The National Hunt season, official or ‘proper’, has a number of starting points but the Morgiana card at Punchestown seems to represent as good a beginning as any, writes Tony Keenan. This year, however, things may not get going until we receive a substantial blast of rain and, with some forecasts suggesting that may be coming this week, now seems a reasonable time to set the scene for four story lines set to unravel over the next five and a half months.
Rachael Blackmore, Record Breaker
Rachael Blackmore is already a record breaker: her 56 winners thus far in 2018/19 are far ahead of the previous best tally in a season by a female rider, Nina Carberry’s 39 winners in 2009/10. That is comparing apples and oranges, however, as Carberry was an amateur and limited in terms of the number of rides she could take, though that brought some advantages too: she generally only took a mount when it had at least some chance of success.
Blackmore hasn’t always had that luxury and as recently as last season was taking rides wherever she could find them. Consider the final table in the jockeys’ championship from last season with the added column of number of trainers ridden for:
|Jockey||Winners||Rides||Yards ridden for|
There are a few points of interest here.
First, Andrew Lynch continues to be one of the hardest working riders in racing, breaking three figures in terms of different stables ridden for, while at the other end of the spectrum, neither Ruby Walsh nor Patrick Mullins take many outside rides, relatively speaking. Jack Kennedy also rode for a surprisingly small number of other yards. But Blackmore is right up there in terms of yards ridden for, third overall to Lynch and Danny Mullins of the top 11.
That shows willingness to graft but her endgame is to reach a stage where she doesn’t have to do that so much and instead gets on better horses for the top yards; with Gigginstown giving her plenty of opportunities already and a link-up with Willie Mullins too, that point may not be far away.
Winning the jockeys’ title will be difficult but it is not the 100/1 chance that Paddy Power rated her back at the end of August, that company now having her at 9/2. A more realistic aim in the short-term might be a Grade 1 and/or Cheltenham Festival winner. Nina Carberry was the first female jump jockey to win a Grade 1 in the UK and Ireland when taking the Champion Bumper at Punchestown in 2006, a feat she repeated in 2007. Lizzie Kelly was the first woman to win a Grade 1 chase in the UK and Ireland when Tea For Two won the 2015 Kauto Star Novice Chase and the same horse gave her another in the 2017 Aintree Bowl. Since then, Bryony Frost won the same Kempton race on Black Corton last season.
Carberry and Katie Walsh, two of the Irish jockeys Blackmore is commonly compared with, have seven and three Festival winners respectively. The first of Carberry’s wins came in the 2005 Fred Winter with the remaining six coming against amateur competition (four wins in the Cross Country, two in the Foxhunter), something Blackmore is restricted from. Meanwhile, Walsh won both County Hurdle and a Champion Bumper, races that might be just up Blackmore’s street given the numbers Willie Mullins tends to throw at them.
Ruby at the last, part two
Ruby Walsh coming off horses at the final obstacle is becoming a thing again but part of that is the narrative: of the ten mounts he has fallen or unseated from in 2018, only two were at the last but they were in consecutive races at Naas recently. That eight of those ten rides were sent off favourite means his spills inevitably attract more attention than any other rider but what is clear is that Walsh has fallen or unseated off a far greater percentage of his mounts this year than previously. The figures below take in his rides in all National Hunt races in the UK and Ireland by calendar year.
A large part of this is just messing around with numbers; this season’s figures represent a small sample size and it is highly unlikely that he finishes 2018 with such a high rate though there isn’t much of the year left. What is interesting is that his fall/unseat rate is so consistent throughout his career, and even looking back as far as 2003 he only once went over 5.9% for a full year.
Over that period it is also notable that not once between the years of 2003 and 2009 did he take fewer than 700 rides; since than he has only gone over 500 mounts twice. Part of that is injury, part of it is reduced workload after he left Paul Nicholls in 2013, and part of it is also choice.
If the past few weeks are anything to go by, those choices are going to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the winter. Already we have seen Walsh opt not to ride the beginners’ chases over the weekend of November 10th and 11th nor did he ride Kemboy or Camelia De Cotte over fences at Clonmel last Thursday. He also bypassed possible mounts in the Florida Pearl Novice Chase on Sunday, one of which included the winner Some Neck, ahead of Faugheen running the Morgiana Hurdle.
All of this might help Walsh’s longevity but one thing the past few weeks have shown us is that it is difficult to predict when a chaser might fall; even the best jumper, or what might have appeared the best jumper, can fall as was the case with Footpad. There is such a degree of randomness in fallers that not even one of the greatest jumps jockeys may be able to predict them.
Festivals, festivals, everywhere
2018 will be remembered as a year without a spring - where winter, with the help of Storm Emma, stretched out through April and then everything turned balmy in May. That meant that all of the spring festivals were run on soft ground and we also had a new meeting, the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown, to kick the whole thing off.
Such festival races, often run at a strong gallop, take plenty out of horses and there was a trainers’ title on the line too, Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott taking each other on with more frequency than might typically have been the case as the battleground moved from Leopardstown to Cheltenham then back to Fairyhouse and Punchestown.
I made it 24 horses that took in all three of Cheltenham, Fairyhouse and Punchestown with the list as follows: Getabird, Sharjah*, Pietralunga, High School Days, Invitation Only*, Al Boum Photo*, Dounikos*, Shattered Love, The Storyteller*, Blow By Blow, Outlander*, Tycoon Prince*, Josies Orders, Cut The Mustard, Dawn Shadow, Squouateur*, Bleu Berry, Scarpeta, Duc Des Genievres*, Real Steel*, Barra*, Let’s Dance, Augusta Kate and C’est Jersey. [The ones with an asterisk also ran at Leopardstown so may have had an extra-hard time of things].
Of those 24 horses, 13 were trained by Mullins, eight by Elliott and three by others which, to my mind, is clear evidence of Mullins being affected by Elliott: five seasons ago, when his title was not under threat, there is no way Mullins would have run his horses so frequently. It will be fascinating to see how this cohort of horses does in 2018/19 and while in some ways it was entirely natural for them to run in these races, it may not have been beneficial that they ran in all of them.
Each will need to be judged on a horse-by-horse basis and while the likes of Sharjah were able to bounce back and win not only a Galway Hurdle but a Morgiana, others tailed off completely. Dounikos, for instance, was pulled up at Cheltenham, Fairyhouse and Punchestown while Scarpeta ran a really promising race in the Neptune but didn’t build on it at all afterwards and finished up his season getting beaten at 2/5 on the flat.
Mullins, Elliott and the rest
The emergence of Mullins and Elliott as super-trainers has been felt in every aspect of the Irish national hunt scene but nothing has been altered more than the graded race landscape. Consider where we were in 2010/11. That season, there were 99 graded non-handicaps jumps races run in Ireland. Willie Mullins had 88 runners and Noel Meade was next with 44 out of a total of 717 runners, their combined percentage coming out at 18.4%. 148 different trainers had runners while 40 had a graded winner.
Compare that to the last three seasons:
|Season||Total Runners||Mullins and Elliott Runners||Mullins/ Elliott
Percentage of Runners
|Individual Yards with a Runner||Individual Yards with a Winner|
Last season may prove an aberration in terms of number of yards that managed a graded winner as already in 2018/19, 12 different yards have won such a race, among them some unexpected names like Iain Jardine, Colin Kidd, Aidan Howard and Gavin Cromwell. Gordon Elliott, surprisingly, has only won one graded race to this point in the season, the Lismullen Hurdle with Apple’s Jade.
There was a time when a win or two in such a race would sustain a smaller yard for the season but now they are struggling to even manage a runner; we are in a very different place to 2015/16, much less 2010/11.
- Tony Keenan