The Game Changer was not one of those Gigginstown horses on the move last week, having already joined Gordon Elliott in 2015 following Charlie Swan’s retirement from training, but he’d be a fitting motif for what went down with Willie Mullins, the O’Learys, and associated parties last Wednesday, writes Tony Keenan. The split will have far-reaching consequences for trainers and their respective championships this season and beyond, and I’ll try to consider some of these from a data-based perspective here.
One of the features of the break-up was the respectful tone the two parties used to describe each other, both wishing the other success in the future and being thankful for what their relationship produced. The comments were so positive one wonders why they simply didn’t maintain the status quo but it is likely another example of racing people being ultra-polite to each other through the media when their actions suggest otherwise. Training fees have been put forward as the root of the split but I’m not prepared to accept those face value reasons; judging from the figures we have been fed, the increase in fees would have been between €80,000 and €100,ooo, hardly a piddling number but a relative drop in the ocean to a billionaire like Michael O’Leary, a figure he would easily squander on a bad horse. If that is the price of success, it seems worth paying.
But O’Leary being a billionaire is important here and with his vast wealth and business success comes ego, something that Mullins, for all his humble exterior, must possess too. Comparing owners and trainers is not something we typically do in racing but such is the state of the Irish national hunt scene at present; I suspect that O’Leary simply didn’t want to be so reliant on a trainer that was bigger than him, something that the numbers from the last five Irish seasons confirm.
Nor was O’Leary in any way enthused by Mullins’s UK project in 2015/16. The owner is on record as saying he has little interest in UK racing outside of the big festivals at Cheltenham and Aintree which is of course his prerogative; if he wants winners at a Navan or Punchestown card attended by a couple of thousand people instead of in front of packed stands at Sandown or Kempton, that is his choice. Being Champion Owner in the UK last season clearly meant nothing to him; Sandown go out of their way to have the title winners present on the final day of the season but it was Brian Cooper who accepted the prize for Gigginstown back in April.
Gigginstown had some big winners in the UK last season, notably Don Cossack in the Gold Cup, Rule The World in the National, and Identity Thief in the Fighting Fifth, but they came for other yards and their record with Mullins was poor, registering only three winners, only one of which could be described as high-profile. That was Apple’s Jade’s demolition job at Aintree with the others being Don Poli’s Listed win at the same track in December and McKinley winning an ordinary handicap hurdle on the final day of the season.
Of the big Mullins owners, it was clearly Rich Ricci who supported the trainer wholeheartedly in his bid for the UK title and indeed he seems to have stepped aside with some of his Irish runners in order to facilitate Gigginstown. Below are the records of the Mullins-trained horses for Gigginstown and the Riccis both in Ireland and the UK and you can see their positions are reversed in terms of the percentage of runners they provided to the trainer in the different jurisdictions; where Ricci had 21.3% of the Mullins runners in Ireland, he was 27.7% of the UK runners with Gigginstown being 23.5% and 21.4% respectively, their positions essentially flipped. Ricci reaped the benefit of that in the UK at least with an impressive 12 winners though many of that type of runner can be expected to remain in Ireland this coming season, at least prior to the big festivals.
Gigginstown V. Ricci – At Home and Away
|Wins||Runners||Strikerate||% of Mullins Runs||% of Mullins Wins|
|Wins||Runners||Strikerate||% of Mullins Runs||% of Mullins Wins|
In their early years of ownership, Gigginstown tended to select a trainer and stick with them but recently they have become more of a ‘results-based business’ where trainers who are seen to be underperforming get fewer young horses or in more extreme cases have the horses removed totally; in fact, the latter may not even be extreme with both Tony Martin and Sandra Hughes losing their O’Leary horses over the summer. Martin had a down season for much of 2015/16, his horses only really finding their form from Punchestown on, and his Gigginstown winners (Marinero, Savello, Beau Et Sublime and Fire In His Eyes) were an uninspiring bunch.
He may too have had a role in them making a rare purchase of horse already in training with Beau Et Sublime who on his first start came second to a well-regarded Gigginstown type but was owned by someone else in Martin’s yard; the buy turned out badly as he has only won a pair of weak summer races. That Martin has been involved in some high-profile running-and-riding enquiries is hardly ideal either.
Hughes seems more harshly treated, not least because of the sad personal circumstances that caused her to be training the O’Leary horses in the first place. Her horses were sick for most of last season and she only trained two Gigginstown winners during that time but that can happen to any yard and in the previous campaign she sent out Lieutenant Colonel to win a pair of Grade 1s along with an Irish National winner in Thunder And Roses. Gigginstown could however argue that their ‘result-based’ approach stands up to scrutiny; not long after leaving Hughes, Wrath Of Titans won a Kerry National for Gordon Elliott.
I’ve written before about how well Elliott does with switchers, horses moving to his yard tending to improve both in terms of ratings and strikerate when compared to their previous handlers. How much of that is training and how much is placing is hard to quantify but Elliott does seem adept at finding bad races for limited horses, particularly at some of the gaff tracks in the UK, but clearly Gigginstown have no interest in such races.
There is some precedent of Gigginstown horses moving from Mullins to Elliott over the last year or so but I’d be reluctant to draw any conclusions from those transfers;:it would be an insult to cast-offs to call the likes Midnight Game, Aminabad and As De Ferbet such and Elliott did about as well as Mullins with such limited types. A better point of comparison, at least in terms of getting horses that have upside rather than those that are barely treading water, was the switch of the Lynch horses from Closutton to Elliott in 2009; the likes of Serpentaria did little for the move but Jessies Dream won a Drinmore and went very close in the RSA before retirement though injury. Elliott is likely a much better trainer now, too.
But even so, it would be unrealistic for Gigginstown to expect the same return from Elliott as they got from Mullins. Both yards tend to maintain a basic level of form, never really being out of sorts in recent years, but the Mullins bar is just set higher; since May 2014, his monthly strikerate has dipped below 20% in Ireland just twice whereas with Elliott his returns have dipped below 10% once since November 2013. The record of horses moving from the Mullins yard on their first three starts for their new stable are simply horrendous with those trainers becoming the equivalent of the worst around with such runners.
Horses Leaving Willie Mullins (since 2003)
Of course these figures demand context. Mullins is known for being quite hard on his horses, not necessarily a bad thing given the results he produces, but it would be no surprise if he left little to work on for the next trainer. Furthermore, he tends to keep a decent proportion of his horses into their later careers rather than get rid of them and the sort of animal he lets go might be of little use to anyone.
Certainly they aren’t expensive when bought at the sale, usually being badly-handicapped runners that have been to the well plenty. Yet comparing his record with those horses leaving Paul Nicholls, his champion trainer counterpart in the UK, is still interesting with the ex-Nicholls runners tending to do much better.
Horses Leaving Paul Nicholls (since 2003)
The horses that have left Mullins in the last few days are of a very different kind to typical ‘little upside/much downside’ sorts that likely dominate the figures above. This is a group coming into their prime, or already there, and will present an interesting test case for those who believe Mullins is only so dominant because he gets all the best horses. Of the trainers who will get the new stock, only Henry De Bromhead has been in the position before when he got the Alan Potts horses, since departed, from Mullins a few years back. And he did well with them too; of the 31 horses that won (from 625 runners) on their first three starts post-Mullins, De Bromhead trained five of them. He did well with some horses that Mullins struggled with, like Viconte Du Noyer; and turned Smashing into a borderline Grade 1 animal when he got soft ground. He seems a sensible choice for some switchers and while his overall figures for Gigginstown last season were not great, he did very well with Identity Thief though how he persuaded them to run him at Newcastle remains one of life’s mysteries!
Mouse Morris too deserved his share having sent out a pair of National winners while Joseph O’Brien is a no-brainer; I wrote about his rookie season being one for the ages a few months back and that was before he won the Moyglare with a 25/1 shot in Intricately. Noel Meade doesn’t make as much sense; he had a good campaign at home for them last season, winning seven races from 32 runners, but it might have been the only good part of his campaign. As with so many of his other top horses, his better Gigginstown runners spent time on the side-lines with the likes of Road To Riches, Disko, Ice Cold Soul and Gunnery Sergeant missing part of the season and it remains an issue with the yard.
It is Gordon Elliott, however, who is the chosen one for Gigginstown; they have rowed in behind him more and more in the last few years and he gets the jewels in the crown like Don Poli, Apple’s Jade and Blow By Blow. Powers made a bold move by making him favourite for the Irish trainers’ championship straight after the news was released though he has since been eased out a little: while Mullins has lost 60 horses, his claims that he will suffer no staff losses suggests he can fill those boxes quickly and we have the prospect of more Ricci horses being campaigned in Ireland this winter.
Nor is it a simple case of subtracting the Gigginstown winners from Mullins and adding them to Elliott; not only did he not get all of them but it seems unlikely he will reach the heights of the current champion either. Even so, Elliott has been narrowing the gap between himself and Mullins the last three seasons and that was without the new additions.
Mullins has averaged out around the mid-180s in terms of Irish winners in the last three years (he had 47 winners for Gigginstown last year) whereas Elliott has gone from 62 winners to 95 to 129 in the same period. He may not deserve to be favourite but he was already trending up and this may put him over the top; and wouldn’t it be fascinating if he brought some welcome needle into the trainers’ race?
Paul Nicholls never hid his pleasure in defeating Martin Pipe and Nicky Henderson, the UK equivalent, and while Elliott has publicly stated his respect for Mullins on many occasions, his wonderfully passive aggressive tweet about looking for staff in the hours after the Gigginstown announcement was at least a semblance of throwing down the gauntlet. All too often racing puts on the face of being one big happy family, but this is high-level sport so it’s OK to care and I suspect the famously confrontational Michael O’Leary had a little laugh at that one!
– Tony Keenan