Posts

Monday Musings: Hearing is believing

Spectacular! Scintillating! Jaw-dropping! Eye-opening! All of the above, except for Paisley Park’s owner Andrew Gemmell who, of necessity, merely listened to the brilliant performance of his fast-improving hurdler as he romped to victory in Saturday’s Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham, writes Tony Stafford. The Emma Lavelle-trained gelding is deservedly now favourite for the Sun Racing Stayers Hurdle back at the track in March.

Andrew, blind from birth, had his loyal friend Tony Hunt and some other regulars in Paisley Park’s fan club close at hand as he reacted with increasing optimism as the race unwound.

Before racing Gemmell admitted to being “Nervous, more nervous than Ascot”, presumably remembering the disappointment of his horse’s 13th place in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at the Festival last March. Afterwards the soft ground was attributed principally to what was a below-expectations effort. In retrospect Paisley Park, a 33-1 chance, previously had only a small Hereford novice win among only three hurdle races on his record.

Now a seven-year-old, he has fully matured and Saturday was his fourth win of an unbeaten season. Starting in handicaps at Aintree and Haydock, he then polished off Ascot’s Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle before this emphatic victory.

I stood a yard or two away from Mr Gemmell in the paddock as, with back to the big screen, he strained to hear. When commentator Ian Bartlett observed soon after the fourth-last that Paisley Park had not immediately responded to his rider’s urgings, his face gave away inner doubts.

Until then, the jumping had been fast and accurate and the first few strides after each jump, fluent and constantly resulting in net gain. Bartlett’s attention had been drawn to the only occasion when a slight misjudgement altered the status quo, instant recovery translating to a few sluggish strides.

From the downhill third last, which he jumped in eighth, to the home turn, at which point he was still in that same grouping but a few lengths nearer, Aidan Coleman had him level with Unowhatimeanharry. He was on the outside, but as they turned for home the jockey manoeuvred him between horses at which point it was obvious he was going best, with just a slight worry of potential crowding.

Your first 30 days for just £1

At Ascot, off level weights, he had needed to catch the Colin Tizzard-trained 40-1 shot West Approach, which he did to the tune of two lengths. Here, conceding 6lb for that Grade 1 win, he again had West Approach as the final horse to overtake. This he managed easily before the last this time. By the line, three lengths there had been stretched to a dozen with another two to Black Op in third and Sam Spinner a further ten away in fourth.

This field, which contained most of the home candidates for the Stayers Hurdle, had been blown away. Unowhatimeanharry, a multiple Grade 1 winner and, like Sam Spinner a Long Walk faller which caused many to question the worth of Paisley Park’s win there, was 30 lengths behind at the finish, all lost in the last quarter-mile.

A strict interpretation of the two runs through the runner-up, suggests an improvement of at least a stone in barely a month and with the ground riding softer than the official pre-race verdict, any going and course fears can be consigned to the rubbish bin.

Before and after the race Andrew, who has shares in 20 horses including in Australia, unsurprisingly was the target for interviewers and he clearly gets a large kick out of owning such a good horse. I remember when Tangognat won the corresponding opening race on the same card 33 years ago to set up his illusory Triumph Hurdle prospects – he was a very disappointing second favourite – I could think of nothing else for the next six weeks. Let’s hope Andrew has other matters to concentrate on. I know he’ll never tire of listening to the commentary of the last part of Saturday’s race.

A couple of weeks back Joseph O’Brien was quoted as saying he’d just taken charge of a number of  horses bought from France for J P McManus. One of them, Fine Brunello, made his debut for the stable with a very promising second in the JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle which opened proceedings.

A 25-1 shot, he will have pleased connections but while comfortably beating off the seven home defenders, he was nowhere near good enough to cope with stable-companion Fakir d’Oudairies, a son of Kapgarde, who sluiced in by 13 lengths in the manner of a potential champion.

Five jump races between April and August of his three-year-old season for top trainer Guy Cherel did not provide a win, and he fell in the second of two chases – that’s right, they can run over fences there while our backward Flat racers are just getting going!

But since joining O’Brien he already had a win in a 22-runner juvenile race at Cork and now dominated stronger company going ahead of the field three from home and winning by 13 lengths. With five French and one German import in this nine-runner field, the domination in jumping at the top end for owners wealthy enough to buy these horses is ever more obvious. The winner here was owned by M L Bloodstock Ltd, interestingly the breeders of the runner-up!

In all, 25 French-breds helped swell the wonderful Cheltenham card and one of them, Frodon, provided another highlight when making all under an inspired Briony Frost to deny Elegant Escape in the Betbright Cotswold Chase. He’ll give it everything if he turns up for the Gold Cup and if he does, Frodon will be the darling of all the non-racing media at the meeting. They’ll love Briony for sure. Who doesn’t?

Three weeks back I gave a mention to the former Andrew Balding trainee, now called Ka Ying Star, after his lucrative first run and win at Sha Tin. He made a big step up in class there in Sunday’s Hong Kong Classic Mile worth £570,000 to the winner and after a brave front-running effort compromised by having to go very fast from a wide draw to get the lead, held on for a good third. He earned his new owners £115,000. Hong Kong Derby here they come!

The proper Derby, run at Epsom, is one of the 43 Classic or Group 1 races that have fallen to products of David and Diane Nagle’s Barronstown Stud in Co Wicklow. Their Epsom winner was Generous, but they will rarely if ever have had a better weekend than early last September when Kew Gardens won the St Leger at Doncaster and Flag of Honour the Irish St Leger at The Curragh the following day.

In that context it is hardly surprising that their achievement has been officially recognised by their being inducted into the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Hall of Fame. The slight surprise is that after more than 30 years’ excellence, and with horses of the calibre of Yeats which Diane owned with Sue Magnier, they were not already in it! Well done indeed!

Mrs Magnier, as part of the Coolmore team, had a nice pay day in the US on Saturday. Magic Wand, winner last year of the Ribblesdale, was shrewdly sent by Aidan O’Brien to run in the first Turf Pegasus Invitational race at Gulfstream, which hosted its third year of the main event won previously by Arrogate and Gun Runner, both earning more than £5million for their trouble.

Now track owner Frank Stronach has decided to split the overall money three to two in favour of the Dirt race, but that still left $6 million to be divvied up in the Turf race and $9 milllion against the previous $15 million for the dirt, won easily on Saturday by City of Light. Stronach also offered the incentive of a 7lb allowance for any horse not using Lasix. Originally Magic Wand was due to carry 8st 7lb and Ryan Moore, who had been preparing himself for his lightest weight with rides on the all-weather.

In the event, O’Brien, who usually uses Lasix for his US runners, decided to take advantage of it and with Wayne Lordan in the saddle at 8st, Magic Wand ran home well into second place behind easy winner Bricks and Mortar, who conceded 12lb. Without the 7lb kicker, she would probably have been no better than fourth – a difference of almost £250K in prize money. Smart work!

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

 

Your first 30 days for just £1

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.

Your first 30 days for just £1

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?

Tony Keenan’s Flat Season 2018 Review: Good Year, Bad Year

Naas on Sunday marked the end of the flat turf season in Ireland and while the diehards will carry on at Dundalk through the winter, now is the time for wrapping up the year that was, writes Tony Keenan. So, for one more week we’ll have no talk about the return of ‘proper racing’ (though I’ve never gotten what is improper about the flat), and now look back at who I feel were some of the winner and losers of 2018.

Good Year: Joseph O’Brien

There have been a few headline moments this past year for O’Brien the Younger, notably Latrobe in the Irish Derby and Iridessa in the Fillies’ Mile, while it is probably worth mentioning Rekindling winning the Melbourne Cup too as it fell just beyond this piece in 2017. The first of those was about the pick, not least for the post-race scenes at the Curragh when Aidan O’Brien, always gracious in defeat, was positively joyous that his two sons had combined to thwart the Ballydoyle team.

One thing that stands out with Joseph thus far is a penchant for big-priced winners of major races, something that was also evident over jumps last season though I have to admit to being rather underwhelmed by how he did in the 2017/18 national hunt campaign; yes, he was third to Mullins and Elliott but it was at a distance and his winners after the autumn were infrequent. The point that he is a dual-purpose trainer needs reiterating and to make it to top three over jumps and now top two on the flat is a major achievement, even allowing that he has been given an opportunity available to no one else.

That opportunity can be overplayed a little however as his yard isn’t that packed with bluebloods when you break it down; he had 11 horses run to an official rating of 100 or more this season though a number of those like Drapers Guild, Reckless Gold, Light Pillar and Damselfly barely scraped over three figures. Rather his successful season has been backboned by handicaps, breaking Jim Bolger’s record of 40 handicap winners in a flat season back in 1990 with a total of 44. Below is a table of trainers by Irish handicap winners in 2018.

 

Trainer Winners Runners Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Actual/
Expected
J. O’Brien 44 259 17.0% 107 41.3% 1.03
J. Murtagh 23 118 19.5% 52 44.1% 1.18
J. Bolger 20 196 10.2% 61 31.1% 0.89
A. O’Brien 18 73 24.7% 30 41.1% 1.30
J. Harrington 17 125 13.6% 42 33.6% 1.05
G. Lyons 13 139 9.4% 40 28.8% 0.65
D. Hogan 12 142 8.5% 41 28.9% 0.82
M. Mulvany 12 80 15.0% 30 37.5% 1.26
J. McConnell 12 98 12.2% 24 24.5% 1.50

 

Johnny Murtagh is another to come out very well here, along with Michael Mulvany and John McConnell, but one of the most interesting facets of O’Brien’s team of handicappers is how many of them have won at least two such races. Below is a list of his multiple handicap winners from 2018 with a few added extras, notably the source of horses. Of the 12 O’Brien horses that won multiple handicaps this year, eight were handicapped elsewhere and included some well-regarded trainers like Eddie Lynam and Mick Halford. Should O’Brien or his buyers coming knocking again soon, other trainers might well ask themselves should they really be selling or at the very least should they be charging a premium!

 

Horse Handicap Wins Initial Rating Current Rating Difference Previous Yard
Rockfish 4 45 71 +26 N/A
Waitingfortheday 4 57 85 +28 J. Feane
Perfect Tapatino 3 59 82 +23 D. English
Song Of The Sky 3 50 72 +22 J. Murphy
Pedisnap 3 47 69 +22 M. Halford
Camile 2 45 59 +14 P. Rothwell
Downdraft 2 88 101 +13 N/A
Focus Of Attention 2 66 80 +14 E. Lynam
Rockabill 2 76 84 +8 N/A
Best Not Argue 2 52 81 +29 J. Murphy
Eagle Song 2 77 95 +18 N/A
Tuamhain 2 53 75 +22 K. Prendergast

 

 

Good Year: Donnacha O’Brien

Donnacha was a clear winner in the riposte of the year category: when asked about his best trait as a rider, he responded ‘being Aidan O’Brien’s son!’ Riding for the top two yards in the country in 2018 made him very hard to beat in the jockeys’ championship and his 111 winners in 2018, while not outlandish historically, puts him up there in recent times. Colin Keane had 100 winners last year while Pat Smullen had 115, 103 and 108 in the three previous seasons respectively with Joseph O’Brien’s 126 in 2013 the best tally of late.

Those numbers are one thing but Group 1's are a bigger deal and Donnacha rode six this year having had two in total coming into the season: Saxon Warrior in the 2,000 Guineas, Forever Together in the Oaks, Latrobe in the Irish Derby, Fairyland in the Cheveley Park, Ten Sovereigns in the Middle Park and Magna Grecia in the whatever it is called now at Doncaster. With someone his size, the clock is always ticking in terms of longevity but he’ll be hoping to retain his title in 2019.

 

Bad Year: Aidan O’Brien

Picking at Aidan O’Brien is probably churlish in the extreme but it is all relative; this is a trainer who could run FOUR Galileo fillies in a backend Leopardstown maiden a few weeks back. There was always likely to be some regression from the record-breaking campaign in 2017 with his Group 1 tally falling from 28 to 14. More than anything it was consistency that the yard struggled for as those 14 top-level wins came from 13 different horses. There were some excellent individual performances but none of them really carried it from race to race with only Kew Gardens winning two Group 1's. In an ideal year, O’Brien would have a handful of horses that roll through three or four of these races.

Your first 30 days for just £1

A sickness in the yard certainly didn’t help (Ger Lyons is an honourable mention behind Donnacha for quip of the year when he said "I wish my horses were as sick as Aidan’s") but that didn’t really manifest itself at home as he actually broke the record for most winners trained in an official Irish flat season with 152. The volume was there but not so much the top-level success as only Lancaster Bomber and Flag Of Honour won Irish Group 1's in 2018 and they came in two of the weaker races, the Tattersalls Gold Cup and the Irish Leger.

His record in UK might have been the most disappointing part of the season, however, at least compared with previous seasons (see below). But as always with Ballydoyle, there is loads of optimism going into the following spring; since the start of September, they won 15 Group or Listed races for juveniles and look in a good spot heading into 2019.

 

Aidan O'Brien Runners in UK, by year

Year Winners Runners Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Actual/ Expected
2018 24 225 10.7% 70 31.1% 0.72
2017 32 165 19.4% 69 41.8% 1.07
2016 28 133 21.1% 70 52.6% 0.98
2015 17 79 21.5% 37 46.8% 0.96
2014 11 81 13.6% 24 29.6% 0.82

 

 

Bad Year: The rest of the Big Four

The end-of-season trainers’ table since 2014 has mostly been about the Big Four of O’Brien, Weld, Bolger and Lyons; well, perhaps the Gigantic One and Large Three might be a better way of putting it. This season looks different with Aidan O’Brien top then Joseph a distant second followed by Jessica Harrington, Bolger, Lyons and Weld at respectful distances with a mile back to the rest. Consider the records of the three trainers concerned over the past three seasons compared to this one:

 

Trainer 2015 Winners and Prizemoney 2016 Winners and Prizemoney 2017 Winners and Prizemoney 2018 Winners and Prizemoney
D. Weld 76/€2.29 million 87/€2.88 million 44/€1.24 million 53/€1.34 million
J. Bolger 61/€1.79 million 59/€1.71 million 60/€1.85 million 46/€1.48 million
G. Lyons 60/€1.57 million 53/€1.32 million 72/€1.68 million 57/€1.40 million

 

Of the three, Lyons might be the one where there is the least concern. A lot went into helping Colin Keane with the jockeys’ championship last year and there may have been a hangover of sorts but he did manage to get some powerful new owners into the yard which is likely to pay off long-term though Qatar Racing departed mid-season. Weld didn’t really bounce back from a poor 2017 when his horses were sick though did say early in the season his numbers were down while Bolger had his lowest winner total since the 38 he had in 2006.

One thing for sure is that neither Aidan nor Joseph O’Brien are going anywhere and if anything they are getting stronger. A look at the best horse on official ratings for Weld (Eziyra on 111), Lyons (Psychedelic Funk on 110) and Bolger (Twilight Payment on 109) tells a story. In the overall pecking order of official figures in 2018, those three horses came in at joint-32nd, joint-39th and joint-44th respectively showing how tough it is to compete with Ballydoyle in pattern races.

 

Good Year: Patrick Prendergast

With some of the major yards having down seasons to one degree or another, there was a window of opportunity for the smaller trainer and Patrick Prendergast was one to take advantage. Skitter Skatter was the obvious standout, her brilliant season culminating in a Moyglare success, but he also managed a career-best win total of 19 in the calendar year, 16 having been his previous best. Furthermore, his previous best prizemoney of €313,888 (again last year) was smashed with a figure of €625,365.

The training and placing of Skitter Skatter was quite straightforward, the filly being particularly genuine and her race programme picking itself; but the handling of Cedars Of Lebanon proved a bit more complicated. She won a Bellewstown maiden in mid-summer before the wheels came off a little afterwards, but Prendergast was able to coax her back to form, winning two more races before season end, the last a sales race worth €70,000 to the winner. Not only that but he got a sixth career win out of handicap stalwart, Canary Row.

 

Good Year: Michael Mulvany

Mulvany could reasonably be described as a journeyman trainer going into 2018, never having registered more than seven winners in a year, but this season was something different as he more than doubled his previous best with 16 in all. Quite a few of those came at the summer racing tracks like Sligo and Ballinrobe and he had his team in rude health in the middle of the season, registering a first across-the-card treble at Tipperary and Bellewstown in July along with a maiden winner at the Galway Festival. However, the high-point of his year came back in the spring when On The Go Again won the Cambridgeshire and followed it up with a Listed win in the Heritage Stakes.

None of Mulvany’s horses are anything approaching expensive buys, if they have been bought at all; the likes of On The Go Again, Silver Service, My Silver Nails and Early Call were all home-bred. Of his other winners in 2018, Premier League wasn’t sold for €3,500, Stormy Tale cost €2,000, Prove The Point came in at €2,500 while Wichita Line was bred by the owner. Only Passing Trade, who went through the ring at €34,000 and 15,000 guineas on separate occasions, broke the five-figure mark.

 

Bad Year: The Saturday of Irish Champions Weekend

Crowd numbers at day one of Irish Champions Weekend at Leopardstown were an acceptable 14,226 but those figures always look poor when compared with the masses the cram into Listowel the previous day, regardless of the quality on show so let’s give that a pass. The card didn’t lack for quality either with two of the best around, Roaring Lion and Alpha Centauri, taking part.

Rather, the issue was the ground, so fast that Ger Lyons described it as "far too quick with an awful cover of grass…without question the fastest we’ve raced on at Leopardstown this summer". He took a number of his horses out, which could have been a wise call when both Alpha Centauri and Saxon Warrior had to be retired soon after their respective runs on the surface. Perhaps it was simply an unfortunate coincidence and the course may have been in a difficult position with watering and mixed weather forecasts but it wasn’t a good outcome from one of the banner fixtures of the year.

 

Good Year: Colm O’Donoghue

It wasn’t a perfect year for O’Donoghue by any means, topped and tailed by a weird clash with the Order Of Malta staff at Dundalk and a seven-day ban for careless riding at Naas, but what unfolded in between was likely beyond his greatest hopes when he left Ballydoyle. He had his last ride for Aidan O’Brien on July 26th last year having had only seven rides for the yard all of that season, his most recent winner for ‘the lads’ coming back on Seventh Heaven in the 2016 Yorkshire Oaks.

The reasons for his departure have never been revealed but it is clear he was never going to be the main rider there, unlike with Jessica Harrington, and his timing could hardly have been better as it coincided with the rise of Alpha Centauri, a filly who on the clock at least was the pick of her generation. I’m So Fancy was another star turn for the rider, winning three times, and he managed to avoid what might have seemed an obvious backward step after Ballydoyle.

 

Bad Year: The Ordinary Irish Flat Racing Fan

There is a distinct possibility that this person doesn’t exist in any great number but let’s define him or her for a moment: they work in something other than racing but follow the sport closely, enjoy going to the track quite regularly at weekends and watching lots of it on TV. The 2019 fixture list with its increase in blank summer Sundays, especially for flat racing, didn’t cater for this person at all and while no one doubts there is a stable staff crisis with the Ballydoyle/Work Relations Commission decision lurking in the background, I’m not sure ceding prime weekend days was a good move. The decision to move the August fixtures at the Curragh to Friday evenings was equally curious, especially as the Naas road at that time of the week is a nightmare. Not only that but some of the tracks (like Kilbeggan and Down Royal that are generally well-attended) lost Friday evening fixtures as a result and will see their attendances drop in their new spots.

The other concern for Irish racing fans is change in TV coverage from January 1st 2019 and it is the uncertainty here that is worrying.  RUK has more than its share of good presenters and analysts along with innovative programming like ‘Luck on Sunday’; what it doesn’t seem to have is space to fit all the Irish racing along with its current UK portfolio. The single most important thing in racing coverage is to see the race live on TV, preferably not in a split screen, as it just isn’t the same on a laptop. Not everything about the At The Races coverage of Irish racing was perfect but they got those basics right and had the time and space to go deeper too, often interviewing smaller trainers and giving a real insight into what they were doing. Let’s hope RUK can do something similar.

- Tony Keenan

Monday Musings: A Dublin Flyer!

There was only one place to begin this week’s offering, writes Tony Stafford. Leopardstown provided two days of intoxicating, top-class sport, making a brilliant success of the much-heralded Dublin Racing Festival. Excellent performances were interspersed with some of the most head-scratching results ever in my experience, although in fairness Messrs Mullins (W), Elliott (G) and O’Brien (JP) are well accustomed to such equine alchemy.

At The Races, under the threat of imminent loss of the Irish racing portfolio to Racing UK, packaged its heavy hitters Matt Chapman and Mick Fitzgerald to join home team performers Gary O’Brien and Kevin Blake, bolstered by Ted Walsh yesterday when both UK fixtures were on the other channel.

With Samcro showing almost Golden Cygnet-like potential in the two-mile novice hurdle; Mr Adjudicator running a decent Triumph Hurdle trial in the juvenile race; Footpad looking Arkle material and Total Recall switching back to hurdles off a toadying 125 after his Ladbrokes Gold Cup (ex-Hennessy) victory at Newbury off 147, punters had a chance of some pretty easy profits.

Any two-day fixture which offers seven Mullins winners against only one for Elliott - that one was  Samcro - will have gone a long way to altering the perception that there has been a definitive change in the Irish jumps power-base.

But two results will have had both Goliaths looking over their shoulders in understandable anxiety as the boy Joseph was at it again. I was at Lingfield on Saturday, reasonably enough expecting victory for Joe’s Adam Kirby-ridden Paparazzi in the opener. In my opinion, he got a shocking ride, never in contention and only third under sufferance in a weak affair.

Minutes later, there was Tower Bridge in the McManus colours coming from last to first to win the stayers’ novice hurdle in the Festival weekend’s opening race at 25-1 with a storming late run. Tower Bridge won the last two of three bumpers last summer; ran a stinker first time over jumps at Down Royal before putting up an improved display with a fourth over Saturday’s track over Christmas. You could suggest maybe a two stone improvement this time.

Your first 30 days for just £1

Yesterday’s offering by O’Brien junior was even more extraordinary. Watching the preliminaries, my eye kept getting attracted to the name of Edwulf in the Unibet Irish Gold Cup Chase in which Our Duke, Djakadam and Outlander made up the most likely group. He was as large as 66-1 at one stage, hardly surprising after having run only once this term, when pulling up also as a 66-1 shot in the three-mile Grade 1 Leopardstown Christmas Chase.

Edwulf has a more than interesting history. After a couple of Irish points – he fell in the first of them - he turned up in the Ben Pauling stable and was despatched to the 2015 Punchestown Festival where he was a 39-length seventh, ridden by Derek O’Connor.

Switched the following season to Aidan O’Brien, he was in the process of running away with a novice chase first time out when as a 33-1 shot he fell with the race at his mercy. The McManus talent scouts were soon on the case, and it was in the green and gold that he made a winning hurdling start soon after, comfortably beating 24 maidens at Naas. A fall late on in a Grade 2 novice ended that campaign.

It also curtailed his time at Ballydoyle, as Edwulf was among the initial Joseph intake in the summer of 2016. He began with a third to Min, a convincing Saturday winner, before unseating in a race won by Our Duke. It was pretty much feast or famine after that with a second, a win, another fall and a second chasing victory before, reunited with Mr O’Connor, he came to the closing stages of the four-mile National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham looking the probable winner.

Sadly, he went wrong after a terrible mistake two out, and O’Connor was forced to pull him up just onto the run-in. The top amateur kept the ride at Christmas and again yesterday, when after shortening to 33-1, he happily cantered round at the back and on the wide outside of his field while the majority of Ireland’s best staying chasers dropped away one by one.

Turning for home he was still apparently going easily, and once Our Duke and Djakadam dropped away and, notably, Killultagh Vic toppled at the last when looking the winner, there was only Elliott’s Outlander to account for, a task he and O’Connor managed with authority. This was yet another six figure prize for the modern-day miracle man.

A generation and a bit earlier Joseph’s dad was sharing Jim Bolger’s unique knowledge with, among others, Willie Mullins and A P McCoy. Willie achieved a couple of bits of sleight of hand of his own - with Total Recall, of course, unbeaten after three runs since leaving Sandra Hughes when she retired - but even more astonishingly with Patricks Park in Saturday’s 40-grand to the winner two-mile handicap chase.

As recently as last October, Patricks Park had the first of only two runs for Matt Sheppard, having been trained previously in Ireland by David Harry Kelly for whom he won a maiden hurdle. Readers of this column and more particularly adherents to the web site which hosts it will be aware of The Geegeez Geegee. It was that estimable horse – sadly now in other ownership - that gave Patricks Park a 33-length hammering at level weights on that Sheppard debut in a handicap chase.  Less than three weeks later, backed from 50’s to 33-1 Patricks Park romped home by 12 lengths over two miles, five furlongs on the soft at Ffos Las, off his mark of 113.

Between late October and New year’s Day he was repatriated to Ireland and, now with Mullins, started 11-8 favourite for an 80-109 handicap hurdle over two miles seven furlongs at Tramore off what appeared a gift mark of 104, but finished unplaced, 33 lengths behind the winner.

On Saturday, in a 20-runner 0-150 handicap chase over two miles and a furlong, he readily came home in front under Rachael Blackmore! How does he do that?

True, there was the disappointment of Faugheen’s inability to stave off the sustained challenge of Supasundae, and Yorkhill ran lamentably behind stablemate Min, but otherwise it was very much Mullins’ and Joseph’s meeting.

As to the imminent switch of allegiance of Irish racing from At The Races to Racing UK, I’m with such as Eddie O’Leary of Gigginstown and JP McManus in wondering what could possibly be the benefit to viewers. Surely, when the major UK Flat racing gets going, some Irish coverage must at best be truncated, and smaller summer fixtures could be lost in the way that even At The Races sometimes has to drop Down Royal. In its present location, everyone can see the good stuff without interruption. It’s decision day tomorrow. Let’s hope common sense prevails and they restore the status quo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your first 30 days for just £1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grading the Irish Trainers: 2016 Edition

Grading the Trainers – Flat Season 2016

Readers who’ve come across previous editions of this piece will know the story by now as I evaluate the seasons of the top trainers, writes Tony Keenan. A quick reminder on some of the criteria: achievements are relative, big races matter more than bad ones, data is important. All numbers included cover the Irish flat turf season (though races outside the jurisdiction are covered too) and should be correct up to last Friday; any errors are mine alone. Let’s begin with the top ten (well, eleven) trainers by number of winners trained. The last column of the table is an interesting figure I found on Irishracing.com and is an individual winner/runner ratio; it gives the percentage of horses that the trainer ran in the year that won at least one race which seems a sensible baseline as a measure of keeping owners happy.

Irish Trainers Championship 2016

Trainer Wins Runners Strikerate P/L Actual/Expected Winners/Runners
A. O’Brien 114 550 20.7% -128.88 0.86 49%
D. Weld 83 425 19.5% -124.74 0.88 41%
J. Bolger 56 480 11.7% -123.86 0.79 34%
G. Lyons 53 325 16.3% -53.30 0.90 47%
M. Halford 31 342 9.1% -52.3 0.69 27%
W. McCreery 29 243 11.9% -52.3 0.97 29%
J. Murtagh 28 207 13.5% -9.00 1.02 41%
K. Prendergast 20 127 13.6% +31.95 1.03 35%
J. Harrington 20 247 8.1% -36.5 0.79 25%
A .Slattery 18 119 15.1% +14.83 1.26 42%
J. O’Brien 18 131 13.7% +7.35 1.01 52%

 

Aidan O’Brien – Grade A+ (2015 Grade: B)

The drive for twenty-five, Bobby Frankel’s record of Group 1 wins in a year, has dominated recent conversation about Aidan O’Brien’s season and it remains in play with the Breeders’ Cup and the big Asian races still to come. That such a tally is even possible rates this a season for the ages but perhaps the most notable achievement in 2016 has been O’Brien’s ability to re-invent his training methods; there was a time when the trainer would have balked at running a filly against colts in Group 1 class, much less keeping a four-year-old filly in training specifically for that purpose.

But adapting and changing is something O’Brien has always done well and having spotted that he lacked a top-class middle-distance colt he decided to slot Found and the three-year-old Minding into that role with plenty of success. O’Brien still tends towards ‘sales talk’ even when speaking of fillies, laughably describing Found as ‘the most genuine horse I’ve ever seen’, but when you cut through the bullshit you have to acknowledge his greatness. Without wishing to take away from Found’s win and O’Brien’s 1-2-3 in the Arc, it was a weak renewal, and whereas all she seems to do is finish second while all Minding does is win, regardless of trip or ground. It would be no surprise to see Minding prove herself better than Almanzor in 2017 as that Irish Champion Stakes looks tarnished by track bias.

There have been other success stories with Alice Springs proving the surprise O’Brien improver: she went from plateauing Group 2 type to three-time Group 1 winner. Nor is there any shortage of promise for next season with Churchill and friends too many to name portending more Group 1 success, not to mention another super-strong crop of fillies. Caravaggio, the star of the early juvenile campaign, seems almost forgotten at this point which is scarcely believable.

In terms of pure stallion-making, it hasn’t been the greatest O’Brien season with The Gurkha the only colt from the Ballydoyle classic generation that would have any notions of grandeur in the breeding sheds; taking him from maiden in April to dual Group 1 winner in July was improvement at the rate of light-speed and all the more impressive given his backdrop of colic. Air Force Blue was the season’s biggest disappointment, the Champion Two-Year-Old proving more Air Force Blew [Out], but an exam doesn’t need to be perfect to get an A. Talk of someone else taking the reins at Ballydoyle seems long-distant now.

 

Dermot Weld – Grade B+ (2015: C+)

If Dermot Weld could pause his season at the end of June, all would be right in the world of Rosewell. Harzand, with the help of the weather gods who rained on him as required, was a dual Derby winner with dreams of an Arc, while Tattersalls Gold Cup winner, Fascinating Rock, was on a break ahead of an autumn tilt at a pair of Champion Stakes and Found about to enhance his form. Neither of those horses won after June with Harzand bombing in both his subsequent starts, and news reaching us of his retirement to stud today; and, Fascinating Rock having only one more run.

The signs of a poor second half to the season were soon apparent with Weld losing his top trainer status at Galway to Willie Mullins. That is something many a flat handler would be sanguine about but Weld’s role as chief curator of his own legacy must have made it hard to bear. His strikerate pre- and post-June were markedly different: in the first four months, he was hitting at a rate of 22.8% but it has dropped to 17.1% since.

Weld enjoyed continued success in black type races with a better strikerate than Aidan O’Brien; the figures below include all Listed and Group winners during the Irish flat season up to last weekend and Zhukova proved a major improver, albeit disappointing on Champions Day at Ascot. That was a card that summed up the second part of Weld’s season with both his runners failing to operate on the ground and Fascinating Rock a subsequent non-runner because of the going.

 

Trainers in Irish Listed and Group Races 2016

Trainer Wins Runs Strikerate P/L Actual/Expected
A. O’Brien 36 170 21.2% -39.61 0.88
D. Weld 16 75 21.3% -23.35 0.94
J. Bolger 7 84 8.3% -38.31 0.68
M. Halford 6 28 21.4% -3.15 1.24
W. McCreery 4 34 11.8% -8.50 1.23
G. Lyons 4 43 9.3% +1.50 0.58
K. Prendergast 3 10 30.0% +1.13 2.19
A. Keatley 3 12 25.0% +7.25 2.14

 

Jim Bolger – Grade: C- (2015: B-)

Numerically, Bolger’s win totals are broadly in line with previous seasons; he had 64 and 61 winners in the 2014 and 2015 respectively and currently sits on 56 winners for 2016. The issue is more one of quality as he’s struggled in better races; as seen above his strikerate in Listed and Group races is 8.3%, the worst of the top eight trainers. He didn’t have a winner in the UK this term either and 2010 (and 2004 before that) was the last time that had happened.

Official ratings have Tribal Beat as the best Coolcullen horse of 2016 on 116, rather underwhelming looking at previous seasons, though four-time winners Stellar Mass and Ringside Humour alongside big improver Qatari Hunter (who rose from 74 to 107 in the ratings) were real stars. Tribal Beat only ran twice this campaign with Bolger on record as saying he was hard to train and absent stars proved a theme for the season: Pleascach, who ran seven times in 2015, only made her return over Arc weekend while the likes of Herald The Dawn, Smash Williams and Sanus Per Aquam all missed time having shown plenty the previous year. Keeping horses sound is of course a skill, one that Bolger tends to do very well in the main, his horses thriving on racing hard and often but it does seem to have been an issue this season.

Your first 30 days for just £1

 

Ger Lyons – Grade B- (2015: B)

2016 could be described as a consolidation year for Ger Lyons which is a polite way of saying it was a neutral campaign, neither here nor there. Firstly, the good. Ardhoomey was well-trained all season, winning four times culminating at Group 2 level and rising 19lbs in the weights and all this against a backdrop of wind problems which Lyons had written plenty about in his blog; that blog is one of the more forward-thinking approaches in Irish racing and we probably know more of his horses than any other trainer. As with Bolger, his winner totals are broadly in line with previous seasons and he comes out very well on win/runner percentage, third amongst the top ten trainers behind only the two O’Briens.

It is hard to find a horse that Lyons has handled badly and there is a sense that he largely maximises what he has though the Frankel colt Lightening Fast (out of the yard’s Group 1 winner Lightening Pearl) failed to win in three starts which stood in contrast to how the freshman sire’s runners did in the UK. Endless Drama and Psychedelic Funk were also disappointing after promising starts to the season but might not have been much good in any case; the trainer has a slight tendency to overrate his horses. Finally his return in Listed and Group races was poor relative to previous years and other top ten trainers.

 

Mick Halford – Grade: C (2015: C-)

One often gets the sense with Halford that it’s a numbers game and his overall strikerate reflects this; at 9.1% it is second worst of the top eleven and his winners-to-runners percentage is poor too. There is too much reliance on Dundalk for a top five trainer; of his 44 winners since the start of 2016, 21 came on the all-weather. Ger Lyons was someone who used Dundalk in the early days but it was more a springboard to better things whereas Halford seems to have stagnated there.

As for 2016 highlights, a Royal Hunt Cup winner in Portage was massive for the yard and it’s a pity the horse has only had one run since. One area where Halford did prove selective was in Irish black-type races; he had 6 winners from 28 runners, good for fourth in that table, and in sharp contrast to his overall strikerate.

 

Willie McCreery – Grade: B+ (2015: A)

McCreery built on an excellent 2015 this season, again thriving in Premier Handicaps as seen below. While relatively few trainers can compete in Pattern races, many more can aspire to at least having a runner in a Premier Handicap and they remain one of the best proving grounds for trainer skill. McCreery finished joint-top in terms of winners trained in Premier Handicaps last year and to repeat the dose in 2016 was impressive.

 

Trainers in Premier Handicaps 2016

Trainer Winners Runners Strikerate P/L Actual/Expected
W. McCreery 3 18 16.7% +15.00 1.58
A. Slattery 3 12 25.0% +23.50 2.46
A. Martin 2 12 16.7% -1.67 1.43
G. Cromwell 2 9 15.6% +15.50 2.90
J. Bolger 2 22 9.1% -13.50 1.05
D. Weld 2 25 8.0% -17.00 0.52
W. Mullins 2 6 33.3% +10.00 2.82

 

One big feature of McCreery’s success this year has been the emergence of Billy Lee as a top class jockey, the rider doing very well to finish in the top five of the jockeys’ championship given neither of his previous main supporters, David Wachman and Tommy Stack, provided him with a winner.  Lee remains one to watch and the longer McCreery can hold on to him the better it will be for his horses. Not everything this year was plain sailing, particularly a mid-season slump when winners were hard to come by; while there remains a suspicion the trainer left a bit on the table with both Downforce and Aridity, but overall this was another strong campaign.

 

Johnny Murtagh – Grade B+ (2015: D)

After a promising start, Murtagh’s training career took a backward step last season, and the former jockey could be forgiven for wishing for a return to the saddle; it’s a lot easier riding them than being responsible for every aspect of their life. 2016 was more like it and the addition of the Ballygallon Stud horses certainly helped; recent Listed winner Hawke was the standout but the breeding operation provided five winners in total, a sizable number given the strength of the string.

Sister Blandina was well-trained and well-placed too, winning first on her travels at Bath in May off 52 and recently registering her fourth victory of the season off 81 at Navan. Duchess Andorra was a victory for perseverance, winning a Group 3 at Gowran Park on her twenty-second career start having taken ten runs to break her maiden for Joanna Morgan. As for disappointments, Eddystone Rock finished his campaign with the feeling of unfinished business; having beaten subsequent Listed winner Laganore easily conceding 8lbs, he missed an engagement in the English Cambridgeshire where he looked a major player.

 

Kevin Prendergast – Grade: B+

The octogenarian Curragh trainer enjoyed a mini-revival though it was all about one horse, Irish 2,000 Guineas winner, Awtaad. Unbeaten in four starts in Ireland, he couldn’t really translate that form in his runs abroad (a pattern with the trainer as a whole) but he gives the Shadwell operation a decent stallion prospect into the future as well a classy broodmare proposition: Awtaad was the first foal out of Asheerah and his half-sibling Aneen promised plenty in winning a Curragh maiden earlier this month. Aside from that family, Penny Pepper winning a Premier Handicap over Derby Weekend was about the highlight.

 

Jessica Harrington – Grade: B

I have to admit that Harrington’s season rather passed me by but on winner numbers it was a quietly good year; her strikerate and winners/runners ratio are not so good however. Bocca Baciata was the starlet, getting Group 1-placed behind Minding under a clever ride in the Pretty Polly, while she has a few half-decent two year olds going into next year including Khukri and the well-named Tinder. One thing worth pointing out is the seemingly horrendous value the owners of the former Mill House LLC seem to get on their purchases. Apart from Khukri (cost 130,000gns), the rest of their runners this season were largely forgettable and cost plenty: Grandee (110,000gns), Mulligatawny (135,000gns), Unyielding (150,000gns), John Honeyman (120,000gns), Barnacle Bill (€90,000), Aphonsus (175,000gns). The last-named was trained by John Oxx, the others by Harrington.

 

Andy Slattery – Grade: A+

Having never trained more than seven winners in a season, Slattery has had a sublime year with 18 wins and his Creggs Pipes rates up there with the most improved horses of the season; she went from down the field in a Cork handicap in May off 77 to Listed and Galway Mile winner, now rated 106. Slattery owned Galway in his own way, winning arguably the two big flat prizes of the week (Planchart won the only black type flat race of the week, the Corrib Stakes) and Sors was another fine advertisement for his skills with sprinters, winning thrice at the Curragh including the Rockingham from out of the handicap. Notably honest with the media, Slattery had such a fine year one could almost forgive him for failing to get a win out of Ucanchoose!

 

Joseph O’Brien – Grade: A+

I covered Joseph O’Brien earlier in the season and the only change since has been for the positive; Intricately has won the Group 1 Moyglare, which is working out well. O’Brien Jr. has the best winner/runner ratio of any of the top trainers, surpassing even his father, and that’s all the more impressive because he trains plenty of ordinary handicappers. Furthermore, his totals don’t reflect the full campaign as he had winners earlier in the season under his father’s name. Quite simply, a rookie season above all others.

 

Others of note:

It is amazing and a little sad that just a season removed from training Legatissimo and Curvy, David Wachman (2015: A) is retiring from training. 2016 was terrible with just one win before July but he leaves a legacy of being a fine trainer of fillies as well as some very promising two-year-olds: the likes of Rain Goddess, Winter, Intern, Rekindling and, lately, White Satin Dancer have shown plenty this season.

Michael O’Callaghan (2015: B+) had a decent year, punctuated with some spectacular gambles – Intrepid Prince at Galway and Holy Cat at Leopardstown spring to mind – but Adrian Keatley was the new trainer who really stood out. Not only did he send out the cheap purchase Jet Setting to win the Irish 1,000 Guineas but he got her back to form to win the Concorde Stakes in fine style under a Group 1 penalty. Furthermore, only Aidan O’Brien and Pat Shanahan trained more UK winners from the Irish training ranks this flat season with 9 wins from 38, a tidy strikerate of 23.7%.

Outside of the big names, Johnny Levins, Denis Hogan and Damien English did well around the margins. Joe McGrath winner, Tithonus, made massive improvements in 2016, building on a fine all-weather campaign to win four times and went close on the Racing Post Trophy undercard at Doncaster too. Tribal Path for English was the biggest improver of the year, starting the year on 53 and now rated 87; bizarrely he ran on the same Cork card in March that featured Jet Setting and Harzand!

- Tony Keenan

Holland’s “Family” Reunion Falls Flat

Monday musings

By Tony Stafford

When is a stable jockey not a stable jockey? That’s the question I’m sure will be gnawing at Darryl Holland’s mind tomorrow morning as he tries to celebrate his 44th birthday.

Late last December, after spells riding in South Korea and Mauritius, Holland, who owns a well-appointed yard – his “pension fund” – in Exning, near Newmarket, was telling the press that he was “delighted to be announced as first jockey to Charlie Hills”.

In many ways it was a double homecoming, the itinerant jockey returning from the sport’s far-flung outposts to renew acquaintance with, as he referred to it at the time, “my family”. He’d started out more than a quarter century earlier with Charlie’s father Barry Hills, while his new employer was talking about his delight at securing a jockey of Darryl’s “great experience”.

Charlie has a team of 168 horses under his care and Holland was quickly in action, travelling down to Lambourn a couple of times a week to ride work and getting to know the horses.

Slightly ring-rusty at first, Holland soon got into his stride on the all-weather when he did indeed get most of the stable’s mounts and a sprinkling of winners. His minimum weight this year has been a pretty acceptable 8st 8lb, something a fair proportion of his weighing room colleagues cannot match, but since the turf started the picture has been less rosy.

Your first 30 days for just £1

In all, he has had 68 rides for his retained stable with six wins. From 51 “outside” rides, he’s won five more races, giving him 11 from 119, probably rather less productive a year than anticipated in the first flush of the announcement.

But it’s the last couple of weeks that prompted my mini research project. Where’s Darryl, I wondered? Charlie Hills has run 39 horses in the fortnight, with three wins shared between Andrea Atzeni, Fran Berry and Jimmy Quinn. Holland has ridden only three non-winners for Charlie during that period, but has kept active with 16 outside rides and two wins, both for Alan Swinbank including Sunday’s 10-1 Doncaster short-head scorer, Zealous.

This week he is booked to ride Sonnet for his main employer at Beverley’s evening meeting tomorrow the night after four bookings at Thirsk this afternoon, none for “the family”. His sole Royal Ascot appointment is with the David Evans-trained John Reel in one of the handicaps later in the week.

With some of the sport’s major owners providing the bulk of the yard’s horses, it must have been anticipated by Holland that such as James Doyle and William Buick (Godolphin-connected rides), Paul Hanagan (Hamdan Al Maktoum) and Frankie Dettori (Al Shabaq) would be levering him off, but I wonder whether the prodigal son would have expected Kennet Valley Thoroughbreds to veto him in favour of Dettori for Magical Memory, Hills’ prime Ascot candidate for Saturday’s Diamond Jubilee Stakes.

He certainly would not have expected to sit on the sidelines while a total of 30 other jockeys took Hills mounts in the first half of the season, more than 100 in total escaping his saddle. Jockeys for many owners are often little more than a fashion accessory to impress their pals. Presumably Darryl’s not that fashionable any more. I hope he isn’t too discouraged, but the fact he’s travelling north a lot suggests otherwise.

The last two offerings in here have had a quick resolution. Last Monday was given over to the imminent beginning of Joseph O’Brien as a trainer. Four wins from seven runners on the opening day had by the end of the week stretched to six (three Flat, three NH) with all three of his siblings sharing in the success. Brother Donnacha partnered two and sister Ana one, while amateur Sara won on one of her two bumper rides. Two hurdle wins were handled by professionals.

Typically, the self-effacing Joseph left it to dad Aidan to represent him at Listowel, where Sara won, on Monday, preferring quietly to assess potential jumping talent at the Derby sale. He was there to bid and secure some lots early in the week, but left it to Sara to do some lower-level buying on the last day. That’s a proper family affair.

The previous week’s article majored on Profitable, the Clive Cox-trained and Alan Spence-owned sprinter who had been backed into King’s Stand Stakes favouritism after his victories in the Palace House and Temple Stakes earlier in the spring.

Spence announced on Saturday that he’d completed a deal with Godolphin to buy the colt for stud duties at the end of his racing days, but that the new owners had acceded to a bucket list of associated conditions, principally that he remain running in Spence’s name and that Cox and regular rider Adam Kirby would continue their partnerships with the horse.

By all accounts, the very shrewd Mr Spence covered as many bases as could be covered. The one he could do nothing about was the weather, and the way Michael Dods was beaming, indeed almost crowing, after Easton Angel’s Sandown Listed win on Saturday, Alan must have been relieved to get the job done.

For Dods, hopeful of a turn-around of the Temple Stakes form with Profitable and his Mecca’s Angel at Ascot, was invigorated by the news that an hour’s deluge on Friday night had produced 20 millimetres there. More rain on Saturday and Sunday will have made the projected good to soft ground ambitious. Ascot expects sunshine and showers every day. I don’t think I’ll bother to tell Mrs S in advance of her visit on Wednesday.

Regulars might have noticed that I rarely mention anything outside racing these days, but the behaviour of a not-inconsiderable portion of the support for the England soccer team at Euro 2016 in France has been despicable.

Street fighting, goading ISIS and jeering at the French police offered a humiliatingly embarrassing microcosm of a section of the UK’s population. The culmination of three or four days’ unpleasantness in Marseille was the pitched battle in the stadium.

The Mail reported “Russian thugs” attacking “English fans”. It could easily have been written the other way round as “English thugs’” actions bringing a brutal response from “Russian fans”. I believe that FIFA or UEFA should expel both England and Russia from the tournament having no mind to such trifles as money.

Sunday Supplement: Tilting at Turf Windmills

Tony Stafford

Tony Stafford

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

I make no apology for starting with a hurrah for Sam Sangster and his Decadent Racing group. They had the temerity to challenge John F Kennedy, rated in places as the new Australia, in the John Deere Juvenile Turf (Group 3) over a mile at Leopardstown on the opening day of Ireland’s Champions weekend and were rewarded when Faithful Creek collected a creditable third place.

OK, they were six lengths behind Ballydoyle’s embryo champion, the latest model from the seemingly endless Galileo production line, but in so doing almost certainly slotted in as the best son yet of the hitherto disappointing stallion Bushranger.

A smart performer for Coolmore on the track, Bushranger was expected to be among the leaders of the new sires when his first foals hit the ground just three years ago, but while his large crop faltered, others like Mastercraftsman thrived.

It is not too late for a major spurt for the Tally Ho stud inmate, though. Just look at how the same stud’s Kodiac has progressed from ordinary beginnings into almost the perfect sire of juveniles and then progressive sprinter-milers. No doubt Tony, Anne and Roger O’Callaghan have not given up.

Your first 30 days for just £1

But I must return to the happy story of Faithful Creek . The initial disappointment surrounding Bushranger must have contributed to the fact that Johnny McKeever was able to secure him at the sales for 35,000gns last year and therefore brought him into the budget area of Sam and his men.

They collected Euro 7,500 for that Group 3 place, a win and you’re in qualifier, but after informal talks with the Breeders’ Cup officials, Sam’s been told they have excellent chances of getting a slot in the John Deere Juvenile Turf itself at Santa Anita over the first weekend in November.

Sam has his late father Robert’s appetite for a tilt against the odds, and Brian Meehan never takes much persuading to dust off his passport and head out west. He’s won over there, too, of course.

For St Leger Day, I had an almost surreal experience. Until 6.40 p.m. when I rolled into Wolverhampton with trusty Roger at the wheel to see Two Jabs’ third Flat run in three weeks, the only equine connections I’d had on the day, were the last furlong, on the phone of the Portland, BBC Radio 5’s grudging St Leger commentary and back on the phone, the almost indecipherable closing stages of John F Kennedy.

So I missed the St Leger for the first time since I was stranded in Kentucky in the wake of 9-11 13 years ago; to go with complete blanks for the first time since the 1970’s at Glorious Goodwood, York’s Ebor meeting and Doncaster.

Those unpardonable absences will not be repeated in 2015. For various reasons the 2014 calendar has had its disruptions, mostly unavoidable, but I repeat, no such excuses will be tolerated next year!

The latest hindrance was the fact I was offered a ticket to the Emirates for Arsenal – Manchester City and if you wanted action, skill and uncertainty, you got it in abundance. But from a mid-morning Overground ride the ten minutes from Hackney Wick to Highbury and Islington, to a stroll down to breakfast in the busiest cake shop in Holloway and a 12.45 p.m. start, so 2.40 p.m. finish, the whole day is pretty much gone by the time you get home.

So there I was, sweaty from the brisk(ish)walk to the station, already short of some of the best action from Donny, Bath, Chester and Lingfield and more so as I changed Shanks’s Pony for the car, neglecting even to take a quick shower and shirt change before the onward drive for the pick-up point in Newmarket.

As I drove north-east, the Chelsea – Swansea game came on, and just before arriving at Newmarket, Diego Costa chose the last minute of the first half to equalise, scoring the first of his three goals on the day. Among the deserved praise from the excellent Pat Nevin for the Brazilian-Spaniard was the news that he was the first player in Premier League history to score on each of his first four games since Micky Quinn in the early 1990’s for Coventry.

So it was rather disconcerting to say the least, when after fuelling the car, post St Leger and Faithful Creek, and drawing along to the traditional Newmarket parking zone outside Dave Simcock’s that a strange occurrence occurred.

I parked on the right, as Roger was already positioned, Le Mans style, for the departure. I’d left the left-side door wide open in advance of transferring a few items when a large vehicle approached. I held up my hand in apology, but still thinking there was room, when the car stopped and the driver wound down his window.

“How ya goin’ lads”, said the voice in deepest Liverpool brogue. You’ve got it, Micky Quinn. “Hiya Mick, we’re off to Wolverhampton.” “Oh, <wife> Karen’s there, we’re in the first”, said Mick, excused duties by virtue of his heavy Talk Sport Saturday morning stint. Needless to say, I wasn’t with it enough to tell him his distinction had been equalled by the Chelsea man. I bet he wonders how much money he might have been earning if he was born 20 years later.

So we eventually made it to Wolverhampton, where Roger always likes to sample the food in the Hotel restaurant. “These faggots are beautiful”, he announced to the waitress. “They’d be £50 in London.” She walked away in wonder at the excesses of the South.

It was there we watched Joseph O’Brien appear to mistake race riding for orienteering as he went six to eight wide all the way on Australia, leaving Ryan Moore to pick him off late on The Grey Gatsby. At the same time, Sam Sangster’s beloved Liverpool were getting stuffed by the Villa, much to Midlands glee, even in rival territory, but as he seemed just as interested in events at Stamford Bridge, maybe that’s one familial allegiance which is being tested.

Alter egos 13: Cristoforo Colombo

In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

criscolSo begins the poem describing the historic journey in which Cristoforo Colombo set out to find a western passage to India, ended up in the Bahamas and was declared the first white person to land in what later became called America. He had a big team behind him, with a crew of 90 sailors on board his ship, the Santa Maria, with two other ships in his convoy. Read more