Henry De Bromhead (centre) is a trainer to follow in early summer. Photo Healy Racing / Racingfotos.com

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

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