Tony Keenan: Irish Flat Season 2019 Preview

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

- Tony Keenan

Stat of the Day, 23rd September 2013

Stat of the Day

Stat of the Day

Stat of the Day, 23rd September 2013

We'll never know how good a selection Jayandbee was yesterday, as his race lasted around 30 seconds! He was tracking the leaders in about 4th place when he appeared to jump into the back of another runner and deposited his jockey to the ground.

He'd attracted support all day too, being sent off as the 11/8 favourite, almost 40% shorter than our advised 9/4, meaning there were quite a few disappointed punters out there.

Anyway, I've heard that it's a long way to our next port of call, so let's set off early for the...

5.15 Tipperary

For a pretty weak-looking fillies' maiden at a track where trainer John Oxx has a remarkable record. Over the last 10 years (no recent flash in the pan to distort figures), you'd be well in profit by blindly backing his horses here, despite him only averaging around 13 runners per year at this track.

His 10 yr record here is 43 winners from 138 winners, a 31.2% strike rate earning his followers 74.4pts, an ROI of 53.9%. That's an excellent return, especially without filtering out any runners. More recently, he has sent fewer horses here, but has seen even better results, maybe he has become more selective of late?

For the 2011/13 period, he has sent just 21 runners here, but nine (42.9%) have gone on to win, returning level stakes profits of 35.2pts (+167.8% ROI) and he is 5/6 for 22.3pts in the last two seasons. In fact his last dozen runners here have finished as follows: 121116111711.

John actually has two runners here today: Abu Nayef (currently 12/1) isn't without an E/W chance in the preceding handicap at 4.45, but I feel the yard's best chance of a winner comes in the last race of the day, where we'll see Roman Romance attempt to get off the mark at her fourth attempt.

This is, as I said earlier, not the greatest race on earth and it probably won't take anything special to win it and Roman Romance at least comes into this race with the benefit of having two decent enough runs at this stamina-sapping (for a maiden anyway!) trip of 12.5 furlongs. She stayed on well in both of those races to finish third and fourth, but wasn't disgraced in either.

She'll probably need further in time, but her improvement in her three starts to date makes this look like her best opportunity so far to break her duck. If the form of her previous outings pans out today, then she holds an edge over two of the three horses ahead of her in the market, whilst the favourite Teocht has been disappointing and is already beginning to look overexposed at this level..

A quick check on the market shows BetVictor offering an attractive 13/2 BOG, so it's the coward's way out for me today with a 0.5pt E/W bet on Roman Romance, but you really should...

Click here for the latest betting on the 5.15 Tipperary

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Stat of the Day, 23rd June 2012

Stat of the Day 23/6/12

Stat of the Day 23/6/12

Stat of the Day: 23rd June 2012

We don't make excuse here at SotD for a poor run and yesterday was no exception! Daring Dream wasn't so daring in the end, he we was held up and he made his move too late in my opinion. A group of 4 horses broke awy and couldn't be caught, whilst our selection stayed on at the end to head his group and ultimately finish 5th.

Today we're taking a trip across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland to take a look at the Ulster Oaks: a filles' handicap over ten and a half furlongs on Soft to Heavy ground. Twelve runners are declared for this one, the...

4.20 Down Royal

The string of horses owned by His Highness The Aga Khan are in excellent form at present, recording some 14 wins from just 27 races in the last fortnight and his horses have a 33% strike rate at Down Royal over the last few years. One of the trainers used by His Highness is John Oxx, whose own personal record at Down Royal stands up to close scrutiny too: a 35% strike rate over the past 5 years at the track, with a 44% strike rate in the last 2 years alone. Mr Oxx's runners seem to be in good nick too with 7 winners from 18 in the last two weeks and it should also be pointed out that he has trained the winner of this race in each of the last 3 years!

It will, therefore, come as little or no surprise to regular SotD readers to discover that John Oxx only has one runner racing today and that his sole runner features at Down Royal and is owned by the Aga Khan! Our selection today is Sindjara: a lightly raced filly who looked impressive when breaking her maiden tag at Dundalk and looks very fairly treated at the weights today.

BetVictor are offering a generous-looking 6/1 BOG, which is possibly long enough to go E/W for those of you so inclined, but I'll be taking those odds as a win only bet, but you can always (and should!)...

Click here for the latest odds on the 4.20 Down Royal.

PS Zariyna also runs in this race, owned by the Aga Khan and is available at 8/1 generally.

Post Pourri

Frankel might be a bit short for the Guineas and Derby...

Frankel might be a bit short for the Guineas and Derby...

A mixed bag today, dear reader, a bit of a post pourri if you will, as I catch-up after a few days away in the South of France.

Firstly, I did manage to catch a certain 'Sir' Henry trained three year old having his seasonal debut at Newbury on Saturday. Frankel was the beast's name - you might have heard of him 😉

He won the Greenham Stakes by a good four lengths from a reasonable - and improving - sort in Excelebration, at odds of 1/4. So what did this tell us? Well, that's hard to quantify, in my opinion.

The time was ok but not great; the opposition was ok but not great; and Frankel settled in the race not great but ok.

To be fair to Frankel, he couldn't have won much more easily, but the worry for me is that his only real rival on 2yo form, Strong Suit, ran no race and finished last, so there may be grounds for reservations about what specifically he beat here. Despite that, there were ten lengths back to the third, so this was at least a decent run.

Those who are tempted to pile in for the Guineas should bear in mind that there hasn't been a Greenham winner double up in that race for 35 years, when Wollow did the biz for 'Sir' Henry ridden by a chap called Dettori. (In fact, it was Gianfranco, father of Lanfranco 'Frankie').

So what?, you might ask. Well, none of the above means that Frankel can't or even won't win the Guineas. It just directs readers to facts rather than hype in the hope that they may be armed with sufficient knowledge - as opposed to newspaper editors' hot air - when it comes to post time on 30th April.

The absence or limitations of information on many of the other runners, and the fact that we've been able to see that Frankel is still the same beast as last year, even if he hasn't yet demonstrated that he's trained on, means he remains by far the most likely winner. But 1/2 is not my sort of price in a race like this - you only have to go back to last year to find the last beaten odds on favourite in the race, St Nicholas Abbey - so I'll be trying to bleed some each way value nearer the time.

What I am sure of is this: if Frankel pulls like he did in the Greenham he has little chance of getting the twelve furlongs of the Derby trip. He is as short as 7/2 and generally a 4/1 shot for that, which hardly represents anything remotely related to value. Again, I don't say he can't win the Derby, merely that I don't think he deserves to be those odds. He's not even certain to run in the race!

One I have backed for the Derby at a big price, and I was therefore very pleased to see win his maiden t'other night, is Zanughan. This John Oxx-trained son of Azamour made his debut in a strong maiden at the Curragh the day Geegeez sponsored a race there.

Aidan O'Brien's Marksmanship won that day - and I've backed him for the Derby too - with Notable Graduate second and Zanughan a fast finishing third over the heavy ground ten furlongs there.

Both the second and third have won since, with the fourth beaten a little further by Zanughan when grabbing a third place behind him in Z's winning maiden. In other words, the form is robust.

Zanughan goes for the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial on 8th May next, a race which has been won by the likes of Sinndar, Galileo, High Chapparal, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Fame And Glory and Midas Touch since the turn of the century.

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Marksmanship may also head there for a rematch and it's fair to say that the winner of that contest will be around an 8/1 shot for Epsom glory, possibly shorter. So the big prices I have might look better then!

Marksmanship is still available at 36 on Betfair, and generally a 25/1 shot with bookies, whilst Zanughan can be backed at 40's with Betfred (everyone else shorter, including Stan James who are just 20/1).

I like a bit of value on my toast, and one or both of those should hopefully make it to Epsom at a shorter price than is currently on offer.


Now then, how about a trainer to follow? What about one that you might not have even heard of? Roger Varian is his name, and if that's a new name to you, then what if I told you he has taken over Michael Jarvis' string?

Jarvis was a brilliant trainer, but heart problems allied to prostate cancer have meant that recently he's suffering from increasingly poor health. Varian, as his assistant trainer, was the obvious man to take the reins, and has started with a bang.

Since taking over in mid-February, he's trained four winners from nine runners, for a level stakes profit of over 55 points! Now, before you start rushing to lump on, that nonet did include a 50/1 shot, which has obviously skewed things somewhat.

Roger Varian

Roger Varian on the blower...

Nevertheless, it is highly likely that Varian is doing nothing different from what Jarvis was doing previously. So, given that Jarvis was actually in the top ten in the trainers' championship and that it would appear that Varian is not considered in the same vein as him just yet, there may continue to be value in tracking the yard's runners.

In fact, Jarvis' strike rate of 25% last season was the highest of any of the top trainers, and if Varian can keep the meter ticking at 15%+, he's likely to finish the season in front to level stakes.

Varian had been assistant for ten years prior to taking over, and Jarvis is still there in a sort of 'director of football' capacity. For those who might want a few horses to follow from the yard, this is what Varian had to say:

“We have some very nice older horses with proven ability, Laaheb is a five-year-old now and he won twice in Group company last season. Alainmaar is back too having had his season cut short last year, but he’s a very exciting horse.

We’ve also got Sri Putra, who is a proven older horse, and also some nice four-year-olds who could step up to the plate with the likes of Hot Prospect and Ferdoos, who made good progress at the end of last season.

“We’ve got some nice maidens in the three-year-old division who we’ll look to get a bit of experience into through April and May, and while it’s early days, we’ve got a nice looking bunch of two-years-olds."

Make no mistake, Roger Varian is a man to follow this season. [Typically, he doesn't have many horses entered in the next few days, but Eton Forever will be bidding to follow up his win in the Spring Mile when he runs in the bet365 Mile on Saturday. That Group 2 has some formidable entries, but I'll be taking a small interest in the Varian runner irrespective of who lines up against him.]


Finally, just a quick reminder that my online business training video tutorials will be continuing tomorrow, with the next in the sequence. If you're on board already, great, look out for the email.

If not, you can still get involved by clicking the link below.

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In other words, I'll be showing you all the steps you need to get going... for free. Why? Well, two reasons really.

Firstly, I'm a nice guy and I'd love to hear your success stories in the future.

And secondly - and this probably won't come as a surprise - I've got something to offer at the end of the free training which will be of interest to some.

I can't say any more at this stage except this: the free training is just that - free. And it will definitely give you enough information to get started online should you so wish. Thereafter, your challenge will be to build on that. 🙂

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