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Tony Keenan: The Perception Of Deception

Every sport has stereotypes they would prefer not to have, writes Tony Keenan. Track and field athletes are dopers, footballers are grossly overpaid and horse racing is bent. One can flip these sorts of views around however. The World Athletics Championships at London 2017 were relatively clean by modern standards, the suppressed times and overall unpredictability of results suggesting anti-doping is working to some degree. There is a strong case that rather than footballers being overpaid, their wages are in line with market value and related to massive TV deals, sponsorship and such like. Racing, well we’ll come to that.

There can be little doubt that the general public’s view of racing is a low one. In a recent study by Portland Communications entitled the UK Sports Integrity Index 2017, a survey was carried out on 2,110 people on their views on the most and least trusted sports. Participants were asked to place each sport in terms of four categories: fixing of events, use of performance enhancing drugs, financial corruption and cover-up stories/scandals. Racing came out eleventh of 12 overall sports with only football behind and the sport’s position in each of the categories surveyed were:  fixing (last), PEDs (eighth), financial corruption (second-last) and cover-ups (tenth).

The issue with the general public is that their views are often based on limited knowledge. Racing has a history of being tied to chicanery with the centrality of betting to the sport a massive factor and we probably don’t help ourselves in this regard by lionizing some of the coups that have gone on over time. It’s difficult if not impossible to change these sorts of perceptions in the mainstream as people have neither the time nor the interest to engage with what racing is really like.

I’m less interested in their entrenched opinions than I am in those of the betting public, a group who have at worst a passing knowledge of racing and often possess a passion for the sport. Yet if you ask these people about their views on the integrity of racing – and Irish racing in particular – you often get a particularly negative response. Searching ‘Irish racing’ in Twitter throws up more than its share of vitriol to its participants with the likes of Aidan O’Brien, Ryan Moore, Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh routinely described in terms of the lowest cheats. It’s the same should you visit your local betting shop. A large part of me says such people are morons looking to blame someone else for a losing bet but we do risk going the full ostrich here; these are the customers with the betting euro and pound and what they think of the sport does matter, not least because they can choose to bet on something else.

It is important to state now that I believe Irish racing to be straight, by and large; it is a betting product I have faith in and I can’t remember the last time I had a bet in a race and thought there was something rotten about it. I qualify that by saying I do most of my betting and viewing on the middle to upper reaches of the sport but I would be happy to say it has a lot less skulduggery than is widely perceived. Irish racing is regarded as a world leader by many of those who participate in it but there is a huge disconnect between this view and the broader perception of the sport among those that like a bet.

Looking at the broad picture of what punters bet on, it is worth pointing out that Irish racing is a relatively low turnover sport for most operators, particularly those in the online sphere. Certainly it is less popular with bettors than UK racing –the obvious point that there is much more UK racing needs to be made – while other sports are also on the rise with the younger demographic, racing being hard to grasp initially relative to other more straightforward sports. It was interesting to read recently that Horse Racing Ireland wanted betting tax increased in Ireland but they should be careful what they wish for and hope that their return from the tax is not pro-rated to the amount actually bet on the Irish racing; were that to be the case they could be in for a rude awakening.

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This possible lack of faith in Irish racing does not just come from punters however. Paddy Power, the largest of the Irish bookmakers, recently cut back appreciably on their laying of Irish overnight prices in their shops. They now bet only the better class racing where once they would have offered the full menu of the next day’s racing and while many punters will say that overnights are only a cheap way of getting their cards marked, it is worth pointing out that they continue to lay more UK races overnight. It could be argued that this is more to do with the type of business you attract – the person who is betting the previous evening likely has some degree of homework done – than what they are actually betting on but the contrast between their approaches to racing from the two jurisdictions is pointed.

Educating the punters you have on your sport is important to altering this perception of deception and the ultimate responsibility for this has to rest with the governing bodies and authorities. One simple way of improving attitudes would be to get the stewards to ask more questions about horses that perform dismally. Often there are very sensible reasons for underperformance from jockey error to physical issues yet one only hears about these reasons after the horse has bounced back to form next time. The Turf Club website provides these reasons in the post-race reports section of their website but it is all too limited; often you will look at a meeting where only one or two excuses were provided for the whole cohort of horses across a seven-race card. More questions should be asked not only on the day but after the event – often something will come to light in the days that follow – and these responses need to be published in every horse’s form to improve the transparency of the sport.

Prize-money is another important consideration though not at the upper levels. Whether the Irish Champion Stakes is worth €1.25 million or €1 million matters not a jot to the integrity of the race; it is Ireland’s best flat race and everyone wants to win it for the prestige and stallion fees. Race values do matter in the bottom grade and you ideally want a situation where an owner that wins a race, no matter how lowly, will be able to cover training fees for a period of months rather than the winning trip to the races costing them money.

Some will say that such efforts are pointless as you are never going to change people’s views towards a sport because they are too deeply entrenched. While I tend to agree with this in relation to the general public and acknowledge that some will be attracted to racing in the hope of getting the inside scoop on a horse, such complacency can be dangerous. The popularity of sports wane and flow and what obsessed people 20 years ago can now be an irrelevance. Competition for the betting pound and euro is stiff and it is getting stiffer with bookmakers often not helping racing to even maintain its position and the arrival of events such as e-sports as well as ever more markets doesn’t make things easy for racing. How a sport looks from the outside, especially to those a little closer to the centre, will continue to matter.

- Tony Keenan

Irish View: Half Term Report

The Irish Derby marks a rough halfway point in the turf season so now is a good time to take the temperature of what has unfolded thus far, writes Tony Keenan. Rather than simply go through 2017 on an event-by-event basis, I’m going to look at the top six trainers in Ireland presently and belatedly refer to an article I wrote on seasonal trainers back in May to put some data on the narrative and attempt to project forward into the rest of the campaign.

In that original piece – linked here – I looked at the 6,538 flat races run between 2010 and 2016 and divided the season in quarters: Spring (March and April), Early Summer (May and June), High Summer (July and August) and Autumn (September, October and the odd race in the November). I then went into which trainers did well in which part of the season. These numbers are reproduced below for the current top six trainers along with a brief look at the overall pattern of their typical season before considering what this might mean for 2017.

Before that however are the current standings in the trainers’ championship as of July 3rd:

 

Overall Table

Trainer Wins Runs Strikerate Prizemoney
A. O’Brien 47 233 20.2% €2,857,438
J. Bolger 34 255 13.3% €832,165
G. Lyons 27 163 16.6% €699,253
J. Harrington 23 136 16.9% €485,273
D. Weld 18 152 11.8% €349,160
W. McCreery 17 123 13.8% €342,648

 

In some ways the table is quite similar to the one that we saw at the end of 2016, in others it is very different. Aidan O’Brien was/is on top in both but the 2016 runner-up Dermot Weld – having had €2,886,538 in total prize last year, much of it Harzand-generated – is languishing in fifth. Bolger and Lyons are knocking around the same spots as last year albeit with better strikerates as is Willie McCreery. Jessica Harrington has taken things up a level or three though, her 23 winners this season already ahead of the 21 she had last year.

 

Aidan O’Brien

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 21.0% 21.0% 22.2% 22.9% 17.6%
2017 20.2% 19.2% 19.9% ? ?

 

The Pattern: O’Brien wins races, and lots of them, at every stage of the year. His strikerate drops in the Autumn but the same applies to almost all yards; field sizes tend to be bigger as trainers attempt to get runs into their horses before season end.

 

Aidan O’Brien keeps winning and the world keeps turning. Despite seven winners over the Irish Derby meeting including the main event, it was a disappointing weekend for Ballydoyle with news of injuries to Wings Of Eagles, Minding and Somehow, the last name fatally. Indeed, the whole plan of keeping older fillies in training has turned out badly in 2017; not only is Minding’s racing career in doubt but neither Seventh Heaven nor Alice Springs, Group 1 winners at three, have been seen lately and nor is there any sign of them returning.

Yet 2017 has still been an excellent campaign up to this point. Churchill excepted, Royal Ascot was a triumph and one that looks even better when placed alongside the broad failure of other Irish flat trainers to have winners or even runners at the meeting. Caravaggio, Winter and Highland Reel all won their Group 1s and gave notice that they will be doing more of the same through the summer though the pack may need to be shuffled a little regarding future targets, Winter one that could be going up in trip in the absence of Minding.

O’Brien even managed to get a good winner out of the morass of last year’s Derby with Idaho in the Hardwicke though extracting the same from US Army Ranger has proved beyond even him. The early two-year-old returns with the fillies have been good – September stands out here while Clemmie was good over the weekend – but the colts have been a little flat thus far with Murillo about the pick. Gustav Klimt, Amedeo Modigliani and others yet unraced may have more to add here though.

 

Jim Bolger

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 12.1% 12.7% 12.8% 14.0% 8.9%
2017 13.3% 10.6% 15.3% ? ?

 

The Pattern: Bolger gets his horses fit and runs them often so it is no surprise that his strikerate drops off at the end of the year; his peak time is High Summer before a trough in the Autumn.

 

Relatively speaking, 2017 started slowly for Jim Bolger, his 2017 Spring strikerate of 10.6% below his seven-season average of 12.7%. Things have changed and changed utterly in the last two months, to such a degree that he is operating at a healthy 13.3% return for the season. As ever, it is the robust nature of his horses that are carrying him; already in 2017 he has had ten horses win twice with the likes of Club Wexford, Clongowes, New Direction and Pirolo among those that are taking their racing well. That said, horses don’t have much choice in Coolcullen!

Turret Rocks and Glamorous Approach are decent standard bearers among the older horses but the real hope for Bolger is with his juveniles and it is a crop that should help cement his position in second place for 2017. His five two-year-old winners have him joint-third in terms of juvenile winners behind O’Brien and Harrington and none is more exciting than Railway Stakes second, Verbal Dexterity who coped surprisingly well with the drop back to six furlongs over the weekend and is sure to be much better over a trip.

 

Ger Lyons

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 14.9% 11.8% 15.9% 16.1% 13.2%
2017 16.6% 23.9% 13.2% ? ?

 

The Pattern: Lyons tends to train his horses to improve for a run in the Spring before operating at a consistent level for the rest of the year; in some ways, he is the metronome of Irish racing, his strikerates at different race distances backing this up.

 

The early part of 2017 was anything but typical for Lyons when placed alongside his records back to 2010. Unlike in previous years, he hit the ground running this time with a double on opening day at Naas including a win in the Lincoln. His strikerate through this Spring was more than double what it had been across the previous Springs. This may however have come at a cost as his Early Summer returns have been down on previous years.

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It is possible Royal Ascot played a part in this. Lyons had a right good go at the meeting, running five of his better horses, but all bar Treasuring in the Queen Mary underwhelmed. That said, his two winners over Derby weekend were bettered only by Aidan O’Brien and were more than Weld, Bolger or Harrington; Joe Murphy was the other trainer to have more than one winner across the three days.

The problem with Lyons progressing to the next level – and by the next level I mean consistently competing in Group 1s – is that his operation as currently constituted remains a selling yard. The type of horse he buys at the sales have an ability cap when placed alongside the blue bloods and there is always the chance that a good prospect will be sold on to jurisdictions like Hong Kong as was the case with Doctor Geoff earlier in the season.

 

Jessica Harrington

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 10.6% 14.0% 10.9% 11.8% 7.6%
2017 16.9% 29.4% 13.1% ? ?

 

The Pattern: As one might expect with a national hunt trainer aiming horses at spring festivals like Cheltenham and Punchestown, Harrington tends to have her horses ready early on; her historic strikerate is never better than in Spring. Those numbers tend to tail off as the year goes on with a massive drop in Autumn.

 

That Jessica Harrington would have a big 2017 flat campaign was hardly surprising; her horses were flying at the backend of the jumps season proper with a new gallop seemingly playing a big part in her improvement. Even so, the scale of her returns in the early part of this season have been hard to grasp, a strikerate of 29.4% much the best among any yard with a meaningful number of runners. As things stand, she has had 23 winners in Ireland this year and it looks like a formality that her previous best of 28 in 2011 will be left behind.

The two-year-olds have been the real flagbearers and as referenced already she is second to O’Brien in juvenile winners trained. Both her Royal Ascot favourites, Brother Bear and Alpha Centauri, were beaten but there were strong positives to be drawn from both; Brother Bear looked to find the ground too fast when hanging in the finish of the Coventry while Alpha Centauri is one for further judged on her run in the Albany. The National and Moyglare remain on the cards for both.

 

Dermot Weld

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 17.6% 21.5% 17.4% 18.4% 15.2%
2017 11.8% 14.6% 9.7% ? ?

 

The Pattern: Weld starts hot in Spring, very hot in fact, and then peaks again in High Summer; Galway of course is central to this July/August period. Autumn traditionally sees a dropping-off but not a seismic one by any means.

 

Unlike in previous years, Weld started cold in 2017 and it has stayed that way; his Spring strikerate was below his previous averages but it could be argued that his Early Summer numbers are even worse. Derby Weekend did not go well; Three Kingdoms offered some relief, as much as a 33/1 winner of a handicap can, but he went into Sunday’s card with a number of well-fancied runners and the best any of them could manage was fourth, both Zhukova and The Grey Gatsby filling that spot.

Zhukova is his best horse at the moment but she has clear limitations both in terms of ground and ability; it looks as if she was extremely well-placed to win a Group 1 at Belmont Park, a point made by her rider Pat Smullen since, and the trainer’s subsequent view that she might contend for an Arc were more fantastical that fanciful. It’s worth remembering that her single best piece of form might be beating US Army Ranger, a greatly devalued stock now.

It is hard to see a way back for Weld this year looking at his strikerates in previous years; it would be going against the grain to believe he can resuscitate his season and that could have a massive influence on the dynamics, market and otherwise, of Galway. The reasons for the down year here seem clear; his horses were sick earlier in the year and he simply doesn’t have the quality in 2017 which is something that can happen to any yard away from Ballydoyle. Eziyra and Making Light seem about his best three-year-olds and both have clear ceilings around Group 3 level.

One interesting knock-on effect in all this has been an opening up of the jockeys’ championship. Paddy Power rated this such a foregone conclusion at the start of the season that they had a market without Pat Smullen and who could blame them based on previous events. But every season takes on its own story and Smullen is only fifth in that table now with just seven winners separating the top six of Manning, Keane, Lee, Hayes, Smullen and Foley. Interesting times indeed and quite a few of those riders will be dreaming of winning a first title.

 

Willie McCreery

Timeframe Overall Spring Early Summer High Summer Autumn
2010 – 2016 10.2% 9.0% 9.8% 11.4% 9.7%
2017 13.8% 9.3% 16.7% ? ?

 

The Pattern: Broad consistency has been the story with McCreery, his strikerates operating within similar parameters throughout the year.

 

McCreery got the full treatment from me last year so I won’t add much more now beyond to say that he has continued to improve and does well making his living around the periphery of the top trainers in good handicaps, lesser pattern events and conditions races. His overall strikerate has been better in 2017 than ever before and he benefits from having Billy Lee as his stable jockey; Lee is the most improved jockey around in the last three or four years and a major asset to any yard.

 

- Tony Keenan

Irish View: the Curragh Letting Racing Fans Down

A glance at the Curragh’s website reveals that the track does a good line in marketing-speak, with phrases like ‘home of world class horse racing’, ‘on hallowed ground’ and ‘where champions are made’ popping from the page, writes Tony Keenan. And, strictly speaking, those slogans are correct; the racing out on the course remains excellent with the recent Guineas weekend another example as both Newmarket winners Churchill and Winter backed up their wins in the first classics of the season. Perhaps the more egalitarian in us could crab the competitiveness at the very top-end with the Coolmore-Ballydoyle axis dominating but that is essentially a minor quibble.

Exclusivity has long been a part of the Curragh, both on the track and off it, and in itself that is not necessarily a bad thing; such an approach is the USP of Royal Ascot and it clearly works there. Irish racegoers – and Irish people in general – however are less inclined towards such attitudes even with the economy in bounce-back mode and if you are going to offer an exclusive product, you damn well want to make sure the customer is getting something special. This patently isn’t the case with the Curragh at the moment and hasn’t been for years.

A quick synopsis of the current state of play: due to rebuilding works, the Curragh continues to race in 2017 and 2018 with temporary facilities in place and a maximum capacity of 6,000 which includes the typical 1,000 bodies on track in a professional capacity like jockeys, stewards, catering staff and so on. Of the four days’ racing so far at the track in 2017, I’ve been there twice and it’s been dry on both occasions so my perspective isn’t tarnished by bad weather; in its current state, it would be a very unpleasant place to watch racing if there is rain. The configuration of the facilities is very tight with a small stand that is close to the racing surface but with no elevation which makes viewing difficult. This has not been helped by an altering of camera angles, likely due to positions in some of the formerly permanent structures being removed, which make it hard to see what is going on at a track where the layout doesn’t make viewing easy to start with. All in all, it’s a pretty poor customer experience.

Not that you’d know that from the comments of decision makers in Irish racing. CEO of the Curragh Racecourse Limited, Derek McGrath, has asked racegoers to come out and support the track at this time but racegoers could rightly ask what the course is doing for them. McGrath at least has the excuse of not being part of the previous regime at the Curragh, but the place has been badly-run for years. I’ve been there when they’ve run out of food in the restaurant, when there is barely a member of staff working the bar, even when a portion of the roof fell in due to a leak in the stands. Only so much of this can be put down to having outdated facilities.

HRI chief executive Brian Kavanagh has talked about the Curragh racing on as ‘short term pain’ but more than that it is unnecessary pain as there is a ready-made solution 55 kilometres up the N7 and around the M50 at Leopardstown. One of his main justifications for the track remaining open in this period was the integrity of the programme; the Curragh had races that simply couldn’t be run elsewhere, least of all Leopardstown with its turning sprint track. This just rings hollow. 2017 has seen more fiddling with the Irish programme book than in any season in my memory with races that were run at one track being moved all over the place and event distances being altered. Leopardstown is a track that successfully hosts what is unequivocally the best race of the Irish flat season every year in the Irish Champion Stakes and the idea that the Curragh’s straight track is somehow fairer is a fallacy; the course has produced many unlucky losers over the years.

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It’s worth considering the overall attendance figures at the Curragh in recent years too. Despite having the best flat racing in the country, the course ranked only seventh in average attendance last year behind Galway, Listowel, Punchestown, Leopardstown, Kilbeggan and Limerick. You can make every excuse for this – the weather, clashes with other sporting events like GAA and mid-summer soccer tournaments, the Irish preference for national hunt over flat – but ultimately these are excuses. There remains an appetite for a day at the races with Irish people, and not just a day of racing and drinking, and the Curragh has many advantages too: it has top-quality racing which can hardly be a negative, it gets to race during the summer and a lot of their meetings are on a Sunday, the traditional day of race-going in Ireland. With its open aspect, bad weather can seem to be magnified at the Curragh but its effect on attendances at the track is overstated; conditions contrasted hugely over the two days of Guineas weekend this year with Saturday a washout and Sunday balmy by comparison but the difference in turnout was minimal with 2,500 the first day and 2,800 the second.

I could be accused of covering this story all too late but it’s worth remembering that news of the 6,000 attendance cap was released in February and it is only now that we have been able to see the facilities in action after four meetings. There has been plenty of comment to the effect that people need to tolerate it now but while the ‘just put up with it’ attitude can serve you well in life, it’s also the kind of thinking that prevents change for the better from happening. Of course, the 6,000 person limit is only likely to be broken twice in the year at the Curragh – on Irish Derby day and on the second day of Irish Champions Weekend, cards that attracted crowds of 18,244 and 9,255 respectively in 2016. But that’s still over 15,000 people who attended last year that can’t come this year and that’s the sort of thing that engenders plenty of bad will; those customers will surely find something else to do instead. Again, Leopardstown could provide the solution having comfortably had crowds in excess of 17,000 at the second day of their Christmas Festival the last two years and in cold weather too.

All of this makes me angry, perhaps irrationally so, and it is only a racecourse after all. Regardless of temporary facilities, I’m still going to attend the Curragh this year and next – though probably not when it rains – as I enjoy live sport and none more than racing. I also look forward to the new Curragh in 2019 where you will likely be able to kick football through the halls on quieter days but that has its benefits too. This two-year interlude does the course no favours however and reflects an attitude that the racegoer doesn’t really matter to them.

- Tony Keenan

Irish Angle: A Trainer for Every Season

The vagaries of trainer form, those often-elusive shifts in the wellbeing of a yard’s horses, have never done anything for me as a punting angle, on Irish racing at least. With a limited programme book relative to the UK, the sample sizes are just too small be to be meaningful and fleeting veins of form seem to be constantly beyond a bettor’s grasp; it is only with hindsight that we can recognise a good or bad period. What looks like a pattern is often just noise and certainly the perception of a trainer going badly would not put me off a bet.

But what if we could broaden the sample a little and try to predict when a stable will go in or out of form? Discussions of trainer form tend to be limited to what the trainer is doing in the current moment or the weeks previous but what if we look back at how they did at the same time of the season in the previous years? At least this way we have a much greater number of races to evaluate and we can see if form at different parts of the calendar is repeatable from season to season.

For the purposes of this article, I used the excellent HorseRaceBase database [though this research can now be done using Geegeez' own Query Tool (£) - Ed.] to look at Irish flat races run with the traditional flat season from 2010 to 2016, a total of 6,538 races. I divided the season into four sections: Spring (March and April), Early Summer (May and June), High Summer (July and August) and Autumn (September, October and the odd race in the November). Not all seasons are equal however as the distribution of races far from even:

 

Stage of Season Number of Races Percentage of Races
Spring 804 12.3%
Early Summer 1,951 29.8%
High Summer 2,179 33.3%
Autumn 1,604 24.6%

 

I’m going to present the top ten trainers from each point of the season with all the usual measures with overall strikerate used as the key figure before going deeper on a trainer or two that could be worth following within that period.

 

Spring

Trainer Wins Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
D. Weld 88 21.4% -56.82 0.96
A. O’Brien 91 20.9% -74.77 0.83
F. Stack 38 20.4% -7.06 1.11
J. Oxx 27 17.3% -12.59 0.90
J. Harrington 21 14.0% -8.66 1.10
K. Prendergast 29 12.9% -72.19 0.83
J. Bolger 66 12.7% -75.93 0.85
P. Deegan 28 12.6% +67.96 0.98
G. Lyons 28 11.8% +10.16 0.92
K. Condon 14 10.3% -19.67 1.07

 

The early months of the flat season present an interesting challenge for trainers and there are pros and cons to having their horses ready from the start. Some of your opposition will be playing the long game and aiming to peak their horses later on in the year and if you can try to acquire soft ground types there are some relatively uncompetitive races out there. However, there simply aren’t very many of those races, March and April making up just 12.3% of the overall total, and even if you train a big winner you will be in competition with national hunt racing for column inches. A hot start in the first two months might feel great at the time but there is an opportunity cost here; it could be a long, lean summer if a trainer goes for everything early as their horses become badly handicapped and/or suffer a loss of form.

Two trainers that have long proved willing to pay that cost are Fozzy Stack and Paul Deegan. Obviously Stack has only recently taking out the licence in his own right but by all accounts things are basically as was in his Golden yard from when his father held the license. He wasn’t hanging about again in 2017 with seven winners in the first two months of the season and that’s something that has been a long-standing pattern with this operation; taking the season in four stages listed above, strikerate goes from 20.4% in spring to 15.9% and 16.1% in the two summer phases before dropping to 10% in autumn.

Paul Deegan’s horses are never better than early in the season, his average strikerate of 8.3% rising to 12.6% in the March and April period. The summer stages are rough on him though with May/June returns of 6.7% and 5.2% in July/August before a rebound of sorts at the backend with his autumn strikerate back up to 10% flat. Perhaps his horses take time to overcome their early exertions or it could be a case that the ground is most suitable at the start and finish of the season.

 

Early Summer

Trainer Wins Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
A. O’Brien 215 22.2% -122.81 0.89
D. Weld 143 17.4% -192.88 0.87
J. Oxx 68 16.9% -119.95 0.80
G. Lyons 106 15.9% -22.34 0.99
C. O’Brien 27 12.9% -6.11 1.07
J. Bolger 123 12.8% -161.62 0.86
F. Stack 36 11.7% -78.21 0.77
K. Prendergast 54 11.2% -175.69 0.73
E. Lynam 39 11.1% -96.87 0.88
J. Harrington 49 10.9% -154.00 0.81

 

Summer races, be they in the early or late high season, are by definition easier to win as they simply attract smaller field sizes; the average strikerates for all horses in this period is typically around 9% whereas that number drops towards the end of the campaign as trainers rush to run their horses before the turf seasons dwindles to nothing.

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One trainer to make the most of these opportunities is Charles O’Brien and it was a surprise to see him rank fifth overall in strikerate at this time of the year as his general rates of return are mediocre; this is a trainer who has had just one Group race winner since 2011. But come May and June his horses appear to find form and it isn’t just the result of one or two fluky good years; in the past seven seasons, he has managed an actual over expected of 1.0 or greater five times. Though without a winner thus far in 2017, he could be about to hit form.

 

High Summer 

Trainer Wins Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
A. O’Brien 247 22.9% -235.56 0.91
W. Mullins 29 21.3% -30.60 0.87
D. Weld 165 18.4% -255.95 0.86
A. Slattery 22 17.9% +26.33 1.60
J. Oxx 72 17.2% -91.68 0.81
G. Lyons 96 16.1% -113.91 0.94
J. Bolger 121 14.0% -202.06 0.87
E. Lynam 54 13.7% +37.87 0.95
J. Murtagh 30 13.6% -23.59 0.90
D. Hogan 19 13.6% -3.22 1.09

 

Rightly or wrongly, high summer in Irish racing means one thing: Galway. It is thus no surprise to see trainers that do well at this meeting, like Willie Mullins and Denis Hogan, in the overall top ten for this time of year. The racing at Galway is very competitive with races there frequently over-subscribed but if you have your string in good order aiming at that meeting then the knock-on effect is that they will win at the many other fixtures that are on around this time.

Mullins is a high strikerate trainer by any definition of the term as we saw this past national hunt season when he retained his title despite having appreciably fewer runners than Gordon Elliott. Of his 29 winners in the period covered, seven of those came at Galway where he was top trainer last year, finally ending the reign of Dermot Weld. And remember, this doesn’t include his winners under national hunt rules! Hogan, incidentally, trained five Galway winners from his total of 19.

Andy Slattery is another trainer that does well at this period of the season but while he did have two winners at Galway in 2016 it seems more a by-product of his star horses peaking at this stage of year. Ucanchoose won six times in the months of July and August while An Saighduir won five times; both of those appear on the downgrade now but Creggs Pipes (three wins) and Sors (two wins) might fill the breach. It needs pointing out that Slattery seems to be suffering a hangover (or natural regression if you prefer) from last year’s excellent campaign and is without a winner in 2017.

 

Autumn

Trainer Wins Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
A. O’Brien 191 17.8% -307.69 0.88
D. Weld 125 15.2% -185.97 0.85
G. Lyons 68 11.7% +11.69 1.00
M. Halford 81 10.7% -196.25 0.89
J. Oxx 40 10.4% -163.00 0.69
K. Condon 26 10.4% -52.93 0.91
E. Lynam 40 10.3% -128.76 0.85
P. Deegan 34 10.2% -42.47 0.97
F. Stack 23 10.0% -60.92 0.83
W. McCreery 38 9.7% -48.62 0.90

 

Almost every trainer sees their strikerate drop off at the end of the season for one simple reason; races are harder to win as the field sizes balloon. As mentioned above, Deegan is someone who sees a bounce-back while the Stack’s 10% return at this time may not be as bad as it seems; the point of comparison here probably shouldn’t be his earlier numbers but those of other trainers around him.

The reason for races being more competitive at this time of year is clear and can be seen best by placing the national hunt and flat seasons alongside one another. When the jumps season concludes, jumps racing just carries on; after Punchestown, there’s another meeting two days later and there are plenty of classy races through the summer at tracks like Killarney and Galway. When the flat stops, it stops and trainers are left with the sole option of the all-weather; to Dundalk or a winter break, you might say.

Readers may have noticed I have avoided referring to the major yards throughout this article; it was intentional as I want to return to those bigger yards next time where I will also look at what if anything all this might mean in the current campaign.

- Tony Keenan

Tony Keenan: Three Hot Takes

I appreciate these are much more cold cuts than hot takes but I’ve been away for a while and there has been plenty going on in Irish racing, on and off the track, that is worthy of comment, writes Tony Keenan.

 

Drugs in Racing?

Back on April 2nd, John Mooney of The Times reported on a case involving vet Tim Brennan who had been found to have some unauthorised animal medication in his possession during a routine inspection by an investigations unit of the Department of Agriculture and the Turf Club at the yard of Willie Mullins.

Mooney, and basically everyone else who has reported on the story since, was at pains to point out that Mullins is in no way implicated in this. Much of what I have read since suggests this is the case and it could be nothing more than some over-zealous animal product legislation by our authorities. But still: here we have a vet who at the very least is willing to bend the rules and also has some relationship with Ireland’s Champion Trainer. I don’t think you have to be a conspiracy theorist – and racing has plenty of those, you need only visit your local betting office – to feel a more thorough explanation is needed.

People are very sceptical of sport in the modern era and with good reason. The curtain has been pulled back on many seemingly immense achievements in areas like track and field and cycling but in these sports it often obvious that athletes are pushing the boundaries of credibility; there is only so fast a human can run ten kilometres in, only so quick they can cycle up Mont Ventoux.

Seemingly impossible performances are much less obvious in racing. Track records aren’t really a thing and few would have any awareness of them aside from the most obvious examples like the Grand National. These records are often not held by the best horses, but rather those that encountered the ideal circumstances of pace, ground and perhaps wind assistance. Then there’s the obvious point that you are dealing with animals and not humans which adds further complicating factors: a horse cannot tell you it feels like pushing it harder in this session or could do with a rest, try as horsemen might to ascertain this.

Were the Brennan case to present itself in another sport, especially one where the public are already sceptical, I suspect there would be an attitude, rightly or wrongly, of guilt by association. This seems not to have been the case with Mullins and Brennan and I’m unsure whether this reflects well or badly on racing. The responsibility should fall to those involved – allowing that the case is ongoing – to offer some sort of explanation as to what unfolded; to says ‘everything is fine here, nothing to see, move along’ is not enough and while those sentiments may be true we’d all like to know why. Racing should seek to answer these questions as the last thing you want is a sport tarnished with drug innuendo when you’ve got enough effort issues already.

 

Rule 212

For the first time in my memory – perhaps ever – Irish racing has put the punter in a position of prominence with the Turf Club’s new non-trier directive, Rule 212. The wording of this ruling mentions the appearance of rides to ‘a reasonable and informed member of the racing public’, the fictive man in the stands if you like, allowing that now that man is more likely to be sitting at home watching on AtTheRaces with the facility to pause and rewind any race he wishes. That in itself is an important point as the ability to rewatch a race does allow for the development of more informed opinions.

As a punter, I find it hard to be against this rule in any way; it would be akin to turkeys voting for Christmas. All the stuff about the importance of punters and how they fund racing apply here but in Ireland it is a little more complicated than that as racing’s finances are greatly assisted by a healthy government subsidy each year provided by the taxpayer. If anything, this should make the authorities stricter in their desire to have a well-policed sport; it should not be set up for a coterie of elites but rather for the good of the general public who want a straight game.

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And yet I did struggle with this new rule upon first introduction because I have been conditioned by watching Irish racing over the years and come to tolerate what are known as educational rides. I initially felt the rule change was over-zealous but, having thought about it further, it has to be better than the alternative when the stewards are basically turning a blind eye to horses not trying to achieve their best finishing position providing they were early in their career. It seems as if jockeys and trainers are getting it too judging by some of the comments made by the likes of Robbie Power and Johnny Murtagh since the rule has been brought in.

Horsemen will argue that forceful rides early in a horse’s career could set it back and prevent it from fulfilling its potential. I’m sceptical about this for a few reasons. Firstly, no sensible punter – the people who the rule apparently caters for – is demanding that a horse be beaten up on debut; they should however be given a ride where the intention is to win if this is possible. The idea that horses come to the track clueless as to what is expected there isn’t acceptable; trainers can and should be able to educate them at home to a certain standard and show it what racing is about. In any case, if a horse’s future is going to be so utterly compromised by a vigorous ride I would question if it was ever going to amount to much. If a horseman can explain why this might be the case I would appreciate it but my inclination is to doubt it and view such arguments as excuses.

 

Gigginstown and the Irish National

This is nowhere near as important as the issues dealt with above but I have to admit to finding the Irish National with its 13 Gigginstown-owned runners a pretty unedifying spectacle, allowing that there is basically nothing that can be done about it and any capping of the number of runners an owner can have would be anti-competitive. Perhaps it’s just my desire for sportsmanship rather than gamesmanship that would have preferred to see a greater spread of runners and I suspect Michael O’Leary took a certain joy in running all his horses if only to cock a snook at some racing people. The owner has made a billion euro business out of not doing what he was told and has to be the least "racing" person ever in the sense that he doesn’t abide by the traditions and expected norms of the sport.

But O’Leary is not deaf to welfare concerns – he seemingly blamed the allotted weight for the death of his Hear The Echo in the 2009 Grand National – and there might be some questions to answer on that front. He declared a few horses patently unsuitable for the race in the likes of The Game Changer (a horse who had failed to last out the Grand Annual trip on his previous start) but more worrying than that was the decision to run all five of his Aintree National horses again at Fairyhouse nine days later. He wasn’t the only one to do this – Henry De Bromhead ran Stellar Notion in both races – but it all seemed a bit one-size-fits-all, something passengers on O’Leary’s airline will be well used to!

The Grand National at Aintree is routinely described as one of the toughest races of the season and while modifications to the conditions have made it easier, it is still beyond four miles and not every horse will recover from that in little over a week. Only one of the Gigginstown horses completed the Aintree course but both Rogue Angel and Wounded Warrior went deep into the race and all five had to travel across the Irish Sea and back.

All of this does have a punting application, one I wish I had spotted beforehand. The multiple Gigginstown runners weakened the race considerably as quite a few had little form chance at least judged by the market; when I looked at the betting the day before, 10 of their runners were in the back 12 of the betting with only 2 in the front 12. Granted normal luck-in-running, not always a given in a National, this considerably improved the chances of the other runners as the race had artificial rather than real depth to it. The front end of the betting was quite solid – the favourite won with a pair of fancied runners chasing him home – and it is something that we should be looking out for in the future.

- Tony Keenan

Reviewing the Festival: 5 Things

2017 was a weird Festival, writes Tony Keenan. It began with Gordon Elliott winning novice races with Labaik and Tiger Roll, the former one refusal away from a lengthy ban on his previous start, the latter landing a National Hunt Chase run over nearly twice as far as his previous major win in the Triumph Hurdle. It ended with Paul Nicholls seemingly ecstatic at breaking his duck for the week in the Foxhunter with Pacha Du Polder, a far cry from his previous multiple Grade 1-winning Festivals. In between we had Willie Mullins draw a blank on Tuesday and Wednesday, his yard apparently out of form and his gallops all wrong, only for him to storm back with six winners across the final two days.

There are always things to be learned from these major meetings and while it’s important not to overreact to the evidence of just four days, there were certainly a few takeaways.

 

  1. Relative Sanity in the Betting Markets

By the standards of recent Cheltenhams, the offer culture among the big bookmakers wasn’t as prevalent; there was nothing close to the each-way five places offered by William Hill back in the 2013 Supreme. There were extra places on offer in obvious races like the Coral Cup, Pertemps Final and County Hurdle but not so much in the shoulder races; judging on the Pricewise tables from the Racing Post, there were just two firms that offered extended place terms in the Foxhunter as opposed to six in 2016.

The extra place concession is fine as a once-off – Coral going six places in the Coral Cup, say – but in the main it’s a losing proposition for bookmakers, where they are putting the maths in favour of the punter and conceding that they are willing to lose money in the race, all things being equal.

There were also reduced terms in the graded races from a long way out: where once these races were all a quarter the odds a place, now the universal terms seem to be a fifth. That’s clearly a negative for punters looking to bet each-way and find a solid horse to hit the frame and while there were a number of races during the week that set up well as ‘bad each-way’ events like the Arkle, Champion Chase and JLT, they would have been all the more appealing if it were a quarter the odds a place. Furthermore, there didn’t seem to be the wild push to be a standout top price everything on the odds comparison sites that there had been previously. The likes of Native River and Cue Card may have drifted on the morning of the Gold Cup to their biggest price in a few weeks, but that was more due to support for Djakadam than their weakness, and nor did price pushes on the Supreme favourites Ballyandy and Melon come to pass.

It’s difficult to say what the reasons for this might be. Last year’s results when one favourite after another went in clearly played their part; the firms didn’t get away with overly-generous offers then and may have learned from it. On the whole, this is good for racing as it is hardly ideal that the sport’s banner meeting be used as a loss leader for other betting products; the firms would be unlikely to do the same for a major football tournament. Hopefully such a sensible approach will continue next year.

 

  1. Competitive Irish Scene leads to Green-wash?

Michael O’Leary talked a whole lot of rubbish in the run-up to Cheltenham and it continued last week with his comments about the Irish/English rivalry and his dismissal of Martin Pipe winner Champagne Classic as ‘probably the worst horse I have.’ It seems he is just as successful at winding racing people up as he is with government ministers! Those at the top of Irish racing might want to drop him a little thank you card for his contribution to the record week for Irish trainers at the meeting however as his decision to move his horses from Willie Mullins (along with some rotten injury luck for that trainer) could well have played a part in Irish trainers doing so well.

It’s been the most competitive Irish national hunt season since the Mullins hegemony began but while the betting beforehand suggested Ireland would struggle at the meeting – Ireland were priced up at a general 7/2 for the BetBright Cup having been more like 7/4 last year – the opposite proved to be case. Gordon Elliott basically continued to do what he’s been doing at home all season while both Henry De Bromhead and Noel Meade backed up excellent home campaigns with Festival winners. Jessica Harrington had been quietly having a good run in Ireland all season but there was nothing quiet about her Festival where she had three winners. There was certainly a sense of what might have been with Willie Mullins however; to manage six winners off the back of the season he’s had was a deeply impressive effort.

 

  1. Slipping Standards in Championship Races, Handicaps more Competitive than ever

The rash of injuries among the top jumpers lowered the standard of the championship races and while these races were a spectacle – the Festival always is – it is doubtful that Buveur D’Air, Special Tiara, Nichols Canyon and Sizing John will echo down the halls of history in the same manner of Istabraq, Big Buck’s or Best Mate. I’m biased but Sizing John might prove about the best of those as he’s just a different horse this season, his sole defeat coming to Douvan when conceding fitness to that one on his first run of 2016/17, and I wonder if he might even give a healthy version of that horse something to think about over a strongly-run twenty furlongs now.

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The handicaps were a different story entirely, proving ultra-competitive and over-subscribed in a season where races like the Betfair Hurdle and Imperial Cup struggled to attract decent fields. Unsurprisingly, they took plenty of winning with horses like Un Temps Pour Tout (Racing Post Rating of 164 in winning), Supasundae (RPR 155), Presenting Percy (RPR 155) and Arctic Fire (RPR 160) all looking like they could make an impact at Grade 1 level sooner rather than later.

 

  1. Riding their Luck

I wrote about luck, good and bad, in this space prior to the meeting and it’s worth briefly revisiting those figures for trainers over this year’s meeting.

 

Trainer Winners Seconds Places (2nd, 3rd and 4th) Places to Winners Ratio Sub-2.0 Trades
G. Elliott 6 3 7 1.16 0
W. Mullins 6 2 7 1.15 4
N. Henderson 3 6 13 4.33 2
J. Harrington 3 0 0 0.00 0
H. De Bromhead 1 2 4 4.00 0
P. Hobbs 1 1 2 2.00 1
N. Meade 1 0 2 2.00 0
J. O’Neill 0 2 2 0.00 0
H. Fry 0 1 3 0.00 2
A. King 0 0 4 0.00 0

 

Jessica Harrington looks to have benefitted from the perfect storm of things falling right though it would be hard to say that any of Supasundae, Sizing John and Rock The World were anything other than deserving winners and she did have Champion Bumper fancy Someday ruled out on the morning of the race. Her close friend Nicky Henderson was the unlucky one in terms of places to winners ratio, allowing that one of his seconds (Whisper) came in a race he won anyway. The in-running trades point to Harry Fry being a bit unlucky too.

 

  1. Excuse Obvious ‘Excuse Horses’

Plenty of us will have backed a horse that will have run terribly last week [I didn’t back many who didn’t run terribly – Ed.] and in the main Cheltenham is one of those unique tracks where you can probably forgive a bad run. There were a number of horses that stood out as obvious ‘excuse horses’ with bona fide reasons for not being able to run to form and if you liked them going into the meeting, it could be worth sticking with them for the rest of the spring.

That list includes but is not limited to: Ballyandy (troubled trip), Bacardys (badly hampered), Bon Papa (lost his action), Automated (found to be lame), Mister Miyagi (troubled trip), Douvan (injured) Linger (lame), Flying Angel (badly hampered), Potters Legend (jumped like his feet were tied together), Ex Patriot (got loose beforehand), and Constantine Bay (run stopped at a crucial time).

I’m not saying I like all these horses to win in the near-term – in fact I don’t – but they all had very legitimate reasons for not running to their best. I won’t do all the hard work for you however so get reviewing those replays and start trawling through the BHA post-race reports, painful though they may be!

- Tony Keenan

Cheltenham Festival: The Role of Luck

When the Festival concludes next Friday, praise will be variously doled to the talent involved, writes Tony Keenan. Horses, trainers, jockeys, maybe even stable staff, will get credit for their efforts in victory. Much of it will be deserved but the one thing unlikely to be mentioned is luck.

Part of this is simply our thinking biases; humans operate under the illusion of control, overestimating the role we play in outcomes. Another aspect is that luck is hard to quantify in racing; we can all recall specific examples of luck in action, when a horse fell when seemingly going best or failed to get a clear run when travelling strongly or simply a narrow defeat, but gauging trainers who are the victims of variance over time is more difficult. Surely not all of them are equally lucky, especially at the Cheltenham Festival where there are only 28 races, a very small sample size.

Data analysts or sabremetricians have sought to quantify this in other sports, specifically those based in the US. Pythagorean expectation, the formula that estimates how many games a team should have won based on their scoring, have proven a better predictor of future success than past win-loss records in sports in baseball, basketball and American football. These theories have crossed into European soccer too with numbers on shots, shot quality and expected goals now playing a part in some sensible conversations on the sport.

Translating this into racing isn’t easy but it seemed worth a try going back as far as the 2010 Festival.

Rather than taking just one criterion, I decided to use three to see if the same trainers were unlucky across the different metrics. Firstly, the old favourite expected winners -the number of winners a trainer should have had judged on market prices - to see who was lucky and unlucky, overachieving and underachieving. From there, I took the number of seconds and placed runs relative to winners to uncover who was getting close without winning.

Finally, I looked at the in-running markets from Betfair for all the races since 2010 to see how many odds-on in-running trades trainers had, as sometimes the place results may not tell the whole truth, for instance when a horse that looked set to be involved in the finish fell close home. I used 2.0 as my cut-off point as an odds-on trade reflects a view held by someone (rightly or wrongly) that a horse was more likely than not to win a race at a given point.

 

Cheltenham Festival: Trainer Performance Based on Market Expectation

Trainer Actual Wins Expected Wins Difference Actual/Expected
W. Mullins 33 29.5 +3.5 1.12
N. Henderson 21 21.8 -0.8 0.96
P. Nicholls 15 18.0 -3.0 0.83
D. Pipe 11 9.9 +1.1 1.11
JJ. O’Neill 10 6.2 +3.8 1.61
G. Elliott 8 5.3 +2.7 1.51
N. Twiston-Davies 7 5.2 +1.8 1.35
P. Hobbs 7 6.6 +0.4 1.06
C. Tizzard 5 3.3 +1.7 1.51
R. Curtis 4 1.6 +2.4 2.50
T. Martin 4 1.7 +2.3 2.35
D. McCain 4 3.5 +0.5 1.14
A. King 4 6.5 -2.5 0.61
J. Culloty 3 0.3 +2.7 10.00
E. Bolger 3 3.1 -0.1 0.97
H. De Bromhead 3 2.4 +0.6 1.25

 

It seems scarcely credible but these figures suggest the Festival markets still hasn’t totally caught up with Willie Mullins; he is outperforming expectations despite breaking records at the meeting.

Perhaps this year, when the yard has had so much bad luck ahead of the meeting, will finally see his runners overbet. Paul Nicholls could be Mullins of five years in the future; after a period of being top trainer at the meeting (he won it five times between 2004 and 2009), he now has one of the poorer records among the top trainers, with only Alan King having a lower actual/expected figure.

This is the top group of trainers in terms of winners sent out at the meeting, however, and unsurprisingly most are doing better and/or are luckier than the betting suggests. That could well simply reflect their skill and the quality of their horses but one obvious conclusion is that there must be an awful lot of smaller yards really struggling for a winner who have negative figures.

Gordon Elliott and Jonjo O’Neill are two that stand out in terms of luck though with Elliott it seems likely the market will take full cognisance of the level he is currently operating at; whereas in past seasons, he was slightly under-the-radar, now he is a presumptive Champion Trainer with the favourite or second favourite in seemingly every handicap at the meeting. O’Neill is a different case and his results might be down to how his stable performs through the winter; it seems that every March, his runners come into the Festival under a cloud and the markets have to have them at bigger prices as a result.

Alan King is one of the unluckiest big trainers – a point we’ll return to later – while Jim Culloty is the luckiest and it’s not even close. His actual over expected ratio is off the charts but this looks a case of pure randomness rather than skill; everything else we have seen in his training career thus far says he is not this good and, realistically, no trainer could maintain such figures. Trusting those figures and betting his horses at the Festival would be to fall prey to an extreme form of survivorship bias.

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Cheltenham Festival: Seconds and Places

Trainer Wins Seconds Difference Places (2nd, 3rd and 4th) Winners to Places Ratio
W. Mullins 33 22 +11 69 2.09
N. Henderson 21 21 0 57 2.71
P. Nicholls 15 19 -4 43 2.87
D. Pipe 11 9 +2 24 2.18
JJ. O’Neill 10 8 +2 15 1.50
G. Elliott 8 7 +1 22 2.75
N. Twiston-Davies 7 6 +1 14 2.00
P. Hobbs 7 2 +5 18 2.58
C. Tizzard 5 2 +3 8 1.60
R. Curtis 4 0 +4 3 0.75
T. Martin 4 1 +3 5 1.25
D. McCain 4 5 -1 8 2.00
A. King 4 6 -2 25 6.25
J. Culloty 3 0 +3 0 0.00
E. Bolger 3 2 +1 5 1.67
H. De Bromhead 3 4 -1 10 3.33
D. Weld 2 3 -1 4 2.oo
M. Morris 1 5 -4 7 7.00
N. Meade 1 2 -1 9 9.00
E. Lavelle 1 3 -2 5 5.00
M. Keighley 0 3 -3 5 0.00
T. George 0 3 -3 8 0.00
N. Williams 0 1 -1 11 0.00

 

In terms of simple winners to seconds difference, Mullins comes off best again. Philip Hobbs is next in with five more winners than runners-up while Rebecca Curtis could well be called "the milk-woman" in that she always delivers with not a single runner-up and only three places to go against her four winners. The unlucky trainers in this regard are Paul Nicholls, Mouse Morris, Martin Keighley and Tom George.

Winners to place ratio is simply places divided by winners; the places here don’t include winners. By my reckoning, a ratio of above 3.00 suggests bad luck while below suggests good luck; there are 3 places available in each race with only one win. Alan King’s misfortune is the one that jumps out here with an amazing 25 places to four winners for a ratio of 6.25 which is more than double what would typically be expected. Both Mouse Morris and Noel Meade have higher ratios but King’s comes from a bigger sample size. Nick Williams, too, has had a lot of horses run well without winning and is still waiting for a first Festival winner.

 

Cheltenham Festival: In-running Trades

Trainer Sub-2.0 Trades Winners Difference
W. Mullins 20 33 +13
N. Henderson 19 21 +2
P. Nicholls 17 15 -2
D. Pipe 11 11 0
G. Elliott 10 8 -2
JJ. O’Neill 6 10 +3
A. King 6 4 -1
N. Twiston-Davies 4 7 +3
E. Bolger 4 3 -1
T. George 4 0 -4
M. Keighley 4 0 -4
N. Williams 3 0 -3
D. McCain 3 4 +1
M. Morris 3 1 -2

 

These in-running histories would surely make for grim reading for many a punter though perhaps not as much as they do for Paul Nicholls; in back-to-back renewals of the Gold Cup in 2010 and 2011 he watched both Kauto Star and Denman trade odds-on in-running before getting beaten. That’s rough.

Nicky Henderson – 2011 Supreme with both Spirit Son and Sprinter Sacre – was only other trainer that happened to in the period covered. These Betfair numbers basically back up a lot of what we’ve seen already: Willie Mullins, Jonjo O’Neill and Nigel Twiston-Davies have been lucky; Tom George, Martin Keighley and Nick Williams have not.

So who should we be looking at for some regression, positive or negative, next week?

Overall, Willie Mullins, Rebecca Curtis and Jonjo O’Neill might see their winners drop while Tom George, Martin Keighley, Noel Meade and Alan King could be heading the other way. That of course depends on whether you think they were lucky or good and as they always say, it’s better to be the former than the latter!

- Tony Keenan

Trending Towards Cheltenham

Trends can be a dirty word at this time of year. Cheltenham is peak ten-year-patterns season and believers will be trotting out lines about five-year-olds and the Champion Hurdle as the sample size boys argue back with doubts about the statistical significance of such numbers, writes Tony Keenan. I’d tend towards the latter group more than the former, allowing that these amateur ‘statisticians’ do stumble upon the odd interesting angle.

The patterns I’m interested in here however are more general ones about the Irish national hunt season and given we’ve had 1,154 races run in the 2016/17 campaign (as of Monday February 2oth) that seems a fair sample size. There has been some strange stuff going on this season, at least when compared with the ones that went before, and it is worth considering how these might impact events at Cheltenham in three weeks.

 

Willie Mullins – The Nightmare Season

"Nightmare" might be a little strong when comparing the Mullins campaign to most other yards in the country but that’s not really the point; for years now, the only real comparison for Mullins has been himself. Using those standards, 2016/17 has been disappointing even allowing that the reasons for the disimprovement are mainly obvious: the loss of the Gigginstown horses and a run of injury misfortune that the yard had previously avoided.

No yard can sustain those sorts of losses and hope to compete at or near the same level as previously. This though is not fully reflected in the ante-post markets for the Festival where Mullins is a top price of 8/13 to be the leading trainer at the meeting as well as having the first or second favourite in 13 of the 28 races at present. Cards on the table time: I think this is crazy and punters adopting the Mullins strategy to the meeting – where you find the short-priced Closutton horse and back it – seem destined to lose this year.

Let’s consider the type of horse Mullins tends to win with at the meeting by price, going back as far as the 2010 Festival:

Starting Price Wins Runs Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Actual/Expected
3/1 or shorter 21 34 61.2% 30 88.2% 1.41
10/3 or longer 12 242 5.0% 56 23.1% 0.62

 

That Mullins wins with short-priced horses is up there with "dog bites man" in terms of newsworthiness but the ruthless efficiency with which his bankers run well is striking; only 4 of the 34 horses priced 3/1 or shorter in this period failed to hit the frame. Basically, Mullins wins with the horses the formbook flags up and – in the main – a lot of his bigger priced runners are overbet due to his reputation.

It’s been a broadly similar story on the home front this season too. Of the 147 winners he’s had in 2016/17, only two were returned at 11/2 or bigger. His ability as a target trainer was in full evidence this Christmas when he had 22 winners across the two Irish meetings at Leopardstown and Limerick but again their SP returns were striking; the biggest price was 9/2, the next two were 3/1 and 7/4 with 13 of them sent off at odds-on.

The problem for Mullins going into Cheltenham is he simply doesn’t have that many of this type of horse. There is no Faugheen, Annie Power, Vautour or Min, all of whom would likely have been short prices for their respective targets and his number of sub-3/1 runners is likely to be well down on the eight there have been in each of the past two Festivals. As things stands, Mullins looks to have four such types this year – Douvan, Vroum Vroum Mag (if she runs in the Mares), Yorkhill (again, if he runs in the JLT) and Airlie Beach – with the slight possibility that Melon, Un De Sceaux and Carter McKay could shorter further.

The shortage of bankers also has negative knock-on effects for the overall Mullins challenge. There was a time when Mullins could redirect some of his second-tier types into handicaps instead of running them in graded races as he already had a strong fancy for the latter race – an example would be Arctic Fire running in the 2014 County Hurdle when the trainer won the same year’s Supreme with Vautour – but that may not be the case in 2017. Something like Royal Caviar might have gone to the Grand Annual if Min had been fit for the Arkle but he will now likely go to the novice race; the replacement level talent simply isn’t there now.

Perhaps Mullins will surprise us all with another big Festival but the evidence of this season and comparison points with seasons past suggest otherwise. The trainer’s winners line for the meeting is set at 5.5 currently (it was 7.5 in 2016) and while the under is a chalky 4/6, it should win. The 8/13 about him being top trainer is tight too – the top trainer at this year’s meeting could easily win with just four or five winners – while a knock-on effect is Ruby Walsh’s price of 8/11 for top jockey being under the odds, too, as he is unlikely to ride for anyone else at the meeting.

 

The Henry and Noel Show

Gordon Elliott has understandably garnered the bulk of the attention in this season’s narrative but one shouldn’t forget the rise of Henry de Bromhead and the resurgence of Noel Meade. Both yards have made life difficult for Mullins though their strong campaigns have come in different ways. De Bromhead is having a career season when compared with his 5-year numbers:

 

Henry de Bromhead Last Five Seasons

Season Wins Runners Strikerate Level Stakes A/E
2016/17 62 355 17.5% -38.41 0.96
2015/16 48 296 16.2% -49.25 0.92
2014/15 49 325 15.1% -68.75 0.88
2013/14 48 315 15.2% -98.77 0.89
2012/13 32 220 14.6% -87.02 0.75

 

The basic winners/runners figures stand out here; with his numbers having levelled off in the three previous seasons, they have sky-rocketed in 2016/17 to such a point that before the end of February he has already left his previous best behind. An improved strikerate shouldn’t be forgotten though and it would have been hard to foresee this at the end of the summer when Alan Potts removed the remainder of his horses from the yard. It is the increased support of Gigginstown that has brought this improvement about: where de Bromhead was a minor part of that operation prior to the current season, he has essentially become their second trainer after Gordon Elliott with a long distance back to the third.

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As I write, Gigginstown have supplied 19 winners and 82 runners for de Bromhead but the trainer has certainly played his part too, improving a number of horses that came from other yards. Sub Lieutenant has risen 18lbs in the ratings, Petit Mouchoir 15lbs and Valseur Lido 6lbs while he has also drawn improvement from Roger Brookhouse horses like Champagne West (12lbs), Stellar Notion (12lbs) and Some Plan (hard to judge as has switched from chasing but has won thrice including the Irish Arkle).

It should be pointed out that similar has happened with some of the Potts horses leaving de Bromhead, Viconte Du Noyer looking a different horse for Colin Tizzard and Sizing John developing into a Gold Cup contender for Jessica Harrington. Potts has been a whipping boy for his perceived disloyalty to de Bromhead but it’s hard to argue that the split hasn’t worked out for both of them and looking at these results perhaps the whole trainer loyalty angle is overdone.

Where de Bromhead has thrived with horses he has acquired from other yards, Meade has worked well with what he already had in his stable; he did get some Gigginstown switchers but by and large they have been disappointing.

 

Noel Meade Last Five Seasons

Season Wins Runners Strikerate Level Stakes A/E
2016/17 48 288 16.7% -59.07 0.92
2015/16 30 220 13.6% -81.54 0.91
2014/15 50 344 14.5% -112.98 0.83
2013/14 45 367 12.3% -143.71 0.73
2012/13 47 344 13.7% -135.68 0.71

 

Meade seems certain to have his best season in the last five and it will likely be his best since 2008/9 when he had 62 winners from 486 runners. Like de Bromhead, he has had a much improved strikerate this season and his big successes – Coral Hurdle winner Ice Cold Soul and Flogas Novice Chase victor Disko – were with Gigginstown horses that were already in the yard. His other class horse has been Snow Falcon and like the aforementioned pair he’s a horse that had suffered injury problems in the past; Meade has been excellent this year in keeping his stock sound which has been an issue in seasons past.

Both trainers will be very hopeful of Festival winners and they could hardly be going into the meeting in better order. Petit Mouchoir is the obvious de Bromhead fancy for the Champion Hurdle having won the two key Irish trials (albeit from the same horses in underwhelming renewals) while Champagne West is an outsider with a chance in the Gold Cup after putting up a big figure in the Thyestes. Meade’s Cheltenham woes have been well-covered at this stage but he has two live chances in the novice chases with Disko and the strong-staying A Genie In Abottle.

 

Handicap Kings

Gordon Elliott has been the story of the Irish handicap scene this winter, his series of wins in valuable chases unparalleled in my memory, and not surprisingly comes in at the top of the table of handicap winners in 2016/17:

 

Trainer Wins Runners Strikerate Level Stakes Places Place SR% A/E
G. Elliott 28 305 9.2% -48.75 86 28.2% 0.75
T. Mullins 14 62 22.6% +27.38 34 54.8% 1.46
J. Hanlon 12 101 11.9% +31.50 32 31.7% 1.21
W. Mullins 11 66 16.7% -17.61 23 34.9% 1.16
C. Byrnes 10 52 19.2% -13.12 18 34.6% 1.09
J. Ryan 9 87 10.3% -30.34 21 42.5% 0.89
E. McNamara 9 41 22.0% +49.50 14 34.2% 2.15

 

It’s difficult to know if this is a positive or negative for Elliott’s chances of having handicap winners at Cheltenham: on one hand his horses are going into the meeting in good form but on the other they could find themselves too high in the weights. Chief BHA handicapper, Phil Smith, has tended not to treat the Elliott runners as well as some of those from other Irish yards but the trainer has still managed four Festival handicap winners since 2011 including two last year. One thing we can be sure of is that he will be mob-handed in these races; already this season in Ireland, he has had 305 handicap runners, with Denis Hogan next in with 117 followed by John Hanlon's 101.

Hanlon, aka, "The Shark", has had a quietly strong season in 2016/17 (which is about the only thing that is quiet about him) but his horses simply don’t have high enough marks to get into the Festival races. Tom Mullins’s runners do, however, and he’s been having a brilliant time across the board in terms of winners, strikerate, places and place strikerate. It’s not as if he doesn’t have some pedigree at Cheltenham either, with two handicap winners from eight runners: Alderwood in both cases as he took the County Hurdle and Grand Annual in successive years.

Mullins’s chief patron is of course one John P McManus, not averse to having a Cheltenham winner, and he looks to have three possible runners in Scoir Mear, Oscar Knight and That’s A Wrap. The last two are particularly interesting, Oscar Knight one that looks well-treated if getting his jumping together while That’s A Wrap is a horse that could thrive in a strongly-run race.

- Tony Keenan

Mullins vs Elliott: More Numbers!

Gordon is threatening Willie's hitherto monopoly

Gordon is threatening Willie's hitherto monopoly

Gordon Elliott was interviewed on AtTheRaces recently and in the midst of his conversation with Gary O’Brien the topic of the possibility of his winning the Irish Trainers Championship came up, writes Tony Keenan. ‘Absolutely no chance’ was his answer, a political response no doubt, and one that plenty of our politicians with their limited understanding of probability would be proud of.

The betting markets say otherwise with Elliott an 11/10 shot and Willie Mullins at 4/6, and the pretender surely knows them - or at least has people around him who can tell him. Taking out the over-round, those odds express the view that Mullins has a 56% chance of retaining his title while Elliott has a 44% of winning a first one.

Let’s consider where the respective trainers are in the current season. As of Tuesday, January 24th, Elliott has €2,857,825 in prize-money while Mullins has €2,543,063. Henry De Bromhead is also having a big season and will shatter his previous highs in prize money and winners but for the moment we are concerned with the big two. It’s worth considering what has been needed to win the title in the last few years and how both Mullins and Elliott have done in those campaigns.

 

Mullins Prize money Season Elliott Prize money
€4,489, 105 2015/16 €2,568,750
€4,225,253 2014/15 €1,546,070
€3,908,059 2013/14 €1,134,160
€2,997,713 2012/13 €1,042,995

 

Elliott has been runner-up in each to the last four seasons though his challenge never got closer than the €1,920,355 he was behind last time; it was hardly a meaningful competition with the result a foregone conclusion. But already he has surpassed his 2015/16 figure which has in turn taken some available prize-money away from Mullins; the lofty €4 million figures Mullins won the in the past two seasons may not now be necessary to claim the prize.

Both trainers have their respective strengths and weaknesses, races they do well in and races they struggle in, though struggle is a relative term when you are talking about this level of domination.

 

Elliott and Mullins by Race Type, 2016/17 Season

Mullins Race Type Elliott
10/60 Handicaps 27/280
26/76 Graded/Listed Races 16/76
50/118 Maidens 50/304
17/44 Bumpers 28/97
22/54 Other 20/98
125/352 Total 141/855

 

The sheer scope of the Elliott operation is what stands out; he has had more than double the number of runners that Mullins has had. What is perhaps more amazing is the number of individual horses he has run, 235 and counting as I write. Even in the midst of the Mullins hegemony in the past five years, he never had more than 195 individual runners in a season (that came in 2013/14) while there is a distinct possibility that Elliott goes over 300 for the campaign, a previously unthinkable figure.

One area where Mullins has been notably quiet this season has been handicaps and while he won two feature races at Galway with Clondaw Warrior and Westerner Lady in the summer, his last handicap winner came on the 17th of October at Roscommon with Dreambaby. It’s not so much a case that Mullins has been doing badly in handicaps – his strikerate of 16.7% is well ahead of Elliott’s 9.6% - but rather that he hasn’t been trying particularly hard.

For instance, he took potentially well-treated novices like Haymount and Bellow Mome out of Sunday’s Leopardstown Chase at the five-day stage, a race which Elliott won with a similar type in A Toi Phil. His method of training – his horses are aimed at winning maidens and going on from there – is hardly conducive to landing handicaps and while he will likely run such horses in handicap company as the season goes on, particularly at Punchestown, there is a chance that the bird will have flown. Elliott, of course, is having an A-plus season in valuable handicap chases, winning the Galway Plate, the Kerry and Munster Nationals, the Troytown, Paddy Power, and Dan Moore along with the Leopardstown Chase.

How Mullins responds to the Elliott challenge will be interesting. Will he adapt, or stick to proven methods? Adapting is not as easy as it seems with many trainers over the years trying and failing to change what they are good at, but then Mullins is not your typical trainer. It’s actually less interesting to consider what Elliott will do as the answer seems simple: he will run his horses out, again and again, as he has done throughout his career.

Certainly when it comes to races at the end of the season, he seems the one that is more likely to engage in pot-hunting, giving a horse an extra run that it otherwise may not have had, though Mullins did do some of that last year when trying to win the UK trainers' championship.

Another area where Mullins has pulled back markedly is with his runners this season in the UK. In fact, Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek was his sole runner. That’s a big shift from the last two seasons as you can see below.

I’ve included both the Mullins and Elliott runners in each campaign from the start of the season through to the end of January. Elliott’s numbers have continued to rise whereas Mullins’s have fallen off a cliff – apparently the owner wanted Vroum Vroum Mag to run at Kempton on December 26th but was overruled – though the former’s may need a little context as he is inclined to have runners at the UK gaff tracks that would struggle to win in Ireland. That said, the likes of Apple’s Jade, Balthazar D’Allier and Ucello Conti ran in the UK before the turn of the year.

 

Mullins and Elliott – UK Raiders by Season (to end of January)

Mullins Season Elliott
1/1 2016/17 23/128
9/36 2015/16 24/102
3/20 2014/15 29/83

 

This places Cheltenham in a really unusual spot in 2017. It could be a case that a big Cheltenham for one of the pair proves detrimental to their chances of winning at home and it’s rather like the football fan that has to choose between winning a Premier League and a European Cup. Sensible arguments can be made for both though Elliott having won a Gold Cup but not a trainers' championship might be worth considering.

We’ve been told that Mullins has filled all the boxes that were left empty by the Gigginstown departures but he won’t have replaced like with like; the new inmates will have been younger horses that generally don’t compete in the really valuable races as they take time to mature out of bumpers and novice races. The loss of a horse like Vautour would be tough on any yard but where Mullins had reinforcements previously there is not quite the depth among the experienced horses now.

Elliott on the other hand got a number of ‘ready-made’ horses from Mullins (amongst other trainers) and he has done well with Apple’s Jade, Outlander and Don Poli. Also, Elliott was quite shrewd in some of his purchases in the horses-in-training sales. He acquired Mick Jazz (£27,000), Ned Stark (£70,000), Turn Over Sivola (£15,000) and Rightdownthemiddle (£35,000) before the season proper and they’re horses with the sort of lofty marks that get them into the valuable races; they won’t all turn out well but it would hardly be shocking if one landed a big prize this season and that could be the winning and losing of the championship.

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Those big prizes will be the key to deciding the prize. As of Tuesday January 24th there is a little over €10 million of prizemoney remaining in the season and the breakdown by race type follows. It’s best to consider the ‘big 25’ as there are 25 such races left that are worth at least €100,000.

They comprise the Irish Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup at Leopardstown, the two Grade 1s at Fairyhouse, all the Grade 1s at Punchestown and seven handicaps, two over hurdles and five over fences. All but one of those handicap chases are over trips of three miles plus with the Irish National the jewel in a crown with a massive prize fund of €500,000. It has been Elliott who has dominated these races all season - though neither has won an Irish National as yet - Bless The Wings going close for Elliott last year.

 

Remaining Prizemoney

Race Type Races Left Prizemoney Percentage
Maiden Hurdles 64 €819,500 8.02%
Conditions Hurdles 20 €358,500 3.51%
Graded Hurdles 29 €2,000,500 19.62%
Handicap Hurdles 71 €1,538,500 15.05%
Beginners Chases 22 €311,000 3.04%
Novice Chases 6 €105,000 1.03%
Graded Novice Chases 12 €773,500 7.57%
Conditions Chases 10 €199,500 1.95%
Graded Chases 12 €975,000 9.54%
Handicap Chases 50 €1,997,000 19.54%
Hunter Chases 14 €189,000 1.85%
Bumpers 53 €948,500 9.28%

 

As this stage, I find making a prediction on the outcome of this race impossible. I’ve vacillated on it all season; when the Gigginstown horses initially left Mullins I thought it was great for Elliott but would hardly signal the end of the Mullins domination. Then there was Elliott’s six-timer on Troytown day which swung things in his favour before Mullins went on the rampage over Christmas.

In January however, he has cooled off again as Elliott has won big handicap chases on back-to-back weekends. Compared with the uncompetitive seasons we’ve had recently, it’s been fascinating viewing and one that could well go down to the last day of Punchestown.

Sit back and enjoy!

- Tony Keenan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Classy Hurdlers Go Chasing…

There is understandable excitement when a high-class hurdler proven in open company goes chasing, writes Tony Keenan. The horse may have been Champion or Stayers Hurdle level with a mark in the high-150s or even 160s and the expectation is that they will translate that form to fences. However, I’m generally sceptical of this kind of prospective chaser, working off the truism that it is difficult to teach older horses new tricks.

Just as in the human world where a young child can pick up a new language with relative ease, older people tend to struggle with learning a foreign tongue. It makes sense that this would apply with horses too. The typical national hunt horse might start its career in bumpers at the backend end of its fourth or fifth year, run two or three times before being put away for novice hurdles the following season where it might have four or five runs. As a then six- or seven-year-old, it would then go chasing rather than stay over hurdles. Those horses that do stay over hurdles seem at a disadvantage as a larger proportion of their short careers are spent doing something other than chasing and this lack of practice can prove detrimental to their prospects over fences.

That’s the theory at least but with all theories it’s best to test them against a body of evidence. Ideally, I wanted to look at the record of horses going chasing that had varying numbers of hurdles runs but unfortunately the excellent HorseRaceBase didn’t have the facility to run that system which must be the only thing missing from their database; if any readers have access to other databases they might like to look at the figures for themselves. So instead I took a different tack and decided to look at the records of the best chasers in Ireland along with the best hurdlers (non-novices) that went chasing in the same jurisdiction.

I began with the 50 top-rated chasers in Ireland currently, a listed that is topped by Don Cossack on 177 and completed by Mozoltov on 149. Of those top 50, only five were better over hurdles than over fences and in many cases the differences were minimal; they were Champagne Fever (chase 156, hurdle 157), Rule The World (153, 156), Shaneshill (153, 156), Zabana (153, 155) and Identity Thief (150, 159). Of the 27 chasers rated highest, only one (Un De Sceaux) had more than one season over hurdles and the average seasons spent hurdling across the top 50 was 1.2, the average hurdle runs being 6.6. The vast majority of our top chasers have gone over fences directly after their novice hurdle season with their average hurdles mark being 141.9 and their average chase figure 156.6, an improvement of just over a stone, and a number we’ll return to later. This improvement is readily explainable as there is only so high most novice hurdlers can rate given the races in which they run.

Next, I looked at the record of the best Irish horses who spent at least two seasons over hurdles that later went chasing. Starting with the 2006/7 season to present, there were 31 such horses and they are listed below with their peak hurdle and chase marks (for those that didn’t get official marks I made an estimate based on what they achieved):

 

Horse Hurdle Mark Chase Mark Difference Chase Runs Chase Wins
Taglietelle 154 125 29 5 0
Monksland 157 149 8 7 2
Identity Thief 159 150 9 3 2
Alpha Des Obeaux 158 147 11 5 2
Diamond King 157 148 9 3 1
Lieutenant Colonel 156 149 7 4 1
Gwencily Berbas 151 130 21 3 0
Briar Hill 155 142 13 4 1
Kitten Rock 160 148 12 4 4
Tiger Roll 150 146 4 10 3
Rebel Fitz 155 155 0 9 6
Un De Sceaux 156 172 -16 10 6
Oscars Well 162 152 10 12 2
Rule The World 158 150 8 15 1
Tarla 150 144 6 6 2
So Young 158 115 43 2 0
Whatuthink 152 143 9 21 1
Donnas Palm 161 140 21 17 2
Blackstairmountain 152 147 5 6 2
Oscar Dan Dan 151 128 23 4 1
Shinrock Paddy 150 136 14 10 0
Powerstation 157 130 27 9 2
Muirhead 158 143 15 21 3
Catch Me 164 141 23 10 1
Aitmatov 160 131 29 8 0
Sizing Europe 167 177 -10 31 17
Jered 158 142 16 8 1
Harchibald 166 143 23 1 0
Sonnyanjoe 150 116 34 5 0
Adamant Approach 151 142 9 16 4
Rosaker 154 120 34 1 1

 

The most obvious point to make about classy hurdlers going chasing is that they regress for the switch to the tune of about a stone. There are exceptions, notably Sizing Europe, but also Un De Sceaux and Rebel Fitz; but as a general rule this is probably a negative move which brings up the question of why connections might want to do this. If the motivation is that the horse will improve for fences, the evidence suggests this is unlikely but if it is simply that they want to pick up some soft races back against novice chasers then it is probably a fair move; the horse may have reached its ceiling in open company over hurdles and be disqualified from races it can win whereas the switch to fences opens up other avenues.

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Jumping would be a concern with these switchers but it is not necessarily backed up by the statistics; this group of classy hurdlers had a fall/unseat rate of 8.1%, which is below average. I covered this in an article last year and the national average in the period covered is around 10%. That said, I do wonder if these horses are more careful at their fences than those who went chasing earlier in their careers.

Of the 32 horses listed above, Noel Meade had seven of them (Monksland, Donnas Palm, Muirhead, Aitmatov, Jered, Harchibald and Rosaker) and it’s hard to make a case that any of them were much of a success over fences: Muirhead may have won a Munster National but that feels fluky along the lines of Tiger Roll’s win the in the same race and Rule The World’s Grand National victory this past year. If any punter found that pair, I admire your perseverance and hope your bank was still intact!

Willie Mullins had six such horses and Un De Sceaux has been a triumph, especially given his early jumping woes, but Henry De Bromhead is the one that stands out. From a single classy hurdler going chasing, he produced Sizing Europe which gives hope for the long-term prospects of currently injured Identity Thief who fits a similar mould.

It has been understandably difficult for these classy hurdlers, many of whom will have competed and even won at Grade 1 level over hurdles, to compete at the top level though there is an interesting contrast to how such horses do over different trips. Both Sizing Europe and Un De Sceaux won a number of Grade 1 chases around two miles as did Blackstairmountain, Barker and Mansony. The record of such horses over staying trips however is dismal with only Zabana at the most recent Punchestown Festival winning a Grade 1 chase over three miles or further.

Interestingly, this is backed up by the hurdles record of the winners of the feature chases at the Cheltenham Festival. Recent winners of the Champion Chase like Sire De Grugy, Dodging Bullets, Sizing Europe and Moscow Flyer all spent an extra season over hurdles but we have to go back to Imperial Call in 1996 to find the last Gold Cup winner who didn’t go straight over fences after its novice hurdle season.

All of which brings us nicely on to the current season where Thistlecrack is making a mockery of any such concerns in the staying chase division. But great horses will always make general rules seem silly and I’d be more interested in how the more typical classy hurdler going chasing will do. In the current season, we have seven such horses and the early returns have been ordinary. The group comprises Taglietelle, Identity Thief, Alpha Des Obeaux, Diamond King, Lieutenant Colonel, Gwencily Berbas and Briar Hill. While Identity Thief might yet make the grade over fences – he has both trip preference and trainer in his favour – most of the others are likely to compete over further and history points to them falling well short of their hurdles high in this sphere.

- Tony Keenan

Tony Keenan: Some Views on Garnering Viewers

My first memory of watching racing on TV is the 1991 Grand National. My father had backed the eventual runner-up, Garrison Savannah, but my puritan eight-year-old self was horrified at the thought of losing hard-earned money on horses jumping over things, writes Tony Keenan. My mother’s background as a banker and consequent financial rectitude played its part in that but dad was at pains to point out after his bet had finished second that he had backed him ‘each-way, the only way.’

I have no real recollection of racing on TV in years afterwards until the 2002 2,000 Guineas. For me, that will always be Hawk Wing’s Guineas regardless of who won, and the post-race discussion about whether or not he had been beaten on merit was fascinating. The complexity of pace, draw and race position - and their respective roles in the outcome - piqued my interest and when I found out you could bet on whose version of the race you believed I was hooked. So I followed Hawk Wing through that summer from the non-staying second in the Derby to the underwhelming Eclipse win to his defeat by Grandera at Leopardstown, a meeting I define as my first proper trip to the races and a losing one at that; I had not learned that ‘each-way was the only way’ though a starting price of 8/11 likely precluded against that bet in any case.

That initial race, covered at the time by Channel 4, was the start of something that is now an obsession. In the years since I’ve been down every rabbit hole of racing analysis imaginable, from trends to trainer patterns to pace to replays to sectional times. I’m just the sort of fan sports should aim for, committed to the game and willing to spend money and time, studying form, listening to podcasts, betting on horses and paying into racecourses. But that sort of consuming passion had to start somewhere and engaging the interest of embryonic fans is one of the many challenges that ITV Racing will face as the station starts its run as racing’s terrestrial broadcaster in 2017.

Racing can be an insecure tribe, constantly questioning its position in the broader sporting world, and this naval-gazing attitude has predictably emerged in the months leading into ITV’s return to covering the sport. We are comprised of so many different interests from owners to trainers to jockeys to breeders to punters and all have their own concerns about how the sport should be covered; just as everyone has an opinion on teachers, because everyone went to school, so too does everyone have a view on racing coverage as everyone watches it. I naturally tend towards the punters’ point-of-view who make up the majority of the TV audience but are often seen as a necessary evil by other parties.

No matter what our agenda may be, it is important to remember that there is a more general audience out there beyond the racing bubble that has, at best, only a passing interest in the sport. They need to be recognised to some degree. There is part of me that would love ITV to simply cater to the racing nerd audience and the people I speak to about horses would likely support that view wholeheartedly; whether it would serve the broader health of the sport is another matter. Striking the balance between this general audience and the more hardened racing fan is another major challenge faced for those stations covering racing.

There are difficulties arising from the inherent nature of the sport itself. In contrast to something like football, racing tends to be made up of frenetic bursts of action that last a matter of minutes interspersed with longer periods of analysis and chat; this is the case for terrestrial stations at least that rarely cover more than two meetings on a given broadcast and thankfully prevents it from becoming mere betting shop fodder with one race blending into the next over a period of hours.

Then there are more the more generic challenges that any sports coverage faces in the current media climate. We are in an age where we can watch sport live via devices other than television and we are told that viewing figures may not be trustworthy as so many people are watching through other channels than the traditional coverage. Points like that are fair but genuine fans will, in the main, still want to want to watch the coverage live if at all possible; it is impossible to miss the result in the social media age and in any case watching a sporting event on your phone is a deeply unsatisfactory experience with streams tending to be herky-jerky and unreliable. Mainstream coverage remains important and, as James Willoughby pointed in an excellent article on the Thoroughbred Daily News website, deserves to be treated with seriousness.

It is hoped that ITV will bring this sort of seriousness to their coverage. Their position as a legacy station, the button on the remote that people reach for out of habit, should provide a boost in viewing figures above what the less mainstream Channel 4 could manage. The hiring of Ed Chamberlin as host was a significant acquisition and gives the sport a broader appeal; that the presenter has a background in the bookmaking industry and odds-compiling is even better. But there are areas that I hope will be addressed by the station, chief among them being the excessive reliance on ex-pros on the broadcast team.

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The initial list of ITV presenters comprises a hefty dose of insiders; looking at their press release, we have Tony McCoy, Francesca Cumani, Mick Fitzgerald, Hayley Turner, Jason Weaver, Luke Harvey and Frankie Dettori. Regardless of one’s opinions on the merits or otherwise of the individuals on that list, it’s hard to get away from the belief that such people bring a certain tone to the coverage. While I acknowledge the need for some insiders, the concern is that too many of them leave the general audience ‘on the outside’ which in turn leads to them changing the channel. While station chiefs will argue that these people bring insight to the coverage it comes at a cost and that is excessive deference and a tendency to close ranks when one of their number are challenged; no one likes criticising their friends after all, even when they are clearly in the wrong.

There are many other voices out there in the racing world that could be used to bring fresh angles. One such is the official handicapper, Phil Smith, who has his share of critics but has proved to be brilliant TV on his occasional ‘Ask the Handicapper’ slot with Matt Chapman. There is something fascinating about a man who believes he is never wrong and Smith has never been afraid to voice strong opinions which Chapman excels in drawing from him; as an aside, Chapman should prove a fine addition to the ITV team.

Smith’s area of expertise is of course ratings and I wonder if they could be incorporated more into the broadcast; the modern sports fan loves nothing more than some numbers that help build informed content. All too often broadcasters fall into the trap of recency bias and get excited about the winner of a race that has just happened without placing it in its proper context. If we had a handicapper, official or otherwise, putting a number on that horse in the minutes after the race, provisional though it would have to be, would it not add to the quality of analysis? Not only would we be able to understand where the horse fits in with its peers but also, in the case of championship races, where it falls in the pantheon. There are plenty who bemoan the pointlessness of comparing horses across generations but one of racing’s great selling points is the depth of its history and this should be embraced.

All this brings me inevitably onto the role of data. There is much good work being done with the use of data to analyse racing, blowing many of the myths about the sport up in the process, but the problem in putting this onto the TV is presentation. Data like sectional times needs to be presented in a palatable way that the audience can understand and not sound like an Open University tutorial. Punters make up the bulk of the viewership and they want to know how the numbers can help them to back winners. In general, I think you need outsiders rather than racing insiders to cover this part of the broadcast; the insiders are often sceptical of the numbers, entrenched as they are in the traditional approaches of the sport. Furthermore, these outsiders seem more willing to criticise the participants in the sport, something that in the main is sorely lacking. This is not to say there should be criticism for criticism’s sake but I would love nothing more than a well-argued case that a jockey gave a horse a poor ride backed up by a sensible sectional timing-based argument or the critique of a trainer’s handling of a horse that is based in fact.

Finally, there is the most basic aspect of any sports broadcast: the live pictures of the events themselves. ITV Racing should not suffer from having the terrible angles that AtTheRaces present from some of the Irish tracks - like Punchestown, Leopardstown and Down Royal - where all too often we are given prolonged shots of the backsides of horses running away from the stands. Arty close-ups are a complete no-no and as far a possible the audience needs to see the whole field, preferably in high definition. Some punter, somewhere, has had a bet on a horse in that race, even the 999/1 rag on Betfair, and he wants to see his horse and understand what is happening.

- Tony Keenan

Follow Tony on Twitter at @racingtrends

Jockeys: Do They Get Enough Respect?

Who’d be a jockey? I ask the question not in the context of Freddie Tylicki’s awful paralysis nor the broader risk of catastrophic injury riders face daily, writes Tony Keenan. Because, ultimately, the decision to ride horses for a living is theirs and at heart many of them are adrenaline junkies who could do nothing else; the racing bubble they exist in normalises a lifestyle that is anything but.

No, instead I am thinking of the position of the jockey in the racing world. About two weeks ago, AtTheRaces and soon-to-be ITV presenter Matt Chapman launched a GoFundMe page for Tylicki that raised in the region of £270,000. Chapman played an absolute stormer here but one also has to ask the question: why did he even need to do this? Shouldn’t there be more provision within the sport in the event of life-changing injury rather than this sort of piecemeal effort? Yes, there are the various injured jockeys’ funds but they seem to be constantly raising cash through the usual methods charities use; this isn’t really a charity but a fundamental problem in the sport that needs to be resolved. As both a punter and a racegoer, I would like some of my betting and admission euro to go towards providing for jockeys and I doubt I am alone.

The jockey’s life is difficult. For many, particularly over jumps, the pay is minimal and recent times have revealed a mental toll that any sensible person will have been aware has been bubbling under the surface for years. As you will have already gauged, this article is more about questions than answers so I will ask another: are jockeys ‘the talent’ in racing? Because if they are, they most certainly aren’t treated as such. Instead we will ascribe human qualities to animals, calling them ‘tough’, ‘genuine’ and ‘likeable’, when the actual humans are treated as expendable, with all bar the top riders pushed around at the whims of owners and trainers.

This is not the case in most sports and it has become hard to escape the perception that horse racing simply isn’t a modern sporting culture, at least in its human aspect. In the Irish context, some of this might stem from the prevalence of the GAA, a theoretically amateur organisation that has thus far eschewed professionalism, at least publicly. The Irish don’t like people getting too big for their boots which is rarely the case with jockeys given their small stature, and that may even have something to do with their lack of status within the sport; Malcolm Gladwell has demonstrated to us that tall men become CEOs of Fortune 500 companies much more often than random chance dictates they should, so perhaps size does matter.

Of course, jockeys play their part in this too, reinforcing racing’s feudalism whenever possible. Self-deprecation is the jockey’s calling card with ‘keeping their head down’ seemingly the catchphrase of choice when asked how they are getting on; Wayne Lordan said just that when asked about his hopes for the 2017 flat season after his move to Ballydoyle. At least publicly, jockeys seem to have an utter lack of self-regard, perhaps because they are at the beck and call of trainers and owners and with largely non-existent job security (do jockeys have contracts? I’m not even sure but if they do, they seem to be broken over a cup of tea). They are ever-vulnerable to young riders snapping at their heels as a strong ‘next man up’ culture prevails with many speaking of rushing back from injury lest they lose their rides.

Much of this is just backward thinking and, while similar cultures existed in other sports in the past, most of them have moved with modern labour conditions whether it be kicking and screaming or otherwise. Yet racing seems caught up in many of the clichéd views that have existed about the participants in professional sport for decades: “jockeys are stupid and are trained from a young age to always listen to a person in authority like a trainer”; “jockeys don’t pay attention to the world around them, even the world of sports”; “jockeys will always act in their own self-interest when money is involved and won’t make sacrifices for the greater good of the sport or those who come after them”.

While jockeys may be uneducated in the traditional sense, often having given up their schooling early to hone their craft, they certainly aren’t stupid or uninformed about what is going on in the wider world of sport. In fact, they are acutely aware of how much other sportspeople are being paid and how strong their unions or agents are, what endorsement deals they have and how much the media contributes to the player pot.

But again, jockeys play their part in reinforcing these stereotypes. AtTheRaces did a feature sometime in the last year where they asked jockeys ‘who is the smartest person in the weigh-room?’ The consensus response was ‘there isn’t one, we’re all stupid in here, sure you’d need to be an idiot to do this job.’ This is complete rubbish and jockeys should be encouraged not to present themselves as such. Intelligence is important in a jockey, from knowledge of opponents (equine and human), to awareness of pace, to knowing how to ride a certain track. They are doing themselves a disservice and you’d just love one of them to respond to a post-winner interview with ‘you know what Gary [O’Brien], I gave that a brilliant ride and here’s why’. There is nothing wrong with being proud of doing something well provided it doesn’t become hubris.

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Perhaps this is just the nature of the dressing or weighing room but in other sports preening and self-belief is not only tolerated but often encouraged; these players have brands to build after all, something that seems to be foreign in horse racing. That is why individuals like Frankie Dettori stand out in a room of jockeys that all seem the same in appearance and attitude; there is no sign of the hipster jockey. Blandness seems to be a quality – they are almost like Kilkenny hurlers in terms of being indistinguishable – and while of course we don’t want the utter narcissism of some sports, we are still too far toward the other extreme.

For jockeys to get more status, they need to get more money. I must stress I am no expert on racing finances but it is seems fair to say that while the sport is not quite awash with money, there is plenty around and it is easy to see the haves and the have nots. Jockeys obviously fall into the latter group and must look jealously at other sportspeople who receive a much bigger slice of the pie in their respective professions. Oftentimes, this money comes from media fees and racetracks are certainly perceived as being one of the ‘haves’ in Irish racing in terms of the monies they receive for allowing SIS access to their pictures. Ruby Walsh recently commented that this should be a source of funding for the Injured Jockeys Fund and questioned whether tracks should be ‘the sole beneficiary of TV rights’. He has a point but it could be argued that racecourses are an obvious and visible ‘have’ which might be too easy a solution.

Bookmakers are another big ‘have’ and in general racing is far too easy on these firms, extracting nothing like the benefits they should be accruing from them. Their donations to the Tylicki fund mentioned earlier were generous but are all too piecemeal and while not wanting to go down the road of finger-pointing (though I do want to do a little of that!), it seems reasonable to believe that those who can pay, should pay. But, as we see regularly in business, people will exploit you if they can.

Increased status and wages for jockeys would not just improve their standard of living but also the standard of the sport. When money comes into something, it generally makes it better and there are many areas where jockey standards can improve. Take food and nutrition: all too often we hear of riders stopping at service stations on the way home from an evening meeting to grab a Burger King when tracks can provide healthy and free food; this needs to be called what it is, pathetic. Sportspeople should be able to focus entirely on the job at hand at their place of work and not have to think about paying for food while there. Or consider the nature of silks which is totally backward. Sam Waley-Cohen uses skin-tight gear when riding, the sort of marginal gains approach that has paid off in other sports, yet the vast majority of jockeys persist with silk and even wool in some cases! Would an Olympic swimmer get into a pool without shaving their body hair? This is only the thin end of the wedge in terms of improvements that could be made.

Realistically, there hasn’t been a jockey revolution nor is there any sign of one in the near future; racing still awaits its Jean-Marc Bosman. That rider, or even retired rider, would need to have a sense of the greater good and be willing to give up their own standing in the sport for the benefit of jockeys now and in the future. Instead, we remain in a culture where it is every jockey for themselves and that applies from getting rides and retainers right through to the ethically ambiguous position of writing blogs for bookmakers. Perhaps someone needs to stand up against the deeply ingrained acceptance of their role as staff and begin to recognise that they are, at least on some level, the talent of the sport, and with that comes great value.

- Tony Keenan

Friday Night Lights: Dundalk Betting Angles

Friday Night Lights – Dundalk Betting Angles

dundalkracesThe position of Dundalk meetings in the week, typically Friday evenings in the autumn and winter, means they are more popular than one might expect ordinary all-weather racing to be, writes Tony Keenan. I remember attending the maiden fixture at the track on August 26th 2007 when Emmpat won the featured premier handicap; bizarrely that was an all-ticket affair (a first in Irish racing) and while the crowds attending now are poor, it is the first racing many punters will encounter each weekend and produces a relatively high turnover despite its quality.

Problems with the weak market on track – a long-running dispute with on-course bookies, stretching back to days when it was a turf venue, continues to play its part – have been well-covered by Johnny Ward and Kevin Blake elsewhere in recent weeks but this circuit is no mere betting shop fodder and there are some profitable betting angles that can be exploited, two of which I’ll focus on here.

 

The Draw

The maximum field size at Dundalk is 14 – an ideal number for bookmakers as it negates the availability of a fourth place in handicaps – and received wisdom would say that low numbers should be favoured; the track is galloping with sweeping bends and being trapped wide on these means you are covering an awful lot of extra ground. That’s true over some distances but not all. For the purposes of this study, I’ve looked at handicaps over the different trips run at Dundalk since the start of 2014 which is after the key date of December 11th 2013; on that evening the track introduced a cutaway rail which has led to less trouble-in-running in the straight as before that they tended to race very tight to the rail. In true Irish fashion though they didn’t tell anyone until about half an hour before the first!

Focussing on handicaps makes more sense than all races as the horses are, at least theoretically, of more equal ability while I have divided each field into approximate thirds; stalls 1 to 5, stalls 6 to 10, stalls 11 to 14. Along with the usual numbers of strikerate and actual over expected winners, I’ve included the place strikerate which some may trust more.

5f Handicaps

Stalls Wins Runs Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Level Stakes A/E
1 to 5 24 225 10.67% 63 28.00% -90.26 0.74
6 to 10 22 166 13.25% 60 36.14% +9.46 1.12
11 to 14 0 38 0 3 7.89 -38.00 0.00

 

The 5f start at Dundalk is in a chute rather than on the main circuit which might take some of the sting out of those drawn wide though looking at the figures this is not the case; these seem to be coffin boxes with no winners emerging from there and woeful place stats to back this up. That said, the lower drawn horses do seem to be overbet with those in the middle third doing better over time.

 

6f Handicaps

Stalls Wins Runs Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Level Stakes A/E
1 to 5 25 217 11.52% 70 32.26% -83.71 0.84
6 to 10 12 171 7.02% 40 23.39% -99.75 0.62
11 to 14 7 63 11.11% 12 19.0% +24.50 1.53

 

Though the outside boxes do well here in terms of winners and are one of the very few groups that offer a positive expectation this feels random; their place strikerate is not so good and it comes down to which one you trust.

 

7f Handicaps

Stalls Wins Runs Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Level Stakes A/E
1 to 5 43 385 11.17% 125 32.47% -152.11 0.86
6 to 10 27 344 7.85% 76 22.09% -124.75 0.73
11 to 14 9 157 5.73% 27 17.2% -55.00 0.75

 

8f Handicaps

Stalls Wins Runs Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Level Stakes A/E
1 to 5 60 627 9.57% 173 27.59% -209.79 0.75
6 to 10 53 579 9.15% 143 24.70% -150.61 0.90
11 to 14 17 321 5.30% 61 19.00% -1117.50 0.72

 

There is nothing major over trips of seven furlongs and a mile with the outside stalls coming off about worst.

 

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10½ f Handicaps

Stalls Wins Runs Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Level Stakes A/E
1 to 5 40 382 10.47% 102 26.7% -100.47 0.90
6 to 10 22 356 6.18% 80 22.47% -178.00 0.63
11 to 14 16 219 7.31% 49 22.37% -22.00 0.83

 

With the handicaps over ten and a half furlongs, the low numbers again come off best; the stalls are positioned right in front of the stands for these races and the first turn comes up quick with wide drawn horses either having to switch quickly into hold-up positions or face being trapped wide at the bend. One interesting point about this is the poor record of stall one, providing only 4 winners (5.19%) from 77 runners; there may be nothing in this though the rider in this position may be forced into going forward (even if his mount is not that way inclined) or faced getting chopped off early. Below are the numbers for handicaps over twelve furlongs which by and large is one of the fairer trips.

 

12f Handicaps

Stalls Wins Runs Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Level Stakes A/E
1 to 5 38 386 9.84% 99 25.65% -107.71 0.84
6 to 10 26 357 7.28% 86 24.09% -172.49 0.72
11 to 14 15 219 6.85% 46 21.00% -7.35 0.85

 

Trainers

The upper reaches of Irish racing basically look the same from season to season; Aidan O’Brien tops the table followed by Dermot Weld and Jim Bolger with some permutation of Ger Lyons and Mick Halford in behind. All five of those are in the top 15 trainers at Dundalk since the start of 2012 but not in the same positions and there are plenty of other names too. Below is the list of all trainers by races won in that period (1,358 winners in total so the sample size is pretty robust) and for reference I’ve included their strikerate in turf races in Ireland during the same period with bold/italics for any trainer where there is a 3% or greater discrepancy higher or lower, respectively.

 

Trainer Wins Runs Strikerate Turf Strikerate Difference Level Stakes A/E
M. Halford 124 752 16.49% 10.31% +6.18 -118.97 0.94
A. O’Brien 73 360 20.28% 21.27% -0.99 -115.88 0.93
G. Lyons 58 359 16.16% 16.80% -0.64 +3.89 0.92
E. Lynam 56 466 12.02% 11.93% +0.09 -117.68 0.73
J. Bolger 45 328 13.72% 12.24% +1.48 -50.75 0.83
D. Marnane 36 359 10.03% 7.05% +2.98 -107.67 0.75
D. Wachman 29 171 16.96% 12.30% +4.66 -38.84 0.91
T. Collins 29 160 18.13% 3.40% +14.73 +17.21 1.21
A. Oliver 29 274 10.58% 7.65% +2.93 -87.50 0.94
J. Feane 28 144 19.44% 8.0% +11.44 +10.05 1.14
T. Stack 27 182 14.84% 13.38% +1.46 -49.59 0.84
T. McCourt 23 303 7.59% 3.30% +4.29 -108.50 0.86
P. Deegan 23 197 11.68% 8.71% +2.97 -75.49 0.84
D. Weld 22 188 11.70% 18.49% -6.79 -76.73 0.65
J. Murtagh 21 160 13.13% 9.63% +3.5 -2.96 1.00

 

I’ve crabbed Mick Halford for being too much of an all-weather trainer but you would find it hard to win at Dundalk by ignoring his horses; it isn’t the greatest surprise that his main stable jockey, Shane Foley, is top among riders in this period with another of his, Conor Hoban, doing well too. The likes of Aidan O’Brien, Jim Bolger and Irish racing’s Mr. Consistency, Ger Lyons, operate at broadly the same level as they do on the turf but the other member of the big five, Dermot Weld, seems to have little interest in Dundalk, his strikerate dipping almost seven percentage points below his turf figure.

Speaking of trainers with large discrepancies in strikerate, both Tracey Collins and John Feane jump out. The former has certainly been helped by Captain Joy, a seven-time winner at the track, but even so her numbers are impressive while the latter has built a great record at the track winning with various types of runner.

Dundalk provides opportunity to trainers like this, a more level playing field where the bigger yards are less inclined to throw their weight about, and this has led to a number of lower profile trainers doing well. Below is the record of trainers in handicaps since 2012 in order of strikerate where each had a minimum of 20 runners.

 

Trainer Wins Runs Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes A/E
R. Roberts 6 23 26.09% 65.22% +21.50 1.60
M. Smith 8 33 24.24% 36.36% +44.25 1.68
P. Shanahan 6 30 20.00% 46.67% +3.00 1.42
T. Collins 20 101 19.80% 38.61% +0.66 1.23
J. Feane 20 104 19.23% 37.50% +13.29 1.13
S. Lavery 4 21 19.05% 42.86% +5.00 1.45
T. Stack 14 80 17.50% 37.50% -6.09 1.09
A. Joyce 19 60 16.67% 45.00% +22.75 1.02
D. Bunyan 7 43 16.28% 23.26% +11.50 1.63
N. Madden 11 68 16.18% 38.24% +45.33 1.43
M. Halford 72 465 15.48% 38.06% -49.75 0.98

 

Again, both Collins and Feane figure prominently as do the trainers of some Dundalk cult heroes; Shake The Bucket has won eight Dundalk races for Boots Madden, Grey Danube has won seven for Darren Bunyan, while Adrian Joyce trained or trains track staples like Times in Anatefka, Majestic Timeline and Coach Bombay. These are the trainers that have taken their opportunity on the sand and offer punters some positive expectation (no mean feat considering the overrounds at the track) with their runners at Dundalk. It is probably worth mentioning Prunella Dobbs too who just missed out on making the top twelve trainers above in terms of win strikerate but has a place return of 57.14%, second only to Reggie Roberts among those listed.

- Tony Keenan

The Gigginstown / Mullins Split: Reading Between the Numbers

Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown horses have moved on from Closutton

Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown horses have moved on from Closutton

The Game Changer was not one of those Gigginstown horses on the move last week, having already joined Gordon Elliott in 2015 following Charlie Swan’s retirement from training, but he’d be a fitting motif for what went down with Willie Mullins, the O’Learys, and associated parties last Wednesday, writes Tony Keenan. The split will have far-reaching consequences for trainers and their respective championships this season and beyond, and I’ll try to consider some of these from a data-based perspective here.

One of the features of the break-up was the respectful tone the two parties used to describe each other, both wishing the other success in the future and being thankful for what their relationship produced. The comments were so positive one wonders why they simply didn’t maintain the status quo but it is likely another example of racing people being ultra-polite to each other through the media when their actions suggest otherwise. Training fees have been put forward as the root of the split but I’m not prepared to accept those face value reasons; judging from the figures we have been fed, the increase in fees would have been between €80,000 and €100,ooo, hardly a piddling number but a relative drop in the ocean to a billionaire like Michael O’Leary, a figure he would easily squander on a bad horse. If that is the price of success, it seems worth paying.

But O’Leary being a billionaire is important here and with his vast wealth and business success comes ego, something that Mullins, for all his humble exterior, must possess too. Comparing owners and trainers is not something we typically do in racing but such is the state of the Irish national hunt scene at present; I suspect that O’Leary simply didn’t want to be so reliant on a trainer that was bigger than him, something that the numbers from the last five Irish seasons confirm.

 

Operation Winners Prizemoney Season Operation Winners Prizemoney
Mullins 185 €4,489,105 2015/16 Gigginstown 143 €3,601,225
Mullins 187 €4,225,253 2014/15 Gigginstown 126 €3,263,985
Mullins 185 €3,817,779 2013/14 Gigginstown 109 €2,311,545
Mullins 193 €3,908,059 2012/13 Gigginstown 101 €2,025,420
Mullins 138 €2,997,713 2011/12 Gigginstown 83 €,1,611,745

 

Nor was O’Leary in any way enthused by Mullins’s UK project in 2015/16. The owner is on record as saying he has little interest in UK racing outside of the big festivals at Cheltenham and Aintree which is of course his prerogative; if he wants winners at a Navan or Punchestown card attended by a couple of thousand people instead of in front of packed stands at Sandown or Kempton, that is his choice. Being Champion Owner in the UK last season clearly meant nothing to him; Sandown go out of their way to have the title winners present on the final day of the season but it was Brian Cooper who accepted the prize for Gigginstown back in April.

Gigginstown had some big winners in the UK last season, notably Don Cossack in the Gold Cup, Rule The World in the National, and Identity Thief in the Fighting Fifth, but they came for other yards and their record with Mullins was poor, registering only three winners, only one of which could be described as high-profile. That was Apple’s Jade’s demolition job at Aintree with the others being Don Poli’s Listed win at the same track in December and McKinley winning an ordinary handicap hurdle on the final day of the season.

Of the big Mullins owners, it was clearly Rich Ricci who supported the trainer wholeheartedly in his bid for the UK title and indeed he seems to have stepped aside with some of his Irish runners in order to facilitate Gigginstown. Below are the records of the Mullins-trained horses for Gigginstown and the Riccis both in Ireland and the UK and you can see their positions are reversed in terms of the percentage of runners they provided to the trainer in the different jurisdictions; where Ricci had 21.3% of the Mullins runners in Ireland, he was 27.7% of the UK runners with Gigginstown being 23.5% and 21.4% respectively, their positions essentially flipped. Ricci reaped the benefit of that in the UK at least with an impressive 12 winners though many of that type of runner can be expected to remain in Ireland this coming season, at least prior to the big festivals.

Gigginstown V. Ricci – At Home and Away

Ireland
Wins Runners Strikerate % of Mullins Runs % of Mullins Wins
Gigginstown 47 131 35.9% 23.5% 25.4%
Ricci 38 119 31.9% 21.3% 20.5%

 

UK
Wins Runners Strikerate % of Mullins Runs % of Mullins Wins
Gigginstown 3 34 8.8% 21.4% 11.1%
Ricci 12 44 27.3% 27.7% 44.4%

 

In their early years of ownership, Gigginstown tended to select a trainer and stick with them but recently they have become more of a ‘results-based business’ where trainers who are seen to be underperforming get fewer young horses or in more extreme cases have the horses removed totally; in fact, the latter may not even be extreme with both Tony Martin and Sandra Hughes losing their O’Leary horses over the summer. Martin had a down season for much of 2015/16, his horses only really finding their form from Punchestown on, and his Gigginstown winners (Marinero, Savello, Beau Et Sublime and Fire In His Eyes) were an uninspiring bunch.

He may too have had a role in them making a rare purchase of horse already in training with Beau Et Sublime who on his first start came second to a well-regarded Gigginstown type but was owned by someone else in Martin’s yard; the buy turned out badly as he has only won a pair of weak summer races. That Martin has been involved in some high-profile running-and-riding enquiries is hardly ideal either.

Hughes seems more harshly treated, not least because of the sad personal circumstances that caused her to be training the O’Leary horses in the first place. Her horses were sick for most of last season and she only trained two Gigginstown winners during that time but that can happen to any yard and in the previous campaign she sent out Lieutenant Colonel to win a pair of Grade 1s along with an Irish National winner in Thunder And Roses. Gigginstown could however argue that their ‘result-based’ approach stands up to scrutiny; not long after leaving Hughes, Wrath Of Titans won a Kerry National for Gordon Elliott.

I’ve written before about how well Elliott does with switchers, horses moving to his yard tending to improve both in terms of ratings and strikerate when compared to their previous handlers. How much of that is training and how much is placing is hard to quantify but Elliott does seem adept at finding bad races for limited horses, particularly at some of the gaff tracks in the UK, but clearly Gigginstown have no interest in such races.

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There is some precedent of Gigginstown horses moving from Mullins to Elliott over the last year or so but I’d be reluctant to draw any conclusions from those transfers;:it would be an insult to cast-offs to call the likes Midnight Game, Aminabad and As De Ferbet such and Elliott did about as well as Mullins with such limited types. A better point of comparison, at least in terms of getting horses that have upside rather than those that are barely treading water, was the switch of the Lynch horses from Closutton to Elliott in 2009; the likes of Serpentaria did little for the move but Jessies Dream won a Drinmore and went very close in the RSA before retirement though injury. Elliott is likely a much better trainer now, too.

But even so, it would be unrealistic for Gigginstown to expect the same return from Elliott as they got from Mullins. Both yards tend to maintain a basic level of form, never really being out of sorts in recent years, but the Mullins bar is just set higher; since May 2014, his monthly strikerate has dipped below 20% in Ireland just twice whereas with Elliott his returns have dipped below 10% once since November 2013. The record of horses moving from the Mullins yard on their first three starts for their new stable are simply horrendous with those trainers becoming the equivalent of the worst around with such runners.

Horses Leaving Willie Mullins (since 2003)

Wins Runners Strikerate Level-Stakes A/E
1st Start 9 232 3.88% -191.40 0.35
2nd Start 12 205 5.85% -143.56 0.57
3rd Start 10 188 5.32% -125.04 0.56

 

Of course these figures demand context. Mullins is known for being quite hard on his horses, not necessarily a bad thing given the results he produces, but it would be no surprise if he left little to work on for the next trainer. Furthermore, he tends to keep a decent proportion of his horses into their later careers rather than get rid of them and the sort of animal he lets go might be of little use to anyone.

Certainly they aren’t expensive when bought at the sale, usually being badly-handicapped runners that have been to the well plenty. Yet comparing his record with those horses leaving Paul Nicholls, his champion trainer counterpart in the UK, is still interesting with the ex-Nicholls runners tending to do much better.

 

Horses Leaving Paul Nicholls (since 2003)

Wins Runners Strikerate Level-Stakes A/E
1st Start 52 452 11.50% -122.28 0.97
2nd Start 50 388 12.89% -95.37 1.06
3rd Start 33 338 9.76% -185.22 0.77

 

The horses that have left Mullins in the last few days are of a very different kind to typical ‘little upside/much downside’ sorts that likely dominate the figures above. This is a group coming into their prime, or already there, and will present an interesting test case for those who believe Mullins is only so dominant because he gets all the best horses. Of the trainers who will get the new stock, only Henry De Bromhead has been in the position before when he got the Alan Potts horses, since departed, from Mullins a few years back. And he did well with them too; of the 31 horses that won (from 625 runners) on their first three starts post-Mullins, De Bromhead trained five of them. He did well with some horses that Mullins struggled with, like Viconte Du Noyer; and turned Smashing into a borderline Grade 1 animal when he got soft ground. He seems a sensible choice for some switchers and while his overall figures for Gigginstown last season were not great, he did very well with Identity Thief though how he persuaded them to run him at Newcastle remains one of life’s mysteries!

Mouse Morris too deserved his share having sent out a pair of National winners while Joseph O’Brien is a no-brainer; I wrote about his rookie season being one for the ages a few months back and that was before he won the Moyglare with a 25/1 shot in Intricately. Noel Meade doesn’t make as much sense; he had a good campaign at home for them last season, winning seven races from 32 runners, but it might have been the only good part of his campaign. As with so many of his other top horses, his better Gigginstown runners spent time on the side-lines with the likes of Road To Riches, Disko, Ice Cold Soul and Gunnery Sergeant missing part of the season and it remains an issue with the yard.

It is Gordon Elliott, however, who is the chosen one for Gigginstown; they have rowed in behind him more and more in the last few years and he gets the jewels in the crown like Don Poli, Apple’s Jade and Blow By Blow. Powers made a bold move by making him favourite for the Irish trainers’ championship straight after the news was released though he has since been eased out a little: while Mullins has lost 60 horses, his claims that he will suffer no staff losses suggests he can fill those boxes quickly and we have the prospect of more Ricci horses being campaigned in Ireland this winter.

Nor is it a simple case of subtracting the Gigginstown winners from Mullins and adding them to Elliott; not only did he not get all of them but it seems unlikely he will reach the heights of the current champion either. Even so, Elliott has been narrowing the gap between himself and Mullins the last three seasons and that was without the new additions.

Mullins has averaged out around the mid-180s in terms of Irish winners in the last three years (he had 47 winners for Gigginstown last year) whereas Elliott has gone from 62 winners to 95 to 129 in the same period. He may not deserve to be favourite but he was already trending up and this may put him over the top; and wouldn’t it be fascinating if he brought some welcome needle into the trainers’ race?

Paul Nicholls never hid his pleasure in defeating Martin Pipe and Nicky Henderson, the UK equivalent, and while Elliott has publicly stated his respect for Mullins on many occasions, his wonderfully passive aggressive tweet about looking for staff in the hours after the Gigginstown announcement was at least a semblance of throwing down the gauntlet. All too often racing puts on the face of being one big happy family, but this is high-level sport so it’s OK to care and I suspect the famously confrontational Michael O’Leary had a little laugh at that one!

- Tony Keenan

Irish Champions Weekend: The British Are Coming

Irish Champions Weekend is rapidly becoming my favourite meeting of the year which is quite an achievement given its relative infancy and the place the likes of Galway and Cheltenham hold in my heart, writes Tony Keenan. As I’ve written before, the success of the weekend is dependent on the participation of the runners from overseas, and this year it seems likely we will have a few French runners with Almanzor and Qemah intended for the Champion and Matron Stakes respectively.

With the exception of the latter race, French raiders have been as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth lately, at least since John Hammond tried to win our Lincoln with Estrela Brage in 2008 only for the handicapper to lump him up 9lbs between declaration stage on Friday and post time; needless to say, there are no French entries in the handicaps for Irish Champions Weekend!

In the main, however, runners from outside Ireland over the weekend means UK-trained horses; and, having covered their record in Irish Group 1 races last year (you can read that article here), I decided I would dig deeper into their overall figures in the sorts of races that comprise Irish Champions Weekend specifically.

With the exception of the strangely anomalous maiden that opens the Leopardstown card on Saturday there are basically three types of races over the weekend: Group 1’s (of which there are five), lesser Group races (five) and valuable handicaps (four).

Defining a valuable handicap as one worth more than the equivalent of £25,000 to the winner, below is the record of UK runners by race type in Ireland since 2010 (all stats in this article refer to that timeframe).

A few readers – well one, in truth! – requested that I include some Impact Value numbers along with the usual actual over expected; for those that need a reminder, Impact Value is a figure that allows you to assess whether horses that meet specific criteria win more or less often than all horses meeting the criteria. In the first entry below, the Impact Value of UK horses in Irish Group 1’’s shows that they win 50% more often than randomness expected.

 

UK Runners in Ireland by Race Type (2010 – present)

Race Type Winners Runners Strikerate Level Stakes A/E IV
Group 1s 29 162 17.9% -20.90 0.99 1.50
Lesser Group Races 41 274 15.0% -52.98 0.82 1.10
Valuable Handicaps 18 203 8.9% -41.25 0.87 1.49

 

As we discovered last year, the raiders do well in the Group 1’s though the broad point about this needs to be made; raiders always do better than the home team, be they UK horses running in Ireland or the other way around. Trainer intent is perhaps the key here: you are not going to ship a horse abroad unless there is at least some expectation of success.

I did try to crunch the numbers on how Irish horses were doing in the UK and vice versa in each of the seasons since 2010 but they didn’t reveal much of a relationship. In 2016, Irish runners are scoring in the UK at a rate of 61/382 (strikerate 16.0%, level-stakes loss of 57.96 points, A/E 0.98) while those coming the other way are 13/115 (strikerate 11.3%, level-stakes loss of 5.59 points, A/E 0.71).

The record of UK runners in valuable handicaps is half that of those in Group 1’s in terms of strikerate, but their Impact Value is comparable and it’s worth bearing in mind that the handicaps would have much larger field sizes.

The raiders do particularly well if we only look at sprint handicaps, defined as races between five and seven furlongs. Since 2010, they are 15/110 for a strikerate of 13.6%, a level-stakes profit of 33.75 points and an actual over expected of 1.34.

Their record is so striking that it can hardly be just a product of UK trainers being better with sprinters and there could be a handicapping issue at play here; just as Irish handicap hurdlers have their mark increased when running in UK races, perhaps UK sprinters need an extra penalty.

 

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UK Runners in Ireland by Distance (2010 – present)

Race Distance Winners Runners Strikerate Level Stakes A/E IV
Sprints 67 441 13.2% +13.19 0.97 1.42
Mile 41 377 10.9% -181.02 0.75 1.21
Middle Distance 39 220 17.7% -32.39 1.02 1.89
Stayers 9 75 12.0% -26.97 0.95 1.31

 

Unsurprisingly, the raiders do well over the speed distances and while there was a brief renaissance of Irish sprinters (perhaps renaissance is the wrong word as there were few great Irish sprinters to start with!) earlier this decade through the likes of Sole Power, Slade Power, Gordon Lord Byron and Maarek, nothing has really stepped into the breach created by their retirements and/or regression.

UK horses clearly do very well at middle-distances and are decent with stayers though, as seen in my last article about trainers and trip preferences, they have to face off with the better Irish jumps trainers in those races. Their record at a mile is poor, astonishingly so in fact, and is their worst trip by a distance of ground. There is another pattern that stands out, with age, two-year-olds doing notably poorly relative to the other age groups:

 

UK Runners in Ireland by Age (2010 – present)

Age Winners Runners Strikerate Level Stakes A/E IV
2yos 17 169 10.1% -68.46 0.67 1.00
3yos 35 209 16.8% -43.13 0.98 1.68
4yos and older 104 735 14.2% -115.2 0.95 1.69

 

As for the record of various trainers, the table is below:

 

UK Runners in Ireland by Trainer (2010 – present)

Trainer Winners Runners Strikerate Level Stakes A/E
M Johnston 16 67 24.9% -1.03 1.05
K Ryan 9 70 12.9% -5.00 0.79
D Nicholls 8 24 33.3% +5.66 1.32
J Gosden 7 10 70.0% +9.21 2.08
B Ellison 6 40 15.0% +5.35 1.32
R Charlton 6 15 40.0% +4.53 1.40
M Channon 5 34 14.7% +14.71 1.20
Sir M Prescott 4 18 27.8% -6.32 1.05
R Fahey 4 68 5.88% -47.75 0.43
Sir M Stoute 4 11 36.7% +3.50 1.56

 

Mark Johnston tops the table in terms of raw number of winners but he and especially Kevin Ryan are volume trainers in terms of their Irish raiders, whereas John Gosden is more selective and his numbers are off the scale. Not only has he a 70% success rate but all ten of his runners came in Group 1 contests; he had only three runners last season but they produced Derby and Champion Stakes winners. At the time of writing, Gosden has four entries over the weekend with Persuasive in the Matron Stakes possibly the pick.

Roger Charlton is another with impressive Irish figures and he has already had a Group race winner at Leopardstown this year, courtesy of Decorated Knight. That one isn’t entered up and nor will Time Test take his chance in the Champion Stakes though Fair Eva may try to get back on track in the Moyglare. Of the rest, Brian Ellison deserves praise; his strikerate doesn’t match up with some of the more high-profile trainers but his runners tend to ply their trade in tougher races, all six of his winners coming in handicaps.

Of the 493 initial entries for the handicaps and Group races over Irish Champion Weekend, 142 are trained in UK. That’s a figure of 28.8% and if they win at a purely random rate there should be four UK-trained winners over the two days. However, these numbers suggest taking the over on that number and likely by quite a bit!

- Tony Keenan