort in the Irish Leger is not as bad as it looks, his jockey giving him a bad ride, but has plenty on his plate to get back on track at BCD. Incidentally, that was one of the few poor rides Pat Smullen gave all season; he’s been an A+ though many of his big wins came for trainers other than Weld.

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Galway was disappointing for Weld. He may have won the top trainer prize but it was an award he scarcely merited as it was achieved more on his number of horses placed in ordinary races than on the quality of races he won. A few of the trainer’s better horses missed portions of the season, notably Zawraq and Mustajeeb, but keeping horses sound is a skill too.

 

Jim Bolger – Grade: B-

Godolphin must love Jim Bolger; he’s about their best trainer though the bar is not high there. Their Pleascach has been the standout horse at Coolcullen this season, given a typically aggressive Bolger campaign, and while the returns didn’t quite reach Lush Lashes level, winning the Irish 1,000 Guineas and the Yorkshire Oaks in a strong year for three-year-old fillies is a decent haul.

Away from here though, it’s been an ordinary year for Bolger. Lucida was among the best of her generation but failed to win a Group 1 and there is an argument for jockey error playing its part in that, Kevin Manning not seen at his best in either of her final three starts. He moved prematurely into the teeth of a strong gallop in the 1,000 Guineas before not moving quick enough at Royal Ascot while he seemed to be unaware of the slow pace in the Falmouth.

Bolger’s juveniles have been disappointing too, not least because of his hyping of them early and it looks a case of confusing geese with swans. Round Two was described as ‘everything you would like in a racehorse’, Sanus Per Aquam was ‘the auld fella [Teofilo] reincarnated’, Herald The Dawn was ‘a very nice type of horse.’ High, even hollow, praise for a trio of Group 3 horses.

 

David Wachman – A

Perhaps the best test of a trainer is how they handle a really top class horse and if there has been a knock against David Wachman it’s that his stars have shone brightly but all too briefly. That was true of the likes of Damson, Again and Sudirman but certainly not of Legatissimo who has been expertly campaigned in 2015.

She promised a bit at two without screaming Group 1 winner but has been a revelation this season, starting out at a high level and progressing from it, her most impressive performances arguably her last two at Goodwood and Leopardstown. There’s a case to be made that she should have won five Group 1s on the trot, beaten by a short head in both the Oaks and the Pretty Polly, and her versatility over different trips is rare. That she achieved all this in a deep year for three-year-old fillies is even more meritorious and she might even have won a Group 1 against colts had she been given the chance; she goes to the Breeders’ Cup with a leading chance of ending her season on a high.

Curvy was another fine example of Wachman’s skill with fillies, improving from a mark of 72 to 111 now. Her form has tailed off a little but she has had a long season while Hint Of A Tint, for all that she blotted her copybook at Tipperary on Sunday, has been well-trained to win a pair of premier handicaps having previously been fragile. She was one of three Galway winners for the yard and that gets points too.

 

Ger Lyons – B

I’m biased with Ger Lyons, being a fan of both his training methods and straightforward interaction with the media, and 2015 was another steady year for him. Previously an outspoken critic of Galway, he landed two good handicap winners at the meeting this summer with Sacrificial and Waipu Cove, both of whom look up to Listed class at least. The former went close at Royal Ascot too, ‘winning’ his side in the Britannia, while he also had a good winner with Glass House over Irish Champions Weekend.

Ainippe, however, deserves pride of place. She’d looked an all-out speedball at two and unlikely to progress at three but she won a pair of Group 3s this season and capped it off with a third in the Matron Stakes. It was a brave call to supplement her for that race – the trip was further than she’d raced over before and the ground was on the slow side – but connections were rewarded with Group 1 black type and a hefty share of prize-money.

 

Michael Halford – C-

With Halford, it’s more quantity that quality so this looks another underwhelming season. He ties for the lead in handicap winners with Ger Lyons, and Hasanour was an early-season star but it takes a lot of volume to get to where he is and the lack of Pattern race success has to be a black mark.

It’s a long time since Casamento won the Racing Post Trophy, 2010 in fact, and the trainer hasn’t kicked on from there. Indeed, one could argue he’s gone backwards having managed only three group winners since Casamento, and is 0/17 in Irish Group races this year. And it’s not as if he doesn’t have the owners; numbering Godolphin and the Aga Khan among his patrons, he really should be doing better. Success at Dundalk and in Dubai is all well and good but those meetings are in their own bubbles, the action less competitive than the mid-summer turf, and more is expected.

 

Willie McCreery – A

2015 should have been a down year for Willie McCreery. His star mare Fiesolana had gone off to the paddocks and she contributed a lot over the past two seasons, winning four races in 2013 before landing the Group 1 Matron Stakes last year. That’s a major loss for any yard, much less one without power owners, but he has managed to thrive nonetheless, already having two more winners in the turf season than he had in all of last season.

His handicap record is notable; he is second only to Garvan Donnelly in terms of strikerate and actual over expected among those trainers with at least 25 handicap runners, outstripping many better known yards. He does even better in premier handicaps:

 

Trainers in Irish Premier Handicaps 2015

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
W McCreery 16 4 25.0% +17.5 2.27
D Wachman 10 3 30.0% +21.0 1.99
M Halford 30 3 10.0% -8.0 1.00
A Oliver 2 9 22.2% +4.5 2.47

 

These are the most valuable handicaps of the Irish flat season and there have been 28 of them so far in 2015 with the average field size being 14 runners; they are not easy to win. Yet McCreery won four of them and with four different horses and while the likes of Fact Of Folklore and Shrill had upside going into their races, his other winners Tylery Wonder and Colour Blue looked plenty exposed.

 

Michael O’Callaghan – B+

O’Callaghan only began training in 2012 and with ten Irish flat winners this season he’s already more than doubled his previous win total. He has to prove he’s something other than a trainer of juveniles – since starting his career, his strikerate is 13.6% with the youngsters, 11.0% with everything else – but he’s certainly very good with two-year-olds and has a number of horses with significant potential next year like Blue De Vega and Moral High Ground.

The trainer (or connections) also deserves credit for one of the shrewdest bits of placing of the year with Now Or Never, the yard’s wide-margin Galway maiden winner on soft ground. After that win, she was doubly entered over trials meeting for Irish Champions Weekend in the Debutante and Futurity, the former confined to fillies on a Saturday, the second open to colts on a Sunday. Looking at the forecast for rain, O’Callaghan declared her for the Futurity which cut up badly and finished up being run on soft ground while the Debutante was a deep field and finished up being fought out by Ballydoyle and Minding, both Group 1 winners since. Now Or Never made the running in the slowly-run Futurity and got valuable black type for finishing second, connections rewarded for a brave and clever play.

 

Eddie Lynam – B-

It’s been a ‘meh’ season for Lynam for all that his number of winners has been broadly in line with previous totals but he was always going to struggle with the retirement of Slade Power. Winning a first turf race in Ireland with Sole Power rates as a high point and that it came over Irish Champions Weekend so much the better but the disappointing recent runs of Anthem Alexander have been a downer after so much early promise.

 

Johnny Murtagh – D

A great jockey does not a great trainer make as a look at the list of the top trainers in either code will tell you and, after Johnny Murtagh’s third season in the driving seat, the jury remains out on his training career. His Irish runners have hit at a rate of just 6% in 2015 and big winners have been thin on the ground despite the presence of some good owners that are willing to spend. The absence of Andrew Tinkler runners hasn’t helped but there are still plenty of expensive purchases in the yard.

Murtagh’s placing of his horses leaves a bit to be desired too. Running Stroll Patrol back four days after her Scurry win in a Naas Listed race seemed rushed; the first race was run at a strong gallop and she was a three-year-old against her elders so may have needed time to recover. The decision to take Kasbah to Wolverhampton for a £7,000 race only six days after she wasn’t even entered in a winnable Curragh premier handicap was a poor call too; she bolted up on the all-weather and would surely have gone close in the more valuable and higher profile Irish race. Murtagh doesn’t have that many highly rated horses in his yard – Kasbah is one of them – so it is important to maximise their potential and win the best races possible.

Stat of the Day, 12th May 2015

Stat of the Day

Stat of the Day

Stat of the Day, 12th May 2015

We might not have landed a winner at Towcester on Monday evening, but it certainly wasn't down to a lack of effort on behalf of either jockey David Bass or our horse Cosway Spirit.

Less resilient horses and/or jockeys would have thrown the towel in before the start of the third mile, it was that tough out there. But the partnership persevered and were almost at walking pace when crossing the line in second place at 3/1, a point shorter than advised.

All that happened was that we found one too good for us and there's little you can do about that. Anyway, onto Tuesday and the...

7.15 Killarney:

And a 4/1 BOG bet on handicap debutant Sacrificial who steps up half a furlong from a win over a mile on soft ground at Leopardstown four weeks ago, when he finished 3.5 lengths clear of Tuk Tuk, who has since turned back out and won well.

Sacrificial is trained by Ger Lyons and if you had backed each of Ger's runners in Irish Flat handicaps since the start of 2011, you'd have had 62 winners from 378 bets (16.4% SR) with a £10 level stake on each of them netting a cool £1218 profit at an ROI of 32.2%.

Those priced in the 2/1 to 10/1 banding have won 54 of 248 (21.8% SR) for 121.7pts (+49.1% ROI) profit, whilst those competing for prizes of £13,000 or less have won 58 of 314 (18.5% SR) for 141.8pts (+45.2% ROI).

Those entered in sub-£13k races and priced at 2/1 to 7/1 are 46/171 (26.9% SR) for 106.4pts (+62.2% ROI)

This is Sacrificial's handicap debut and since the start of the 2011 season, Ger Lyons' handicap debutants are 12/65 (18.5% SR) for 28.9pts profit at an ROI of 44.5%. Closer inspection of these 65 runners reveals the following data...

Those priced at 11/2 or shorter are 10/26 (38.5% SR) for 30.5pts (+117.3% ROI).
Those competing for less than £8,000 prize money are 11/46 (23.9% SR) for 43.5pts (+94.5% ROI).
Those running at the same trip as LTO or stepping up by no more than 3f are 9/41 (22% SR) for 39.8pts (+97% ROI)

Ger Lyons' handicap debutants running at the same trip or up to 3 furlongs more than last time out at odds of 11/2 or shorter for a prizer of less than £8,000 are 7/12 (58.3% SR) for 31.3pts (+261.2% ROI) profit.

Sacrifical was sired by Showcasing, whose offspring, to date, have won 51 of their 284 (18% SR) races for profits of 136.7pts at a very healthy ROI of 48.1%, with those sent off at 8/1 or shorter winning 45 of 156 (28.9% SR) for 64.3pts (+41.2% ROI) whilst those who are competing for a winners' cheque of less than £8,000 are 40 from 205 (19.5% SR) for 134.5pts (+65.6% ROI)

Showcasing's offspring competing for prizes of less than £8,000 at odds of 8/1 and shorter are 36/114 (31.6% SR) for 75.4pts (+66.1% ROI).

Sacrificial only got home by a neck last time out, having looked rusty mid-race from a six-month lay off. He had travelled much stronger in previous races and the grit shown last time out also suggests progression is likely. Tne beauty of a narrow win is that he has been given a very workable mark of 87 today. Yes, he's top weight, but he's been consistent so far and we know he handles soft ground.

All things considered, I think the 4/1 BOG offered by Betfair Sportsbook about Sacrificial looks very generous and there's still plenty of juice in the 7/2 BOG being offered elsewhere, but do check for for yourself by...

...clicking here for the betting on the 7.15 Killarney

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Alter egos 17: BB tries for a GG double

Brendan Bracken- Big Brother

Brendan Bracken- Big Brother

Brendan Bracken [/caption]The First Viscount Brendan Bracken (1901-1958) was an Irish born journalist who turned politician and became Conservative MP for North Paddington. Read more