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Monday Musings: Klassical keeps the Dream alive

Last August, I had a brief drink before racing at York with Mark Smith when he told me about a horse his closest friend John Coleman had bought from France and sent to Willie Mullins, writes Tony Stafford. Sadly, since buying Klassical Dream, the name of the horse, John had died. “You must remember John, he always came racing with me, especially to Cheltenham,” said Mark. I did and do.

“It’s such a shame. He’s a really good horse and Willie loves him, but although he ran in some good hurdle races in France he didn’t win one. I don’t know if Joanne, John’s wife, will be able to keep him though,” Mark added.

The connection between that brief conversation and events yesterday in Ireland was lost on me until, post-race, Gary O’Brien mentioned the name Mark Smith, and blow me down it was that Mark Smith being interviewed by Nick Luck in the winner’s enclosure along with another pal.

I’d never had the retired-at- an- embarrassingly-early-age former City trader down as emotional, but in full view of the cameras it was as much as he could do to get out Joanne’s name and the fact of the “three boys watching at home”.  Clearly he was delighted at the turn of events, Joanne indeed keeping the horse and getting a Grade 1 prize, the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle, to help defray expenses.

Now Mark Smith will have a good reason, as if he ever needs one, to be at the Festival next month when the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle will be the target. Klassical Dream, who battled back under Ruby Walsh to hold stable-companion Aramon by a head, is 8-1 for that championship race.

I know whenever I refer back to horses that have run at Cheltenham or anywhere else in my old colours, I have to pinch myself at how long ago it all was. No doubt Mark will be amazed that next month will be the 25th anniversary of his greatest day as an owner, when Balasani was awarded the prize for the BonusPrint Stayers Hurdle after narrowly failing to catch Avro Anson, who was disqualified.

Like Klassical Dream, Balasani was a French import, in his case an Aga Khan-bred who won on the last of three races in his homeland, at Saint-Cloud in April 1989.He never went through a sales ring as far as my researches could reveal, and if Mark had phoned back yesterday – he said around an hour after the race: “I’m with some people, I’ll call later” - the mystery might have been cleared up.

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Suffice to say, Balasani eventually appeared from the John Jenkins stable from where he ran a total of 15 times on the Flat and over hurdles. Despite the best efforts of Messrs Piggott, Eddery, Asmussen and Dunwoody and several others, he never managed to win.

That took him to early 1991 and the switch to Martin Pipe. Second time out, at Worcester, Balasani won at 10-1 and was in a winner’s enclosure seven more times before Christmas. He ran off a modest 91 at Worcester and by the time of the last of five jumping victories that year, the William Hill Handicap Hurdle at Sandown, he beat a field of 21 decent handicappers from 4lb out of the weights and a mark of 129, just 38lb higher! Some trainer, Pipey.

In between had come a Flat hat-trick, Lester contributing once and Darryl Holland the other two starting off in the 40’s.

Then, in the manner of Martin Pipe, Balasani was re-born from being a decent two-miler to a top staying hurdler, at the same time mirroring that progress on the level. In March 93, after a fallow 1992, he began with victory over one mile seven furlongs off 65 at Warwick before romping away with the Ascot Stakes (2m4f) from 10lb higher.

Now it was big races all the way. Next time he was runner-up, giving plenty of weight to the winner Highflying in the Northumberland Plate (off 83) and was jolted up to 91 when predictably stretched by the weight in the Cesarewitch. All that remained for that winter were three hurdle runs. He was fourth to Sweet Duke in the Long Walk at Ascot; and beat the smart Cab On Target easily in the Rendlesham Hurdle in its then home at Kempton before the Cheltenham win which showcased his ability to sprint up hills at the end of long-distance races. Post Cheltenham, he was the beaten favourite for the Queen Alexandra at Royal Ascot.

Presumably that was one test too far as he was off the track for more than 18 months, returning for a low-key five-race farewell tour for Pipe, who managed to fashion one last success as a 10-year-old in a long-distance claiming hurdle at Newton Abbot. Another break was the prelude to a final few runs for permit holder John O’Neill, also a one-time City man.

Mark has never lost his interest in racing, despite leaving ownership to others and is one of the shrewdest punters around, like his one-time City colleague and now Racing TV betting pundit Dave Nevison, who would have enjoyed yesterday’s win from his trackside pitch. One day Mark asked me whether I could arrange with the Daily Telegraph for his elder daughter to do her work experience there. She did, as also did her younger sister a few years later. Both have had long careers associated with newspapers and publishing. As Alan Newman might say: “It’s not what you know”!

I was delighted when Sir Erec made all the running in the Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle to confirm the overwhelming strength of Joseph O’Brien’s Triumph Hurdle hand. Racing TV’s Irish team, O’Brien and Donn McClean, seemed surprised beforehand that Sir Erec was shaping to make the running, but having finished a close third to Stradivarius in Ascot’s Qipco Champions Long Distance Cup last October for Aidan and the Coolmore boys, he would hardly be lacking in stamina.

Then after he sprinted away, putting six lengths between himself and the equally well-fancied J P McManus-owned stablemate Gardens of Babylon, the suggestion from the team was, “he had the run of the race”.  I often find that a nonsensical concept, but surely the way for him to find out the other runners’ limitations was to press on from the start. The question for the Triumph will be whether he or Cheltenham winner Fakir d’Oudairies will be the one. Don’t ask me.

The very limited English challenge over the two days of the Dublin Racing Festival was pretty much limited to La Bague Au Roi in the Flogas Novice Chase over two miles, five furlongs. Richard Johnson had the Warren Greatrex-trained mare in front from the start, and she stayed on as bravely as ever to make it 14 wins in 19 career starts. She remains unbeaten in four chases and looks another banker for the Festival, presumably in the RSA Insurance Novice Chase.

I left Leopardstown to Harry Taylor – more air miles than Judith Chalmers – in favour of Sandown on Saturday, where the best clerk of the course in the business, Andrew Cooper, once again played the percentages to get the meeting on. No frost covers – “if we had it would have cost 30k and we couldn’t have lifted the snow off” – but temperatures were helpful over the previous two days so the judgment call paid off with a good crowd and competitive racing, headed up by Buveur d’Air.

Sandown remains the best viewing course in the country and, according to Peter Jensen, its chairman, racegoers can expect a number of easily-visible improvements before the end of 2019 as the track undergoes the first phase of a multi-million pound re-development.

In the near future some rather more spectacular re-structuring is promised and with Spelthorne Borough Council seemingly strongly against any closure of sister-track Kempton, prospects for racing and racegoers in the area are bright indeed. That’s just as well in a period of increasing gloom in the sport, especially if the news of Sheikh Mohammed’s questioning of the financial extent of his involvement goes much further.

- Tony Stafford

Irish Champions Weekend 2017: The Best Gets Better

Aidan O’Brien has had an unusual last couple of weeks, writes Tony Keenan. Rather than concentrating on preparations for Irish Champions Weekend, he’s been defending Ballydoyle work practices at the Labour Court and the decision there could yet have wide-reaching consequences for Irish racing. On the track however, it’s been business as usual for O’Brien with none of his rival Irish trainers causing anything like as many problems as the labour lawyers; so it seems sensible to expect a good number of winners for the trainer this coming weekend.

In truth, Irish Champions Weekend hasn’t been the best meeting for the yard since it took its current form in 2014. In that time, O’Brien has had nine winners in total with the other Irish trainers having 23, Dermot Weld doing best with six, and the now retired David Wachman next on three. UK-based trainers had 15 winners while Almanzor was the sole French success in last year’s Champion Stakes. Despite these historical figures I’m inclined to drink the Cool(-more) Aid and expect a massive weekend for Team Ballydoyle in light of what has been going on with the other main Irish trainers this season.

Excluding O’Brien, 2017 has been one of the worst years in recent memory for Irish trainers winning good flat races in the UK. Consider the following table which totals the record of non-APOB Irish trainers in UK races worth £10,000 or more since 2011:

 

Irish Trainers in UK Flat Races worth £10,000 or more (excluding Aidan O’Brien)

Year Runners Winners Strikerate
2017 (to date) 4 69 5.8%
2016 7 156 4.5%
2015 17 158 10.8%
2014 21 135 15.6%
2013 17 150 11.3%
2012 21 135 15.6%
2011 11 101 10.9%

 

This season is far from over of course but with roughly two months of it left it is going to be a struggle to beat even last year’s total of seven winners which itself was well down on previous years. Even the quality of the four winners has been below-par; two were handicap winners, The Tartan Spartan at Salisbury in April and Thomas Hobson at Royal Ascot, while the other two were Ken Condon-trained winners on soft ground, Elusive Beauty at Carlisle and Success Days at York, hardly the most competitive contests.

One could ask what this has to do with events at home but I would counter quite a lot. Irish trainers have long gone to England for better opportunities with their best flat horses but if you can’t win at home you are unlikely to start looking away for possible targets. Perhaps the most revealing figure above is greatly reduced number of runners in the better UK races, just 69 so far in 2017 with the previous five seasons all comfortably breaking three figures. Some major Irish trainers haven’t even been trying in the UK this year with Dermot Weld and Jim Bolger being notably absent with one and four runners respectively.

It has been an entirely different story with O’Brien. As you can see below, his tally of UK runners continues to grow. He looks certain to outstrip his previous highs in terms of runners with the winner total likely to follow and the last two seasons have basically seen a 35% increase in the number of horses he runs in England. O’Brien seems to have more good horses than ever before and he needs to find more good races in which to place them.

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Aidan O’Brien in UK Flat Races worth £10,000 or more

Year Runners Winners Strikerate
2017 (to date) 96 17 17.7%
2016 108 22 20.4%
2015 59 9 15.3%
2014 64 8 12.5%
2013 69 11 15.9%
2012 62 12 19.4%
2011 68 13 19.1%

 

This would be less of a concern to the other main Irish trainers were they succeeding in battening down the hatches at home, maintaining levels of success for upcoming seasons when better horses come along. This has not been the case however. Here we have a table of O’Brien’s record in Irish group races over the past five years and note how not only his percentage of runners in these races has grown but also how his percentage of winners has gone into the stratosphere in 2017.

 

Aidan O’Brien in Irish Group Races

Year Runners in Irish Group Races Total Runners % Runners in Irish Group Races Winners in Irish Group Races Total Group Races Contested % Wins in Group Races Contested
2017 (to date) 100 375 26.7% 23 50 46.0%
2016 117 484 24.2% 24 66 36.3%
2015 84 481 17.5% 20 65 30.7%
2014 112 474 23.6% 23 63 31.7%
2013 98 460 21.3% 22 62 35.5%

 

The evidence again points to him becoming more dominant in terms of runners and winners but the question is where this improvement has come from. An obvious answer is that it is a by-product of a down year for Dermot Weld and he has just picked up the races that would typically go to Rosewell; but a barely remarked upon point has been the retirement of David Wachman and the relocating of the horses he had in training as well as the ones that might have been destined for his yard.

I’m sure there were a few trainers with Coolmore associations – Fozzy Stack and Joseph O’Brien perhaps – that might have hoped for some of those runners but all of them seem to have finished up in Ballydoyle. Wachman may have had a nightmare time in his final season, finishing twenty-fourth overall in the championship and having only 118 runners, but this was by no means a small operation: the previous three years yielded 261 runners (sixth overall), 265 runners (ninth) and 293 runners (fourth) respectively. Nor was Wachman short on quality, training the likes of Legatissimo, Curvy and Again in recent seasons.

So a good-sized yard with well-bred horses was basically subsumed into Ballydoyle over the winter with Winter herself the obvious standard-bearer. O’Brien has had some strong crops of juvenile fillies in recent campaigns but this season’s might be the deepest which makes sense if he has gotten extra inmates from Wachman; that trainer was often given a sizable number of well-bred Coolmore fillies and had a good record with them. Despite his skill with such runners, it is hardly unrealistic to expect O’Brien to extract more from them: not only is he a better trainer than Wachman, he is a better trainer than anyone else too.

All of this could lead to a record-breaking year for O’Brien in terms of prizemoney won in Ireland. Below is a table of prizemoney earned by the big four Irish trainers of O’Brien, Bolger, Lyons and Weld over the past five seasons. I’ve included a figure for each yard for the current season along with a projected total that they might reach. The projected figure is simply a fast and loose calculation that pro-rates what they have done already across the rest of the season; in a typical Irish flat season running March to October/November, there will be roughly 940 races and we have had 720 to this point so we are just past the three-quarters point of the season.

 

Trainer 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 (to date) 2017 Projected
A. O’Brien 3,867k 4,878k 4,039k 5,190k 4,619k 6,077k
J. Bolger 2,204k 1,556k 1,790k 1,711k 1,217 1,601k
G. Lyons 737k 935k 1,579k 1,324k 1,148 1,510k
D. Weld 1,345k 2,232k 2,298k 2,886k 752k 989k

 

Obviously these projections are subject to error as trainers like Weld that have done poorly up to now may improve over the final two months of the season while others could regress. But what they do reveal is that a €6 million figure is very much in play for O’Brien which would be more than €800,000 ahead of his previous best. Some of that might be down to prizemoney inflation in a rising economy but not all of it can be put down to that.

The vagaries of training race-horses means that their form ebbs and flows but the increase in the number of O’Brien runners suggests there could be something more going on as he takes his career up another level. Certainly a look at the top 20 flat horses in Ireland per Horse Racing Ireland’s race administration website is a sobering experience for other trainers; O’Brien trains 17 of them with the other three – Jet Setting, Awtaad and Heartbreak City – either retired or deceased.

So where is Irish flat racing as we go into Champions Weekend 2017? Weld has had a down year and Jim Bolger has basically spent recent seasons flat-lining in terms of achievement. The interesting one – and the one who has hardly been mentioned yet – is Ger Lyons. As a younger man, he might be more ambitious than Weld or Bolger and there is a chance that he finishes second overall this season though how meaningful that achievement would be can be questioned as it would have come when the usual runner-up Weld was having a bad time.

The reality is however that there is a ceiling on what he can achieve as his yard is currently constituted. Subjectively, I view him as at least as good a trainer as Weld and Bolger in how he goes about his business but he needs a major patron that can take him to the next level. That opportunity has not presented itself yet but a winner or two over Irish Champions Weekend would hardly do him any harm though the going will not be easy with O’Brien in total control. That said, owners doing shocking things and moving horses wholesale from champion yards is not unfamiliar in Irish racing; it was just that sort of seemingly crazy move that breathed life into a long-dormant jumps trainers’ title this past winter.

- Tony Keenan

Irish Champions Weekend: The British Are Coming

Irish Champions Weekend is rapidly becoming my favourite meeting of the year which is quite an achievement given its relative infancy and the place the likes of Galway and Cheltenham hold in my heart, writes Tony Keenan. As I’ve written before, the success of the weekend is dependent on the participation of the runners from overseas, and this year it seems likely we will have a few French runners with Almanzor and Qemah intended for the Champion and Matron Stakes respectively.

With the exception of the latter race, French raiders have been as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth lately, at least since John Hammond tried to win our Lincoln with Estrela Brage in 2008 only for the handicapper to lump him up 9lbs between declaration stage on Friday and post time; needless to say, there are no French entries in the handicaps for Irish Champions Weekend!

In the main, however, runners from outside Ireland over the weekend means UK-trained horses; and, having covered their record in Irish Group 1 races last year (you can read that article here), I decided I would dig deeper into their overall figures in the sorts of races that comprise Irish Champions Weekend specifically.

With the exception of the strangely anomalous maiden that opens the Leopardstown card on Saturday there are basically three types of races over the weekend: Group 1’s (of which there are five), lesser Group races (five) and valuable handicaps (four).

Defining a valuable handicap as one worth more than the equivalent of £25,000 to the winner, below is the record of UK runners by race type in Ireland since 2010 (all stats in this article refer to that timeframe).

A few readers – well one, in truth! – requested that I include some Impact Value numbers along with the usual actual over expected; for those that need a reminder, Impact Value is a figure that allows you to assess whether horses that meet specific criteria win more or less often than all horses meeting the criteria. In the first entry below, the Impact Value of UK horses in Irish Group 1’’s shows that they win 50% more often than randomness expected.

 

UK Runners in Ireland by Race Type (2010 – present)

Race Type Winners Runners Strikerate Level Stakes A/E IV
Group 1s 29 162 17.9% -20.90 0.99 1.50
Lesser Group Races 41 274 15.0% -52.98 0.82 1.10
Valuable Handicaps 18 203 8.9% -41.25 0.87 1.49

 

As we discovered last year, the raiders do well in the Group 1’s though the broad point about this needs to be made; raiders always do better than the home team, be they UK horses running in Ireland or the other way around. Trainer intent is perhaps the key here: you are not going to ship a horse abroad unless there is at least some expectation of success.

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I did try to crunch the numbers on how Irish horses were doing in the UK and vice versa in each of the seasons since 2010 but they didn’t reveal much of a relationship. In 2016, Irish runners are scoring in the UK at a rate of 61/382 (strikerate 16.0%, level-stakes loss of 57.96 points, A/E 0.98) while those coming the other way are 13/115 (strikerate 11.3%, level-stakes loss of 5.59 points, A/E 0.71).

The record of UK runners in valuable handicaps is half that of those in Group 1’s in terms of strikerate, but their Impact Value is comparable and it’s worth bearing in mind that the handicaps would have much larger field sizes.

The raiders do particularly well if we only look at sprint handicaps, defined as races between five and seven furlongs. Since 2010, they are 15/110 for a strikerate of 13.6%, a level-stakes profit of 33.75 points and an actual over expected of 1.34.

Their record is so striking that it can hardly be just a product of UK trainers being better with sprinters and there could be a handicapping issue at play here; just as Irish handicap hurdlers have their mark increased when running in UK races, perhaps UK sprinters need an extra penalty.

 

UK Runners in Ireland by Distance (2010 – present)

Race Distance Winners Runners Strikerate Level Stakes A/E IV
Sprints 67 441 13.2% +13.19 0.97 1.42
Mile 41 377 10.9% -181.02 0.75 1.21
Middle Distance 39 220 17.7% -32.39 1.02 1.89
Stayers 9 75 12.0% -26.97 0.95 1.31

 

Unsurprisingly, the raiders do well over the speed distances and while there was a brief renaissance of Irish sprinters (perhaps renaissance is the wrong word as there were few great Irish sprinters to start with!) earlier this decade through the likes of Sole Power, Slade Power, Gordon Lord Byron and Maarek, nothing has really stepped into the breach created by their retirements and/or regression.

UK horses clearly do very well at middle-distances and are decent with stayers though, as seen in my last article about trainers and trip preferences, they have to face off with the better Irish jumps trainers in those races. Their record at a mile is poor, astonishingly so in fact, and is their worst trip by a distance of ground. There is another pattern that stands out, with age, two-year-olds doing notably poorly relative to the other age groups:

 

UK Runners in Ireland by Age (2010 – present)

Age Winners Runners Strikerate Level Stakes A/E IV
2yos 17 169 10.1% -68.46 0.67 1.00
3yos 35 209 16.8% -43.13 0.98 1.68
4yos and older 104 735 14.2% -115.2 0.95 1.69

 

As for the record of various trainers, the table is below:

 

UK Runners in Ireland by Trainer (2010 – present)

Trainer Winners Runners Strikerate Level Stakes A/E
M Johnston 16 67 24.9% -1.03 1.05
K Ryan 9 70 12.9% -5.00 0.79
D Nicholls 8 24 33.3% +5.66 1.32
J Gosden 7 10 70.0% +9.21 2.08
B Ellison 6 40 15.0% +5.35 1.32
R Charlton 6 15 40.0% +4.53 1.40
M Channon 5 34 14.7% +14.71 1.20
Sir M Prescott 4 18 27.8% -6.32 1.05
R Fahey 4 68 5.88% -47.75 0.43
Sir M Stoute 4 11 36.7% +3.50 1.56

 

Mark Johnston tops the table in terms of raw number of winners but he and especially Kevin Ryan are volume trainers in terms of their Irish raiders, whereas John Gosden is more selective and his numbers are off the scale. Not only has he a 70% success rate but all ten of his runners came in Group 1 contests; he had only three runners last season but they produced Derby and Champion Stakes winners. At the time of writing, Gosden has four entries over the weekend with Persuasive in the Matron Stakes possibly the pick.

Roger Charlton is another with impressive Irish figures and he has already had a Group race winner at Leopardstown this year, courtesy of Decorated Knight. That one isn’t entered up and nor will Time Test take his chance in the Champion Stakes though Fair Eva may try to get back on track in the Moyglare. Of the rest, Brian Ellison deserves praise; his strikerate doesn’t match up with some of the more high-profile trainers but his runners tend to ply their trade in tougher races, all six of his winners coming in handicaps.

Of the 493 initial entries for the handicaps and Group races over Irish Champion Weekend, 142 are trained in UK. That’s a figure of 28.8% and if they win at a purely random rate there should be four UK-trained winners over the two days. However, these numbers suggest taking the over on that number and likely by quite a bit!

- Tony Keenan

Sat TV Trends: 7th Sept 2013

Haydock+Races+IINNIeu4atPl

A Big Day Up At Haydock On Saturday.......

Plenty going on this Saturday – Andy Newton’s got all the TV trends from Haydock, Ascot & Kempton, plus has also covered the Irish Champions Stakes…… Read more

Sat TV Trends: 9th Feb 2013

Newbury

Great Action At Newbury On Saturday

Plenty more Cheltenham clues on offer this weekend – Andy Newton’s got all the main races from Newbury, Warwick & Leopardstown covered for you...... Read more

Sat TV Trends: 29th Dec 2012

NewburyAnother busy Saturday with seven more LIVE C4 races from Newbury, Doncaster and Leopardstown - See all the races covered from a trends angle here.... Read more

Sat TV Trends: 8th Sept 2012

Andy Newton is on hand with the key trends from Haydock, Ascot, plus the Irish Champions Stakes at Leopardstown. Read more