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Tony Keenan: On having a mare…

Just before Christmas, a pal got in touch to say he had bought a national hunt filly to go into training and was wondering if I had any stats on trainers that do well with jumping fillies and mares, writes Tony Keenan. My first thought was that he must really be stuck for another opinion and the second was that Willie Mullins completely bosses this scene; he agreed on both counts but said that he was inclined to go to a smaller yard than Closutton.

One can certainly see why someone would want to have a national hunt filly or mare in the current climate. There has been not so much an expansion as an explosion in the race programme in Ireland for these horses in the last few years; in the noughties, there were typically 10 Listed or Graded races a season for fillies and mares but the number is more than double that now. It tracked up to 13 between the 2010/11 and 2014/15 season but has since jumped to 16 in 2015/16, 19 in 16/17 and 23 last season. These Graded races are supported by a series of mares-only handicaps, too, with one being held next Sunday at the Dublin Racing Festival.

These enhancements have been driven by Horse Racing Ireland with a few obvious aims: more and better mares in training, chiefly, which in turn suits breeders as it drives demand for fillies at the sales with programmes like the ITBA National Hunt Fillies Bonus Scheme (offers a €5,000 bonus for winning  a mares-only bumper, maiden hurdle or beginners’ chase in Ireland) also playing a part.

Strictly speaking, there are not more mares in training than before but that is due to the drop in the overall horse population; 2007/8 was the season of the most national hunt runners in Ireland and fillies/mares ran 6,235 times that year while they ran 4,549 times last season. As a percentage figure, the number has been gradually going up, however; it was high at 28.1% back in 2007/8 but since dipped down to 25-26% in most of the intervening seasons until more recently. Over the last two campaigns, the percentage of national hunt fields made up of female runners has gone back up to 27.8% and 28.9% respectively, the last figure an all-time high from what I can see, so from that point-of-view the programme changes have been a success.

Things are less clear on the subject of whether the current crop of mares are better than before. Anecdotally there seem to be lots of good mares around – Apple’s Jade, Laurina, Benie Des Dieux and Shattered Love say – but they don’t win Pattern races against the geldings as often as they used to. In the noughties, there were a number of seasons when mares broke double-figures in Graded/Listed wins against the males and this was a time when there were fewer Pattern races; in 04/05 there were 11 such winners, in 06/07 13 winners, in 07/08 14 winners, in 10/11 11 winners. Since then – which comprises the period when the changes were made to the programme book – the totals have been: eight, five, one, three, six, eleven and five.

Whether this is a bad thing is open to discussion. Certainly there seems to be less acceptance of mares-only races from the wider jump racing public, at least in the sense that they would prefer to see them mix it against the geldings. We have the situation where obviously talented mares like Quevega are better known for the races they missed than the ones they took part in though her typically shortened campaigns were as much to do with physical issues and trainer caution as her gender. The scepticism towards mares-only races from jumps racing fans might also be down to them not being around that long; these races are nowhere near as embedded as their equivalents on the flat and on the level you rarely have anyone saying an Oaks filly should run in the Derby, allowing the best of them often to compete against the colts later. Or maybe it’s just the lore of the likes of Dawn Run that persists over jumps.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the programme alterations, one trainer has been at the forefront of using these new races to his advantage: Willie Mullins. Consider the table below of the top Irish trainers with fillies and mares by strike rate from the 2013/14 season through to 2017/18. All trainers on the list had at least 50 runners. For reference purposes I have also included some of the other big trainers in a separate mini-table too.

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Simple strike rate is quite important here – at least in terms of a mare getting its first win – as for many owners getting a winning bracket on the page is what it is all about. Aside from Willie, Mags Mullins is a trainer who comes out well from these figures; she may be just ahead of Gordon Elliott in terms of win percentage but her place strike rate is excellent, a very clear second overall. Having seven-time winner Ballychorus was important for her but she had 12 individual winners in the period covered.

Of the bigger yards, Gordon Elliott, like Willie Mullins, has realised that running plenty of mares is a competitive advantage and Jessica Harrington is another trainer for whom mares make up a sizeable proportion of total runners. That is not the case for Noel Meade, Joseph O’Brien or Henry De Bromhead though Meade maintains a good strike rate with his female runners.

It can be interesting to note the comparative strike rates of trainers with male and female runners. Consider the 10 trainers with the most runners in Irish national hunt races in the five seasons prior to this one:

 

 

As with the flat, female runners win at a lower rate than males as a rule so a trainer who is coming close to their male strike rate is doing well; Mullins is three percentage points better with mares. One thing that stands out here, at least relative to the piece I did on the flat trainers during the summer, is how broadly consistent the big trainers are with both genders. In terms of strike rate anyway, it doesn’t seem to matter with Mullins, Elliott, Meade and Harrington though De Bromhead does seem better with geldings. That is from very few female runners, though Honeysuckle (a Grade 3 winner at Fairyhouse on Saturday) is doing her best to improve those numbers.

In the Graded and Listed scene, Mullins has been utterly dominant. He has won 42 such races between 2013/14 and 2017/18 with one-twos in 15 of those, akin to Aidan O’Brien in some equivalent flat Group races. Gordon Elliott is next in with 10 Listed/Graded winners, Jessica Harrington has had five, while no one else had more than two.

Mullins seems to have been consciously increasing his numbers of female runners over the last few years to take advantage of the growing opportunities. In the past five seasons, his total female runners each campaign has gone 122 > 110 > 121 > 153 > 212 and already this season he is at 228. In the period covered, 22.8% of all his runners were female which is at the upper end of the bigger trainers. Jessica Harrington had the most with 39.5% but there were trainers like Noel Meade (8.3%), Tony Martin (5.9%) and Mouse Morris (1.7%) who train very few mares. Meade is someone whose overall numbers suggest he should be training a few more and, along with the two Mullins (Willie and Mags) and some smaller yards like Terence O’Brien, that is where I might look to put one into training.

Needless to say my friend completely ignored my advice and went elsewhere but at least he gave me an idea for an article!

 - 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

Strikerate

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/

Expected

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/

Expected

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/

Expected

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/

Expected

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/

Expected

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/

Expected

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/

Expected

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/

Expected

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

2018/19 Jumps Season: Four Things to Note

The National Hunt season, official or ‘proper’, has a number of starting points but the Morgiana card at Punchestown seems to represent as good a beginning as any, writes Tony Keenan. This year, however, things may not get going until we receive a substantial blast of rain and, with some forecasts suggesting that may be coming this week, now seems a reasonable time to set the scene for four story lines set to unravel over the next five and a half months.

  1. Rachael Blackmore, Record Breaker

Rachael Blackmore is already a record breaker: her 56 winners thus far in 2018/19 are far ahead of the previous best tally in a season by a female rider, Nina Carberry’s 39 winners in 2009/10. That is comparing apples and oranges, however, as Carberry was an amateur and limited in terms of the number of rides she could take, though that brought some advantages too: she generally only took a mount when it had at least some chance of success.

Blackmore hasn’t always had that luxury and as recently as last season was taking rides wherever she could find them. Consider the final table in the jockeys’ championship from last season with the added column of number of trainers ridden for:

 

Jockey Winners Rides Yards ridden for
D. Russell 119 588 56
P. Townend 83 419 65
J. Kennedy 63 325 26
R. Walsh 61 214 22
S. Flanagan 59 514 84
P. Mullins 54 155 22
M. Walsh 51 378 56
A. Lynch 39 591 104
R. Power 38 307 42
Danny Mullins 35 431 94
R. Blackmore 34 375 88

 

There are a few points of interest here.

First, Andrew Lynch continues to be one of the hardest working riders in racing, breaking three figures in terms of different stables ridden for, while at the other end of the spectrum, neither Ruby Walsh nor Patrick Mullins take many outside rides, relatively speaking. Jack Kennedy also rode for a surprisingly small number of other yards. But Blackmore is right up there in terms of yards ridden for, third overall to Lynch and Danny Mullins of the top 11.

That shows willingness to graft but her endgame is to reach a stage where she doesn’t have to do that so much and instead gets on better horses for the top yards; with Gigginstown giving her plenty of opportunities already and a link-up with Willie Mullins too, that point may not be far away.

Winning the jockeys’ title will be difficult but it is not the 100/1 chance that Paddy Power rated her back at the end of August, that company now having her at 9/2. A more realistic aim in the short-term might be a Grade 1 and/or Cheltenham Festival winner. Nina Carberry was the first female jump jockey to win a Grade 1 in the UK and Ireland when taking the Champion Bumper at Punchestown in 2006, a feat she repeated in 2007. Lizzie Kelly was the first woman to win a Grade 1 chase  in the UK and Ireland when Tea For Two won the 2015 Kauto Star Novice Chase and the same horse gave her another in the 2017 Aintree Bowl. Since then, Bryony Frost won the same Kempton race on Black Corton last season.

Carberry and Katie Walsh, two of the Irish jockeys Blackmore is commonly compared with, have seven and three Festival winners respectively. The first of Carberry’s wins came in the 2005 Fred Winter with the remaining six coming against amateur competition (four wins in the Cross Country, two in the Foxhunter), something Blackmore is restricted from. Meanwhile, Walsh won both County Hurdle and a Champion Bumper, races that might be just up Blackmore’s street given the numbers Willie Mullins tends to throw at them.

 

  1. Ruby at the last, part two

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Ruby Walsh coming off horses at the final obstacle is becoming a thing again but part of that is the narrative: of the ten mounts he has fallen or unseated from in 2018, only two were at the last but they were in consecutive races at Naas recently. That eight of those ten rides were sent off favourite means his spills inevitably attract more attention than any other rider but what is clear is that Walsh has fallen or unseated off a far greater percentage of his mounts this year than previously. The figures below take in his rides in all National Hunt races in the UK and Ireland by calendar year.

 

Year Falls/Unseats Mounts Fall/Unseat Rate
2011 25 472 5.3%
2012 29 583 4.9%
2013 28 537 5.2%
2014 13 249 5.2%
2015 18 430 4.1%
2016 20 385 5.2%
2017 19 366 5.2%
2018 10 69 14.5%

 

A large part of this is just messing around with numbers; this season’s figures represent a small sample size and it is highly unlikely that he finishes 2018 with such a high rate though there isn’t much of the year left. What is interesting is that his fall/unseat rate is so consistent throughout his career, and even looking back as far as 2003 he only once went over 5.9% for a full year.

Over that period it is also notable that not once between the years of 2003 and 2009 did he take fewer than 700 rides; since than he has only gone over 500 mounts twice. Part of that is injury, part of it is reduced workload after he left Paul Nicholls in 2013, and part of it is also choice.

If the past few weeks are anything to go by, those choices are going to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the winter. Already we have seen Walsh opt not to ride the beginners’ chases over the weekend of November 10th and 11th nor did he ride Kemboy or Camelia De Cotte over fences at Clonmel last Thursday. He also bypassed possible mounts in the Florida Pearl Novice Chase on Sunday, one of which included the winner Some Neck, ahead of Faugheen running the Morgiana Hurdle.

All of this might help Walsh’s longevity but one thing the past few weeks have shown us is that it is difficult to predict when a chaser might fall; even the best jumper, or what might have appeared the best jumper, can fall as was the case with Footpad. There is such a degree of randomness in fallers that not even one of the greatest jumps jockeys may be able to predict them.

 

  1. Festivals, festivals, everywhere

2018 will be remembered as a year without a spring - where winter, with the help of Storm Emma, stretched out through April and then everything turned balmy in May. That meant that all of the spring festivals were run on soft ground and we also had a new meeting, the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown, to kick the whole thing off.

Such festival races, often run at a strong gallop, take plenty out of horses and there was a trainers’ title on the line too, Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott taking each other on with more frequency than might typically have been the case as the battleground moved from Leopardstown to Cheltenham then back to Fairyhouse and Punchestown.

I made it 24 horses that took in all three of Cheltenham, Fairyhouse and Punchestown with the list as follows: Getabird, Sharjah*, Pietralunga, High School Days, Invitation Only*, Al Boum Photo*, Dounikos*, Shattered Love, The Storyteller*, Blow By Blow, Outlander*, Tycoon Prince*, Josies Orders, Cut The Mustard, Dawn Shadow, Squouateur*, Bleu Berry, Scarpeta, Duc Des Genievres*, Real Steel*, Barra*, Let’s Dance, Augusta Kate and C’est Jersey. [The ones with an asterisk also ran at Leopardstown so may have had an extra-hard time of things].

Of those 24 horses, 13 were trained by Mullins, eight by Elliott and three by others which, to my mind, is clear evidence of Mullins being affected by Elliott: five seasons ago, when his title was not under threat, there is no way Mullins would have run his horses so frequently. It will be fascinating to see how this cohort of horses does in 2018/19 and while in some ways it was entirely natural for them to run in these races, it may not have been beneficial that they ran in all of them.

Each will need to be judged on a horse-by-horse basis and while the likes of Sharjah were able to bounce back and win not only a Galway Hurdle but a Morgiana, others tailed off completely. Dounikos, for instance, was pulled up at Cheltenham, Fairyhouse and Punchestown while Scarpeta ran a really promising race in the Neptune but didn’t build on it at all afterwards and finished up his season getting beaten at 2/5 on the flat.

 

  1. Mullins, Elliott and the rest

The emergence of Mullins and Elliott as super-trainers has been felt in every aspect of the Irish national hunt scene but nothing has been altered more than the graded race landscape. Consider where we were in 2010/11. That season, there were 99 graded non-handicaps jumps races run in Ireland. Willie Mullins had 88 runners and Noel Meade was next with 44 out of a total of 717 runners, their combined percentage coming out at 18.4%. 148 different trainers had runners while 40 had a graded winner.

Compare that to the last three seasons:

 

Season Total Runners Mullins and Elliott Runners Mullins/ Elliott

Percentage of Runners

Individual Yards with a Runner Individual Yards with a Winner
2015/16 615 223 36.2% 106 28
2016/17 683 291 42.6% 110 18
2017/18 712 366 51.4% 90 13

 

Last season may prove an aberration in terms of number of yards that managed a graded winner as already in 2018/19, 12 different yards have won such a race, among them some unexpected names like Iain Jardine, Colin Kidd, Aidan Howard and Gavin Cromwell. Gordon Elliott, surprisingly, has only won one graded race to this point in the season, the Lismullen Hurdle with Apple’s Jade.

There was a time when a win or two in such a race would sustain a smaller yard for the season but now they are struggling to even manage a runner; we are in a very different place to 2015/16, much less 2010/11.

- Tony Keenan

Tony Keenan: Reserve-ations about the system

Galway rarely goes off without some sort of controversy and this year it was Ballycasey being declared a non-runner in the Plate, a decision which facilitated his stablemate and ante-post favourite, Patricks Park, getting into a race where he ultimately finished second, writes Tony Keenan. A high-profile withdrawal like this always brings the reserve system and its flaws/benefits into focus as does the Galway meeting generally; this is a fixture where everyone wants a runner and reserves are declared with the intent to run much more so than other times of the year. Per Horse Racing Ireland, there have been 136 reserves that have run in Ireland thus far in 2018 with an amazing 26 of them at Galway last week; one won, Rovetta first time round last Wednesday, though four (Davids Charm, Andratx, Bubbly Bellini and Athenry Boy) were successful at the meeting in 2017.

The reserve system is run by the IHRB rather than HRI and works as follows : trainers are typically required to confirm their non-runner by phone which opens at 9am on the day of the race; they can do this any time up to ninety minutes before the off of the first race. Per the IHRB, ‘where a trainer knows sufficiently early that a horse trained by him will not be a runner in a race in which reserves have been listed, he should take steps to so inform the trainers of any horses listed as reserves.’ After this, it is up to the trainer of the reserve to contact the non-runner line to confirm their participation. The opening hours of the phone line is the first issue here; if it only opens at 9am on the day of the race, there are 22 and half hours of dead time from declaration stage at 10.30am the previous day, or more in case of 48-hour declarations which is every Sunday in Ireland, where a trainer can do little. That it is only a phone number they can contact is backward too; perhaps it should be done via the online entry system all trainers use. At the other extreme, if someone is only declaring their non-participation the official 90 minutes before the first then the trainers of the reserves in most cases will get no opportunity to run; if the meeting is at Down Royal and your yard is in Tipperary then an hour and half notice is nowhere near enough. Few, if any, trainers are going to travel their horse with cost and hassle to have to turn around and come home without a run unless it is a meeting like Galway.

Then there are concerns about how well protocol is being followed, again to quote the IHRB: ‘trainers [are notified] that proper use of the reserve system can only be achieved with their full co-operation.’ Let’s take a situation where trainer A has a horse that is being declared a non-runner but he doesn’t get on with trainer B who has the first reserve; does he really want to help trainer B out? Furthermore, let’s say trainer X (or owner Y) has five runners in the race, hardly an outlandish situation in Irish national hunt racing currently, and one of theirs is coming out. Do they really want to let a reserve in at the bottom that could potentially be a danger to their other four runners or are they happy to let the field go to post less one runner? Perhaps they would hold off until the last possible moment to declare their non-participation. Protocol and etiquette may be one thing but the reality looks somewhat different.

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Does this etiquette change with big yards and owners? When interviewed last Tuesday about the possibility of Patricks Park getting into the Plate, Willie Mullins commented that he would be the last to know if another yard was going to have a non-runner in the race. Perhaps this is a case of other, smaller yards maintaining some competitive advantage over the superpowers, minimal though it may be. The big operations have all sorts of other advantages, their multiple runners allowing them to control the pace and shape of races and they also have the facility to run horses that may not be ideally suited by race conditions in order to keep potentially dangerous rivals out of the field, a tactic used by Gordon Elliott in both the 2017 Thyestes and Irish Grand National. The Galway Hurdle saw JP McManus run nine horses, four of which finished in the last five when the likes of On The Go Again and Top Othe Ra (who fought out the finish of a race the following evening) just missed the cut.

For big trainers to contr0l the shape of the race they need co-operative owners who are willing to have their horses run in sub-optimal conditions for the greater good of the yard. We saw in the recent Tim Brennan BHA case that Willie Mullins makes basically all the decisions around the running of his horses though this was hardly in much doubt judging on the past few seasons. Perhaps Rich Ricci was devastated when Ballycasey was taken out of the Plate last Wednesday but I suspect he was hardly bothered by an out-of-form 33/1 shot coming out when his trainer had landed the Galway Mile for him with Riven Light and gotten Limini back to the track the previous two evenings. Taking one for the team has long been a feature of being an owner at Closutton which might be why Michael O’Leary no longer has horses there.

Objectively, the use of the going as the reason for Ballycasey not running in the Plate rang very hollow. The ground was yielding when he was declared then was changed to good on the morning of the race before extensive rain brought it back to yielding before racing and it may have been softer than that. Still, this was a horse who had put a near career-best on soft-heavy when winning the Normans Grove in April 2017, had done likewise on soft at Killarney the following month, and was being taken out on summer yielding ground. A horse’s going preference may change as time passes but for national hunt racing this was basically no excuses ground. The issue of field size felt similarly weak; the horse had run in the 2016 Grand National, the race that attracts the biggest field in the sport, while he was considered well able to handle the hurly-burly of a 22-runner Plate field just the previous day. Despite this, the stewards did accept these reasons though there is a very rarely-used facility for them not do so in the case of races worth more than €60,000 as the Plate is; in these situations the trainer may be fined ‘not more than 1% of the advertised value’ as happened when Montjeu didn’t pitch up in the 1999 Irish Champion Stakes but ran in the Prix Niel the following day.

Of course, a trainer needs an excuse to take a horse out other than ‘we prefer a better-fancied runner’ and Mullins was doing nothing wrong strictly speaking within the rules; there is a rule where trainers can take a horse out with the ground as an excuse when it changes from declaration time though that was questionable in this case. But it looks like gamesmanship rather than sportsmanship and people generally don’t like to see the powerful throw their weight around like this. Mullins has a ruthless streak and perhaps the Galway Plate prizemoney could be the difference between winning and losing the trainers’ championship come next May but it is not good for the perception of the sport. Furthermore, the trainer’s tone in his comments about the stewards enquiring into why his horse didn’t run were all wrong, saying that ‘I was surprised to be called in and disappointed that we couldn’t take him out here on the track…I don’t understand where racing is going when we just can’t do things like that…When we saw all the rain we wanted to ask them to take him out and they couldn’t so we had to go and ring some central number.’ Aside from Mullins wanting to bypass the system that he and every other trainer uses, he seems to be questioning the right of the stewards to enquire about why his horse was a non-runner when the ground didn’t seem like a viable excuse. Had they not asked those questions, they would not have been doing their job.

All of this could have been avoided had Mullins simply made sure Patricks Park was in the top 20 the previous day when declarations were made as he had five runners in the race at that time; Alelchi Inois (beaten a combined 207 lengths on this two Galway outings this year) was an obvious one that could have run elsewhere. Instead we have a situation where no one knows if the ante-post favourite will get a run but many suspect he will though bizarrely this didn’t negatively impact the take with one major bookmaker; Paddy Power report that the race was in their top ten Irish races bet on to this point in the year in both 2017 and 2018, using volume and bet count as a measure and actually increased year-on-year. But this is hardly the first time a situation like this has unfolded in a feature race; Dun Doire got in the 2006 Thyestes after a non-runner, Beautiful Sound didn’t get into the 2011 Irish National when nothing came out, Carlingford Lough won the 2013 Plate after Like Your Style was taken out under the ‘unsuitable ground’ excuse.

Punters are the obvious losers in all these cases but it is hardly news that Irish racing is not run for them. The only time the reserves system will work in the favour of punters is when a reserve makes a race a full field for each-way betting, boosting a 15-runner field back up to 16. But in all other instances it works against them. There is the obvious confusion around studying form and if you’re a lazy punter like me, you give scant regard to horses’ numbers R21, R22 and R23 when you get that far. That said, I do wonder if odds compilers are similarly lazy in pricing them and make obvious form chance reserves too big and there could be a case for backing such horses, even if it might be a long time between drinks and lots of stakes returned. Further confusion is added by different bookmakers having different terms around reserves and non-runners; some bet without them, some apply rule 4s to them, some do neither. But the biggest problem is a case like last Wednesday’s Plate where the one that gets in has a leading chance and is replacing an outsider, in this case Patricks Park was around 9/2 while Ballycasey was 33/1, a 14% difference in implied probability, and if you placed a bet at early prices you were by definition on at a bad value price. There is almost a case for a reverse Rule 4, difficult though that may be to implement!

The question then comes down to whom the reserve system serves, with owners and trainers being the obvious answer. That is no bad thing with owners pumping so much money into the sport and if they want to have a runner in a certain race they should probably be given every chance to do so. The problem is the whole timing of the non-runner declaration; 90 minutes before the first is far too late and if the system is to work better the cut-off point needs to brought back. In almost all cases, trainers will know early on the morning of the race whether or not their horse is running and it is not unrealistic to have all fields confirmed by 10am for a day meeting or midday for an evening card. At the very least, it should be improved upon for these major races that attract so much attention and betting turnover. What we have now is a system that feels like racing from a bygone era where no one has any clue what is running until you get to the races: that is clearly not fit for purpose.

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

Monday Musings: The Irish Oligarchy

I was looking around for a middlingly-busy English trainer to make a point, writes Tony Stafford. Apologies to Jeremy Noseda for singling him out, but his situation amply puts into focus the absurd strength of the top two Irish jumps stables. Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott play out a year-long private numerical and prizemoney battle, to be resolved by five days’ head-to-head clashes with fortunes to be divvied up between them and their owners every spring at Punchestown.

And what sort of owners? After Elliott once again succumbed to the even more excessive resources of the Mullins hordes, his principal owner, Michael O’Leary of Gigginstown fame and the countless Ryanair millions, said: “We will have to strive even harder to catch up with Willie”. Actually his words were probably a little different, but that was the tenor of his argument.

One element which I did catch properly was that he thinks it is good for Irish racing that Gordon Elliott’s stable has grown to be competitive with the top man. That it has is entirely due to the Gigginstown horses’ switching from Mullins two years ago over O’Leary’s refusal to pay more for training fees than hitherto. Otherwise, he says, it would be a case of Mullins winning everything.

Last week he didn’t quite win everything, but 18 wins from 117 runners over the five days, including most of the Grade 1’s, was as fair an approximation to complete domination as you would wish to encounter.

Is it good for Irish racing? Is it good that overnight declarations for several of the top races were confined almost entirely to the Mullins/Elliott brigades? When the always-supine press applaud say Mullins or, less often last week Elliott, for a major winner with his fifth-string, do they worry about the impossibility it offers racing fans to come up with the 25-1 shot that happened to be the one that prevailed from the depths of the multiple candidates.

I mentioned Jeremy Noseda earlier. Over the past decades he has shown exceptional ability for various major owners, winning major races and placing his horses shrewdly. Sadly for him, a good number have gone elsewhere, often to the domestic big shots like Gosden, Stoute or the like, or joined the frequent yearning for the fashionable newer talents of whom Archie Watson is an obvious current example.

Yet Noseda still has the skill to plan major projects, like next weekend’s – now sadly ill-fated – challenge for the Kentucky Derby with the much-improved Gronkowski, who qualified for the Run for the Roses via a cleverly-conceived race at Newcastle. Victory there obviated the need to go for one of the North American Classic trials that would have provided a far more testing examination for earning qualification points for the big race. Alas, he misses out due to a setback.

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In the whole of 2016, Noseda won 19 races from a total of only 109 runs. Last year, slightly more active, his 28 wins came from 122 runners – in the former case eight fewer total runners in the calendar year than Mullins sent to the track at a single fixture last week. In 2017, his total exceeded the Punchestown Mullins hordes by a mere five.

In all, Mullins’ tally for the whole of the 2017-8 jumps season in Ireland was 212 wins from 797 runs (243 individual horses) at a win percentage of 27. Level stakes losses for all runners was only 80 points, testimony to the fact that the “wrong ones” often win. Additionally, he won ten races from his 74 runners in the UK during the same period.

Of course he’s a master trainer. His father Paddy was likewise a top trainer and his brothers, former sister-in-law (Mags) and the next generation of son Patrick, plus nephews and cousins form a pretty strong starting point for the country’s horse-racing aristocracy.

Then take the Walsh’s and the Carberry’s, leavened with the still-exploding Aidan O’Brien dynasty, with plenty more to come, and you can see why racing over there might seem to be something of a closed shop. Indeed, without the long-established practice of the formerly all-conquering J P McManus to spread a decent percentage of his horses around many of the smaller stables, the oligopoly would be even more intense.

It doesn’t happen here, even in jumping. Nicky Henderson might have been the pre-eminent stable this season with at least £1 million earnings more than anyone else and 141 wins, coincidentally, like Mullins in Ireland, at 27%. He had four wins on this country’s end of season climax day at Sandown on Saturday, but the ten horses he sent out there might just as easily have been routed to Punchestown in other seasons.

Four years in succession when Nicky trained Punjabi, he followed his Cheltenham runs each year by sending him to Punchestown. The first time (2007) his fourth in the Triumph and second at Aintree were followed with victory in the Four-Year-old Grade 1 at the Irish fin de saison jamboree. When he was third in the following year’s Champion, he crossed the Irish Sea and won their Champion Hurdle.

The next year he won at Cheltenham but was narrowly beaten in Ireland, while declining health (a breathing problem) caused unplaced efforts in both races in 2010. Yet even after his disappointing effort in his unsuccessful title defence, he still found his way across the Irish Sea those few weeks later. Happily he’s still fit enough at Kinsale Stud to make a yearly appearance at the Cheltenham Festival Parade of Champions.

In those days, Punchestown was Nicky’s Holy Grail, so much so that when I suggested we aim Punjabi at the Chester Cup the year he won the Champion – he’d won his only two Flat races for Ray Tooth and Hendo at Newmarket and Sandown the year before – the idea was given short shrift. As I said at the time (under my breath of course), we win another race in Ireland? So what! This is the Chester Cup, one of the great historic races. Wish we had something good enough to go for it now.

I’d have loved Gronkowski to give Jeremy a big run on Saturday at Churchill Downs, and in his absence I have to go along with Mendelssohn. His run on dirt in Dubai was astonishing, but as yet the signs are that the O’Brien team is not quite in top form. The way the market on the 2,000 Guineas has been going, it seems that Gustav Klimt, rather than Saxon Warrior, might be the one to be on from Ballydoyle.

Can you believe that both those massive races are already with us? I haven’t forgotten that a few weeks back I suggested it would be good for the sport if the home-bred Tip Two Win could do just that for the Roger Teal stable. Certainly it would be good for Roger and the colt’s owner-breeder Mrs Anne Cowley anyway. [And also for geegeez.co.uk, as Tip Two Win’s jockey is none other than our sponsored rider, David Probert – Ed.].

After that, next week it’s Chester for three days, then a week later the Dante meeting at York. It’s all just too much. Before the season gets going it seems it’ll be Epsom and Royal Ascot.

There has been quite a lot of comment about the switch from a general structure of maiden races with a few conditions events sprinkled in, to the almost total obliteration of the former by the newly-extended novice races. The big stables love them. They can have horses that won a race the year before, or in some cases, two years earlier and had gone through a campaign of Group or even Classic races, yet are still qualified to take on maidens if they hadn’t won again.

So take the example of Ray’s promising horse Sod’s Law. Second, beaten narrowly on debut in December at Kempton, he returned there for a novice race a couple of weeks back and finished fourth. The winner Fennaan, trained by John Gosden, had won a 16-runner novice last September and after the narrow win here – from a decent Richard Hannon type called Magnificent, was given a rating of 93.

It seems all the novice races, and there are few enough open to our horse when you include maiden auctions – he’s home-bred, so didn’t go to a sale, median auctions for less than £19,000, and fillies’ only contests. Hughie Morrison is looking for a satisfactory third race, but he’ll need to get cracking and we’re already into May. It’s another case of Sod’s Law. Whose idea was it to get that name?

Power and the Glory – Mullins, Henderson and Cracksman are Weekend Wonders

The curtain came down on another Jumps season with familiar trainers crowned King on either side of the Irish Sea.

There’s no doubting that Gordon Elliott has made great strides and is now a serious threat to the Mullins dominance. He does, however, still lack the quality that will finally see him fulfilling the dream of a trainers’ title. He needs several more Samcro’s if he is to wrestle the title from his rival. This was blindingly evident at Punchestown, as Mullins monopolised Grade One events thanks to the likes of Un De Sceaux, Bellshill, Faugheen and Footpad.

The Closutton master was clearly relieved, saying: “It’s nice to do it. It’s tough, as I feel for Gordon. He’s had a fantastic year and he was hoping this year would be his year. Certainly coming out of here on Tuesday evening I thought our chance was totally gone. It’s a little bit cruel, but I suppose Gordon has ended the year with over 200 winners and over 5 million euro in prize-money, so it’s probably not too bad! I’m happy to win it and I’m very happy for my staff. It’s great competition and great for racing. It’s been a huge narrative throughout the year and it’s better for the game.”

Whilst the Elliott/Mullins battle went down to the wire, over here in the UK Nicky Henderson has surged clear of the pack. Buveur D’Air, Might Bite and the phenomenon that is Altior, ensured that Henderson scooped the major pots. Paul Nicholls was again, best of the rest, though he continues to struggle in his search for new stars. Politologue was impressive at times, though lacks the X-factor. Clan Des Obeaux is a horse of huge potential and may be one for the King George at Christmas.

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Henderson was thrilled to land the title and said of his powerful battalion: “They have delivered. Like always, you have your ups and downs and it started with downs before ups when we had to stop with Altior. That was a pity, really, as it took him out of the first half the season and it was a rush to get him ready for Cheltenham, but it has been good. It has been a long, wet winter and it has been hard work, but I’ve got a great team that has in some ways swam their way through it and we are now out at the other end.

“Everything was good, the horses have been good across the board. Might Bite, Altior and Buveur D’Air had to show up again and they did, within reason. It’s not been easy (winning the title once more). Cheltenham was good and that put us at a bit of an advantage and plenty more came in at Aintree. It wasn’t until the Scottish National was over, that is when we thought we were safe.”

Of the big three he said: “I think Might Bite’s performance at Aintree was the outstanding moment as he came back from such a battle at Cheltenham (runner-up in the Gold Cup) and to come back from that was a great performance. Altior (Champion Chase) and Buveur D’Air (Champion Hurdle) were great at Cheltenham and if picking other moments, they would be two other highlights.”

The concern for the chasing pack is the strength in depth of the Seven Barrows squad. Henderson added: “They (Altior, Buveur D’Air and Might Bite) have to deliver on the big stage and if you have got them you are the guy that is under pressure, but they have been great. They are still young and some pretty good ones have come through with them, like Santini, We Have A Dream and Terrefort. There is plenty to back them up. I think Santini could be a very exciting novice chaser and I think he could be a very exciting horse.”

With the Jumps season proper, now closed for the Summer, we can look forward to the first Classics at Newmarket, less than a week away. And yesterday at Longchamp we were reminded of just how thrilling the latest Flat season could be, as Cracksman made a stunning return in landing the Group One Prix Ganay.

Sent off a short-priced favourite, Gosden’s four-year-old powered clear in the latter stages of the race, with Cloth Of Stars and Rhododendron among those swept aside.

Gosden spoke to At The Races immediately after the victory, saying: “He’s a stronger horse this year and is still growing. It was a nice pace, without being anyway near crazy. Frankie knew he was going to use the pacemaker and I particularly liked standing over a furlong down and seeing how he stretched past me. It’s a lovely run. There’s Cloth Of Stars and Rhododendron in there and we’ve shown them a clean pair of heels and the race will bring him on a lot.”

Conversation turned to the inevitable clash with Gosden’s wonder-filly Enable. The trainer confirmed that she was on target to run in the Coronation Cup at Epsom, and that the stable stars will likely meet, assuming all is well with both, in the Arc at Longchamp. For Cracksman, a trip to Royal Ascot now appears likely, with the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes a short-term target.

Missed Approach can land Sandown’s prestigious Gold Cup

A stunning six-timer on Wednesday, followed by a faultless display from a Mullins monster on Thursday, leaves poor old Gordon Elliott facing yet another frustrating finish to an otherwise sensational campaign.

Now apparently lacking the ‘zip’ for two, Mullins stepped Faugheen up to three miles to contest the Champion Stayers Hurdle. Sent to the front by young David Mullins, the 10-year-old absolutely tanked along, jumping like a stag throughout. He had the field in trouble from some way out, with only Cheltenham Stayers winner Penhill, putting up any sort of resistance. But Faugheen was not in the mood for company, and given a shake of the reins, pulled effortlessly clear for a 13-length success. Penhill and Shaneshill made it a one-two-three for Mullins.

He received a hero’s welcome in the winners’ enclosure, where an emotional owner, Rich Ricci, spoke to At The Races: “I’m absolutely delighted. It’s been a tough old season for him and for us. All of a sudden, he’s done that today and it’s magic. It’s credit to Willie as well. He’s amazing, as is everyone in the yard. While Cheltenham may have been disappointing, this makes up for it. This is fantastic and the reception he got here was brilliant. It’s a magic day.”

Little more than an hour after fantastic Faugheen, Punchestown was treated to fabulous Footpad. Foot perfect throughout, this outstanding novice chaser romped home by 12 lengths. His stunning display put the Closutton master more than 420,000 euros clear of a shell-shocked Gordon Elliott. Even a victory for the mighty Samcro over Mullins’ Melon in the Champion Hurdle today is unlikely to put the brakes on the Closutton express. Somewhat resembling King Canute, Elliott looks set to drown under this tsunami of Mullins winners.

Punchestown concludes on Saturday, as does the UK Jumps season, with a cracking finale at Sandown. Nicky Henderson will be crowned Champion Trainer for the second year running and his star chaser Altior will no doubt thrill an expectant crowd in the Celebration Chase.

The result of the Bet365 Gold Cup Handicap Chase looks far less assured, with a competitive field of 20 likely to go to post. Known as the Whitbread in the good old days, it’s a prestigious race that’s been won by some of the best. Arkle and Mill House landed the pot in the 1960s, whilst Diamond Edge became a Sandown superstar as the 70s became the 80s. Dessie won the race in 1988 and a few years back we were treated to a thrilling victory from a personal favourite of mine, when Tidal Bay hauled top-weight to an astounding 15-length success.

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Following a first fence mishap at Aintree, Blaklion is tasked with heading the handicap for this assignment. Though he’s undoubtedly a warrior in testing ground, his chances of success under top-weight are surely enhanced by the current drier conditions. Nevertheless, this is a tall order, with only Tidal Bay lumping 11-12 to victory since the turn of the century. Only two others have managed to win with more than 11-stone on their backs in the past 20 renewals. The 2016 RSA winner is undoubtedly a classy staying chaser, and though he heads the betting, I fancy he’ll struggle under the welter burden.

The same can probably be said of Regal Encore, who is a horse that has continued to surprise me this winter. His run in the Ladbrokes Trophy (finished third) was most unexpected, and that he then won a competitive handicap at Ascot in February proved that on a going day, he has a touch of class. Nevertheless, he’s now on a career high mark of 154 and though going right-handed will suit, he can be prone to jumping errors, when getting very low at his fences. It’s tough to be confident about this fella, though his odds of 16/1 are tempting.

The rest of the field carry 11 stone or less, and the trends suggest that this is where we should look in our search for the winner.

Missed Approach is currently tussling for favouritism and was last seen winning the Kim Muir at the Cheltenham Festival. Noel McParlan will once again be onboard and claims a valuable 5lbs. He gave the horse a beautifully judged ride at Prestbury Park, leading from the off, yet saving enough for a titanic battle up the final hill. The Cheltenham success followed a wind operation and though the eight-year-old is up 8lbs for that victory, he is only 1lb higher than when running a cracker in the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase back in November.

Along with Blaklion, Nigel Twiston-Davies has Bigbadjohn towards the head of the market. Formerly trained by Rebecca Curtis, this nine-year-old unseated his rider in the Topham last time, having previously won at Kempton. A mark of 138 lands him an attractive race weight of 10-3, though it has to be said that he’ll need to improve on what he’s shown so far this season. Despite his prominence in the market, he’s not one for my shortlist.

The Young Master won this race in 2016 and is now on a 13lb lower handicap mark. Fancied to go well in the Scottish National (tipped up by me), his race only lasted to the first, where Sam Waley-Cohen was bounced out of the saddle. Prior to that he put in a reasonable performance at Cheltenham, though will appreciate the better ground at Sandown. There’s no doubt that his jumping is a concern, but he now looks to be incredibly well handicapped.

Nicky Henderson has had a terrific winter and will be hopeful of a decent performance from Sugar Baron. He ran well in last year’s race, before being swamped by challengers after the last fence. A year older, it’s likely he’s a little stronger and certainly a little more experienced. He clearly performs well at the track, having finished a close runner-up in the London National back in December. This better ground is a must for the son of Presenting and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t on the premises.

Paul Nicholls has captured two of the last six and is likely to let Present Man take his chance. He’ll be partnered by winter sensation Bryony Frost. She rode him to victory in the Badger Ales at Wincanton last November on soft ground, though whether she can guide him to see out this extended trip has to be a concern. He didn’t appear to get home in the Ladbrokes Trophy, and was pulled up in this race 12 months ago. Despite all that, I fancy he’ll go well under the talented claimer.

Another horse that enjoys his trips to Sandown is Rathlin Rose. Trained by David Pipe, the 10-year-old has won three times at the course, and though he’s up 5lbs since his win at Ascot in March, a mark of 133 appears reasonable. This will be his toughest task to date and he’s no progressive youngster. Nevertheless, his course form gives hope of a strong performance.

Competitive as ever, this valuable and prestigious handicap is a tough one to call. I fancy that Missed Approach will go very close, especially with the assistance of 5lb claimer Noel McParlan. Those that take to Sandown often return and go well. Benbens and Sugar Baron may well go close, but it’s Rathlin Rose that I’ll be siding with for the each-way money.

Best of luck to those taking a punt.

Dramatic day at Punchestown hands initiative to Elliott

Gordon Elliott must count himself fortunate that a trainers’ title lead of €520,000 remained relatively healthy at just over €400,000 by the end of a dramatic day one of the Punchestown Festival.

Willie Mullins dominated the early exchanges, with Draconien causing an upset to land the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle. Getabird was sent off a short-priced favourite but as at Cheltenham the Mullins-trained six-year-old disappointed. Elliott had hoped for a huge run from Mengli Khan, however, a scrappy jumping display put paid to his chances as he came home third. It was left to the unconsidered Clossuton contender, Draconien, to make a late and successful challenge, guided to victory by the classy Noel Fehily. The winner had previously been beaten out of sight by the talented yet unpredictable Getabird at Fairyhouse.

Momentum was with Mullins, and continued as he took first and second in the Champion Chase. The race had been billed as a three-way tussle between Douvan, Un De Sceaux and Min. At the drop of the flag, the former was a shade of odds-on. But Douvan isn’t quite the force of old and several jumping errors meant that he was unable to keep tabs on a forcefully ridden Un De Sceaux. The winner jumped beautifully throughout and had almost four-lengths to spare at the line. A Toi Phil grabbed some much-needed prize money for Elliott in third, with Min coming home fourth.

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With €162,250 awarded to the winner and €52,250 to the runner-up, this result did much to reduce the gap between Mullins and Elliott. And at this stage of day one, Elliott must have been fearing the worst.

The County Meath handler began the fightback in the Goffs Land Rover Bumper, with his trio of runners filling the first three places. Commander Of Fleet proved an impressive winner and looks a tasty prospect.

Next came a truly incredible Growise Champion Novice Chase. Henry De Bromhead’s Monalee was installed as favourite, following his runner-up finish in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham. He travelled well throughout, shadowing the Mullins-trained Invitation Only for much of the race. As the pair approached the second-last they were joined by another Mullions contender in Al Boum Photo. But that penultimate fence was where the drama began.

Monalee stepped at it, hit the deck, and in doing so brought down Invitation Only. The incident appeared to hand the race to Paul Townend aboard Al Boum Photo, though Finian’s Oscar was raising a late effort under a power-packed ride from Robbie Power. As the pair approached the last, Townend glanced behind him and suddenly veered to his right, seemingly attempting to swerve around the final fence. In doing so he carried out a bewildered Robbie Power and his mount.

That late drama left a Gordon Elliott trio to pick up the pieces, headed by the grateful Davy Russell aboard The Storyteller. Having looked likely to come home last, Monbeg Notorious charged late to snatch second, with Jury Duty coming home third. Rarely have we witnessed a race with such changing fortunes from the second last fence. Any of four looked likely to win, yet a fifth was left to take the spoils.

Elliott could hardly believe his good fortune, saying: “We got a bit of luck on our side and we needed it with the way the day started off. I don’t know what happened to Paul Townend, it all happened that quick. I was standing at the last and when I saw Paul going I wasn’t sure if it had been bypassed. It worked out great for me, so I can’t complain.”

That unlikely result put almost €90,000 into the Elliott war chest, whilst Townend received a hefty ban from the Punchestown stewards. There’s sure to be more twists and turns as the week progresses, though we’re unlikely to witness a more dramatic finish to a race.

The Elliott Express Keeps Rolling On

Gordon Elliott’s outstanding season continued with success in Saturday’s Grand National, thanks to his diminutive equine star, Tiger Roll.

The eight-year-old is a three-time winner at the Cheltenham Festival and arrived at Aintree having recently captured the Cross-Country at Prestbury Park. The trainer had used the same prep for Silver Birch, before capturing his first National in 2007. And just last year, Cause Of Causes romped home in the Cross-Country prior to a runner-up finish in the ‘big one’ at Aintree.

And so, it was no surprise that the tried and tested plan was put into operation again. With Cheltenham conquered, the question for many was whether Aintree’s prodigious fences would prove too much of an obstacle for a horse lacking somewhat in stature.

Such concerns proved unfounded, with Davy Russell given a dream ride aboard a foot-perfect staying chaser. Positioned just behind the leaders for much of the marathon contest, Russell made a forward move heading for the second-last fence, taking up the running from long-time leader Pleasant Company. At the last, he appeared to make the winning manoeuvre, stretching some five-lengths clear by the elbow. In true dramatic Grand National fashion, Tiger Roll’s petrol tank began to run empty and Pleasant Company finished with a rare old rattle. At the line, just a head separated the pair.

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The front duo were 11-lengths clear of third-placed Bless The Wings, also trained by Gordon Elliott. Whilst Anibale Fly ran a cracker under the burden of 11-8 to finish a neck further back in fourth.

Elliott was clearly thrilled to win his second Grand National and said: “I was nervous. I thought I had it, but you're so nervous watching it. I said I didn't appreciate it first-time round. I'm definitely going to appreciate it now. It's great for my family and everyone at home. He's an unbelievable horse. I was really worried about the ground. All the way round I couldn't believe how he was going. It's unbelievable for Davy Russell. He's lost his mother and I'm sure his father Gerry is very proud at home watching.

“Coming after the Cheltenham we had, we didn't dare dream this. We only beat him (Mullins) last week in the Irish National and now we've beaten him again, I can't believe it. Having to beat Willie is tough, he's an amazing man and sets the standards, one of the greatest of all time and to be training at the same time as him is unbelievable.”

Of being beaten a head, in the world’s most famous race, Mullins said: “That’s twice Gordon has done that to me, he did it in the Irish National too. He (Pleasant Company) seemed to get a little bit tired and then get a second wind. I never actually thought he’d got back up, but he ran a fantastic race. He jumped from fence to fence and you couldn’t ask for any better. He was only beaten a head and at the last fence I thought we were going to be beaten eight or 10 lengths. I’m really proud of him, he jumped fantastic and he’s one for next year.”

Gigginstown were winning the Aintree showpiece for the second time in three years, and following a successful Cheltenham Festival, Michael O’Leary looked rather pleased: “We were panicking at the line. It was a well-judged ride by Davy. It’s a phenomenal training feat by Gordon. We bought him for the Triumph, which he won. But then to win the Cross-Country, the four-miler and now the world’s greatest steeplechase is phenomenal. It’s beyond my wildest dreams.”

Mullins and Elliott continue to battle for the trainers’ crown in Ireland, with the latter currently more than €500,000 ahead. However, the situation was similar going into the Punchestown Festival a year ago. On that occasion it was Willie Mullins who finished the stronger, with numerous victories and placed finishes, including a success for Wicklow Brave in the Champion Hurdle which proved pivotal.

In little more than a week the pair will again lock horns for the season finale, with the title in the balance. Elliott has edged-out his rival several times so far this winter and will hope to do the same for one final historic success.

Meade can land Irish National with ‘well-in’ Moulin

Before we get stuck-in to the world’s most famous horserace at Aintree, we must first call in at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday for the Irish Grand National.

The country’s richest steeplechase has again attracted a strong and competitive looking field, with Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott likely to throw plenty of darts at the financially desirable target. The pair are once again locked in a titanic battle for the Trainers’ crown, and victory at Fairyhouse would be of huge benefit to either team.

It’s hard to believe that neither have yet landed the prestigious prize, though it’s surely only a matter of time before that omission from the pairs CV is rectified.

The race has tended to go to talented young chasers in recent times, with those aged seven and eight winning 10 of the last dozen. Novice chaser Our Duke romped to victory a year ago and in doing so scored a rare success for an Irish National favourite. Only two have prevailed in the last 10 renewals; a period that has seen winners at odds of 33/1 (three), 25/1 and 50/1.

Elliott’s association with Gigginstown is a huge advantage, with O’Leary’s Maroon silks crossing the line first in three of the last 10. The team are once again mob-handed, with Elliott’s trio of Folsom Blue, Monbeg Notorious and Dounikos the shortest priced. The latter pair fit the profile of young progressive chaser, both are seven-year-olds with limited chasing miles on the clock.

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Monbeg Notorious has three victories from his five chase starts and was an impressive winner of the valuable Thyestes Handicap a couple of runs back. That came off a mark of 137 and he now stands on a lofty 152. The inclusion of Outlander ensures a race weight of under 11 stone, nevertheless, that handicap mark looks on the high side. He does look a thorough stayer and is certainly not without a chance.

Dounikos flopped in the RSA Chase and will need a dramatic return to form. He looked badly outpaced at Cheltenham and ultimately outstayed before being pulled-up. The fractions during an Irish National are sure to be less demanding, but I’m no longer convinced that this fella needs a trip. And having fluffed his lines just a couple of weeks back, he’s far from certain to make the start.

Folsom Blue is a regular in this type of event and landed the Grand National Trial at Punchestown in February. He’s up 9lb for that success and is hardly a progressive type at the age of 11. With handicap mark blown, I can’t see him figuring on Monday.

A stronger Gigginstown contender may prove to be Joseph O’Brien’s Arkwrisht. He was fourth in the Cork National back in November, when looking to have a huge chance before tiring late on. Prior to that, he’d looked unfortunate when runner-up in the Kerry National in September. He’s off a 1lb lower mark than at Cork and will probably be played slightly later this time. He looks to have been aimed at this, arriving fresh off the back of just one run in the past four months.

The Willie Mullins-trained Bellshill heads the market and has always promised plenty. He won the Bobbyjo Chase in February on his seasonal return but is lumbered with a sizeable handicap mark of 158. He was hammered by Whisper and Might Bite in last year’s RSA, having previously been badly beaten by Disko and Our Duke in the Flogas Chase. He may have improved since that novice campaign, though he’ll need to have done to win off his current mark. I’m not convinced.

The Master of Closutton also has his recent recruit, Pairofbrowneyes, tussling for favouritism. Stepped up in trip under Mullins for his stable debut, he was quite impressive in winning the Leinster National at Gowran Park. He beat a fair yardstick that day, in the Gordon Elliott-trained Space Cadet. He’s also taken a hefty hike in the handicap, though is less exposed at this new trip.

Mall Dini ran a cracker in the Kim Muir at Cheltenham a few weeks back, when having travelled wonderfully well through the race, he only just failed to reel in Missed Approach. Prior to that he’d run with great promise in Ireland, finishing fourth to Presenting Percy over course and distance. Though by no means generous, his mark of 143 has remained the same throughout the winter, and he looks to be improving. Much will depend on how he has recovered from the Cheltenham effort. Despite not yet winning over fences in 10 starts, I fancy this eight-year-old is a major player.

Finally, a mention for the Noel Meade-trained Moulin A Vent. This unexposed novice certainly has the talent to go close, though his jumping can be erratic at times. His best performance this winter came in December, when comfortably accounting for Monbeg Notorious in a novice chase at Fairyhouse. That form was reversed at Navan in February, when a series of errors proved his undoing. His handicap mark of 145 could prove generous if he can get the jumping right, and at 33/1 it’s probably worth taking a punt on this talented youngster.

Hugely competitive as ever, Monbeg Notorious looks to be Gordon Elliott’s best hope of success. But the pair I fancy to go close are Mall Dini and Moulin A Vent. The latter must brush up on his jumping, but if he does, he could be thrown-in off this handicap mark.

Best of luck to those having a punt on this Irish showpiece.

To Chase or not to Chase? That is the question.

The dust continues to settle on the latest Cheltenham Festival. For today’s piece I thought I’d look at the novice hurdlers that impressed during the week and attempt to second-guess future targets.

I covered a little of this in yesterday’s review of the meeting, but I wanted to expand on a few points.

Trainers and owners will have plenty of tough decisions to make and many will get it wrong. Yorkhill appeared the type that would flourish over fences. Indeed, just a year ago he landed a JLT Chase at the Festival. Yet his subsequent demise is undoubtedly down to his loathing of the larger obstacles, with the result that the great Willie Mullins has been left clueless as to what to do with him.

Much the same can be said of Colin Tizzard’s Finian’s Oscar, a horse touted as a future Gold Cup contender. As a novice hurdler he landed a Grade One at Aintree last April, but the switch this winter to fences has proved difficult. He’s looked awkward at his obstacles and at one point his trainer took the decision to send him back over hurdles. That move backfired with the horse pulling up in the Cleeve Hurdle. He was given a wind-op before returning to fences at the Festival, but again disappointed when trailing home fifth in the JLT. His trainer will now be scratching his head as to the direction to take.

Both horses were top class and their faltering careers are testament to the importance of that decision-making process. Are they bred for chasing? Do they possess the desired size and scope for the task? Having been schooled, do they look a natural fit? Such questions will be asked and of course a leap of faith is often required.

The Supreme Novices’ runner-up, Kalashnikov, looks the perfect type to make the grade over fences. He’s a sizeable unit with plenty of scope and makes the right sort of shape over his hurdles. He’s out of an Old Vic mare and I’d be surprised if he didn’t make a talented chaser, though I fancy he’ll need to go up in trip to make an impact.

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Summerville Boy lacks both size and scope and though some horses jump a fence better than a hurdle, I’d be surprised if this fella becomes a natural over the larger obstacles. We may well see him spend another season over hurdles, though I fancy he’ll need to go up in trip if he’s to progress. He’s out of a Carroll House mare (a source off mud-lovers) though his apparent liking for testing ground may be more a result of his lack of gears. I can’t see him living with the best two-milers and if he does remain a hurdler he may well end the next campaign at three rather than two miles.

Mengli Khan is a big beefy sort and particularly tall. Though don’t be fooled by his size. Gigginstown love their chasers, but I’m convinced that this fella will make a top-class two-mile hurdler. He travelled better than any in the Supreme, despite the testing ground. Highly rated on the flat, there’s plenty more to come from this youngster. He’s 33/1 for next season’s Champion Hurdle and I’d much rather take that than the 20/1 available on Summerville Boy.

Henry De Bromhead has a habit of uncovering two-mile chasers and in Paloma Blue he may have another. By Stowaway out of a Supreme Leader mare, the pedigree suggests he’ll stay further, but he is a keen going type. He certainly has the size and scope for fences and is under the same ownership as Ordinary World, himself placed in an Arkle Chase.

Samcro has undoubtedly become the season’s star novice and was hugely impressive in winning the Ballymore. He’d previously hammered Paloma Blue at Leopardstown, suggesting he’d have won the Supreme had connections fancied the shorter option. He’s athletic rather than large and scopey, though connections have said all along that he’s a staying chaser in the making. He’d probably go close in a Champion Hurdle and the same could be said of the Arkle, the JLT and the RSA. The likelihood is that connections will not ‘waste time’ in staying over hurdles and will instead target the Arkle Chase. That could change depending on decisions over Mengli Khan. Samcro looks more adaptable and is without doubt the more talented.

Black Op got closest in the Ballymore and looks sure to go chasing next term. He’s similar in stature to Kalashnikov and should prove an ideal sort for the larger obstacles. He certainly jumped his hurdles like a chaser and looks a JLT or RSA contender in the making.

Next Destination flew late-on in the Ballymore and looks sure to become a decent staying chaser. He’s out of a Flemensfirth mare and though by no means huge, he attacked his hurdles like a chaser. I’m also a fan of another Mullins youngster, Duc Des Genievres. Just a five-year-old, this son of Buck’s Boum (sire of Al Boum Photo) has plenty of scope for a fence and should strip stronger with another summer on his back. I’m uncertain as to how far he’ll stay, though the JLT and RSA seem the most likely options.

The Albert Bartlett is usually a breeding ground for decent staying chasers and in Santini we look to have a potentially high-class one. Nicky Henderson’s six-year-old is a gorgeous looking son of Milan, out of a Sleeping Car mare. He’s only run three times under rules and looks sure to progress when sent chasing. I’m far from certain that he’ll make an out-and-out stayer and am more inclined to think that his optimum may rest at around two-and-a-half miles. He looks a classy sort.

Kilbricken Storm landed the Albert Bartlett and looks a four-mile chaser in the making. It was noticeable that he leapt the last with feet to spare whilst others battled wearily through the Cheltenham mud. He’s not huge, but looks big enough to make his mark.

Henderson’s OK Corral has proved difficult to keep right and that may have a bearing on the decision-making process. He’s a lovely big horse and his pedigree suggests that fences will prove ideal. Out of a Flemensfirth mare, this was only the fourth run over hurdles for the eight-year-old. He’s clearly talented and if kept right should make a lovely chaser.

I’ll also be interested to see if Topofthegame and William Henry are sent over fences. Second and fourth in the Coral Cup, the former is a huge son of Flemensfirth, whilst the latter is a more athletic type by Kings Theatre out of a Bob Back mare. Topofthegame has continued to improve throughout the season, seemingly strengthening as he’s filled that huge frame. Paul Nicholls will be hoping he can take high order.

There’s plenty of decisions to be made by excited connections over the coming months. Many will take the right course and go on to bigger and better things. For some the inevitable disappointment of huge potential sadly never fulfilled.

Elliott and Mullins Dominant at Cheltenham

Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott continue to boss affairs at Cheltenham, bagging five races between them on day three. It was Mullins who took the Stayers’ Hurdle courtesy of last year’s Albert Bartlett winner, Penhill.

Off the track since that success 12 months ago, Mullins had the seven-year-old tuned to perfection and aided by a ponderous pace he was able to out-kick Supasundae up the infamous hill. Sam Spinner had been sent off the short-priced favourite, with the responsibility of setting a searching yet controlled pace, resting in the hands of Joe Colliver. Such a task had proved too much for more experienced jockeys during this Festival (Davy Russell-Petit Mouchoir) and sadly for his trainer and connections it appeared the case once again, as virtually the whole field queued up waiting to land a blow as they turned for home.

From the pack Penhill and Supasundae came to the fore and battled out the finish, with the former possessing the gears to land the prize. It was a terrific training performance from Mullins, and after the race he spoke of the frailty of the seven-year-old that had prevented the team from getting a run into him prior to the meeting. Jess Harrington’s Supasundae ran a cracker but found one with a little too much zip at the finish. Despite the rather pedestrian pace of the race, The New One and Yanworth failed to see-out the trip. Sam Spinner battled on bravely for fifth and there’ll be many more opportunities for this gutsy six-year-old.

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Willie Mullins went on to land a double on the day, with the talented young mare Laurina romping to victory in the Mares’ Novice Hurdle. She cruised through the race before powering up the Cheltenham hill to win by just shy of 20-lengths.

Gordon Elliott added another treble to the one on Wednesday, with Shattered Love arguably the star turn as she powered to victory in the JLT Novices’ Chase. He again proved the master of the handicaps winning the Pertemps and the Brown Advisory, with Davy Russell in the saddle on both occasions. Russell gave The Storyteller the ride of the week, as he weaved his way through the field to challenge approaching the last. And when his mount drifted across the track, seemingly unimpressed with the whip, the jock was quick to get at him under hands and heels, driving him to a thrilling victory.

Elliott now lies one adrift of Mullins over the three days, with six winners. The pair have captured 13 of the 21 races thus far and have plenty more leading contenders for the final day of the Festival. Indeed, the pair account for more than half of the field in the opener, the Triumph Hurdle. Mullins runs four, including the talented filly Stormy Island. She won her debut in Ireland by more than 50-lengths, though has another talented filly to beat, in the Nicky Henderson-trained Apple’s Shakira.

Elliott and Mullins then have the joint-favourites for the ultra-competitive County Hurdle, though it’s a Mullins 14/1 shot, Whiskey Sour, that takes my fancy.

Nicky Henderson appears to hold all the aces in the Albert Bartlett, with Santini and Chef Des Obeaux expected to go close.

Mullins arrives mob-handed as he goes in search of his first Gold Cup success. Djakadam has another crack, though it’s Killultagh Vic that looks to have the best chance for the Closutton team. Hugely talented, yet frighteningly inexperienced, this nine-year-old won at the Festival back in 2015 and has only run five times since. He fell at the last when looking the likely winner of the Irish Gold Cup last time. It looks a tall order for both horse and trainer, though the same could have been said for Penhill as he attempted to win the Stayers’ Hurdle on seasonal debut.

Mr Mullins appears capable of almost anything during these four-day gatherings at Prestbury Park.

Cheltenham Festival Halftime ‘Pep Talk’ required

We’ve reached the halfway point in this year’s Cheltenham Festival, and from a personal point of view, I’m in need of a much-improved second half performance.

I’ve taken on far too many favourites for my own good, and whilst many punters will be dancing with joy, I’m left wishing I’d played the obvious, rather than over-complicating matters.

The usual suspects have proved dominant, with Mullins, Elliott and Henderson capturing nine of the 14 races thus far. Mullins landed an opening day hat-trick, though Getabird proved disappointing in the opener. The team made amends, when Footpad cruised to victory in the Arkle Chase. Ruby rode an intelligent race, sitting some way off the crazy pace set by Davy Russell on Petit Mouchoir. Aidan Coleman kept him company aboard Saint Calvados, and the pair were cooked some way from the finish. Footpad is without doubt a classy chaser, though his task in winning this was made that much easier by the inept tactics of others.

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It was inevitable that Ruby would side with Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle, hopeful of one last hurrah from the great champion. Sadly, time waits for no man, or horse, and the ex-champ faded turning for home. Stable companion Melon was left to tackle the new champion Buveur D’Air, and the pair locked horns in a thrilling duel from the second-last to the line. Henderson’s returning hero was headed just after the last but rallied bravely to wrestle the prize away from the young pretender. The Gordon Elliott-trained Mick Jazz filled the frame, though he was three-lengths adrift of the main protagonists.

Gordon Elliott’s classy mare, Apple’s Jade, was surprisingly beaten into third in the Mares’ Hurdle, with the Mullins-trained Benie Des Dieux staying on powerfully for the win. But there was no such shock in the opener on day two, when Elliott’s latest stable-star, Samcro, lived up to the hype in landing the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Travelling powerfully throughout, the six-year-old cruised to the front on the turn for home, quickly putting distance between himself and the field. Only the Tom George-trained Black Op put up any kind of resistance, finishing just shy of three-lengths off the favourite.

Samcro is likely to be sent chasing next term yet appears to have the tactical speed to become an elite hurdler. Numerous Ballymore winners have dropped back in trip to become Champion Hurdle contenders. Several have been successful. From the same sire as Faugheen, Samcro cruised through this race, as he had when winning at two miles in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle a month earlier. He’s owned by Gigginstown, who tend to target the Gold Cup with their most talented horses. Nevertheless, a conversation will be had in the close-season and it will be interesting to see what path is taken in the short term.

There’s no doubting the future target for the impressive RSA winner, Presenting Percy. Not unlike Samcro, this fella cruised through the race, before being unleashed by Davy Russell approaching the penultimate fence. The race was quickly put to bed and by the time he hit the line he’d stretched seven lengths clear of Monalee. Prior to this victory he’d found Our Duke a little too hot to handle at Gowran Park, suggesting Jess Harrington’s chaser will play a huge part in the Gold Cup on Friday. Nevertheless, this fella looks a powerful stayer and is sure to be aimed at the 2019 ‘Blue Riband’. Sadly, Ruby Walsh was again injured in a fall from Al Boum Photo, and may well have ridden for the last time this season.

Later in the afternoon, Nicky Henderson made it two from two in the Championship races, when Altior followed Buveur D’Air into the winners’ enclosure. Douvan was returning from a year off the track, and looked exceptionally well, jumping beautifully at the head of affairs. Much to everyone’s disappointment, he came down in the back straight, seemingly leaving Min and Altior to play out the finish. Henderson’s charge needed to be urged along at various times during the race and turning for home Min looked a huge danger. But rarely have I seen a horse more impressive from the last at Cheltenham. This fella simply devours the infamous hill, and he powered clear of his Irish rival to win by seven lengths. Altior is peerless at the minimum trip and I got to wondering how he would do if targeted at next year’s Gold Cup. He’ll possibly take in the Melling Chase at Aintree next (at 2m4f), a race won by Sprinter Sacre in 2013. Should Might Bite fail in his bid to capture the Gold Cup this week, Mr Henderson may be tempted to move this awesome racehorse up in distance.

Gordon Elliott took two of the last three, making it a treble on the day. Tiger Roll was an impressive winner of the Cross Country, further enhancing his Festival reputation. Cause Of Causes had been sent off favourite but floundered in testing conditions. It was no surprise to see Willie Mullins capture the Bumper, taking the Closutton team to five winners for the Festival thus far.

Mullins and Elliott have the favourite in five of today’s races as they look to press home the Irish dominance.

Our Duke has The Power for Gold Cup Glory

News came last night that Sizing John would not be defending his Gold Cup crown.

As the bombshell dropped, I was in the process of writing how surprisingly rare it is that horses complete back-to-back victories in the ‘Blue Riband’. Keeping these equine stars fit and well is an incredibly difficult task. Getting them on the racecourse year-in year-out is hard enough, but training the equine elite to maintain such a high level of performance is quite something else. Along with Sizing John, the likes of Faugheen, Douvan and Thistlecrack are just a few names that instantly spring to mind.

Though Harrington will clearly be gutted at the untimely injury to her Gold Cup hero, it does mean that jockey Robbie Power will now be reunited with stable companion Our Duke. The partnership landed the Irish National back in April but occasional jumping errors since his return from a back operation have been a source of concern for those siding with the giant chaser, as he heads for his greatest challenge to date at Prestbury Park. Power is surely best placed to get the most from Our Duke, and that may well prove to be enough for a horse that looks tailor-made for the job that lies ahead.

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Might Bite heads the market following success in the RSA last year and a somewhat underwhelming victory in the King George. Turning for home at Kempton, the eight-year-old pulled clear of the pack and looked sure to romp to an impressive winning performance. But at the line he had just a length to spare over Double Shuffle with a further two back to Tea For Three. Henderson’s talented chaser may well win the Gold Cup next week, but his inability to focus throughout the race, from the fall of the flag to the finish, may yet prove his downfall. Better horses than Whisper, Double Shuffle and Tea For Three will be waiting to pounce, should he take his eye of the prize.

Native River will ensure that the contenders stamina is fully tested. Richard Johnson will set the fractions, firing the gutsy eight-year-old at every fence as he attempts to mirror a Coneygree style performance. Tizzard’s contender has had this race as his sole target this season, and as such, will arrive a fresh horse. He ran a cracker in finishing third a year ago, when arguably not ridden aggressively enough. Sizing John had the gears, and enough left in the tank to use them. It will be down to Johnson to ensure that the sting is drawn from the chasing pack, in much the same way as Sam Spinner in Thursday’s Stayers’ Hurdle. He looks sure to go close.

Road To Respect won the Brown Advisory Handicap at last year’s Festival, and has continued on a steep upward curve throughout this campaign. He took the Leopardstown Christmas Chase (formerly the Lexus) defeating Balko Des Flos and Outlander, though several leading contenders underperformed that day. Off the track since, the lack of a prep-run is a slight concern. He’s a second-season chaser, clearly on the upgrade, and therefore ticks plenty of boxes for trend followers. Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that he’s ‘the one’ and am far from certain that he’s robust enough for this extended trip with that infamous concluding climb.

The joker in the pack is the Willie Mullins-trained Killultagh Vic. He looked likely to win the Irish Gold Cup when falling at the last. Such jumping errors must be a huge concern for a horse with so little chasing experience. Despite being a nine-year-old, he’s only had three races over fences. It’s testament to how highly he’s regarded that he’s fourth favourite at 10/1, and he does have a Festival success to his name, having won the Martin Pipe Hurdle back in 2015. Three years have passed, and in that period, he’s only been on the racecourse five times. If he wins we will all marvel at the training prowess of Willie Mullins coupled with the incredible talent of the horse. However, trend followers will say that he can’t win, and I’m prepared to go with them.

One that will outrun his odds is Minella Rocco. Runner-up last year and winner of the four-miler in 2016, this fella thrives at Cheltenham in March. He’ll likely be outpaced at some stage prior to charging up the hill when others cry enough. As Native River’s tank starts to read empty and Might Bite drifts across the track to inspect the Guinness Village, Jonjo’s fella will be making his move. I’m sure he’ll go close.

Gold Cup winners rarely stagger over the finishing line, rather, they charge up the hill devouring the Cheltenham turf, out-staying and over-powering their opponents. In the absence of Sizing John, I’m convinced that Our Duke has what it takes to complete back-to-back victories for Jess Harrington. At 25s, the each-way money will be lumped on Minella Rocco.

Expect the unexpected in this ‘anything could happen’ renewal. Best of luck to those having a punt.