Trained for the Trip: On Trainers’ Micro-Performance

These past Rio Olympics have reinforced many of the truisms about international athletics: Jamaicans can sprint very fast, East Africans can run for distance, Americans can do a bit of everything, the Irish can do little of anything, writes Tony Keenan. Whatever the reasons for these specialisms – and there are plenty who believe chemicals play their part – it would be unwise to underestimate the importance of coaching in the successes of various nations. I’ve recently read Richard Moore’s excellent account of the rise of Jamaican sprinting, ‘The Bolt Supremacy’, and what stood out was the role of coaches like Herb McKenley, Stephen Francis and Glen Mills; and how they trained speed into their charges.

The value of a trainer in determining trip preference can also be applied to horse racing; there are some trainers who coach for speed, others for stamina. And while breeding obviously play its part, it can be worthwhile studying how trainers perform with their runners over a variety of trips. In the table below, I’ve covered the top 19 trainers in Irish flat racing between 2010 and 2015 and how they did over different distances.

The last trainer to make the list (Harry Rogers) had 830 runners in that time while Aidan O’Brien had 2,961 runners so there is a robust sample size across the board. For ease of understanding, I’ve divided the distances into sprint (5f to 6.5f), mile (7f to 9f), middle-distance (9.5f t 13.5f) and stayers (14f plus).

Also included is the trainer’s overall strikerate in the period covered and I have colour-coded the standout figures; green for when they operate at 3% or more ahead of their overall strikerate at a given trip or red when 3% or more below the overall.

Trainer Overall Sprint Mile Middle-Distance Stayers
A. O’Brien 21.1% 24.3% 20.9% 19.9% 23.7%
J. Bolger 12.1% 11.3% 11.7% 13.3% 10.4%
D. Weld 17.3% 8.5% 17.3% 19.2% 25.9%
M. Halford 10.4% 8.7% 11.3% 11.4% 1.4%
G. Lyons 14.7% 14.9% 14.9% 14.7% 0.0%
D. Wachman 12.5% 13.9% 11.7% 13.3% 7.7%
K. Prendergast 10.0% 11.8% 10.6% 7.9% 3.3%
J. Oxx 15.8% 14.3% 16.2% 15.8% 13.4%
A. Oliver 9.0% 7.4% 6.3% 14.5% 11.8%
J. Harrington 11.1% 10.3% 12.2% 10.0% 12.0%
D. Marnane 8.1% 8.8% 8.2% 6.7% 0.0%
P. Flynn 8.8% 11.4% 8.7% 9.4% 4.8%
P. Deegan 8.6% 8.4% 8.0% 10.2% 5.5%
W. McCreery 9.9% 11.0% 8.8% 10.2% 8.0%
E. Lynam 11.6% 16.5% 8.3% 10.9% 0.0%
J. Murphy 6.0% 4.2% 4.7% 8.4% 7.7%
K. Condon 10.7% 13.5% 4.6% 8.4% 0.0%
T. Stack 13.8% 16.1% 12.6% 14.4% 0.0%
H. Rogers 7.3% 7.7% 5.3% 8.5% 11.6%


Do Everything Trainers

Like the USA on the Olympic track, Aidan O’Brien wins across the board and at a high level. It is slightly surprising, however, that his best figures come in sprints, and this is worth closer scrutiny. O’Brien’s record over five and six furlongs is much better with juveniles than older horses. With horses aged two, his record is 89/365 (24.4%) while at three it is 16/108 (14.8%) and at four and up it is 4/26 (15.4%). The reason for this is clear: O’Brien will start some very good horses over sprint trips as juveniles, horses that will become milers and ten-furlong types in time; whereas his older sprinters tend not to be so good. But we all know that Aidan O’Brien is a great trainer, so let’s move on.

Jim Bolger is also consistent though his strikerate does drop off a little over staying trips and you’ll have to go back a long way to find a good Bolger horse that stayed beyond twelve furlongs. Indeed, Ezima back in 2008 was the last horse to win a Listed or Group race for him over a staying trip. Again, there are reasons for this, most likely Bolger’s training methods and the riding style of stable jockey Kevin Manning. The Bolger runners tend to race strong on the bridle (laziness is not a feature of their run style and would hardly be tolerated at Coolcullen!) and Manning rides them forcefully, invariably sitting close to the pace.

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One trainer whose runners operate at the same steady strikerate is Jessica Harrington, which is a slight surprise given her National Hunt background. She is well able to train for speed as well as the expected stamina; it is not that long ago that she had a Champion Two-Year-Old in Pathfork, while staying handicappers like Modem have long been part of the Harrington repertoire.

Ger Lyons is the metronome of Irish racing such is his consistency over different trips. His overall strikerate in the period covered is 14.7% and it doesn’t deviate from that in sprint trips up to middle-distances. Lyons did not have a single winner over a staying trip in the period covered, which sounds shocking but isn’t really when you consider the record of other predominantly flat trainers over similar trips, something we’ll return to later.


Speed Kings?

It hardly needs pointing out that Eddie Lynam is the best trainer of sprinters in Ireland, perhaps even Europe; his strikerate of 16.5% over speed trips is almost five percentage points better than his overall record. All his best horses – the Powers, Duff, Anthem Alexander, Balmont Mast and Viztoria – operated at trips short of a mile and there almost has to be some Jamaican blood in his family!

The most surprising, even shocking, feature of the trainer records over sprint trips was the performance of Dermot Weld: he does terribly in these spots, operating at just 8.5%, less than half of his overall strikerate of 17.3%. I just wish I had have known this before being one of the punters who backed Mustajeeb into joint-favouritism for the Diamond Jubilee last year! Apart from Mustajeeb, the list of classy Weld-trained sprinters is a short one with forgettables like Le Cadre Noir and Croisultan about the best.

Nor is Weld a great two-year-old trainer, his horses doing better for time, and in contrast to Aidan O’Brien he does not run his good juveniles over distances short of seven furlongs; Anam Allta in 2010 was the last Weld-trained two-year-old to win over a sprint trip and subsequently hit an official rating of 105 or more, and before that it was Famous Name in 2007.

John Oxx is a handler who has an interesting (non-)relationship with sprinters. His strikerate of 14.3% over this sort of trip is decent but doesn’t tell the whole story. Oxx has run just 77 horses in sprints in the period covered with the next lowest trainer having 126 runners.


Mile and Middle-Distances

In truth, the numbers over these trips offer up little in terms of insight, aside from the likes of Eddie Lynam and Ken Condon dropping off after strong performances over shorter. One interesting feature is the record of Andy Oliver whose 14.5% return is well ahead of his record over other distances. Part of this is his ability to get horses to rack up sequences over this sort of trip and there have been a number of examples of this between 2010 and 2015. Panama Hat was the standout in registering 7 wins and rising from a rating of 60 to 111 but there were others like Flowers Of Spring (5 wins, 61 to 97), Jazz Girl (8 wins, 78 to 97), Mutasareb (4 wins, 49 to 83), Abby Cadaby (3 wins, 55 to 83) and Stephen Hero (3 wins, 47 to 69).


Staying the Trip

While Weld may struggle with sprinters, his performance with stayers is peerless; in fact, he is the only trainer with a higher strikerate than Aidan O’Brien in any single category. His record in staying races at home and abroad is well-known; he has trained the winner of the Irish Leger seven times and also major UK races like the Ascot Gold Cup and the Long Distance Cup on British Champions Day. Of his best horses in the period covered, many are stayers like Rite Of Passage, Forgotten Rules and Profound Beauty.

A standout feature of trainer records in staying races are the poor numbers recorded by a number of prominent trainers like Halford, Lyons, Wachman and Kevin Prendergast. It might be more a case of them not trying at these trips than failing per se as these sorts of contests are often the preserve of National Hunt trainers. A look at the trainers who have most runners in staying events between 2010 and 2015 backs this up: Willie Mullins, Jessica Harrington and Tony Martin all make the top ten while the likes of Gordon Elliott, Charlie Swan, Noel Meade, John Kiely, Michael Hourigan, Shark Hanlon, Eoin Doyle and James Lambe fill out the top twenty. Maybe the Irish athletics fraternity should look to our jumps trainers for some assistance!



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