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Walsh reflects on Clarence House king Un De Sceaux

Outside of the Cheltenham Festival, few Irish-trained jumps horses have captured the hearts of racing fans in recent seasons in quite the way Un De Sceaux did throughout his illustrious career.

A regular in all the top chases under three miles, the Willie Mullins-trained gelding was a firm favourite – with his heart-on-the-sleeve front-running tactics helping him strike at Grade One level on 10 occasions before his retirement last year.

Though a dual winner at the Festival with victories in the 2015 Arkle and 2017 Ryanair Chase, it was his domination of the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, which he claimed for the first time five years ago, that really set him apart.

Regular rider Ruby Walsh was on board that day and despite having parted company with the O’Connell family’s pride and joy at Leopardstown on his previous start, he was confident compensation awaited in a race Un De Sceaux would make his own.

Un De Sceaux and Ruby Walsh on their way to victory at Ascot
Un De Sceaux and Ruby Walsh on their way to victory at Ascot (Julian Herbert/PA)

Walsh said: “I had looked for a big jump at Leopardstown, he changed his mind and didn’t get high enough in front and tipped over. I wasn’t really that conscious of it going to Ascot.

“We knew he was a hell of a good horse. I didn’t have any worries about his jumping.

“He jumped really well at Ascot that day and he was taking on Sire De Grugy, who had won the Tingle Creek that season. Though it was a compact field, it was a pretty decent race.

“He popped out, went a nice gallop, without going mad, and he was still going real easy when he faced up to the second-last, which he jumped well. Sire De Grugy appeared on his inside, but he picked up well going down to the last and ended up winning quite impressively.”

The reaction of a crowd can be a good guide as to what type of spectacle they have witnessed – and judging by the roar Walsh and Un De Sceaux received from those in the stands, it was clear they had seen a truly unique performance.

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Walsh added: “They did see something special at Ascot that day. I always enjoyed riding at Ascot and even though it is such a vast arena, it always had a way of capturing the atmosphere and I think that is huge at any racecourse.

“We were looking for him to stamp himself as a live Champion Chase horse and he most certainly did that day.”

A rejuvenated Sprinter Sacre would consign Un De Sceaux to the runner-up spot in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at that year’s Festival, but his next visit to Cheltenham in January 2017 would result in the defence of his Clarence House crown, with the race rescheduled due to a frozen track at Ascot the previous week.

Un De Sceaux won a rescheduled Clarence House Chase at Cheltenham
Un De Sceaux won a rescheduled Clarence House Chase at Cheltenham (Julian Herbert/PA)

Walsh said: “To be fair, that was a great trial of the horse as he went to Ascot, came back home, then went back to Cheltenham the following weekend and still managed to win. That just shows you what kind of an iron horse he was.

“As a performance, it probably wasn’t as good as his first one, but when you factor in how much travelling he had done, he did incredibly well to win.

“That is another thing very good horses do – even when things aren’t going right, they still put in a good performance and be competitive.”

Although a broken leg would rule Walsh out of attempting a third Clarence House win aboard Un De Sceaux in 2019, he was among those willing on his old ally from the sidelines.

He added: “For sure I was cheering him on. Even when you are injured, you are still part of the team.

“Paul (Townend) rode him that day at Ascot and a bit like his second year, he didn’t look spectacular. The older he got, the less spectacular he became, but he still managed to win.”

Un De Sceaux’s bid for a fourth victory in the race last year was scuppered by Defi Du Seuil, with connections subsequently calling time on his career at the age of 12.

Walsh ranks him among the best he has ridden and added: “He was a bit of a hero to a lot of people and his owners, the O’Connells, got a lot of enjoyment out of him, which was great to see. He is back in France enjoying a happy retirement, which he thoroughly deserves.

“I rode some horses that I considered to have the potential to be great, but never got to become greats as they had short careers.

“You need to have longevity to be a wonderful horse and that is what Un De Sceaux was – his enthusiasm and his consistency was incredible.”

:: On comparing Un De Sceaux with the great two-milers he has ridden:

Ruby Walsh enjoyed great success with Master Minded
Ruby Walsh enjoyed great success with Master Minded (David Davies/PA)

“It’s impossible to cross-compare horses from Ayzertiyoup to Kauto Star to Twist Magic to Master Minded, Un De Sceaux and Douvan. I rode a lot of good two-milers.

“I’m just grateful they all came one after another and they didn’t come at the same time. Some people would have loved to have seen all these horses in one race together, but I’m just glad they came one after another and that I got the chance to ride them all.”

:: On watching the Ascot race growing up:

Viking Flagship is one of the famous names on the Ascot roll of honour
Viking Flagship is one of the famous names on the Ascot roll of honour (Barry Batchelor/PA)

“It was a race I grew up watching the likes of Viking Flagship racing in it on the BBC. It was a race that definitely helped me want to be a jockey.

“It was one of those races you watched on a Saturday and you were waiting for it, as it is a thrilling contest.

“One of my earliest memories of it was watching Desert Orchid beating Panto Prince as a kid and then thinking ‘imagine being part of that’.”

:: On the toughness of Un De Sceaux:

“In Britain he won twice at the Festival, a Tingle Creek, three Clarence Houses, and he ran in the Celebration Chase at Sandown.

“He was not quite a globetrotter like Magic Wand on the Flat, but he did move around a fair bit as he raced in Auteuil a good bit as well.

“He did rack up the miles and it is not as straightforward for a horse to travel like a human, so it was fair going out of him.”

Mares’ Chase to replace Novices’ Handicap Chase at Cheltenham

The Mrs Paddy Power Mares’ Chase will replace the Listed Novices’ Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

The British Horseracing Authority announced in August of last year that a mares’ chase would be added to the programme at the showpiece meeting at Prestbury Park from 2021, replacing an existing race which had yet to be decided.

Which race should be dropped has been the source of much debate but it was confirmed it will be the Listed novices’ handicap chase, which was established when a fourth day was added to the Cheltenham Festival in 2005.

The novices’ handicap chase, which was traditionally run on the opening day of the Festival, will now be staged at Sandown as part of the Paddy Power Imperial Cup meeting just days before the Festival.

Cheltenham's clerk of the course Simon Claisse
Cheltenham’s clerk of the course Simon Claisse (Nick Potts/PA)

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The new Grade Two Mrs Paddy Power Mares’ Chase, registered as the Liberthine Mares’ Chase, will be run on Gold Cup day, with the Grand Annual Chase moving to the Wednesday and the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle moving to the opening day.

Cheltenham’s clerk of the course, Simon Claisse, said: “We’re looking forward to being able to bring the Mrs Paddy Power Mares’ Chase into the racing calendar for The Festival 2021. Not only is this a great example of the sport working together to boost the mares’ race programme in Britain to benefit the industry, but we also now have an improved mares’ population providing quality competition.

“Deciding which race to replace was not an easy decision and it was important that we took into account all the factors and feedback we received. But when we evaluated the other novice chase opportunities at The Festival, as well as the importance of maintaining the current balance of chases and hurdles over the four days, this was considered the best option.”

Eleven-time champion trainer Paul Nicholls has welcomed the introduction of a mares’ chase at the Festival and hopes to saddle Laurina – winner of the Grade Two Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival when trained by Willie Mullins.

Nicholls said: “I fully support the introduction of the Mares’ Chase, and the positive impact that it will have on the racing industry.

“There will certainly be plenty of good mares in both Britain and Ireland to contest it and I hope to have a good candidate in Laurina. It looks like the obvious race for her, and she already has good form at Cheltenham so it will definitely be a potential target for her come March.

“It will no doubt have been a tough decision in choosing which of the races to lose, but in this case at least those horses will have lots of opportunities elsewhere.”

Ruby Walsh, the Festival’s all-time leading rider with 59 victories, said: “The Mares’ Chase will prove a great addition to The Festival, especially when it beds in over a three or four year period.

“Jumps horses rarely have a financial value when they finish racing, but for owners who are lucky enough to have a good mare, they can be worth a considerable amount as broodmares and thus owners get some return on their investment.

“Therefore the need for mares-only races is paramount for the value of unraced fillies, to encourage owners to buy them as racehorses. Having the Mrs Paddy Power Mares’ Chase to go along with the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle adds to the attraction of purchasing a filly.

“Cheltenham are showing their support to the breeding industry by adding this race and in my opinion showing a loyalty to the whole horseracing industry and not just the sport.”

Paddy Power make the Willie Mullins-trained Salsaretta the 6-1 favourite for the inaugural running, ahead of her stable companion Elfile and Henry de Bromhead’s Arkle heroine Put The Kettle On at 8-1.

Jump Jockeys: How Are The Mighty Fallen?

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.

 

Jockey Rides FU's FU %
R Johnson 1552 88 5.67%
S Twiston-Davies 1484 93 6.27%
N Fehily 1003 59 5.88%
P Brennan 999 56 5.61%
D Russell 800 57 7.13%
B Geraghty 740 40 5.41%
AP McCoy 724 41 5.66%
R Walsh 651 53 8.14%
J Kennedy 258 24 9.30%

 

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.

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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.

 

Jockey Rides FU's FU %
R Johnson 301 20 6.64%
S Twiston-Davies 300 16 5.33%
D Russell 210 9 4.29%
N Fehily 206 12 5.83%
P Brennan 182 7 3.85%
R Walsh 124 13 10.48%
J Kennedy 123 12 9.76%
B Geraghty 105 9 8.57%
AP McCoy NA NA NA

 

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.

 

Final Thoughts

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!

Matt