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National Hunt Season Preview 2019/20

Strictly speaking, the 2019/20 jumps season began back on May 5th but for most everything that has happened since then and through the summer has been shadow-boxing, writes Tony Keenan. There were good races at Galway along with graded races sprinkled across other country tracks but the best of Irish national hunt racing didn't get going until Down Royal last weekend, and will really start firing when moving on to the traditional winter tracks like Navan, Fairyhouse and Punchestown. So, what are the things to look out at those venues across the next few months?

 

Paul Townend – How does he handle the pressure?

Townend is already a two-time champion jockey, those wins coming last season and in 2010/11, though both were largely the by-product of Ruby Walsh injuries. Judging on the pace he has set in the first six months – 49 winners through the end of October – he should be winning again entirely under his own steam, that figure broadly in line with what previous champions have had at this stage of the year in the season of their victories.

Like last time, when Rachael Blackmore was his biggest danger, he faces a somewhat unusual challenger in the shape of presumptive champion conditional Darragh O’Keeffe who has set a record pace in his own grade; but, in reality, if Townend stays sound the title is his to lose.

There will be pressure to retain his title, but one suspects that won’t matter as much to the jockey as his desire to perform on the big day, a point he made clear in a September Irish Field interview with Daragh Ó’Conchuir. Townend opined that "the big thing would be the Grade 1's [and] if we can get one of them on the board early it’d be a big help".

He went on to say that even a short time without one of those big winners can put a weight on a rider’s shoulders: "You carry that. You mightn’t be riding any worse but it’ll be there in the back of your mind: ‘you need this’. I think it comes with any sport, a big result is the only way to deal with it."

Townend knows what this feels like as there have been times over the past few years when there have mini-droughts of this type; when standing in for Ruby Walsh at the 2017 Christmas Festival at Leopardstown, he won a Grade 1 on the first day with Footpad but after that the likes of Min, Nichols Canyon, Yorkhill and Faugheen were all beaten. Then there was Al Boum Photo-gate at Punchestown, a ride that remains unexplained to this day, the jockey never satisfactorily dealing with the reasons behind it in public.

There have been many times over the past decade where Townend has been the lead jockey at Closutton but on those occasions Walsh was always coming back; that is no longer the case and he can expect to be second-guessed about many things over the coming months.

Walsh himself was no stranger to that – his propensity for falling off at the last, whether variance or something else, was much discussed – but one thing he rarely got wrong was in choosing the right horse. That’s a whole other layer to the pressure the Mullins job brings and, while the trainer should be a help in that regard, he has plenty of other jockeys most of whom are related to him.

 

Gordon Elliott – What can he do to prepare for Gigginstown leaving?

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This is not quite year one AG (After Gigginstown) for Gordon Elliott, the champion owner set to phase out his racing interests over the next five years, but nor it is unreasonable to think that this might be the biggest challenge of Elliott's career. Aside from those trainers that operate privately, there can hardly be a big yard that is more dominated by a single owner than Elliott’s: of the 312 individual runners he had in 2018/19, 103 (or 34%) were owned by Michael O’Leary.

Those 103 horses were concentrated towards the top, his top six horses in terms of Irish prize money earned all being Gigginstown-owned; while 12 of his top twenty fitted the same criteria. Comparing what is happening to him and the Gigginstown move away from Willie Mullins in autumn 2016 is apples and oranges, with Elliott losing the horses gradually, but it is interesting nonetheless.

In the previous season, 2015/16, Mullins ran 191 individual horses with 42 (or 22%) owned by Gigginstown; none of his top five prize-money horses ran in the maroon and white while only five of his top twenty did so. Mullins was able to rebound quickly in terms of overall stable size, running 184 individual horses in 2016/17 and 212 in 2017/18.

Where Mullins had to deal with their departure overnight, Elliott gets time and, though that may seem an easier proposition, it brings its own challenges as he has to balance doing the best for the Gigginstown horses still in training (and perhaps hoping against hope that further success will change O’Leary’s mind) while at the same time building for the future.

There are pressures to do with his staffing too with many members likely hired just to cope with the huge Gigginstown numbers. They will understandably be worrying about their futures. Perhaps it will be a case that other owners – who may be easier to satisfy – will be willing to come on board now that Gigginstown are leaving, Elliott doing well to attract the likes of Cheveley Park into the yard.

In any case, it’s been a long time since Gigginstown weren’t a massive part of the Cullentra House operation, and how Elliott begins to deal with their phased departure is something to keep an eye on.

 

The Two-Mile Chase Division: Who will rise to the top?

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the two-mile chase division has been stale over the past few seasons – looking at a great horse like Altior going on a 19-race unbeaten run is hardly a bad thing – but it has certainly been static. There was the odd flash of fragility with him last term, at Ascot when jumping markedly left and when rather falling in during the Champion Chase, but it seems as if he is destined to go up in trip in any case now.

The usual suspects will be hoping to fill the void but the likes of Min (Cheltenham form figures: 225), Politologue (Cheltenham figures: U0442) and Sceau Royal (Cheltenham figures: 1016213) would all be sub-standard winners of a Champion Chase and it seems much more likely that the top two-miler of 2019/20 emerges from last season’s novice crop.

The Arkle winner would seem the most sensible place to start but there is the distinct possibility that Duc De Genievres was the third best two-mile novice chaser in his yard last season and while he was brilliant on the day at Cheltenham, clearing 13 lengths ahead of the second and officially rated 163 afterwards, he had won just once in eight previous starts for Mullins in a race without the likes of Le Richebourg and Dynamite Dollars.

Both Cilaos Emery and Chacun Pour Soi seemed thought of as his clear superiors last term but they have had their issues too, neither able to stay sound for long enough to put a full season together lately. Keeping them both right will be a challenge but the chances are that one will stay intact and hopefully it will be Chacun Pour Soi who is amazingly already rated 167 over fences despite only having had two chase starts; it seems almost obscene but that mark is merited.

 

The Ground: What will we get this winter?

The past few campaigns have seen the going flip from season-to-season; in 2017/18 it was all soft ground whereas last season it was all fast and now we are back to a period of slow ground again. Good ground defined last season in many ways, and it is notable in all the recent stable tours how many trainers have commented on it between horses that never got their ground, horses that didn’t run at all on it, or horses that got injured.

The facts of last season are worth repeating. In the 2018/19 Irish national hunt season, 87 (or 84%) of graded non-handicaps were run on going described as yielding or faster, a massive chunk of the pattern. Dublin Racing Festival was spoiled by it, the form of that meeting not working out anything like as well as it had previously; Fairyhouse just about coped with it, while Punchestown got lucky with some rain and was likely the pick of the big three Irish spring meetings, at least in terms of valuable form for this season.

Plenty of horses will have been convenienced or inconvenienced by this. Readers will have their own views on who those horses may be but for me the likes of Sharjah, Ornua and even Kemboy got their ground for most of the season while the likes of Moyhenna, Ministerforsport and Discorama are three that didn’t.

Moyhenna is a particularly interesting case. After a promising start to her chasing career on soft ground, she became disappointing in three runs on faster but her trainer managed to find her some heavy ground at Limerick in March where she bolted up by 25 lengths. By that point she was in such good form she was able to defy better ground in a valuable handicap chase for mares back at Punchestown and is one to keep on side should we get a bad winter, her form figures on ground Timeform describe as soft or worse reading 334112421.

Those are horses that ran away during last winter despite not having their ground, but some trainers were more circumspect and just didn’t run their horses at all. Willie Mullins for one took that approach with his bumper horses, running just 17 bumper debutants from the start of December to the end of the season which resulted in him having just one runner in the Champion Bumper.

Across the same time period in the previous season, Mullins had run 30 such first-time starters and had five runners in the Champion Bumper. He was still able to win the Punchestown equivalent of that race with the experienced Colreevy, but one suspects that he has a backlog of bumper horses, a year more mature now, ready to go this winter.

- TK

Monday Musings: Mulling Brother Mullins

I didn’t realise it at the time, watching the finish of the race, but I wish Party Playboy had won Saturday’s Emirates Cesarewitch (sounds funny, EMIRATES Cesarewitch doesn’t it!), writes Tony Stafford. As Stratum came up to the line narrowly in front, the name Mullins reverberated. It was only hours afterwards that I noticed that Willie’s 25-1 shot  – by far the longest-priced of his three runners - had denied brother Tony’s 50-1 outsider by half a length.

Oblivious to the runner-up’s identity, I neglected to pay a visit to the winner’s enclosure, and attempting to put that right, spent much of yesterday trying in vain to reach him at the stable. I’d mislaid his (and many other long-held mobile numbers) when leaving my previous phone on the roof of Jonathan Powell’s car as he drove off from the Ascot car park last year.

We have history. In my “why don’t you send one to…” days, I suggested to Tony in the summer of 1992 he find a suitable horse for Wilf Storey reckoning no one would suspect the impending gamble. He did, producing a mare, Carla Adams, that he hadn’t run since acquiring her after she had been bought out of Ginger McCain’s stable for a couple of grand. In four runs for Red Rum’s trainer she showed nothing, twice having the benefit of the services of one Donald McCain junior, at the time a 7lb claimer and long before his illustrious training career.

So Carla was readied for a selling hurdle. The money was on and she started favourite, but after leading under Kevin Doolan, she fell away and was unplaced. Wilf and as far as my dimming memory can recall, Tony also, couldn’t believe it, so she turned out again three days later with a slightly better result, third of eight in a Hexham handicap under Kenny Johnson.

You’d think she’d be tightening up after those two quick runs but for some reason unknown to the trainer(s) the weight just wouldn’t come off. A return to Hexham two weeks later brought an even more disappointing outcome and Kevin Doolan suggested she might be in foal – horror of horrors. The vet was called. He duly inserted his hand where it is needed to investigate and declared: “She’s about six months!”

Hence the 485 days’ absence from action during which time she produced a bonny chestnut colt which was to bounce around Grange Farm, Muggleswick, for three years before finding a buyer as a riding horse. “He never got above 14.3hh” recalls Wilf.

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He added: “Some time after the vet’s visit we found out she’d been covered by a black and white <coloured> horse while in the ownership of the buyer. I caught up with him at Doncaster sales and asked him for some “luck”. He said: ‘Her foal’s by one of the best coloured horses in Ireland. You don’t need any more luck than that!’”

That episode was to lead 15 years later to my getting the job with Raymond Tooth. I was in his company on the day Punjabi finished fourth in the 2007 Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham and was hurrying from Victor Chandler’s marquee where we were based that day for the toilet in my “soon to be diagnosed as diabetic” stage. En route I saw Tony engrossed on a phone call. Waving, I was about to pass him when he stopped the call and said “hold on”. I waited, crossing my legs to stave off the potential embarrassment, which happily didn’t happen.

Tony quickly ended his call and said: “You mustn’t miss mine in the last.” ‘Mine’ was the nine-year-old Pedrobob, a prolific winner already with six victories including a five-length defeat of Beef or Salmon on his card. Lightly-raced, somehow he got into the County Hurdle on bottom-weight, and under Paul Carberry duly strolled home at 12-1.

Mr T and his entourage had already left the track and were waiting in a lay-by in the chauffeur-driven Bentley listening to the race having received the intelligence just before their departure. The following Monday morning I received a call from Raymond asking me to come to his office whereupon he offered me the racing manager (in his words ‘advisor’) post and, otherwise unengaged, I accepted. We’re still just about clinging together on greatly reduced numbers and I’ll be at Windsor today, if it survives the inspection, hoping his home-bred Nathaniel filly Say Nothing can finally say something!

The Cesarewitch was a race in which traditionally the Irish struggled to make any impact. In the modern era – I’ve been looking at 1974 (and Ocean King, 25-1 winning tip!) onwards – it was not until Dermot Weld brought the brilliant Vintage Crop to win as the 5-1 favourite in 1992 that there was an Irish-trained winner. Tony Martin followed in 2007 with Leg Spinner, and Low Sun won for Willie Mullins last year.

All three trainers were represented on Saturday, bolstered by Tony and nephew Emmet Mullins, David Henry Kelly and Aidan O’Brien. Apart from O’Brien’s Cypress Creek, a died-in-the-wool Flat performer with a pedigree to match, the others all had National Hunt connections and all eight Irish runners came home in the first 14 of a 30-runner line-up.

English jumps trainers like Nicky Henderson and Alan King have often provided fancied and in some cases successful runners but Saturday’s result will surely encourage more Irish jumping trainers to target the race, especially now with its massive £350,000 prize pool. Mark Johnston and Hughie Morrison were third and fourth respectively with Summer Moon (50-1) and Not So Sleepy (33-1). The first three produced a £44,000 Tricast dividend to a £1 stake. A first-four style Superfecta bet would have had cumulative odds of around one million to one.

Party Playboy is a strange horse. Rarely can a maiden have got into the Cesarewitch, so strong usually is the demand for places, but oddly this year there was not even a full field. An 82 rating after 14 career Flat races, the first seven in France and Germany producing six placings, was enough to give Party Playboy his place in the line-up. For a while a furlong out he looked the likely winner. The fact that in 23 career starts his only victory came in a hurdle race might suggest he does not have too much in the determination stakes, but a 113 mark there should enable Tony to exploit him over hurdles this winter. Tony though, I read, has a $2 million race in Saudi Arabia in February on his radar. He better not tell his brother about it!

The six other Irish runners on Saturday, with the exception of dual bumper horse Sneaky Getaway who finished sixth and looks sure to be a top novice for Emmet Mullins this winter, have jumps ratings. Most of them come into the usual 40-50 differential Flat to jumps bracket save Buildmeupbuttercup, just 34lb higher, so Willie Mullins may make hay with her.

There was a domestic example of a potentially-lenient jumps mark on show on Saturday and the highly-skilled dual-purpose trainer Ian Williams certainly identified the potential for Speed Company in a nice handicap hurdle at Chepstow. Rated 89 on the Flat after a successful summer, he was only on 119 after four placed runs in novices and two handicaps over jumps and duly obliged. He’s one to watch out for in either code from now on, as is his handler.

- TS

Tony Keenan: 2018/19 Irish Jumps Season Review: Four Things

I’m belatedly getting around to wrapping up the Irish jumps season but don’t feel quite so bad for being two weeks behind everyone else with probably the most significant event of the campaign happening last week, Michael O’Leary announcing that Gigginstown would be wound up within five years. Let’s start with that.

 

  1. Gigginstown Going

As a viewer of and writer about Irish racing, Gigginstown and the O’Learys has been box office for the last decade or so, their impact on the game covered elsewhere on the site in March. The retirement of Ruby Walsh will likely be the event that 2018/19 is most remembered for – in the grand scheme of things, no one really cares about owners – but in terms of impact on the broader sport it doesn’t come close to Michael O’Leary’s decision.

The reasons for his move have already been much discussed with some, myself included, wondering if wanting to spend time with teenage children is the real motivation, that age group typically wanting to avoid their parents as much as possible, but ultimately that is all speculation and a bit like the split with Willie Mullins, we may never know the truth.

But one thing that has been evident over the last few years is a rising tide of negativity against Gigginstown domination with some of that coming from medium-sized trainers who have struggled without O’Leary patronage. Those murmurings likely had no impact on O’Leary judging on how he conducts himself in business and those trainers may now be looking forward to a brave new world of more horses in their yard, cheaper horses at the sales and the chance of winning better races. All I can say is: be careful what you wish for.

Much of racing is made up of different interest groups, many of whose interests are in straight opposition with others, but as a punter I will miss Gigginstown massively. The ‘bet the blue cap’ system became a running joke as their second and third and fourth strings won race after race but it said a lot for how their horses were campaigned. There is often a sense when betting that someone will know more than you but with their horses it never felt like it was so much more that you didn’t have a chance with a formbook.

Gordon Elliott looks the big loser in all this and he will find it disheartening that around this time last year O’Leary promised to spend even more to help make him Champion Trainer. Mullins versus Elliott has not been perfect but it is eminently preferable to the Mullins versus himself period we had in the early part of the decade. Elliott forced Mullins to run his good horses more if he wanted to retain his position as Champion Trainer and the concern would be that he reverts to cautious type if the competition wanes.

As to the bloodstock side of things, I refer back to a line from Henry Beeby, Group Chief Executive at Goffs, in my previous piece on Gigginstown when he said there was a time when people worried about what would happen if ‘Robert Sangster never bought another yearling’ and ‘we should never underestimate the resilience of the industry.’ I hope he’s right.

 

  1. The Rachael and Henry Show

Rachael Blackmore was always going to be the story emerging from Knockeen this season, the narrative of unheralded female jockey amidst pioneering campaign much preferable to good trainer having career season; so let’s start with the runner-up in the jockeys’ championship without underplaying the role of Henry de Bromhead.

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The rise of Blackmore could be seen coming early in the season after a fine period in the summer and it was one of the most joyful things about 2018/19; she seemed to relish each big race success, never taking it for granted, her status as one not to the racing manor born endearing her to fans of the sport. With her success there was no drop off in work ethic, indeed she may have worked harder than ever, taking 615 mounts in Ireland over the course of the season. Sean Flanagan was next best with 511, and no other Irish-based jockey had more than 486 rides.

Perhaps this is peak-Rachael, and if it is what a peak it was, but I would be far from sure of that and it is notable that her biggest wins of the season (three Grade 1s, one of them at Cheltenham, along with another winner there) came on novices which was the strength of the de Bromhead yard this past season.

The narrative around de Bromhead for years has been that his horses jump well and while that is a compliment, he will likely be pleased that this season they became good winners as well as good jumpers. His 98 winners and €1.962 million in prizemoney was a clear lifetime best – 68 winners and €1.589 million prizemoney his previous top in 2016/17 – and the most notable aspect of his total was how much of it came from novices.

He won 73 races in the UK and Ireland with novices this past season from 105 total winners, behind only Mullins, Elliott, Dan Skelton and Nicky Henderson in novice winners; and those novices like Minella Indo, Honeysuckle and A Plus Tard went on to compete in (and win) the best races. The departure of Gigginstown will be a blow but he is not completely reliant on them with only three of his top ten prizemoney earners in Ireland running in maroon and white.

They were Sub Lieutenant, Judgement Day and Nick Lost, hardly the most progressive trio for all they were placed to pick up plenty of cheques in 2018/19, and his better horses and prospects run for other owners, some of them new to the yard like Cheveley Park and Kenneth Alexander. Having early success for those two won’t do the trainer any harm.

 

  1. Good isn’t much good

A dry winter meant fast ground for much of the national hunt season proper with all its attendant moaning and withdrawals. It also meant a lot of recycled form, the same horses running against each other under similar conditions from week to week, and if I ever see another two mile handicap chase with Kildorrery, Impact Factor and Duca De Thaix running against each other it will be too soon.

On a serious note, a season where 84% of the pattern was run on goodish ground is not ideal; of the 104 graded non-handicaps in 2018/19, 87 were run on yielding or faster. It was a rare opportunity for good ground horses that had little chance to show their best the previous wet winter but ultimately jumps racing is not designed to be run on a fast surface; the horses are too big, the impact of jumping, particularly over fences, is too much.

There was pressure on courses to water ahead of major meetings with some getting it right, Fairyhouse at Easter and the Punchestown Festival generally coming in for praise, and others not so much, Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival plagued by withdrawals. The track were in an invidious position with frost in the run-up to the meeting and forecast rain not falling but one notable factor was how form from that meeting worked out.

Certainly it wasn’t the bonanza of 2018 when eight Festival winners emerged from the meeting with only two successful this time around. Klassical Dream and Envoi Allen were the pair, and they are about the two most exciting younger jumpers in Ireland right now. Apple’s Jade was one that wasn’t the same afterwards though there may have been seasonal reason for that and the meeting did no harm to the likes of Supasundae and Min judged on their Aintree exploits.

One does worry if a warmer climate in these islands might be as big a threat as there is to national hunt racing. Punchestown is one track that is quite forward-thinking in this regard, an announcement made in The Irish Field before their big meeting that they were expanding their reservoir with a view to future-proofing their water source ‘to provide almost ten times the current water storage capacity’ while also investing in ‘a long-term irrigation system’. If this season is anything to go by it will be needed.

 

  1. The Spread of Graded Success

When previewing the jumps season, I had noted the growing domination of Mullins and Elliott in graded races (hardly revelatory, I know) but one interesting feature of this past season was a greater spread of Graded success as seen in the following table which suggests a reversal of a pattern that seemed to be going only one way:

Perhaps the ground played its part – Mullins for one seemed reluctant to risk many of his horses on a decent surface and also went through a quiet spell around the New Year – and it will be fascinating to see how the dwindling influence of Gigginstown will impact this.

But whatever the reason it was a positive to see the likes of Peter Fahey, with Gypsy Island and Timeforwest, Colin Kidd with Rashaan, Pat Doyle with Kaiser Black, and Dermot McLaughlin with Santa Rosa land graded successes. The most significant ‘smaller trainer’ graded win however was likely Espoir D’Allen for Gavin Cromwell, allowing that the horse had won such races the previous season, as he used it as a springboard to Champion Hurdle success.

Another interesting feature of the pattern race season was the return of UK horses winning some of our best prizes, nine raiders winning (from 24 runners) which was a high as far as I could research back; since 2012/13, those totals have been six, five, one, seven, three and one. They weren’t all in the big races or at the big festivals, the likes of Bedrock (twice) and Saint Calvados among those that won more run-of-the-mill races that typically wouldn’t attract overseas runners.

There were old boys coming back for more – Simply Ned at Christmas and Unowhatimeanharry at Punchestown – but La Bague Au Roi was anything but at the Dublin Racing Festival and it will be interesting if these successes see more raiders coming across this coming winter.

- Tony Keenan

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?

Monday Musings: A Dublin Flyer!

There was only one place to begin this week’s offering, writes Tony Stafford. Leopardstown provided two days of intoxicating, top-class sport, making a brilliant success of the much-heralded Dublin Racing Festival. Excellent performances were interspersed with some of the most head-scratching results ever in my experience, although in fairness Messrs Mullins (W), Elliott (G) and O’Brien (JP) are well accustomed to such equine alchemy.

At The Races, under the threat of imminent loss of the Irish racing portfolio to Racing UK, packaged its heavy hitters Matt Chapman and Mick Fitzgerald to join home team performers Gary O’Brien and Kevin Blake, bolstered by Ted Walsh yesterday when both UK fixtures were on the other channel.

With Samcro showing almost Golden Cygnet-like potential in the two-mile novice hurdle; Mr Adjudicator running a decent Triumph Hurdle trial in the juvenile race; Footpad looking Arkle material and Total Recall switching back to hurdles off a toadying 125 after his Ladbrokes Gold Cup (ex-Hennessy) victory at Newbury off 147, punters had a chance of some pretty easy profits.

Any two-day fixture which offers seven Mullins winners against only one for Elliott - that one was  Samcro - will have gone a long way to altering the perception that there has been a definitive change in the Irish jumps power-base.

But two results will have had both Goliaths looking over their shoulders in understandable anxiety as the boy Joseph was at it again. I was at Lingfield on Saturday, reasonably enough expecting victory for Joe’s Adam Kirby-ridden Paparazzi in the opener. In my opinion, he got a shocking ride, never in contention and only third under sufferance in a weak affair.

Minutes later, there was Tower Bridge in the McManus colours coming from last to first to win the stayers’ novice hurdle in the Festival weekend’s opening race at 25-1 with a storming late run. Tower Bridge won the last two of three bumpers last summer; ran a stinker first time over jumps at Down Royal before putting up an improved display with a fourth over Saturday’s track over Christmas. You could suggest maybe a two stone improvement this time.

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Yesterday’s offering by O’Brien junior was even more extraordinary. Watching the preliminaries, my eye kept getting attracted to the name of Edwulf in the Unibet Irish Gold Cup Chase in which Our Duke, Djakadam and Outlander made up the most likely group. He was as large as 66-1 at one stage, hardly surprising after having run only once this term, when pulling up also as a 66-1 shot in the three-mile Grade 1 Leopardstown Christmas Chase.

Edwulf has a more than interesting history. After a couple of Irish points – he fell in the first of them - he turned up in the Ben Pauling stable and was despatched to the 2015 Punchestown Festival where he was a 39-length seventh, ridden by Derek O’Connor.

Switched the following season to Aidan O’Brien, he was in the process of running away with a novice chase first time out when as a 33-1 shot he fell with the race at his mercy. The McManus talent scouts were soon on the case, and it was in the green and gold that he made a winning hurdling start soon after, comfortably beating 24 maidens at Naas. A fall late on in a Grade 2 novice ended that campaign.

It also curtailed his time at Ballydoyle, as Edwulf was among the initial Joseph intake in the summer of 2016. He began with a third to Min, a convincing Saturday winner, before unseating in a race won by Our Duke. It was pretty much feast or famine after that with a second, a win, another fall and a second chasing victory before, reunited with Mr O’Connor, he came to the closing stages of the four-mile National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham looking the probable winner.

Sadly, he went wrong after a terrible mistake two out, and O’Connor was forced to pull him up just onto the run-in. The top amateur kept the ride at Christmas and again yesterday, when after shortening to 33-1, he happily cantered round at the back and on the wide outside of his field while the majority of Ireland’s best staying chasers dropped away one by one.

Turning for home he was still apparently going easily, and once Our Duke and Djakadam dropped away and, notably, Killultagh Vic toppled at the last when looking the winner, there was only Elliott’s Outlander to account for, a task he and O’Connor managed with authority. This was yet another six figure prize for the modern-day miracle man.

A generation and a bit earlier Joseph’s dad was sharing Jim Bolger’s unique knowledge with, among others, Willie Mullins and A P McCoy. Willie achieved a couple of bits of sleight of hand of his own - with Total Recall, of course, unbeaten after three runs since leaving Sandra Hughes when she retired - but even more astonishingly with Patricks Park in Saturday’s 40-grand to the winner two-mile handicap chase.

As recently as last October, Patricks Park had the first of only two runs for Matt Sheppard, having been trained previously in Ireland by David Harry Kelly for whom he won a maiden hurdle. Readers of this column and more particularly adherents to the web site which hosts it will be aware of The Geegeez Geegee. It was that estimable horse – sadly now in other ownership - that gave Patricks Park a 33-length hammering at level weights on that Sheppard debut in a handicap chase.  Less than three weeks later, backed from 50’s to 33-1 Patricks Park romped home by 12 lengths over two miles, five furlongs on the soft at Ffos Las, off his mark of 113.

Between late October and New year’s Day he was repatriated to Ireland and, now with Mullins, started 11-8 favourite for an 80-109 handicap hurdle over two miles seven furlongs at Tramore off what appeared a gift mark of 104, but finished unplaced, 33 lengths behind the winner.

On Saturday, in a 20-runner 0-150 handicap chase over two miles and a furlong, he readily came home in front under Rachael Blackmore! How does he do that?

True, there was the disappointment of Faugheen’s inability to stave off the sustained challenge of Supasundae, and Yorkhill ran lamentably behind stablemate Min, but otherwise it was very much Mullins’ and Joseph’s meeting.

As to the imminent switch of allegiance of Irish racing from At The Races to Racing UK, I’m with such as Eddie O’Leary of Gigginstown and JP McManus in wondering what could possibly be the benefit to viewers. Surely, when the major UK Flat racing gets going, some Irish coverage must at best be truncated, and smaller summer fixtures could be lost in the way that even At The Races sometimes has to drop Down Royal. In its present location, everyone can see the good stuff without interruption. It’s decision day tomorrow. Let’s hope common sense prevails and they restore the status quo.

In The Numbers: Mullins versus Elliott (Part Two)

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

- Tony Keenan

New Year Musings: Little to cheer for Mullins’ Major Owners

I wonder how many media interviews or television guest appearances Rich Ricci will be making this New Year, writes Tony Stafford. The snappy suits and engaging banter have been a constant accompaniment to his period as husband of jump racing’s most prominent owner – his wife Susannah – but the tide (as it usually does in racing) has turned against the pair in recent weeks.

The Riccis will have been full of optimism, along with all the owners in Willie Mullins’ super-powerful Closutton stable, before the four days of Leopardstown’s and Limerick’s Christmas fixtures, but the frequent setbacks will have tested Rich’s famed equanimity.

To have 15 runners for only two wins – apart from Min’s disqualification for muscling out Simply Ned in the Grade 1 Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase – was bad enough. But when the losers included Faugheen, for only the second time; Djakadam and odds-on novice Epicuris, a former Group 1 Flat winner in France, it must have been literally too bad to believe.

Faugheen’s so-far unexplained dismal performance in the Ryanair Hurdle at odds of 1-6 topped the lot. Off in front under Paul Townend, Faugheen could never dominate and even before stablemate Cilaos Emery had moved inside him at the third and headed him before the fourth, the usual sparkle was missing.

The fact that he pulled up before two out was an irrelevance, his jockey obviously unable to comprehend such a total capitulation – his chance had gone long before that. After a fine comeback run a month earlier in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown, 22 months after his previous dominant victory at Leopardstown in January 2016, the rising 10-year-old Faugheen was possibly more at risk of a disappointing effort second time back, but like this? Hardly!

Until Friday, the only blemish on Faugheen’s card had been his defeat in the 2015 Morgiana Hurdle, on his return the season after his Champion Hurdle triumph when he beat stablemate Arctic Fire. His unlikely conqueror that day was another Mullins top-notcher, Nicholls Canyon, and there was an eerie portent of things to come when that gallant stayer fell and was killed in Thursday’s three-miler won by former Mullins inmate Apple’s Jade.

Like the Riccis, Nicholls Canyon’s owners Andrea and Graham Wylie have been at the top of the jumps-owning tree ever since their brilliant stayer Inglis Drever won three World Hurdles at Cheltenham. Successful in the initial running of the race in 2005, he missed the following year through injury, but returned to collect twice more in 2007 and 2008.

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At that time Wylie, who made his fortune with his Sage computing business in the North-East, often had around 100 horses in training in Co Durham with Howard Johnson, but the trainer’s four-year ban in August 2011 for illegally running a horse after de-nerving it led to Johnson’s announcing his retirement.

Graham Wylie had already altered his approach from having a host of unproven stores and some expensive sales acquisitions joining Johnson’s yard to a more selective policy based on trainers Paul Nicholls and Mullins.

The Wylie fortunes this season have been even bleaker than the Riccis’. Eight of their horses have run a combined 20 times for just a single win for Invitation Only at Navan on December 9. Apart from the numbing loss of Nicholls Canyon, four other Wylie horses appeared over Christmas and the biggest disappointment from the rest was Yorkhill’s fading into a 59-length defeat behind Road to Respect in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase. Such is the Mullins mystique that observers were suggesting Yorkhill could step up to challenge Buveur d’Air as Faugheen’s Champion Hurdle replacement. It seems unlikely in the extreme to me that he could match the brilliant Christmas Hurdle winner.

Wylie’s only connection to Nicholls this winter has been as share-holder with three other prominent stable owners in the useful chaser Copain De Classe, third on his only run this autumn behind the smart Benatar at Ascot.

Over the four days of Christmas Mullins sent out ten winners from 49 Leopardstown and Limerick contestants. Almost half (24) started favourite and eight of them won. Eight of his odd-on shots were beaten, and as Nicky Henderson found in the years when his best horses were not good enough to win the championship races, from now until Cheltenham will be especially testing.

While even Mullins must be questioning elements of his operation, it gets better and better for Joseph O’Brien. Not content with sending out two 16-1 winners, Hardback and Alighted, for Gigginstown House Stud in consecutive Leopardstown races on Thursday, he won Limerick’s bumper the same afternoon with 11-8 shot High Sparrow  and even contrived a winning Lingfield raid with Art Nouvelle (9-2), guided to a length victory in the 6f handicap by Adam Kirby. That’s a 3,774-1 four-timer, and all within a couple of hours!

If anything, O’Brien junior is even more adventurous than his father and the rapidity with which he is progressing (Melbourne Cup and all) will be worrying for many. It should be no surprise that he is equally good with the jumpers. Both mum and dad were champion Irish jumps trainers before their mid-20’s.

The prize for the most opportunistic win of the Christmas period, though, goes to the underrated Roger Teal, who sent the juvenile Tip Two Win to collect a £46k prize in Doha, Qatar, on Friday.  There had already been plenty of interest in the Dark Angel colt after his Listed win at Doncaster in September and there was no disgrace in his Newmarket second behind the highly-impressive Mark Johnston-trained Frankel colt Elarqam who beat him a couple of lengths at Group 3 level later that month.

Despite those good runs, Tip Two Win did not make the cut for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile race in California, so Teal shrewdly picked out Doha as an end-of-year benefit for owner-breeder Ann Cowley. She bought Tip Two Win’s dam, Freddie’s Girl, for £9,000 at Goff’s Kempton sale and won three races with her when trained by Stef Higgins.

Tip Two Win is her first foal and he has now won three and been placed in the other three of his six races. Roger Teal was quick to report that he’s not for sale. All they have to do now is win a Group 1 and they’ll be home free.

Another set of well-known colours, those now billed as Ann and Alan Potts Limited after the deaths of both Gold Cup-winning owners, have been subject to a number of reverses, not least Gold Cup hero Sizing John’s capitulation in the same Grade 1 that featured the Djakadam and Yorkhill disappointments.

But for me, the run which most clearly summed up racing’s cock-eyed valuation especially of jumps horses came in the two and a half mile bumper at Leopardstown on Thursday. Here the Potts team sent out well-fancied Madison To Monroe but after making the running for the first mile and a half under trainer Jessica Harrington’s daughter, Kate, he soon dropped to the rear and came home 100 lengths behind the winner.

Said victor was Carefully Selected, powerfully ridden by Patrick Mullins in the portion of the Mullins operation, unexposed bumper horses, still bucking the trend. Madison To Monroe had won his only point-to-point back in February. Five got round in that eight-runner affair, after which the Potts team forked out €300,000. It would seem on this evidence that there’s little chance of recouping much of that.

Monday Musings: Title Settlement

 

Bank Holiday Mondays allow me a little flexibility in terms of deadline, writes Tony Stafford. I know this because the Editor takes longer than usual to acknowledge receipt of these jottings. Saying that, he will probably have been awake early as the sun peeped across the horizon well before 6 a.m. the time today when I finally realised what the topic would be.

By a circuitous route, having started out with the Henderson-Nicholls and Mullins-Elliott season-long scraps finally decided and the likeliest subject, I landed on June 11 2006 at the picturesque Perth racecourse.

That day an unknown young Irish trainer travelled over his recent acquisition, a horse called Arresting, to Scotland and, ridden by Richard Johnson, Arresting was an emphatic winner, backed in to 7-2 favourite. He had won at the track on his previous appearance, on his sole run for Gavin Cromwell, but joined Gordon Elliott, according to official records, six days before the June 11 landmark.

Elliott, a graduate of the Martin Pipe stable, had yet to win a race in his home land, but Arresting gave him two more victories in the UK that summer, stopping off in between without success at the Galway Festival.

Thirteen horses took part in that first race and the lists of trainers and riders illustrate how quickly the pendulum swings in racing, like life really. Stuart Coltherd, Jim Goldie, Geoff Harker, Diane Sayer and Grand National winner Lucinda Russell remain active, while the remainder, including recently retired Keith Reveley have either handed in their licences or, in the case of doubly-represented Peter Monteith, died.

Of the 13 jockeys, only the relentless Johnson; James Reveley, then a 7lb claimer, now France’s jumps champion; and Paddy Aspell, still ride over jumps, although he has gradually switched more to the Flat. Graham Lee finished runner-up here two years after his Grand National triumph on Amberleigh House, who died last week aged 25. Now he rides exclusively on the level.

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Michael McAlister, then a 5lb claimer, had his last rides, winning one of six in the season ending last April, while Richie McGrath, Jimmy McCarthy, Phil Kinsella, David da Silva and Peter Buchanan have all retired after varying degrees of success.

Tony Dobbin, 45 years old today and another Grand National hero, almost a decade earlier on Lord Gyllene, the only Monday winner, is now assistant trainer to his wife Rose, while Kenny Johnson has taken over his father Bob’s small yard in Northumberland.

There is another name from the race which has forced itself into the racing consciousness, particularly over the latest season. Neil Mulholland, unplaced in that Perth race, won 54 races over a ten-year span in the UK, again with a Martin Pipe connection, before starting out as a West Country trainer in the 2008-9 season.

He was an immediate success with 16 victories in his initial campaign, before collecting between that figure and 21 in the next four years. More recently, Mulholland has found acceleration and expansion, almost Gordon Elliott-like, with 31, 51 and 60 wins before the latest awesome tally of 108 wins from 129 horses. His list of owners makes impressive reading, dozens and dozens of names, with Bob Brookhouse, one who is always ready to pay plenty at the sales, a notable major operator for the yard. Big-race wins, usually in staying chases have come via The Druids Nephew, The Young Master and Pilgrims Way, while he’s also proved a dab hand at winning Flat-race handicaps with some of his lesser jumpers.

Gordon Elliott’s narrow failure to dethrone Mullins after their final day denouement at Punchestown cannot alter the fact that he has become the big name going forward. He did something nobody – to my limited knowledge anyway – has matched, to win a Grand National before winning a Rules race in his native country. Silver Birch, a Paul Nicholls cast-off, won ten months after the first of the three Arresting victories and it was not until later that year that the Irish explosion began.

After two blank seasons, Elliott had six wins in his third, then 14, 26, 62, 40, 54, 56, 92, 123 and a mammoth 193 from an astonishing 285 horses, 101 more than Mullins up to Saturday. As the still-champion Willie lost 60 of the Gigginstown horses – not all of which ended with his protagonist – it was indeed a doughty effort to stay ahead but a team of 184 active horses is hardly negligible.

The next three home in Ireland were Henry de Bromhead, Jessica Harrington and Noel Meade, all with big teams, Harrington benefiting from the Ann and Alan Potts defection from de Bromhead with the other pair similarly indebted to the Mullins split with Gigginstown.

Of the trio, only Mrs Harrington is seriously involved in the Flat with 47 three-year-olds and juveniles listed in the latest Horses in Training book. She was at it again last week, winning five races at Punchestown while yesterday, she had a winner each at Limerick and Gowran on the Flat, beating horses trained by Aidan and Joseph O’Brien respectively.

Gordon Elliott sent out a remarkable 1,234 domestic runners last season, even more than Richard Johnson rode in his second-busiest season; 188 wins from 1,026 compared with easily his best, 235 from 1,044 the previous winter when he collected his first title after 20 years’ wait for A P McCoy to retire. Since 1996-7 Johnson has posted a century of winners every season, with between 102 and 186 until the last two. The McCoy retirement has brought an average of 200 extra rides, a good few of them horses McCoy would have partnered.

Johnson shows no sign of slowing down, bar injury or illness, so there is little chance he will fail to complete the hat-trick as he intends to mirror McCoy’s annual tactic of a fast start during late spring and summer.

Nicky Henderson’s stable stars contributed greatly to his fourth trainers’ title, but it also helped that he had more individual horses (173) to run than anyone other than Dan Skelton (202). Henderson and Nicholls had an almost identical win average, around 25%, a figure which only Harry Fry, among the leaders, with 23%, could get anywhere near. Fry’s Punchestown double last week confirmed his status as a future potential champion trainer.

Team Tooth had a first Flat runner (two getting-handicapped Winter AW runs apart) at Yarmouth, and Stanhope as usual suffered an element of bad luck as he finished a close fourth.

It seems he’s a horse that finds trouble, but when he doesn’t it finds him, as when at Sandown, a golf ball from the inside-the-track course flew up from a rival’s hoof and hit jockey Charlie Bennett a resounding bang on the helmet.

Here, Pat Cosgrave had just moved him into a gap to challenge, when it closed. In a desperate attempt to get home in front, Jamie Spencer launched his whip right handed, twice hitting Stanhope on the head. First you can see him flinch right, then more dramatically back and left, so it was brave of the horse to nick fourth under hands and heels after recovering. Pat says he’s stronger this year. He’ll need to be!

 

Tony Keenan: Three Hot Takes

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

 

Drugs in Racing?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rule 212

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

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

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

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

 

Gigginstown and the Irish National

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

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

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

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

- Tony Keenan

Cheltenham Festival: The Role of Luck

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cheltenham Festival: Trainer Performance Based on Market Expectation

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cheltenham Festival: Seconds and Places

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

 

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

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

 

Cheltenham Festival: In-running Trades

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

 

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

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

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

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

- Tony Keenan