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Monday Musings: Never Say No Nay Never

I happened to call Wesley Ward on Friday, writes Tony Stafford. The California-based Royal Ascot juvenile specialist trainer was typically bullish about having a half-sister of his brilliant Queen Mary/ King’s Stand speedball Lady Aurelia ready to make the trip to the meeting in June.

Indeed, after Lady Pauline’s near 10-length debut Keeneland win on dirt a week before our chat, he is even considering aiming the Munnings filly at the newly-branded Trials Day at Ascot on May 1. A £9,000 winner’s prize for the five-furlong conditions race might not be much of a financial draw but the chance to give this precocious filly a sight of the track is something he is trying to sell to connections.

Wesley was also understandably bullish about No Nay Never, his easy 2013 Norfolk Stakes winner at the meeting. Few horses better illustrate the topsy-turvy world of international bloodstock than No Nay Never, originally sold as a foal at Keeneland for $170,000 on 11/11/11 (any significance there?) but picked up at the same venue the following September for only $95,000.

Since then it’s been a case of an upward course all the way. Ward raced him only six times in all, going unbeaten at two at Keeneland, Ascot and in the Group 1 Prix Morny at Deauville. He stayed in the US at three, winning a Grade 3 at Keeneland in between second places at Gulfstream Park (Grade 2) and in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) when Frankie Dettori joined forces with the trainer.

Dettori, associated with around half of Lady Aurelia’s career, John Velazquez stepping in when the Italian had to miss Ascot in 2017, will be hoping to jump up on Lady Pauline. Lady Aurelia had a similar winning juvenile start as No Nay Never, at Keeneland, Royal Ascot (Queen Mary, by seven lengths!) and the Morny.

No Nay Never’s first-season exploits as a Coolmore stallion were so exceptional that his stud fee for 2019 has been quadrupled to €100,000, from €25,000 last year, and Wesley, who has an interest in the stallion, is understandably delighted that the colt he put on the path to the top has done so well.

There was a non-Coolmore No Nay Never colt on view in the Naas opener on Saturday and it would not have upset Ireland’s premier stud that Ming Warrior, a €75,000 yearling, bred incidentally by Anne-Marie O’Brien and trained by the talented Michael O’Callaghan, could fare no better than second.

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The winner, ridden by Ryan Moore, was the Aidan-trained and Coolmore (plus Peter Brant)-owned Monarch Of Egypt, the first son of US Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to make the track. The winning margin for the odds-on chance was close to three lengths.

The name of the game is producing stallions so the fact that American Pharoah was off the bat straight away will have been a source of much joy. Equally the Lads would not have minded that when Highland Chief, Gleneagles’ initial runner, also won on debut at Newbury the previous day, it was in Mrs Fitri Hay’s colours, especially as the Hays are well-established associates of the team.

Highland Chief’s SP of 16-1, despite his being in the care of Paul Cole, one of the all-time skilled handlers of juveniles was a big surprise. I realise it’s a long time ago, but when Cole gets a good horse he exploits its talents to the full. I well remember when he won three major two-year-old races at the 1991 Royal meeting all for the late Prince Fahd Salman. Magic Ring won the Norfolk, Dilum the Coventry and Fair Cop the Chesham. The last-named obviously has no connection with the filly of the same name that runs this afternoon at Windsor for Andrew Balding. She could well win.

Another more than shrewd participant in various areas of the industry is the veteran jockey John Egan, now 50 but well-established as a pin-hooker par excellence as well as father of the brilliant young rider David Egan.

Egan Sr. has been honing the talents of his US-bred pin-hooks, colts by American Pharoah and War Front (this one out of Coolmore notable, Quarter Moon) in preparation for this week’s Tattersalls Craven Breeze-Up and his investments of respectively $350,000 and $400,000 could well be lavishly repaid, with many of the big hitters expected to be around.

He was justifiably thrilled that Monarch Of Egypt has already made it to the track, emphasising a potential precocity in the breed, a remark that goes too for the progeny of Gleneagles when they turn up at Breeze-Up sales this spring and early summer.

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There was a nice result in the Coral Scottish National on Saturday when the Nicky Richards-trained Takingrisks won the £122,000 first prize under Sean Quinlan by four lengths from Crosspark. Before the race Richards had pointed out that his 10-year-old had form on good ground – even though his preceding win at Carlisle had been on heavy! – and that he would get the four-mile trip.

With five non-runners from the original 28-horse acceptance because of the fast surface, it was something of a surprise that Takingrisks started at as big a price as he did, and for the last mile of the marathon he was always going like the probable winner.

Richards afterwards spoke emotionally about the fact that there are trainers in the north of England perfectly capable of competing with their relatively better-off southern counterparts and with some pride that Takingrisks’ owner, Frank Bird, is based down the road from Richards’ Greystoke stables in Cumbria.

I do a daily early-morning job (needs must!) compiling the thoughts of around a dozen trainers on a web site and Nicky is one of them. Apart from being unbelievably frank and accurate about his horses, he can come up with the funniest remarks. I could not have been happier when Takingrisks won, although I must admit to having a small each-way bet while at Newbury on seventh-placed 40-1 shot Red Infantry. Hill’s paid each-way first six. Plus ca change! (sorry no cedilla!)

To give an illustration of Richards’ frankness, I recall his comments about Glinger Flame before that horse’s recent handicap debut at Hexham. The horse had been beaten a couple of times when “expected” for decent novices while appearing not to go through fully with his effort. Nicky said “I never like to call a horse ungenuine…” leaving little doubt that he feared internally he might be.

Different tactics were employed, along with first-time cheek-pieces, in an attempt to find the key and Glinger Flame won by 18 lengths. Wisely Nicky is not letting him back into another handicap, for which he would be 16lb higher after that romp, but instead allows him to carry a penalty in the opener there today. Wise indeed. No wonder he’s long odds-on despite the 13-runner field.

- Tony Stafford

Irish Trainers: The New Breed

Jet Setting has planted Adrian Keatley front and centre

Jet Setting has planted Adrian Keatley front and centre

The New Breed: Irish Flat Trainers on the Up

It wasn’t quite Leicester winning the Premier League in terms of fans wanting to see someone other than their own come home in front, writes Tony Keenan. But Awtaad’s 2,000 Guineas win for Kevin Prendergast was one of those rare racing moments when punters were happy to see their bet beaten: the veteran trainer is about as likeable and well-respected a person as there is in the Irish flat game.

But Irish Guineas weekend wasn’t just a story of an older handler regaining past glories; it was also a tale of three less experienced trainers coming to the fore. They are:

 

Adrian Keatley

Prior to Sunday, Adrian Keatley was best known for winning moderate races at Ayr - exploiting my long held belief that a bad Irish flat horse is [slightly, but materially] better than a bad English one - and was gaining a reputation for placing his runners well in races they could win. Indeed, his record at Ayr is impressive, winning 12 times from 31 runners before Monday for a strike rate of 38.7% and a level stakes profit of nearly 47 points, admirable figures considering he has only 27 career wins to his name.

In this approach, he is mirroring Gordon Elliott over jumps who targets his lesser horses at lower grade UK races; indeed, Keatley is on record as saying that he modelled his methods on Elliott. But the pair have more in common than that as the best context for Jet Setting’s win in the 1,000 Guineas on Sunday is Silver Birch’s Grand National win of 2007. Not only did both horses begin their careers in other yards, but both were sent out by trainers wildly inexperienced in campaigning runners at that sort of level.

And while Keatley’s case is not quite as marked as Elliott’s (he famously hadn’t even trained a winner in Ireland before Silver Birch), he had zero practice in training a Group 1 horse before Jet Setting. In his career, he had saddled only a single runner at Group level and four at Listed class while his best horses – Athas An Bhean, Anonymous Lady and Manny Owens – were rated no higher than 89.

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Jet Setting was a triumph on every level: for the bloodstock agents who bought her so cheaply; for the connections who gambled not once but twice in supplementing her into a Group class; and, obviously, for the trainer who had her ready to beat Minding, already a three-time Group 1 winner and regarded as the best filly of her generation.

Group 1 races at a mile are ultra-competitive and they tend not to be won by anything other than major trainers, whereas big sprints like the Nunthorpe and Abbaye have presented the opportunity for smaller owners to get in on the act but not the events over further.

Nor is Keatley happy to rest on his laurels with Jet Setting as he already has a couple of North American races in mind for her. As yet, his backers tend to be a mix of minor owners and syndicates so it will be interesting to see if he can generate more support as a result of this. His immediate concern may however be G Force, who runs in the same colours as Jet Setting for the Equine Growth Partners Syndicate. Improving a horse out of the Hannon yard is one thing, David O’Meara quite another!

 

Michael O’Callaghan

It was perhaps lost in the buzz surrounding Prendergast and Keatley but Michael O’Callaghan had a pretty good Guineas weekend, too, sending out the third place finisher in both classics, albeit at a respectful distance to the winners. The important thing about Blue De Vega and Now Or Never is the colours they run in, those of Qatar Racing, and the young trainer has done very well to get such a major ownership concern into the yard at this early stage,  especially as they have juveniles in training at Crotanstown as well as the horses they bought into after showing early promise.

O’Callaghan is a modern trainer, skilled in the media game, savvy on social media and polished with the press. He’s not afraid to engage in PR exercises either and while the use of Kieren Fallon as stable jockey is clearly more than just a stunt, it has generated a lot of column inches for the yard, some of it probably disproportionate given the size of the string

Over the past days, the former champion has been the subject of a number of major profiles in the national media with O’Callaghan getting plenty of coverage in the process. Having Fallon on the ground at a stable has to be a plus but the chances are this ends in tears if the past is anything to judge it on; but by then everyone will know Michael O’Callaghan’s name.

One area where O’Callaghan seems to have slightly altered his methods in 2016 is in bringing his runners along more slowly than in previous seasons. Both Blue De Vega and Now Or Never improved for their first outing of the year and that’s been a case across the string; judging by Racing Post Ratings, the average improvement from first to second run this term was 8.7 pounds. He’s training them for the long game and that makes sense; the last thing a trainer wants to be is another Paul Deegan, winning everything on Lincoln day and the three weeks afterwards when people are still focussing on the jumps and hardly being heard of for the rest of the year.

While only training since 2012, O’Callaghan has already built a decent brand. However, there is a suspicion that his reputation outstrips his production at this point. That said, there is more to running a training business than simply having winners; Gigginstown might use performance-related criteria when divvying up their horses but not every owner does and O’Callaghan has done really well in getting some big names through the door.

 

Willie McCreery

He doesn’t have the hype surrounding him as the others, perhaps because he’s been around for longer, but Willie McCreery is a trainer of substance and he landed a double on Guineas Saturday that included a Group 2 win for Devonshire. He started training in 2008 and since then his number of winners has risen steadily, breaking the twenty win barrier in each of the past three seasons. 2016 looks like it could be a career best campaign as he not only has 11 winners already on the board but he is also operating at a strike rate of 19%, markedly higher than a previous best of 12%.

Devonshire is a filly and McCreery has done particularly well with fillies, Fiesolana the chief feather in his cap over the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Indeed, her campaigning was a thing of beauty, beginning on an Irish mark of 93, winning six times for the yard, culminating in a Matron Stakes victory. Billy Lee was on board Fiesolana for much of her Irish career and if McCreery is the most progressive flat trainer around, then Lee is the most improved rider. He garners very little attention with an accent almost as bad as my own (!!) but he has developed into an excellent jockey and one that can be trusted on the big day.

As I covered in my Grading the Flat Trainers piece last autumn, McCreery had more premier handicap winners than anyone else in Ireland last year (four) and it wasn’t as if he lucked into a single well-handicapped horse that went on a sequence. Rather he won those races with four different horses (three of them fillies, perhaps not coincidentally) and he went close to landing another on Sunday with Champagne Or Water. These races are a proper test of a trainer as they are seriously competitive with an average of 14 runners last year.

Some of the bigger owners have started to come on board with McCreery. Sheikh Mohammed had his first runner with the stable in 2013 before using the Godolphin moniker the following year and the returns have been good, the trainer/owner combo with a strike rate of 19%. And it’s not as if McCreery has been getting their absolute bluebloods: Raconteur, at 200,000 guineas, is the most expensive Godolphin horses he’s trained which, by their standards, is not an extravagant purchase. That may change now, especially in light of Devonshire’s win at the weekend, a win which should be viewed as a success for the trainer as much as for the filly. She was readied for a race when the clear form pick, Lucida, wasn’t ready and took full advantage. That’s the sort of training and placing you want on your side.

- Tony Keenan

It’s Now or Never for Fallon

Monday musings

By Tony Stafford

You wait for the trigger moment and then the story unfolds. It did for me this morning at precisely 4.42 a.m. after 40 minutes’ musing, or rather agonising.

Would I major on the 2016 Classic picture, projecting on from events at Newmarket last weekend and Chester and Ireland over the past few days? Any such concentration would have the Ballydoyle (and as time unravels, Piltown) operations at the centre.

But I’ll come (briefly) to the US Army Ranger/ Port Douglas ruminations later in the piece and the implications of a second Group 1 Aidan O’Brien 1-2-3 with Minding, Ballydoyle and Alice Springs in the 1,000 Guineas after a similar outcome to last year’s Moyglare.

It was reverting back to the latter race last September when the idea for this week’s offering took shape as that day Now Or Never had finished an unexpectedly-disappointing last of ten for highly-admired young trainer Michael O’Callaghan.

Yesterday at Leopardstown, filly and trainer made a huge leap into the consciousness of Irish racing with an emphatic success in the Derrinstown Stud Irish 1,000 Guineas Trial stakes, maybe helped by the absence of any of the leading Coolmore lights.

But for me the main story was the identity of the jockey. On the same day that Mark Todd, 60, rode his own horse clear show jumping to clinch fourth in the Badminton Horse Trials, another equestrian veteran was in the winner’s enclosure at Leapardstown.

Now 51, Kieren Fallon can never get away from the “Marmite” tag. You either love him or you hate him. Some of his time in Newmarket could be described as tempestuous with late (or even non-) arrivals at the track a commonplace.

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From the late 1990’s he occupied for a time three highly-coveted stable jobs. The appointment to the late Sir Henry Cecil stable in 1997 caused great comment at the time, when Henry initially described him as a “very hard worker”.

It was during the Cecil years that I first got to know him quite well as I dovetailed my Daily Telegraph work with some advisory stuff for Prince Ahmed Salman’s Thoroughbred Corporation, who had several good horses at Warren Place.

I’ll never forget the 1999 Derby won by Oath. In those days videos of races were relatively expensive and certainly a bind to get hold of from Racecourse Technical Services, so in the euphoria of success the Prince got me to ask the TV people if they would let him have a copy.

Waiting in the booth next to the Epsom car park, I had a leisurely look at all angles of the race, and can still picture the head-on which showed just how beautifully-balanced Fallon kept his horse, with his own head a few inches to the outside of the horse to counteract the camber.

Kieren rode 200 winners and more five times and collected six UK riding championships, yet the Cecil stint ended immediately after the King George in 1999 where Oath was unplaced. The atmosphere in the box was weird, hardly anyone showing up, much to the confusion of myself and racing manager Willie Carson, and headlines in the following morning’s News of the World, while probably inaccurate as far as Fallon was concerned, explained the forthcoming breach.

In the early 2000’s Fallon was snapped up by Sir Michael Stoute, but after several owners expressed their misgivings about the jockey, the agreement lapsed. Still he later rode two Derby winners for Stoute, Kris Kin and North Light, but as a freelance. His UK Classic haul also features four Oaks wins, and five and four in the 2,000 and 1,000 Guineas.

After Stoute and some more disciplinary issues, Fallon gravitated to his native land as stable jockey at Ballydoyle. While not proving such a lavish source in numerical terms, the 2005-7 seasons brought 57, 53 and 24 domestic wins, when Fallon was the regular jockey on Dylan Thomas, Holy Roman Emperor, Hurricane Run and George Washington among others.

I remember seeing him close up before the 2007 Arc which he won on Dylan Thomas, but only after a stewards’ decision to keep the race that seemed to flow fully in the face of the usual French harsh line on jockey infringements. As Michael Tabor philosophically recalled seven years later after the same panel of officials threw out Gleneagles’ Group 1 win on Arc day: “I guess we owed them one after Dylan Thomas!”

Fallon seemed preoccupied that day and no wonder as a long ban was imminent for further misdemeanours. He had been riding in Ireland during 2007 while under a UK ban and rode in neither country the following year.

Back as freelance in the UK in 2010, Fallon rode 140 winners and followed with 154 the following season, riding for such as Luca Cumani, William Haggas, Brian Meehan and some of his old connections from his days in the north. Then it was 87, 62 and 62 again two years ago, before a virtual halt and some time spent in the US last year and over the past winter.

One of the best bits of the Racing Post site, apart from all the stats, without which I’d never post an article, is the revelation of the lowest riding weight of the past 12 months. Fallon must have been getting one thing right in the States, as he is listed as having ridden at 8st1lb!

In that case, at 51, you’d think he’d have descended into a wizened old man, but when I bumped into him at Chester last week I thought he looked the best he’d ever been, with a broad smile and fresh face. He duly went out and won on Ian Williams’ Sir Maximilian, much to the delight of the many people who’d cheered and on the odd occasion – like the controversial Top Cees Chester Cup – booed him past the post over the years.

One thing I can say about Fallon is that when I’ve been around he’s never jumped off a horse and maligned him. Many top jockeys after a poor run would say to the owner: “He’s useless, get rid of him”, but Kieren always tries to look for a positive.

After his latest US sabbatical, few would have expected him to pitch up in Ireland, but pitch up he did with O’Callaghan. His first win for the trainer came with Approcailis at Dundalk last month and Now Or Never is their second together. So far he’s had 54 rides for four wins, while a few forays back over here have brought three more. O’Callaghan, interviewed recently, went up in my estimation when far from agreeing he’d done Fallon a favour, expressed his delight to have secured the services of such a brilliant rider.

Yesterday at Leopardstown was Kieren’s first winner on that track since partnering O’Brien’s 1-2 shot Rectify to an easy win in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial five years ago to the day. Between 2011 and last year, that was his sole win from only five rides in his native land. Maybe Now Or Never can dent the supremacy of the Ballydoyle team and challenge for a place at least in the Irish 1,000 later in the month.

I know most people were of the opinion that if Seamie Heffernan had sneezed in the latter stages of the Chester Vase, he would have retrieved the lead and victory from stablemate US Army Ranger. But he definitely gave the horse two decent cracks in the last furlong, to which the horse responded with a movement left and might have banged the eventual winner had he repeated the dose.

At 20-1 Port Douglas looks the one for place betting with his uncomplicated running style and guaranteed stamina, but Aidan clearly believes there’s plenty of improvement to come from the other Galileo chap, so why should we doubt him?

Grading The Trainers – Irish Flat Season 2015 Review

Racing is an unusual sport, the winners emerging throughout the season rather than solely at the end, and while there are a few cards left to be played over Champions Day and the Breeders’ Cup, now is a fair time to take a broad view of the Irish flat campaign. The flat calendar comprises around 1,000 races and as of this weekend there are just 80 left to be run with the Pattern basically complete, there being only one group race remaining.

To grade trainers on what they achieve relative to each other is a pointless task; Aidan O’Brien would be an A almost every year with a sliding scale after him and you’d end up producing a slightly altered version of the trainers’ championship. But there is more at play here than mere numbers and different standards apply to different trainers, so sometimes the best barometer for a trainer is themselves and what they have previously achieved.

There are a few criteria at play in my analysis. Numbers matter but they’re not the only thing. Group races matter, especially Group 1’s and, further to that, the handling and placing of key horses is huge. Big meetings, particularly Galway, matter whereas Roscommon on a summer Monday barely registers. Premier handicaps matter as they’re often the best measure of a trainer who doesn’t have a host of blue bloods.

 

Aidan O’Brien – Grade: B

2015 has been a curate’s egg for O’Brien. His best horse Gleneagles exemplified this, going through the top three-year-old mile races unbeaten before drawing plenty of ire for a trio of high-profile defections from the Sussex, International and Irish Champion Stakes. His legacy remains up in the air and one wonders if he might even stay in training at four in a bid to get his ground.

O’Brien’s record in domestic Group races has continued to be strong:

Trainers in Irish Group Races – 2015

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/
Expected
A O’Brien 80 20 25.0% +19.51 1.19
D Weld 42 10 23.8% -12.76 0.98
J Bolger 49 5 10.2% +15.11 0.67
G Lyons 27 4 14.8% -10.62 1.14
E Lynam 13 3 23.1% +5.50 1.37

 

A notable feature here – and one punters are likely thankful for – is the positive actual over expected return which is meaningful too as there is a decent sample size; that’s unusual given the typical profile of the yard’s runners and might have something to do with the jockey confusion during the year. Things started with Ryan Moore then Joseph stepped in with a healthy dose of Heffernan and O’Donoghue mixed through as weights dictated.

Of course O’Brien is not judged on pattern race winners but on Group 1s and particularly the Derby. In that regard, he failed in 2015. Despite seeming to have a strong hand going into the winter, ten lengths was the closest his main representative Giovanni Canaletto could get to the winner at Epsom and

the Curragh. Neither John F Kennedy nor Ol’ Man River came close to delivering on their potential, hardly running to better than 100 in seven combined starts.

Found too was a disappointment. The best of her generation at two when she beat Ervedya (a three-time Group 1 winner in 2015), she has managed just a single Group 3 win in a three-runner race this season, leaving the impression of unfulfilled potential. She certainly suffers by comparison with Ervedya though she did run with credit against the boys in the Irish Champion.

Perhaps the high point of O’Brien’s season was the second day of Irish Champions Weekend where he landed a big race treble with Minding, Air Force Blue and Order Of St George; and an underrated aspect of his 2015 was a marked uptick in his record with jumpers, particularly bumper horses. Since the start of the 2015/16 national hunt season, his runners have hit at 31%; regardless of who is training them, that’s an impressive strikerate.

It would be remiss not to mention the difficult circumstances O’Brien has faced this year with rumours circulating about his future at Ballydoyle, rumours he has dealt with in a dignified manner. Such speculation will always be part of this sort of position but to mention the likes of David O’Meara in the same breath is doing O’Brien a significant disservice; he has achieved too much for that. And with three juvenile Group 1s already in the bag and the chance of two more this weekend, it’s likely he’ll be achieving more of the same next year.

 

Dermot Weld – Grade: C+

Had this piece been written in late April, then Weld would have been a clear A+ but the road is long and he may have shot his bolt too early though in his defence the trainer did state he had a team of soft ground horses that needed to be out early.

But overall this has been a moderate season for Weld - Free Eagle just about rescuing it at Royal Ascot – and I have long thought that he doesn’t win enough Group 1s given the quality he has in his yard. The placing of high-profile horses is vital to rating a trainer and the call to run Free Eagle in the Arc was a poor one with the Champion Stakes, over a trip and track the horse excels at and against much weaker opposition, a better option.

Forgotten Rules has been campaigned no better. Despite Weld continually saying that he wouldn’t run him on fast ground, he pitches up in the Ascot Gold Cup and while that’s forgivable – it is Royal Ascot after all – the decision to run him ten days later in the Curragh Cup was one of the worst calls of the season given the cotton-wool treatment he’d had up to then. It looked a run borne out of frustration which rarely ends well. His subsequent effort in the Irish Leger is not as bad as it looks, his jockey giving him a bad ride, but has plenty on his plate to get back on track at BCD. Incidentally, that was one of the few poor rides Pat Smullen gave all season; he’s been an A+ though many of his big wins came for trainers other than Weld.

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Galway was disappointing for Weld. He may have won the top trainer prize but it was an award he scarcely merited as it was achieved more on his number of horses placed in ordinary races than on the quality of races he won. A few of the trainer’s better horses missed portions of the season, notably Zawraq and Mustajeeb, but keeping horses sound is a skill too.

 

Jim Bolger – Grade: B-

Godolphin must love Jim Bolger; he’s about their best trainer though the bar is not high there. Their Pleascach has been the standout horse at Coolcullen this season, given a typically aggressive Bolger campaign, and while the returns didn’t quite reach Lush Lashes level, winning the Irish 1,000 Guineas and the Yorkshire Oaks in a strong year for three-year-old fillies is a decent haul.

Away from here though, it’s been an ordinary year for Bolger. Lucida was among the best of her generation but failed to win a Group 1 and there is an argument for jockey error playing its part in that, Kevin Manning not seen at his best in either of her final three starts. He moved prematurely into the teeth of a strong gallop in the 1,000 Guineas before not moving quick enough at Royal Ascot while he seemed to be unaware of the slow pace in the Falmouth.

Bolger’s juveniles have been disappointing too, not least because of his hyping of them early and it looks a case of confusing geese with swans. Round Two was described as ‘everything you would like in a racehorse’, Sanus Per Aquam was ‘the auld fella [Teofilo] reincarnated’, Herald The Dawn was ‘a very nice type of horse.’ High, even hollow, praise for a trio of Group 3 horses.

 

David Wachman – A

Perhaps the best test of a trainer is how they handle a really top class horse and if there has been a knock against David Wachman it’s that his stars have shone brightly but all too briefly. That was true of the likes of Damson, Again and Sudirman but certainly not of Legatissimo who has been expertly campaigned in 2015.

She promised a bit at two without screaming Group 1 winner but has been a revelation this season, starting out at a high level and progressing from it, her most impressive performances arguably her last two at Goodwood and Leopardstown. There’s a case to be made that she should have won five Group 1s on the trot, beaten by a short head in both the Oaks and the Pretty Polly, and her versatility over different trips is rare. That she achieved all this in a deep year for three-year-old fillies is even more meritorious and she might even have won a Group 1 against colts had she been given the chance; she goes to the Breeders’ Cup with a leading chance of ending her season on a high.

Curvy was another fine example of Wachman’s skill with fillies, improving from a mark of 72 to 111 now. Her form has tailed off a little but she has had a long season while Hint Of A Tint, for all that she blotted her copybook at Tipperary on Sunday, has been well-trained to win a pair of premier handicaps having previously been fragile. She was one of three Galway winners for the yard and that gets points too.

 

Ger Lyons – B

I’m biased with Ger Lyons, being a fan of both his training methods and straightforward interaction with the media, and 2015 was another steady year for him. Previously an outspoken critic of Galway, he landed two good handicap winners at the meeting this summer with Sacrificial and Waipu Cove, both of whom look up to Listed class at least. The former went close at Royal Ascot too, ‘winning’ his side in the Britannia, while he also had a good winner with Glass House over Irish Champions Weekend.

Ainippe, however, deserves pride of place. She’d looked an all-out speedball at two and unlikely to progress at three but she won a pair of Group 3s this season and capped it off with a third in the Matron Stakes. It was a brave call to supplement her for that race – the trip was further than she’d raced over before and the ground was on the slow side – but connections were rewarded with Group 1 black type and a hefty share of prize-money.

 

Michael Halford – C-

With Halford, it’s more quantity that quality so this looks another underwhelming season. He ties for the lead in handicap winners with Ger Lyons, and Hasanour was an early-season star but it takes a lot of volume to get to where he is and the lack of Pattern race success has to be a black mark.

It’s a long time since Casamento won the Racing Post Trophy, 2010 in fact, and the trainer hasn’t kicked on from there. Indeed, one could argue he’s gone backwards having managed only three group winners since Casamento, and is 0/17 in Irish Group races this year. And it’s not as if he doesn’t have the owners; numbering Godolphin and the Aga Khan among his patrons, he really should be doing better. Success at Dundalk and in Dubai is all well and good but those meetings are in their own bubbles, the action less competitive than the mid-summer turf, and more is expected.

 

Willie McCreery – A

2015 should have been a down year for Willie McCreery. His star mare Fiesolana had gone off to the paddocks and she contributed a lot over the past two seasons, winning four races in 2013 before landing the Group 1 Matron Stakes last year. That’s a major loss for any yard, much less one without power owners, but he has managed to thrive nonetheless, already having two more winners in the turf season than he had in all of last season.

His handicap record is notable; he is second only to Garvan Donnelly in terms of strikerate and actual over expected among those trainers with at least 25 handicap runners, outstripping many better known yards. He does even better in premier handicaps:

 

Trainers in Irish Premier Handicaps 2015

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
W McCreery 16 4 25.0% +17.5 2.27
D Wachman 10 3 30.0% +21.0 1.99
M Halford 30 3 10.0% -8.0 1.00
A Oliver 2 9 22.2% +4.5 2.47

 

These are the most valuable handicaps of the Irish flat season and there have been 28 of them so far in 2015 with the average field size being 14 runners; they are not easy to win. Yet McCreery won four of them and with four different horses and while the likes of Fact Of Folklore and Shrill had upside going into their races, his other winners Tylery Wonder and Colour Blue looked plenty exposed.

 

Michael O’Callaghan – B+

O’Callaghan only began training in 2012 and with ten Irish flat winners this season he’s already more than doubled his previous win total. He has to prove he’s something other than a trainer of juveniles – since starting his career, his strikerate is 13.6% with the youngsters, 11.0% with everything else – but he’s certainly very good with two-year-olds and has a number of horses with significant potential next year like Blue De Vega and Moral High Ground.

The trainer (or connections) also deserves credit for one of the shrewdest bits of placing of the year with Now Or Never, the yard’s wide-margin Galway maiden winner on soft ground. After that win, she was doubly entered over trials meeting for Irish Champions Weekend in the Debutante and Futurity, the former confined to fillies on a Saturday, the second open to colts on a Sunday. Looking at the forecast for rain, O’Callaghan declared her for the Futurity which cut up badly and finished up being run on soft ground while the Debutante was a deep field and finished up being fought out by Ballydoyle and Minding, both Group 1 winners since. Now Or Never made the running in the slowly-run Futurity and got valuable black type for finishing second, connections rewarded for a brave and clever play.

 

Eddie Lynam – B-

It’s been a ‘meh’ season for Lynam for all that his number of winners has been broadly in line with previous totals but he was always going to struggle with the retirement of Slade Power. Winning a first turf race in Ireland with Sole Power rates as a high point and that it came over Irish Champions Weekend so much the better but the disappointing recent runs of Anthem Alexander have been a downer after so much early promise.

 

Johnny Murtagh – D

A great jockey does not a great trainer make as a look at the list of the top trainers in either code will tell you and, after Johnny Murtagh’s third season in the driving seat, the jury remains out on his training career. His Irish runners have hit at a rate of just 6% in 2015 and big winners have been thin on the ground despite the presence of some good owners that are willing to spend. The absence of Andrew Tinkler runners hasn’t helped but there are still plenty of expensive purchases in the yard.

Murtagh’s placing of his horses leaves a bit to be desired too. Running Stroll Patrol back four days after her Scurry win in a Naas Listed race seemed rushed; the first race was run at a strong gallop and she was a three-year-old against her elders so may have needed time to recover. The decision to take Kasbah to Wolverhampton for a £7,000 race only six days after she wasn’t even entered in a winnable Curragh premier handicap was a poor call too; she bolted up on the all-weather and would surely have gone close in the more valuable and higher profile Irish race. Murtagh doesn’t have that many highly rated horses in his yard – Kasbah is one of them – so it is important to maximise their potential and win the best races possible.

How a Two Year Old Gets to the Races…

My first ever 2yo interest...

My first ever 2yo interest...

It's Easter, the clocks have gone forward and the nights are getting longer. And, on this second day of April, the first two year old races have already been and gone. Horses don't race before they're two, but how do such young animals develop from weanlings to the track?

A lot of preparation - and a little luck - goes into getting a two year old to the racecourse. In this post, I'll explain how that happens, with some video clips of a juvenile I have (a tail and an ear of) in training with highly promising young handler, Michael O'Callaghan.

Some background on Michael O'Callaghan

First, a bit of background on both horse and trainer. Michael O'Callaghan is young - just 26 - and he's been around horses most of his life, having started his career as a breeze up consignor helping his dad. That means he's used to preparing young horses to look and behave professionally at a very young age. Much like himself in many ways, then; and perfect for taking on juveniles as a trainer and encouraging the best from them.

In his first season, 2012, O'Callaghan sent out four winners from 32 runners. 2013 was a tad disappointing with just a pair of successes from 45 starters, but last year things stepped up a couple of gears. His 15% strike rate on 73 runners was worth eleven winners, including exciting types like Rapid Applause and Aggression as well as Guineas aspirant, Letters Of Note.

The last two named have recently been acquired by Qatar Racing Ltd, which is a very exciting responsibility for O'Callaghan and his team as they move into the turf part of the 2015 season. It's a season in which they've hit the ground running with four winners from 18 runners already (22%), and plenty of promising young'uns to unleash as the spring progresses.

The horse: From Sales Ring to Stable

Our boy is a son of Approve, the dual Group 2-winning two-year-old, out of a Red Ransom mare called Miss Red Ink. Miss Red Ink has already thrown a four-time winner from two foals to make it to the track.

He was acquired in September last year at the Tattersalls Ireland Yearling Sales, having been born exactly two years before the Brocklesby gates opened last Saturday, March 28th 2013.

Before the sales, the vendor, Damastown Stud (John Prunty), had already done a lot of work to present the yearling well. He was able to walk around the ring without too much nervousness, and Michael  scored him as follows in his preliminary checks:

Pre-sale notesWell made, well balanced, W+ (Good Walker). Red Ransom (dam’s sire) quality coming through. Fast looking colt. Very fast family. Guide Value 20k.

Stallion note: As a racehorse, Approve was a high class 2yo, over distances from 5f to 7f. A dual Group 2 winning 2yo, who won both The Norfolk and The Gimcrack Stakes, he is now an exciting young sire, with 24 individual winners in his first crop, including the exciting Listed winner, Accepted.

Pedigree assessment: A sibling to three individual winners, this yearling has an exceptionally appealing pedigree, stacked full of high class stakes performers, including Champion 2yo, Winter Quarters, top sprinter Spirit Quartz and iconic performers such as Kingsclere, Passing Glance and Overbrook. The dam, Miss Red Ink is by a proven broodmare sire in Red Ransom and is herself out of a Mill Reef mare.

The hammer fell at €15,000, a relative bargain for a well balanced good moving baby. Of course, what looks a bargain in the sales ring can be made to look altogether something different on the racecourse! But, for now, a dream was framed...

**

From Breaking to... the track (hopefully!)

And then it began, for us at least. As a young trainer, Michael is well in tune with the latest communication methods, and makes good use of them. He's set up 'whatsapp' (a free messaging application for mobile phones) groups to keep owners in the loop. And he's used it to great effect.

The best thing about this approach - especially for someone like me, who lives far away from his Curragh training base - is that it enables him to send video snippets of our lad developing. Below is a short text and video diary from October last year to now, illustrating our boy's development.

2nd October 2013

Your first 30 days for just £1

"Hi guys, this is yer colt with breaking tack on today. This is the start of him becoming a race horse: whether he wins a seller or a Group 1, it all starts here!"

"This colt has proved very popular. I like him so much I am going to keep 2 shares myself. So if any of you have a friend ye think might want to get involved in him, act fast as there is only 1 share left up for grabs, and I don't think it will be available for much longer."

11th October 2014

"The colt is coming on well. He is almost ready for a rider now. Attached is a video of him long reigning: this is what teaches them to steer"

23rd October 2014

"This is the colt's first ever day riding. As you can see, he is great! It's a long way from the stereotypical breaking of horses we all know from the westerns."

3rd December 2014

"Ye're colt is doing well, the usual snotty nose and girth rash the babies get this time of year. Other than that, he's great!"

24th December 2014

"Happy Xmas everyone!"

chasingtomorrow_december2014

19th January 2015

"Hi, I hope ye are all keeping well! I'm very happy with the colt, he has grown a good two inches since we bought him. He is a nice forward type."

chasingtomorrow_january2015

"He was up the Old Vic [gallop] this morning with the other 2yo's, they haven't done anything serious yet, but are coming along nicely"

27th January 2015

Preparing to head to the gallops...

Cantering across the Curragh...

2nd February 2015

"Approve near side first group"

12th February 2015

"Just a steady canter..."

10th March 2015

"Four name suggestions gone in to HRI for colt are as follows Chasing Tomorrow,  Brinkmanship,  God Only Knows and Calrapid. They will decide which one he gets"

13th March 2015

"The colt got the name, Chasing Tomorrow!"

22nd March 2015

"I'm very happy with the colt. He was at Dundalk today for a racecourse gallop. Fingers crossed he might be running soon, I'll keep you all posted."

2nd April 2015

"A date for the potential début of Chasing Tomorrow is Friday 17th April. The colt is going well, and I hope to start him off at Dundalk on this date".

**

As you can see, the latest entry is the news this morning that Chasing Tomorrow might make his début in as little as two weeks. It's very exciting stuff, though of course who knows how he'll go?

Many horses don't stand the training to get this far, so Michael and his team have already done a great job in getting him close to ready for the track. A lot can happen in a day, let alone a fortnight, meaning there'll be no chicken counting going on this end. But hope springs eternal, and there won't be too many more tomorrow's until Chasing Tomorrow goes to post for the very first time. I can't wait! 😀

Matt