In The Numbers: Mullins versus Elliott (Part Two)

There are 1.525 million reasons to be excited about the Dublin Racing Festival and the Irish jumps trainers are certainly pumped for next weekend judged by their public comments, writes Tony Keenan.

The marketing/propaganda for this meeting has been heavy if understandable though it hasn’t been enough to attract much in the way of a UK challenge. Still, on the domestic front, no trainers will be focussed more on the fixture than Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, the pair having five of the eight Grade 1 favourites at the time of writing, though that may change when the five-day declarations come out.

With Fairyhouse and Punchestown (those meetings have €1.496 million and €3.074 million in prizemoney respectively) to come, the Dublin Racing Festival won’t decide the trainers’ championship, but it still looks set to play a big part.

Let’s begin with the championship betting market to start to get the story so far. Paddy Power has been offering odds on this since the end of Punchestown 2017 with the key price moves listed below (and thanks to them for supplying this information).


Willie Mullins Date Gordon Elliott
2/7 30/4/17 5/2
1/12 25/9/17 6/1
1/3 26/11/17 9/4
8/15 3/12/17 6/4
10/11 29/12/17 (morning) 1/1
6/4 29/12/17 (evening) 8/15
15/8 27/1/18 2/5


So Mullins went through the summer smoking hot, winning the top trainer prize at Galway amongst other things, and looked to have his hands on the trophy at the end of September. From there Elliott gradually got back into things – the importance of the months of October and November will be discussed later – with a major odds shift after his Hatton’s Grace Day Grade 1 treble when he was cut into 6/4. The last day of the Christmas Festival was huge too with Faugheen injured, seemingly done for the season, and Elliott beating him with Mick Jazz. Since then last season’s runner-up continued to shorten with Monbeg Notorious doing his bit in the Thyestes last Thursday.

It’s worth looking at the current prizemoney table at this point and bear in mind that all figures in this article are correct up to Saturday, January 27th. The final standings in 2016/17 were Mullins €4,580,200 and Elliott €4,380,705 though with the usual prizemoney inflation it could take a bigger figure to win this season.

Trainer Winners Runners Strikerate Win Prizemoney Total Prizemoney
G. Elliott 151 854 17.7% €2,188,775 €3,149,113
W. Mullins 146 470 31.0% €1,859,600 €2,551,830


This is pretty standard stuff in terms of trainer methodologies, Elliott using quantity, Mullins using quality, the former dominating number of runners, the latter much better in strikerate. One interesting point is their average prizemoney per win with (win prizemoney divided by winners) with Elliott on €14,495 and Mullins on €12,736. The perception would be that the figures would be the other way though some might believe this is a product of Elliott winning lots of valuable handicaps; he has won some of those races but as we will see it is actually his record in graded races that is inflating his high average prizemoney figure.

So Elliott is €597,283 clear at this point and it is worth returning to how far he led by at various points last season; he was around half a million ahead after the 2016 Troytown at Navan (a card where he had six winners), roughly €300,000 clear after Christmas the same year. His current total shows how much better he is doing relative to last season and it is worth considering when he did the damage, looking at both campaigns month-by-month below, the figures referring to winners then runners.


W. Mullins Month G. Elliott
15/40 May 10/102
7/28 June 9/71
16/43 July 11/76
22/72 August 16/93
17/48 September 11/62
9/35 October 21/77
18/47 November 33/133
24/100 December 26/158
18/57 January 15/83


I thought Mullins would break every record around after his summer season, even suggesting the first 200-winner Irish jumps season was likely, but that was well off. The key period here was October/November with Elliott having 54 winners to 27 for Mullins and at that point the champion simply couldn’t compete with the volume of his younger rival. This stage of the season is a traditional changeover point with summer horses wrapping up and winter horses getting going but Mullins seems to have been slow getting them to the track. That may not be a bad thing for their careers overall – not rushing a horse to do something before it is ready makes sense – but it could prove costly for the 2017/18 championship. I do think though that Elliott is a trainer that always looks for a reason to run whereas Mullins tends the other way.

Elliott’s November win total of 33 was actually his most ever in a calendar month with 31 his next best in the same month the previous year. For context, Mullins’s best two months all-time are 44 winners in December 2016 and 34 in November 2014, the former an outlier among outliers. I mentioned above that Mullins has found it hard to compete with Elliott’s sheer numbers but again this needs context. There is an excellent feature on where they list the number of individual horses each trainer has run in a season.

Mullins is on 194 individual runners for 2017/18 when his most ever was 195 in 2013/14 (his totals the last three seasons were 184, 191 and 177). So as of the end of January, Mullins has already run basically as many individual horses as ever before and the season still has three months to go. It hasn’t so much been a case that Mullins hasn’t had enough horses to run but rather he hasn’t gotten them to the track often enough to rack up prizemoney; consider his total runs of 470 against Elliott’s 854. In Elliott’s case, he has run 272, 195 and 141 individual horses over the last three seasons and is at 263 for the current season.

It is also worth considering the luck factor in terms of how trainers are doing over the season as a whole. When doing some work on the Cheltenham Festival last year, I came up with a couple of methods of seeing which trainers were lucky or unlucky based on the number of seconds and placed horses they were having. It is a simple calculation where total seconds are subtracted from total winners to see if there are major discrepancies and also looking at the ratio of winners to placed horses (all runners finishing second, third or fourth) with the idea being that the further the ratio is below 3.00 the more fortunate a trainer has been as this 3.00 would the expected figure with there being three places for every winner in a race.

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Trainer Winners Seconds Difference Total Places (2nd, 3rd and 4th) Winners to Places Ratio
G. Elliott 151 134 -17 321 2.13
W. Mullins 146 85 -61 178 1.22


These figures would suggest that Elliott’s numbers are more sustainable that those of Mullins. Mullins has a big differential between his total of winners and runners-up while his winner/place ratio is also particularly low. Moving beyond pure numbers for a moment, it also worth looking at the each trainer’s top ten horses in terms of prizemoney won.


Willie Mullins Gordon Elliott
1. Rathvinden 1. Potters Point
2. Fabulous Saga 2. Apple’s Jade
3. Next Destination 3. Shattered Love
4. Lagostovegas 4. Outlander
5. Robin Des Foret 5. A Toi Phil
6. Footpad 6. Mengli Khan
7. Total Recall 7. Doctor Phoenix
8. Whiskey Sour 8. Death Duty
9. Shaneshill 9. Monbeg Notorious
10. Mystic Theatre 10. Dinaria Des Obeaux


Of the Mullins ten, seven ran during the summer: Rathvinden, Fabulous Saga, Lagostovegas, Robin Des Foret, Whiskey Sour, Shaneshill and Mystic Theatre. Some of those have continued to run well during the winter, others have barely run at all but it is hardly an outlandish argument to suggest that you can’t win a trainers’ championship with summer horses. There are a few reasons for this: most of the summer horses will have had their run of form at this point and are now higher in the handicap competing against better horses on softer ground but most importantly they are typically not good enough to win graded races when the winter horses come out. Elliott, on the other hand, has only one summer horse in his top ten (Potters Point) and you have to go to number 16 on his top prizemoney horses to find his next summer jumper which is Morgan.

There is a perception that Elliott is more of a handicap trainer than one for graded races but in 2017/18 this has not proved entirely true if we look at the record of each trainer in different types of races.


W. Mullins Race Type G. Elliott
8/80 Handicaps 37/281
24/86 Graded/Listed 24/89
56/161 Maidens 52/295
32/79 Bumpers 19/90
26/64 Other 19/99


Elliott does have the edge in handicaps which is unsurprising though it is worth pointing out that he was won only five of the valuable handicaps to four won by Mullins (by valuable handicaps I mean those worth more than the equivalent of £20,000 to the winner which basically means our graded handicaps). It is their very similar record in non-handicaps that stands out with Elliott actually leading in terms of winners. He is also ahead in terms of Grade 1 victories with a total of seven to Mullins’s four. That is particularly impressive as Elliott’s Irish Grade 1 totals over last five seasons are, working backwards: 7, 4, 3, 2, 2. In that same period, Mullins has figures of 14, 20, 21, 15 and 19 so he is well behind where he might typically be at this point of the season. The one area where Mullins does hold sway is in bumpers which I’ll return to in wrapping up.

So is there any way back for Mullins in 2017/18? It seems unlikely based on what we have seen above. I think he would need to hit every marker with his stars to have any chance; Faugheen would need to win Champion Hurdles at Leopardstown and Punchestown, Yorkhill would need to get his head right, Douvan would need to come back to his best, Djakadam would need to find an extra couple of pounds to take him from perennial placer to Gold Cup winner. Perhaps one or even two of these scenarios will unfold but it is a big price that everything will come together.

2018/19 might be more interesting however. As referenced above, Mullins has a distinct advantage in the bumper division this season and that edge may only bear fruit in seasons to come. The departure of Gigginstown obviously hurt Mullins last season and it took a lot of ready-made horses from the yard. Mullins surely went about replacing those horses quickly but the problem is that in most cases you aren’t replacing like for like; instead, a mature horse like Apple’s Jade was being replaced by a young bumper horse that needs time. So what we might call a Gigginstown gap year may have developed.

Mullins has come back strong with his bumper horses this season and one of the most interesting things about them is their ownership profile. Of his 32 bumper winners, there have been 26 individual horses, some of them winning more than once, and 24 different owners. Supreme Racing had three of the group, Rich Ricci had only one while there was not a Graham Wylie horse among them. By my research – which could be wrong as I was simply using the ownership statistics on the Racing Post website – 13 of them were new to the yard.

There were a lot of syndicates and partnerships, a few single person owners, but not many that seem likely to reach double figures in terms of horses in training. This seems a massive change in the ownership profile at Closutton which was once dominated by the triumvirate of Gigginstown, Ricci and Wylie but now seems to have many more smaller interests involved. What this means for Mullins I don’t know and how many more horses these people are willing to put in training will depend on their own financial circumstances though they have certainly made the sort of start that might encourage them to go in again.

- Tony Keenan

Tony Keenan: Making Racing Better in 2018

When I interviewed Ian Marmion last month, he put forward the view that racing may not have a betting product to sell punters from Monday to Friday, writes Tony Keenan. In Ireland, racing doesn’t even try to offer this at least at this point of the year when the best meetings are concentrated towards the weekend with moderate fare midweek and an all-weather card on Friday. Still, it’s disappointing for the sport as Marmion is as pro-racing as you’ll get in the bookmaking business but perhaps we have to deal with the new reality that racing is now a Festival and big day sport with day-to-day stuff being ever more marginalised.

Certainly that seems to be the idea around the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival next month but the sport’s popularity does abide as you can see from attendances at the recent Christmas meeting at Leopardstown; the challenge is getting those people following and betting on the sport in the weeks between Christmas and the next big event. The Irish racing authorities have not shown much initiative in that regard with entitlement often their default mode; that sense of ‘what are you doing for me?’ could fill an article in itself but suffice it to say that their central political objective at the moment is increasing betting tax (to be paid for by the punter, the people who you want to bet on your sport) at a time when only between 12-15% of Irish betting turnover is bet on Irish racing.

It is easy to get defeatist about all this but perhaps it is better to look for ways in which the sport could improve interest levels and in turn betting volume. In my mind, there are two standout changes that need to be made in the short-term: improving the quality of in-race viewing for TV viewers and the provision of sectional times at all tracks. The former is one for the masses, the latter more for the hard-core.

Both of these things will take money – what doesn’t? – but prizemoney is due to rise again in 2018, by €2.2 million, and one wonders if those funds might be better spent elsewhere; this is not to say that prizemoney is unimportant, on the contrary it is a tool to improve and maintain integrity, but one sometimes wonders if it is the only issue that HRI thinks matters.

Picture the scene: you’re at Leopardstown for one of their summer Thursday meetings, the evening sun is setting and there are a bunch of two-year-old fillies going to the start for a maiden. Among them are jockeys in Magnier navy, Godolphin blue and Abdullah green, pink and white, trained by O’Brien, Bolger and Weld, and there may be a 1,000 Guineas winner in amongst them. For those on the track, this is a rich visual experience with even a touch of romance to it but the problem is it doesn’t look like that at home on TV.

Instead, you have to watch the action in standard definition which will never capture the essence of the race. Sports coverage now – and I’m talking purely in terms of picture quality – needs to be of a certain standard and racing doesn’t meet it; viewers coming from other sports expect higher definition and they aren’t getting it. There was a time when we were delighted just to be able to watch every race on what is basically a free-to-air channel in AtTheRaces but there has been enough back-slapping about this and it is time to progress the raw visuals of the sport. This will cost money, likely quite a bit of money, but it would be well-spent and it should be a priority for AtTheRaces, HRI, SIS and the various tracks to work on this.

Another area of the Irish racing televisual experience that could be improved are the camera angles. My wife jokes that I spend an awful lot of time looking at horses’ arses but little does she know that is literally true when watching coverage from most Irish tracks!

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It would be bad enough if we had to put up with bad angles at provincial tracks like Tramore and Sligo alone but it is also the case when watching action from premier jumps courses like Leopardstown, Punchestown and Fairyhouse. You simply cannot gauge what is happening in the race properly when they go past the stands at Leopardstown with the way the angles are currently set up.

I admit to a complete bias towards all things time-related in racing as sectionals and time-figures are my thing, at least at the moment, as I think they provide an edge. I’m less interested in information on wind operations and horse weights but as a punter you should never be against more data. Racing is a sport that is simply made for new data points with so many novel areas that are yet to be explored. To paraphrase a commenter on a recent article on this site (Scott Ferguson), more data would lead to more systems and analysis techniques which should lead to a broader spread of bets and risk being diversified.

It was disappointing to see the reaction of a number of racing people to the decision that wind operations should be declared as their responses seemed to be self-serving, perhaps wanting the information for themselves, perhaps not wanting their star stallion prospect to be tarnished by having to declare a wind problem, perhaps simply not wanting the hassle of having to do more administration. Then there were those who argued that punters wanted the silver bullet of a wind operation declaration to solve all their betting woes, as if bettors are simply looking for a letter that points to a winner; the reality is that all information points are only part of the puzzle with the challenge becoming one of analysis more than anything.

To return to the main point, it is important to remember that sectional times were promised at all Irish tracks from January 2017 onwards and over a year on we have barely heard a thing about them. HRI could argue that there has been no clamour for them but people are not known to argue for something they don’t understand and it is only by instituting them that the understanding will come. Furthermore, this would not be a laborious process and does not necessarily need extensive GPS technology. Timeform do them manually (albeit not furlong-by-furlong) and while that may bring in some human error, staffers can get up to speed quite quickly, doing a full meeting in less than an hour, and the Irish racing calendar is hardly an arduous one. That might be a job for an intern or a new entrant at HRI though it could shine some unwanted light on rail movements that seem to appear without any details of how they affect race distances.

Anyway, those are my two, not unrealistic, hopes for Irish racing in 2018; what about yours? Leave a comment below with your own thoughts.

- Tony Keenan                                                  Follow Tony on twitter at @racingtrends

Tony Keenan: The Bookmakers’ Perspective

The bookmaker-punter divide is one where the boundaries are permeable with many people playing both sides, writes Tony Keenan. Ian Marmion is one such example: Ian has worked with a number of the big betting companies as well as punting professionally for a time; and, along with some friends, he has a few horses in training, not least Ch’Tibello with Dan Skelton.

Much of what I write for Geegeez tends to be punter-centric but it is worth remembering that there are multiple sides to any story. With that in mind, Ian was kind enough to give me his thoughts on the state of the betting industry at present as well as on how racing interacts with it.


Let’s start with some biography Ian, what’s your background and how long have you been working in the betting industry?

I suppose I was always a keen punter and got into the industry with various jobs like a cashier and betting shop manager.  I then worked in the raceroom at Paddy Power before moving to Victor Chandler where I progressed through the company, coming back to start operations in Ireland in 2005 when we go some pitches and shops. I thought I was home for good but one day I was over in Gibraltar for a meeting and having been very critical of the firm’s trading policy (which I felt was antiquated) I was asked by Victor to sort it out!

In truth, I was a mug punter up to that point, though I was strong numerically and had a good eye for product. We had a lot of high-stakers and lead accounts, which is very different to how that firm operates now, and I was able to educate myself on how to win. We were aggressive punters in the market and I was following others’ opinions but learning plenty. Over a period of years it got to a point where I was making more money punting than working and having had a tempestuous relationship with Victor I thought I was good enough to give it a go full-time.

I reckoned my bets were coming from about 30% what I got in Chandler’s, 40% other contacts I had made along the way and 30% my own opinion though I probably got that pie wrong! It started badly as I had two consecutive losing months for the first time in a long while but it soon turned around and I was at it full-time for five years.

My skill was getting money on, that’s what I was good at. I was doing business for warm punters with about 10 lads in shops. They’d be ready to go at 10 in the morning, know what shops to do at 10.15, get the message what to bet at 10.30 and have everything done by 11. Getting on is as important a skill as picking winners.


You’ve since come back into the betting industry proper; what was your reasoning for stepping back from the punting and joining BetStars as trading director with their sportsbook?

There were a few different reasons. With the punting, I was getting a bit sick of it and some of the developments in the game weren’t helping. It was certainly harder to get on with overnight pricing killing a lot of what we did in the shops in the morning, and the machine [Betfair] was definitely getting more of a grip on Irish racing. Where once we were getting twelve monkeys [£500 at 12/1] at half-ten in the morning, now it was three hundred at 7s. With BetStars, PokerStars were launching a sportsbook and it was going to be based in Dublin; I thought if I turn this down I’m never going back to Ireland and I’m here three years in which time the punting has taken a back-seat.


The elephant in the room is account restrictions so we may as well deal with that. When I talk to punters, rightly or wrongly, it’s the only issue they want to discuss. Now maybe there’s some selection bias there as I talk a bit to people who have an idea what they’re doing but restrictions are happening. What are your thoughts on them, both from a work perspective and personally?

With BetStars, we are a new sportsbook so we’re trying to attract customers and inevitably you attract sharp business first. Our horse racing runs profit to 4% return after Best Odds Guaranteed, 7% before BOG which is reasonable and we’ve restricted about 6% of customers this year. Recreational customers have a typical profile. They bet in or around your average stake, they play a good mix of singles and multiples, they tend to do multiples early and singles off the show and they tend to play on higher grade racing. As a new entrant we get a lot of customers that fall outside this typical profile. We don’t have many punters who bet in or around our average stake of €xx [redacted] who we have to restrict. Typically there will be a blatant reason to restrict them and more often than not that blatant reason will be they are arbers.

I’ve been both sides of the fences and for many reasons – cost and technology for example – undoubtedly the quality of trader is not what it once was. There is a part of it where ‘arbers’ is just an excuse where a trader doesn’t want to make a difficult decision, playing lads that aren’t inside the model. That said, I don’t think this is a problem for the tenner and score punter in shops and even online but outside of that, there’s a nervousness and good punters do get caught up due to lack of skills in trading rooms. However, bookmakers have no obligation to feed money to pros or non-recreationals, arbers or bonus abusers.

When I’m looking at it, there are a couple of reasons I wanted to bet a punter. Firstly, when I had a fair chance of beating him and secondly if he told me something I didn’t know myself and that includes bets to a reasonable size.  I didn’t want followers or people just following the machine; you’re not going to beat them and they’re not offering you anything. You can have some winning accounts but you don’t need to pay everyone for the mark.

As for the punting side, a friend says to me that people who can’t get on don’t work hard enough. If you’re that serious and hard-working about it, you’ll get around it. There aren’t as many recreationals as we know it left and, while everybody always criticises bookmakers in saying that they won’t lay without looking at the machine, nobody ever says that the same is true for punters who won’t strike a bet if it is bigger on the machine. We’ve reached a point where nearly every single bet we strike is borderline with the machine price, which is basically borderline zero margin price.


Let’s go into a little bit more detail on some of these things. Line tracking seems to be the new term for arbing and people at it are copping plenty of flak. Is there much of this going on and can it be done with computer programs?

Punters can do this robotically with programs like OddsMonkey which flag up arbs and automatically places the bets for you. [I ask at this point doesn’t this business stand out a mile.] The biggest industry that has grown up around it is the show arbers, playing off show not earlies. There’s a significant time lag on show and machine prices, where you might have someone backing a horse at 5/2 that is 3.4 on the machine and that business can look square.

I actually think it’s impossible to lose betting show arbs on the front two or three in market with best odds guaranteed as the bookies are betting overbroke. And that’s a scourge for the ordinary punter that people don’t really think about. Recreational punters have to lose to enable some of that money to be distributed to the winners.


Some people have suggested that a minimum bet or lay-to-lose guarantee could be a way to go. How would the maths of that stack up?

We have to ask ourselves if can we sustain a minimum bet guarantee without altering the experience of the ordinary punter and I don’t think we can. If minimum bet guarantees came in then best odds guaranteed would have to go and margins would have to increase. Ordinary punters have never had it so good and the fact is that most punters never reach a limit. Increasing margins might well satisfy people who aren’t the typical punter but you would have to remove concessions too. Maybe those who are better than the market would be better off but the ordinary punter won’t be.


You’ve mentioned overnight prices earlier. What are your thoughts on them?

They’re the single biggest tool in the bookmakers’ armoury at present as they’re getting to 10am when they typically increase limits and open shops and have prices right for two-eighths of nothing. No one is getting on to any size bar a few VIPs who are big long-term losers and in effect they adjust after every bet and keep adjusting until they get it right. The firms don’t win on overnights and even pre-10am bets and are actually happy to lose as when the limits are upped they are more confident about their prices. Remember, the vast majority still play on the show with the breakdown being roughly 70% show, 30% earlies.


On the subject of punters beating you are there any cardinal sins that they can avoid or that make them stand out? And if you don’t like their business, do you think there would be any point in having a yellow card-type system where they are warned about how they are operating?

Customers who consistently beat the Betfair SP are impossible to beat long-term. They are buying something for a dollar and selling it for a dollar ten. Followers who are price sensitive and just follow warm money either because it drops under on the machine or because they work in a trading room offer no long term value. Customers who abuse antiquated systems like traditional each way terms or Rule 4 are no good to you either.  On the subject of bad each-way, a lot of that is a problem with the system and the rule 4 model is broken too, completely out of date. If I had my way, I’d get rid of each-way terms and have separate win and place books. There would be a correlation between the win book and the place book but there would also be changes depending on the make-up of the race. The each-way system is too entrenched though and another thing we’d be better with is decimal pricing as 6/4 to 13/8 is too big of jump, what about 2.55 or 2.6?

I don’t mind anyone having the conversation about how they are betting. We don’t do this well as an industry and this is where the skill deficit is coming into play. You should be good enough as a trader to look at an overall basket of goods to see he’s getting the better of me overnight but not overall. So I can’t let him win the lot overnight but you can have more on the show. The problem is when you get restricted with most of the firms, BetStars included, it doesn’t matter what you want to bet on, whether it is the Gold Cup or a seller at Lingfield, which makes no sense.

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Technology has contributed to this in a big way. More and more firms don’t have a call centre and make hard and fast rules about limits to be applied online. A few have an over-ask tool that allows you to request bigger bets but it’s generally not afforded to non-recreationals.


In the past year or so, regulation has become a much bigger deal in the UK. How do you think the industry is responding to this?

Responsible gambling has become a massive part of our industry though I do think it’s important to say that being a high staker and being a problem gambler are different things. For some people, big stakes are normal. There are plenty of important developments going on in UK at the moment including staking limits on FOBTs, the Gambling Commission and firms being held accountable for responsible gaming.

As an industry we’ve been let get away with too much for too long. I had a boss who used to say ‘never feel sorry for them [punters]’ but in this day and age that’s not acceptable.  Gambling is 24/7, and punters have access to so many opportunities to feed an addiction. I know it sounds hypocritical of me to say I’m anti-FOBTs when I get my living from people losing money but I’m not a fan of them. They prey on a demographic that shouldn’t be preyed on. There’s a counter-argument that they can go online and do it just as easily but I’m not so sure they can as you need debit cards and access to funds in a bank account.

I remember reading an article about FOBTs where a manager in a William Hill shop said ‘I’ve never seen anyone play them happily’ and that about sums it up for me. Obviously they are an incredible money-making machine with over half of Ladbrokes’ profit from them and you saw the impact of reducing the stake limit had for the GVC bid for Ladbrokes Coral. Personally, I’d much prefer to see 1,000 punters lose a tenner than one lad lose €10,000 as it’s just more sustainable. Stuart Kenny [one of the founders of Paddy Power] was an absolute visionary in this regard as he wanted the punter to go away thinking he got value for his few quid, it was something he intrinsically believed and it was him who came up with money back specials and such like.


Racing remains a big part of your life, Ian, and you have a number of horses in training, not least Ch’Tibello with Dan Skelton. I always thought it was a little unusual that you opted to have your horses trained in the UK rather than at home in Ireland, allowing that Skelton is excellent. What are the reasons for that?

There are two reasons. When we got into them, we were abroad and it didn’t matter while latterly, it’s too hard to win a race over here. Dan has trained about 105 winners this season for 40 different owners but with the stranglehold the pair of boys [Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott] have over here, Ch’Tibello would struggle in graded races so there is a better chance of him winning one in the UK.

The punting opportunities are better too. It’s impossible to get on in the mornings in Ireland but you have half a chance of getting on in the UK. We landed a small touch with one last January and got to back him at midday when he was still 25/1 which would never happen in Ireland.

I was at Fairyhouse for Bar-One day earlier this month and there was a great crowd and atmosphere but it was like Jebel Ali with the same colours going around race after race. Maybe I’m being negative but I can’t see us winning graded races over here; though it must be said that what Elliott has achieved is incredible and we all should have stood up and noticed when he won the Grand National way back.


What do you think racing is doing right at the moment and where do you think it could improve?

For one, we’ve so much more wrong with the game than the declaration of wind ops. I think racing and betting are one and the same and we need to look at changing the demographic of who is going racing. In Ireland, we’re not too bad at it but in the UK you have silly stuff where they won’t let you into the owners and trainers without a tie. I would abolish enclosures and some of the entrance prices in the UK are ludicrous.

From a betting point-of-view, integrity is still an issue. With Douvan and the Tingle Creek, Altior and Nicky Henderson it is more transparency than integrity. Racing is competing for the betting euro with sports that have 24/7 transparency or at least the perception of such, football being the main example. If that is their expectation then it’s important that we try to emulate that. The ordinary guy in the street thinks racing is crooked to start with, which he doesn’t think that about a football game, and racing needs to work against that notion. The younger trainers are much better at this but we need to reach a level of transparency where when an owner tells a trainer to stop a horse, the trainer tells him to eff off.

The bad racing during the week has integrity issues. Battle-hardened punters know how to factor that into equations and to use it in the decision-making process but if we’re trying to attract an ordinary guy to spend his leisure pound on us, it’s never going to happen. Maybe racing just doesn’t have a product that it can sell to a punter Monday to Friday. Football is the one that is targeting the betting pound more than any other with the good stuff spread out over the week, group races most days in racing parlance, where we’ll have dross Monday to Friday.

I don’t know if this is practical but perhaps we should have a more concentrated programme, less racing but better racing. Some of the issue is horses rated 45 on the flat that are simply useless; what are they even running for, they shouldn’t be able to get into races. If they were not able to get into them, they’d as soon not be bred and the industry would be better off in the long-term after a period of pain.


I know you’re not a fan of the bookmaking firms using trainers and jockeys to provide content through blogs, and your horses with Dan Skelton don’t run under the Ladbrokes sponsorship that his yard has. What’s your thinking here?

I don’t think from a transparency point of view that bookies should be sponsoring trainers and jockeys. For the ordinary guy in the street who don’t forget thinks racing is bent anyway, this looks terrible; how many guys told you Ruby jumped off Annie Power? Optics is the big word at the minute. Nor do I buy the content argument that they are providing material that engages people in racing; if that were so, why aren’t they doing it for Geegeez or the Sporting Life or for free? It’s for money.

The firms are doing this for marketing first and foremost, you are associating your brand with something premium which is always a plus. Bwin did this well with Juventus and Real Madrid a while back and people believe in you instantly when you associate your brand with another premium brand. I don’t take any of them seriously as I don’t believe you’re ever being told anything significant.


Let’s wrap up with a final question: Where do you see the industry going in the future? I listened to a podcast recently with Marco Blume of Pinnacle where he said e-sports were their sixth biggest market which I couldn’t believe. Is this the case and what else is coming down the line?

I think the e-sports stuff is a lot of spin. I don’t believe in them as a fixed-odds betting product, it’s like badminton in terms of turnover. Pinnacle might be trying to popularise it, Marco Blume has a background in that area, and to be fair the age of your typical e-sports punter is lower than that of football, 27 and 40 in our case. It makes sense trying to make a go of it in that regard but I don’t buy it. Mind you I didn’t think cash-out would work so I’ve not exactly got a strong pedigree in this area!

There are massive changes coming in football around how markets are done and presented. The whole Request-A-Bet stuff will be automated and we need to remember that football betting looks the way it does because that’s how a football coupon looked in a shop 40 years ago. We still tell punters what they want to bet on but in 6 months’ time punters will tell you what they want to bet on. They will be able to drag in what they like to bet on. The maths isn’t the most difficult aspect of this, it’s the tech that is the hard part with issues of how you present it and do it quickly.

We are all trying to convert betting into gaming where the punter can circulate his money, bet on next corner, throw-in or goal. Nobody has got this right yet but it’s coming.  The thing is when a punter has a bet on the win-draw-win in football, he is dead for 2 hours. I’m not sure how this would work with racing, perhaps with punters who miss the off or are waiting for a bet to settle or have had a faller in a race and want plough back in again. This appeals to the young demographic who want things quickly. We are a world that doesn’t read anything anymore and is so used to 140 characters, and punters are naturally the same.

The views expressed above are the personal opinions of Ian Marmion and not necessarily representative of The Stars Group.

Tony Keenan (twitter: @racingtrends) was talking to Ian Marmion (twitter: @marmobet), sports book trading director for BetStars

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.



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.



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