Tag Archive for: Mark and Charlie Johnston

Racing Systems: All Weather Angles

In my previous article I explored the idea of using trainer systems in National Hunt racing, writes Dave Renham. This time I have turned my attention to the all-weather with a view to finding some more profitable trainer patterns.

As with the last piece I am going to look over the long term, studying UK racing trainer data from Jan 1st 2009 to Dec 31st 2021. If trainers have proved profitable over such a long timeframe then we should have more confidence that this will continue to happen. As ever, though, racing systems are only dealing with past results: those of us not blessed with clairvoyance cannot be sure of what will happen in the future!

OK, let's get to it.

Ralph Beckett – the ‘Blind’ system

Ralph Beckett is a trainer that I think punters in general underrate. Year in, year out he seems to produce the goods. He has good figures for turf racing, but on the all-weather they are even better. Indeed, let's start with possibly the simplest system one could create:

  1. Trainer Ralph Beckett
  2. All races on the all-weather

That’s it – bet every single Beckett runner on the sand. The graph below shows the yearly breakdown of Beckett's Return on Investment to Betfair SP.



The Kimpton, Hampshire-based trainer has enjoyed 11 winning years out of 13, with the losses in 2018 very small in reality. His strike rate has fluctuated a little as one might expect, ranging from a low of 10.4% in 2019 to as high as 23.7% in 2020. However, 2019 was the only year it dipped below 14.5% and in eight years the strike rate has exceeded 20%. The overall bottom line reads as follows:



That's extremely impressive at first glance. Things do need clarifying a touch, however, in that his profits have been helped by some big priced winners; but these winners actually occurred on a regular basis. Indeed, Beckett has had 45 winners priced at a BSP of 12.0 or bigger since 2009, with at least two such scorers annually, and the graph below shows how these have been spread out over the years:



Whenever we look at system results we need to ensure that random big-priced winners do not skew the overall results. This is a case where I believe random big-priced winners are not skewing the results but, instead, are a feature of the result set.

Another positive in terms of consistency is when we examine the individual course data. The table below gives us the Beckett breakdown for the six UK all-weather courses:



Strike rates are consistent across the piece, and all courses show a profit at Betfair SP. This reliability can also been seen when we break down results by month. Ten of the 12 calendar months have shown a profit as we can see:



December and January, peak all-weather season in fairness, are the only two negative months. Maybe it is a time of year that Beckett targets a little less. It is interesting that ‘returns’ wise Beckett has done particularly well in the spring and summer months, definitely something worth noting when most people's focus is on flat turf racing.

Some readers may not be comfortable betting all Beckett runners ‘blind’ so are there any additional rules we can add that do not smell of the dreaded back-fitting? Well, some kind of betting market rule may help, especially if you are concerned that the results are slightly skewed due to big-priced winners. If we add the following rule:

- stick to horses from the top five in the betting

This would cut the number of selections by around 350, increase the strike rate to 22.8% and keep profits relatively high – a profit to £1 level stakes of £291.23 (ROI +21.2%). The year by year returns retain their consistency, in fact 12 of the 13 years now show a profit using this market restriction.

All in all, if there is one all-weather trainer to keep on your side it is Ralph Beckett.

Let’s check out some other trainers now.


Hugo Palmer – the Market system

Hugo Palmer has a decent record on the sand since he started in 2011. If we use a market restriction we create a potential system to follow. The rules are:

  1. Trainer Hugo Palmer
  2. All races on the all-weather
  3. Top five in the betting.


Using the same market restriction I used with Beckett, Palmer’s overall figures look solid:



Using this top five in the betting rule once again means the figures are less skewed by big-priced winners, which as previously mentioned is important, but it also means we often cannot know the market rank of a runner unless it is near the very top of the betting or an outsider.

Breaking the figures down by year shows a fair amount of consistency. I have used profit figures to £1 level stakes to illustrate this:



Palmer incurred small losses in his first two seasons, but given he was still cutting his teeth in the game these can be forgiven. Since then there have been eight winning years out of nine. 2019 was a poor year but he did actually the post with several seconds that year and I think we can reasonably overlook that.

Looking at his course by course  data with runners in the top five of the betting, he has made profits at Kempton, Newcastle, Southwell and Wolverhampton; broke even at Chelmsford, and made a loss at Lingfield. Again, that's fair enough consistency.

There are other options in terms of adding system rules, but this Hugo Palmer system definitely has a decent chance to remain profitable for the near future at least. Hence no need for me to change to it. You may like to research further, however!


Mark Johnston – Older horses, lower class system

Mark Johnston has averaged about 400 runners per year on the all-weather in recent years and hence it gives us a huge sample size to break down. His annual strike rate has been super consistent in recent times hitting around the 15% mark every year:



Now, most top trainers in the country, like Johnston, tend to focus more on their younger horses as they are going to be the ones that are likely to have a chance at stud (and are not exposed as moderate or in the grip of the handicapper). It is noticeable that the runners Mark Johnston (and joint-licence holder son, Charlie) keeps in training past three years old perform well as a whole on the all-weather. They make up only 23% of his runners on the sand, but if backing all such runners (4yo and up) ‘blind’ they would have broken even over the past 13 years. The route to profit seems to be in lower class races, Class 5 or below. Hence the system reads:

  1. Trainer Mark (and Charlie) Johnston
  2. 4yo+ running on the all-weather
  3. Class 5, 6 or 7

Running older horses in lower class races is relatively rare for trainers like Johnston but the overall stats still look promising:



A good strike rate edging towards one win in four, and returns of 32p in the £ are appealing. Let's break the data down by year and, as always, we are looking for consistency. The graph uses profit figures to £1 level stakes:



Overall there have been decent results across the piece, with just three losing years. 2020 could have been impacted by COVID so that is something that potentially we might take into account. Another positive is that in the same time frame this ‘system’ would have made a profit for Johnston in turf flat racing too; not as big a profit, but a positive return nonetheless. Hence I am hopeful that this angle should offer a good chance of making further profits in the future.


Charles Hills – Fancied Males system

It should be noted that male horses outperform female ones on the all-weather, with overall figures for all horses from all trainers seeing males win 11.8% of the time, females only 9.1%. There is a much bigger discrepancy though when you look at the runners of Charles Hills splitting them by gender. His male runners have won 19.3% of the time, whereas female runners have triumphed just 11.4% of the time. Hence the Hills gap looks extremely significant.

So here is another potential system in which we are using a limited number of rules. Again I want to implement the same market rule as I have used previously to avoid the bigger-priced winners skew dilemma. Hence our system reads:

  1. Trainer Charles Hills
  2. All races on the all-weather
  3. Top five in the betting
  4. Male horses only

His results, like Hugo Palmer’s, only go back to 2011 but the basic figures look strong:



He has seen a good strike rate as you would expect with a system that uses market factors as one of its rules. Decent returns, too, of around 26p in the £.

Once again though we need to look at the yearly data in a bid to establish consistency. Broken down this time by BSP ROI%:



2011 looks bad but he had only six runners in that first season with a licence, and all lost, hence the -100% ROI. We can see a subsequent steady improvement over time with 2012 to 2014 essentially breaking even, while every year from 2015 to 2021 has ended up with positive returns.

I had a sneaky look at his results so far in 2022, and at the time of writing (7th March), the system has generated 20 qualifiers, 10 of which have won (SR 50%) showing a BSP profit of £15.31 (ROI +76.55%). The signs remain very promising.

The beauty of all-weather racing is that it happens all year round and hence these four systems can potentially be exploited regardless of whether the main focus is on National Hunt or flat turf racing: we can just carry on finding nice winners on the sand!


That's all for this article. If you have any system ideas you’d like me to investigate, please leave a comment below.

- DR

Johnstons on the mark as Golden Sands strikes

Golden Sands gained a small piece of racing history at Wolverhampton on Monday when becoming the first winner registered as trained by Charlie and Mark Johnston.

With the new partnership having to start life from zero, they have a huge act to follow given nobody in the history of UK racing has trained as many winners as Mark Johnston – 4,874.

Charlie’s role within the business has been well known for many years and he has been a fixture on racecourses in recent seasons in his role as his assistant trainer.

With a change in the rules allowing two names on a licence recently, the Johnstons decided now was the time to make the change.

This was their second day under the new dual licence but they had been out of luck with their first two runners at Newcastle on Sunday.

Having had to settle for second with their first runner on Monday, Achnamara 30 minutes earlier, there was little doubt Golden Sands was going to go one better in the Play Coral Racing-Super-Series For Free Handicap.

Bounced out of the stalls by old ally Joe Fanning, nothing ever looked like reeling in the 9-4 favourite – who had been available at 16-1 overnight.

Charlie Johnston told Sky Sports Racing: “It’s certainly one for the statisticians. It’s a big change but at the same time nothing has changed at all – but it’s great to get it on the board after having gone close in the race before.

“On the day-to-day of running things at home, I’ve been heavily involved for a long time now. It’s what I’ve been working towards throughout and when they brought in those joint-licences a couple of seasons ago it was an obvious stepping stone for us in between his licence and mine. And it’s good to get on the board.

“I thought he was too big a price last night and too short a price at the off but he’s always been physically a nice horse and has worked well. He was too wound up for his own good last year. I think the gelding (operation) has made a big difference to him and the step up in trip. Hopefully, he can progress from there.

“Joe Fanning has been riding from about the time I was born. I think him and dad have had over 1,000 winners and that is number one for us.

“I’m 4,873 behind. I’m on the way, at least.”

Monday Musings: A Quick Look Back Before We Advance

With Boxing Day falling on a Sunday this festive season, the adjustments to the official handicap ratings for the entire Christmas to New Year period will be eagerly awaited by trainers and owners tomorrow (Tuesday) morning, writes Tony Stafford. I’d love to see the two-mile chase handicapper take full and realistic account of Shishkin after his flawless reappearance run at Kempton.

Equally, I’d expect him to allow him to take up the engagement in the Clarence House Stakes at Ascot, the sole early-closing UK jumps race in the coming three weekends, on January 22.

Nicky Henderson, having been vindicated by his decision to abort plans for the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown last month as Shishkin was not ready in favour of Kempton’s Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase on the second day of the Christmas meeting, now faces another conundrum.

“Do we avoid Ascot and a pre-Cheltenham encounter with Energumene?” will be Henderson’s question as he ponders whether to take on Willie Mullins’ unbeaten chaser who had been equally silky on his return in another Grade 2 race, the Hilly Way, at Cork earlier last month.

Shishkin’s disdainful mastery of Tingle Creek winner Greaneteen and Bryony Frost last week was so emphatic that Mullins’ comment that Energumene will take his place in the Ascot field so early in the piece might have been a tactic to try to inject a shade of uncertainty in the Henderson psyche.

The Ascot race, initially a handicap sponsored by Victor Chandler, had its reputation immediately cemented in 1989 when Desert Orchid won the first running under 12st, getting up late under Simon Sherwood to deny Panto Prince who received 22lb. The valiant grey got up having lost the lead when making a rare mistake at the final fence.

That contest is sure to figure high up among the many memories for Desert Orchid’s trainer David Elsworth, who recently announced his retirement after an outstanding career as a dual-purpose handler spanning half a century.

In its handicap years two other top two-milers to grace its honours board were Waterloo Boy and Well Chief, but when it became a Grade 1 conditions event, the quality rose to the top. Fields were small from the outset but most of the true greats of two-mile chasing were directed there and usually won the race.

Paul Nicholls, as with most steeplechases of the modern era has been a leading light, firstly with two wins by Master Minded , whose second triumph in 2011 was by the then minimum short-head in the face of a flying finish from Somersby, trained by Best Mate’s handler Henrietta Knight and ridden by Bryony’s elder brother, Hadden Frost.

In 2008, Hadden, in his time as a flat-race apprentice with Richard Hannon, and still with a 5lb allowance, won a claiming race at Lingfield for Raymond Tooth with a filly called La Colombina. Hadden had his best season with 32 the previous season and another 18 including La Colombina in 2008.

With increasing weight taking over – he already had a first jumps success before Ray’s winner - he quickly showed that father Jimmy’s talent had been safely passed on. That second place on Somersby came in the second of six consecutive seasons when he made double figures before retirement.

Bryony had her first rides in 2012-13 and for the last five campaigns she has clocked up between 36 and 50 wins every year, standing on 36 so needing 15 more by the end of April to achieve a career best.

She will have been hoping for one of the major wins associated with the Nicholls stable over the holiday period. While that didn’t work out, she clearly has the trainer’s full confidence to the extent that she shares almost equal standing in the Ditcheat team with stable jockey Harry Cobden.

Let us return to the Ascot race. After Master Minded, the next big name was the peerless Sprinter Sacre, a 1/5 chance when the race had to be transferred to Cheltenham in 2013. The oddity was that Sprinter Sacre and his equally lauded stablemate Altior each won it only once. Altior’s victory came three years ago as a 10-1 on shot in a three-horse race.

Gary Moore’s Sire De Grugy was the intervening horse between Sprinter Sacre and the race’s most prolific hero Un De Sceaux, three times a winner for Willie Mullins and even as an 11-year-old in 2020 good enough to share favouritism with Defi Du Seuil and finish runner-up as the Philip Hobbs star won his second consecutive Clarence House.

Last year it was Defi Du Seuil’s time, as sure as the years turn, to pass on the baton, this time to Kim Bailey’s First Flow while he, Defi, laboured home in fifth.

Un De Sceaux won 23 of his 34 career starts and considering his class and admirable durability, has a very proletarian pedigree. His sire is the little-known French-bred and -raced high-class hurdler Denham Red. That horse’s sire Pampabird never raced but his paternal grandsire Pampapaul certainly did. A top Irish juvenile, winner of among others the National Stakes for Sir Noel Murless’ younger brother Stuart, he was a classic winner at three.

Pampapaul sprang a major surprise when defeating subsequent Epsom Derby hero The Minstrel, and earlier Newmarket 2,000 victor Nebbiolo (from The Minstrel), in the Irish 2,000 Guineas.

More pertinently for the present day, and no doubt a factor in Willie Mullins’ admiration of him before he joined the team, is that he is also the sire of Energumene.  So we’re in for a treat. Here we have two horses with unblemished chase records at a similar stage of their development, each with one overall defeat on his card, facing up. Pistols at dawn: who will blink first? Is it too good to be true?

Encouragingly, neither trainer, unusually for Mullins at any rate, has an alternative at the initial entry stage. It cost £150 and to run it’s another £600, fair enough for the £160k prize which brings £85,000 to the winner.

But there is a supplementary on the Monday, so two weeks from today, and that will set back any takers £5,000. With a chance of either of the big two’s standing aside, it was sensible to sit back and wait as that sort of equation might be worth chancing.

I began by musing whether Shishkin’s rating will have been altered after Kempton. He went into the race 2lb higher than Greaneteen – 169 to 167 – and was receiving 3lb. I would expect a rise but knowing official handicappers’ propensity to fudge, would not be shocked if he gave him 171, the same as Energumene.

Already after only a nascent chase career, that figure puts the young Irish horse within 1lb of Un De Sceaux. I believe Shishkin has the potential to eclipse his brilliant predecessors Sprinter Sacre and Altior. I just cannot get out of my mind the way he gathers and then finds extra pace and strength to dominate his opponents in the closing stages.

Nicky had a great holiday, also winning the Christmas Hurdle emphatically on King George Day with 2020 Champion, Epatante. The re-match with unbeaten Honeysuckle is another to savour.

Honeysuckle did not appear over the holiday period so remains blissfully unbeaten and a sure-fire favourite to defend her title in ten weeks’ time – yes that’s all it is! But some of her prime Henry De Bromhead stablemates did appear and after the eclipse of Minella Indo at Kempton, A Plus Tard’s position as Gold Cup favourite is far less secure after his last-stride defeat by Gordon Elliott’s Galvin in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown.

While Elliott (15 wins from 94 runners) and Mullins (23 from 81) have been cleaning up over the past two weeks, De Bromhead has had the paltry return of just four wins from 74 runners. Envoi Allen did scrape home less than impressively dropped in grade and distance at Leopardstown but hardly enhanced his reputation either.

In mitigation, only three of the 74 started favourite, but it doesn’t take long for the betting public and more pertinently the people who frame the odds on which their bets are based to sense a problem. Watch, if not this space, certainly the day-to-day progress of a man who has performed, along with stable jockey Rachael Blackmore, the training equivalent of a miracle to join the big time so quickly and effectively.

As perhaps Henry is beginning to discover It is one thing to get up there, quite another to continue to repel the legions of expensively-acquired and brilliantly-prepared horses that the two incumbent top table teams can throw into the action year on year.

In the UK the news of Charlie Johnston’s now sharing the licence to train at Kingsley House, Middleham, alongside rather than assisting father Mark, certainly surprised me, but equally obviously, as most of the coverage suggested, nothing will change save the letter headings.

Certainly I do not anticipate any reduction in the flow of winners with what is nowadays the routine target for the team of 200 a season. It’s an amazing record and while Mark alone will never make the 5000 winners we thought was inevitable, it is equally unlikely that anyone will beat his score for many years to come.

Kingsley House is a remarkable operation and not least for one fact I’ve never forgotten of what Alan Spence, a long-standing owner, told me one day. He said: “I was telling <trainer A> that Mark is my cheapest trainer in terms of cost. He/she <so no clue there either!> said what are you talking about? He charges £xxx a day, much more than me!”

“I replied, yes, and when I get his invoice every month, even if a horse of mine had to have an expensive operation, it’s all on one line – everything included. When I get yours it runs to four pages with all the extras!”

Good luck to the new team, well actually the old team, not forgetting the wonderful Deirdre. So it’s Happy New Year especially to them, but also everyone else who takes the time to read these words.

- TS