The nature of bold predictions is that they tend to be wrong, writes Tony Keenan. As Nate Silver points out in his excellent book ‘The Signal and the Noise’, the prognosticators who shout the loudest and make the wildest claims tend to miss the mark the furthest. With that in mind, I fully expect all five of these calls to be incorrect but selecting the most likely outcomes for the coming jumps campaign interests no one. Saying Faugheen will win the Champion Hurdle when he’s the shortest price of the Cheltenham favourites is simply boring for all that it may prove accurate.
Bachasson won’t win a race before next summer
Bachasson is already as short as 10/1 for the Supreme after an unbeaten start over hurdles but expecting him to progress to Grade 1 level goes against the typical modus operandi of the Mullins yard; Willie simply doesn’t run his best horses during the summer. Looking at his 34 Cheltenham winners since 2003, only Wicklow Brave and Glens Melody could be described as having summer jumps backgrounds and that was in both their respective bumper seasons whereas their Festival wins came much later.
Furthermore, the best Mullins horses to run over the summer tend to be good rather than great. Looking back as far as 2010, the best horses I could find that ran over jumps for the trainer in the months of June, July and August were Diakali (officially rated 158), Blazing Tempo (155), Blackstairmountain (152) and Tarla (150). Bachasson has a rating of 147, likely inflated because he’s meeting inferior jumpers all summer, and that could be as good as he is.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there were ten novice hurdlers in Clossutton that finish the season rated higher than him. There are the obvious former bumper horses like Bellshill and Yorkhill, not to mention the ones that have been bought from France and off the flat. In fact, it’s possible that two other novices that ran for the yard at Galway could be better than him, Long Dog and Gangster. On a line through Three Stars, who the former treated with contempt at Ballybrit, Long Dog is well ahead of Bachasson already.
Paul Townend will ride more winners than Ruby Walsh (Ireland and Britain)
Since he started riding, Townend has only once ridden more winners in Ireland than Ruby and that was in 2010/11 when Walsh was injured and Townend was champion jockey. Their totals were close last season though, Walsh on 79 and Townend on 71, and with Willie Mullins’s numbers trending upwards the whole time, there is more than enough to go around.
In the three seasons between 2009/10 and 2011/12, Mullins averaged 545 runners a season across both countries but that figure has risen to an average of 647 in the three seasons since and he had 91 UK runners last season, up from a previous high of 68. Townend will be one of the chief beneficiaries of this expanded approach as he is likely to pick up many of the rides on big jumps Saturdays in England with Ruby staying at home for the Irish meetings. Also, Townend could acquire the ‘hired gun’ status while on these raids; he has already managed to link up to great effect with Rebecca Curtis.
Mullins has spent most the last few seasons keeping his best horses apart and we may – and I hope we have – reach a tipping point where they simply have to run against each other as there are only so many races to go around. That means more choices for Ruby and in turn more errors and as we saw at the most recent Punchestown Festival there are times when the retained rider’s choice gets beaten; there were six Mullins second or third strings that won at that fixture, including three Grade 1s.
Ruby is not getting any younger either and while he’s never shy about getting on a big winner – see his Australian jaunt this past summer – he’s more about the big days than the grind now, and he’s arguably a bit injury prone too. If anything this is as much punting angle as prediction as I believe there is little between Townend and Ruby in pure riding ability; but the market certainly doesn’t believe that and I want to be with Townend-ridden second strings this season.
Don Cossack won’t win another race this season
Don Cossack joined some lofty company this past season, becoming just the tenth horse since 2004/5 to win three open Grade 1 chases and in so doing achieved a Timeform rating of 180 and was that company’s horse of the year. The other triple Grade 1 winners were Kauto Star (three times), Master Minded (twice), Kicking King, Moscow Flyer, Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy while Dodging Bullets and Silviniaco Conti also joined the club this year.
The only horse to really repeat the success of his banner year was Kauto Star while the rest went 4 wins from 17 starts (just one of those wins was a Grade 1) the following season: not a great strike rate for top horses. Don Cossack is rising nine now and only Kauto Star and Moscow Flyer achieved three Grade 1 wins at his age or older. It is fair to say that I think we know at this stage that he is neither Kauto Star nor Moscow Flyer; I suspect he has reached his ceiling and the only way is down.
Injury has tended to follow these chasing superstars in the season following their peak. Moscow Flyer was never the same again which was understandable given his age but Kicking King, Master Minded, Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy all suffered setbacks soon after; repeated peak efforts take their toll. Nor is Don Cossack trained by Paul Nicholls which is pretty much a requisite to make this list; of the twelve three-time Grade 1 winners, he has trained seven of them. Gordon Elliott is an excellent trainer in many ways but Nicholls is just on another plane with these top chasers.
Henry de Bromhead will improve an ordinary hurdler into a Grade 1 novice chaser
This call may be not be bold at all as de Bromhead has already achieved the feat three times since 2010. An Cathaoir Mor went from 97-rated handicapper to 2010 Irish Arkle winner, Special Tiara had won just a maiden over hurdles before winning the Maghull in 2013 while Sizing Granite won the same Aintree race this year having been rated 130 over sticks.
In terms of purely improving horses for the switch from hurdles to fences, de Bromhead has claims to being the best trainer of chasers in Ireland. Of the 54 horses ‘our Henry’ has won a chase with since 2010, the average improvement, measured by peak official ratings over hurdles and fences, was 9.4lbs. 21 horses improved a stone or more and there were some spectacular jumps along with the three Grade 1 winners mentioned above; Grand Jesture improved 31lbs, Sizing Australia and Lord Ben 30lbs, Days Hotel 20lbs.
Sizing John is this season’s obvious top prospect for novice chases; already a Grade 1-winning novice hurdler and third in the Supreme, there’s a chance he improves into the stratosphere, perhaps even to Sizing Europe level. But he’s already rated 151 over hurdles and there are other lurkers in the yard. Two that might make the leap are Domesday Book and Alisier d’Irelande, neither of whom won anything more than a maiden over hurdles. De Bromhead has certainly been positive about both in recent stable tours and he’s one of the few trainers that really opens up for such pieces.
Willie Mullins will win none of the open Grade 1 chases at the Festival
Judging by the ante-post markets for the Champion Chase, Ryanair and Gold Cup, Willie Mullins is expected to have one and a half winners of those championship races. That’s considering top prices only and horses priced 25/1 or shorter and while there is some overlap – Vautour is priced in all three markets for instance –the layers have the expectation that he wins at least one of those races in 2015.
That’s something that has never happened before though he has gone close in the Gold Cup repeatedly with five runners-up. Mullins’ lack of success in the top chases at the Festival remains the one gap in his domination of National Hunt racing and it is something he will be keen to address; but the numbers suggest that for all the top novice chasers Mullins has had, his conversion rate in getting them to transfer their ability to open company is below average.
Michael Williamson of Timeform (can be followed on Twitter @RacingMDWilly) put together some excellent figures recently on how well the top trainers do in improving classy novices into open company, taking Timeform ratings of 150 (novices) and 170 (open) as the parameters. By Williamson’s numbers, Mullins managed to ‘convert’ just two of his 16 novices rated 150 or higher into 17o horses, a conversion rate of 12.5% that is below the likes of Nicholls (32%) and Henderson (22%) and markedly so. Mullins clearly has the raw material here but the return is disappointing for someone widely regarded as the best around.
Jumping issues may be part of this. Mullins horses are known for lots of things, chiefly the ability to tank through races and still finish strongly, but sound jumping isn’t one of them. Again, I defer to Williamson’s work here as Mullins has a fall/unseat rate of 12% over fences in the last five years while Nicholls’ is only 8.3%. Neither Vautour nor Un De Sceaux, the shortest priced Mullins horse for the Gold Cup and Champion Chase, have been flawless in this regard either.
– Tony Keenan can be followed on twitter at @RacingTrends