Carriganog Stables 4-9-18. Trainer JOSEPH O'BRIEN pictured with LATROBE ahead of The William Hill St Leger Festival at Doncaster. Photo Healy Racing / Racingfotos.com

Tony Keenan’s Flat Season 2018 Review: Good Year, Bad Year

Naas on Sunday marked the end of the flat turf season in Ireland and while the diehards will carry on at Dundalk through the winter, now is the time for wrapping up the year that was, writes Tony Keenan. So, for one more week we’ll have no talk about the return of ‘proper racing’ (though I’ve never gotten what is improper about the flat), and now look back at who I feel were some of the winner and losers of 2018.

Good Year: Joseph O’Brien

There have been a few headline moments this past year for O’Brien the Younger, notably Latrobe in the Irish Derby and Iridessa in the Fillies’ Mile, while it is probably worth mentioning Rekindling winning the Melbourne Cup too as it fell just beyond this piece in 2017. The first of those was about the pick, not least for the post-race scenes at the Curragh when Aidan O’Brien, always gracious in defeat, was positively joyous that his two sons had combined to thwart the Ballydoyle team.

One thing that stands out with Joseph thus far is a penchant for big-priced winners of major races, something that was also evident over jumps last season though I have to admit to being rather underwhelmed by how he did in the 2017/18 national hunt campaign; yes, he was third to Mullins and Elliott but it was at a distance and his winners after the autumn were infrequent. The point that he is a dual-purpose trainer needs reiterating and to make it to top three over jumps and now top two on the flat is a major achievement, even allowing that he has been given an opportunity available to no one else.

That opportunity can be overplayed a little however as his yard isn’t that packed with bluebloods when you break it down; he had 11 horses run to an official rating of 100 or more this season though a number of those like Drapers Guild, Reckless Gold, Light Pillar and Damselfly barely scraped over three figures. Rather his successful season has been backboned by handicaps, breaking Jim Bolger’s record of 40 handicap winners in a flat season back in 1990 with a total of 44. Below is a table of trainers by Irish handicap winners in 2018.

 

Trainer Winners Runners Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Actual/
Expected
J. O’Brien 44 259 17.0% 107 41.3% 1.03
J. Murtagh 23 118 19.5% 52 44.1% 1.18
J. Bolger 20 196 10.2% 61 31.1% 0.89
A. O’Brien 18 73 24.7% 30 41.1% 1.30
J. Harrington 17 125 13.6% 42 33.6% 1.05
G. Lyons 13 139 9.4% 40 28.8% 0.65
D. Hogan 12 142 8.5% 41 28.9% 0.82
M. Mulvany 12 80 15.0% 30 37.5% 1.26
J. McConnell 12 98 12.2% 24 24.5% 1.50

 

Johnny Murtagh is another to come out very well here, along with Michael Mulvany and John McConnell, but one of the most interesting facets of O’Brien’s team of handicappers is how many of them have won at least two such races. Below is a list of his multiple handicap winners from 2018 with a few added extras, notably the source of horses. Of the 12 O’Brien horses that won multiple handicaps this year, eight were handicapped elsewhere and included some well-regarded trainers like Eddie Lynam and Mick Halford. Should O’Brien or his buyers coming knocking again soon, other trainers might well ask themselves should they really be selling or at the very least should they be charging a premium!

 

Horse Handicap Wins Initial Rating Current Rating Difference Previous Yard
Rockfish 4 45 71 +26 N/A
Waitingfortheday 4 57 85 +28 J. Feane
Perfect Tapatino 3 59 82 +23 D. English
Song Of The Sky 3 50 72 +22 J. Murphy
Pedisnap 3 47 69 +22 M. Halford
Camile 2 45 59 +14 P. Rothwell
Downdraft 2 88 101 +13 N/A
Focus Of Attention 2 66 80 +14 E. Lynam
Rockabill 2 76 84 +8 N/A
Best Not Argue 2 52 81 +29 J. Murphy
Eagle Song 2 77 95 +18 N/A
Tuamhain 2 53 75 +22 K. Prendergast

 

 

Good Year: Donnacha O’Brien

Donnacha was a clear winner in the riposte of the year category: when asked about his best trait as a rider, he responded ‘being Aidan O’Brien’s son!’ Riding for the top two yards in the country in 2018 made him very hard to beat in the jockeys’ championship and his 111 winners in 2018, while not outlandish historically, puts him up there in recent times. Colin Keane had 100 winners last year while Pat Smullen had 115, 103 and 108 in the three previous seasons respectively with Joseph O’Brien’s 126 in 2013 the best tally of late.

Those numbers are one thing but Group 1's are a bigger deal and Donnacha rode six this year having had two in total coming into the season: Saxon Warrior in the 2,000 Guineas, Forever Together in the Oaks, Latrobe in the Irish Derby, Fairyland in the Cheveley Park, Ten Sovereigns in the Middle Park and Magna Grecia in the whatever it is called now at Doncaster. With someone his size, the clock is always ticking in terms of longevity but he’ll be hoping to retain his title in 2019.

 

Bad Year: Aidan O’Brien

Picking at Aidan O’Brien is probably churlish in the extreme but it is all relative; this is a trainer who could run FOUR Galileo fillies in a backend Leopardstown maiden a few weeks back. There was always likely to be some regression from the record-breaking campaign in 2017 with his Group 1 tally falling from 28 to 14. More than anything it was consistency that the yard struggled for as those 14 top-level wins came from 13 different horses. There were some excellent individual performances but none of them really carried it from race to race with only Kew Gardens winning two Group 1's. In an ideal year, O’Brien would have a handful of horses that roll through three or four of these races.

A sickness in the yard certainly didn’t help (Ger Lyons is an honourable mention behind Donnacha for quip of the year when he said "I wish my horses were as sick as Aidan’s") but that didn’t really manifest itself at home as he actually broke the record for most winners trained in an official Irish flat season with 152. The volume was there but not so much the top-level success as only Lancaster Bomber and Flag Of Honour won Irish Group 1's in 2018 and they came in two of the weaker races, the Tattersalls Gold Cup and the Irish Leger.

His record in UK might have been the most disappointing part of the season, however, at least compared with previous seasons (see below). But as always with Ballydoyle, there is loads of optimism going into the following spring; since the start of September, they won 15 Group or Listed races for juveniles and look in a good spot heading into 2019.

 

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Aidan O'Brien Runners in UK, by year

Year Winners Runners Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Actual/ Expected
2018 24 225 10.7% 70 31.1% 0.72
2017 32 165 19.4% 69 41.8% 1.07
2016 28 133 21.1% 70 52.6% 0.98
2015 17 79 21.5% 37 46.8% 0.96
2014 11 81 13.6% 24 29.6% 0.82

 

 

Bad Year: The rest of the Big Four

The end-of-season trainers’ table since 2014 has mostly been about the Big Four of O’Brien, Weld, Bolger and Lyons; well, perhaps the Gigantic One and Large Three might be a better way of putting it. This season looks different with Aidan O’Brien top then Joseph a distant second followed by Jessica Harrington, Bolger, Lyons and Weld at respectful distances with a mile back to the rest. Consider the records of the three trainers concerned over the past three seasons compared to this one:

 

Trainer 2015 Winners and Prizemoney 2016 Winners and Prizemoney 2017 Winners and Prizemoney 2018 Winners and Prizemoney
D. Weld 76/€2.29 million 87/€2.88 million 44/€1.24 million 53/€1.34 million
J. Bolger 61/€1.79 million 59/€1.71 million 60/€1.85 million 46/€1.48 million
G. Lyons 60/€1.57 million 53/€1.32 million 72/€1.68 million 57/€1.40 million

 

Of the three, Lyons might be the one where there is the least concern. A lot went into helping Colin Keane with the jockeys’ championship last year and there may have been a hangover of sorts but he did manage to get some powerful new owners into the yard which is likely to pay off long-term though Qatar Racing departed mid-season. Weld didn’t really bounce back from a poor 2017 when his horses were sick though did say early in the season his numbers were down while Bolger had his lowest winner total since the 38 he had in 2006.

One thing for sure is that neither Aidan nor Joseph O’Brien are going anywhere and if anything they are getting stronger. A look at the best horse on official ratings for Weld (Eziyra on 111), Lyons (Psychedelic Funk on 110) and Bolger (Twilight Payment on 109) tells a story. In the overall pecking order of official figures in 2018, those three horses came in at joint-32nd, joint-39th and joint-44th respectively showing how tough it is to compete with Ballydoyle in pattern races.

 

Good Year: Patrick Prendergast

With some of the major yards having down seasons to one degree or another, there was a window of opportunity for the smaller trainer and Patrick Prendergast was one to take advantage. Skitter Skatter was the obvious standout, her brilliant season culminating in a Moyglare success, but he also managed a career-best win total of 19 in the calendar year, 16 having been his previous best. Furthermore, his previous best prizemoney of €313,888 (again last year) was smashed with a figure of €625,365.

The training and placing of Skitter Skatter was quite straightforward, the filly being particularly genuine and her race programme picking itself; but the handling of Cedars Of Lebanon proved a bit more complicated. She won a Bellewstown maiden in mid-summer before the wheels came off a little afterwards, but Prendergast was able to coax her back to form, winning two more races before season end, the last a sales race worth €70,000 to the winner. Not only that but he got a sixth career win out of handicap stalwart, Canary Row.

 

Good Year: Michael Mulvany

Mulvany could reasonably be described as a journeyman trainer going into 2018, never having registered more than seven winners in a year, but this season was something different as he more than doubled his previous best with 16 in all. Quite a few of those came at the summer racing tracks like Sligo and Ballinrobe and he had his team in rude health in the middle of the season, registering a first across-the-card treble at Tipperary and Bellewstown in July along with a maiden winner at the Galway Festival. However, the high-point of his year came back in the spring when On The Go Again won the Cambridgeshire and followed it up with a Listed win in the Heritage Stakes.

None of Mulvany’s horses are anything approaching expensive buys, if they have been bought at all; the likes of On The Go Again, Silver Service, My Silver Nails and Early Call were all home-bred. Of his other winners in 2018, Premier League wasn’t sold for €3,500, Stormy Tale cost €2,000, Prove The Point came in at €2,500 while Wichita Line was bred by the owner. Only Passing Trade, who went through the ring at €34,000 and 15,000 guineas on separate occasions, broke the five-figure mark.

 

Bad Year: The Saturday of Irish Champions Weekend

Crowd numbers at day one of Irish Champions Weekend at Leopardstown were an acceptable 14,226 but those figures always look poor when compared with the masses the cram into Listowel the previous day, regardless of the quality on show so let’s give that a pass. The card didn’t lack for quality either with two of the best around, Roaring Lion and Alpha Centauri, taking part.

Rather, the issue was the ground, so fast that Ger Lyons described it as "far too quick with an awful cover of grass…without question the fastest we’ve raced on at Leopardstown this summer". He took a number of his horses out, which could have been a wise call when both Alpha Centauri and Saxon Warrior had to be retired soon after their respective runs on the surface. Perhaps it was simply an unfortunate coincidence and the course may have been in a difficult position with watering and mixed weather forecasts but it wasn’t a good outcome from one of the banner fixtures of the year.

 

Good Year: Colm O’Donoghue

It wasn’t a perfect year for O’Donoghue by any means, topped and tailed by a weird clash with the Order Of Malta staff at Dundalk and a seven-day ban for careless riding at Naas, but what unfolded in between was likely beyond his greatest hopes when he left Ballydoyle. He had his last ride for Aidan O’Brien on July 26th last year having had only seven rides for the yard all of that season, his most recent winner for ‘the lads’ coming back on Seventh Heaven in the 2016 Yorkshire Oaks.

The reasons for his departure have never been revealed but it is clear he was never going to be the main rider there, unlike with Jessica Harrington, and his timing could hardly have been better as it coincided with the rise of Alpha Centauri, a filly who on the clock at least was the pick of her generation. I’m So Fancy was another star turn for the rider, winning three times, and he managed to avoid what might have seemed an obvious backward step after Ballydoyle.

 

Bad Year: The Ordinary Irish Flat Racing Fan

There is a distinct possibility that this person doesn’t exist in any great number but let’s define him or her for a moment: they work in something other than racing but follow the sport closely, enjoy going to the track quite regularly at weekends and watching lots of it on TV. The 2019 fixture list with its increase in blank summer Sundays, especially for flat racing, didn’t cater for this person at all and while no one doubts there is a stable staff crisis with the Ballydoyle/Work Relations Commission decision lurking in the background, I’m not sure ceding prime weekend days was a good move. The decision to move the August fixtures at the Curragh to Friday evenings was equally curious, especially as the Naas road at that time of the week is a nightmare. Not only that but some of the tracks (like Kilbeggan and Down Royal that are generally well-attended) lost Friday evening fixtures as a result and will see their attendances drop in their new spots.

The other concern for Irish racing fans is change in TV coverage from January 1st 2019 and it is the uncertainty here that is worrying.  RUK has more than its share of good presenters and analysts along with innovative programming like ‘Luck on Sunday’; what it doesn’t seem to have is space to fit all the Irish racing along with its current UK portfolio. The single most important thing in racing coverage is to see the race live on TV, preferably not in a split screen, as it just isn’t the same on a laptop. Not everything about the At The Races coverage of Irish racing was perfect but they got those basics right and had the time and space to go deeper too, often interviewing smaller trainers and giving a real insight into what they were doing. Let’s hope RUK can do something similar.

- Tony Keenan

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