The Punting Confessional: Second string, but not second best!

Tony Keenan was at The Curragh

Tony Keenan was at The Curragh

In this week’s Punting Confessional from The Curragh, Tony Keenan takes a look at supposed second string selections in races and wonders whether the stable jockey makes the right choice of ride often enough!

Curragh – June 10th

The main bet of the day – Sharalam in the listed race – went south, but I managed to claw a few quid back with Ursa Major in the 3yo handicap and Vedani in the maiden and it’s the latter play that we might learn a bit from.

Vedani had been strong in market on debut at Dundalk, sent off 15/8 favourite in a race with a number of race-fit types with decent, but never really got into things, making some progress off a slow pace having been dropped out to finish seventh. The market support and the late headway suggested ability though and he looked very interesting in this weak race where a number of those engaged had temperament issues not least the favourite Zalantoun, a stablemate of Vedani that was ridden by Niall McCullagh who with Johnny Murtagh suspended had the pick of the Oxx runners.

Vedani then was a second string who had been neglected by the temporary stable jockey and his form entitled him to be much shorter than the 9/1 starting price but the idea that his yard apparently had a better chance meant that he was sent off a bigger price.

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In the end, he only held by a head against another kinky sort An Saincheann with Zalantoun back in fourth but it was enough. The opportunity to back a second string doesn’t arise all that often but when it does the chances of getting a decent priced winner is there; ask anyone who backed the 22/1 shot Punjabi in the 2009 Champion Hurdle against his 6/4 stablemate Binocular about how rewarding a second string winner can be.

Punters who neglect a second string just because the stable jockey has chosen the horse are ascribing sage-like qualities to racing professionals that time and again have been shown to be unmerited. With a jockey, you have to ask yourself: how well does he know this horse? He may never have even sat on him at home or may not be aware of the worth of its form.

As a punter who bases his analysis almost totally on form and video review, I am delighted when a jockey prefers a less talented horse to another when they appear to have had the choice as this means I will get inflated odds about my selection; they are, by definition, overpriced as the market tends to overvalue jockey opinion.

The second string angle comes into play particularly with the big yards; in Ireland, Ballydoyle especially but also John Oxx, though less so Dermot Weld***. These big yards often have a raft of similar horses, say in Aidan O’Brien’s case a group of talented middle-distance 3yos, and there are only so many races that such horses can run in that will suit their ground/trip preferences and come at suitable stages of their development. Oftentimes, such horses will have very similar ability levels and choosing between them will be little more than a flip of a coin by the jockey but this ‘choice’ is often overrated by market.

Jockeys will tend to choose good work horses ahead of ones that do little at home but as punters we need to concentrate our attention on what happens out on the track; there is no comment I love to hear more from a trainer pre- or post-race than the line ‘he does nothing a home’ as this suggests that the market, which often relies on hearsay about how runners are going at home, will underrate said horse’s chances and it may well drift.

I particularly like to back the Aidan O’Brien second or third or even fourth string when on foreign raids as I feel the odds compilers in other countries are often at a loss with what to do with runners from abroad and in the absence of real knowledge of relative abilities of the horses rely too heavily on jockey bookings; one thing I certainly never want to see is a situation where runners from the same yard are brought together for betting purposes in some sort of coupling arrangement as this would negate the possibility of backing a big-priced stable outsider.

The Ballydoyle fillies can be particularly good at supplying big priced second and third string winners as he have already seen this season with Homecoming Queen and Was returned at 25/1 and 20/1 in the 1,000 Guineas and Oaks respectively; plenty would argue that their form entitled them to be that sort of price but equally an argument could be made that their stablemate Maybe, excellent 2yo that she was though not so far clear of her contemporaries at three, was taking up more of the market that merited due to Joseph O’Brien being up.

The one thing a punter can be very sure of with an Aidan O’Brien filly is that it will ridden to win its own race rather than sacrificed for another stable runner; with fillies, the value of a big race win is nowhere near as much as the equivalent victory of a colt; the lottery of gender means that a male can get many females pregnant in a year while a female can only get pregnant once! With the Ballydoyle colts, one never knows when a decent horse is going to be sacrificed as a hare for a very good horse as that very good horse can increase its breeding value markedly with another big race win and one can easily imagine a situation in which decent Ballydoyle 3yos like Imperial Monarch or Astrology would have their winning chance compromised in order to keep the jewel in the crown Camelot unbeaten.

It is this same logic that dictates Aidan O’Brien will not run a very good filly in a race against colts where he has a meaningful chance with a male; calls for Peeping Fawn to run in the 2007 Arc were always going to fall on deaf ears when the yard had the eventual winner Dylan Thomas in the running; for the filly to beat the colt in this situation, something that wasn’t impossible to envisage at time, would have been a major blunder on Coolmore’s part.

The point about second strings is probably quite timely now in the week of Royal Ascot when a number of big yards, not only Ballydoyle, will have more than one representative in races. Obvious examples of this would be the Richard Hannon 2yos and Dandy Nicholls sprinters; both stables have huge strength in-depth in those departments and their owners will all want to take a shot at big races like the Coventry and the Wokingham even if the yard has a supposedly better chance in its midst. It’s certainly something to bear in mind with all the big meetings over the summer.

***A brief aside in relation to Weld who is one trainer tends to keep his good horses apart and on the rare occasion when there is a meaningful second string Smullen has a habit of choosing correctly; I often think this is because Weld, perhaps more than any other trainer in Ireland, will know exactly what his horse is capable of – Aidan O’Brien may have much better horses but there are times when their improvement seems to catch him unawares.

There is however, one unusual situation where Smullen may be forced to choose incorrectly and that is when there is a Moyglare-owned horse in the field along with another talented Weld runner belonging to a different owner. In this case, Smullen is obliged to ride the Moyglare horse as he is contractually obliged to – he is not signed up with Weld but with Moyglare.

This is something that might be worth bearing in mind at Galway later in the summer which is one of the few occasions when Weld tends to have more than one meaningful runner in races.

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