Tony Keenan: Why I’m Worried About Gambling

I’m worried about gambling. Not my own gambling per se, though a couple more winners would always be appreciated, but where the whole pursuit is going, writes Tony Keenan.

The 2010's were the decade when gambling in Ireland and beyond became normalised. It was hardly an illicit, back-street hobby in the early 2000's but recent years have seen it become utterly mainstream through its ubiquity, from TV ads to football sponsorship, odds making their way into conversations like never before. Technology was the great enabler of this expansion: why go to a betting shop when you could have ten of them in your pocket?

Today, where there is sport, there is betting. It was ever thus for racing and indeed this has been its primary attraction for many (myself included) but it is something new for many sports. This normalisation of gambling may have been the greatest achievement of betting companies, opening up markets and customers that were hitherto unavailable to them, but it seems that a tipping point is about to be reached if we are not already there; have they been too successful in this process and about to be hoist by their own petard?

Sympathy for bookmakers has always been in short supply, the profession ranking close to politicians and solicitors in the public’s eyes, but the last few years have seen a sharp swing in sentiment against them. Our society now demands transparency when much betting market activity is cloudy but campaigners like Brian Chappell and Paul Fairhead, and newspapers like The Guardian, have done sterling work in bringing abject abuses into the light.

They are to be commended for this and have played their part in forcing welcome regulatory changes in the UK, from reduced stakes on FOBTs to banning the use of credit cards for online accounts, with limitations on VIP programmes perhaps to come. Self-regulation by betting companies doesn’t work, such attempts inevitably at odds with commercial concerns and there has been a certain acceptance of this from the firms themselves, publicly at least. They have had to take some pain and there will be more to come but while they needed a kick, a kicking even, do they deserve to be kicked to to the kerb?

Punters need bookmakers unless the whole model of betting in these islands is going to change drastically, and my worry now is that gambling will be used as political capital by those who don’t really understand the area. Gambling and betting companies (and, by extension, punters) are the easiest of targets for politicians looking to score points.

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To the forefront of all this is the very real issue of problem gambling. It is a difficult topic to write about, not least because I have thankfully never been there and hope I never will be. The fear of losing everything is something that lurks in the background with most if not all serious gamblers. That fear is not necessarily a bad thing either; fear can be a great motivator first of all but also act as a regulator if tempted to stake too heavily when we may believe we have a huge edge; racing punters are still betting on animals running around a field.

Nor am I any expert in the statistics of problem gambling which seem to throw up mixed messages and, in any case, those numbers could be wrong: losing a lot of money, often in the most private of fashions, does not seem like something people would want to disclose. It is a concern for society as a whole, perhaps even a public health issue, but most figures seem to bear out the truth that it affects a minority of gamblers and how we deal with the whole gambling area should not be dictated totally by the few when the many it brings joy to many.

I love gambling, particularly gambling on racing, which remains the ultimate betting puzzle with all its variables. I won’t pretend that every aspect of it is good. It can be a self-inflicted emotional roller coaster with losses hard to take, while it comes at a significant time cost if doing it seriously; there are other more productive and beneficial things we could alternatively be at. But, for me at least, the positives outweigh the negatives: among other things, it teaches us how to lose (frequently) and can make us learn to be disciplined, while I have made some of best friends through gambling and racing.

There is also the issue of freedom. Irresponsibility is present in most aspects of life from eating to drinking to driving to internet use; there are many things that aren’t particularly good for you when done to excess and a life spent gambling is hardly contributing much to society. But it is fun and if the majority of people who partake are enjoying it without doing significant harm to others, they should be allowed to continue.

This freedom may well be curtailed in the near-future however, perhaps significantly so. Unlike the UK, Ireland has no Gambling Commission yet but it is coming in some form and how quickly it is expedited will be determined by the next government, which may be less than sympathetic to betting interests. The most popular party in the most recent elections on some measures, Sinn Fein, stated in their manifesto that they would "conduct a short review of the gambling sector and introduce reform to the sector", allowing that these manifestos are often not worth the paper they are printed on after the voting is done.

Any new laws would surely aim to protect the vulnerable which is both a worthy and necessary goal, but should also be cognisant of the fact that not all gambling is problem gambling. The concern would be that regulators could be people with an anti-gambling agenda or may have no grasp of the area and thus the rules could be badly thought out or too draconian.

What form these regulations may take is unclear. An increase in betting tax (perhaps passed on to the punter) would be an obvious one, especially as Horse Racing Ireland have been lobbying for it for a while now. But any new rules seem likely to be more wide-reaching than that - some sort of source-of-funds/affordability check perhaps on the cards. This could be applied on or soon after registration for an online account or appearance in a betting shop and would make it virtually impossible for people to bet beyond their means but at the same time prevent people betting at a scale they are comfortable with.

The amount a punter can bet may be linked to their salary. So a person earning €39,000 (the average industrial wage in Ireland at the end of 2019) may be allowed to lose 10% of that in a year; I am guessing completely here, the figure may be much lower or higher. There is obviously a big difference between turning over that €3,900 in a given period and actually losing it all, but would the regulators know that? A punter can make a tank of that size go a long way in terms of time and they might, heaven forbid, even increase it.

Staking is a very broad church and I would not describe myself as remotely high-staking but nor do I want to do this for fivers and tenners at a time; there has to be some tangible reward for success. I realise gambling regularly can inure you to the value of money and you probably need to be a little loose, not thinking about stakes in terms of cups of coffee, nights out, even holidays. Bookmakers telling you what you can and cannot stake is one thing as there will always be ways and means of getting around their restrictions but government regulation might be something different entirely.

One thing that seems certain is that winning punters of any sort, whether they be making a living or simply getting a few quid, won’t be considered in this. That group have a tendency of finding a way but this could present yet another stumbling block with any sort of increased customer due diligence likely to work against them.

Ultimately, these laws in some form seem inevitable. One would hope that they will be constructed by people who have a real sense of subject matter and that punters won’t get caught in the crossfire between politicians and betting companies where betting volume just gets driven underground, which brings a wealth of other potential problems. Perhaps gambling should never have been allowed to become so utterly normalised but I would not want to see it demonised either.

- TK

Tony Keenan’s Top 10 Races of the Decade (ish)

It’s the end of the decade so forgive me for some reflection and self-indulgence as I look back on my favourite races of the last ten years or so, the ‘or so’ an important part as I’ve included two from 2009 – it’s my top 10 so I can do what I want!

There were two criteria for inclusion: I had to be at the track that day so, for instance, there is no Frankel who I never saw live; and I couldn’t have backed the winner. The latter was to avoid this becoming an exercise in delicious after-timing which is about as interesting as someone going through their Cheltenham ante-post ‘portfolio’ in December.

In almost all cases, I’ve backed another horse in the race but after the initial disappointment/shock/horror/disgust of being on a loser, the value of the race for whatever reason became apparent in hindsight. Here they are, then:


  1. Sea The Stars – 2009 Champion Stakes

Every rational part of my being says that Frankel would have beaten Sea The Stars had they met: Frankel had a higher official rating upon retirement, beat better horses and was better on the clock. And yet, the fan/patriot in me – call it what you will – thinks, you know what, maybe, just maybe, there was so much still in the tank with Sea The Stars that he might just have beaten The Big F.

Regardless of this perhaps idle fantasy, seeing the superstar Sea The Stars at Leopardstown in September 2009 in the flesh was a real treat, albeit one that had been in doubt in the run-up to the race with the weather. It was his sole Irish run as a three-year-old, a tilt at the Irish Derby having to be aborted due to – again – weather, and while it is one thing to see a nascent star as a two-year-old at your home tracks, it is quite another to watch them in their pomp, readily dismissing the massed ranks of Ballydoyle who certainly did their part in building his legacy, never failing to re-oppose despite previous defeats suggesting they may have been better running elsewhere.


  1. Thousand Stars – 2009 Bar One Racing Handicap Hurdle

This Saturday was one of those days you really wonder what you’re doing at the racetrack, fog having lingered overnight, and all the post-race analyses referencing ‘poor visibility’, the following day’s Hatton’s Grace having to be abandoned. The old saying about ‘a bad day at the races is better than a good day at work’ springs to mind and there was something memorable about the ghostly sport there with its intermittent coverage of the horses and Des Scahill basically opting out of commentating.

Thousand Stars himself really went on after this, winning the County Hurdle later that season before finishing third to Hurricane Fly at Punchestown, and presaging a long career at the top level over hurdles across a variety of trips. He was also one of the early Willie Mullins switchers, something that was to become a feature of Irish jumps racing over the next decade. Bizarrely, this was one of a few ‘fog meetings’ I’ve managed to make in that time; I was at Leopardstown later that year for the third day of the Christmas meeting that was called off halfway through along with the 2013 Thyestes won by Djakadam. On a related issue, please never mention the 2008 York Ebor meeting in my presence, the sole time I made the journey to that track. What a magpie.


  1. Long Run – 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup

2011 was the first Festival I was attended, and the Gold Cup was its crowning glory, Long Run versus Kauto Star versus Denman with some Imperial Commander mixed in too. The two Nicholls stars were on the downgrade at this stage, but the fire still burned or at least could be stoked for Cheltenham in March; while Long Run was never to reach the same heights afterwards which said plenty of how hard the second and third made him go. That the rider Sam Waley-Cohen became the first amateur jockey to win the race in 30 years added another layer of significance to the race.

The only other Festival I’ve made was 2016, where the roar that went up when Thistlecrack hit the front in the Stayers’ Hurdle was huge; but this was of a different order. You couldn’t get near the stand for 20 minutes before the race, but we had our position to soak it up and anyone will tell you this sort of moment, on this sort of scale, doesn’t happen in Irish racing. I’ve never been to a big soccer match, some major Monaghan GAA matches as close as I’ve managed but I’m not sure they compare!

  1. Rebel Fitz – 2012 Galway Hurdle

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Ok, so I lied. There is going to be one after-time in here as I did back Rebel Fitz in the 2012 Galway Hurdle and he was a badly needed winner. The race was on August 2nd and that July, when it rained incessantly, was – and still is – the worst punting month of my life. I put that down to the ground making things difficult for mid-summer flat racing; well, that’s my theory anyway.

Rebel Fitz had won the Grimes Hurdle at Tipperary and after some humming and hawing about whether he’d go to Galway, he pitched up as a well-backed second favourite at Ballybrit. He was travelling so well out of the dip that it was simply a case of Davy Russell getting a clear run which he did and then struck the front over the last, but in a moment of premature jock elation Russell eased up near the line and started celebrating only for something to come out of the pack. He held on but the photo finish call was one of the longer few minutes of my life.

The horse to come at him was the then four-year-old Cause Of Causes, at that time owned by the Timeform Racing Club, while the veteran Captain Cee Bee was third. I don’t think this was quite peak-Mick Winters – that came the following year with Missunited – but the trainer certainly knew how to celebrate and I did my best to imitate him in town that night. Funnily enough, I can’t recall much of that.


  1. Chicquita – 2013 Irish Oaks

This one is all about the jockey, Johnny Murtagh. Chicquita was, to put it mildly, quirky; ok, let’s be straight, she was a dodge. On her first start as three-year-old, she had fallen after running through a hedge to avoid victory before posting an excellent second to Treve in the Prix de Diane, coming from a long way back before hanging. The ability was clearly there but she would need a master ride to extract it and she got just that from Murtagh who dropped her right on the line to beat Venus De Milo, my bet in the race.

Murtagh, especially during his time at Ballydoyle, had a habit of winning on ungenuine horses. There was nothing I hated more than when he went to the front on a runner I had opposed due to attitude concerns only for the horse to get into a rhythm and never be headed; I’ve seen that movie tens of times. Chicquita herself made a record €6 million at the sales later that year, in no small part due to Murtagh’s excellence. I hope he got a tip!


  1. Treve – 2013 Arc Prix De L’Arc De Triomphe

I attended the Arc for the first and only time in 2013 with a good pal (always a decent start) though the weekend had a none too auspicious start; heading to the track on Saturday, news came through that our ante-post bet Novellist had been ruled out with injury. The couple of days racing at the old Longchamp was fine though I did feel a little cut off from the wider racing world; it wasn’t quite that I wanted to see the bumper at Tipperary’s Super Sunday on the big screen but there seemed to be a complete lack of awareness about anything else that was going on. Maybe that’s the point.

Anyway, I digress, which, in fairness, is probably the point of this whole exercise! Treve was magnificent in landing her first Arc when everything about race-reading said she couldn’t win with what went wrong, but she came home five lengths clear. Having sweated up, she raced wide and was very keen, her jockey making a premature move at a time when the pace was lifting, and yet she still managed to cruise to the lead and win without being asked a question. Wow.


  1. Hurricane Fly – 2015 Irish Champion Hurdle

Hurricane Fly definitely brought me more financial pain than joy over the years but he was a constant in top-class hurdles races for the first half of this decade and I managed to be there for his first Irish win in the Royal Bond (when I was on Donnas Palm) and his final one, this race (where I was on Jezki). He won some uncompetitive contests en route to his record haul of Grade 1’s but he raced against some very good horses too, his career intersecting with the likes of Solwhit and Faugheen amongst others.

Jezki was his foil though and it looked like being that one’s day at Leopardstown in January 2015 as Hurricane Fly seemed in bother two out when tight for room and his old rival cruised to the lead, but a mistake at the last ended his chance and, as so often in the past, the Fly found a way to win. If ever a horse deserved a statue.


  1. Almanzor – 2016 Champion Stakes

Objectively speaking, Almanzor’s Champion Stakes was the best and deepest flat race run in Ireland in the past decade: the best running of what is typically the best race, year in, year out. It brought together a who’s who of middle-distance horses that season, subsequent Arc winner Found, seven-time Group 1 winner Minding, the Derby winner Harzand and future globe-trotter Highland Reel amongst them.

Christophe Soumillon gave the winner a beautiful ride, arriving late and wide, and while his mount didn’t build on it during an injury-spoiled four-year-old campaign, for that moment and a few weeks later at Ascot he was the best of his generation, a rare French raider in Ireland these days.


  1. Sizing John – 2017 Irish Gold Cup

Leopardstown is probably my favourite track. The viewing is excellent there, I like how the facilities are laid out and it has quality racing, flat and jumps. It’s the place I went racing first and typically the track I visit most often in the year. Being on course for this meeting, the final Irish Gold Cup before the Dublin Racing Festival was launched the following year, wasn’t the smartest move as the weather was appalling with the place empty by the time of the bumper. To compound matters I had brought my soon-to-be wife, which seemed like a good idea at the time.

We were treated to Sizing John having his first run over three miles, however, Robbie Power riding with a mix of confidence and concern for stamina, only arriving at the last to lead. That race was his second in a four-month period when he was basically unbeatable, ultimately winning three versions of a Gold Cup in that time. Upped in distance, he finally stepped out of the shadow of Douvan and, while he has been mainly on the side-lines since, his legacy is secure. Enjoy them while they’re here.


  1. Pat Smullen Champions Races for Cancer Trials Ireland 2019

There were some very good horses running on the second day of Irish Champions Weekend in 2019, Pinatubo and Kew Gardens among them; but the meeting was more about man than beast this year. Pat Smullen had gathered the great and good of retired riders, some recent, some not so recent, to take part in a flat handicap over a mile, which culminated with the winning-most jockey of all-time, Tony McCoy, holding off Ruby Walsh in a driving finish.

Few will remember the names of the moderate-to-decent handicappers that ran in the race, but it would be hard to forget the atmosphere on the day despite the miserable weather. Racing, generally such a factional sport, joined together on the day for a most worthy cause, jockeys going around with buckets asking punters to dig deep, everyone doing their small part in the face of what can be an unbeatable illness.

- TK

Tony Keenan: A chat with Fran Berry

It is hardly controversial to say that sports coverage relies too much on former participants, that group all too often bringing bias to their analysis and sometimes tending away from criticism of current players, be they jockeys or trainers, even when it is obviously deserved, writes Tony Keenan. Racing is not the worst sport for this – watch ‘Match of the Day’ or ‘The Sunday Game’ and you will struggle to find a panellist that didn’t play the game – but even so I hardly fill with enthusiasm when I hear of another ex-jockey embarking on a career in TV, wondering if they’re going to be one of those ‘how many winners have you ridden?’ types.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, when on one of his first shifts for Racing TV, Group 1-winning former rider Fran Berry questioned, in the most polite way possible (because he tends to do things politely), the attitude of a few of the runners on the card. There is no mileage in calling anyone’s horse a dodge – not least because almost every dog has its day – but, as Berry says, talking about when he was riding horses with temperament in the past, "you might call a horse ungenuine but often there’s an underlying physical problem and a year later you find out it’s a bleeder or has had its wind done or is retired with injury.

"But as a jockey (or a punter or an analyst) you’re dealing with the here and now and when you’re aboard one like that you weigh up everything, but sometimes you’re just riding them for a place and just hope everything falls right. Horses can take heart by passing a few but while ultimately they might lie down in the end, you have to try to make it as easy as possible for them."

Berry had been out of Ireland for a few years, riding in the UK from 2016 before injuries sustained in a fall at Wolverhampton in January this year called time on his race-riding career. Having ridden extensively in both jurisdictions, he sees some differences between the two.

"Riding in the UK, you could be taking 600 or 700 mounts a year, you do your form (it is apparent Berry is a form nerd!) and replays and things but in most cases, you won’t have sat on them before the race. So, you have to be guided by what people are telling you and get a feel going to the start which is a tight window of time.

"In England, there are massive time constraints on jockeys. I had a driver and not to have one is a false economy. The likes of Oisin Murphy and Harry Bentley have form men which is a good idea and could be cheap at any price when you’re taking ten rides a day for different trainers. You can know too much but I’d rather that than know too little."

The weighing room in Ireland has changed a lot since Berry moved to the UK three years ago; so much so that a former colleague remarked to him recently that he was over in Ireland for a ride and barely recognised any of those riding against him.

"There’s been monumental change in the ranks lately: Pat Smullen is gone, I left, Joseph O’Brien came and went, Donnacha has come in. That’s left some big holes but also more opportunities for lads, Billy Lee being one who has come to hand. Really there’s been more change in the last three years than in the previous two decades apart from Mick Kinane and Johnny Murtagh retiring."

Race-riding in Ireland also has some essential differences from the UK.

"The lack of pace in Irish racing relative to English is very noticeable, with races tending to be much truer run in England. A lot of that is down to the tracks, Irish tracks are often sharper tracks and lend themselves to getting out early and taking a position. Riding in Ireland is a lot tighter, it’s a contact sport really with lots of barging and battling for position."

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This close-packed style of racing is something that is often celebrated by practitioners, Ted Walsh commenting on RTE recently how much he liked to see jockeys riding ‘tight’, the recent Galway Hurdle a good example of this.

About pace and sectionals, Berry sees this as more of a rest of the world thing that is coming into UK racing, but not really an Irish thing yet.

"I learned more about pace riding abroad in Singapore, Macau and especially Japan where every horse is chipped. Analysis of sectionals has become more prevalent with At The Races and particularly Simon Rowlands, and trainers in the UK are into them and will often be using their own form man."

When riding, Berry says that "subconsciously you try to gauge how strong the gallop is, be it fast, medium or slow, but telling much more than that in-race is difficult." However, he feels that pace is only one part of race-riding and making a move to counteract a slow pace can be counter-productive.

"It is easy to say when analysing a race afterwards that the jockey had to know they were going slow and should have moved up but that can be difficult depending on where you’re positioned. Let’s say you’re sixth on the rail. Mid-race moves are generally inefficient ones, on occasion I’ve tried to wheel forward and get in, but the other riders see you doing that and quicken up. You’re also dealing with an animal, and mentally setting them alight at that point comes at a cost, they may do too much and have nothing left for the finish."

Even planned changes of tactics from the outset can be present difficulties.

"Wind issues are a massive thing with horses now and that plays a part in tactics, it seems every second horse over jumps wears a tongue-tie while in the UK loads of horses have wind operations. Those horses have to be ridden accordingly, some like to get out and into a rhythm whereas some choke and if you ask them too soon, they flip their palette and don’t finish out their races and might need exaggerated tactics."

Much of Berry’s thinking on how horses should be ridden and educated comes from his time spent with John Oxx where "it was massive to have a good experience first time out, to drop them in and have them running through horses, teach them something that will stand to them so you can ride them wherever you want next time."

Berry believes sectional times can be "great for teaching lads the ideal scenario but in the race itself those riders have got to use their own judgement along with knowledge of the horse they’re riding."

When asked about whether the jockey feels the pace themselves or the horse gives you the signals, he says "if you know the horse, and it’s usually pretty good to travel, unless there’s something up with it and it’s not travelling well then you know the pace is too fast."

In general, he says "you can’t beat riding a track a few times to know what it’s about. If I’m somewhere for the first time, I’ll walk it and look for landmarks as in reality it’s difficult to see the furlong poles. A sponsor’s board will be bigger and is a better visual marker and that’s something useful especially at tracks with long straights like York where the temptation is to get racing too soon; you see the stands and think you’re already there."

Race-riding and form is something that still fascinates Berry and we certainly drew a few strange looks from other customers while watching random replays and looking at sectional time spreadsheets in the coffee shop where we met. The Irish Derby won by Sovereign came under discussion and Berry pointed out that "the Curragh Derby track is much shaper than the Plate (outer) track so if you’re too far back, they’re always getting away from you."

He also ventured an interesting point-of-view regarding what Ryan Moore on Anthony Van Dyck and Chris Hayes on Madhmoon may have been thinking when the leaders got away from them. "They are probably thinking that if I go now, I am only going to bottom my own horse so whatever chance I have of winning [if the front-runners come back], I’m not going to set it up for another one. If you do that, you’re getting the same result or worse anyway and trying to roll five out at the Curragh when the downhill part starts means you won’t get home."

The Irish Oaks also came under discussion as did the much-vaunted but latterly disappointing Visinari. Iridessa was well-fancied for the Oaks but disappointed and for Berry "she’s doing something out of character in the straight. She’s usually a strong traveller and should be tanking in a slowly-run mile-and-a-half race but she’s ill-at-ease and you can tell from Wayne Lordan’s body language that he’s not happy. Her head is coming up and the hind legs are fluent, the jockey is getting no push behind the saddle and her action is falling apart as her stride shortens."

On Visinari (who he describes as "James Willougby’s horse"’!), Berry is more interested in watching him after the line in the July Stakes than the race itself.

"Look at how narrow he is compared to the Aidan O’Brien horse [Royal Lytham], that one is a real stocky, forward-looking horse. Visinari is big long rake, narrow at the neck, unfurnished and was galloping on his head, going up and down. I suspect if you see him in the ring, it’s likely he hasn’t levelled off, the front and back section don’t match up. That lack of physical strength might be what beat him; he could be a horse for next year though you would need to see him in the flesh as he may always look like that."

I could have gone on all day watching back various replays and asking for more of Berry’s views, but politeness made me draw the line at pulling up random low-grade Irish races to see what he thought about how a horse had handled the trip or ground or track. As something of a fellow form nerd, I suspect he might have had a view though!

Fran Berry is an analyst on Racing TV and writes a weekly column on the Sporting Life.


Tony Keenan: Irish Flat Season 2019 Preview

You might have guessed this already but more than anything in horse racing, it is the role of the trainer that fascinates me, writes Tony Keenan. We can wonder about the influence of various factors in trainer success, some of which are very obvious, others of which we will never know; no more than a punter, if a trainer has an edge, they can hardly be expected to comment on it publicly.

(A somewhat random aside: I read recently that Thady Gosden – son of John – had spent some time at the Joseph O'Brien yard and while I appreciate O’Brien Jr. seems a thoroughly decent man, there surely had to be the temptation to either: one, fill him with misinformation to take back to Gosden Senior, or, two, lock him in a darkened stable with a fire and a poker to extract the secrets of what his father does so well. I have never understood this part of racing where one trainer allows a rival, actual or potential, access to their yard. It must be because they’re all lovely people.)

One thing we can do however is look at the broad sweep of success trainers have over a period of time. Below I have put together the records of the top 20 active Irish flat trainers (with one exception, Patrick Prendergast, for reasons that will become apparent) and their turf runners in Ireland over the past decade; Dundalk is not included. It necessarily leaves out some relevant figures – notably Fozzy Stack – but should offer a decent overview of what has happened since 2009.

It deals with winners only which is a pretty blunt instrument but one that most trainers seem to apply as a measure of their own success. A clatter of winners doesn’t always equal success however; Aidan O’Brien had a record-breaking season at home in 2018 but most (including the trainer himself) would have regarded the campaign as a down year if not a failure. Ken Condon had only seven turf winners last year but one of them was Romanised in the 2,000 Guineas so 2018 might even prove the best of his training career. But in the main, winners figures are useful, especially when compared to what went before.


That’s a whole lot of numbers right there so the Cliff Notes version is below:

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This does give us a fair overview of what has happened over the last ten years or so, which yards have risen and which have fallen, what rising stars made it and who never got there (hint: it’s very difficult to make it in Irish flat racing). The decline of the veteran pair John Oxx and Kevin Prendergast are patterns that jump out immediately as is the gradual rise of Ger Lyons, while a recent jump from Jessica Harrington and the rapid growth of Joseph O’Brien are also notable.

Atop the table for the decade and every year of it is, of course, Aidan O’Brien. 2018 was represented as a disappointing campaign for Ballydoyle, a mid-season bug impacting a number of horses, his record outside of Ireland significantly worse than previous years and the yard a little thin on stars, relatively speaking (see last season’s flat season review for more on this). But at home, it wasn’t just business as usual but a record-breaking season with 143 winners on the turf, his previous best being 124 in 2013.

From the point-of-view of the other major Irish yards, it was both disappointing and surprising that they weren’t able to exploit this brief chink in the Ballydoyle armour with the likes of Weld, Bolger and Lyons having down seasons to one degree or another. Perhaps his continued success at home, numerically at last, allowed O’Brien to remain quite sanguine about his horses being sick though experience does seem to have brought confidence whereas in times past he may have let it rattle him a little. If anything it was his son who took advantage of any slippage, his win in the Irish Derby standing out, though much of Joseph’s success came in lower grade handicaps with acquisitions from other yards. Aidan can at least console himself that should things ever go belly-up at Ballydoyle, he can have an assistant trainer post on the hill!

It is hard to get away from the belief that 2019 will be another big year for O’Brien, Sr. He has a huge team of horses, the spring has been kind weather-wise and his stars all seem healthy, none of the big guns ruled out yet. His early returns have been good with the likes of Magical, Le Brivido, Flag Of Honour and Sergei Prokofiev running well on seasonal debut.

One of O’Brien’s old rivals in the best races was John Oxx and his 2019 could be one of the most fascinating of all, Patrick Prendergast having come on board as assistant trainer and taken his team of horses with him. Plenty wondered at Prendergast’s motivation for this move, viewing him as a trainer on the up with Oxx the main beneficiary of the new setup. I don’t think it’s as simple as that as the John Oxx name still has some cachet while there is also succession to think about with Oxx aged 68.

It is also important to note that while Prendergast trained his first Group 1 winner in 2018, these successes have proved largely useless in elevating mid-range trainers to a higher plane. There have been numerous examples of Irish trainers winning their first Group 1 race this decade and it doing little or nothing for them in terms of getting more winners or horses in the short-term. Ger Lyons won the 2011 Cheveley Park with Lightening Pearl; he trained 31 winners that year and 24 and 29 the following years. Eddie Lynam won the Nunthorpe with Sole Power in 2010; he had 10 winners that year and 13 and 9 respectively the next two seasons.

It was a similar story with Mick Halford and Jessica Harrington in 2010 as they won Group 1 juvenile races with Casamento and Pathfork and while it could be argued that all those trainers making the top-level breakthrough around that period was awful timing with a view to attracting new owners as they may have cannibalised each other’s opportunities, neither Adrian Keatley nor Ken Condon seem likely to ‘kick on’ from recent Classic victories. Both Lyons and Harrington have gone to another level since those wins but that was because of their broad body of work rather than one win or horse and Prendergast may well have been wise to learn that lesson from recent history.

One thing Oxx may be hoping to get from Prendergast is an edge with juveniles; Oxx has trained only one two-year-old Group winner since 2013 and if there is a single cause for his decline this might be it. His patience, once seen as a virtue, now seems a black mark for prospective owners. Oxx did have a reasonable record with juveniles in the early part of the decade but that dwindled to nought in the last five years with only nine two-year-old winners from 137 runners (6.6% strikerate) between 2014 and 2018; in that period, Prendergast was 21 from 196 (10.7% strikerate).

Last season, with Skitter Scatter playing a big part, Prendergast finished tenth in the trainers’ championship, Oxx only thirty-eighth. Combining their prizemoney would have brought them up to eighth overall. Oxx commented in a recent interview that he felt he had only seven horses that could win a race going into last season (eight won in the end) but combining his and Prendergast’s numbers puts them in a better place for 2019. Oxx ran 35 horses, Prendergast 28, and 63 total horses would have left them just behind the O’Briens, Weld, Bolger, Lyons and Harrington last year. In the same interview, Oxx said they had 75 horses in for the season and while all of them won’t run, they should be significant players.

To conclude, let’s look at a yard or two that might be due some regression, be it positive or negative. One way to do this might be to compare what a trainer did last season versus the broader picture of the last ten years but sometimes that gives a false impression. Using an approach like that, one might think that the likes of Jessica Harrington and Johnny Murtagh are due to drop off now while someone like Mick Halford or Kevin Prendergast will bounce back. The reality is that both Harrington and Murtagh are simply yards on the up, the former in particular having taken a leap seemingly out of nowhere, never having more than 28 winners prior to 2017 but having 40 in each of the past two years.

I do think that strikerate could be informative here is it takes less account of the actual of number of horses in the yard; a trainer might be able to maintain a broadly similar return regardless of how many individual runners they have from season-to-season, allowing that there are outliers now and then. So below are the ten-year strikerates of the top 20 active turf trainers versus what they did last year.



The majority of the differences are too small to be statistically significant though the numbers for Oxx and Patrick Prendergast are interesting in light of what is discussed above. The one that stands out however is Harry Rogers who had a terrible 2018 but might be about to improve on that this year. Smaller yards like his can be a hostage to fortune and the dry summer of last year hardly suited his horses, many of whom prefer an ease. I must admit to being a bit of a fanboy of this stable as I like how his horses run frequently when they are fit and better days should be ahead.

- Tony Keenan

Tony Keenan: A [National Hunt] Trainer for all seasons

The very best racehorse trainers are those who constantly adapt and are flexible in their methods; but the reality is that most handlers – like most human-beings – try to find something that works and repeat it, writes Tony Keenan. So, for many yards, the ebb and flow of their season follows a familiar pattern, hitting peaks at certain times, settling into troughs at others.

There are likely a number of reasons for this. As alluded to above, with most things in life it is easier to repeat something you have done before than achieve success in something new. For many yards, the big races – or at least the right races for their specific type of horse – will come at the same time every year. Connections too may have an influence; owners could want their horses aimed at certain festivals or tracks.

This is not to say that trainers exert total control over when their runners are at their best. Unseasonal ground, such as we have had recently for jumpers, may force a change in approach while a trainer could also find themselves with a different type of horse than they previously had. Worst of all, a yard could get a virus– as happened at Ballydoyle this flat season – which sets them back and forces them to almost reboot the campaign.

But, in the main, there are some patterns to be observed on the seasonality of trainer form. For the purposes of this article I have looked at the five Irish National Hunt seasons prior to 2018/19 which provided a decent sample size of 7,067 races. I broke the calendar year into two-month sections and while this is a little arbitrary it also makes sense: November/December marks the start of the jumps season proper, January/February is trials season, March/April is spring festival time, both May/June and July/August are summer jumps, the latter taking in Galway, while September/October is neither here nor there.

To start with, below is a table of the top 10 active trainers in terms of winners trained in the five season period and how their overall strikerate compares with their bimonthly figures. Rather than go into each now, I will refer back to this as I go within each section where there is a table of the trainers who perform the best within each window in terms of overall strikerate. To qualify, a trainer must have had a minimum of 50 runners across the five seasons.


Trainer Total Winners Overall


Jan-Feb Mar-Apr May-Jun Jul-Aug Sep-Oct Nov-Dec
W. Mullins 950 30.2% 30.8% 22.4% 28.6% 32.6% 30.6% 36.1%
G. Elliott 674 15.9% 16.6% 12.7% 14.9% 12.5% 22.1% 17.4%
H. De Bromhead 273 14.9% 15.0% 7.5% 18.0% 15.3% 21.0% 13.2%
N. Meade 239 13.7% 13.1% 10.6% 14.4% 13.7% 19.7% 11.9%
J. Harrington 198 13.2% 15.1% 10.9% 16.7% 12.2% 13.8% 11.9%
T. Martin 118 9.7% 8.1% 13.4% 9.6% 16.3% 7.6% 5.9%
J. O’Brien 105 14.2% 11.7% 6.3% 17.4% 19.2% 15.5% 11.5%
R. Tyner 85 9.2% 7.5% 11.1% 7.3% 5.1% 11.7% 9.4%
C. Byrnes 82 13.5% 13.3% 10.2% 15.9% 18.6% 12.1% 12.5%
P. Nolan 77 8.9% 7.5% 12.1% 6.9% 6.7% 13.6% 7.1%


November/December: Peak Mullins(es)

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/


W. Mullins 751 271 36.1% 56.9% -117.16 0.94
M. Mullins 60 11 18.3% 50.0% +5.50 0.98
G. Elliott 979 170 17.4% 41.0% -145.06 0.93
A. Fleming 77 13 16.9% 29.9% -10.71 1.29
T. Walsh 59 9 15.3% 35.6% +83.75 1.23
E. Bolger 104 14 13.5% 31.7% -40.72 0.96
H. De Bromhead 401 53 13.2% 37.2% -70.23 0.82
Tom Mullins 109 14 12.8% 29.4% -10.62 1.29
C. Byrnes 136 17 12.5% 27.2% -82.30 0.91
J. Harrington 362 43 11.9% 29.3% -91.04 0.88


It’s hardly a surprise but Willie Mullins has the best strikerate in all bar one of the six periods though this is his peak-time, returning a 36.1% win strikerate versus a baseline figure of 30.2%. He seemed a little behind in getting his true winter horses out in 2018 but an across-the-card six-timer at Punchestown and Cork the Sunday before last suggests that is about to change. Willie is not the only Mullins to do well at this time of the year as both Mags and Tom have healthy figures too, the former landing a valuable feature handicap hurdle with Salty Boy at Navan over the weekend.

Willie Mullins has dominated the Christmas racing in Ireland in the past five seasons with 60 winners between December 26th and 29th in the period covered, Gordon Elliott unsurprisingly next best with 38. There are some smaller festive trainers to note too though; JJ Walsh has seven winners (all at Limerick) from 85 runners, Robert Tyner has six winners from 35 runners and Pat Fahy has four winners from 25 runners in the period covered. Fahy might just be one of those trainers who can adapt; his Dunvegan was an impressive winner at Fairyhouse on Saturday, running to a standard that would have seen him hard to beat in any Christmas maiden hurdle, but his trainer was keen to get an earlier run into him ahead of a tilt at the Grade 1 novice at Naas in early January.


January/February: We need to talk about Joseph

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/


W. Mullins 636 196 30.8% 54.7% -8.07 0.95
J. Dreaper 55 10 18.2% 47.3% +1.06 0.97
A. Fleming 67 12 17.9% 44.8% -1.78 0.98
G. Elliott 687 114 16.6% 39.0% -211.05 0.91
J. Harrington 232 35 15.1% 34.5% +49.97 0.93
H. De Bromhead 246 37 15.0% 31.3% -110.75 0.96
T. Walsh 51 7 13.7% 31.4% -28.44 0.71
C. Byrnes 105 14 13.3% 25.7% -23.53 0.91
N. Meade 252 33 13.1% 31.8% -73.70 0.85
P. Fahy 116 15 12.9% 31.9% +1.85 1.23


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The first two months of the year have the lowest number of races of the six periods covered, fixtures generally quite sparse after Christmas in particular and meetings at this stage of the season more likely to be abandoned due to the weather. It’s an important time for horses getting ready for Cheltenham, however, as most will have their final prep run at this time and it is no surprise to see proven Festival trainers like Mullins, Elliott, Harrington, de Bromhead and Meade all maintaining good returns.

Things haven’t been quite so good for Joseph O’Brien, thus far at least. This period last year saw perhaps the best moments of his [National Hunt] training career to date as Tower Bridge and Edwulf landed a shock Grade 1 win apiece at the Dublin Racing Festival. But in the main O’Brien struggled against the likes of Mullins and Elliott around this time and indeed in the whole jumps season proper: consider the table below which looks at his returns in the period covered split into six-month periods:


Months Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/


November – April 34 338 10.1% 45.0% -94.35 0.73
May – October 71 404 17.6% 29.0% -58.80 0.89


I am sceptical about whether this summer/winter jumps split will continue for O’Brien. When he started training, the quality of his horses was not as high as it is now and his good record with summer types was likely a product of him simply realising what they were capable of and putting them in weaker races that they could win, most of which were in the summer; as a consequence they became badly handicapped by the time winter came around.

Furthermore, the better younger horses he has been sent as time has gone on are now rising through the ranks: the bumper horses of two seasons back, now novice chasers, and such like which will give him more firepower for the valuable races. This view seems supported by his figures for November and December in the current season: 20 winners from 93 runners for a strikerate of 21.5%.


March/April: The spring lull

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/


W. Mullins 692 155 22.4% 44.1% +34.54 0.98
J. Dreaper 57 10 17.5% 45.6% -13.53 0.90
J. Kiely 52 9 17.3% 32.7% +27.63 1.68
T. O’Brien 62 9 14.5% 35.5% -3.62 1.07
T. Gibney 57 8 14.0% 29.8% +49.00 1.57
P. Fahy 107 15 14.0% 32.7% +27.00 1.14
J. Dempsey 61 8 13.1% 31.2% +14.00 1.14
S. Crawford 69 9 13.0% 37.7% -15.99 1.03
T. Martin 207 27 13.0% 29.0% -64.67 0.99
E. Doyle 162 21 13.0% 35.2% +7.85 0.99


By far the most interesting facet of the spring returns are the records of the main trainers of Irish horses for the Cheltenham Festival: Mullins, Elliott, De Bromhead, Harrington and Meade. Each of them have one of their lowest strikerates of the year at this time: Mullins at 22.4% from an average of 30.2%, Elliott 12.7% from an average of 15.9%, De Bromhead 7.5% from an average of 14.9%, Harrington 10.9% from an average of 13.2%, Meade 10.6% from an average of 13.7%.

There are likely a few reasons for this. Most, it not all, of their best horses will be running at Cheltenham and if they do run back quickly from that meeting they may be over-the-top for the season. The horses they're not running at Festivals are obviously not as good, which opens the door for other trainers (the top 10 for this period has more small trainers than any other time of the season). Finally, particularly in the past two seasons, both Mullins and Elliott have been more willing to have multiple runners in the same race during this spell because there was a trainers' title on the line. That will have further lowered their overall strikerates.


May/June: Early summer is Henry time

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/


W. Mullins 315 90 28.6% 52.1% -55.19 0.92
H. De Bromhead 284 51 18.0% 37.7% +13.21 1.03
J. O’Brien 98 17 17.4% 44.9% -8.44 0.85
E. Bolger 58 10 17.2% 41.4% -17.56 0.98
J. Harrington 215 36 16.7% 40.9% -30.18 0.86
C. Byrnes 88 14 15.9% 39.8% -27.81 0.91
A. Fleming 51 8 15.7% 43.1% -18.92 0.67
M. McNiff 85 13 15.3% 40.0% +13.00 1.48
T. Gibney 60 9 15.0% 28.3% +85.63 1.52
G. Elliott 612 91 14.9% 37.1% -116.07 0.84


This time of the year allows some yards to kick on from a good Punchestown but Henry de Bromhead is one trainer who seems to actively target it, running Mullins close in terms of number of runners. Not unlike Joseph O’Brien, de Bromhead shows some fairly significant summer/winter splits as evidenced below. Perhaps he has decided that this is the best opportunity he will have to beat Mullins and Elliott when their best horses have finished up for the summer.


Months Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/


November – April 111 929 12.0% 33.3% -358.33 0.77
May – October 162 907 17.9% 29.1% -37.42 0.99


July/August: Galway, Galway everywhere

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/


A. O’Brien 62 22 35.5% 53.2% +9.78 1.24
W. Mullins 426 139 32.6% 55.4% -45.67 0.99
J. O’Brien 177 34 19.2% 48.0% -6.41 0.91
D. Weld 69 13 18.9% 53.6% -28.59 0.73
C. Byrnes 86 16 18.6% 34.9% -1.40 1.05
J. Kiely 97 17 17.5% 37.1% +6.06 1.20
E. O’Grady 89 15 16.9% 31.5% -10.22 1.02
T. Martin 178 29 16.3% 37.1% -55.07 1.04
H. De Bromhead 347 53 15.3% 34.9% -24.26 0.94
Tom Mullins 87 13 14.9% 37.9% +0.07 1.07


The high summer period in Ireland will always be about Galway: the build-up, the meeting itself and the aftermath. It has become a more important meeting for Willie Mullins of late (both over jumps and on the flat) though this in the only period of the year when he fails to top the strikerate table, albeit only beaten by an all-time great handler who doesn’t train jumpers anymore, Aidan O'Brien.

A few of the obvious Galway names make the top 10 here – Weld, Byrnes and Martin along with the underrated Tom Mullins – though Gordon Elliott is conspicuous in his absence, this period typically his worst of the year. At least some of this is by design, however, the trainer commenting when asked about Galway this year that he was more interested in having winners at Navan in November!


September/October: Elliott puts in the winter groundwork

Trainer Runners Winners Strikerate Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/


W. Mullins 324 99 30.6% 49.7% -31.59 1.01
M. Winters 86 20 23.3% 40.7% +17.09 1.36
G. Elliott 530 117 22.1% 45.7% -109.69 0.89
H. De Bromhead 276 58 21.0% 46.0% -26.37 1.00
J. Dempsey 50 10 20.0% 44.0% +7.60 1.68
N. Meade 285 58 19.7% 47.7% -100.27 0.87
E. Doyle 82 15 18.3% 39.0% +9.58 1.34
J. O’Brien 129 20 15.5% 41.1% -13.95 0.89
J. Harrington 210 29 13.8% 36.7% -5.27 0.91
P. Nolan 110 15 13.6% 27.3% -4.52 0.97


If the summer is a quiet time for Elliott, September/October is anything but; this is the stage of the year where he lays the groundwork for the winter, comfortably outstripping Mullins in terms of runners and winners trained. Not once in the previous five seasons has he dipped below a strikerate of 20.4% in these two months, though this year is a case in point for not getting too carried away with seasonal numbers; past performance is no guarantee of future success and all that stuff.

In 2018, Elliott has 27 winners from 150 runners for a strikerate of 18.0% with the fast ground meaning he was behind with some of his horses. Many of them needed their first run in a big way – look at the way the likes of Apple’s Jade and Delta Work came forward from their respective seasonal debuts – and that is something to monitor over Christmas. Sometimes what is happening in the current season (see Joseph O’Brien at the moment) is more important than historical data, interesting though it is to attempt to divine patterns in it.

- Tony Keenan

Tony Keenan: On course bookies “not an endangered species”

It’s hard to find people with something positive to say about the on-course betting market in Ireland, writes Tony Keenan. Turnover in the ring has fallen from €202 million in 2007 to just €60 million last year as punters favour off-course and online while the exchanges are widely considered the place where significant late money is traded. Brian Keenan, one of the youngest on-course layers at 29, is not so negative however. When asked if there was any good news about the market on Irish tracks, he was more sanguine than you might expect.

‘I suppose we’re a bit like the farmers in that we portray things as worse than they actually are. Everything isn’t rosy in the garden, far from it, but we’re not the endangered species some people think. The game is in trouble with the industry days, midweek in the winter, but from my point-of-view the festivals are getting better and better. My turnover is up year-on-year the last three years and I don’t know exactly why.’

That is good news for him but with the broader turnover in the ring down to less than 30% of what it was a decade ago, it seemed reasonable to ask if the figure of €60 million last year was correct and if so how could some bookies be making a living? This is against the backdrop of leading layer Daragh Fitzpatrick saying in a recent Irish Field interview he would turnover €600,000 at Galway alone which seems to leave little for the smaller operators. ‘Some lads can’t be making a living. I think you have to be turning over ten grand a day and that’s on an ordinary day and trying to win 5-6%. David Power leaving the ring in 2017 did impact those figures heavily though as he was a major layer.’

Keenan spoke to me before a midweek fixture at Punchestown a few weeks back, one of eleven tracks he stands at along with Leopardstown, Fairyhouse, the Curragh, Kilbeggan, Listowel, Down Royal, Galway, Roscommon, Ballinrobe and Sligo, holding multiple pitches at most. The meeting wasn’t quite an 'industry day' as there was a pair of Grade 3's on the card, but in terms of crowd it wasn’t much better than some of those bleak midwinter meetings that few want to bet on and fewer want to attend.

He described himself as a bookie with an opinion ‘which costs me some days’ and says he is a diligent form student, particularly of race replays. Having studied Food-Agribusiness at UCD, he had initially thought he would follow the ‘standard route’ into employment but time spent working for Daragh Fitzpatrick on-course opened his eyes to other possibilities and he was soon looking for a life less ordinary. ‘The job is not easy but it’s rewarding, it’s like a drug on the bigger days and you can suffer on the smaller ones. There are probably easier ways to make a living but this is mine and I’m proud of it.’

One of the things that stands out is how much he loves racing; he is not like another on-course bookie who asked him at Galway why Ruby Walsh wasn’t riding Limini in the old GPT! He talks of his passion for the big national hunt days, the clashes like Hurricane Fly and Jezki, saying that while ‘Hurricane Fly was a pain in the neck [as a bookie]’ that it was racing is about; ‘this is what the public need to see.’ While he has respect for his colleagues who ‘grind out a day’s wages, surviving on an ordinary pitch trying to nick a few quid’ that sort of money-trading approach isn’t for him. For him, it’s all about all about raising turnover and as he goes through the costs of business, both capital and day-to-day, it becomes apparent why.

‘First, you’ve got your pitch. Really good ones are expensive, for example the best pitches at somewhere like Ballinrobe are worth €50,000 with the mid-range ones about €8-10,000. The better ones at Galway could be valued at €100,000-€200,000 and Kevin McManus bought the Dick Power one at Leopardstown for a quarter of a million recently. Places like Clonmel and Thurles, not so much, and bar the top ones they aren’t much use. I suppose it’s like everything in retail these days; the good spots are busy, the bad ones aren’t just worthless, they cost you money.’

‘Day-to-day, you pay five times admission which also applies when you are absent and there is a levy of 0.25% on turnover; a full-time bookmakers turns over a couple of million quid in the year. Your IT service and on-course tech supports is €30 per day and there’s a €20 link fee if you have another slave pitch and then there’s staff and diesel. Basically, you’re not going to have any change out of a monkey for an average day.’

With all this in mind, Keenan thinks ‘you have to hold money.’ To him, you ‘can’t trade €100 at 5/2 and be betting it back at 11/4, there isn’t enough turnover to do that and just take a margin.’ Furthermore, he says he has ‘no interest in doing that anyway.’ But why should punters play with him or other on-course books when they have a myriad of other options? It is fine to say that the ring adds colour to a racecourse but that only goes so far; it might be nice to go to your corner shop for a chat with the proprietor but if your groceries are costing an extra €15 a week most customers will eventually go elsewhere.

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Perhaps surprisingly, Keenan agrees with this. While he says one of the USPs of the on-course bookmaker is ‘the personal touch’ and ‘there will be a fella coming to me with anything from a fiver to a ton and I’ll boost it from 100/30 to 7/2 when it is 4.3 on the machine’ he acknowledges that it is a nicety rather than anything else. ‘We can’t expect punters to bet a horse at 9/4 when it’s 3.7 on Betfair; you have to compete. The way I try to compete (and it’s working at the minute) is more pitches and better pitches to have more turnover and try to hold more money. I know everyone plays at their own level and I’m far from one of the biggest layers, with plenty of lads in a different league, but I have to hold money at big meetings.’

He is pro-free Wi-Fi on Irish tracks, saying that ‘we have to give punters choice.’ There are occasions when he might not fancy something that is 2.38 on the machine and ‘I’ll put up 6/4 and if someone wants €400, €800, €1000 that’s no problem. It won’t be every race or day but I have to live by that.’ He cites a recent maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse where he laid Sometime Soon to a punter €2,500 to win €2,000 and 30 seconds later the horse was 4/9 and 2/5. ‘That wasn’t a bet I was particularly looking to lay but I’m there to lay bets and it’s part of the reason my turnover is up, same with people like Daragh Fitzpatrick and the O’Hares. People know where they can get a bet though I’m not for a second saying I’m only laying those sorts of stakes, I will lay the lad that wants two quid too.’

He goes on to point out that punters playing off-course or online won’t get away with betting two and a half grand at 4/5 on horses that go off 4/9 too often. On the subject of knockbacks on-course he says ‘there is no one who is banned with me.’ He says ‘there are a couple of lads that are very difficult to beat but I’ll bet a fella to win a couple of grand, not because I think I can beat him as sometimes I’ll have to ship some of the liability on.

’There are times ‘when you’re beat into a corner and you just have to take it but that is what you’re here for; if you don’t hold money you can’t win it.’

‘I can only speak for myself but you have to lay a bet. It really doesn’t always suit you and sometimes you have to take the penalty but you can’t be happy to only lay a punter when it suits. Some of us didn’t cover ourselves in glory in recent years, knocking punters coming in to have €50/100 on a horse and saying no because the price was gone on the machine… You have to respect a punter, lads know when they’re been taken for a ride.’ Again, he reiterates he is not only there for big punters though: ‘the target market is everyone, beggars can’t be choosers.’

Despite complaints from other on-course layers, most notably Sean Graham, that Tote lreland are given an unfair advantage by Horse Racing Ireland, he doesn’t really see them as the competition.

‘The challenge for us is mobile betting and punters need to know that – in many cases – we are the place to bet in the 15 minutes prior to the off.’

This is the time when most turnover is done and he points out that ‘we often offer better prices than are available on the app but punters don’t compare the different sets of odds and there is no commission either.’ He thinks the on-course bookies don’t make this widely known enough, struggling in the face of the advertising machine of big betting, but it needs saying ‘that while we’re not always the best price, we’re not always the worse either.’ He says that ‘I’ll often be overbroke in those big handicaps one the first five in the market, 5/1 a favourite that is 1.8 in the place.’ It may be a different story if you want to back something at 14/1 plus but the key here is choice and many will want to back one of the front few in the market.

Of course, for punters to note this difference in odds they need to be at the track and that is a problem. ‘We need people racing and have to work with racecourses to make that happen. Traditionally the on-course books and tracks didn’t have a good relationship and the Dundalk dispute didn’t help that.’ He singles out some racecourse managers for praise like Conor O’Neill at Punchestown and John Flannelly at Ballinrobe. Ballinrobe is a track Keenan is particularly fond of, saying that despite the quality of racing there ‘it is packed to the rafters and you do loads of tickets there with lots of small punters. To help do out bit, we gave out a 1,000 free fiver bets at their last meeting.’

Keenan is less positive on some of the major tracks believing that are too content with their SIS money and don’t work hard enough. While he loves the festivals at Leopardstown and wouldn’t miss the quality summer Thursday flat meetings for anything, ‘if they didn’t have the music there, the place would be practically empty.’ He thinks a 13,000 attendance for the Saturday of Irish Champions Weekend was far from praiseworthy, especially when contrasted with the 37,000 that made it to the Friday of Listowel.

‘The difference there is that locals like Pat Healy are proud of their town and racetrack, they work hard at everything and get the basics right and are in touch with the ordinary guy. They get local sponsors, give out tickets and get a crowd in.’ He goes on to say that his nearest track, Roscommon, did just that at an early October Monday fixture with local businesses bringing clients and staff and he did 600 tickets in all.

On the day I met him at Punchestown, turnover was nothing like as vibrant. After the sixth race, he reported things as ‘middling’ having done 110 tickets and was losing €1,800 on the day after making the mistake of laying the Jamie Codd-ridden Sizing Rome at all rates from 5/1 to 7/2 in a handicap race for amateur riders; ‘I never learn in these races, it’s all about the jockey!’ That race, despite being the worst in terms of quality on the card, was his biggest loser which says something about the Irish betting public; they like to bet on good racing, particularly good national hunt racing, but they have some weird predilections too.

‘Bumpers, bumpers, bumpers’ says Keenan when asked about what is popular with his customers, ‘even on a poor day the bumper can come alive.’ So it was at Punchestown when he took 45 tickets on the final race and he got a result too with the Liz Doyle-trained Chapmanshype beating a trio of horses from the Mullins, Meade and Peter Fahey yards, all of whom had been well-backed to one degree or other. That turned a losing day around as he won €2,400 on the race to put him €600 in the black but reported that ‘today is almost as quiet as it gets but that’s the reality of midweek racing outside the summer.’

Getting crowds to the track is not something Keenan believes has been particularly well-facilitated by the 2018 fixture list. ‘I don’t like being Mr Negative here but the fixture list hammered us. The decision to move a lot of what were summer Sunday fixtures at the Curragh to Friday evenings doesn’t recognise how hard it is to get out of Dublin on a Friday. We have more than enough bad days so you need to spread the good days out but Laytown is in the middle of Listowel and the first day of Irish Champions Weekend clashes with it too.’ On the subject of the Dublin Racing Festival, he says ‘bigger is better with the festivals but I imagine the likes of Naas and Navan [who have meetings around that time] have seen their attendance impacted’ and the meeting needs to be supported; he strongly believes that racing needs to be competitive and was not a fan of the recent upgrading of a novice chase at Limerick on December 26th, saying ‘if the track needs to be rewarded, do it in some other way but Leopardstown is where it has to be at over Christmas.’

As so often with Irish racing, the subject of integrity comes up and for Keenan it is as much a concern for bookmakers as punters. He references a recent beginners’ chase at Galway won by Voix Du Reve in which the winner and two Gigginstown horses had it between them from an early stage as the other 13 runners played no meaningful part in the race.

‘The aesthetics of that are poor. A woman came in to back a 66/1 shot in the race with a bookie beside me for a fiver and he gave her a free bet, handed her the fiver back and told her to keep her money. That’s fine for people who know the game but it looks terrible.’ He goes on to say that while Irish racing is ‘by and large fairly clean’ events like the withdrawal of Ballycasey from the Galway Plate ‘don’t help.’

‘One punter had €400 on Saturnas with me at 12/1 or 14/1 earlier in the day because Ruby was riding.  Whereas a lot of us knew there was a good chance he would switch; what does that fella think about racing afterwards? Willie Mullins bent the rules there, maybe I’d do the same, but if the rules don’t cover this, they need to be changed. It was the same with Carlingford Lough previously but nothing changed in the interim; there seems to be no hunger to alter the rules.’ For him, the Irish stewards are too tolerant of excuses, merely noting them but rarely carrying them forward into future enquiries. ‘People in racing don’t like being questioned. Look at the James Doyle ride in the Arc, I think it was a good ride but anyone questioning it got hammered even if they were being logical as some don’t like the status quo being challenged.’

Keenan questions whether the authorities have younger people working for them and thinks ‘about how incidents like this are perceived on social media. Take Paul Townend on Al Boum Photo, he made a mistake, mistakes happen. But social media and rumours go wild, people were saying to me that he pulled it which was obvious nonsense but the stewards released no report and there was no comment from the jockey himself or Willie Mullins. Why not tell us what happened, what decisions were made and why? This stuff isn’t life or death, it’s only racing but transparency makes it better for everyone.’ One gets the sense that for Brian Keenan it might be a little more than ‘only racing’ but his overall point holds.

- Tony Keenan

Bolger and the Bottom Line: Punting Angles

Of the top Irish flat trainers, Jim Bolger is the one I consistently get most wrong, writes Tony Keenan. This is not meant as a criticism of a man who has successfully been doing unusual and creative stuff with his horses for yonks now, something I covered here a few years back. Rather, it is an admission that I struggle to make betting sense of his runners, whether it be backing one of his that runs poorly having seemingly held an obvious form chance, or getting done by a big-priced rag in white and purple that I gave no chance to pre-race. This has happened so often that I have added a new word to my racing lexicon; events like this are now known as being ‘Jimmed’!

It’s easy to get annoyed by this, curse and moan, and put it down as one of those things but it is more productive to reflect on what you might be missing in your own betting that is causing consistent misjudgement one of the major stables in the country. So, with Jon Shenton’s recent pieces on Mark Johnston on this site in mind, I decided to see if there were any betting angles that might be able to make Bolger pay.

My first step however was to see if some of the Bolger winners were as unpredictable as they appeared on the surface. To do this I went back through every flat race run in Ireland from 2010 to September 23rd this year (all figures quoted from here refer to this period) in search of horses that won at a Betfair SP of 21.0 or greater, that figure my arbitrary number for a shock result, as least as defined by the market. Below are the results:


Trainer BSP 21.0 or greater runners BSP 21.0 or greater winners
Jim Bolger 1,341 51
Willie McCreery 782 29
Andrew Oliver 867 29
Kevin Prendergast 656 25
John Murphy 997 25
Michael Halford 1,126 24
Ger Lyons 716 24
Dermot Weld 733 21
David Marnane 685 20
Harry Rogers 653 19


Bolger not only tops the table but is 22 winners clear of the next highest total when only seven trainers managed 22 such winners at all. He admittedly had far more big-priced runners than other yards with Michael Halford the only other person breaking four figures in the period covered. Next, I had a look at how he compared to his peers in that timeframe, the rest of the top ten flat trainers in terms of winners trained since 2010, and what percentage of his winners were returned at a Betfair SP of 21.0 or bigger.


Trainer Total Winners BSP 21.0 or greater winners Percentage
Aidan O’Brien 1,016 18 1.8%
Dermot Weld 624 21 3.4%
Jim Bolger 535 51 9.5%
Ger Lyons 456 24 5.3%
Michael Halford 394 24 6.1%
Jessica Harrington 247 18 7.3%
John Oxx 237 11 4.6%
David Wachman 229 18 7.9%
Edward Lynam 210 17 8.1%
Willie McCreery 200 29 14.5%


In this case Bolger comes out second among the top ten on 9.5% with Willie McCreery miles clear on 14.5% though his best comparables (O’Brien, Weld and Lyons) have much lower rates. Lastly, I wanted to see at how ‘form-ful’ his horses were and to do this I got percentages of how many of his winners won on their prior start, were placed on their prior start (defined as running second, third or fourth regardless of field size) and were out of the frame.


Trainer Total Winners Won LTO Placed LTO Unplaced LTO
Aidan O’Brien 1,016 19.2% 43.3% 37.5%
Dermot Weld 624 20.8% 41.5% 37.7%
Jim Bolger 535 15.5% 40.0% 44.5%
Ger Lyons 456 14.3% 39.5% 46.2%
Michael Halford 394 13.2% 50.3% 36.5%
Jessica Harrington 247 18.6% 44.1% 37.3%
John Oxx 237 14.3% 46.0% 39.7%
David Wachman 229 11.8% 41.5% 46.7%
Edward Lynam 210 15.2% 45.7% 39.1%
Willie McCreery 200 13.5% 40.0% 46.5%


I’m not sure there is much in this. A lesser percentage of Bolger’s winners won last time than O’Brien or Weld, but he is in line with the rest; and, while does have a high enough figure of horses that win off an unplaced effort, it is hardly outlandish. So overall, there is a least a grain of truth in the idea that Bolger has more than his share of mad winners but some of it is likely my own bias too.

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One point to clarify is that the Bolger horses are not unpredictable because they run more often than those from other Irish yards, an argument that is sometimes made in relation to the Mark Johnston runners. Taking the 2017 Irish flat season as a whole, Bolger ran 125 individuals 549 times for an average of 4.4 runs per horse. Of the rest of last season’s top ten trainers, five had an average seasonal runs per horse of 4.0 or greater: John Feane with 6.3, Johnny Murtagh with 4.7, Ger Lyons with 4.2, and Joseph O’Brien and Jessica Harrington with 4.1, so Bolger is only average in terms of how frequently he runs his horses. The figures from 2016 further support this view.

I’ve done some stuff on the records of trainers over different distances and with fillies and mares elsewhere on the website but there wasn’t much of note with Bolger in either piece. He has a broadly consistent strike rate across most trips though it drops a little over longer distances, while his record with fillies is a little less impressive compared to his returns with colts and geldings. One little niche angle is that he does do well with mares: female horses aged five or older. The sample here is small but they return a decent profit to level stakes with the reason perhaps being that the trainer is only persisting with them because he believes they can win races; well, either that or the betting public is wholly sick of them by that point in their careers and allows them to go off bigger than they should be!


Bolger with Mares since 2010

Winners Runners Strike rate Level-Stakes Places Place Strike rate Actual/ Expected
13 65 20.0% +31.08 23 35.4% 1.47


His record at the various Irish tracks since 2010 is more interesting, however, and probably more usable. Here they are ordered in terms of win strike rate.


Track Runners Wins Strike rate Level-Stakes Places Place Strike rate Actual/


Down Royal 50 12 24.0% +27.69 27 54.0% 1.28
Wexford 56 13 23.2% -12.50 27 48.2% 1.09
Leopardstown 734 114 15.5% +81.25 251 34.2% 1.08
Dundalk 548 76 13.9% -63.12 191 34.9% 0.89
Roscommon 139 19 13.7% +8.08 48 34.5% 0.99
Fairyhouse 111 15 13.5% -17.06 35 31.5% 0.94
Gowran 401 53 13.2% +46.40 142 35.4% 0.95
Naas 348 44 12.6% -79.30 99 28.5% 0.87
Listowel 104 13 12.5% -20.30 34 32.7% 0.84
Ballinrobe 27 3 11.1% +13.00 9 33.3% 0.58
Navan 290 31 10.7% -72.58 96 33.1% 0.77
Sligo 61 6 9.8% -33.75 20 32.8% 0.55
Cork 173 17 9.8% +67.75 59 34.1% 0.62
Tipperary 189 18 9.5% -94.30 60 31.8% 0.68
Limerick 109 10 9.2% -50.89 29 26.6% 0.65
Curragh 934 84 9.0% -346.03 252 27.0% 0.70
Clonmel 13 1 7.7% -10.75 3 23.1% 0.42
Killarney 94 5 5.3% -71.75 26 27.7% 0.35
Galway 106 4 3.8% -89.60 23 21.7% 0.29
Punchestown 9 0 0.0% -9.00 3 33.3% 0.00


The trainer does very well at Down Royal, a track where he has won four Ulster Derbies since 2014, but there isn’t that much flat racing there. The standout figure to my eye is Leopardstown where he has his third highest strike rate despite having a huge number of runners, second only to the Curragh overall. That is enough of a sample size to say it is the course he is aiming at above all others and it can be refined further when looking at his record at Leopardstown on Thursdays only. Now that may initially appear a completely random thing to focus on but that is the day when the track hosts their summer evening meetings which have long been a successful source of winners for Bolger.


Track Runners Wins Strike rate Level-Stakes Places Place Strike rate Actual/


Leopardstown – Thursday Only 330 67 20.3% +95.29 132 40.0% 1.19


Basically, everything gets an uptick here with Strike rate, level-stakes, place strike-rate and actual/expected all improving from his overall figures at Leopardstown. Going back to 2010, there have been 17 individual Thursday meetings where Bolger had two or more winners, including two trebles and two four-timers. I also think his Leopardstown record explains his dismal figures at both Killarney and Galway as both those tracks have their flat racing in the summer around the same time as the Leopardstown Thursday cards, with Bolger seemingly putting all his efforts and better horses into having winners at the Dublin venue.

Finally, let’s consider Bolger and handicaps. Since 2010, no Irish trainer has had more handicap winners than Bolger with 203: Michael Halford is next in with 198 and Ger Lyons third on 158. There was nothing significant in terms of the number of previous runs his winners had in handicaps but he does have a fair record with horses running back quickly in handicaps with that group coming pretty close to break-even at starting price from a reasonable sample size.


Days Since Last Run Runners Wins Strike rate Level-Stakes Places Place Strike rate Actual/


0-7 days 40 237 16.9% -18.92 88 37.1% 0.98
Everything Else 1,563 163 10.4% -248.29 466 29.8% 0.85


Another angle with the yard in handicaps is in races confined to apprentice riders; Bolger has always been happy to give young riders a start in the sport provided they are willing to graft. His 23 winners in such handicaps is an impressive total and importantly it has not come off the back of using a single hot apprentice the whole time; rather, that group of horses were ridden by nine different jockeys: Martin Harley, David Parkes, Dylan Robinson, Killian Hennessy, Ronan Whelan, Daniel Redmond, Gavin Ryan, Luke McAteer and Willie Byrne.


Race Type Runners Wins Strike rate Level-Stakes Places Place Strike rate Actual/


Apprentice Handicaps 155 23 14.8% +22.25 55 35.5% 1.21


So hopefully these are some angles that could profitable (or at least loss-limiting) with Jim Bolger for what is left of this flat season and looking ahead to 2019.

Possible Betting Angles:

  • Mares kept in training
  • Leopardstown Thursday meetings
  • Apprentice-only handicaps

Aidan O’Brien: The Season So Far

A record total of 28 Group/Grade 1 winners worldwide last year set an impossibly high bar for Aidan O’Brien to surpass in 2018 but any regression has been speeded along by a bug in the Ballydoyle barns, writes Tony Keenan. We know this because the trainer has been so open about the situation, commenting in early August that it would take six to eight weeks for his horses to come right. He added at the recent Irish Champions Weekend launch that “it went through the whole yard and all the horses got it. We hadn’t leaned on any of the horses up until last weekend [Phoenix Stakes day at the Curragh] and we thought if we got through last weekend we might be able to start leaning on them a little bit more”.

His reference to the six to eight week timeframe might be the most interesting point; his horses were probably incubating something when not at their best in June and July and aren’t expected to come back to form until mid-September at the earliest. That’s an important stage of the Irish season – Champions Weekend is on September 15th and 16th – but also shows how harmful a mid-season illness can be to a big stable as the majority of major races are at this time. Below is the breakdown of Group 1 races in Ireland and the UK by month; I have taken the race dates from 2017 here but bar one or two that are at the turn of the month, the numbers are the same this year. Those mid-summer months are vital and so too is September with six Group 1s over Champions Weekend as well as the St Leger, Sprint Cup, Cheveley Park and Middle Park.


UK and Irish Group 1 Races by Month

Month Number of Group 1 Races
March 0
April 0
May 6
June 11
July 7
August 7
September 9
October 8
November 0


Group 1 winners may be thinner on the ground than they were last year – O’Brien has eight at this point – but any virus in the yard has not been reflected in his record at home. His overall win strikerate (first table below) has been better than any of the previous four seasons and he seems sure to break the three-figure winner barrier as he has done in each of the two previous campaigns. His record in Group races (second table below) has dropped off a little but hardly so much that it is statistically significant.


Aidan O’Brien in recent Irish Flat Seasons

Season Wins Runs SR% Places Place SR% Actual/


2018 so far 86 366 23.5% 167 45.6% 0.92
2017 119 555 21.4% 260 46.9% 0.90
2016 117 589 19.9% 278 47.2% 0.85
2015 98 441 22.2% 193 43.8% 0.94
2014 103 520 19.8% 208 40.0% 0.86


Aidan O’Brien in Irish Group Races

Season Wins Runs SR% Places Place SR% Actual/


2018 so far 17 94 18.1% 38 40.4% 0.80
2017 32 151 21.2% 75 49.7% 0.99
2016 25 118 21.2% 51 43.2% 0.82
2015 20 84 23.8% 37 44.1% 1.16
2014 23 115 20.0% 41 35.7% 1.03
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But Group 1’s are ultimately where it is at for Ballydoyle and only Lancaster Bomber has managed to win an Irish Group 1 in 2018, from seven in all thus far. That obviously takes in the Classics too and 2018 is in danger of becoming the first year since 2005 in which O’Brien failed to train an Irish Classic winner; since 2009, he has won 19 of the 49 Classics as we can see below. It is odds-on however that he maintains that impressive record with Order Of St George set to go off a very short price for the Irish St. Leger, his task eased by Torcedor moving to be trained in Germany in recent days.


Irish Classic Winners since 2009

Year 2,000 Guineas 1,000 Guineas Derby Oaks St. Leger
2018 Condon Harrington JPOB Haggas ?
2016 Prendergast Keatley Weld APOB Mullins
2015 APOB Bolger Gosden Palmer APOB
2014 Gosden APOB APOB APOB Dascombe
2013 APOB Hills JSB Royer-Dupre Weld
2012 APOB Channon APOB Gosden Carmody
2011 APOB APOB APOB Al Zarooni Gosden/Johnston
2010 Hannon Weld APOB Dunlop Noseda
2009 APOB Wachman APOB Bell Oxx


The place where the yard’s issues have really been felt is with the UK runners and the next table reveals how his strikerate, win and place, has fallen dramatically. UK races are vitally important to the Coolmore/Ballydoyle operation: there are few cases when a trainer would not prefer to win a UK version of a race than the Irish equivalent, the Epsom Derby being typically a better race than the Curragh one for instance, with the Irish Champion Stakes a notable exception. Not only that but the UK simply has far more Group 1 opportunities, 36 Group 1’s versus 13 in Ireland this year.

With this in mind, Ireland is sometimes the training ground for the O’Brien runners but the UK is the testing ground and by-and-large in 2018 they have been failing. Part of that might be the standard of competition: in the UK so far this year, the average field size in Group races has been 9.2 runners whereas in Ireland it is 7.1 and oftentimes there will be [many] more than one O’Brien runner in the latter. His horses seem able to get away with being just a little off concert pitch at home but not on their travels. Interestingly however, the lack of success hasn’t deterred the trainer, with O’Brien having more UK runners than ever before this season. I wrote last year that as his yard gets bigger this was an inevitable consequence as he sought more suitable targets for them. (link:


Aidan O’Brien in recent UK Flat Seasons

Season Wins Runs SR% Places Place SR% Actual/


2018 so far 13 142 9.2% 43 30.3% 0.59
2017 32 165 19.4% 69 41.8% 1.07
2016 28 133 21.1% 70 52.6% 0.98
2015 17 78 21.8% 37 47.4% 0.97
2014 11 81 13.4% 24 29.6% 0.82


O’Brien has had eight Group 1 winners this year: Saxon Warrior (2,000 Guineas), Rhododendron (Lockinge), Lancaster Bomber (Tattersalls Gold Cup), Forever Together (Oaks), Merchant Navy (Diamond Jubilee), Athena (Belmont Oaks), Kew Gardens (Grand Prix de Paris) and U S Navy Flag (July Cup). That none of them has managed a second Group 1 thus far hasn’t helped; as you can see below, eight horses won multiple Group 1’s for the yard last year. That table includes all their Group 1 winners from 2017 and their fates since. There have been some untimely injuries, notably with Capri, but these things are inevitable with a stable of that size. It is the fillies from last year that have been the most disappointing; the big four juveniles (Happily, Magical, September and Clemmie) have contributed little while the two flower girls, Rhododendron and Hydrangea, have regressed from promising returns.


2017 Group 1 Winners

Horse 2017 Group 1 Wins 2018
Churchill 2 Retired
Winter 4 Retired
Wings Of Eagles 1 Retired
Highland Reel 3 Retired
Caravaggio 1 Retired
Capri 2 1 run, injured thereafter
Roly Poly 3 Retired
Sioux Nation 1 1 win (Group 3) from 5 starts
Hydrangea 2 0 wins from 3 starts
Happily 2 0 wins from 4 starts
Order Of St George 1 2 wins (Group 3, Listed) from 3 starts
Clemmie 1 0 wins from 3 starts
Rhododendron 1 1 win (Group 1) from 5 starts
U S Navy Flag 2 1 win (Group 1) from 5 starts
Saxon Warrior 1 1 win (Group 1) from 4 starts
Mendelssohn 1 2 wins (Group 2, Listed) from 4 starts


With all this in mind, the next few weeks take on an additional significance. By the sounds of things, the O’Brien horses are only really starting back at the Ebor meeting and it will be fascinating to see how the market deals with them. Certainly the trainer left the impression in recent comments that Saxon Warrior’s main autumn aim was the Irish Champion Stakes rather than the Juddmonte International, and historically the Ebor fixture has not been a good one for O’Brien (see below), perhaps all the more so this year as he builds towards Irish Champions Weekend, the Arc meeting and beyond.


Aidan O’Brien at the Ebor Meeting (since 2003)

Winners Runners Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/


10 117 8.6% 44 37.6% -78.39 0.50


So what might all this mean? In reality, very little. A drop-off from the highs of 2017 was likely and Aidan O’Brien does not strike me as a man under pressure, at least judging by his dealings with the media. There were times in the past when a down period like this might have produced some external evidence of stress but seemingly not anymore. His status as Master of Ballydoyle is like that of Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford or Bill Belichick at Foxboro yet he now deals with the media much better than the latter in times of adversity; if you have never seen Belichick’s ‘Moving on to Cincinnati’ interview following a heavy loss, here it is!

O’Brien certainly hasn’t blanked media questions with ‘moving on to Irish Champions Weekend’ comments, in fact quite the opposite; he has been utterly open about wellbeing or otherwise of his horses this season and is in general a much-improved communicator with the media. Regardless of what unfolds between now and season end, I suspect he will look back fondly on a  season when his sons trained and rode the Irish Derby winner with Latrobe, a Group 1 race he didn’t want to win!

- Tony Keenan

Four Racing/Betting Books You Should Read

I love both reading and betting so combining the two is time well spent, writes Tony Keenan. More than any other subject, I tend to reread books on racing/betting in the hope that 0n the second or third run-through I will get more out of them. Below are four of my favourite books on the subject and feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section below or on Twitter @RacingTrends; I’m always on the lookout for the next good one.


‘A Fine Place to Daydream’ – Bill Barich

Racing people and writers often exist in a bubble where ways of thinking become ingrained; sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to draw interesting stuff from insiders because they look at things in a different way. Recent interviews on Newstalk with racing figures like Davy Russell and Willie Mullins support this view and Bill Barich is another example.

Barich is an American writer with an interest in the turf if not an obsession and his account of the 2003/4 National Hunt season in Ireland shows what a fresh set of eyes can do for a topic. After landing in the country with his new partner Imelda, the author is drawn into the jumping scene and moves through all the big meetings from October to March, starting at Down Royal for their November meeting onto the Open at Cheltenham and Leopardstown at Christmas, the Thyestes and back to Leopardstown before ultimately finishing up at the Festival.

The book is populated with great characters: Moscow Flyer and Jessica Harrington, Beef Or Salmon and Michael Hourigan, the nascent perennial Champion Trainer Willie Mullins, Tom Costello, Father Breen, Noel O’Brien. In truth, it is all pure nostalgia at this point; written in 2005, before the 12-month Cheltenham news cycle and the arrival of super-trainers, I love – if time permits – to reread it before the Festival if only for the sheer romance of it all.


‘Beyer on Speed’ – Andrew Beyer

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You should read anything by Beyer and despite the fact that he hasn’t written a book since 1993, his four efforts – ‘Picking Winners’, ‘My $50,000 Year at the Races’, ‘The Winning Horseplayer’ and ‘Beyer on Speed’ – remain relevant. There is a confidence that borders on arrogance in Beyer’s writing style as he moves from one uncompromising account to another and none of jockeys, trainers or the integrity of the sport are spared. But that self-belief comes from being a long-term winning bettor and basically inventing the modern speed-figure so all is forgiven.

His approach to betting is a mix of objectivity and subjectivity and if you don’t learn something you are probably reading it wrong. Beyer gets across the aspirational side of gambling and the idea that the pursuit of profit is a worthwhile use of your time is never far from his pages. ‘Beyer on Speed’ is my favourite of his canon at present as I’m using times more and more in my betting, but they are all excellent.


‘The Undoing Project’ – Michael Lewis

‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahnemann (with more than a nod to the deceased Amos Tversky) is apparently a bible of sorts to many modern professional punters; it might be a must-read but it can be a struggle. If you want to take an easier approach then Lewis’s biography of the two men is a more palatable version and covers many of the main ideas in their fields of behavioural economics and prospect theory.

The opening two chapters barely mention the two Israeli economists however as the focus is on Daryl Morey, General Manager of the Houston Rockets basketball franchise. This is familiar ground for Lewis, author of ‘Moneyball’, and he looks at what mistakes Morey tries to avoid making when evaluating talent which are very similar to the ones we should steer clear of when betting. For instance, Morey has banned comparisons of young prospects to players of the same race by scouts in his organisation which can be applied to racing; all too often we lazily compare horses to other horses that have run in same colours or are with the same trainer. There is also a hilarious description (and a warning against judging too much by appearance) when he tells of how some scouts vastly misjudged the talent level of All-Star Marc Gasol because he had ‘man boobs’ and just didn’t look like a basketball player!

We’re more aware of thinking biases than ever now with ‘recency bias this’ and ‘confirmation bias that’ thrown around everywhere but that doesn’t mean we are a whole lot better at avoiding them. Constant refresher courses on the subject are needed and Lewis’s book is an excellent one.


‘Tony10’ – Tony O’Reilly and Declan Lynch

Aside from its subject matter, ‘Tony10’ is a brilliantly written book from outset when Lynch describes O’Reilly’s upbringing in Carlow and how the town revels in its own nondescript nature. After that, it has a three-part structure: O’Reilly’s early life in the provincial town, a period of what could only be described as intense degenerate gambling and finally the time spent in jail and life afterwards. You simply cannot stop reading the middle section as it captures a life spiralling out of control with the ratcheting up of stakes, the betting on obscure sports, the nights spent punting on the computer as O’Reilly’s wife and new-born slept in the next room.

It is a masterpiece of ‘show, don’t tell’ as the reader is allowed to draw their own conclusions about what unfolds in the narrative and while most of this is utterly foreign to people who take gambling seriously and are trying to win, it is an important reminder to be wary of the compulsive streak within most of us. And even if we don’t have such a trait, perhaps we should watch out for it in others.

Lynch himself has been on an interesting journey with gambling, starting out with his 2009 book ‘Free Money: A Gambler’s Quest’, essentially a diary of his own punting, through ‘The Ponzi Man’, a 2016 novel about a pathological gambler whose pyramid scheme has come tumbling down, and now to this. He has become polemical in his anti-gambling stance and while that might be too much at times, there is an argument that Irish society with its outdated gambling laws needed to be given a shake.

Rereading books like these is great fun but it does point to something else: there haven’t been too many good racing/betting books penned in the recent past. I enjoyed Paul Jones’s ‘From Soba to Moldova’ though for more experienced punters it may be considered more refresher course than anything else, carried by the author’s inimitable style. Things have changed so much in the modern betting landscape (or that horrible word ‘space’) with statistical models, account restrictions, automated betting and rapidly moving prices among the issues that deserve a fuller treatment. There is interesting material being covered on YouTube and podcasts with Simon Nott’s interview series and the ‘Business of Betting’ with Jake Williams standing out but there is definitely space for a book or two as well; consider that that the challenge laid down!

- Tony Keenan

p.s. which one (or two) books would you add to this list? And, importantly, why? Leave a comment to help build the bibliography!

Grading the Trainers: Irish National Hunt Season 2017/18

Whatever your thoughts on the overall health or otherwise of the Irish jumps scene, the 2017/18 season will go down as a memorable one: Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott slugging it out from one big meeting to the next, though the culmination at Punchestown was ultimately underwhelming, writes Tony Keenan. Prior to this season, no trainer had reached €5 million in domestic prizemoney but both broke that total, Mullins with €5,968,275 and Elliott on €5,158,751. They are worthy of their top grades but how about the rest?

Willie Mullins – Grade: A (Last season: B+)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Mullins’s season was how much he changed his approach; where once he had been quite risk-averse in terms of campaigning, often putting the strongest horses in the weakest races, he now has to run them more often and in races that may be less suitable. Elliott is the reason for this and it was his sustained challenge for a first title that forced the champion to find another gear. Consider his winners, runners and prizemoney totals over the past four seasons:


Season Winners Runners Strikerate Prizemoney
2017/18 212 797 27% €5,968,275
2016/17 180 571 32% €4,580,200
2015/16 185 557 33% €4,489,105
2014/15 187 554 34% €4,225,253


In the three seasons prior to the last one, there was a comfort level with how Mullins was operating judging on the above figures though the 2016/17 totals took some getting in light of not having the Gigginstown horses. More of basically everything did mean a lower winner-to-runner ratio than previously however, falling from 59% in each of the last two seasons to 54%.


Season Individual Winners Individual Runners Strikerate
2017/18 131 243 54%
2016/17 109 184 59%
2015/16 121 191 59%
2014/15 109 179 61%


To go from 184 to 243 individual runners is a massive jump but he was still well-clear in terms of winner/runner ratio among all trainers with a meaningful sample. The table below shows the top ten with a minimum of 20 individual horses being the cut-off point.


Trainer Winner/Runner Ratio
W. Mullins 54%
C. Byrnes 46%
P. Dempsey 40%
G. Elliott 40%
J. O’Brien 40%
A. Fleming 36%
N. Meade 36%
H. De Bromhead 33%
J. Harrington 29%
D. McLaughlin 28%


Punchestown, as ever, was a triumph for Mullins and he would have broken the €6 million figure but for Paul Townend/Al Boum Photo-gate. It seems early to consider what might happen next season but he has started this new season quite strongly in terms of number of runners and will be keen to be well-clear should a late-autumn, early-winter lull kick in as it did last season. His hunger for retaining the title shows no sign of abating though perhaps winning a championship chase at Cheltenham could be even higher on the pecking order, Footpad looking his main hope in that regard.

Best Bit(s): A close run thing between Un De Sceaux and Faugheen. Memories of an ultra-keen hurdler seem long ago with Un De Sceaux and the ten-year-old who took in hard races at both Cheltenham and Fairyhouse was perhaps never better than when winning the Champion Chase at Punchestown; he isn’t as classy as a peak Douvan but has been much more durable. Following 665 days off, Faugheen won the Morgiana before bouncing at Christmas but the bounce-back is always the hardest part; it took three starts to get him back to Grade 1-winning level and while he wasn’t as good as the old Faugheen, he was probably up to the standard set in the Morgiana in November.

Worst Bit: The ‘where will he run next’ act with Yorkhill almost became a parody this season as the four-time Grade 1 winner never got within 30lbs of his best and landed the unique four-timer of going from a three-mile chase to a two-mile chase to a two-mile hurdle to a three-mile hurdle.


Gordon Elliott – Grade: A (last season: A-)

Only the most recency-biased critic would say Elliott had anything other than a magnificent season, recording the second highest winner total in Irish jumps history, winning two Grand Nationals and becoming the top trainer at Cheltenham for the second year running. The raw numbers of his season-on-season improvement are worth repeating:


Season Winners Prizemoney
2017/18 210 €5,158,755
2016/17 193 €4,380,705
2015/16 123 €2,568,750
2014/15 92 €1,546,070


This really was a case of losing nothing in defeat and while again priced as the outsider for next year’s championship, it sounds as if Michael O’Leary is going to double down on trying to help him win a title. I have no idea what he spent on new horses in the last year as those figures are only partly in the public domain but one gets the sense that whatever that number was, the next number will be bigger. Elliott is getting very reliant on Gigginstown at this point and below are the top 15 prizemoney horses for both he and Mullins in Ireland this past season; where 12 of the Elliott horses are owned by Gigginstown, Mullins has 12 different owners represented. With that in mind, it is hard to consider him an underdog of any type despite how he is sometimes represented.


Elliott – Top 15 Horses Mullins – Top 15 Horses
General Principle Un De Sceaux
Potters Point Faugheen
Apple’s Jade Bellshill
A Toi Phil Footpad
Outlander Next Destination
Doctor Phoenix Isleofhopendreams
Monbeg Notorious Meri Devie
Shattered Love Patricks Park
Folsom Blue Min
Mengli Khan Total Recall
Samcro Kemboy
Hardline Coquin Mans
Diamond Cauchois Rathvinden
Dortmund Park Djakadam
Dinaria Des Obeaux Al Boum Photo
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What Elliott really needs to win a championship is more horses that can win open Grade 1 races; in 2017/18 he won three such races with Outlander, Mick Jazz and Apple’s Jade where Mullins won eight. Not only are these contests valuable during the season but they are the key to ‘winning Punchestown’ where each of the four big races are worth €275,000. The source of these horses isn’t obvious however; Samcro looks like he could be one but only if he stays hurdling (the prizemoney in novice chases is largely insignificant in the grand scheme) and possibly the two best Gigginstown horses – at least in terms of ratings – are in other yards, Road To Respect and Balko Des Flos. That pair respectively won €163,450 and €189,050 in Irish prizemoney last season which wouldn’t have been enough to bridge the ultimate gap of €809,524 but it would certainly have made things more interesting.

Best Bit: Doctor Phoenix cost £10,000 last May and was the value buy of the season, winning a Dan Moore and a Naas Grade 3, and he could well have beaten Un De Sceaux at Easter as he was trading odds-on before falling two out. Rising from a mark of 137 to 156, his prizemoney was maximised along the way which isn’t bad for a horse that used to have a Timeform squiggle.

Worst Bit: Everything went to plan for Death Duty in the early part of the season as he won three times but the decision to run him over 2m1f at Christmas on yielding ground worked out badly. Taking on Footpad there looked an early shot in the championship rather than what was best for the horse in the long term and it came at a high cost.


Joseph O’Brien – Grade: B (Last season: no grade)

O’Brien is a different type of trainer to the Big Two, reliant more on JP McManus and being a dual-purpose yard in the truest sense, but the leap he took in prizemoney this past season is almost Elliott-like.


Season Winners Runners Prizemoney Champ. Position
2017/18 67 473 €1,419,319 3rd
2016/17 38 269 €710,244 5th


He basically doubled his prizemoney total but it needs pointing out that he had 48 winners by the end of October and managed only five domestic winners from January on; like so many, he was a bit player in the Mullins-Elliott drama of the winter season proper. Against that however is the fact that he had two big-priced Grade 1 winners at the Dublin Racing Festival in Edwulf and Tower Bridge and there are plenty of good prospects for the future here in the likes of Early Doors, Speak Easy, Rhinestone and Us And Them.

Best Bit: Rekindling is by far the high point during the period covered but, seeing as this should be jumps only, basically bringing Edwulf back from the dead to win an Irish Gold Cup was the other big achievement.

Worst Bit: The campaigning of Tigris River. Since he won the Galway Hurdle, he has been beaten: 22ls, 16ls, 27ls, 26ls, pulled up and 110ls. Last time at Punchestown was better and perhaps it’s all about the ground with him but a novel idea might be to run him less frequently on going that doesn’t suit. In any case, the handicapper hasn’t cut him much slack, still 4lbs higher than his Galway win.


Henry De Bromhead – Grade: B (Last season: B)

Despite seeming to go missing for various chunks of the season, overall it was a decent campaign for De Bromhead; he was good through the summer, had a quiet November, bounced back in December especially at Christmas before having a quiet end to the season at home. He did however win a Galway Plate with Balko Des Flos and manage to upgrade him into a Ryanair winner and became one of only two other Irish trainers along with Pat Kelly to have a Festival winner. Monalee too was good if unfortunate, falling twice in Grade 1s, while Ellie Mac winning the first race of the Leopardstown Christmas meeting was one of the more heart-warming stories of the season.

Best Bit: He may have been found a bad race at Aintree but getting Identity Thief back to a high level over three miles was an impressive achievement given how he’d looked gone at the game when reverting to hurdles in the spring of 2017.

Worst Bit: The blame for the campaigning of Petit Mouchoir this spring has to be laid somewhere though perhaps this isn’t the right spot; someone was responsible for riding tactics in the Arkle which looked overly-aggressive even if the horse can be very free. The decision to run him at both Aintree and Punchestown was a poor one in light of the hard races he had already had along with an injury and it is only sensible to wonder what mark this will have left.


Jessica Harrington – Grade: C (Last season: A+)

The most notable feature of Harrington’s season was a marked drop off in strikerate; the figures here refer to runners in both Ireland and the UK over jumps.


Season Strikerate
2017/18 9.1%
2016/17 13.9%
2013/14, 2014/15, 2015/16 combined 15.1%


I had initially suspected that last season – when she seemed to win every big race in sight from the turn of the year – was an aberration in terms of win rates but having combined the three seasons previous it is this past season that was different in the negative sense; 2016/17 had just been Harrington maintaining her previous standards albeit in better races. It didn’t help of course that she was without Sizing John from Christmas, staying chasers being the most fragile cohort of the fragile body of horses that are jumpers, but at least he had been maximised the previous season.

Best Bit(s): Supasundae danced every dance and to a degree made his own luck this past season; the trainer spotted a vulnerable Faugheen over two miles in January and her likeable hurdler duly ran to his level and won while things also fell his way at Punchestown. Forge Meadow also deserves a mention for an excellent middle part of the season; a hot mare that can lose it in the preliminaries, Harrington did well to get her back to form after three poor runs to start the season.

Worst Bit: Sizing John thrived on racing in 2016/17 but the decision to back him up at Leopardstown 18 days after winning the John Durkan is one connections might like to take back. Whether it played any part in the ‘hairline non-displaced fracture’ that ended his season is unknown but there was no real upside to running him over Christmas when he was already proven in such races. Supasundae may have revelled in such a campaign but he is a hurdler not a staying chaser.


Noel Meade – Grade: C (Last season: B+)

Meade now occupies a weird underdog position in Irish jumps racing which is strange for an eight-time champion trainer; the coverage of Bel Ami De Sivola’s win at the Fairyhouse Easter meeting reflected this as the RTE commentators seemed thrilled that he had managed a winner on the big stage even in a handicap. He managed only one runner at Cheltenham Festival in Road To Respect and in truth his season seemed to revolve around that horse.

Best Bit: Road To Respect winning at Christmas. Things didn’t go right for him after that win with the ground against him in the Gold Cup and his jumping not up to scratch at Punchestown but a Grade 1 win was a decent yield overall.

Worst Bit: His Down Royal return was very promising but Disko failing to make the track despite repeated assurances that he would be in the next big staying chase was disappointing.


The Rest

It very much is ‘the rest’ at this point and Pat Kelly probably deserves main billing; he has the best horse not trained in the top six yards with Presenting Percy who remarkably is 1lb away from being the best both over hurdles (rated 156) and fences (rated 165), Anibale Fly rated ahead of him for chases. There’s no doubt who’d be favourite for a race between that pair however and he deserves extra credit for taking a completely unorthodox route to the RSA and winning with bags in hand.

Charles Byrnes was one of the big risers from 2016/17 to 2017/18, going from nineteenth up to seventh, and having the second best winner/runner ratio. He won the Coral Hurdle at Leopardstown with Off You Go and bumpers were a big part of his season, winning seven such races from a total of 29 runners. Byrnes is a good trainer but almost certainly a better punter, not only knowing what he has but also getting a good gauge on the opposition. Consider his bumper winners below and the make-up of the fields they took on:


Winner Opening Show Starting Price Mullins Runners Elliott Runners
Balliniska Band 11/4 11/8 0 0
Balliniska Band 6/4 7/4 0 1
Minnies Secret 9/4 6/4 0 1
Mary B 9/4 5/4 0 1
Van Humboldt 11/10 8/13 0 1
Alpine Cobra 6/1 6/1 2 1
Thosedaysaregone 5/1 9/2 1 1


The opening show here refers to the on-course market but it is notable that he managed to find five bumpers all season where there were no Mullins runners and landed a late punt in four of them. He is clearly more concerned about runners coming from Closutton than Cullentra!

Another big riser was Denis Hogan, going from twenty-third in 2016/17 up to eighth this past season. He didn’t do it with particularly good horses either which is to his credit, Youcantcallherthat a standout with five wins but the likes of Eiri Na Casca winning thrice was a victory for good placing more than anything. Some better stock is coming into the yard, not least the siblings Moskovite and Moyhenna, though a recent win for Inis Meain remains elusive.

Philip Dempsey had a decent winner/runner ratio and good period between September and November when he had 11 winners while Alan Fleming maintained a high strikerate though lacked a really good horse. The whole Barry Connell operation remains a rather inscrutable one, willing to spend plenty on good prospects but not so keen on using the major trainers to handle them.

- Tony Keenan

Irish Jump Racing: Do We Have A Problem?

For whatever reason, the Irish Grand National seems to bring the competitiveness issue in Irish jumps racing into sharp focus, writes Tony Keenan. Perhaps it is the long-held view, correct or incorrect, that the National is a lottery race where everything has a chance; in the early part of this decade, there were wins for Bluesea Cracker at 25/1, Lion Na Bearnai at 33/1 and Liberty Counsel at 50/1. Those three horses have more in common than their prices though as all were trained at small yards by James Motherway, Thomas Gibney and Dot Love. In the seasons since their big wins, those trainers have averaged 3.4, 1.6 and 3.4 winners per campaign so we really are talking about smaller operations.

There was some representation from similar stables in this year’s race; Forever Gold for Edward Cawley, Call It Magic for Ross O’Sullivan, Killaro Boy for Adrian Murray and Westerner Point for Eoghan O’Grady and I wouldn’t argue with anyone looking to stretch that out to John Ryan’s Kilcarry Bridge or Pat Kelly’s Mall Dini. Still, the story of the National, pre-race at least, was Gordon Elliott’s record number of runners, 13 in all, eight owned by Gigginstown who also had two more runners with other trainers.

The Elliott/Mullins duopoly is often said to have made life difficult for small trainers and when possible measures to redress this imbalance are discussed – if indeed they are necessary – it is always in the context of improving the lot of the small trainer. This may misrepresent the reality however as it is the middle-rank trainers who have really suffered during the rise of the ‘Big Two’ with the minor yards still getting by to a degree. Consider the snapshot of three seasons from the last decade, the 2006/7, 2011/12 and 2016/17 campaigns. In those years, the number of total races was 1,377, 1,399 and 1,422 respectively so the totals are broadly similar. In them I have broken down trainers by winner totals to see the distribution of winners across the size of each yard.


Winner Totals 2006/7 2011/12 2016/17
100 plus 1 1 2
50 to 99 1 1 2
20 to 49 11 10 2
6 to 19 41 46 41
1 to 5 211 222 202


As you can see, the small trainers are holding their own in terms of getting a handful of winners; whether they are getting into the better races with their one good horse is another issue however. It is those in the middle, trainers having between 20 and 49 winners that have been wiped out. In 2006/7 that group comprised Jessica Harrington, Charlie Swan, Paul Nolan, Dessie Hughes, Tom Taaffe, Tony Martin, Edward O’Grady, Michael O’Brien, Joe Crowley, Dusty Sheehy and Michael Hourigan. Only Harrington is any sort of force now. The top trainers were much more compressed back then and while Noel Meade did break the 100-winner mark it was with 102 winners. As an aside, I can’t have any comparisons between Meade winning eight trainers’ championships and what is going on now; that 102 winners was his highest ever total with 86 his next best and this was a time when he struggled massively for Cheltenham winners.

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Back in in 2006/7, Willie Mullins has 79 winners but by 2011/12 that number was up to 138 while Meade had dropped back to 59. Elliott, meanwhile, had 40 winners. But five years later, things had shifted again with Elliott and Mullins having 193 and 180 winners, followed by Henry De Bromhead on 68, Meade on 57, Harrington on 48 and Joseph O’Brien with no one else breaking 20 winners. The gap between the best and the rest is going to widen further this season with Elliott having already broken 200 winners and Mullins certain to do so. There will be more trainers breaking into the middle tier of 20 winners-plus this season albeit at the lower end.

Some observations on all this. For betting purposes, Elliott versus Mullins is eminently preferable to Mullins bossing everyone as was the case five years ago. Back then, he was running his horses sparingly and often in the most uncompetitive races which was boring. It is fascinating that Elliott has made Mullins dance to his tune this season, forcing the champion into running his horses much more frequently than previously, a pattern that was especially noticeable at the Dublin Racing Festival and Fairyhouse just gone. When the season comes to a close, Mullins’ average runs per season will be well up.

If the championship leaves Closutton this season – rated more likely than not by current odds – it could well be because he failed to be aggressive enough in campaigning his horses in the early part of the jumps season proper, the months of October, November and December; he eventually followed Elliott’s lead, but not soon enough. Seeing good horses run more frequently and in more competitive races is obviously a positive though a balance needs to be struck with not running them into the ground, literally in this current season. One wonders what sort of racing we will have at Punchestown after both Cheltenham and Fairyhouse were held on testing turf.

It also needs pointing out that while both Mullins and Elliott train for some massive concerns, they also handle horses from single-horse owners. This is cherry-picking but consider the Irish National just gone; the runner-up Isleofhopendreams runs in the colours of the Kilbroney Racing Partnership and seems to be their only horse while the official fourth Folsom Blue is the only horse to run this season for the Core Partnership, allowing that their most high-profile partner Gary O’Brien has shares in some others. How do you crab such owners for wanting their horses in the best yards, allowing that there is the chance they could be lost in the mix?

The role of big ownership is much more interesting to consider. This season, Gigginstown have had horses run for six trainers: Elliott, De Bromhead, Meade, Joseph O’Brien, Mouse Morris and Edward Hales. Last season, that number was nine. In 2015/16 it was 12, in 2014/15 it was 16 and it peaked back in 2013/14 at 17. The pattern is of contracting their roster of trainers each season and while it is possible they will give an opportunity to some up-and-comer in the near-future, it seems at least as likely further consolidation will occur; I can certainly foresee a point when Elliott trains all their horses. With the achievements of Road To Respect and Balko Des Flos this past season, Meade and De Bromhead have done enough to be kept on but it is hard to be believe that a conversation about sending everything to Gordon hasn’t been had by the O’Learys.

Of the other major owners, the likes of Rich Ricci, Graham Wylie and the Sullivan operation are all single trainer setups with Mullins the handler in question. Ann and Alan Potts Limited have used five Irish trainers this season – Harrington, Jim Dreaper, Liam Burke, Jimmy Mangan and Mouse Morris – though the future of their racing interests remains in question. All of this make JP McManus look like racing’s benevolent fund which is not something I thought I would ever write; this season he has had horses run for 49 (yes, 49!) separate Irish yards.

One does wonder however about the effect this is having on attracting new owners to the sport. While watching racing from Fairyhouse on Sunday I was struck by a representative from Tattersalls Ireland saying that “national hunt racing is traditionally about opportunity for everyone” which rings a little hollow at the moment. I can’t speak for any owner as they will all have their own views but I do wonder about the attractiveness of the sport to the person who wants to spend a reasonable few quid – let’s say small six-figures on a horse – and send it to their local mid-tier trainer. That ownership space seems to be gone now though those people obviously have the option of sending it to Mullins or Elliott.

Ownership is not the only concern however; employment might also be an issue. Both Mullins and especially Elliott seem to have a raft of assistant trainers and staff, many of them evidently excellent at their jobs. Is the increased employment they provide enough to make up for the other trainers slowing down? And if it is, there is also a pressure on racing staff to move away from their homes closer to the power-bases in Carlow and Meath though perhaps that is just a fact of life in any profession. I am completely unqualified to answer these questions but it would be interesting to get the views of those involved.

The rise of Mullins and Elliott is evidence of capitalism/meritocracy in full flow but there is a complicating factor in all this; racing in Ireland is heavily subsidised by the state with almost €64 million going into the coffers for 2017. Rural employment and approximately 18,000 jobs are frequently trotted out as the justifications for this funding. That employment seems to be becoming less available however with the total national hunt trainers in Ireland down to 93 in 2017, the lowest total since 2008, and a recent course for new trainers cancelled due to lack of interest. When asked about this in February, HRI boss Brian Kavanagh said that their “emphasis [was] on quality” and that Ireland was “a very, very competitive market and ultimately that’s no bad thing.” Perhaps I am soft but those comments seemed a little harsh; HRI might need to do more than just let things take their course.

I don’t have any solutions to this, if indeed solutions are needed. The fantasist in me imagines a weird sort of draft system where smaller trainers get access to top equine talent and what fun that would be. Could you imagine: ‘with the first pick of the 2017/18 draft, Garrett Power selects…. SAMCRO!’ But this is Ireland, not America, where the ‘sure, it will be grand’ attitude prevails. Perhaps it will and racing is always changing as we see from the tables above; maybe Michael O’Leary will decide over the summer that he prefers football and wants to see Westmeath United in the Champions’ League!

- Tony Keenan

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.

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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.


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.

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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!

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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