In the first in a new series, Rory Delargy - looks beyond the headline figures in search of trainers in - and out of - form.
Trainers Report November – Part 1
The first half of November is most notable for Cheltenham’s Open Meeting, which bestrides the month like a colossus. But it is dangerous to assume that relative success at that major fixture will be indicative of future trends at more everyday meetings.
On the other hand, it also represents a mini-Festival in itself, with a few of the bigger yards attempting to get their better animals there in top shape; so underperformance at Cheltenham can sound early alarms for the season as a whole.
We obviously want to look at the meeting closely, but not exclusively, as betting opportunities are equally prevalent on the bread-and-butter days, and identifying the yards which do well at a less public level is likely to be more rewarding financially.
It is not surprising that Paul Nicholls, who has the strongest team in the country, should emerge as the leading provider of winners in the first part of the month, but it’s perhaps more unusual to see that backing his runners blind produced a healthy profit in that time period, with Open Meeting wins for Vicente (16/1) and Old Guard (12/1) boosting the bottom line considerably.
Vicente was a notable market drifter, as was novice chase winner Silsol at Carlisle, and when it comes to proven performers, especially over fences, punters need not be perturbed by market weakness. The Ditcheat chasers are famously well schooled, and even the slow learners (as Silsol and Salubrious had been reported) tend to know their job better than most novices. As a result, backing runners from the yard on their first or second starts over the bigger obstacles tends to be a profitable strategy, even though the market tries to adjust for this phenomenon.
In fact, since 2008, backing all Nicholls’ runners on their first or second chase starts would have netted 175 winners from 447 runners (39.15%) and a profit at starting price of 40.39 units.
We would expect the traditional yards to have a better strike-rate over fences than hurdles based purely on implied chance, and that’s been true here with nine of Nicholls’ thirteen jumps winners coming over fences, but his win and place record with hurdlers indicates that a bare record of four wins from 21 runs over timber doesn’t reflect how well they have been performing. In short, we can see that the Champion Trainer has a healthy stable, with performance beating expectation at present. While that should continue, punters need to be a little wary in betting more exposed horses who will be better judged on their own merits, but who may be allowed to start shorter than they deserve due to the perceived “hot form” of the yard.
Unlike the ultra-reliable Paul Nicholls, the Herefordshire stable of Venetia Williams is like quicksilver, with fortunes tending to wax and wane spectacularly, and while Venetia has had a profitable month on the figures, there is plenty in there to leave us scratching our heads. Nine winners from 35 runners was an excellent haul, but the most notable aspect of those figures was that the majority of them were handicap chasers returning from absence (150 days and more), showing that La Williams is one of the finest in the land at getting proven performers fit at home.
The longer term data support this, with VW having had 28 handicap chase winners returning from a break of 150 days or more from 118 runners since 2008 (23.73%), for a level stake profit of 116.13 units.
What is worrying, though, is that every runner she has turned out quickly has failed to make the frame, and there must be a concern that many of her first-time-out scorers are going to struggle subsequently off higher marks. There is also a reliance on soft ground performers within the yard, which is hardly an issue in the immediate future, but sounds a warning for the spring.
Backing handicap chasers from the stable at the Cheltenham Festival has proved profitable, but that is largely due to whopping SPs about Carrickboy and Something Wells, and she once again made no impact with her runners there last week, with all four running poorly. The worry with the stable is that with the horses providing the returns in the past few weeks now in the lap of the handicapper, the immediate future may be bleak for followers, and it seems best to stick with those making their seasonal returns, particularly those handicappers who may have gone off the boil last season.
[From the sample above, those who finished 4th or worse when last seen were 23 from 80 (28.75%) for 119.25 units at SP since 2008 – 149% ROI]
There is no doubt that Neil Mulholland is a growing force in the industry, and given what a busy month November is, it rather jumps off the page that he has sent out more National Hunt runners in November than all bar Messrs Nicholls and Hobbs. Of the 41 runners sent out from Conkwell Grange, only three were successful, which doesn’t sound promising at first; but that he should once again bolster his Cheltenham record with the stylish win of Shantou Village underlines the fact that he’s a trainer who is extremely capable of establishing the merit of his horses, and he has a strike-rate at Prestbury Park which makes hugely impressive reading.
Unlike Venetia Williams, Mulholland doesn’t look to do all his work on the home gallops, and he produces his runners to look big and well in the paddock. Many of those he has turned out of late have given the impression that they have needed a run or two for fitness, and while that militates against backing those whose fitness cannot be relied upon, it suggests that the yard’s runners will thrive over the next few weeks as they are brought to a peak.
There has also been a flurry of winners on the Flat for the stable, so there should be no worries in terms of well-being, but merely a caveat regarding the readiness of some of the less experienced inmates. All three of the November winners had raced within the previous five weeks and, of those, Ashcott Boy has been remarkably well placed to win three handicap chases this season. This is a yard which is expected to improve its strike-rate markedly in the coming weeks, and it would be folly to field against race-fit runners on the basis of a seemingly poor few weeks.
Most of the yards featured thus far are powerful in terms of numbers and, while it is dangerous to extrapolate on limited data, I must give a big word for Harry Whittington, who has quickly made his mark with fairly limited ammunition. As a result, he is beginning to increase both the number and quality of the horses under his care. Three winners from just six runners in recent weeks is an impressive tally, and while such figures are easily skewed by sample size, it’s worth looking at the young handler’s impact in the short time he’s had a licence.
Whittington, based in Sparsholt, near Lambourn, first showed he had a certain knack when sending out 100/1 newcomer Dubai Kiss to land a bumper at Newbury in 2013, and has been operating a high percentage business in the last couple of seasons: 2014/15 ended with eight winners from just 42 runners.
He’s already surpassed that total and winning ratio this term, with a stunning score to date of ten winners from thirty runners. As I type this he has added to that tally through the win of Big Society in a handicap chase at Chepstow, a remarkable feat for any trainer given the horse has a tendency to jump as if at least three of his legs are tied together!
It won’t be long before the market adjusts to his talents, but the SP of 7/1 about his latest winner suggests that punters may have the edge for a while yet. Whittington is getting winners across all spheres of competition, and it’s particularly encouraging to note he’s maintaining an excellent record in handicap hurdles, one which even Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls struggle to match.
David Pipe & Nigel Twiston-Davies:
If there was one trainer mooted to do well at Cheltenham’s Open Meeting, it was David Pipe; but while admitting that expectations were unrealistic to some degree, and largely based on what Martin Pipe had achieved in bygone years, it was a week to forget for the Master of Nicholashayne, with a plethora of well backed runners performing below expectations.
The nightmare at Cheltenham wasn’t entirely without warning given the form the yard had been showing, and Pipe’s figures for November now read 3-42, with hurdlers in particular doing poorly (no winners from 25 runs). The question is how we approach the yard in the foreseeable future, and the conclusion must be that something, however minor, is amiss – a notion backed up by the fact that many of the recent representatives have travelled very well only to finish weakly.
Kings Palace was one such example, while La Vaticane, who was favourite for the opening race at the fixture, looked sure to win at the third last but ran out of steam completely. Fitness has always been first priority at Team Pipe, so it’s unlikely that the horses have been needing a run, and a low-grade infection/virus is a more likely reason for the pattern of performance.
On a similar note, we’re often told how Nigel Twiston-Davies loves to have his horses at their very best for Cheltenham’s big November highlight, but the figures don’t back that up, and the diffident Twiston-Davies has so far trained just two from 32 over jumps this month. This follows from a good October, and I don’t expect him to remain in the doldrums, but he does have a history of going very cold in mid-winter before a spring revival. One horse to be positive about is Listed bumper winner Ballyandy, who hails from a talented if quirky family, and impressed in terms of ability and attitude at the weekend.
With Bristol de Mai putting in a breathtaking display of jumping when winning at Warwick on Wednesday, it’s clearly not all doom and gloom in Naunton, but it may pay to tread carefully with the run-of-the-mill entries for the next few weeks, or until such times as the winners begin to flow with more regularity.
**The data used above is for the period 01/11/2015 to 17/11/2015, and is for races over hurdles and fences only**
Rory is a regular guest on William Hill Radio, and has had stints at Betfair, Timeform and Ladbrokes in various guises. More recently, he writes a hugely popular weekly piece in the Irish Field and forms one half of the excellent Racing Consultants tipping service.
Rory can be followed on twitter at @helynsar