An Apprentice to Kill For?

There are many difficulties in analysing jockey skill, not least the bias of pocket talk, writes Tony Keenan. Prospective analysts struggle with what part is the jockey, what part the horse, what part simply opportunity and how much weight to give various factors. Yet just because it is difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it and perhaps the best way to evaluate jockeys is to use a mix of data and video analysis as neither alone can provide a complete picture.

With the apparent arrival of sectional times at every Irish track next season, perhaps we will reach a stage where analysts can rate a jockey on their judgement of pace and see which ones tend to be right and who often gets it wrong. Until that point we have to rely on our eyes but one young rider who has impressed me in 2016 is Killian Leonard, mainly attached to the Edward O’Grady yard and currently claiming five. Some background on Leonard: he is from Cork and has experience on the pony racing circuit, completed his Leaving Cert this past June and had his first rides under rules in 2015, he can claim off the bottom weight of 8-04.

In order to study Leonard’s progression over the past months, I re-watched his 23 winning rides in 2016. It is easy to take a simplistic view of a winning ride and define it as a good one but that would be wrong; take Tom Queally’s inefficient effort in victory on Frankel in the 2011 St. James’s Palace as an extreme example. A number of Leonard’s winners were vanilla efforts that any competent jockey would have won on – though one of the standout features of Leonard thus far is that he is so competent for one so inexperienced – but five stood out as more than mere competence.

  1. Repeater – Curragh, May 21st

If there was a better ride this Irish flat season, I haven’t seen it. Repeater is an utter rogue going back to his days with Mark Prescott and David O’Meara in the UK, so much so that Timeform have likely run out of symbols to give; he has traded sub-2.0 in defeat on eight occasions. Jockey skill comprises many aspects and knowing individual traits of different horses is one of them and Leonard was well wise to Repeater in this mile and a half handicap. Despite being full of horse turning in, he waited and waited and waited some more, not going for full effort until 100 yards down, knowing well that his mount would curl up under any serious exertion and winning by a short head in the end. To see how good this ride was, you need to put it in the context of Chris Hayes’s effort on the same horse at Galway in July when the vastly more experienced rider had Repeater in front far too soon, seemingly with no sense of the traits of the horse, and I strongly suspect that Repeater would have won that race with Leonard up.


  1. Bobskier – Fairyhouse, June 8th

Though not as bad as Repeater, Bobskier wouldn’t win any prizes for toughness and has generally proved a hard horse to win with, being 5 from 47 over his career. He was a little keen early on this day and raced midfield on the rail before Leonard pulled off it about five furlongs out. That meant he swung wide into the straight, a tactic that often pays on the flat at Fairyhouse. This was an admirable bit of track craft though more than anything the young jockey looked strong in the finish on top of a horse that needed its mind made up.


  1. Victorious Secret – Dundalk, July 12th

Not everything about this ride was perfect as Leonard could have made his move earlier in the straight when he had plenty of horse under him, but perhaps he knew what he had left and felt he was always going to get there. The impressive part of this was not judgement of pace but rather an unwillingness to allow himself to be bullied by more experienced riders. For much of the straight, the favourite, Yamato, and Shane Foley were hanging into him but Leonard was strong in holding his position; and it all mattered as he won by a neck. Young people starting out in any profession face challenges and with jockeys some of these manifest themselves on the track with their mounts often trapped wide conceding ground or finding themselves bullied out of things in a finish. With Leonard, not so much.

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  1. Victorious Secret – Leopardstown, August 4th

This was a victory for bravery more than anything with Leonard bringing his mount from deep in the field through a very narrow gap up the rail over a turning six furlongs, again looking like anything but the 7lbs claimer he was at the time. It wasn’t something that escaped the notice of the assistant winning trainer, Fozzy Stack, who commented afterwards: ‘he was a braver man than me where he was going. Killian is a good young rider. She is not the easiest ride in the world and you have to get there late.’


  1. Plough Boy – Curragh, August 7th

Plough Boy is an exposed but likeable handicapper at this point and the seven furlong trip here was on the sharp side for him. Leonard was wise to this and rode positively from the outset, using his stamina having come off the bridle three furlongs out. Perhaps the most likeable aspect of this is the gradual building of momentum and this has been a feature of his riding all season; where some apprentices (and experienced riders) go from tanking to full effort in strides, Leonard goes through the gears more slowly which seems to get better results as the horse is nursed into the race. The best jockeys operate like this and are like good referees – best when you don’t notice them.

Johnny Murtagh is one of the great jockeys in my admittedly short life time but for all the praise of his performances on the big day, his best achievements came in winning on horses that didn’t want to, many of whom were housed at Ballydoyle during his time as stable jockey. Winning the 2013 Irish Oaks aboard Chicquita was perhaps his best ride of all as that filly had literally ran out through a hedge on her penultimate start. In general, jockeys and trainers have gotten wiser to the various kinks of horses in recent years and found ways to counter what could generously be described as quirkiness with things like headgear and riding tactics. Even with these advances, such horses win less often than their ability suggests they should but Leonard is one jockey that seems to get the best out of such types, whether their issues are weak-finishing, awkward head carriage or whatever else.

Of course, these judgements on attitude are subjective, but one interesting way of putting a figure on it is to look at a horse’s in-running trading history; horses that trade odds-on in a race tend to look like they are going to win at some stage. Of Leonard’s 23 winners this season, 7 came on horses whose attitudes are at the very least questionable as seen below:


  1. Charlies Missile (2 sub-2.00 trades in defeat in 9 runs)
  2. Repeater (8 sub-2.00 trades in 45 runs)
  3. Bobskier (2 sub 2.00 trades in 47 runs)
  4. Fast In The Wind (2 sub-2.00 trades in 37 runs)
  5. Catwilldo (two wins) (6 sub-2.00 trades in 48 runs)
  6. Primo Uomo (3 sub 2.00 trades in 14 runs)


As of Monday, Leonard ranks fifteenth overall in the jockeys table and third among apprentices with Donnacha O’Brien and Gary Halpin ahead of him; both of those have more experience and longer-standing relationships built up. The latter aspect is vital for jockeys as playing the political game and building connections is key to ensuring a good career; talent is certainly not the only thing and perhaps not even the main thing. Rub up an owner or trainer the wrong way?  You won’t get the call for riding their well-handicapped horse. Unwilling to put in the grind riding work at different yards or have the wrong agent? Same result.

Leonard however is winning the ‘who you know’ game in 2016 and it’s not even close. Below are the top 20 jockeys in 2016 in order of the number of different trainers they have ridden for:


Jockey Yards Ridden For Yards Won For
K Leonard 108 17
L Roche 83 10
C Keane 74 13
S Heffernan 71 9
P Smullen 70 19
C Hayes 69 13
W Lordan 66 16
G Halpin 60 9
W Lee 59 16
R Whelan 52 13
C Hoban 52 9
G Carroll 46 10
D McDonogh 45 13
S Foley 43 10
R Downey 43 7
K Manning 39 7
D O’Brien 28 4
A O’Brien 25 6
C O’Donoghue 24 6
R Moore 6 1


Even allowing for many of the top riders having retainers, Leonard’s achievement here is notable having ridden for 25 more trainers than his nearest pursuer, Leigh Roche. Not only that but he’s left plenty of those connections happy with 17 different yards having a winner with him up, second only to Champion Jockey Pat Smullen. This is a table that makes for interesting reading, not least for seeing which big-name jockeys are (and are not) popular with outside yards but more than anything it bodes well for Leonard into the future.

That’s a future that should be bright in the short-term and punters would do well to keep him on side until his claim is gone at least; to my eye, he is essentially a professional getting five pounds. The bigger picture is murkier. I looked at the last ten apprentice champions – Connor King (twice), Colin Keane, Ronan Whelan, Joseph O’Brien (twice), Ben Curtis, Gary Carroll (twice), Emmet McNamara and Chris Hayes (twice) – and was pleasantly surprised to see how many were still riding at a high level and in Ireland too.

Certainly their outlook is a lot more positive than those champion apprentices in the UK who often seem to burn brightly but fizzle out as their claim goes. Perhaps the standard in Ireland is higher – there are much fewer races after all – and any apprentice who can rise to the top can maintain or even exceed such levels without an allowance. The early signs could hardly be more positive for Leonard, regardless of which criteria one is using.

Tony Keenan

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