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National Hunt Season Preview 2019/20

Strictly speaking, the 2019/20 jumps season began back on May 5th but for most everything that has happened since then and through the summer has been shadow-boxing, writes Tony Keenan. There were good races at Galway along with graded races sprinkled across other country tracks but the best of Irish national hunt racing didn't get going until Down Royal last weekend, and will really start firing when moving on to the traditional winter tracks like Navan, Fairyhouse and Punchestown. So, what are the things to look out at those venues across the next few months?

 

Paul Townend – How does he handle the pressure?

Townend is already a two-time champion jockey, those wins coming last season and in 2010/11, though both were largely the by-product of Ruby Walsh injuries. Judging on the pace he has set in the first six months – 49 winners through the end of October – he should be winning again entirely under his own steam, that figure broadly in line with what previous champions have had at this stage of the year in the season of their victories.

Like last time, when Rachael Blackmore was his biggest danger, he faces a somewhat unusual challenger in the shape of presumptive champion conditional Darragh O’Keeffe who has set a record pace in his own grade; but, in reality, if Townend stays sound the title is his to lose.

There will be pressure to retain his title, but one suspects that won’t matter as much to the jockey as his desire to perform on the big day, a point he made clear in a September Irish Field interview with Daragh Ó’Conchuir. Townend opined that "the big thing would be the Grade 1's [and] if we can get one of them on the board early it’d be a big help".

He went on to say that even a short time without one of those big winners can put a weight on a rider’s shoulders: "You carry that. You mightn’t be riding any worse but it’ll be there in the back of your mind: ‘you need this’. I think it comes with any sport, a big result is the only way to deal with it."

Townend knows what this feels like as there have been times over the past few years when there have mini-droughts of this type; when standing in for Ruby Walsh at the 2017 Christmas Festival at Leopardstown, he won a Grade 1 on the first day with Footpad but after that the likes of Min, Nichols Canyon, Yorkhill and Faugheen were all beaten. Then there was Al Boum Photo-gate at Punchestown, a ride that remains unexplained to this day, the jockey never satisfactorily dealing with the reasons behind it in public.

There have been many times over the past decade where Townend has been the lead jockey at Closutton but on those occasions Walsh was always coming back; that is no longer the case and he can expect to be second-guessed about many things over the coming months.

Walsh himself was no stranger to that – his propensity for falling off at the last, whether variance or something else, was much discussed – but one thing he rarely got wrong was in choosing the right horse. That’s a whole other layer to the pressure the Mullins job brings and, while the trainer should be a help in that regard, he has plenty of other jockeys most of whom are related to him.

 

Gordon Elliott – What can he do to prepare for Gigginstown leaving?

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This is not quite year one AG (After Gigginstown) for Gordon Elliott, the champion owner set to phase out his racing interests over the next five years, but nor it is unreasonable to think that this might be the biggest challenge of Elliott's career. Aside from those trainers that operate privately, there can hardly be a big yard that is more dominated by a single owner than Elliott’s: of the 312 individual runners he had in 2018/19, 103 (or 34%) were owned by Michael O’Leary.

Those 103 horses were concentrated towards the top, his top six horses in terms of Irish prize money earned all being Gigginstown-owned; while 12 of his top twenty fitted the same criteria. Comparing what is happening to him and the Gigginstown move away from Willie Mullins in autumn 2016 is apples and oranges, with Elliott losing the horses gradually, but it is interesting nonetheless.

In the previous season, 2015/16, Mullins ran 191 individual horses with 42 (or 22%) owned by Gigginstown; none of his top five prize-money horses ran in the maroon and white while only five of his top twenty did so. Mullins was able to rebound quickly in terms of overall stable size, running 184 individual horses in 2016/17 and 212 in 2017/18.

Where Mullins had to deal with their departure overnight, Elliott gets time and, though that may seem an easier proposition, it brings its own challenges as he has to balance doing the best for the Gigginstown horses still in training (and perhaps hoping against hope that further success will change O’Leary’s mind) while at the same time building for the future.

There are pressures to do with his staffing too with many members likely hired just to cope with the huge Gigginstown numbers. They will understandably be worrying about their futures. Perhaps it will be a case that other owners – who may be easier to satisfy – will be willing to come on board now that Gigginstown are leaving, Elliott doing well to attract the likes of Cheveley Park into the yard.

In any case, it’s been a long time since Gigginstown weren’t a massive part of the Cullentra House operation, and how Elliott begins to deal with their phased departure is something to keep an eye on.

 

The Two-Mile Chase Division: Who will rise to the top?

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the two-mile chase division has been stale over the past few seasons – looking at a great horse like Altior going on a 19-race unbeaten run is hardly a bad thing – but it has certainly been static. There was the odd flash of fragility with him last term, at Ascot when jumping markedly left and when rather falling in during the Champion Chase, but it seems as if he is destined to go up in trip in any case now.

The usual suspects will be hoping to fill the void but the likes of Min (Cheltenham form figures: 225), Politologue (Cheltenham figures: U0442) and Sceau Royal (Cheltenham figures: 1016213) would all be sub-standard winners of a Champion Chase and it seems much more likely that the top two-miler of 2019/20 emerges from last season’s novice crop.

The Arkle winner would seem the most sensible place to start but there is the distinct possibility that Duc De Genievres was the third best two-mile novice chaser in his yard last season and while he was brilliant on the day at Cheltenham, clearing 13 lengths ahead of the second and officially rated 163 afterwards, he had won just once in eight previous starts for Mullins in a race without the likes of Le Richebourg and Dynamite Dollars.

Both Cilaos Emery and Chacun Pour Soi seemed thought of as his clear superiors last term but they have had their issues too, neither able to stay sound for long enough to put a full season together lately. Keeping them both right will be a challenge but the chances are that one will stay intact and hopefully it will be Chacun Pour Soi who is amazingly already rated 167 over fences despite only having had two chase starts; it seems almost obscene but that mark is merited.

 

The Ground: What will we get this winter?

The past few campaigns have seen the going flip from season-to-season; in 2017/18 it was all soft ground whereas last season it was all fast and now we are back to a period of slow ground again. Good ground defined last season in many ways, and it is notable in all the recent stable tours how many trainers have commented on it between horses that never got their ground, horses that didn’t run at all on it, or horses that got injured.

The facts of last season are worth repeating. In the 2018/19 Irish national hunt season, 87 (or 84%) of graded non-handicaps were run on going described as yielding or faster, a massive chunk of the pattern. Dublin Racing Festival was spoiled by it, the form of that meeting not working out anything like as well as it had previously; Fairyhouse just about coped with it, while Punchestown got lucky with some rain and was likely the pick of the big three Irish spring meetings, at least in terms of valuable form for this season.

Plenty of horses will have been convenienced or inconvenienced by this. Readers will have their own views on who those horses may be but for me the likes of Sharjah, Ornua and even Kemboy got their ground for most of the season while the likes of Moyhenna, Ministerforsport and Discorama are three that didn’t.

Moyhenna is a particularly interesting case. After a promising start to her chasing career on soft ground, she became disappointing in three runs on faster but her trainer managed to find her some heavy ground at Limerick in March where she bolted up by 25 lengths. By that point she was in such good form she was able to defy better ground in a valuable handicap chase for mares back at Punchestown and is one to keep on side should we get a bad winter, her form figures on ground Timeform describe as soft or worse reading 334112421.

Those are horses that ran away during last winter despite not having their ground, but some trainers were more circumspect and just didn’t run their horses at all. Willie Mullins for one took that approach with his bumper horses, running just 17 bumper debutants from the start of December to the end of the season which resulted in him having just one runner in the Champion Bumper.

Across the same time period in the previous season, Mullins had run 30 such first-time starters and had five runners in the Champion Bumper. He was still able to win the Punchestown equivalent of that race with the experienced Colreevy, but one suspects that he has a backlog of bumper horses, a year more mature now, ready to go this winter.

- TK

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: On having a mare…

Just before Christmas, a pal got in touch to say he had bought a national hunt filly to go into training and was wondering if I had any stats on trainers that do well with jumping fillies and mares, writes Tony Keenan. My first thought was that he must really be stuck for another opinion and the second was that Willie Mullins completely bosses this scene; he agreed on both counts but said that he was inclined to go to a smaller yard than Closutton.

One can certainly see why someone would want to have a national hunt filly or mare in the current climate. There has been not so much an expansion as an explosion in the race programme in Ireland for these horses in the last few years; in the noughties, there were typically 10 Listed or Graded races a season for fillies and mares but the number is more than double that now. It tracked up to 13 between the 2010/11 and 2014/15 season but has since jumped to 16 in 2015/16, 19 in 16/17 and 23 last season. These Graded races are supported by a series of mares-only handicaps, too, with one being held next Sunday at the Dublin Racing Festival.

These enhancements have been driven by Horse Racing Ireland with a few obvious aims: more and better mares in training, chiefly, which in turn suits breeders as it drives demand for fillies at the sales with programmes like the ITBA National Hunt Fillies Bonus Scheme (offers a €5,000 bonus for winning  a mares-only bumper, maiden hurdle or beginners’ chase in Ireland) also playing a part.

Strictly speaking, there are not more mares in training than before but that is due to the drop in the overall horse population; 2007/8 was the season of the most national hunt runners in Ireland and fillies/mares ran 6,235 times that year while they ran 4,549 times last season. As a percentage figure, the number has been gradually going up, however; it was high at 28.1% back in 2007/8 but since dipped down to 25-26% in most of the intervening seasons until more recently. Over the last two campaigns, the percentage of national hunt fields made up of female runners has gone back up to 27.8% and 28.9% respectively, the last figure an all-time high from what I can see, so from that point-of-view the programme changes have been a success.

Things are less clear on the subject of whether the current crop of mares are better than before. Anecdotally there seem to be lots of good mares around – Apple’s Jade, Laurina, Benie Des Dieux and Shattered Love say – but they don’t win Pattern races against the geldings as often as they used to. In the noughties, there were a number of seasons when mares broke double-figures in Graded/Listed wins against the males and this was a time when there were fewer Pattern races; in 04/05 there were 11 such winners, in 06/07 13 winners, in 07/08 14 winners, in 10/11 11 winners. Since then – which comprises the period when the changes were made to the programme book – the totals have been: eight, five, one, three, six, eleven and five.

Whether this is a bad thing is open to discussion. Certainly there seems to be less acceptance of mares-only races from the wider jump racing public, at least in the sense that they would prefer to see them mix it against the geldings. We have the situation where obviously talented mares like Quevega are better known for the races they missed than the ones they took part in though her typically shortened campaigns were as much to do with physical issues and trainer caution as her gender. The scepticism towards mares-only races from jumps racing fans might also be down to them not being around that long; these races are nowhere near as embedded as their equivalents on the flat and on the level you rarely have anyone saying an Oaks filly should run in the Derby, allowing the best of them often to compete against the colts later. Or maybe it’s just the lore of the likes of Dawn Run that persists over jumps.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the programme alterations, one trainer has been at the forefront of using these new races to his advantage: Willie Mullins. Consider the table below of the top Irish trainers with fillies and mares by strike rate from the 2013/14 season through to 2017/18. All trainers on the list had at least 50 runners. For reference purposes I have also included some of the other big trainers in a separate mini-table too.

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Simple strike rate is quite important here – at least in terms of a mare getting its first win – as for many owners getting a winning bracket on the page is what it is all about. Aside from Willie, Mags Mullins is a trainer who comes out well from these figures; she may be just ahead of Gordon Elliott in terms of win percentage but her place strike rate is excellent, a very clear second overall. Having seven-time winner Ballychorus was important for her but she had 12 individual winners in the period covered.

Of the bigger yards, Gordon Elliott, like Willie Mullins, has realised that running plenty of mares is a competitive advantage and Jessica Harrington is another trainer for whom mares make up a sizeable proportion of total runners. That is not the case for Noel Meade, Joseph O’Brien or Henry De Bromhead though Meade maintains a good strike rate with his female runners.

It can be interesting to note the comparative strike rates of trainers with male and female runners. Consider the 10 trainers with the most runners in Irish national hunt races in the five seasons prior to this one:

 

 

As with the flat, female runners win at a lower rate than males as a rule so a trainer who is coming close to their male strike rate is doing well; Mullins is three percentage points better with mares. One thing that stands out here, at least relative to the piece I did on the flat trainers during the summer, is how broadly consistent the big trainers are with both genders. In terms of strike rate anyway, it doesn’t seem to matter with Mullins, Elliott, Meade and Harrington though De Bromhead does seem better with geldings. That is from very few female runners, though Honeysuckle (a Grade 3 winner at Fairyhouse on Saturday) is doing her best to improve those numbers.

In the Graded and Listed scene, Mullins has been utterly dominant. He has won 42 such races between 2013/14 and 2017/18 with one-twos in 15 of those, akin to Aidan O’Brien in some equivalent flat Group races. Gordon Elliott is next in with 10 Listed/Graded winners, Jessica Harrington has had five, while no one else had more than two.

Mullins seems to have been consciously increasing his numbers of female runners over the last few years to take advantage of the growing opportunities. In the past five seasons, his total female runners each campaign has gone 122 > 110 > 121 > 153 > 212 and already this season he is at 228. In the period covered, 22.8% of all his runners were female which is at the upper end of the bigger trainers. Jessica Harrington had the most with 39.5% but there were trainers like Noel Meade (8.3%), Tony Martin (5.9%) and Mouse Morris (1.7%) who train very few mares. Meade is someone whose overall numbers suggest he should be training a few more and, along with the two Mullins (Willie and Mags) and some smaller yards like Terence O’Brien, that is where I might look to put one into training.

Needless to say my friend completely ignored my advice and went elsewhere but at least he gave me an idea for an article!

 - Tony Keenan

Tony Keenan: A [National Hunt] Trainer for all seasons

The very best racehorse trainers are those who constantly adapt and are flexible in their methods; but the reality is that most handlers – like most human-beings – try to find something that works and repeat it, writes Tony Keenan. So, for many yards, the ebb and flow of their season follows a familiar pattern, hitting peaks at certain times, settling into troughs at others.

There are likely a number of reasons for this. As alluded to above, with most things in life it is easier to repeat something you have done before than achieve success in something new. For many yards, the big races – or at least the right races for their specific type of horse – will come at the same time every year. Connections too may have an influence; owners could want their horses aimed at certain festivals or tracks.

This is not to say that trainers exert total control over when their runners are at their best. Unseasonal ground, such as we have had recently for jumpers, may force a change in approach while a trainer could also find themselves with a different type of horse than they previously had. Worst of all, a yard could get a virus– as happened at Ballydoyle this flat season – which sets them back and forces them to almost reboot the campaign.

But, in the main, there are some patterns to be observed on the seasonality of trainer form. For the purposes of this article I have looked at the five Irish National Hunt seasons prior to 2018/19 which provided a decent sample size of 7,067 races. I broke the calendar year into two-month sections and while this is a little arbitrary it also makes sense: November/December marks the start of the jumps season proper, January/February is trials season, March/April is spring festival time, both May/June and July/August are summer jumps, the latter taking in Galway, while September/October is neither here nor there.

To start with, below is a table of the top 10 active trainers in terms of winners trained in the five season period and how their overall strikerate compares with their bimonthly figures. Rather than go into each now, I will refer back to this as I go within each section where there is a table of the trainers who perform the best within each window in terms of overall strikerate. To qualify, a trainer must have had a minimum of 50 runners across the five seasons.

 

Trainer Total Winners Overall

Strikerate

Jan-Feb Mar-Apr May-Jun Jul-Aug Sep-Oct Nov-Dec
W. Mullins 950 30.2% 30.8% 22.4% 28.6% 32.6% 30.6% 36.1%
G. Elliott 674 15.9% 16.6% 12.7% 14.9% 12.5% 22.1% 17.4%
H. De Bromhead 273 14.9% 15.0% 7.5% 18.0% 15.3% 21.0% 13.2%
N. Meade 239 13.7% 13.1% 10.6% 14.4% 13.7% 19.7% 11.9%
J. Harrington 198 13.2% 15.1% 10.9% 16.7% 12.2% 13.8% 11.9%
T. Martin 118 9.7% 8.1% 13.4% 9.6% 16.3% 7.6% 5.9%
J. O’Brien 105 14.2% 11.7% 6.3% 17.4% 19.2% 15.5% 11.5%
R. Tyner 85 9.2% 7.5% 11.1% 7.3% 5.1% 11.7% 9.4%
C. Byrnes 82 13.5% 13.3% 10.2% 15.9% 18.6% 12.1% 12.5%
P. Nolan 77 8.9% 7.5% 12.1% 6.9% 6.7% 13.6% 7.1%

 

November/December: Peak Mullins(es)

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

W. Mullins 751 271 36.1% 56.9% -117.16 0.94
M. Mullins 60 11 18.3% 50.0% +5.50 0.98
G. Elliott 979 170 17.4% 41.0% -145.06 0.93
A. Fleming 77 13 16.9% 29.9% -10.71 1.29
T. Walsh 59 9 15.3% 35.6% +83.75 1.23
E. Bolger 104 14 13.5% 31.7% -40.72 0.96
H. De Bromhead 401 53 13.2% 37.2% -70.23 0.82
Tom Mullins 109 14 12.8% 29.4% -10.62 1.29
C. Byrnes 136 17 12.5% 27.2% -82.30 0.91
J. Harrington 362 43 11.9% 29.3% -91.04 0.88

 

It’s hardly a surprise but Willie Mullins has the best strikerate in all bar one of the six periods though this is his peak-time, returning a 36.1% win strikerate versus a baseline figure of 30.2%. He seemed a little behind in getting his true winter horses out in 2018 but an across-the-card six-timer at Punchestown and Cork the Sunday before last suggests that is about to change. Willie is not the only Mullins to do well at this time of the year as both Mags and Tom have healthy figures too, the former landing a valuable feature handicap hurdle with Salty Boy at Navan over the weekend.

Willie Mullins has dominated the Christmas racing in Ireland in the past five seasons with 60 winners between December 26th and 29th in the period covered, Gordon Elliott unsurprisingly next best with 38. There are some smaller festive trainers to note too though; JJ Walsh has seven winners (all at Limerick) from 85 runners, Robert Tyner has six winners from 35 runners and Pat Fahy has four winners from 25 runners in the period covered. Fahy might just be one of those trainers who can adapt; his Dunvegan was an impressive winner at Fairyhouse on Saturday, running to a standard that would have seen him hard to beat in any Christmas maiden hurdle, but his trainer was keen to get an earlier run into him ahead of a tilt at the Grade 1 novice at Naas in early January.

 

January/February: We need to talk about Joseph

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

W. Mullins 636 196 30.8% 54.7% -8.07 0.95
J. Dreaper 55 10 18.2% 47.3% +1.06 0.97
A. Fleming 67 12 17.9% 44.8% -1.78 0.98
G. Elliott 687 114 16.6% 39.0% -211.05 0.91
J. Harrington 232 35 15.1% 34.5% +49.97 0.93
H. De Bromhead 246 37 15.0% 31.3% -110.75 0.96
T. Walsh 51 7 13.7% 31.4% -28.44 0.71
C. Byrnes 105 14 13.3% 25.7% -23.53 0.91
N. Meade 252 33 13.1% 31.8% -73.70 0.85
P. Fahy 116 15 12.9% 31.9% +1.85 1.23

 

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The first two months of the year have the lowest number of races of the six periods covered, fixtures generally quite sparse after Christmas in particular and meetings at this stage of the season more likely to be abandoned due to the weather. It’s an important time for horses getting ready for Cheltenham, however, as most will have their final prep run at this time and it is no surprise to see proven Festival trainers like Mullins, Elliott, Harrington, de Bromhead and Meade all maintaining good returns.

Things haven’t been quite so good for Joseph O’Brien, thus far at least. This period last year saw perhaps the best moments of his [National Hunt] training career to date as Tower Bridge and Edwulf landed a shock Grade 1 win apiece at the Dublin Racing Festival. But in the main O’Brien struggled against the likes of Mullins and Elliott around this time and indeed in the whole jumps season proper: consider the table below which looks at his returns in the period covered split into six-month periods:

 

Months Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

November – April 34 338 10.1% 45.0% -94.35 0.73
May – October 71 404 17.6% 29.0% -58.80 0.89

 

I am sceptical about whether this summer/winter jumps split will continue for O’Brien. When he started training, the quality of his horses was not as high as it is now and his good record with summer types was likely a product of him simply realising what they were capable of and putting them in weaker races that they could win, most of which were in the summer; as a consequence they became badly handicapped by the time winter came around.

Furthermore, the better younger horses he has been sent as time has gone on are now rising through the ranks: the bumper horses of two seasons back, now novice chasers, and such like which will give him more firepower for the valuable races. This view seems supported by his figures for November and December in the current season: 20 winners from 93 runners for a strikerate of 21.5%.

 

March/April: The spring lull

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

W. Mullins 692 155 22.4% 44.1% +34.54 0.98
J. Dreaper 57 10 17.5% 45.6% -13.53 0.90
J. Kiely 52 9 17.3% 32.7% +27.63 1.68
T. O’Brien 62 9 14.5% 35.5% -3.62 1.07
T. Gibney 57 8 14.0% 29.8% +49.00 1.57
P. Fahy 107 15 14.0% 32.7% +27.00 1.14
J. Dempsey 61 8 13.1% 31.2% +14.00 1.14
S. Crawford 69 9 13.0% 37.7% -15.99 1.03
T. Martin 207 27 13.0% 29.0% -64.67 0.99
E. Doyle 162 21 13.0% 35.2% +7.85 0.99

 

By far the most interesting facet of the spring returns are the records of the main trainers of Irish horses for the Cheltenham Festival: Mullins, Elliott, De Bromhead, Harrington and Meade. Each of them have one of their lowest strikerates of the year at this time: Mullins at 22.4% from an average of 30.2%, Elliott 12.7% from an average of 15.9%, De Bromhead 7.5% from an average of 14.9%, Harrington 10.9% from an average of 13.2%, Meade 10.6% from an average of 13.7%.

There are likely a few reasons for this. Most, it not all, of their best horses will be running at Cheltenham and if they do run back quickly from that meeting they may be over-the-top for the season. The horses they're not running at Festivals are obviously not as good, which opens the door for other trainers (the top 10 for this period has more small trainers than any other time of the season). Finally, particularly in the past two seasons, both Mullins and Elliott have been more willing to have multiple runners in the same race during this spell because there was a trainers' title on the line. That will have further lowered their overall strikerates.

 

May/June: Early summer is Henry time

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

W. Mullins 315 90 28.6% 52.1% -55.19 0.92
H. De Bromhead 284 51 18.0% 37.7% +13.21 1.03
J. O’Brien 98 17 17.4% 44.9% -8.44 0.85
E. Bolger 58 10 17.2% 41.4% -17.56 0.98
J. Harrington 215 36 16.7% 40.9% -30.18 0.86
C. Byrnes 88 14 15.9% 39.8% -27.81 0.91
A. Fleming 51 8 15.7% 43.1% -18.92 0.67
M. McNiff 85 13 15.3% 40.0% +13.00 1.48
T. Gibney 60 9 15.0% 28.3% +85.63 1.52
G. Elliott 612 91 14.9% 37.1% -116.07 0.84

 

This time of the year allows some yards to kick on from a good Punchestown but Henry de Bromhead is one trainer who seems to actively target it, running Mullins close in terms of number of runners. Not unlike Joseph O’Brien, de Bromhead shows some fairly significant summer/winter splits as evidenced below. Perhaps he has decided that this is the best opportunity he will have to beat Mullins and Elliott when their best horses have finished up for the summer.

 

Months Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

November – April 111 929 12.0% 33.3% -358.33 0.77
May – October 162 907 17.9% 29.1% -37.42 0.99

 

July/August: Galway, Galway everywhere

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

A. O’Brien 62 22 35.5% 53.2% +9.78 1.24
W. Mullins 426 139 32.6% 55.4% -45.67 0.99
J. O’Brien 177 34 19.2% 48.0% -6.41 0.91
D. Weld 69 13 18.9% 53.6% -28.59 0.73
C. Byrnes 86 16 18.6% 34.9% -1.40 1.05
J. Kiely 97 17 17.5% 37.1% +6.06 1.20
E. O’Grady 89 15 16.9% 31.5% -10.22 1.02
T. Martin 178 29 16.3% 37.1% -55.07 1.04
H. De Bromhead 347 53 15.3% 34.9% -24.26 0.94
Tom Mullins 87 13 14.9% 37.9% +0.07 1.07

 

The high summer period in Ireland will always be about Galway: the build-up, the meeting itself and the aftermath. It has become a more important meeting for Willie Mullins of late (both over jumps and on the flat) though this in the only period of the year when he fails to top the strikerate table, albeit only beaten by an all-time great handler who doesn’t train jumpers anymore, Aidan O'Brien.

A few of the obvious Galway names make the top 10 here – Weld, Byrnes and Martin along with the underrated Tom Mullins – though Gordon Elliott is conspicuous in his absence, this period typically his worst of the year. At least some of this is by design, however, the trainer commenting when asked about Galway this year that he was more interested in having winners at Navan in November!

 

September/October: Elliott puts in the winter groundwork

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

W. Mullins 324 99 30.6% 49.7% -31.59 1.01
M. Winters 86 20 23.3% 40.7% +17.09 1.36
G. Elliott 530 117 22.1% 45.7% -109.69 0.89
H. De Bromhead 276 58 21.0% 46.0% -26.37 1.00
J. Dempsey 50 10 20.0% 44.0% +7.60 1.68
N. Meade 285 58 19.7% 47.7% -100.27 0.87
E. Doyle 82 15 18.3% 39.0% +9.58 1.34
J. O’Brien 129 20 15.5% 41.1% -13.95 0.89
J. Harrington 210 29 13.8% 36.7% -5.27 0.91
P. Nolan 110 15 13.6% 27.3% -4.52 0.97

 

If the summer is a quiet time for Elliott, September/October is anything but; this is the stage of the year where he lays the groundwork for the winter, comfortably outstripping Mullins in terms of runners and winners trained. Not once in the previous five seasons has he dipped below a strikerate of 20.4% in these two months, though this year is a case in point for not getting too carried away with seasonal numbers; past performance is no guarantee of future success and all that stuff.

In 2018, Elliott has 27 winners from 150 runners for a strikerate of 18.0% with the fast ground meaning he was behind with some of his horses. Many of them needed their first run in a big way – look at the way the likes of Apple’s Jade and Delta Work came forward from their respective seasonal debuts – and that is something to monitor over Christmas. Sometimes what is happening in the current season (see Joseph O’Brien at the moment) is more important than historical data, interesting though it is to attempt to divine patterns in it.

- Tony Keenan

Monday Musings: Joseph is coming!

Something remarkable happened at Fairyhouse yesterday, writes Tony Stafford. Joseph O’Brien had six runners on the second stage of the track’s December Festival as it was billed and none of them won! Has the magic run out? I bet a few trainers at the top of the Irish jumping scene will be hoping so, not least Gordon Elliott, who will have noticed the drift of a considerable number of Gigginstown House horses into the young genius’s care.

I invoke the term “genius” in the clear knowledge that it is something Joseph and his entire family will prefer to shy away from. Having been the first of four products of champion trainers either side of his pedigree, he has been brought up in an atmosphere as far as one can judge by second-hand observation where to err on the side of modesty is the way to proceed.

Born as recently as May 1993, Joseph O’Brien, just like his siblings Sarah, Anastasia and Donnacha, has been immersed in horses and racing all his life. In May 2009 he finished third in the European Pony Show Jumping Championships and by the end of the same month, had his first riding success on a racecourse.

Such was the progress that by the end of the following year he shared with two others in a triple tie for the Irish Apprentices’ Championship; a first Classic success came on Roderic O’Connor the following May, and by the summer of 2012 he had collected the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and Irish Derby with Camelot. Together they only narrowly failed to record the first UK Triple Crown since Nijinsky and Lester Piggott in 1970 when denied by Encke in the St Leger.

Irish riding championships followed that year, and again in 2013 when 126 wins easily exceeded the previous record. As recently as March 2016 he announced he would stop riding, having succumbed at the age of 22 to the struggle with his weight. Like his younger brother, Donnacha, who will surely have to think about his future sooner rather than later, O’Brien is very tall for a Flat-race jockey.

I mentioned yesterday’s blank at Fairyhouse, which was all the more surprising when considered alongside Saturday’s exploits at the same track. He won four of the seven races on the jumps card, and none of the quartet started favourite. The cumulative odds, if you had managed to put them together, exceeded 700-1.

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Two of the four were for Gigginstown, the 10-1 shot Mortal, making a seasonal comeback in the opener, and the former Mouse Morris-trained Desir du Large in the bumper. J P McManus, easily his biggest supporter over jumps, picked up a maiden hurdle with Lone Wolf, one of seven wins in the green and gold hoops between Newcastle, Newbury, Bangor and Fairyhouse on the day.

Gigginstown House Stud, owned by Michael O’Leary of Ryanair and managed so skilfully by his brother Eddie, has so far this term had 16 Joseph O’Brien-trained runners, and at this relatively early stage of the winter season the brothers must be highly satisfied that ten of them have already won, five on their only start to date for the campaign.

It has become commonplace, especially since O’Leary’s split with Willie Mullins, to see multiple Gigginstown horses, mostly trained by Elliott, contesting  the most valuable handicap chases, but big Gordon will not be getting complacent.

No doubt, with 95 for the campaign to his credit already, he’ll be happy enough, but the stats for the young man in a hurry make spectacular reading. Over jumps, starting two winters ago, his figures are 38, 67, and 49 for the campaign already with exponential growth suggesting somewhere near three figures by the end of April.

On the Flat, his fast-developing training career brought 23 wins in a truncated 2016; more than double up to 52 last year and again doubling up to, so far, 106, with more sure to come before the end of the year at Dundalk where he is so successful. That makes a total 335 wins at the two codes in a little more than two and a half years.

He has yet to train a UK jumps winner from eight and then 16 runners in the past two seasons, and no raiders yet this time. The horseboxes have been only sporadically launched on the Flat, too, with five wins in all, two this year. He sent over a few all-weather runners early in 2018, winning a small race at Kempton in January. The other, Iridessa, obliged in rather more exalted company, defeating his father’s Hermosa in the Group 1 Fillies’ Mile at Newmarket in the autumn.

As a trainer who is yet to send out a UK jumps winner, it might be fun to ask a British bookmaker to name a price he trains at least a couple of Cheltenham Festival winners next March?

One race O’Brien – and all the other leading Irish trainers – will struggle to win is the Champion Hurdle, dominated for the last two seasons by Buveur D’Air. That gelding is now the overwhelming favourite to make it a third next March having treated Elliott’s Samcro with contempt in the BetVictor Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on Saturday.

Buveur D’Air came into Saturday’s big race with a record of 10 wins from his 11 previous hurdles starts; two from two in novice chases early in the 2016-7 season before switching back to hurdles when Altior was sent chasing. Two defeats in his four bumper runs are the only other blemishes. In that context it is hard to make sense of Samcro’s starting marginal favourite in preference to him on Saturday at level weights, especially after his comeback defeat by Bedrock at Down Royal last month.

Buveur D’Air’s sole hurdles lapse to date was behind stable-companion Altior in the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, when Min was a seven-length runner-up. Buveur D’Air, at the time the accepted Nicky Henderson second string, was only third.

Since then the Henderson pair have each gone unbeaten, Altior into unchallenged pre-eminence among two-mile chasers and Buveur D’Air, with his exceptionally-fluent hurdling, in line to emulate Istabraq as a three-time Champion Hurdle winner for J P McManus.

The owner’s Saturday seven-timer featured three more victories for Henderson, one at Newbury and two at Newcastle;  one for Paul Nicholls at Newbury and a 50-1 shot for Philip Hobbs at Bangor as well as Lone Wolf at Fairyhouse. As ever, while many smaller teams have been waiting for the weather to break, the top stables seem to have the resources in all regards to keep going.

The ground is set to ease this week. We have been waiting for Ray Tooth’s Apres Le Deluge to make his jumps debut and have had him pencilled in for some time at Exeter on Friday. In anticipation of softer ground, 47 horses were entered for his race and because of the paucity of available stabling, and no chance of a division only 13 are likely to get a run. We have an elimination number of 25, so it looks as though eight of those with higher numbers or none at all will need to miss the race for him to get a run. Not very likely is it?

2018/19 Jumps Season: Four Things to Note

The National Hunt season, official or ‘proper’, has a number of starting points but the Morgiana card at Punchestown seems to represent as good a beginning as any, writes Tony Keenan. This year, however, things may not get going until we receive a substantial blast of rain and, with some forecasts suggesting that may be coming this week, now seems a reasonable time to set the scene for four story lines set to unravel over the next five and a half months.

  1. Rachael Blackmore, Record Breaker

Rachael Blackmore is already a record breaker: her 56 winners thus far in 2018/19 are far ahead of the previous best tally in a season by a female rider, Nina Carberry’s 39 winners in 2009/10. That is comparing apples and oranges, however, as Carberry was an amateur and limited in terms of the number of rides she could take, though that brought some advantages too: she generally only took a mount when it had at least some chance of success.

Blackmore hasn’t always had that luxury and as recently as last season was taking rides wherever she could find them. Consider the final table in the jockeys’ championship from last season with the added column of number of trainers ridden for:

 

Jockey Winners Rides Yards ridden for
D. Russell 119 588 56
P. Townend 83 419 65
J. Kennedy 63 325 26
R. Walsh 61 214 22
S. Flanagan 59 514 84
P. Mullins 54 155 22
M. Walsh 51 378 56
A. Lynch 39 591 104
R. Power 38 307 42
Danny Mullins 35 431 94
R. Blackmore 34 375 88

 

There are a few points of interest here.

First, Andrew Lynch continues to be one of the hardest working riders in racing, breaking three figures in terms of different stables ridden for, while at the other end of the spectrum, neither Ruby Walsh nor Patrick Mullins take many outside rides, relatively speaking. Jack Kennedy also rode for a surprisingly small number of other yards. But Blackmore is right up there in terms of yards ridden for, third overall to Lynch and Danny Mullins of the top 11.

That shows willingness to graft but her endgame is to reach a stage where she doesn’t have to do that so much and instead gets on better horses for the top yards; with Gigginstown giving her plenty of opportunities already and a link-up with Willie Mullins too, that point may not be far away.

Winning the jockeys’ title will be difficult but it is not the 100/1 chance that Paddy Power rated her back at the end of August, that company now having her at 9/2. A more realistic aim in the short-term might be a Grade 1 and/or Cheltenham Festival winner. Nina Carberry was the first female jump jockey to win a Grade 1 in the UK and Ireland when taking the Champion Bumper at Punchestown in 2006, a feat she repeated in 2007. Lizzie Kelly was the first woman to win a Grade 1 chase  in the UK and Ireland when Tea For Two won the 2015 Kauto Star Novice Chase and the same horse gave her another in the 2017 Aintree Bowl. Since then, Bryony Frost won the same Kempton race on Black Corton last season.

Carberry and Katie Walsh, two of the Irish jockeys Blackmore is commonly compared with, have seven and three Festival winners respectively. The first of Carberry’s wins came in the 2005 Fred Winter with the remaining six coming against amateur competition (four wins in the Cross Country, two in the Foxhunter), something Blackmore is restricted from. Meanwhile, Walsh won both County Hurdle and a Champion Bumper, races that might be just up Blackmore’s street given the numbers Willie Mullins tends to throw at them.

 

  1. Ruby at the last, part two

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Ruby Walsh coming off horses at the final obstacle is becoming a thing again but part of that is the narrative: of the ten mounts he has fallen or unseated from in 2018, only two were at the last but they were in consecutive races at Naas recently. That eight of those ten rides were sent off favourite means his spills inevitably attract more attention than any other rider but what is clear is that Walsh has fallen or unseated off a far greater percentage of his mounts this year than previously. The figures below take in his rides in all National Hunt races in the UK and Ireland by calendar year.

 

Year Falls/Unseats Mounts Fall/Unseat Rate
2011 25 472 5.3%
2012 29 583 4.9%
2013 28 537 5.2%
2014 13 249 5.2%
2015 18 430 4.1%
2016 20 385 5.2%
2017 19 366 5.2%
2018 10 69 14.5%

 

A large part of this is just messing around with numbers; this season’s figures represent a small sample size and it is highly unlikely that he finishes 2018 with such a high rate though there isn’t much of the year left. What is interesting is that his fall/unseat rate is so consistent throughout his career, and even looking back as far as 2003 he only once went over 5.9% for a full year.

Over that period it is also notable that not once between the years of 2003 and 2009 did he take fewer than 700 rides; since than he has only gone over 500 mounts twice. Part of that is injury, part of it is reduced workload after he left Paul Nicholls in 2013, and part of it is also choice.

If the past few weeks are anything to go by, those choices are going to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the winter. Already we have seen Walsh opt not to ride the beginners’ chases over the weekend of November 10th and 11th nor did he ride Kemboy or Camelia De Cotte over fences at Clonmel last Thursday. He also bypassed possible mounts in the Florida Pearl Novice Chase on Sunday, one of which included the winner Some Neck, ahead of Faugheen running the Morgiana Hurdle.

All of this might help Walsh’s longevity but one thing the past few weeks have shown us is that it is difficult to predict when a chaser might fall; even the best jumper, or what might have appeared the best jumper, can fall as was the case with Footpad. There is such a degree of randomness in fallers that not even one of the greatest jumps jockeys may be able to predict them.

 

  1. Festivals, festivals, everywhere

2018 will be remembered as a year without a spring - where winter, with the help of Storm Emma, stretched out through April and then everything turned balmy in May. That meant that all of the spring festivals were run on soft ground and we also had a new meeting, the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown, to kick the whole thing off.

Such festival races, often run at a strong gallop, take plenty out of horses and there was a trainers’ title on the line too, Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott taking each other on with more frequency than might typically have been the case as the battleground moved from Leopardstown to Cheltenham then back to Fairyhouse and Punchestown.

I made it 24 horses that took in all three of Cheltenham, Fairyhouse and Punchestown with the list as follows: Getabird, Sharjah*, Pietralunga, High School Days, Invitation Only*, Al Boum Photo*, Dounikos*, Shattered Love, The Storyteller*, Blow By Blow, Outlander*, Tycoon Prince*, Josies Orders, Cut The Mustard, Dawn Shadow, Squouateur*, Bleu Berry, Scarpeta, Duc Des Genievres*, Real Steel*, Barra*, Let’s Dance, Augusta Kate and C’est Jersey. [The ones with an asterisk also ran at Leopardstown so may have had an extra-hard time of things].

Of those 24 horses, 13 were trained by Mullins, eight by Elliott and three by others which, to my mind, is clear evidence of Mullins being affected by Elliott: five seasons ago, when his title was not under threat, there is no way Mullins would have run his horses so frequently. It will be fascinating to see how this cohort of horses does in 2018/19 and while in some ways it was entirely natural for them to run in these races, it may not have been beneficial that they ran in all of them.

Each will need to be judged on a horse-by-horse basis and while the likes of Sharjah were able to bounce back and win not only a Galway Hurdle but a Morgiana, others tailed off completely. Dounikos, for instance, was pulled up at Cheltenham, Fairyhouse and Punchestown while Scarpeta ran a really promising race in the Neptune but didn’t build on it at all afterwards and finished up his season getting beaten at 2/5 on the flat.

 

  1. Mullins, Elliott and the rest

The emergence of Mullins and Elliott as super-trainers has been felt in every aspect of the Irish national hunt scene but nothing has been altered more than the graded race landscape. Consider where we were in 2010/11. That season, there were 99 graded non-handicaps jumps races run in Ireland. Willie Mullins had 88 runners and Noel Meade was next with 44 out of a total of 717 runners, their combined percentage coming out at 18.4%. 148 different trainers had runners while 40 had a graded winner.

Compare that to the last three seasons:

 

Season Total Runners Mullins and Elliott Runners Mullins/ Elliott

Percentage of Runners

Individual Yards with a Runner Individual Yards with a Winner
2015/16 615 223 36.2% 106 28
2016/17 683 291 42.6% 110 18
2017/18 712 366 51.4% 90 13

 

Last season may prove an aberration in terms of number of yards that managed a graded winner as already in 2018/19, 12 different yards have won such a race, among them some unexpected names like Iain Jardine, Colin Kidd, Aidan Howard and Gavin Cromwell. Gordon Elliott, surprisingly, has only won one graded race to this point in the season, the Lismullen Hurdle with Apple’s Jade.

There was a time when a win or two in such a race would sustain a smaller yard for the season but now they are struggling to even manage a runner; we are in a very different place to 2015/16, much less 2010/11.

- Tony Keenan

Grading the Trainers: Irish National Hunt Season 2017/18

Whatever your thoughts on the overall health or otherwise of the Irish jumps scene, the 2017/18 season will go down as a memorable one: Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott slugging it out from one big meeting to the next, though the culmination at Punchestown was ultimately underwhelming, writes Tony Keenan. Prior to this season, no trainer had reached €5 million in domestic prizemoney but both broke that total, Mullins with €5,968,275 and Elliott on €5,158,751. They are worthy of their top grades but how about the rest?

Willie Mullins – Grade: A (Last season: B+)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Mullins’s season was how much he changed his approach; where once he had been quite risk-averse in terms of campaigning, often putting the strongest horses in the weakest races, he now has to run them more often and in races that may be less suitable. Elliott is the reason for this and it was his sustained challenge for a first title that forced the champion to find another gear. Consider his winners, runners and prizemoney totals over the past four seasons:

 

Season Winners Runners Strikerate Prizemoney
2017/18 212 797 27% €5,968,275
2016/17 180 571 32% €4,580,200
2015/16 185 557 33% €4,489,105
2014/15 187 554 34% €4,225,253

 

In the three seasons prior to the last one, there was a comfort level with how Mullins was operating judging on the above figures though the 2016/17 totals took some getting in light of not having the Gigginstown horses. More of basically everything did mean a lower winner-to-runner ratio than previously however, falling from 59% in each of the last two seasons to 54%.

 

Season Individual Winners Individual Runners Strikerate
2017/18 131 243 54%
2016/17 109 184 59%
2015/16 121 191 59%
2014/15 109 179 61%

 

To go from 184 to 243 individual runners is a massive jump but he was still well-clear in terms of winner/runner ratio among all trainers with a meaningful sample. The table below shows the top ten with a minimum of 20 individual horses being the cut-off point.

 

Trainer Winner/Runner Ratio
W. Mullins 54%
C. Byrnes 46%
P. Dempsey 40%
G. Elliott 40%
J. O’Brien 40%
A. Fleming 36%
N. Meade 36%
H. De Bromhead 33%
J. Harrington 29%
D. McLaughlin 28%

 

Punchestown, as ever, was a triumph for Mullins and he would have broken the €6 million figure but for Paul Townend/Al Boum Photo-gate. It seems early to consider what might happen next season but he has started this new season quite strongly in terms of number of runners and will be keen to be well-clear should a late-autumn, early-winter lull kick in as it did last season. His hunger for retaining the title shows no sign of abating though perhaps winning a championship chase at Cheltenham could be even higher on the pecking order, Footpad looking his main hope in that regard.

Best Bit(s): A close run thing between Un De Sceaux and Faugheen. Memories of an ultra-keen hurdler seem long ago with Un De Sceaux and the ten-year-old who took in hard races at both Cheltenham and Fairyhouse was perhaps never better than when winning the Champion Chase at Punchestown; he isn’t as classy as a peak Douvan but has been much more durable. Following 665 days off, Faugheen won the Morgiana before bouncing at Christmas but the bounce-back is always the hardest part; it took three starts to get him back to Grade 1-winning level and while he wasn’t as good as the old Faugheen, he was probably up to the standard set in the Morgiana in November.

Worst Bit: The ‘where will he run next’ act with Yorkhill almost became a parody this season as the four-time Grade 1 winner never got within 30lbs of his best and landed the unique four-timer of going from a three-mile chase to a two-mile chase to a two-mile hurdle to a three-mile hurdle.

 

Gordon Elliott – Grade: A (last season: A-)

Only the most recency-biased critic would say Elliott had anything other than a magnificent season, recording the second highest winner total in Irish jumps history, winning two Grand Nationals and becoming the top trainer at Cheltenham for the second year running. The raw numbers of his season-on-season improvement are worth repeating:

 

Season Winners Prizemoney
2017/18 210 €5,158,755
2016/17 193 €4,380,705
2015/16 123 €2,568,750
2014/15 92 €1,546,070

 

This really was a case of losing nothing in defeat and while again priced as the outsider for next year’s championship, it sounds as if Michael O’Leary is going to double down on trying to help him win a title. I have no idea what he spent on new horses in the last year as those figures are only partly in the public domain but one gets the sense that whatever that number was, the next number will be bigger. Elliott is getting very reliant on Gigginstown at this point and below are the top 15 prizemoney horses for both he and Mullins in Ireland this past season; where 12 of the Elliott horses are owned by Gigginstown, Mullins has 12 different owners represented. With that in mind, it is hard to consider him an underdog of any type despite how he is sometimes represented.

 

Elliott – Top 15 Horses Mullins – Top 15 Horses
General Principle Un De Sceaux
Potters Point Faugheen
Apple’s Jade Bellshill
A Toi Phil Footpad
Outlander Next Destination
Doctor Phoenix Isleofhopendreams
Monbeg Notorious Meri Devie
Shattered Love Patricks Park
Folsom Blue Min
Mengli Khan Total Recall
Samcro Kemboy
Hardline Coquin Mans
Diamond Cauchois Rathvinden
Dortmund Park Djakadam
Dinaria Des Obeaux Al Boum Photo
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What Elliott really needs to win a championship is more horses that can win open Grade 1 races; in 2017/18 he won three such races with Outlander, Mick Jazz and Apple’s Jade where Mullins won eight. Not only are these contests valuable during the season but they are the key to ‘winning Punchestown’ where each of the four big races are worth €275,000. The source of these horses isn’t obvious however; Samcro looks like he could be one but only if he stays hurdling (the prizemoney in novice chases is largely insignificant in the grand scheme) and possibly the two best Gigginstown horses – at least in terms of ratings – are in other yards, Road To Respect and Balko Des Flos. That pair respectively won €163,450 and €189,050 in Irish prizemoney last season which wouldn’t have been enough to bridge the ultimate gap of €809,524 but it would certainly have made things more interesting.

Best Bit: Doctor Phoenix cost £10,000 last May and was the value buy of the season, winning a Dan Moore and a Naas Grade 3, and he could well have beaten Un De Sceaux at Easter as he was trading odds-on before falling two out. Rising from a mark of 137 to 156, his prizemoney was maximised along the way which isn’t bad for a horse that used to have a Timeform squiggle.

Worst Bit: Everything went to plan for Death Duty in the early part of the season as he won three times but the decision to run him over 2m1f at Christmas on yielding ground worked out badly. Taking on Footpad there looked an early shot in the championship rather than what was best for the horse in the long term and it came at a high cost.

 

Joseph O’Brien – Grade: B (Last season: no grade)

O’Brien is a different type of trainer to the Big Two, reliant more on JP McManus and being a dual-purpose yard in the truest sense, but the leap he took in prizemoney this past season is almost Elliott-like.

 

Season Winners Runners Prizemoney Champ. Position
2017/18 67 473 €1,419,319 3rd
2016/17 38 269 €710,244 5th

 

He basically doubled his prizemoney total but it needs pointing out that he had 48 winners by the end of October and managed only five domestic winners from January on; like so many, he was a bit player in the Mullins-Elliott drama of the winter season proper. Against that however is the fact that he had two big-priced Grade 1 winners at the Dublin Racing Festival in Edwulf and Tower Bridge and there are plenty of good prospects for the future here in the likes of Early Doors, Speak Easy, Rhinestone and Us And Them.

Best Bit: Rekindling is by far the high point during the period covered but, seeing as this should be jumps only, basically bringing Edwulf back from the dead to win an Irish Gold Cup was the other big achievement.

Worst Bit: The campaigning of Tigris River. Since he won the Galway Hurdle, he has been beaten: 22ls, 16ls, 27ls, 26ls, pulled up and 110ls. Last time at Punchestown was better and perhaps it’s all about the ground with him but a novel idea might be to run him less frequently on going that doesn’t suit. In any case, the handicapper hasn’t cut him much slack, still 4lbs higher than his Galway win.

 

Henry De Bromhead – Grade: B (Last season: B)

Despite seeming to go missing for various chunks of the season, overall it was a decent campaign for De Bromhead; he was good through the summer, had a quiet November, bounced back in December especially at Christmas before having a quiet end to the season at home. He did however win a Galway Plate with Balko Des Flos and manage to upgrade him into a Ryanair winner and became one of only two other Irish trainers along with Pat Kelly to have a Festival winner. Monalee too was good if unfortunate, falling twice in Grade 1s, while Ellie Mac winning the first race of the Leopardstown Christmas meeting was one of the more heart-warming stories of the season.

Best Bit: He may have been found a bad race at Aintree but getting Identity Thief back to a high level over three miles was an impressive achievement given how he’d looked gone at the game when reverting to hurdles in the spring of 2017.

Worst Bit: The blame for the campaigning of Petit Mouchoir this spring has to be laid somewhere though perhaps this isn’t the right spot; someone was responsible for riding tactics in the Arkle which looked overly-aggressive even if the horse can be very free. The decision to run him at both Aintree and Punchestown was a poor one in light of the hard races he had already had along with an injury and it is only sensible to wonder what mark this will have left.

 

Jessica Harrington – Grade: C (Last season: A+)

The most notable feature of Harrington’s season was a marked drop off in strikerate; the figures here refer to runners in both Ireland and the UK over jumps.

 

Season Strikerate
2017/18 9.1%
2016/17 13.9%
2013/14, 2014/15, 2015/16 combined 15.1%

 

I had initially suspected that last season – when she seemed to win every big race in sight from the turn of the year – was an aberration in terms of win rates but having combined the three seasons previous it is this past season that was different in the negative sense; 2016/17 had just been Harrington maintaining her previous standards albeit in better races. It didn’t help of course that she was without Sizing John from Christmas, staying chasers being the most fragile cohort of the fragile body of horses that are jumpers, but at least he had been maximised the previous season.

Best Bit(s): Supasundae danced every dance and to a degree made his own luck this past season; the trainer spotted a vulnerable Faugheen over two miles in January and her likeable hurdler duly ran to his level and won while things also fell his way at Punchestown. Forge Meadow also deserves a mention for an excellent middle part of the season; a hot mare that can lose it in the preliminaries, Harrington did well to get her back to form after three poor runs to start the season.

Worst Bit: Sizing John thrived on racing in 2016/17 but the decision to back him up at Leopardstown 18 days after winning the John Durkan is one connections might like to take back. Whether it played any part in the ‘hairline non-displaced fracture’ that ended his season is unknown but there was no real upside to running him over Christmas when he was already proven in such races. Supasundae may have revelled in such a campaign but he is a hurdler not a staying chaser.

 

Noel Meade – Grade: C (Last season: B+)

Meade now occupies a weird underdog position in Irish jumps racing which is strange for an eight-time champion trainer; the coverage of Bel Ami De Sivola’s win at the Fairyhouse Easter meeting reflected this as the RTE commentators seemed thrilled that he had managed a winner on the big stage even in a handicap. He managed only one runner at Cheltenham Festival in Road To Respect and in truth his season seemed to revolve around that horse.

Best Bit: Road To Respect winning at Christmas. Things didn’t go right for him after that win with the ground against him in the Gold Cup and his jumping not up to scratch at Punchestown but a Grade 1 win was a decent yield overall.

Worst Bit: His Down Royal return was very promising but Disko failing to make the track despite repeated assurances that he would be in the next big staying chase was disappointing.

 

The Rest

It very much is ‘the rest’ at this point and Pat Kelly probably deserves main billing; he has the best horse not trained in the top six yards with Presenting Percy who remarkably is 1lb away from being the best both over hurdles (rated 156) and fences (rated 165), Anibale Fly rated ahead of him for chases. There’s no doubt who’d be favourite for a race between that pair however and he deserves extra credit for taking a completely unorthodox route to the RSA and winning with bags in hand.

Charles Byrnes was one of the big risers from 2016/17 to 2017/18, going from nineteenth up to seventh, and having the second best winner/runner ratio. He won the Coral Hurdle at Leopardstown with Off You Go and bumpers were a big part of his season, winning seven such races from a total of 29 runners. Byrnes is a good trainer but almost certainly a better punter, not only knowing what he has but also getting a good gauge on the opposition. Consider his bumper winners below and the make-up of the fields they took on:

 

Winner Opening Show Starting Price Mullins Runners Elliott Runners
Balliniska Band 11/4 11/8 0 0
Balliniska Band 6/4 7/4 0 1
Minnies Secret 9/4 6/4 0 1
Mary B 9/4 5/4 0 1
Van Humboldt 11/10 8/13 0 1
Alpine Cobra 6/1 6/1 2 1
Thosedaysaregone 5/1 9/2 1 1

 

The opening show here refers to the on-course market but it is notable that he managed to find five bumpers all season where there were no Mullins runners and landed a late punt in four of them. He is clearly more concerned about runners coming from Closutton than Cullentra!

Another big riser was Denis Hogan, going from twenty-third in 2016/17 up to eighth this past season. He didn’t do it with particularly good horses either which is to his credit, Youcantcallherthat a standout with five wins but the likes of Eiri Na Casca winning thrice was a victory for good placing more than anything. Some better stock is coming into the yard, not least the siblings Moskovite and Moyhenna, though a recent win for Inis Meain remains elusive.

Philip Dempsey had a decent winner/runner ratio and good period between September and November when he had 11 winners while Alan Fleming maintained a high strikerate though lacked a really good horse. The whole Barry Connell operation remains a rather inscrutable one, willing to spend plenty on good prospects but not so keen on using the major trainers to handle them.

- Tony Keenan

Monday Musings: The Irish Oligarchy

I was looking around for a middlingly-busy English trainer to make a point, writes Tony Stafford. Apologies to Jeremy Noseda for singling him out, but his situation amply puts into focus the absurd strength of the top two Irish jumps stables. Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott play out a year-long private numerical and prizemoney battle, to be resolved by five days’ head-to-head clashes with fortunes to be divvied up between them and their owners every spring at Punchestown.

And what sort of owners? After Elliott once again succumbed to the even more excessive resources of the Mullins hordes, his principal owner, Michael O’Leary of Gigginstown fame and the countless Ryanair millions, said: “We will have to strive even harder to catch up with Willie”. Actually his words were probably a little different, but that was the tenor of his argument.

One element which I did catch properly was that he thinks it is good for Irish racing that Gordon Elliott’s stable has grown to be competitive with the top man. That it has is entirely due to the Gigginstown horses’ switching from Mullins two years ago over O’Leary’s refusal to pay more for training fees than hitherto. Otherwise, he says, it would be a case of Mullins winning everything.

Last week he didn’t quite win everything, but 18 wins from 117 runners over the five days, including most of the Grade 1’s, was as fair an approximation to complete domination as you would wish to encounter.

Is it good for Irish racing? Is it good that overnight declarations for several of the top races were confined almost entirely to the Mullins/Elliott brigades? When the always-supine press applaud say Mullins or, less often last week Elliott, for a major winner with his fifth-string, do they worry about the impossibility it offers racing fans to come up with the 25-1 shot that happened to be the one that prevailed from the depths of the multiple candidates.

I mentioned Jeremy Noseda earlier. Over the past decades he has shown exceptional ability for various major owners, winning major races and placing his horses shrewdly. Sadly for him, a good number have gone elsewhere, often to the domestic big shots like Gosden, Stoute or the like, or joined the frequent yearning for the fashionable newer talents of whom Archie Watson is an obvious current example.

Yet Noseda still has the skill to plan major projects, like next weekend’s – now sadly ill-fated – challenge for the Kentucky Derby with the much-improved Gronkowski, who qualified for the Run for the Roses via a cleverly-conceived race at Newcastle. Victory there obviated the need to go for one of the North American Classic trials that would have provided a far more testing examination for earning qualification points for the big race. Alas, he misses out due to a setback.

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In the whole of 2016, Noseda won 19 races from a total of only 109 runs. Last year, slightly more active, his 28 wins came from 122 runners – in the former case eight fewer total runners in the calendar year than Mullins sent to the track at a single fixture last week. In 2017, his total exceeded the Punchestown Mullins hordes by a mere five.

In all, Mullins’ tally for the whole of the 2017-8 jumps season in Ireland was 212 wins from 797 runs (243 individual horses) at a win percentage of 27. Level stakes losses for all runners was only 80 points, testimony to the fact that the “wrong ones” often win. Additionally, he won ten races from his 74 runners in the UK during the same period.

Of course he’s a master trainer. His father Paddy was likewise a top trainer and his brothers, former sister-in-law (Mags) and the next generation of son Patrick, plus nephews and cousins form a pretty strong starting point for the country’s horse-racing aristocracy.

Then take the Walsh’s and the Carberry’s, leavened with the still-exploding Aidan O’Brien dynasty, with plenty more to come, and you can see why racing over there might seem to be something of a closed shop. Indeed, without the long-established practice of the formerly all-conquering J P McManus to spread a decent percentage of his horses around many of the smaller stables, the oligopoly would be even more intense.

It doesn’t happen here, even in jumping. Nicky Henderson might have been the pre-eminent stable this season with at least £1 million earnings more than anyone else and 141 wins, coincidentally, like Mullins in Ireland, at 27%. He had four wins on this country’s end of season climax day at Sandown on Saturday, but the ten horses he sent out there might just as easily have been routed to Punchestown in other seasons.

Four years in succession when Nicky trained Punjabi, he followed his Cheltenham runs each year by sending him to Punchestown. The first time (2007) his fourth in the Triumph and second at Aintree were followed with victory in the Four-Year-old Grade 1 at the Irish fin de saison jamboree. When he was third in the following year’s Champion, he crossed the Irish Sea and won their Champion Hurdle.

The next year he won at Cheltenham but was narrowly beaten in Ireland, while declining health (a breathing problem) caused unplaced efforts in both races in 2010. Yet even after his disappointing effort in his unsuccessful title defence, he still found his way across the Irish Sea those few weeks later. Happily he’s still fit enough at Kinsale Stud to make a yearly appearance at the Cheltenham Festival Parade of Champions.

In those days, Punchestown was Nicky’s Holy Grail, so much so that when I suggested we aim Punjabi at the Chester Cup the year he won the Champion – he’d won his only two Flat races for Ray Tooth and Hendo at Newmarket and Sandown the year before – the idea was given short shrift. As I said at the time (under my breath of course), we win another race in Ireland? So what! This is the Chester Cup, one of the great historic races. Wish we had something good enough to go for it now.

I’d have loved Gronkowski to give Jeremy a big run on Saturday at Churchill Downs, and in his absence I have to go along with Mendelssohn. His run on dirt in Dubai was astonishing, but as yet the signs are that the O’Brien team is not quite in top form. The way the market on the 2,000 Guineas has been going, it seems that Gustav Klimt, rather than Saxon Warrior, might be the one to be on from Ballydoyle.

Can you believe that both those massive races are already with us? I haven’t forgotten that a few weeks back I suggested it would be good for the sport if the home-bred Tip Two Win could do just that for the Roger Teal stable. Certainly it would be good for Roger and the colt’s owner-breeder Mrs Anne Cowley anyway. [And also for geegeez.co.uk, as Tip Two Win’s jockey is none other than our sponsored rider, David Probert – Ed.].

After that, next week it’s Chester for three days, then a week later the Dante meeting at York. It’s all just too much. Before the season gets going it seems it’ll be Epsom and Royal Ascot.

There has been quite a lot of comment about the switch from a general structure of maiden races with a few conditions events sprinkled in, to the almost total obliteration of the former by the newly-extended novice races. The big stables love them. They can have horses that won a race the year before, or in some cases, two years earlier and had gone through a campaign of Group or even Classic races, yet are still qualified to take on maidens if they hadn’t won again.

So take the example of Ray’s promising horse Sod’s Law. Second, beaten narrowly on debut in December at Kempton, he returned there for a novice race a couple of weeks back and finished fourth. The winner Fennaan, trained by John Gosden, had won a 16-runner novice last September and after the narrow win here – from a decent Richard Hannon type called Magnificent, was given a rating of 93.

It seems all the novice races, and there are few enough open to our horse when you include maiden auctions – he’s home-bred, so didn’t go to a sale, median auctions for less than £19,000, and fillies’ only contests. Hughie Morrison is looking for a satisfactory third race, but he’ll need to get cracking and we’re already into May. It’s another case of Sod’s Law. Whose idea was it to get that name?

Monday Musings: Festival Clues and Hat-Trick Heroes

As we get to within three weeks of Cheltenham, all the evidence gleaned from the past weekend is being filtered into the Festival mincer, even though the likelihood is that the terrain in the Cotswolds will not equate anywhere near to what we’ve been witnessing, writes Tony Stafford.

What can trainers do, though? We had a Grand National favourite in Blaklion taken back to Haydock for the Betfred Trial under 11st 12lb in proper gluey Haydock heavy ground, a race in which he was placed last year. Last week his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, declared him in the Red Rum bracket as an Aintree horse. Why then, after a valiant if slightly lack-lustre second place, 54 lengths adrift of Yala Enki, is he allowed out as far as 16-1 for the big race?

Trainers either give their horses the run, or keep them ticking over with the risk of being under-prepared for their big day. Blaklion will be happier on the almost guaranteed better ground around the Grand National course and I’m sure his breeder Mary Morrison will be hoping that her pride and joy will bring home the rather handsome joint of bacon this time.

Another horse actually is held even dearer to Mary’s heart – and is stabled within yards of her back door in East Ilsley. That’s Cousin Khee, now 11, and winner of nine races in Raymond Tooth’s colours before switching full allegiance back to the Morrisons, having originally been owned by family members, for whom they won a junior bumper.

Last week at Southwell, given an extreme trip on the Fibresand which clearly suits the Hughie Morrison team, he strode home well clear maintaining a tradition of longevity in the stable inmates over many years. Flat, jumps, turf and all weather come alike to both trainer and veteran racehorse.

With so many talented handlers about, it’s harder than ever to win races. Two of the best of the younger brigade, Gordon Elliott and Dan Skelton, were at it again yesterday, each clocking hat-tricks in consecutive races at Navan and Market Rasen respectively, with Elliott also weighing in with an earlier impressive winner to make it four on the day.

Time may show that Diamond Cauchois, the wide-margin victor of the four-runner Boyne Hurdle over two miles, five furlongs, is more a mudlark than authentic all-round top performer, but something lurks in the back of my mind telling me that he could prove considerably more than that.

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The time of yesterday’s race was alarmingly slow, even by the consistently above-standard recordings of all the races. But the way in which Diamond Cauchois and Davy Russell stretched away from Bapaume after the Ricci hope looked to be going the better was compelling.

Bapaume was rated 153 going into the race and, based on his third over three miles behind Apple’s Jade before being understandably outclassed despite being backed from 20-1 to 9’s behind Supersundae and Faugheen back over the minimum, his chance looked decent enough. Conversely, strong money for the winner, evens to 4-6, suggested that Elliott believed they could beat the Mullins horse, who was conceding 5lb after his Grade 1 win in the big four-year-old hurdle at Punchestown last April.

I didn’t see the race live yesterday, but looking at the closing stages this morning, it seemed momentarily that Bapaume was coming to win when Russell’s mount stepped up a gear and shrugged off his rival in a few strides. It was left to the Elliott second string, Lieutenant Colonel, to run on late for second as Bapaume cracked, leaving Diamond Cauchois to draw nine lengths clear.

This seven-year-old, by Buveur d’Air’s French-based and –raced sire, Crillon, has a colourful past. He won one of four races in his home country – at Dax in May 2015 – before being bought for €12,000 by Sue Bramall. Am I alone in thinking the practice for British and Irish handicappers to allot handicap figures on French provincial form is risky? It was in this case, the 108 from which he made his Irish debut at Thurles proving the recipe for a 16-1 touch.

Bramall gave him three subsequent unsuccessful runs in Ireland, before sending him for a summer’s jumping in France where his best effort was a fourth place from three more appearances. After this, a second place was the peak performance from his next six runs returning to Ireland before the run that attracted the attention of Elliott and the Danny & Eamon partnership in whose colours he now competes.

That came almost a year ago – March 9th 2017 – when he ran home the six-length winner of a two miles, seven furlongs handicap hurdle at Naas from a mark of 119. The most notable aspect was the identity of the runner-up, Raz De Maree, unseated when I backed him next time out in the Grand National, but the emphatic winner of the Coral Welsh Grand National in a stirring finish of teenagers at Chepstow last month.

Within a couple of months, Diamond Cauchois was in the ring at Goffs UK’s Doncaster May sales and changed hands for £68,000, decent business indeed for Mrs Bramall. Overall, though, on the evidence of yesterday and three previous runs – one easy win and two good thirds – for Elliott, he could prove a bargain. I hope he turns out at Cheltenham, as I’ll be bumping into his owners that week. The “something that lurks” could easily be for him to win one of the major staying chases one day. He’s still only seven after all.

Dan Skelton does not have quite the Gigginstown-backed quality that Elliott can call upon, but he has the numbers; and two Saturday wins, one each at Wincanton and Haydock as well as that Market Rasen hat-trick brought him onto a scarcely-believable 138 for the season.

The one I was most interested in was Solomon Grey, still lightly-raced but improving fast and a hard-fought winner of the day’s featured handicap hurdle. Again on my early-morning viewing, when he went past the four-year-old Oxford Blu coming to the last, it looked a formality with the rest well beaten. Then, having gone almost three lengths to the good, he had to hang on grimly as Oxford Blu and Richard Johnson battled back to within a neck.

I’ve been aware of the Cheltenham intentions of this red, blue and white liveried gelding, bought privately (and shrewdly) from Sir Mark Prescott’s noted jumping nursery, for some time. He’s with Olly Murphy, still less than a year into his training career after several years fruitfully spent as Gordon Elliott’s assistant.

Mr Geegeez himself warned me to watch out for when Oxford Blu went handicapping after his runs in juvenile hurdles and he could hardly have been more prophetic. I didn’t discern too much confidence before yesterday though – possibly after Swaffham Bulbeck’s disappointing showing at Haydock in the Victor Ludorum the previous day.

The striking thing about this run was the polished economy of his jumping, and the way he was able to run past almost the entire field from the start of the back straight to the home turn without any obvious energy from the rider. From that point he and the winner stretched easily away from some decent handicappers.

In his Sir Mark days, Oxford Blu clearly appreciated a trip, winning over two and a quarter miles, adding to an earlier 10-furlong Tapeta success at Newcastle (and a close second at Chelmsford to a horse which has recording the first of subsequent unbeaten run of five). He showed off that stamina yesterday in his finishing effort, and it is not difficult to imagine that when confronted by better ground and the Cheltenham hill in the Fred Winter he will prove equal to the examination. We’ll all be cheering him home either way.

In The Numbers: Mullins versus Elliott (Part Two)

There are 1.525 million reasons to be excited about the Dublin Racing Festival and the Irish jumps trainers are certainly pumped for next weekend judged by their public comments, writes Tony Keenan.

The marketing/propaganda for this meeting has been heavy if understandable though it hasn’t been enough to attract much in the way of a UK challenge. Still, on the domestic front, no trainers will be focussed more on the fixture than Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, the pair having five of the eight Grade 1 favourites at the time of writing, though that may change when the five-day declarations come out.

With Fairyhouse and Punchestown (those meetings have €1.496 million and €3.074 million in prizemoney respectively) to come, the Dublin Racing Festival won’t decide the trainers’ championship, but it still looks set to play a big part.

Let’s begin with the championship betting market to start to get the story so far. Paddy Power has been offering odds on this since the end of Punchestown 2017 with the key price moves listed below (and thanks to them for supplying this information).

 

Willie Mullins Date Gordon Elliott
2/7 30/4/17 5/2
1/12 25/9/17 6/1
1/3 26/11/17 9/4
8/15 3/12/17 6/4
10/11 29/12/17 (morning) 1/1
6/4 29/12/17 (evening) 8/15
15/8 27/1/18 2/5

 

So Mullins went through the summer smoking hot, winning the top trainer prize at Galway amongst other things, and looked to have his hands on the trophy at the end of September. From there Elliott gradually got back into things – the importance of the months of October and November will be discussed later – with a major odds shift after his Hatton’s Grace Day Grade 1 treble when he was cut into 6/4. The last day of the Christmas Festival was huge too with Faugheen injured, seemingly done for the season, and Elliott beating him with Mick Jazz. Since then last season’s runner-up continued to shorten with Monbeg Notorious doing his bit in the Thyestes last Thursday.

It’s worth looking at the current prizemoney table at this point and bear in mind that all figures in this article are correct up to Saturday, January 27th. The final standings in 2016/17 were Mullins €4,580,200 and Elliott €4,380,705 though with the usual prizemoney inflation it could take a bigger figure to win this season.

Trainer Winners Runners Strikerate Win Prizemoney Total Prizemoney
G. Elliott 151 854 17.7% €2,188,775 €3,149,113
W. Mullins 146 470 31.0% €1,859,600 €2,551,830

 

This is pretty standard stuff in terms of trainer methodologies, Elliott using quantity, Mullins using quality, the former dominating number of runners, the latter much better in strikerate. One interesting point is their average prizemoney per win with (win prizemoney divided by winners) with Elliott on €14,495 and Mullins on €12,736. The perception would be that the figures would be the other way though some might believe this is a product of Elliott winning lots of valuable handicaps; he has won some of those races but as we will see it is actually his record in graded races that is inflating his high average prizemoney figure.

So Elliott is €597,283 clear at this point and it is worth returning to how far he led by at various points last season; he was around half a million ahead after the 2016 Troytown at Navan (a card where he had six winners), roughly €300,000 clear after Christmas the same year. His current total shows how much better he is doing relative to last season and it is worth considering when he did the damage, looking at both campaigns month-by-month below, the figures referring to winners then runners.

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W. Mullins Month G. Elliott
15/40 May 10/102
7/28 June 9/71
16/43 July 11/76
22/72 August 16/93
17/48 September 11/62
9/35 October 21/77
18/47 November 33/133
24/100 December 26/158
18/57 January 15/83

 

I thought Mullins would break every record around after his summer season, even suggesting the first 200-winner Irish jumps season was likely, but that was well off. The key period here was October/November with Elliott having 54 winners to 27 for Mullins and at that point the champion simply couldn’t compete with the volume of his younger rival. This stage of the season is a traditional changeover point with summer horses wrapping up and winter horses getting going but Mullins seems to have been slow getting them to the track. That may not be a bad thing for their careers overall – not rushing a horse to do something before it is ready makes sense – but it could prove costly for the 2017/18 championship. I do think though that Elliott is a trainer that always looks for a reason to run whereas Mullins tends the other way.

Elliott’s November win total of 33 was actually his most ever in a calendar month with 31 his next best in the same month the previous year. For context, Mullins’s best two months all-time are 44 winners in December 2016 and 34 in November 2014, the former an outlier among outliers. I mentioned above that Mullins has found it hard to compete with Elliott’s sheer numbers but again this needs context. There is an excellent feature on IrishRacing.com where they list the number of individual horses each trainer has run in a season.

Mullins is on 194 individual runners for 2017/18 when his most ever was 195 in 2013/14 (his totals the last three seasons were 184, 191 and 177). So as of the end of January, Mullins has already run basically as many individual horses as ever before and the season still has three months to go. It hasn’t so much been a case that Mullins hasn’t had enough horses to run but rather he hasn’t gotten them to the track often enough to rack up prizemoney; consider his total runs of 470 against Elliott’s 854. In Elliott’s case, he has run 272, 195 and 141 individual horses over the last three seasons and is at 263 for the current season.

It is also worth considering the luck factor in terms of how trainers are doing over the season as a whole. When doing some work on the Cheltenham Festival last year, I came up with a couple of methods of seeing which trainers were lucky or unlucky based on the number of seconds and placed horses they were having. It is a simple calculation where total seconds are subtracted from total winners to see if there are major discrepancies and also looking at the ratio of winners to placed horses (all runners finishing second, third or fourth) with the idea being that the further the ratio is below 3.00 the more fortunate a trainer has been as this 3.00 would the expected figure with there being three places for every winner in a race.

 

Trainer Winners Seconds Difference Total Places (2nd, 3rd and 4th) Winners to Places Ratio
G. Elliott 151 134 -17 321 2.13
W. Mullins 146 85 -61 178 1.22

 

These figures would suggest that Elliott’s numbers are more sustainable that those of Mullins. Mullins has a big differential between his total of winners and runners-up while his winner/place ratio is also particularly low. Moving beyond pure numbers for a moment, it also worth looking at the each trainer’s top ten horses in terms of prizemoney won.

 

Willie Mullins Gordon Elliott
1. Rathvinden 1. Potters Point
2. Fabulous Saga 2. Apple’s Jade
3. Next Destination 3. Shattered Love
4. Lagostovegas 4. Outlander
5. Robin Des Foret 5. A Toi Phil
6. Footpad 6. Mengli Khan
7. Total Recall 7. Doctor Phoenix
8. Whiskey Sour 8. Death Duty
9. Shaneshill 9. Monbeg Notorious
10. Mystic Theatre 10. Dinaria Des Obeaux

 

Of the Mullins ten, seven ran during the summer: Rathvinden, Fabulous Saga, Lagostovegas, Robin Des Foret, Whiskey Sour, Shaneshill and Mystic Theatre. Some of those have continued to run well during the winter, others have barely run at all but it is hardly an outlandish argument to suggest that you can’t win a trainers’ championship with summer horses. There are a few reasons for this: most of the summer horses will have had their run of form at this point and are now higher in the handicap competing against better horses on softer ground but most importantly they are typically not good enough to win graded races when the winter horses come out. Elliott, on the other hand, has only one summer horse in his top ten (Potters Point) and you have to go to number 16 on his top prizemoney horses to find his next summer jumper which is Morgan.

There is a perception that Elliott is more of a handicap trainer than one for graded races but in 2017/18 this has not proved entirely true if we look at the record of each trainer in different types of races.

 

W. Mullins Race Type G. Elliott
8/80 Handicaps 37/281
24/86 Graded/Listed 24/89
56/161 Maidens 52/295
32/79 Bumpers 19/90
26/64 Other 19/99

 

Elliott does have the edge in handicaps which is unsurprising though it is worth pointing out that he was won only five of the valuable handicaps to four won by Mullins (by valuable handicaps I mean those worth more than the equivalent of £20,000 to the winner which basically means our graded handicaps). It is their very similar record in non-handicaps that stands out with Elliott actually leading in terms of winners. He is also ahead in terms of Grade 1 victories with a total of seven to Mullins’s four. That is particularly impressive as Elliott’s Irish Grade 1 totals over last five seasons are, working backwards: 7, 4, 3, 2, 2. In that same period, Mullins has figures of 14, 20, 21, 15 and 19 so he is well behind where he might typically be at this point of the season. The one area where Mullins does hold sway is in bumpers which I’ll return to in wrapping up.

So is there any way back for Mullins in 2017/18? It seems unlikely based on what we have seen above. I think he would need to hit every marker with his stars to have any chance; Faugheen would need to win Champion Hurdles at Leopardstown and Punchestown, Yorkhill would need to get his head right, Douvan would need to come back to his best, Djakadam would need to find an extra couple of pounds to take him from perennial placer to Gold Cup winner. Perhaps one or even two of these scenarios will unfold but it is a big price that everything will come together.

2018/19 might be more interesting however. As referenced above, Mullins has a distinct advantage in the bumper division this season and that edge may only bear fruit in seasons to come. The departure of Gigginstown obviously hurt Mullins last season and it took a lot of ready-made horses from the yard. Mullins surely went about replacing those horses quickly but the problem is that in most cases you aren’t replacing like for like; instead, a mature horse like Apple’s Jade was being replaced by a young bumper horse that needs time. So what we might call a Gigginstown gap year may have developed.

Mullins has come back strong with his bumper horses this season and one of the most interesting things about them is their ownership profile. Of his 32 bumper winners, there have been 26 individual horses, some of them winning more than once, and 24 different owners. Supreme Racing had three of the group, Rich Ricci had only one while there was not a Graham Wylie horse among them. By my research – which could be wrong as I was simply using the ownership statistics on the Racing Post website – 13 of them were new to the yard.

There were a lot of syndicates and partnerships, a few single person owners, but not many that seem likely to reach double figures in terms of horses in training. This seems a massive change in the ownership profile at Closutton which was once dominated by the triumvirate of Gigginstown, Ricci and Wylie but now seems to have many more smaller interests involved. What this means for Mullins I don’t know and how many more horses these people are willing to put in training will depend on their own financial circumstances though they have certainly made the sort of start that might encourage them to go in again.

- Tony Keenan

Olly Murphy: The Story So Far

On the 4th July 2017, a remarkable story began. Shortly before four o'clock on a glorious summer day, a 25 year old by the name of Olly Murphy saddled his first ever runner, Dove Mountain, at Brighton in a lowly 0-55 handicap. The horse won, easily, to obvious celebration from young Olly and his team.

That was Tuesday and, by Sunday evening, Murphy had his second winner, this time the hurdler, Gold Class. Gold Class was one of two horses he saddled in the race, the other - Banff - finishing second.

On 11th July, just a week after Murphy sent out his first runner/winner, he had three horses entered. Although none of the trio won, two - Skilled and Sky Of Stars - finished second, the former 'bumping into one' in the shape of the very well handicapped Bestwork. Still, this was a strong start: two wins, three second places and two unplaced from his first seven runners.

A few more quiet days and then it was Sunday again, the 16th July. A brace of entries at Southwell and a third at local course, Stratford, would provide Murphy with a double which should have been a treble. Pershing, hitherto a 28-race maiden, and Sky Of Stars, a dozen races without a win to that point, both got off the mark; but it was a case of what might have been as a rare misjudged ride from the ultra-reliable Richard Johnson probably cost Varene De Vauzelle victory, and a notable trio for the new boy.

Back on the level the following day, Sevilla ran well to finish fourth, meaning that, after a fortnight with a license, Olly Murphy had racked up four winners, four seconds and just three unplaced efforts from eleven runners. The three out of the frame all came in flat races, with the National Hunt octet all finishing on the exacta ticket.

By now, the media had stood up and taken notice. The Guardian ran a story on Murphy; Racing UK broadcast a feature on the young handler; and Betfair signed him up as a content provider. Little old geegeez.co.uk also flagged his punting utility and suggested Murphy was worthy of blind support in coming weeks in this post.

So far, so good: a dream start as the trainer himself had put it.

But it was going to get better...

Two more flat runners on Thursday would yield another unplaced animal, the previous scorer Dove Mountain, but also a second flat winner, courtesy of Jazz Legend, dropped back a furlong after defeat on his maiden run for the yard. Five winners and four seconds from 13 runners.

By this point, like every other syndicate manager in the country no doubt, I had begun to ponder the prospect of stabling a horse at Warren Chase Stables, the Wilmcote base from which Murphy operates. By the end of the weekend, I was soul-searching more deeply about what exactly was happening here, and how sustainable it might be.

That was because, yesterday, Murphy won all four races in which he entered horses. Knight Commander bolted up in a novices' handicap hurdle at Newton Abbot to start the ball rolling. All roads then led to Stratford, five miles from Warren Chase, where a Murphy quartet contested three races. Cliffside Park ran in the seller and, though nudged out of favouritism, won "like an odds on favourite should", at 11/8.

Skilled, who jumps fences like me, made it a treble despite hitting almost every obstacle on the way round. He can't go up much for this effort, but would have won twenty lengths if lifting his hooves with more alacrity.

It was then left to a pair of relatively unfancied horses to round out the remarkable four-timer, Hongkong Adventure and Mizen Master (you clearly don't need to spell to name racehorses). The former was preferred of the pair, at no shorter than 6/1, while the latter was largely unconsidered at 10's behind a solid jolly from the Dan Skelton yard that traded at 5/4.

The Skelton horse, Wynford, undoubtedly ran his race, finishing a game four length second; but he was no match for Mizen Master, who just kept galloping.

That quartet parlayed at 154/1, a £1 yankee paying £459.16 if you landed on the right one of the pair in the last leg; and I know of a number of geegeez subscribers who emailed or tweeted to say they were on, thanks to either last week's post or the Trainer Snippets / Trainer Statistics reports. Nice job.

**

So here we are, not three weeks after the debut runner of Olly Murphy Racing, and already the rising star has saddled nine winners from 18 runners, a 50% clip. Moreover, from a dozen National Hunt starts, just one horse has failed to make the frame.

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I'm a cynical, but generally reasonable, old buzzard so when I see stats like this I want to know how, and why. After all, the beaten trainers - the likes of Dan Skelton and Nigel Twiston-Davies - are established master practitioners in their field.

Having initially ruminated on far more nefarious possibilities (shame on me), I found my answer where all such answers should lie: in the form book.

Olly Murphy is the son of Aiden Murphy, bloodstock agent, and Anabel Murphy, racehorse trainer. Mum trains a quarter mile away, next door. At this stage I can only guess - and I really wish I knew/could corroborate - the relationship between Olly and John Joseph Murphy. My guess is that JJ is his uncle. What I do know, as it has been well documented, is that Olly spent four years as assistant trainer to the winning machine Gordon Elliott, a role he occupied until April of this year.

That is a comprehensive and excellent grounding, and it is important context for the form profiles of a number of the Warren Chase runners which follow. Let us first consider the winners:

Dove Mountain

Enjoyed four wins in the care of Gordon Elliott before switching to Anabel Murphy at the turn of the year. Six runs yielded a second, third and fourth - and a slipping of the rating from 60 to 55 - before Olly's breakthrough winner on 4th July.

Gold Class

Formerly trained by Robert Alan Hennessy in Ireland, for whom he was 0 from 20, though having run with relative credit on a few occasions. Off the track since October last year, he won by six lengths at 16/1 on debut for his new yard.

Pershing

Another former inmate of Hennessy's, this time a 28 race maiden (!) including a handful of flat runs for Brian Meehan and Marco Botti in 2013/14. Rated as high as 116 over hurdles for Hennessy, this fellow had clearly hinted at ability but looked to have lost his way until being freshened by his new surroundings. He too was off since October 2016 and won by eight lengths for new connections.

Sky Of Stars

Average on the flat - rated 70 - for Richard Hannon, briefly, and then William Knight, he had four runs in novice and maiden hurdles for Anabel Murphy before being awarded a timber-topping handicap mark of 90. Followed up a debut second for Olly with a narrow verdict five days later, prior to being re-assessed. He went up to 94 for the second place and, tomorrow, will receive his revised perch for the win, likely just a couple of pounds higher.

Jazz Legend

Rated as high as 85 as a juvenile when in the care of James Given, brief stints with Robert Cowell, Mandy Rowland and, most recently, Anabel Murphy had seen his mark plummet to 50. After a moderate, but still career best, all weather effort - for which he's impeccably bred, being by Scat Daddy out of a Candy Ride mare - Jazz Legend hit the right notes at Leicester in a basement handicap on his second run for the yard.

Knight Commander

Another ex-William Knight horse, Knight Commander was a 15 race maiden on the flat with a fair rating of 77 at his peak (dropping to 65 on his final start for Knight). Then moved to Anabel Murphy where three middling runs in juvenile hurdles paved the way for an opening handicap figure of 95 and a switch to Olly Murphy. Knight Commander won by 16 lengths on handicap debut and will very likely turn out under a penalty before the middle of next week (entered at Uttoxeter on Friday).

Cliffside Park

Probably the smartest horse with form in the yard, this chap was previously with Elizabeth Doyle in Ireland, where he'd earned a career high rating of 128. Still rated 122 in this seller, he was entitled to win if not suffering a recurrence of the burst blood vessel issue that has troubled him. Win he did and, in similar races where he can boss his field without coming off the bridle, he may go in again. Punters must be aware of the likelihood of his finishing position being binary, however.

Skilled

With Gordon Elliott (won two) until mid- to late 2016, then moved to Anabel Murphy. Four runs moved the hurdle rating from 111 to 100 and the flat mark from 74 to 67. Second to very well handicapped horse (Bestwork, winner of three of last four starts) on stable/chase debut before, as mentioned above, winning in spite of uprooting most of the birch en route. Remains well handicapped if he can improve his jumping.

Mizen Master

Six race (five flat, one hurdles) maiden for John Joseph Murphy before acquiring an opening mark of 104 after two non-descript runs for Anabel Murphy. Won on handicap debut for Olly Murphy, beating 5/4 favourite Wynford - a last time out winner - by 4.5 lengths, with 17 lengths back to the third placed horse, who was 7/2 second market choice. Another likely to get entries before being re-assessed.

**

So those are the winners, with some interesting patterns emerging. But what of the non-winners to date? Murphy has saddled 14 different horses thus far, nine of them winning. These are the back stories of the quintet yet to savour triumph from the barns at Warren Chase:

Enchanted Moment

Eleven race maiden for Chris Wall, she was well beaten in a low grade handicap a fortnight ago, and is entered on Wednesday at Leicester. The handicapper has left her on 54 after she lost all chance at the start that last day, an effort through which it is easy to draw a line. She remains potentially well-handicapped.

Banff

Seven race maiden on the flat for John Joseph Murphy, he had three runs in maiden and juvenile hurdle company for Anabel Murphy before making his handicap bow for Olly Murphy off 100. Beaten only by stable mate Gold Class two weeks ago and has entries at the end of this week off the same peg.

Varene De Vauzelle

21 race maiden for James Ewart and Michael Hourigan before moving yards in the spring. Victim of the annual poor ride from ultra-reliable Richard Johnson when just held at Southwell last week, and looks sure to be bumped up from his hurdle mark of 89 when re-assessed tomorrow.

Sevilla

Thirteen race maiden for John Joseph Murphy (seven runs) and Anabel Murphy (six) before finishing fourth on debut for Olly. Had three hurdle runs for Anabel but not yet awarded a mark in that sphere. It was a claimer in which he was beaten last week and it is a selling handicap for which he is entered on Wednesday. Capable of winning at that level but perhaps no higher.

Hongkong Adventure

Four race flat maiden for Rae Guest, before three lacklustre runs in juvenile/maiden hurdle company for Anabel Murphy. Handicap / yard debut yesterday for Olly off 105 when better fancied of two for the trainer but trailed home well beaten. Plenty of horses don't act around the tight turns of Stratford and he may be forgiven on that basis. Worth another try at least, given lesser fancied stablemate won the race well.

**

There are some strong patterns emerging, not least of which is that Olly Murphy looks to be a very good trainer in the making. There is more to the early part of this story than that, however, and the sub-plot deserves an airing.

Of Olly's nine winners, six have been inherited from mum, Anabel. Indeed she managed to secure a handicap hurdle mark for three of the winners and two of the non-winners to date.

Trying to ascertain the ability of a new trainer on a small sample size is not easy, but there are grounds for feeling that at least a subset of the Warren Chase winners to date were, if not penalty kicks then at least clinically converted one-on-one's.

This, by now, will not be news to forensic form students as the new kid on the block notched first a debut winner, then a double (which should have been a treble) and most recently an incredible four-timer.

There are reportedly four 'summer' horses still to run, three of which appear on the website as Mullaghboy (four 'nothing' runs for Stuart Crawford to date), Wood Pigeon (seven runs for JJ Murphy, two for Anabel Murphy, now rated 100 over hurdles; should be competitive on soft ground at around three miles), and The Geegeez Geegee.

It is the last named which holds the most interest for me. Firstly, he has been acquired from a very (very!) good trainer in Anthony Honeyball, so it will be fascinating to see if TGG can be freshened/improved from there. And secondly, as the name suggests, he was formerly owned by a syndicate of geegeez.co.uk readers, and myself, who know the animal inside out.

The reason for my acute interest in Olly is that, as stated, I'm giving serious thought to syndicating a horse with him - as I'm sure are countless others. It is important to me that I understand the modus operandi of trainers who look after my/our horses, hence the deep dive.

It has been an enthralling exercise, and one after which I'm more inclined to want to support this new name. To be clear, I don't believe the Murphy's have done anything wrong - the fingerprint is very quickly discernible to anyone who cares to look - and I admire the orchestration with which this training career has begun.

Moreover, the improved showing from the likes of Gold Class, Pershing and Varene De Vauzelle demonstrate that much of the Elliott magic has rubbed off on his protégé, and that Olly Murphy may well be fast-tracking to the top table of the winter game if his summer 'pre-season friendly' results are anything to go by.

This will be a space that continues to be well worth watching...

Matt

Monday Musings: Title Settlement

 

Bank Holiday Mondays allow me a little flexibility in terms of deadline, writes Tony Stafford. I know this because the Editor takes longer than usual to acknowledge receipt of these jottings. Saying that, he will probably have been awake early as the sun peeped across the horizon well before 6 a.m. the time today when I finally realised what the topic would be.

By a circuitous route, having started out with the Henderson-Nicholls and Mullins-Elliott season-long scraps finally decided and the likeliest subject, I landed on June 11 2006 at the picturesque Perth racecourse.

That day an unknown young Irish trainer travelled over his recent acquisition, a horse called Arresting, to Scotland and, ridden by Richard Johnson, Arresting was an emphatic winner, backed in to 7-2 favourite. He had won at the track on his previous appearance, on his sole run for Gavin Cromwell, but joined Gordon Elliott, according to official records, six days before the June 11 landmark.

Elliott, a graduate of the Martin Pipe stable, had yet to win a race in his home land, but Arresting gave him two more victories in the UK that summer, stopping off in between without success at the Galway Festival.

Thirteen horses took part in that first race and the lists of trainers and riders illustrate how quickly the pendulum swings in racing, like life really. Stuart Coltherd, Jim Goldie, Geoff Harker, Diane Sayer and Grand National winner Lucinda Russell remain active, while the remainder, including recently retired Keith Reveley have either handed in their licences or, in the case of doubly-represented Peter Monteith, died.

Of the 13 jockeys, only the relentless Johnson; James Reveley, then a 7lb claimer, now France’s jumps champion; and Paddy Aspell, still ride over jumps, although he has gradually switched more to the Flat. Graham Lee finished runner-up here two years after his Grand National triumph on Amberleigh House, who died last week aged 25. Now he rides exclusively on the level.

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Michael McAlister, then a 5lb claimer, had his last rides, winning one of six in the season ending last April, while Richie McGrath, Jimmy McCarthy, Phil Kinsella, David da Silva and Peter Buchanan have all retired after varying degrees of success.

Tony Dobbin, 45 years old today and another Grand National hero, almost a decade earlier on Lord Gyllene, the only Monday winner, is now assistant trainer to his wife Rose, while Kenny Johnson has taken over his father Bob’s small yard in Northumberland.

There is another name from the race which has forced itself into the racing consciousness, particularly over the latest season. Neil Mulholland, unplaced in that Perth race, won 54 races over a ten-year span in the UK, again with a Martin Pipe connection, before starting out as a West Country trainer in the 2008-9 season.

He was an immediate success with 16 victories in his initial campaign, before collecting between that figure and 21 in the next four years. More recently, Mulholland has found acceleration and expansion, almost Gordon Elliott-like, with 31, 51 and 60 wins before the latest awesome tally of 108 wins from 129 horses. His list of owners makes impressive reading, dozens and dozens of names, with Bob Brookhouse, one who is always ready to pay plenty at the sales, a notable major operator for the yard. Big-race wins, usually in staying chases have come via The Druids Nephew, The Young Master and Pilgrims Way, while he’s also proved a dab hand at winning Flat-race handicaps with some of his lesser jumpers.

Gordon Elliott’s narrow failure to dethrone Mullins after their final day denouement at Punchestown cannot alter the fact that he has become the big name going forward. He did something nobody – to my limited knowledge anyway – has matched, to win a Grand National before winning a Rules race in his native country. Silver Birch, a Paul Nicholls cast-off, won ten months after the first of the three Arresting victories and it was not until later that year that the Irish explosion began.

After two blank seasons, Elliott had six wins in his third, then 14, 26, 62, 40, 54, 56, 92, 123 and a mammoth 193 from an astonishing 285 horses, 101 more than Mullins up to Saturday. As the still-champion Willie lost 60 of the Gigginstown horses – not all of which ended with his protagonist – it was indeed a doughty effort to stay ahead but a team of 184 active horses is hardly negligible.

The next three home in Ireland were Henry de Bromhead, Jessica Harrington and Noel Meade, all with big teams, Harrington benefiting from the Ann and Alan Potts defection from de Bromhead with the other pair similarly indebted to the Mullins split with Gigginstown.

Of the trio, only Mrs Harrington is seriously involved in the Flat with 47 three-year-olds and juveniles listed in the latest Horses in Training book. She was at it again last week, winning five races at Punchestown while yesterday, she had a winner each at Limerick and Gowran on the Flat, beating horses trained by Aidan and Joseph O’Brien respectively.

Gordon Elliott sent out a remarkable 1,234 domestic runners last season, even more than Richard Johnson rode in his second-busiest season; 188 wins from 1,026 compared with easily his best, 235 from 1,044 the previous winter when he collected his first title after 20 years’ wait for A P McCoy to retire. Since 1996-7 Johnson has posted a century of winners every season, with between 102 and 186 until the last two. The McCoy retirement has brought an average of 200 extra rides, a good few of them horses McCoy would have partnered.

Johnson shows no sign of slowing down, bar injury or illness, so there is little chance he will fail to complete the hat-trick as he intends to mirror McCoy’s annual tactic of a fast start during late spring and summer.

Nicky Henderson’s stable stars contributed greatly to his fourth trainers’ title, but it also helped that he had more individual horses (173) to run than anyone other than Dan Skelton (202). Henderson and Nicholls had an almost identical win average, around 25%, a figure which only Harry Fry, among the leaders, with 23%, could get anywhere near. Fry’s Punchestown double last week confirmed his status as a future potential champion trainer.

Team Tooth had a first Flat runner (two getting-handicapped Winter AW runs apart) at Yarmouth, and Stanhope as usual suffered an element of bad luck as he finished a close fourth.

It seems he’s a horse that finds trouble, but when he doesn’t it finds him, as when at Sandown, a golf ball from the inside-the-track course flew up from a rival’s hoof and hit jockey Charlie Bennett a resounding bang on the helmet.

Here, Pat Cosgrave had just moved him into a gap to challenge, when it closed. In a desperate attempt to get home in front, Jamie Spencer launched his whip right handed, twice hitting Stanhope on the head. First you can see him flinch right, then more dramatically back and left, so it was brave of the horse to nick fourth under hands and heels after recovering. Pat says he’s stronger this year. He’ll need to be!

 

Mullins vs Elliott: More Numbers!

Gordon is threatening Willie's hitherto monopoly

Gordon is threatening Willie's hitherto monopoly

Gordon Elliott was interviewed on AtTheRaces recently and in the midst of his conversation with Gary O’Brien the topic of the possibility of his winning the Irish Trainers Championship came up, writes Tony Keenan. ‘Absolutely no chance’ was his answer, a political response no doubt, and one that plenty of our politicians with their limited understanding of probability would be proud of.

The betting markets say otherwise with Elliott an 11/10 shot and Willie Mullins at 4/6, and the pretender surely knows them - or at least has people around him who can tell him. Taking out the over-round, those odds express the view that Mullins has a 56% chance of retaining his title while Elliott has a 44% of winning a first one.

Let’s consider where the respective trainers are in the current season. As of Tuesday, January 24th, Elliott has €2,857,825 in prize-money while Mullins has €2,543,063. Henry De Bromhead is also having a big season and will shatter his previous highs in prize money and winners but for the moment we are concerned with the big two. It’s worth considering what has been needed to win the title in the last few years and how both Mullins and Elliott have done in those campaigns.

 

Mullins Prize money Season Elliott Prize money
€4,489, 105 2015/16 €2,568,750
€4,225,253 2014/15 €1,546,070
€3,908,059 2013/14 €1,134,160
€2,997,713 2012/13 €1,042,995

 

Elliott has been runner-up in each to the last four seasons though his challenge never got closer than the €1,920,355 he was behind last time; it was hardly a meaningful competition with the result a foregone conclusion. But already he has surpassed his 2015/16 figure which has in turn taken some available prize-money away from Mullins; the lofty €4 million figures Mullins won the in the past two seasons may not now be necessary to claim the prize.

Both trainers have their respective strengths and weaknesses, races they do well in and races they struggle in, though struggle is a relative term when you are talking about this level of domination.

 

Elliott and Mullins by Race Type, 2016/17 Season

Mullins Race Type Elliott
10/60 Handicaps 27/280
26/76 Graded/Listed Races 16/76
50/118 Maidens 50/304
17/44 Bumpers 28/97
22/54 Other 20/98
125/352 Total 141/855

 

The sheer scope of the Elliott operation is what stands out; he has had more than double the number of runners that Mullins has had. What is perhaps more amazing is the number of individual horses he has run, 235 and counting as I write. Even in the midst of the Mullins hegemony in the past five years, he never had more than 195 individual runners in a season (that came in 2013/14) while there is a distinct possibility that Elliott goes over 300 for the campaign, a previously unthinkable figure.

One area where Mullins has been notably quiet this season has been handicaps and while he won two feature races at Galway with Clondaw Warrior and Westerner Lady in the summer, his last handicap winner came on the 17th of October at Roscommon with Dreambaby. It’s not so much a case that Mullins has been doing badly in handicaps – his strikerate of 16.7% is well ahead of Elliott’s 9.6% - but rather that he hasn’t been trying particularly hard.

For instance, he took potentially well-treated novices like Haymount and Bellow Mome out of Sunday’s Leopardstown Chase at the five-day stage, a race which Elliott won with a similar type in A Toi Phil. His method of training – his horses are aimed at winning maidens and going on from there – is hardly conducive to landing handicaps and while he will likely run such horses in handicap company as the season goes on, particularly at Punchestown, there is a chance that the bird will have flown. Elliott, of course, is having an A-plus season in valuable handicap chases, winning the Galway Plate, the Kerry and Munster Nationals, the Troytown, Paddy Power, and Dan Moore along with the Leopardstown Chase.

How Mullins responds to the Elliott challenge will be interesting. Will he adapt, or stick to proven methods? Adapting is not as easy as it seems with many trainers over the years trying and failing to change what they are good at, but then Mullins is not your typical trainer. It’s actually less interesting to consider what Elliott will do as the answer seems simple: he will run his horses out, again and again, as he has done throughout his career.

Certainly when it comes to races at the end of the season, he seems the one that is more likely to engage in pot-hunting, giving a horse an extra run that it otherwise may not have had, though Mullins did do some of that last year when trying to win the UK trainers' championship.

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Another area where Mullins has pulled back markedly is with his runners this season in the UK. In fact, Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek was his sole runner. That’s a big shift from the last two seasons as you can see below.

I’ve included both the Mullins and Elliott runners in each campaign from the start of the season through to the end of January. Elliott’s numbers have continued to rise whereas Mullins’s have fallen off a cliff – apparently the owner wanted Vroum Vroum Mag to run at Kempton on December 26th but was overruled – though the former’s may need a little context as he is inclined to have runners at the UK gaff tracks that would struggle to win in Ireland. That said, the likes of Apple’s Jade, Balthazar D’Allier and Ucello Conti ran in the UK before the turn of the year.

 

Mullins and Elliott – UK Raiders by Season (to end of January)

Mullins Season Elliott
1/1 2016/17 23/128
9/36 2015/16 24/102
3/20 2014/15 29/83

 

This places Cheltenham in a really unusual spot in 2017. It could be a case that a big Cheltenham for one of the pair proves detrimental to their chances of winning at home and it’s rather like the football fan that has to choose between winning a Premier League and a European Cup. Sensible arguments can be made for both though Elliott having won a Gold Cup but not a trainers' championship might be worth considering.

We’ve been told that Mullins has filled all the boxes that were left empty by the Gigginstown departures but he won’t have replaced like with like; the new inmates will have been younger horses that generally don’t compete in the really valuable races as they take time to mature out of bumpers and novice races. The loss of a horse like Vautour would be tough on any yard but where Mullins had reinforcements previously there is not quite the depth among the experienced horses now.

Elliott on the other hand got a number of ‘ready-made’ horses from Mullins (amongst other trainers) and he has done well with Apple’s Jade, Outlander and Don Poli. Also, Elliott was quite shrewd in some of his purchases in the horses-in-training sales. He acquired Mick Jazz (£27,000), Ned Stark (£70,000), Turn Over Sivola (£15,000) and Rightdownthemiddle (£35,000) before the season proper and they’re horses with the sort of lofty marks that get them into the valuable races; they won’t all turn out well but it would hardly be shocking if one landed a big prize this season and that could be the winning and losing of the championship.

Those big prizes will be the key to deciding the prize. As of Tuesday January 24th there is a little over €10 million of prizemoney remaining in the season and the breakdown by race type follows. It’s best to consider the ‘big 25’ as there are 25 such races left that are worth at least €100,000.

They comprise the Irish Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup at Leopardstown, the two Grade 1s at Fairyhouse, all the Grade 1s at Punchestown and seven handicaps, two over hurdles and five over fences. All but one of those handicap chases are over trips of three miles plus with the Irish National the jewel in a crown with a massive prize fund of €500,000. It has been Elliott who has dominated these races all season - though neither has won an Irish National as yet - Bless The Wings going close for Elliott last year.

 

Remaining Prizemoney

Race Type Races Left Prizemoney Percentage
Maiden Hurdles 64 €819,500 8.02%
Conditions Hurdles 20 €358,500 3.51%
Graded Hurdles 29 €2,000,500 19.62%
Handicap Hurdles 71 €1,538,500 15.05%
Beginners Chases 22 €311,000 3.04%
Novice Chases 6 €105,000 1.03%
Graded Novice Chases 12 €773,500 7.57%
Conditions Chases 10 €199,500 1.95%
Graded Chases 12 €975,000 9.54%
Handicap Chases 50 €1,997,000 19.54%
Hunter Chases 14 €189,000 1.85%
Bumpers 53 €948,500 9.28%

 

As this stage, I find making a prediction on the outcome of this race impossible. I’ve vacillated on it all season; when the Gigginstown horses initially left Mullins I thought it was great for Elliott but would hardly signal the end of the Mullins domination. Then there was Elliott’s six-timer on Troytown day which swung things in his favour before Mullins went on the rampage over Christmas.

In January however, he has cooled off again as Elliott has won big handicap chases on back-to-back weekends. Compared with the uncompetitive seasons we’ve had recently, it’s been fascinating viewing and one that could well go down to the last day of Punchestown.

Sit back and enjoy!

- Tony Keenan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday Musings: Aftertime Acca’s

Native River scores Hennessy glory

Native River scores Hennessy glory

Do you like a multiple bet, say a Placepot, a Jackpot, or a single trainer combination wager? I was talking last Monday about Gordon Elliott and his rather high number of runners and having seen events at Navan yesterday, I think I’ve got a system, writes Tony Stafford.

If I’d played it yesterday, it would have yielded a profit of around 93 times my outlay, so, better late than never, here goes.

Take all Elliott’s horses – except where Willie Mullins has an odds-on novice chase newcomer certainty, as was the case with Min at Navan, and link all his other runners in a win accumulator. Wisely Gordon kept the opposition to Min to a min(imum), just a single 12-1 shot who finished seventh, but he won, as the system predicts, all the other six contests.

Admittedly, you needed to make a substantial stake, but as with the Jackpot attempts you and certainly I made in the old days, around 440 units is not out of the way.

That final number was arrived at helpfully with two singles and a two, while you would have needed five in the 30-runner opener (against another Mullins odds-on shot – thought he would beat that!), a four and just the 11 (yes ELEVEN!) to solve the featured Ladbrokes Troytown Chase.

So for 5 x 1 x 4 x 11 x 2 x 1 we would have got it. The successful horses were in turn 11-1, 11-10, 7-1, 12-1 (with Elliott’s 7-2 favourite 4th, that’s why you need the cover because he can win with anything!), 5-1 and 13-8 in the bumper. That’s 41,276-1 for the accumulator, 93 times the 440 unit investment.

Four of the six winners, from 16 and 25 overall, were owned by Gigginstown House Stud. I remember months before the recent exodus of Mr O’Leary’s hordes from Mullins, Gordon was interviewed about some new raw recruits joining his stable. The inference from him was that they were to be in a virtual holding phase before going to their eventual destinations. It seems they were already there, along with the new bunch arriving from Willie.

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For all the polarised nature of Irish jump racing, there is still a macabre thrill when one of the big boys gets beaten (as long as you aren’t backing him), but increasingly in Elliott’s case it’s often Gordon beating himself. One of the triumphs of present-day commentators is the ability to identify the multiple caps worn by the same owners’ jockeys and for that Des Scahill deserves praise.

Elliott’s winners yesterday collected €152,000, and a good few more of them for the places, but that was less than the other man of the moment in jumping, Colin Tizzard, won for his owners with his Newbury treble on Saturday.

He had runners in six of the races, five singles and two in the last Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup - won in great style by the six-year-old Native River, who was backed down to 7-2 favouritism and given a brilliantly aggressive ride by Richard Johnson. His treble, which also included Thistlecrack, brought a collective £155,000.

At various times Native River looked likely to be overhauled by better-travelling, more conservatively-ridden rivals, but the combination of the horse’s constitution, the trainer’s brilliant stable form and the rider’s determination to win the race for the first time proved crucial.

It’s probably old age, but while sitting on one of the benches just outside the paddock, which face the weighing room, I noticed something about that jockey that had never previously caught my eye.

I do confess that had I not been watching a wonderful film featuring Eddie Redmayne and Michelle Williams, playing respectively Colin Clark (son of Lord Clark of Civilisation; brother of politician, Alan) and Marilyn Monroe, a couple of nights earlier, I definitely would not have been so inclined.

Young Colin, it seems, had a week-long dalliance with Marilyn when she came over to play in the film, The Prince and the Showgirl, alongside and under the direction of Sir Laurence Olivier. In one scene, the car in which they are leaving Pinewood Studios, passes some actors, among whom a famous British comedian of the 50’s and early 60’s comes briefly into view.

From that minute, the subconscious took over, and as the champion jumps jockey of last and this season entered my vision on Saturday, that clinched it. It’s …… ……!  Naturally I daren’t reveal who it was, and if anyone starts calling him ……, they’ll have me to answer to.

*

The sales are winding down to their annual conclusion with five days of mares starting today following four of foals and one of yearlings last week.

Believe it or believe it not, last year I happened to be at the sale when a friend and very experienced one-time racehorse owner who still plays at the odd house valuation, tagged along with me to the Juddmonte pavilion.

The owners of Frankel, Kingman and most memorably this autumn, Breeders’ Cup Classic hero Arrogate, always provide the highlight of the mares’ sale, their classy cast-offs providing smart pedigrees for smaller breeders around the world to augment their stock in many cases making foundation mares.

In all, 58 of their home-breds will go through the ring, withdrawals apart, so the Juddmonte hospitality will be at full swing. Their mares sell tomorrow and Thursday and to get to the refreshments, you need to pass through Someries Paddock, just behind the main sales restaurant.

There could be no better man to meet and greet the needy and greedy who gravitate to the tent than the genial Lord Teddy Grimthorpe. Nobody in racing spends more time smiling than Teddy, which is just as well for the almost-unemployed valuer friend of mine, whose days as an owner are long gone, but who has been salivating in anticipation since New Year’s Day..

Last year I think my man - like the model for Richard Johnson he must remain nameless - was fairly frugal in his consumption as he’s not a drinker, but the beef on the bone and several desserts found the way onto his plate. I think he plans a more serious assault this week.

It looks as though I’ll only make it there today, with a couple of longer trips elsewhere scheduled for later in the week. I hope Juddmonte mares sell for fortunes, and that everyone has a lovely time.

- Tony Stafford

Attrition Rate in Irish National Hunt

Killultagh Vic a High Profile Casualty

Killultagh Vic a High Profile Casualty

Killultagh Vic was the first high-profile Irish horse to miss Cheltenham with injury but you can be sure he won’t be the last, writes Tony Keenan. We are in that horrible space between the conclusion of most of the trials and the start of the Festival where owners, trainers and, yes, punters live in terror of hearing that their horse will miss the meeting with a late setback.

It makes sense that injuries should occur at this time. No more than a human athlete getting ready for a career-defining event, the revs are being cranked up to the max in preparation and it is inevitable that a gasket or two will blow in the process. Some trainers has succeeded more than others in avoiding – or preventing – the last-minute injury; Willie Mullins stands out in terms of getting his Cheltenham horses to end point and punters can rightly have faith in backing one of his runners ante-post at a short price in the relatively safe assumption that they will get to post. But other handlers have not been so fortunate (though perhaps fortunate is the wrong word as it is surely a skill to keep horses sound).

Predicting which trainers’ runners will make or miss Cheltenham by looking at data is difficult if not impossible and it makes more sense to look at a more global sense of how successful they are in keeping their horses sound from season to season. In the table below, I’ve focussed on the top 15 Irish trainers in terms of winners sent out in the six seasons from 2009/10 to 2014/15, leaving out those who are no longer training, i.e. Dessie Hughes and Charlie Swan.

I found every horse they had in that period that acquired an Irish official rating of 130 or more and went through their racing career in totality regardless of whether it began before 2009 or continued beyond 2015. I was looking for how many ‘full seasons’ they had in their careers and I took a very loose definition of what a full season was: a season in which a horse ran twice or more in the Irish National Hunt campaign which takes the Punchestown Festival as its start and end point.

To my mind, this is quite a lenient definition of a full season – many owners would want their horses to run far more regularly – but I was giving trainers the benefit of the doubt and I didn’t penalise for a horse only running once in their first season as trainers often want to start them off slowly. With the number of full seasons and missed seasons I worked out a figure called ‘attrition rate’ which expresses as a percentage how often a trainer’s horses miss a season in relation to their career as a whole.

Take Tony Martin as an example. In the period covered, he has 131 full seasons from his 130-plus rated horses and six missed seasons; I add the two together to get a total season figure which is 137 and then divide the missed season number into it to leave an attrition rate of 4.4%. As a back-up figure, I also added in how many runs a trainer’s horses averaged per season over that period.

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This methodology is far from perfect. Firstly, it looks only at horses rated 130 or more, but the data was so overwhelming that were I to look at them all I’d struggle to have it finished for Cheltenham 2017! It also supposes that every National Hunt horse threads the same campaign trail, starting its season in the autumn and running through to the late spring/early summer. This is not the case with summer jumpers and many horses will have a winter break to avoid the worst of ground.

Using my method, horses could miss two calendar years but only one racing season. Monksland, say, missed 730 days between December 2012 and December 2014 but raced three times in the 2012/13 season and the same in 2014/15 campaign so is only penalised for being absent in 2013/14.

Furthermore, trainers are not penalised for horses having a short career of a season or two but they are hit for getting a horse back off an absence of a season or two for just one run, despite the fact that this could be a major achievement if that horse has had serious problems. Despite all this, I think there is enough in the data to make it interesting to look at, if not necessarily of vast predictive value.

Trainer Horses Rated 130 Plus Attrition Rate Average Season Runs
C. Byrnes 19 15.9% 5.4
C. Murphy 13 10.3% 4.5
N. Meade 53 8.8% 5.0
W. Mullins 171 7.0% 4.2
R. Tyner 6 6.7% 4.7
M. Hourigan 16 6.5% 7.3
M. Morris 17 5.6% 6.0
T. Martin 39 4.4% 5.4
G. Elliott 58 4.3% 6.1
H. De Bromhead 36 4.1% 4.7
P. Nolan 22 3.2% 5.2
E. Doyle 7 2.6% 6.3
J. Hanlon 8 2.4% 5.6
E. O’Grady 27 1.6% 5.4
J. Harrington 31 1.6% 6.1

 

We’ll start with Willie Mullins as we generally do. He has a highish attrition rate and the lowest average season runs so comes out quite badly on these numbers though I doubt Rich Ricci, Graham Wylie et al will be moving their horses in light of them! In fairness, he has improved recently with most of his absentees coming in the early part of the period covered though it must be said that he has quite a few horses that are in danger of missing this campaign, the likes of Abyssial, Jarry D’Honneur, Champagne Fever and Analifet all on the easy list at the moment.

Charles Byrnes has a very high attrition rate, 5.6% higher than the next highest, so perhaps landing gambles takes its toll! His achievement in bringing the nine-year-old Solwhit back to win at Cheltenham and Aintree in 2013 was a notable one but it seems significant that so many of his best horses have missed chunks of time, the likes of Mounthenry, Pittoni, Trifolium, Weapons Amnesty and Our Vinnie all having stop-start careers.

Colm Murphy is another that comes out poorly on the numbers, having not only a high attrition rate but also a low average runs per season, though the reason behind this could be one discussed in a previous article of mine on fall/unseat rate where he came out as one of the highest in the country. Falls and unseats will clearly cause plenty of injuries.

One trainer who does quite well is Gordon Elliott, his horses generally sound and running often, and it needs to be pointed out that he gets quite a few stable switchers. That can be viewed positively or negatively; either someone else has done all the hard work or you have to rectify another trainer’s mistakes.

Noel Meade is having a torrid season in terms of injuries, with Road To Riches having a curtailed campaign and Apache Stronghold out for the year. His attrition rate, third overall, would suggest this is not uncommon. One thing to admire with Meade is that no one else comes close in terms of openness around his horses’ health and he must be praised for that.

In terms of positives, Jessica Harrington stands out as having a low attrition rate and a high average number of runs. I would put this down to two things: she tends to mix flat and jumps campaigns, the former clearly less attritional than the latter; and she will often give her horses mid-winter breaks to avoid the worst of ground, something she frequently references in stable tours.

Edward O’Grady has the name of being hard on his horses but the numbers suggest otherwise, coming in the equal of Harrington in attrition rate. Henry De Bromhead has relatively a low attrition rate too, albeit with not many average season runs, and tends to do well in keeping older horses sweet. Sizing Europe is the daddy of them all but the likes of Sizing Australia and Darwins Fox are further feathers in de Bromhead’s cap.

Finally, mention must go to Michael Hourigan. His attrition rate percentage is only average but he is brilliant in terms of getting runs into his horses, his average of 7.3 a full run per season better than anyone else. I won’t say his horses are always in form but at least they’re out there competing and it is notable that eight of his 16 horses rated 130 plus raced at least 30 times. There are some real heroes in there like Dancing Tornado and Church Island and of course A New Story who ran an amazing 110 times, often over staying trips, and was still racing at fifteen.

- Tony Keenan