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Tony Keenan: 2018/19 Irish Jumps Season Review: Four Things

I’m belatedly getting around to wrapping up the Irish jumps season but don’t feel quite so bad for being two weeks behind everyone else with probably the most significant event of the campaign happening last week, Michael O’Leary announcing that Gigginstown would be wound up within five years. Let’s start with that.

 

  1. Gigginstown Going

As a viewer of and writer about Irish racing, Gigginstown and the O’Learys has been box office for the last decade or so, their impact on the game covered elsewhere on the site in March. The retirement of Ruby Walsh will likely be the event that 2018/19 is most remembered for – in the grand scheme of things, no one really cares about owners – but in terms of impact on the broader sport it doesn’t come close to Michael O’Leary’s decision.

The reasons for his move have already been much discussed with some, myself included, wondering if wanting to spend time with teenage children is the real motivation, that age group typically wanting to avoid their parents as much as possible, but ultimately that is all speculation and a bit like the split with Willie Mullins, we may never know the truth.

But one thing that has been evident over the last few years is a rising tide of negativity against Gigginstown domination with some of that coming from medium-sized trainers who have struggled without O’Leary patronage. Those murmurings likely had no impact on O’Leary judging on how he conducts himself in business and those trainers may now be looking forward to a brave new world of more horses in their yard, cheaper horses at the sales and the chance of winning better races. All I can say is: be careful what you wish for.

Much of racing is made up of different interest groups, many of whose interests are in straight opposition with others, but as a punter I will miss Gigginstown massively. The ‘bet the blue cap’ system became a running joke as their second and third and fourth strings won race after race but it said a lot for how their horses were campaigned. There is often a sense when betting that someone will know more than you but with their horses it never felt like it was so much more that you didn’t have a chance with a formbook.

Gordon Elliott looks the big loser in all this and he will find it disheartening that around this time last year O’Leary promised to spend even more to help make him Champion Trainer. Mullins versus Elliott has not been perfect but it is eminently preferable to the Mullins versus himself period we had in the early part of the decade. Elliott forced Mullins to run his good horses more if he wanted to retain his position as Champion Trainer and the concern would be that he reverts to cautious type if the competition wanes.

As to the bloodstock side of things, I refer back to a line from Henry Beeby, Group Chief Executive at Goffs, in my previous piece on Gigginstown when he said there was a time when people worried about what would happen if ‘Robert Sangster never bought another yearling’ and ‘we should never underestimate the resilience of the industry.’ I hope he’s right.

 

  1. The Rachael and Henry Show

Rachael Blackmore was always going to be the story emerging from Knockeen this season, the narrative of unheralded female jockey amidst pioneering campaign much preferable to good trainer having career season; so let’s start with the runner-up in the jockeys’ championship without underplaying the role of Henry de Bromhead.

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The rise of Blackmore could be seen coming early in the season after a fine period in the summer and it was one of the most joyful things about 2018/19; she seemed to relish each big race success, never taking it for granted, her status as one not to the racing manor born endearing her to fans of the sport. With her success there was no drop off in work ethic, indeed she may have worked harder than ever, taking 615 mounts in Ireland over the course of the season. Sean Flanagan was next best with 511, and no other Irish-based jockey had more than 486 rides.

Perhaps this is peak-Rachael, and if it is what a peak it was, but I would be far from sure of that and it is notable that her biggest wins of the season (three Grade 1s, one of them at Cheltenham, along with another winner there) came on novices which was the strength of the de Bromhead yard this past season.

The narrative around de Bromhead for years has been that his horses jump well and while that is a compliment, he will likely be pleased that this season they became good winners as well as good jumpers. His 98 winners and €1.962 million in prizemoney was a clear lifetime best – 68 winners and €1.589 million prizemoney his previous top in 2016/17 – and the most notable aspect of his total was how much of it came from novices.

He won 73 races in the UK and Ireland with novices this past season from 105 total winners, behind only Mullins, Elliott, Dan Skelton and Nicky Henderson in novice winners; and those novices like Minella Indo, Honeysuckle and A Plus Tard went on to compete in (and win) the best races. The departure of Gigginstown will be a blow but he is not completely reliant on them with only three of his top ten prizemoney earners in Ireland running in maroon and white.

They were Sub Lieutenant, Judgement Day and Nick Lost, hardly the most progressive trio for all they were placed to pick up plenty of cheques in 2018/19, and his better horses and prospects run for other owners, some of them new to the yard like Cheveley Park and Kenneth Alexander. Having early success for those two won’t do the trainer any harm.

 

  1. Good isn’t much good

A dry winter meant fast ground for much of the national hunt season proper with all its attendant moaning and withdrawals. It also meant a lot of recycled form, the same horses running against each other under similar conditions from week to week, and if I ever see another two mile handicap chase with Kildorrery, Impact Factor and Duca De Thaix running against each other it will be too soon.

On a serious note, a season where 84% of the pattern was run on goodish ground is not ideal; of the 104 graded non-handicaps in 2018/19, 87 were run on yielding or faster. It was a rare opportunity for good ground horses that had little chance to show their best the previous wet winter but ultimately jumps racing is not designed to be run on a fast surface; the horses are too big, the impact of jumping, particularly over fences, is too much.

There was pressure on courses to water ahead of major meetings with some getting it right, Fairyhouse at Easter and the Punchestown Festival generally coming in for praise, and others not so much, Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival plagued by withdrawals. The track were in an invidious position with frost in the run-up to the meeting and forecast rain not falling but one notable factor was how form from that meeting worked out.

Certainly it wasn’t the bonanza of 2018 when eight Festival winners emerged from the meeting with only two successful this time around. Klassical Dream and Envoi Allen were the pair, and they are about the two most exciting younger jumpers in Ireland right now. Apple’s Jade was one that wasn’t the same afterwards though there may have been seasonal reason for that and the meeting did no harm to the likes of Supasundae and Min judged on their Aintree exploits.

One does worry if a warmer climate in these islands might be as big a threat as there is to national hunt racing. Punchestown is one track that is quite forward-thinking in this regard, an announcement made in The Irish Field before their big meeting that they were expanding their reservoir with a view to future-proofing their water source ‘to provide almost ten times the current water storage capacity’ while also investing in ‘a long-term irrigation system’. If this season is anything to go by it will be needed.

 

  1. The Spread of Graded Success

When previewing the jumps season, I had noted the growing domination of Mullins and Elliott in graded races (hardly revelatory, I know) but one interesting feature of this past season was a greater spread of Graded success as seen in the following table which suggests a reversal of a pattern that seemed to be going only one way:

Perhaps the ground played its part – Mullins for one seemed reluctant to risk many of his horses on a decent surface and also went through a quiet spell around the New Year – and it will be fascinating to see how the dwindling influence of Gigginstown will impact this.

But whatever the reason it was a positive to see the likes of Peter Fahey, with Gypsy Island and Timeforwest, Colin Kidd with Rashaan, Pat Doyle with Kaiser Black, and Dermot McLaughlin with Santa Rosa land graded successes. The most significant ‘smaller trainer’ graded win however was likely Espoir D’Allen for Gavin Cromwell, allowing that the horse had won such races the previous season, as he used it as a springboard to Champion Hurdle success.

Another interesting feature of the pattern race season was the return of UK horses winning some of our best prizes, nine raiders winning (from 24 runners) which was a high as far as I could research back; since 2012/13, those totals have been six, five, one, seven, three and one. They weren’t all in the big races or at the big festivals, the likes of Bedrock (twice) and Saint Calvados among those that won more run-of-the-mill races that typically wouldn’t attract overseas runners.

There were old boys coming back for more – Simply Ned at Christmas and Unowhatimeanharry at Punchestown – but La Bague Au Roi was anything but at the Dublin Racing Festival and it will be interesting if these successes see more raiders coming across this coming winter.

- Tony Keenan

Tony Keenan: Racing What Ifs: What if Michael O’Leary Preferred GAA?

A few months back, the figures for what each Irish county received in coaching grants from the GAA central funds over the past decade or so were revealed. Between the years of 2007 and 2018, Dublin was unsurprisingly clear with €17,916,477 in funding with Westmeath sitting a mid-table seventeenth on €871,420, over €17 million behind. These numbers caused the usual anti-Dubs sentiment but what if Michael O’Leary, Cork-born but Westmeath-based and whose horses run in the maroon colours of his county of residence, had decided back in the early- to mid-2000s that Gaelic Football or Hurling was going to be his sport rather than racing?

JP McManus has famously done both, his presence in the dressing room following Limerick’s first All-Ireland Hurling win in 45 years saying plenty about how much he has put into the county team. But for O’Leary it has always been about Irish National Hunt Racing with emphasis on the Irish National Hunt part of that; O’Leary has few runners on the flat and seems apathetic at best to having runners in the UK outside of Cheltenham and Aintree. So what has Gigginstown done for and to Irish jumps racing since David Wachman trained their first winner, Tuco in a Fairyhouse bumper, in 2001?

Trainers

Gigginstown have cycled through a vast number of trainers since their inception, taking an approach akin to how soccer clubs deal with their managers rather than the traditional loyalty that tends to be shown in racing. Their ‘results-based’ selection of trainers has seen handlers come and go with all the following having trained meaningful numbers for them in the past but no longer on the roster: Michael Hourigan, Paul Nolan, Charlie Swan, Charles Byrnes, Sandra Hughes, Colm Murphy, Philip Fenton, David Wachman, Tony Martin and Mouse Morris, the last-named now concentrating on pointers along with Colin Bowe and Brian Hamilton.

The last few seasons have seen consolidation in terms of Gigginstown trainers with only four yards now being used – Gordon Elliott, Henry De Bromhead, Joseph O’Brien and Noel Meade – and all are training a decent-sized group of their horses. Elliott is by far the most significant however and if not quite the chosen one, he still has the vast majority of the better horses. The impact of there being no such thing as Gigginstown on Elliott would be massive as his last five seasons' total winners alongside his Gigginstown-owned winners show:

The effect would not only be on numbers but on quality too. Taking 2017/18 as an example, Elliott had 27 horses that reached a Racing Post Rating of at least 150 in Ireland and 18 of those were Gigginstown-owned; the others were Campeador, Ucello Conti, Pallasator, Jury Duty, The Storyteller, Mala Beach, Mick Jazz, Diamond Cauchois and Doctor Phoenix, all of whom ran in different colours.

We can also be pretty sure that Mullins versus Elliott would not be a thing and the finales to the last two Irish National Hunt Trainers’ Championships at Punchestown would have followed the same pattern as the previous nine, Mullins winning with hundreds of thousands if not millions to spare. But Elliott has forced Mullins to change his methods over those past two campaigns and while the perennial champion is never going to be a Nigel Twiston-Davies, campaigning his horses aggressively, the clashes we have seen at Punchestown and Fairyhouse over the last two seasons have added greatly to the spectacle.

Hanging over all this is Michael O’Leary’s stated aim of wanting to make Elliott Champion Trainer at some point and his willingness to spend vast sums of money to achieve that which is something we will return to later on. That outcome would of course be one in the eye for Willie Mullins despite repeated claims from O’Leary that their relationship is fine; methinks the owner doth protest too much!

 

Finances

A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation might give us an estimate of what Gigginstown spend each season on training fees. During the 2017-18 Irish jumps season, they ran 220 individual horses so let’s say each was in full training for eight months at €1,800 a month, taking €50 a day as a base rate and including €300 for extras; that comes out at €3,168,000. One would be a little surprised if the owner of a budget airline couldn’t get some discount but there are certain basic needs for each horse that have to be met and there is only so much cost-cutting you can do. This wouldn’t include horses in various forms of pre-training, those that have yet to run or are recovering from an injury, so the figure may well be higher.

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None of this is to mention the costs of acquiring the horses in the first place. Gigginstown do much of their buying through agents and trainers and sometimes privately so the extent of their spending is unclear but there have been a host of recent big-money purchases to run in their colours. Samcro cost £335,000 while Vision D’Honneur came close at €350,000 when currency rates are taken into consideration. There were a host of others that broke the 200k mark like Battleoverdoyen, Dream Conti, Run Wild Fred, Poli Roi and Sometime Soon.

With all this in mind, it is not unreasonable to wonder if they are propping up both the Irish National Hunt racing and breeding sectors; but Henry Beeby, Group Chief Executive at Goffs, is keen to point out that while ‘they are one of the biggest players and an overwhelming positive influence on Irish jumps racing’, there are also others like ‘JP McManus and numerous clients with Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls’ who are in the market for high-end jumping prospects.

Beeby went on to say that Gigginstown are ‘looking for the tops and in so doing are prepared to spend to buy, often having a high turnover of horses’ while JP McManus still holds the record for the most expensive jumps horse bought at public auction, Garde Champetre at £530,000 back in 2004. On the subject of what the O’Learys are like to deal with, his response was it can be ‘interesting’ and ‘they’re themselves’ which will come as no surprise to anyone!

When asked about a possible doomsday scenario were Gigginstown to pull out of racing tomorrow, Beeby said that while it would be ‘disappointing’ and he is ‘grateful’ to have them, he recalls a time when people worried about what would happen if ‘Robert Sangster never bought another yearling. The Sangster family are still involved in the game but at a much reduced level and we should never underestimate the resilience of the industry.’

 

Competitiveness

We have already had a Gigginstown-only race, the March 2017 Grade 3 Naas Directors Plate Novice Chase won by Ball D’Arc leading home Gangster, Prince Of Scars and Alamein, and it feels as if a maroon-and-whitewashed staying handicap chase is coming, the only impediment being that they may run out of different coloured caps!

It is reasonable to ask when does enough horses become too much and it seems that point has not been reached yet for the owners at least. Below are the numbers for Gigginstown-owned horses in Irish jumps races going back to 2007/8, just the time when Westmeath GAA could have done with a lift: included are their winners, runners and total prize money.

 

The only way is up it seems with basically every figure heading that way year-on-year. It is perhaps notable that things have taken another leap in the past two campaigns, coinciding with the split with Mullins in 2016.

Another area of competitiveness to consider is Cheltenham and what Gigginstown have contributed to Irish success at the meeting. They have had 27 Festival winners in all – Ireland would have won one, not all, of the three Prestbury Cups before 2019 without them, if anyone cares – which I found a little underwhelming in truth given the size of the operation. The first famously came with War Of Attrition in the 2006 Gold Cup but there have been some fallow years since. Things were good at the five Festivals before this one with four, two, two, four and seven winners but a solitary success for Tiger Roll from 39 runners last week has to rate a disappointment.

 

Fun

I appreciate there is little fun about Gigginstown for smaller trainers who are constantly being beaten by their battalions but an underrated aspect of the project is the humour they have brought to the game. Michael O’Leary loves trolling and is probably the least ‘racing person’ you can imagine and it is vastly more entertaining that he does this not anonymously behind a computer screen but from the position of the most powerful owner in the game.

The Apple’s Jade Mares’ Hurdle or Champion Hurdle decision, disappointingly short-lived as pointed out by Lydia Hislop in one of her recent Road to Cheltenham pieces, was just another in a long line of mock-controversies involving the quotable Ryanair boss; and his brother Eddie isn’t bad with the soundbites either.

There was Michael’s rant about Phil Smith’s handicapping of his horses in the 2017 Grand National being ‘utter drivel’ (the new Chief Handicapper Martin Greenwood really needs to up his game in the controversies stakes, this year’s National weights being disappointingly short on spats) along with his repeated reference to certain runners being ‘the worst horse I own’ often swiftly followed by a big handicap or even Grade 1 win for said animal.

Perhaps the truest controversy with Gigginstown came in 2013 when they were repeatedly pulling out horses on the day of the race with ground typically been given as an excuse. That stopped quite quickly in the end, perhaps someone in the then-Turf Club or Horse Racing Ireland having a quiet word, but not before O’Leary came out with one of his all-time best lines: ‘you’d swear we were spivs running around organising betting coups!’

*

So what have Gigginstown given Irish Jumps Racing? Different colour hats, everything trying, lots and lots (and lots) of horses, lots of good horses, trolling, a results-based approach, fun, vast sums of money on training fees and scary names. It’s quite a list really and I’m not sure Westmeath GAA would have been able to handle it!

- Tony Keenan

New Year Musings: Little to cheer for Mullins’ Major Owners

I wonder how many media interviews or television guest appearances Rich Ricci will be making this New Year, writes Tony Stafford. The snappy suits and engaging banter have been a constant accompaniment to his period as husband of jump racing’s most prominent owner – his wife Susannah – but the tide (as it usually does in racing) has turned against the pair in recent weeks.

The Riccis will have been full of optimism, along with all the owners in Willie Mullins’ super-powerful Closutton stable, before the four days of Leopardstown’s and Limerick’s Christmas fixtures, but the frequent setbacks will have tested Rich’s famed equanimity.

To have 15 runners for only two wins – apart from Min’s disqualification for muscling out Simply Ned in the Grade 1 Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase – was bad enough. But when the losers included Faugheen, for only the second time; Djakadam and odds-on novice Epicuris, a former Group 1 Flat winner in France, it must have been literally too bad to believe.

Faugheen’s so-far unexplained dismal performance in the Ryanair Hurdle at odds of 1-6 topped the lot. Off in front under Paul Townend, Faugheen could never dominate and even before stablemate Cilaos Emery had moved inside him at the third and headed him before the fourth, the usual sparkle was missing.

The fact that he pulled up before two out was an irrelevance, his jockey obviously unable to comprehend such a total capitulation – his chance had gone long before that. After a fine comeback run a month earlier in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown, 22 months after his previous dominant victory at Leopardstown in January 2016, the rising 10-year-old Faugheen was possibly more at risk of a disappointing effort second time back, but like this? Hardly!

Until Friday, the only blemish on Faugheen’s card had been his defeat in the 2015 Morgiana Hurdle, on his return the season after his Champion Hurdle triumph when he beat stablemate Arctic Fire. His unlikely conqueror that day was another Mullins top-notcher, Nicholls Canyon, and there was an eerie portent of things to come when that gallant stayer fell and was killed in Thursday’s three-miler won by former Mullins inmate Apple’s Jade.

Like the Riccis, Nicholls Canyon’s owners Andrea and Graham Wylie have been at the top of the jumps-owning tree ever since their brilliant stayer Inglis Drever won three World Hurdles at Cheltenham. Successful in the initial running of the race in 2005, he missed the following year through injury, but returned to collect twice more in 2007 and 2008.

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At that time Wylie, who made his fortune with his Sage computing business in the North-East, often had around 100 horses in training in Co Durham with Howard Johnson, but the trainer’s four-year ban in August 2011 for illegally running a horse after de-nerving it led to Johnson’s announcing his retirement.

Graham Wylie had already altered his approach from having a host of unproven stores and some expensive sales acquisitions joining Johnson’s yard to a more selective policy based on trainers Paul Nicholls and Mullins.

The Wylie fortunes this season have been even bleaker than the Riccis’. Eight of their horses have run a combined 20 times for just a single win for Invitation Only at Navan on December 9. Apart from the numbing loss of Nicholls Canyon, four other Wylie horses appeared over Christmas and the biggest disappointment from the rest was Yorkhill’s fading into a 59-length defeat behind Road to Respect in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase. Such is the Mullins mystique that observers were suggesting Yorkhill could step up to challenge Buveur d’Air as Faugheen’s Champion Hurdle replacement. It seems unlikely in the extreme to me that he could match the brilliant Christmas Hurdle winner.

Wylie’s only connection to Nicholls this winter has been as share-holder with three other prominent stable owners in the useful chaser Copain De Classe, third on his only run this autumn behind the smart Benatar at Ascot.

Over the four days of Christmas Mullins sent out ten winners from 49 Leopardstown and Limerick contestants. Almost half (24) started favourite and eight of them won. Eight of his odd-on shots were beaten, and as Nicky Henderson found in the years when his best horses were not good enough to win the championship races, from now until Cheltenham will be especially testing.

While even Mullins must be questioning elements of his operation, it gets better and better for Joseph O’Brien. Not content with sending out two 16-1 winners, Hardback and Alighted, for Gigginstown House Stud in consecutive Leopardstown races on Thursday, he won Limerick’s bumper the same afternoon with 11-8 shot High Sparrow  and even contrived a winning Lingfield raid with Art Nouvelle (9-2), guided to a length victory in the 6f handicap by Adam Kirby. That’s a 3,774-1 four-timer, and all within a couple of hours!

If anything, O’Brien junior is even more adventurous than his father and the rapidity with which he is progressing (Melbourne Cup and all) will be worrying for many. It should be no surprise that he is equally good with the jumpers. Both mum and dad were champion Irish jumps trainers before their mid-20’s.

The prize for the most opportunistic win of the Christmas period, though, goes to the underrated Roger Teal, who sent the juvenile Tip Two Win to collect a £46k prize in Doha, Qatar, on Friday.  There had already been plenty of interest in the Dark Angel colt after his Listed win at Doncaster in September and there was no disgrace in his Newmarket second behind the highly-impressive Mark Johnston-trained Frankel colt Elarqam who beat him a couple of lengths at Group 3 level later that month.

Despite those good runs, Tip Two Win did not make the cut for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile race in California, so Teal shrewdly picked out Doha as an end-of-year benefit for owner-breeder Ann Cowley. She bought Tip Two Win’s dam, Freddie’s Girl, for £9,000 at Goff’s Kempton sale and won three races with her when trained by Stef Higgins.

Tip Two Win is her first foal and he has now won three and been placed in the other three of his six races. Roger Teal was quick to report that he’s not for sale. All they have to do now is win a Group 1 and they’ll be home free.

Another set of well-known colours, those now billed as Ann and Alan Potts Limited after the deaths of both Gold Cup-winning owners, have been subject to a number of reverses, not least Gold Cup hero Sizing John’s capitulation in the same Grade 1 that featured the Djakadam and Yorkhill disappointments.

But for me, the run which most clearly summed up racing’s cock-eyed valuation especially of jumps horses came in the two and a half mile bumper at Leopardstown on Thursday. Here the Potts team sent out well-fancied Madison To Monroe but after making the running for the first mile and a half under trainer Jessica Harrington’s daughter, Kate, he soon dropped to the rear and came home 100 lengths behind the winner.

Said victor was Carefully Selected, powerfully ridden by Patrick Mullins in the portion of the Mullins operation, unexposed bumper horses, still bucking the trend. Madison To Monroe had won his only point-to-point back in February. Five got round in that eight-runner affair, after which the Potts team forked out €300,000. It would seem on this evidence that there’s little chance of recouping much of that.

Tony Keenan: Three Hot Takes

I appreciate these are much more cold cuts than hot takes but I’ve been away for a while and there has been plenty going on in Irish racing, on and off the track, that is worthy of comment, writes Tony Keenan.

 

Drugs in Racing?

Back on April 2nd, John Mooney of The Times reported on a case involving vet Tim Brennan who had been found to have some unauthorised animal medication in his possession during a routine inspection by an investigations unit of the Department of Agriculture and the Turf Club at the yard of Willie Mullins.

Mooney, and basically everyone else who has reported on the story since, was at pains to point out that Mullins is in no way implicated in this. Much of what I have read since suggests this is the case and it could be nothing more than some over-zealous animal product legislation by our authorities. But still: here we have a vet who at the very least is willing to bend the rules and also has some relationship with Ireland’s Champion Trainer. I don’t think you have to be a conspiracy theorist – and racing has plenty of those, you need only visit your local betting office – to feel a more thorough explanation is needed.

People are very sceptical of sport in the modern era and with good reason. The curtain has been pulled back on many seemingly immense achievements in areas like track and field and cycling but in these sports it often obvious that athletes are pushing the boundaries of credibility; there is only so fast a human can run ten kilometres in, only so quick they can cycle up Mont Ventoux.

Seemingly impossible performances are much less obvious in racing. Track records aren’t really a thing and few would have any awareness of them aside from the most obvious examples like the Grand National. These records are often not held by the best horses, but rather those that encountered the ideal circumstances of pace, ground and perhaps wind assistance. Then there’s the obvious point that you are dealing with animals and not humans which adds further complicating factors: a horse cannot tell you it feels like pushing it harder in this session or could do with a rest, try as horsemen might to ascertain this.

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Were the Brennan case to present itself in another sport, especially one where the public are already sceptical, I suspect there would be an attitude, rightly or wrongly, of guilt by association. This seems not to have been the case with Mullins and Brennan and I’m unsure whether this reflects well or badly on racing. The responsibility should fall to those involved – allowing that the case is ongoing – to offer some sort of explanation as to what unfolded; to says ‘everything is fine here, nothing to see, move along’ is not enough and while those sentiments may be true we’d all like to know why. Racing should seek to answer these questions as the last thing you want is a sport tarnished with drug innuendo when you’ve got enough effort issues already.

 

Rule 212

For the first time in my memory – perhaps ever – Irish racing has put the punter in a position of prominence with the Turf Club’s new non-trier directive, Rule 212. The wording of this ruling mentions the appearance of rides to ‘a reasonable and informed member of the racing public’, the fictive man in the stands if you like, allowing that now that man is more likely to be sitting at home watching on AtTheRaces with the facility to pause and rewind any race he wishes. That in itself is an important point as the ability to rewatch a race does allow for the development of more informed opinions.

As a punter, I find it hard to be against this rule in any way; it would be akin to turkeys voting for Christmas. All the stuff about the importance of punters and how they fund racing apply here but in Ireland it is a little more complicated than that as racing’s finances are greatly assisted by a healthy government subsidy each year provided by the taxpayer. If anything, this should make the authorities stricter in their desire to have a well-policed sport; it should not be set up for a coterie of elites but rather for the good of the general public who want a straight game.

And yet I did struggle with this new rule upon first introduction because I have been conditioned by watching Irish racing over the years and come to tolerate what are known as educational rides. I initially felt the rule change was over-zealous but, having thought about it further, it has to be better than the alternative when the stewards are basically turning a blind eye to horses not trying to achieve their best finishing position providing they were early in their career. It seems as if jockeys and trainers are getting it too judging by some of the comments made by the likes of Robbie Power and Johnny Murtagh since the rule has been brought in.

Horsemen will argue that forceful rides early in a horse’s career could set it back and prevent it from fulfilling its potential. I’m sceptical about this for a few reasons. Firstly, no sensible punter – the people who the rule apparently caters for – is demanding that a horse be beaten up on debut; they should however be given a ride where the intention is to win if this is possible. The idea that horses come to the track clueless as to what is expected there isn’t acceptable; trainers can and should be able to educate them at home to a certain standard and show it what racing is about. In any case, if a horse’s future is going to be so utterly compromised by a vigorous ride I would question if it was ever going to amount to much. If a horseman can explain why this might be the case I would appreciate it but my inclination is to doubt it and view such arguments as excuses.

 

Gigginstown and the Irish National

This is nowhere near as important as the issues dealt with above but I have to admit to finding the Irish National with its 13 Gigginstown-owned runners a pretty unedifying spectacle, allowing that there is basically nothing that can be done about it and any capping of the number of runners an owner can have would be anti-competitive. Perhaps it’s just my desire for sportsmanship rather than gamesmanship that would have preferred to see a greater spread of runners and I suspect Michael O’Leary took a certain joy in running all his horses if only to cock a snook at some racing people. The owner has made a billion euro business out of not doing what he was told and has to be the least "racing" person ever in the sense that he doesn’t abide by the traditions and expected norms of the sport.

But O’Leary is not deaf to welfare concerns – he seemingly blamed the allotted weight for the death of his Hear The Echo in the 2009 Grand National – and there might be some questions to answer on that front. He declared a few horses patently unsuitable for the race in the likes of The Game Changer (a horse who had failed to last out the Grand Annual trip on his previous start) but more worrying than that was the decision to run all five of his Aintree National horses again at Fairyhouse nine days later. He wasn’t the only one to do this – Henry De Bromhead ran Stellar Notion in both races – but it all seemed a bit one-size-fits-all, something passengers on O’Leary’s airline will be well used to!

The Grand National at Aintree is routinely described as one of the toughest races of the season and while modifications to the conditions have made it easier, it is still beyond four miles and not every horse will recover from that in little over a week. Only one of the Gigginstown horses completed the Aintree course but both Rogue Angel and Wounded Warrior went deep into the race and all five had to travel across the Irish Sea and back.

All of this does have a punting application, one I wish I had spotted beforehand. The multiple Gigginstown runners weakened the race considerably as quite a few had little form chance at least judged by the market; when I looked at the betting the day before, 10 of their runners were in the back 12 of the betting with only 2 in the front 12. Granted normal luck-in-running, not always a given in a National, this considerably improved the chances of the other runners as the race had artificial rather than real depth to it. The front end of the betting was quite solid – the favourite won with a pair of fancied runners chasing him home – and it is something that we should be looking out for in the future.

- Tony Keenan

3 x 5 Things from 2016

5 Things from 2016 (x3)

The world outside racing – you know, the real one – has become discombobulated in 2016 and our sport finds itself in the unusual position of appearing sane by comparison, writes Tony Keenan. With post-truthers everywhere, racing has actually been a relative bastion of sense over the past twelve months and on the whole it’s been a pretty good year.

5 Things I liked in 2016

  1. Aidan O’Brien’s Season

That O’Brien is the best flat trainer around is hardly a revelation but even by his exacting standards 2016 was a spectacular campaign. His horses got unusually hot early and stayed that way for most the year. Not everything went right, notably with his three-year-old colts like US Army Ranger and Air Force Blue, but as has often been the case in the past he adapted, campaigning fillies like Minding and Found in the races the colts would otherwise have run in. The Arc 1-2-3 was an immense achievement, even in a down year for the race, and such is the depth in his yard, 2017 promises more of the same.

  1. The Mouse Morris Narrative

In general I prefer facts and analysis to narrative when watching racing but it was impossible not to get caught up in the story of Mouse Morris in the spring of 2016. Morris is the chain-smoking son of a former IOC president, colourful enough in racing terms, and was visited with tragedy when his son was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning in the summer of 2015. No sporting achievement will ever heal that hurt but that didn’t lessen the joy provided by a Grand National double at Fairyhouse and Aintree with Rogue Angel and Rule The World, the latter’s first chase win over the big fences giving credence to the National being a lottery race. The parade of the winner through the streets of Mullingar brought back memories of a simpler time, even if the owner is a billionaire, and this was one time when the story was more important than the bet.

  1. Attention on Jockey Mental Health

Starting the conversation is one of those trite phrases about mental health but it doesn’t make it any less true; no more than any person with a mental health problem, each jockey brings their own content to their condition, but many of their issues stem from the arduous life they have chosen. Wasting, serious injury, success and failure, alcohol and drug abuse are all common themes and this is a multi-layered problem. Kieren Fallon and Graham Lee, amongst others, have spoken about their struggles this past year and it all helps to bring it out in the open but with the demise of Garret Gomez earlier this month we were reminded of just how serious the problem actually is.

  1. Andy Slattery

Small trainers doing well have long been a feature of the Irish scene but these days it’s more evident on the flat than over jumps and Slattery was the standout ‘punching-above-his-weight’ handler this term; having never sent out more than seven winners in a season before this year, he had 18 in 2016. Central to this annus mirabilis was Creggs Pipes, a Galway Mile and listed race winner that started the year racing off 77, while the likes of Sors and Planchart showed him in a good light too. Slattery was excellent in his analysis of his runners in the media and while it’s unlikely he will reach these peaks again, his campaign should be enjoyed for what it was.

  1. Peak-Aftertiming from Weld and Heffernan

After-timing might be the bane of punters but there is something hilarious about the shameless hindsight shown by jockeys and trainers after they have a winner when interviewers could barely get a whimper from them beforehand. Dermot Weld is obviously the best exponent of the practice in Ireland, his ‘he/she did what we thought he/she would do’ a cult catchphrase at this stage, and it looked like he would carry all before him after the exploits for Harzand and Fascinating Rock in the first half of the season. His loss of the Galway trainers’ title was a cruel blow for fans of after-timing and his season rather went south after the summer but Seamie Heffernan soon stepped into the breach, riding plenty of big winners in the absence of Ryan Moore. Heffernan’s after-timing is different to Weld’s self-satisfied smugness but no less enjoyable; he pours scorn on the very thought that defeat for one of his rides could be countenanced in post-victory interviews.

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5 Thinks I didn’t like in 2016

  1. HRI Fiasco

By the sounds of the excellent reporting from Johnny Ward in the Irish Independent, some of the dealing going on behind the scenes in Horse Racing Ireland would make the dodgiest of trainers wince. We’ve had a CEO getting an extra term in office that is prohibited by legislation, that self-same CEO writing the advertisement for his own job, no interview process to find if there were any other suitable candidates along with a world of behind-the-scenes lobbying. What a mess.

  1. Jockey Blogs

Only the churlish would resent jockeys for trying to earn a few extra quid (god knows, some of them need it) but I wish they could avoid writing blogs, or at least have blogs ghosted for them. Not only are the vast majority of them bland and written in such a way as to be as inoffensive as possible but the ones that are published on bookmaker websites are an ethical swamp. The sport is incestuous enough without adding moral grey areas where the bookies are ringing up riders for insights on the rides they will later lay bets on.

  1. Mullins and the Media

Speaking of useless columns, the Willie Mullins Saturday piece in the Racing Post reigns supreme. I’ve heard some journalists praise Mullins for his availability for comment but the value of what he is actually saying is questionable; we have seen again and again a lack of clarity around where his horses might run and at times punters being actively misled, such as with Vautour’s target at the most recent Cheltenham Festival. By and large, most trainers can give a reasonable idea of where their horses are running a few days in advance; if they meet a setback in the interim, so be it. Mullins backers could point to his having so many horses but other trainers have big strings too and there is no reason why punters should have to wait until declaration stage to find out what he is running; this, after all, is the trainer with the most high profile column in the industry paper. As we’ve seen in the past few days, there is another way; Colin Tizzard and his owners were able to give their King George running plans at the five-day stage whereas no one could even get Mullins to say whether or not he had entered horses in the re-opened Christmas Hurdle.

  1. Camera Angles

AtTheRaces provide excellent coverage of Irish racing but it is disappointing that between themselves, Horse Racing Ireland and the various Irish tracks that the camera angles at most of these venues haven’t changed much if at all since the coverage started. There are a number of courses like Down Royal, Punchestown and Leopardstown where the viewer is treated to shots of the horses’ rear-ends heading away from the stands and it is high-time some money was spent on improving these angles.

  1. Stewards not asking questions

I’ll cover the new non-trier rules in the final section but one constant negative with racing in Ireland is the lack of questioning for jockeys and trainers after a race. Perhaps this is apathy, perhaps laziness but whatever the reason, more use should be made of this aspect of the steward’s role. None of this is to suggest that horses are being stopped wholesale; there are many cases where horses have run poorly that have utterly valid explanations. As a punter, there is nothing as frustrating as reading or listening to a trainer interview after a win where he mentions an obvious reason for a horse’s below-par effort on its last outing that was never noted down in the initial report by the stewards on the day.

 

5 Things for 2017

  1. Mullins V. Elliott

When Gigginstown initially announced they were moving their horses from Willie Mullins, Paddy Power reacted by installing Elliott as favourite to win the Irish trainers’ championship, a move that soon corrected back to Mullins being a hard market leader. That price shift doesn’t look as silly now with Mullins trading at 4/6 while Elliott is 11/10. This is a very real competition and a clash of methodologies; whereas Mullins is more about quality, Elliott is a numbers guys as befits someone that learned his trade under Martin Pipe. The stats here are fascinating. As of December 21st, Elliott had run 223 individual horses while Mullins had run 120 but a better context is Mullin’s numbers over the last three seasons which are 191, 177 and 195 respectively. Irish jump racing has never seen a stable as big numerically as Elliott’s and he could even break 300 individual runners in the season. I can this one see-sawing all the way to Punchestown so get the popcorn ready.

  1. Sectional Times in Ireland

I’ve never understood the dismissiveness from some people for sectional times; even if you don’t value them, more information for punters is never a bad thing and your preferred information type (horse weights, for example) might be the next thing that is brought in. The Irish Field reported on November 26th that sectional times are going to be brought in on Irish racing on January 1st and it won’t just be sectional times; the system will have full GPS coverage with distance covered and speeds attained too. The cynic in me remains sceptical that they will miraculously appear after the turn of the year but apparently all the courses have been surveyed so you never know.

  1. ITV Racing

Another new arrival for New Year’s Day, and one that is certain to happen, is ITV Racing and it’s something to look forward to even allowing that much of their coverage prior to Cheltenham will be off the main channel. Perhaps I’m buying into the hype a little but Ed Chamberlin’s passion for the sport is infectious and the channel has extensively promoted their coverage through a number of their most popular non-sporting programmes. It’s certainly a good start as is the use of a specialist weather forecaster and I’m fascinated to see what road the coverage takes. The news that TV3 will be providing coverage of roughly 50 ITV Racing days was fantastic for Irish viewers as some of them were about to be without coverage with ITV4 not being available in all homes.

  1. New Non-Trier Rules

The Turf Club had some high-profile non-trier cases that were overturned in 2016 which has led them to change their rules on the subject, bringing in a grading system for the severity of offence. As ever, the initial reaction to these beefed-up rules from trainers and jockeys was scepticism and I can hardly remember a case in Ireland that wasn’t appealed; accepting your guilt just isn’t an option. There’s part of me that thinks you just have to trust the authorities to get it right and not constantly be challenging them but when you read about events in the HRI above one wonders about their ability to do so. Proving a non-trier is as difficult as it ever was so these rules will be tough to enforce.

  1. The Curragh Races On

One of the stranger decisions this year was for the Curragh to race on in 2017 while the track is being redeveloped with temporary structures in use. It smacks a little of greed and one wonders how the racing surface will take having so many races in a short space of time; for all its problems, the actual surface at the Curragh has always been brilliant but a more condensed programme could take its toll. Other tracks will benefit from some of the fixtures being transferred, notably Naas, and while meetings like the Lincoln are hardly the best-attended, it’s a great lift for these courses.

- Tony Keenan

The Gigginstown / Mullins Split: Reading Between the Numbers

Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown horses have moved on from Closutton

Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown horses have moved on from Closutton

The Game Changer was not one of those Gigginstown horses on the move last week, having already joined Gordon Elliott in 2015 following Charlie Swan’s retirement from training, but he’d be a fitting motif for what went down with Willie Mullins, the O’Learys, and associated parties last Wednesday, writes Tony Keenan. The split will have far-reaching consequences for trainers and their respective championships this season and beyond, and I’ll try to consider some of these from a data-based perspective here.

One of the features of the break-up was the respectful tone the two parties used to describe each other, both wishing the other success in the future and being thankful for what their relationship produced. The comments were so positive one wonders why they simply didn’t maintain the status quo but it is likely another example of racing people being ultra-polite to each other through the media when their actions suggest otherwise. Training fees have been put forward as the root of the split but I’m not prepared to accept those face value reasons; judging from the figures we have been fed, the increase in fees would have been between €80,000 and €100,ooo, hardly a piddling number but a relative drop in the ocean to a billionaire like Michael O’Leary, a figure he would easily squander on a bad horse. If that is the price of success, it seems worth paying.

But O’Leary being a billionaire is important here and with his vast wealth and business success comes ego, something that Mullins, for all his humble exterior, must possess too. Comparing owners and trainers is not something we typically do in racing but such is the state of the Irish national hunt scene at present; I suspect that O’Leary simply didn’t want to be so reliant on a trainer that was bigger than him, something that the numbers from the last five Irish seasons confirm.

 

Operation Winners Prizemoney Season Operation Winners Prizemoney
Mullins 185 €4,489,105 2015/16 Gigginstown 143 €3,601,225
Mullins 187 €4,225,253 2014/15 Gigginstown 126 €3,263,985
Mullins 185 €3,817,779 2013/14 Gigginstown 109 €2,311,545
Mullins 193 €3,908,059 2012/13 Gigginstown 101 €2,025,420
Mullins 138 €2,997,713 2011/12 Gigginstown 83 €,1,611,745

 

Nor was O’Leary in any way enthused by Mullins’s UK project in 2015/16. The owner is on record as saying he has little interest in UK racing outside of the big festivals at Cheltenham and Aintree which is of course his prerogative; if he wants winners at a Navan or Punchestown card attended by a couple of thousand people instead of in front of packed stands at Sandown or Kempton, that is his choice. Being Champion Owner in the UK last season clearly meant nothing to him; Sandown go out of their way to have the title winners present on the final day of the season but it was Brian Cooper who accepted the prize for Gigginstown back in April.

Gigginstown had some big winners in the UK last season, notably Don Cossack in the Gold Cup, Rule The World in the National, and Identity Thief in the Fighting Fifth, but they came for other yards and their record with Mullins was poor, registering only three winners, only one of which could be described as high-profile. That was Apple’s Jade’s demolition job at Aintree with the others being Don Poli’s Listed win at the same track in December and McKinley winning an ordinary handicap hurdle on the final day of the season.

Of the big Mullins owners, it was clearly Rich Ricci who supported the trainer wholeheartedly in his bid for the UK title and indeed he seems to have stepped aside with some of his Irish runners in order to facilitate Gigginstown. Below are the records of the Mullins-trained horses for Gigginstown and the Riccis both in Ireland and the UK and you can see their positions are reversed in terms of the percentage of runners they provided to the trainer in the different jurisdictions; where Ricci had 21.3% of the Mullins runners in Ireland, he was 27.7% of the UK runners with Gigginstown being 23.5% and 21.4% respectively, their positions essentially flipped. Ricci reaped the benefit of that in the UK at least with an impressive 12 winners though many of that type of runner can be expected to remain in Ireland this coming season, at least prior to the big festivals.

Gigginstown V. Ricci – At Home and Away

Ireland
Wins Runners Strikerate % of Mullins Runs % of Mullins Wins
Gigginstown 47 131 35.9% 23.5% 25.4%
Ricci 38 119 31.9% 21.3% 20.5%

 

UK
Wins Runners Strikerate % of Mullins Runs % of Mullins Wins
Gigginstown 3 34 8.8% 21.4% 11.1%
Ricci 12 44 27.3% 27.7% 44.4%
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In their early years of ownership, Gigginstown tended to select a trainer and stick with them but recently they have become more of a ‘results-based business’ where trainers who are seen to be underperforming get fewer young horses or in more extreme cases have the horses removed totally; in fact, the latter may not even be extreme with both Tony Martin and Sandra Hughes losing their O’Leary horses over the summer. Martin had a down season for much of 2015/16, his horses only really finding their form from Punchestown on, and his Gigginstown winners (Marinero, Savello, Beau Et Sublime and Fire In His Eyes) were an uninspiring bunch.

He may too have had a role in them making a rare purchase of horse already in training with Beau Et Sublime who on his first start came second to a well-regarded Gigginstown type but was owned by someone else in Martin’s yard; the buy turned out badly as he has only won a pair of weak summer races. That Martin has been involved in some high-profile running-and-riding enquiries is hardly ideal either.

Hughes seems more harshly treated, not least because of the sad personal circumstances that caused her to be training the O’Leary horses in the first place. Her horses were sick for most of last season and she only trained two Gigginstown winners during that time but that can happen to any yard and in the previous campaign she sent out Lieutenant Colonel to win a pair of Grade 1s along with an Irish National winner in Thunder And Roses. Gigginstown could however argue that their ‘result-based’ approach stands up to scrutiny; not long after leaving Hughes, Wrath Of Titans won a Kerry National for Gordon Elliott.

I’ve written before about how well Elliott does with switchers, horses moving to his yard tending to improve both in terms of ratings and strikerate when compared to their previous handlers. How much of that is training and how much is placing is hard to quantify but Elliott does seem adept at finding bad races for limited horses, particularly at some of the gaff tracks in the UK, but clearly Gigginstown have no interest in such races.

There is some precedent of Gigginstown horses moving from Mullins to Elliott over the last year or so but I’d be reluctant to draw any conclusions from those transfers;:it would be an insult to cast-offs to call the likes Midnight Game, Aminabad and As De Ferbet such and Elliott did about as well as Mullins with such limited types. A better point of comparison, at least in terms of getting horses that have upside rather than those that are barely treading water, was the switch of the Lynch horses from Closutton to Elliott in 2009; the likes of Serpentaria did little for the move but Jessies Dream won a Drinmore and went very close in the RSA before retirement though injury. Elliott is likely a much better trainer now, too.

But even so, it would be unrealistic for Gigginstown to expect the same return from Elliott as they got from Mullins. Both yards tend to maintain a basic level of form, never really being out of sorts in recent years, but the Mullins bar is just set higher; since May 2014, his monthly strikerate has dipped below 20% in Ireland just twice whereas with Elliott his returns have dipped below 10% once since November 2013. The record of horses moving from the Mullins yard on their first three starts for their new stable are simply horrendous with those trainers becoming the equivalent of the worst around with such runners.

Horses Leaving Willie Mullins (since 2003)

Wins Runners Strikerate Level-Stakes A/E
1st Start 9 232 3.88% -191.40 0.35
2nd Start 12 205 5.85% -143.56 0.57
3rd Start 10 188 5.32% -125.04 0.56

 

Of course these figures demand context. Mullins is known for being quite hard on his horses, not necessarily a bad thing given the results he produces, but it would be no surprise if he left little to work on for the next trainer. Furthermore, he tends to keep a decent proportion of his horses into their later careers rather than get rid of them and the sort of animal he lets go might be of little use to anyone.

Certainly they aren’t expensive when bought at the sale, usually being badly-handicapped runners that have been to the well plenty. Yet comparing his record with those horses leaving Paul Nicholls, his champion trainer counterpart in the UK, is still interesting with the ex-Nicholls runners tending to do much better.

 

Horses Leaving Paul Nicholls (since 2003)

Wins Runners Strikerate Level-Stakes A/E
1st Start 52 452 11.50% -122.28 0.97
2nd Start 50 388 12.89% -95.37 1.06
3rd Start 33 338 9.76% -185.22 0.77

 

The horses that have left Mullins in the last few days are of a very different kind to typical ‘little upside/much downside’ sorts that likely dominate the figures above. This is a group coming into their prime, or already there, and will present an interesting test case for those who believe Mullins is only so dominant because he gets all the best horses. Of the trainers who will get the new stock, only Henry De Bromhead has been in the position before when he got the Alan Potts horses, since departed, from Mullins a few years back. And he did well with them too; of the 31 horses that won (from 625 runners) on their first three starts post-Mullins, De Bromhead trained five of them. He did well with some horses that Mullins struggled with, like Viconte Du Noyer; and turned Smashing into a borderline Grade 1 animal when he got soft ground. He seems a sensible choice for some switchers and while his overall figures for Gigginstown last season were not great, he did very well with Identity Thief though how he persuaded them to run him at Newcastle remains one of life’s mysteries!

Mouse Morris too deserved his share having sent out a pair of National winners while Joseph O’Brien is a no-brainer; I wrote about his rookie season being one for the ages a few months back and that was before he won the Moyglare with a 25/1 shot in Intricately. Noel Meade doesn’t make as much sense; he had a good campaign at home for them last season, winning seven races from 32 runners, but it might have been the only good part of his campaign. As with so many of his other top horses, his better Gigginstown runners spent time on the side-lines with the likes of Road To Riches, Disko, Ice Cold Soul and Gunnery Sergeant missing part of the season and it remains an issue with the yard.

It is Gordon Elliott, however, who is the chosen one for Gigginstown; they have rowed in behind him more and more in the last few years and he gets the jewels in the crown like Don Poli, Apple’s Jade and Blow By Blow. Powers made a bold move by making him favourite for the Irish trainers’ championship straight after the news was released though he has since been eased out a little: while Mullins has lost 60 horses, his claims that he will suffer no staff losses suggests he can fill those boxes quickly and we have the prospect of more Ricci horses being campaigned in Ireland this winter.

Nor is it a simple case of subtracting the Gigginstown winners from Mullins and adding them to Elliott; not only did he not get all of them but it seems unlikely he will reach the heights of the current champion either. Even so, Elliott has been narrowing the gap between himself and Mullins the last three seasons and that was without the new additions.

Mullins has averaged out around the mid-180s in terms of Irish winners in the last three years (he had 47 winners for Gigginstown last year) whereas Elliott has gone from 62 winners to 95 to 129 in the same period. He may not deserve to be favourite but he was already trending up and this may put him over the top; and wouldn’t it be fascinating if he brought some welcome needle into the trainers’ race?

Paul Nicholls never hid his pleasure in defeating Martin Pipe and Nicky Henderson, the UK equivalent, and while Elliott has publicly stated his respect for Mullins on many occasions, his wonderfully passive aggressive tweet about looking for staff in the hours after the Gigginstown announcement was at least a semblance of throwing down the gauntlet. All too often racing puts on the face of being one big happy family, but this is high-level sport so it’s OK to care and I suspect the famously confrontational Michael O’Leary had a little laugh at that one!

- Tony Keenan