How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!
- Samuel, 1:25
Perhaps more so than the terrific performances at Cheltenham this past weekend, or the death of National Hunt benefactor Alan Potts, jump racing's headlines have been hogged in recent days not by horses or owners, nor even trainers; but, rather, by the riders.
First Paddy Brennan was sensationally 'jocked off' Cue Card, sweetheart of so many fans of the winter game, after a tumble too many; then Sam Twiston-Davies broke his elbow in a fall at Sandown before, this past Saturday, Ruby Walsh broke his leg in what was, remarkably, his third fall of the afternoon.
It is of course the very essence of the National Hunt jockeys' existence to face down danger between ten and twenty - and as many as 32 - times per race. In that context, falls are a natural by-product of race outcomes. But what is a reasonable rate for a rider to become separated from his or her equine partner?
Let the data speak.
Fall/Unseat Rates: The Five Year Macro Data
Below are the faller rates for the last five years in UK/Irish chases by a number of the top jockeys, one notably since retired. To be clear, this is for steeplechase falls and unseats (FU's) only, and the table is sorted by number of rides.
To add more global context to this subset of superstars, the average fall/unseat rate in the last 10,000 starters in UK and Irish chases has been 6.59%. Solely in Irish chases, the last 10,000 starters there fell or unseated at a rate of 7.84%, presumably because of the heavier turf on which they predominantly race (a subject for another, wetter, day). It may then be fair to say that anything lower than that is outperforming the average, and anything higher than that is under-performing against the average.
But not all chase rides are 'average'. The likes of Ruby Walsh and Jack Kennedy are more frequently engaged in the kind of skirmishes for victory which may demand firing a horse at the last, or an earlier fence, in a more aggressive fashion than, say, a rider popping round for fourth place.
If that is to mitigate, the disparities in the table cannot be so simply swept from view.
We can see i the table that, on a large number of rides, many of them with winning chances, Richard Johnson, Sam Twiston-Davies and Noel Fehily have all kept their fall/unseat rate below 6.5%. So too have Paddy Brennan, Barry Geraghty, and the now retired Tony McCoy.
But across the Irish Sea, look at Davy Russell, who leads the Irish jumps championship this term, and his hitherto closest pursuer, Ruby Walsh. Note also Jack Kennedy, number one jockey at Gordon Elliott's powerfully ascendant yard.
Russell's tumble rate of 7.13% is on the high side compared with Britain, but not wildly out of kilter with the pan-national average and in the green zone against his domestic peer group. The same cannot be said of Jack and Ruby. Although the former is young and arguably still learning his trade - arguably because he's had many more rides than plenty of jockeys five years his senior - the latter especially looks a surprisingly precarious pilot. Now, before the hate mail starts, obviously I recognise that Ruby Walsh is one of the great jockeys of our time and that this is but one barometer of a jockey's ability.
But, all the same, if I want to bet at a short price - and his rides are almost exclusively offered at prohibitive odds - I need to know that I have to factor a higher than average likelihood of my selection not passing the post in a chase with the rider on its back. With Jack Kennedy, he's almost 20% more likely to be dumped on the turf than the Irish average.
Let me be clear again: this is not about Ruby or Jack or anyone else. I'm far too selfish for that. No, this is about me as a punter knowing what I'm up against. About being forewarned and, therefore, forearmed.
Fall/Unseat Rates: The One Year Snapshot
Five years is a long time and it makes for some statistically significant (in the context of racing's generally small samples at least) inferences. But how do we compare jockeys with themselves? One way is to look at a snapshot - a subset - of the overall dataset. For punting purposes, the most current subset seems the most sensible. Below then are the last twelve months for the same jockey grouping, again sorted by number of rides.
Whilst even more care needs to be taken not to make bold claims on the basis of flimsy sample sizes, there remain elephants in the room.
First, let's look at Paddy Brennan, recently relieved of his supporting role atop the gorgeous Cue Card. His 3.85% fall/unseat rate in the past year is comfortably the lowest in the group and almost 1.5 times better than his five year average. Was he thus unlucky to lose such a coveted ride? That depends entirely on whether you're a macro sort of guy or you have the nuanced eye to make decisions based on the specifics of a handful of rides. I certainly don't consider myself qualified in the latter context and can see arguments for and against the rider switch.
The British Champion Jockey, Richard Johnson, has seen his tumble rate increase in the past twelve months, though possibly not materially. It has crept above the 10,000 runner average of 6.59% by a tiny margin: Johnson's renewed appetite to forage for every ride will have introduced a greater element of quantity over quality to his diet and the variance may perhaps be explained in such a way.
Noel Fehily has been remarkably consistent while Sam Twiston-Davies, who amazingly (to me at least, he seems to have been around for a long time) has only just turned 25, has retained his partnerships on a notably more frequent basis according to the most recent evidence. Tough luck then to break his elbow earlier this month; he actually rode in a subsequent race, attesting to the no-safety-net trapeze swing between heroism and stupidity that many in the weighing room unquestioningly fling themselves.
Meanwhile, Ireland's champion jockey-elect, Davy Russell, is 27 winners clear of his nearest challenger if one excludes the sidelined Walsh from calculations. Russell is approaching veteran status, though still in his late thirties, and has courted controversy this year in the manner with which he attempted to correct a recalcitrant mount. That episode deserves no more than a footnote in a piece the focus of which is elsewhere, and it will indeed be a shame if a man shunned by his major employer less than four years ago does not receive the praise he deserves if/when winning the jockeys' championship. Fair play to him.
To the elephant or, more precisely, the trio of elephants, in the room. Barry Geraghty first. He is one of the best jockeys I've seen and, in his time at Nicky Henderson's, was a man never to be dismissed. But, since taking the green and gold coin of Team JP, misfortune has followed him like a very bad smell. Since last July, he has broken both arms, in separate incidents; cracked a rib and collapsed a lung on another occasion; and recently (late August) fractured a shoulder blade. You have to be tough to be a jump jockey - far tougher than to look at numbers and write words about the subject - but my admiration starts to wane when riders persist in the face of mounting fragility.
It's no more my place to suggest to a rider about when to retire as it is for a rider to enquire on the number of winners I've ridden. So I won't. All I'll say is that I imagine the partners and families of jump jockeys rejoice the news of their loved one's cessation of getting legged up in a similar vein to that of the partners and families of professional boxers on hearing of gloves being hung for the final time. And I sincerely hope BJG has a long, uninterrupted and fruitful spell between now and whenever he pursues alternative employment.
Yet still we've to address the figureheads of Closutton and Cullentra, Ruby and Jack. In the last twelve months, Kennedy has come unstuck a dozen times from 123 chase starts. That's as near to ten per cent, and as near to 25% above the Irish average, as doesn't matter. Walsh has fallen or unseated once more than Kennedy, from one more ride, in the same period, a ratio above 10% and almost 33% greater than the norm.
It seems churlish to kick a man when he's down - Ruby faces a race against time to be back for the Cheltenham Festival and, like all fans of the sport, I hope he makes it - so I'll let those data speak for themselves. All I will add is that, to my eye - and keep in mind I've never ridden a winner - Ruby takes too many chances with fatigued animals late in races. Mounting (or, cynically, dismounting) evidence seems to support that.
The pressure in the Elliott and Mullins camps must be enormous, not just from the trainers, but from owners, other jockeys in the yard and, increasingly, the omnipresence of (social) media. Much of the latter is unworthy of attention, but when you're accustomed to being told how good you are, the sharper brickbats probably leave a weal.
There is an inherent selection bias in the tables above. Each of the jockeys therein has earned his place by being at the top of his peer group; such elevation comes only from taking chances when they're presented, and occasionally fashioning them when they may not absolutely be there.
As sports gigs go, riding 600kg animals over five foot fences (apologies for mixed metric-phors) around fifteen times per race on average is down there with the worst of 'em. It would never be for a wuss like me. Although not big on machismo either, I have a robust respect for these turf-eating gladiators as a collective.
But when the wallet comes out, they are individuals. And I want to know which individuals will support my bottom line, in the same way that these jocks want to know which horses will provide the winners to propel them up the championship table. It's every man (and woman) for themselves. Nobody is more or less selfish than the next, either in the punting or riding ranks; and nor should they be.
To that end, the frailties of otherwise tremendous jockeys with enormous (and, in the main, well deserved and hard earned) reputations are power to the contrarian punters' elbow.
Ruby has won aboard 30% of the chasers he's ridden in the last five years. That's open water clear of the next best (McCoy 22%, Daryl Jacob and Noel Fehily 20%, Sam T-D and Paddy B 19%, Richard Johnson 18%). But, from a punting perspective, his negative ROI of 18.86% at SP during that time is surpassed by absolutely nobody in his Premier League peer group. Some of that, of course, relates to his stable's form with chasers, most of it to the over-exposure of the Mullins/Walsh/Ricci PR machine; that's neither here nor there in terms of wagering.
Meanwhile, on the flip side, the unfashionable Paddy Brennan not only wins at a 19% clip, he's also secured a profit of almost 60 points at SP in the same time frame, regardless of the Cue Card fallout.
Backing horses is not a beauty contest, nor is it about fashion. On the contrary, the value lies wherever the spotlight doesn't. And, even in the halogen glare of the media beam, punting pearls are left for those with peripheral vision. Always be asking questions, take nothing on trust. The data is here. Use it. It rarely lies.
I genuinely hope Ruby gets back in time for the Festival, and I further hope he has a fantastic time of it. But I'll not be touching his chase mounts there, or pretty much anywhere else. That's unlikely to trouble him, of course. Devil take the hindmost!