Barry Geraghty won for trainer Joseph O'Brien and owner JP McMANUS. Photo Healy Racing / Racingfotos.com

Tony Keenan: Five Bold Predictions for the National Hunt Season

November means the start of the jumps proper so let’s kick start the winter season with some crazy calls for what might happen between now and the end of April, writes Tony Keenan. Realistically, none of these will come to pass – that’s why the article is called bold predictions – but every season there are surprises so let’s make a best guess about what some of them might be in 2017/18.

 

  1. Willie Mullins will train at least 220 Irish national hunt winners

No trainer has broken the 200-winner mark in an Irish national hunt season, with 193 the closest anyone has got: Gordon Elliott reached that figure last season and Willie Mullins did the same back in 2012/13. The last four seasons have seen Mullins consistently operating around the 180 winner bracket but nothing lights the fire under a competitor like tough competition and while he may appear blasé about records and numbers, his actions over the summer suggest otherwise.

Plenty went wrong for Mullins last season, notably the loss of 60 Gigginstown horses and injuries to some of his better animals, with the former far more important in terms of impact on his raw numbers in 2016/17. With all that in mind, his total of 180 winners was impressive and I expect him to comfortably outstrip it now and hit the 200 figure with tallies in advance of it in play.

By all accounts Mullins restocked his yard quickly after the Gigginstown departures but those new horses were all younger types; now they are a year older and in a better position to win valuable races. But more important than that is the notably fast, possibly record-breaking, pace with which he has started this campaign. Below are his total winner numbers for each of the past five seasons and his figures through the end of October in those seasons:

 

Season Total through end of October Total Winners
2017/18 86 ???
2016/17 55 180
2015/16 60 185
2014/15 55 187
2013/14 61 186
2012/13 66 193

 

It seems that Mullins has looked at Elliott’s fast start last season, when his only realistic rival trained 82 Irish winners through the end of October, and decided he couldn’t let that happen again given it took him until Punchestown to overhaul him. That has meant a more concentrated assault on the summer jumps season to build numbers from the outset.

Smaller trainers who often had the months from May to September to themselves were hardly thrilled with that development and the era of ‘super-trainers’, where Mullins and Elliott combine to train over 400 winners in a season, may not be far away. With there being typically 1,400 jumps races in Ireland in each season, the big two would be pushing towards 29% of the total races won which would further crush the already diminished middle class of trainers. That, however, is a story for another day.

 

  1. Altior will get beaten over two miles

Altior is on an unbeaten run of eleven at this point, stretching back to his hurdling debut in October 2015, and there is every chance he extends that through this season. If he is to be beaten however it could come over the minimum distance, the trip he has more or less exclusively raced over to date, as I suspect he could be better over further or at the very least is in need of a strong pace at two miles.

Time-figures and sectional times, borrowed liberally from Simon Rowlands in the Irish Field and Timeform’s sectional database, are the basis of this argument. Consider the numbers from Altior’s six chase wins to date:

 

Race Time-figure Finishing Speed %
Novice Chase, Kempton 164 100.0%
Henry VIII 139 105.1%
Wayward Lad 153 100.8%
Game Spirit 170 105.4%
Arkle 154 107.4%
Celebration Chase 158 102.4%

 

A brief and potted explanation of time-figures and finishing speed to begin: time-figures are straightforward with the number being expressed in pounds, not dissimilar to a form rating, while finishing speed percentage is a sectional number that looks at whether a race was optimally run or not. For simplicity, let’s take 100% as the base line with figures below that being races where the pace was overly strong and above it meaning the horses finished quickly and with a bit of running to give.

Altior copped some flak for being underwhelming in the Arkle, his winning margin the joint-lowest of all his chase wins and it may have been even lower had Charbel not fallen two out, but the nature of the race – it was one of the slowest paces of his chases – precluded him running to his best. This is seen from his time-figure of 154 which was over a stone below what he had run to in his previous start.

Another race with a relatively high finishing speed %, the Henry VIII at Sandown, also produced an ordinary time-figure, and again he won by a relatively small margin though his finishing sectionals were notably quick. Incidentally, in both those races some in-running punters took the view that he was in trouble, trading at 2.0 from a Betfair Starting Price of 1.36 at Sandown, and 1.74 from 1.26 at Cheltenham.

Calling any of Altior’s performances his ‘worst’ is of course relative as he might be the best national hunt horse around at the moment; but his vulnerability could well come over two miles, allowing that such races tend not to be run at slow gallops, horses needing to be racing at a certain clip to clear the fences in the first place. That said, plenty of Champion Chasers have proved at least as effective over further and I wonder if he might be another.

 

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  1. None of last season’s Cheltenham championship race winners will repeat

Back-to-back winners of the championship races at the Festival are rarer than you might expect; Hardy Eustace was the last one in the Champion Hurdle in 2002/3 with the others being Master Minded (Champion Chase 2008/9), Alberta’s Run (Ryanair 2010/11), Big Buck’s (Stayers Hurdle 2009/10/11/12) and Best Mate (Gold Cup 2002/3/4). If nothing else that illustrates the difficulty of retaining a title – getting to the meeting itself can be struggle enough – though the ante-post markets might suggest otherwise with four of last season’s winners either favourite or as close to it as not to matter.

That said, none are short prices, Buveur D’Air the most likely according to the bookmakers at best odds 4/1 for the Champion Hurdle; as a group, their combined best odds suggest they should produce 0.63 winners at this stage. As well as having history against them, none of the group was particularly good on the clock last March and if you are getting the sense that time-figures are my latest new thing for form study then you would be correct! Historic standards suggests that relative to expectations it was the handicaps that produced the best numbers which isn’t the greatest surprise given how competitive those races can be and that’s just getting into them in the first place.

To address each of the champions individually and look at why they might be opposable is worth doing. Buveur D’Air seems to have won a substandard Champion Hurdle – neither he nor the favourite Yanworth were considered for the race early in the season which might say something – though it is possible he is simply in the shadow of Faugheen who was a true Champion Hurdler the previous season. Not even Special Tiara’s biggest fan would argue that his Champion Chase win came in anything other than a perfect storm of circumstances, chief of which was Douvan being injured.

Nichols Canyon looked gone at the game in the middle part on the season, Ruby Walsh even commenting at one point that he didn’t fancy it going to the start at Leopardstown, so his reign may be short-lived while Un De Sceaux might be the most likely to repeat given he runs in the shallowest race though the possibility that Willie Mullins reroutes him is ever-present. In Sizing John we have the horse out of the winners that has the most upside after only three starts at three miles and further but it isn’t hard to construct a case that Thistlecrack and Cue Card ran to a higher level last season and he also has to deal with a crop of very promising novices.

As to what might win the championship races at this stage, heaven knows, but my best guess – and not one that I have backed up with cash – is Limini (Champion Hurdle), Altior (Champion Chase), Yorkhill (Ryanair), Apple’s Jade (Stayers Hurdle) and Might Bite (Gold Cup).

 

  1. Fairyhouse and Punchestown form will work out much better than Aintree form

Each season, Cheltenham form tends to prove much stronger on the whole than that from the other big spring festivals at Liverpool, Fairyhouse and Punchestown. Aintree is often thought next best – it was certainly a strong affair in 2016 when Mullins was bidding for the UK championship – with Punchestown not far behind and Fairyhouse lagging well back. That may not be the case this time however when we consider the number of runners Mullins and Elliott had across the four fixtures.

 

Mullins/Elliott combined 2015/16 winners and runners 2016/17 winners and runners
Cheltenham 10/80 12/74
Aintree 6/47 0/8
Fairyhouse 4/50 8/61
Punchestown 16/87 14/120

 

With the Irish championship on the line, both trainers basically conceded Aintree for 2017 running just eight horses over the three days. Significantly, six of those were over the National fences – Cause Of Causes, Pleasant Company, Roi Des Francs and Ucello Conti in the feature, Clarcam and Alelchi Inois in the Topham – as the unique contests were the only races that could draw them in. Elliott did run Empire Of Dirt in the Bowl but he was very much the exception.

Instead, the big two concentrated on races at home, running 120 horses combined at Punchestown where they had only 87 such runners the previous year. With all the hype around that meeting and the championship, the form lines will probably prove well found this winter but that may not be the case with Fairyhouse, a meeting that is often forgotten due to its movable position in the calendar. This year might prove different however, not least with reference to the ultra-valuable Irish National won by Our Duke.

 

  1. Joseph O’Brien will finish third in the Irish Trainers’ Championship

If there is another ‘super-trainer’ lurking down the trainers’ table, then it could well be Joseph O’Brien. He is interesting on sheer stable numbers alone, his yard currently housing around 200 horses, split roughly evenly between flat and jumps. For reference, Henry de Bromhead ran 115 individual horses in 2016/17 with Noel Meade having 90 and Jessica Harrington 86.

In truth, O’Brien’s first full season as a national hunt trainer was underwhelming especially with the hype that attended it but in hindsight he may have been on a hiding to nothing. Much was made of the ex-Ballydoyle horses that joined him but many of them were just off a long season on the flat while also being confined to one division, juvenile hurdles. He didn’t really have many older horses, the types needed to compete in the most valuable races, running just five horses aged eight or older, all of whom started their careers elsewhere.

To suggest that O’Brien may finish third overall may not be a bold shout at all considering he is already in that spot with 48 winners (well ahead of the 38 he had in all of last season) and has won the most valuable hurdle race in Europe at Galway. Like his father, he has shown a willingness to run his horses plenty – always a help when looking to accumulate winners and prizemoney – and they tend to get placed well, invariably at the right level.

Finally, there is the JP McManus factor. McManus ran 400 individual horses in Ireland and the UK last season, 258 and 142 respectively, so clearly has the firepower to get behind O’Brien if he wishes. O’Brien had 26 winners from 139 runners for him in 2016/17 with Enda Bolger next best of his Irish trainers with 11 winners from 96 runners and it is certainly conceivable that more horses get directed to O’Brien. If that happens, and even if it doesn’t, I suspect O’Brien may prove the next ‘super-trainer’ or at least a clear third in the championship.

- TK

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