Trending Towards Cheltenham

Trends can be a dirty word at this time of year. Cheltenham is peak ten-year-patterns season and believers will be trotting out lines about five-year-olds and the Champion Hurdle as the sample size boys argue back with doubts about the statistical significance of such numbers, writes Tony Keenan. I’d tend towards the latter group more than the former, allowing that these amateur ‘statisticians’ do stumble upon the odd interesting angle.

The patterns I’m interested in here however are more general ones about the Irish national hunt season and given we’ve had 1,154 races run in the 2016/17 campaign (as of Monday February 2oth) that seems a fair sample size. There has been some strange stuff going on this season, at least when compared with the ones that went before, and it is worth considering how these might impact events at Cheltenham in three weeks.


Willie Mullins – The Nightmare Season

“Nightmare” might be a little strong when comparing the Mullins campaign to most other yards in the country but that’s not really the point; for years now, the only real comparison for Mullins has been himself. Using those standards, 2016/17 has been disappointing even allowing that the reasons for the disimprovement are mainly obvious: the loss of the Gigginstown horses and a run of injury misfortune that the yard had previously avoided.

No yard can sustain those sorts of losses and hope to compete at or near the same level as previously. This though is not fully reflected in the ante-post markets for the Festival where Mullins is a top price of 8/13 to be the leading trainer at the meeting as well as having the first or second favourite in 13 of the 28 races at present. Cards on the table time: I think this is crazy and punters adopting the Mullins strategy to the meeting – where you find the short-priced Closutton horse and back it – seem destined to lose this year.

Let’s consider the type of horse Mullins tends to win with at the meeting by price, going back as far as the 2010 Festival:

Starting Price Wins Runs Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Actual/Expected
3/1 or shorter 21 34 61.2% 30 88.2% 1.41
10/3 or longer 12 242 5.0% 56 23.1% 0.62


That Mullins wins with short-priced horses is up there with “dog bites man” in terms of newsworthiness but the ruthless efficiency with which his bankers run well is striking; only 4 of the 34 horses priced 3/1 or shorter in this period failed to hit the frame. Basically, Mullins wins with the horses the formbook flags up and – in the main – a lot of his bigger priced runners are overbet due to his reputation.

It’s been a broadly similar story on the home front this season too. Of the 147 winners he’s had in 2016/17, only two were returned at 11/2 or bigger. His ability as a target trainer was in full evidence this Christmas when he had 22 winners across the two Irish meetings at Leopardstown and Limerick but again their SP returns were striking; the biggest price was 9/2, the next two were 3/1 and 7/4 with 13 of them sent off at odds-on.

The problem for Mullins going into Cheltenham is he simply doesn’t have that many of this type of horse. There is no Faugheen, Annie Power, Vautour or Min, all of whom would likely have been short prices for their respective targets and his number of sub-3/1 runners is likely to be well down on the eight there have been in each of the past two Festivals. As things stands, Mullins looks to have four such types this year – Douvan, Vroum Vroum Mag (if she runs in the Mares), Yorkhill (again, if he runs in the JLT) and Airlie Beach – with the slight possibility that Melon, Un De Sceaux and Carter McKay could shorter further.

The shortage of bankers also has negative knock-on effects for the overall Mullins challenge. There was a time when Mullins could redirect some of his second-tier types into handicaps instead of running them in graded races as he already had a strong fancy for the latter race – an example would be Arctic Fire running in the 2014 County Hurdle when the trainer won the same year’s Supreme with Vautour – but that may not be the case in 2017. Something like Royal Caviar might have gone to the Grand Annual if Min had been fit for the Arkle but he will now likely go to the novice race; the replacement level talent simply isn’t there now.

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Perhaps Mullins will surprise us all with another big Festival but the evidence of this season and comparison points with seasons past suggest otherwise. The trainer’s winners line for the meeting is set at 5.5 currently (it was 7.5 in 2016) and while the under is a chalky 4/6, it should win. The 8/13 about him being top trainer is tight too – the top trainer at this year’s meeting could easily win with just four or five winners – while a knock-on effect is Ruby Walsh’s price of 8/11 for top jockey being under the odds, too, as he is unlikely to ride for anyone else at the meeting.


The Henry and Noel Show

Gordon Elliott has understandably garnered the bulk of the attention in this season’s narrative but one shouldn’t forget the rise of Henry de Bromhead and the resurgence of Noel Meade. Both yards have made life difficult for Mullins though their strong campaigns have come in different ways. De Bromhead is having a career season when compared with his 5-year numbers:


Henry de Bromhead Last Five Seasons

Season Wins Runners Strikerate Level Stakes A/E
2016/17 62 355 17.5% -38.41 0.96
2015/16 48 296 16.2% -49.25 0.92
2014/15 49 325 15.1% -68.75 0.88
2013/14 48 315 15.2% -98.77 0.89
2012/13 32 220 14.6% -87.02 0.75


The basic winners/runners figures stand out here; with his numbers having levelled off in the three previous seasons, they have sky-rocketed in 2016/17 to such a point that before the end of February he has already left his previous best behind. An improved strikerate shouldn’t be forgotten though and it would have been hard to foresee this at the end of the summer when Alan Potts removed the remainder of his horses from the yard. It is the increased support of Gigginstown that has brought this improvement about: where de Bromhead was a minor part of that operation prior to the current season, he has essentially become their second trainer after Gordon Elliott with a long distance back to the third.

As I write, Gigginstown have supplied 19 winners and 82 runners for de Bromhead but the trainer has certainly played his part too, improving a number of horses that came from other yards. Sub Lieutenant has risen 18lbs in the ratings, Petit Mouchoir 15lbs and Valseur Lido 6lbs while he has also drawn improvement from Roger Brookhouse horses like Champagne West (12lbs), Stellar Notion (12lbs) and Some Plan (hard to judge as has switched from chasing but has won thrice including the Irish Arkle).

It should be pointed out that similar has happened with some of the Potts horses leaving de Bromhead, Viconte Du Noyer looking a different horse for Colin Tizzard and Sizing John developing into a Gold Cup contender for Jessica Harrington. Potts has been a whipping boy for his perceived disloyalty to de Bromhead but it’s hard to argue that the split hasn’t worked out for both of them and looking at these results perhaps the whole trainer loyalty angle is overdone.

Where de Bromhead has thrived with horses he has acquired from other yards, Meade has worked well with what he already had in his stable; he did get some Gigginstown switchers but by and large they have been disappointing.


Noel Meade Last Five Seasons

Season Wins Runners Strikerate Level Stakes A/E
2016/17 48 288 16.7% -59.07 0.92
2015/16 30 220 13.6% -81.54 0.91
2014/15 50 344 14.5% -112.98 0.83
2013/14 45 367 12.3% -143.71 0.73
2012/13 47 344 13.7% -135.68 0.71


Meade seems certain to have his best season in the last five and it will likely be his best since 2008/9 when he had 62 winners from 486 runners. Like de Bromhead, he has had a much improved strikerate this season and his big successes – Coral Hurdle winner Ice Cold Soul and Flogas Novice Chase victor Disko – were with Gigginstown horses that were already in the yard. His other class horse has been Snow Falcon and like the aforementioned pair he’s a horse that had suffered injury problems in the past; Meade has been excellent this year in keeping his stock sound which has been an issue in seasons past.

Both trainers will be very hopeful of Festival winners and they could hardly be going into the meeting in better order. Petit Mouchoir is the obvious de Bromhead fancy for the Champion Hurdle having won the two key Irish trials (albeit from the same horses in underwhelming renewals) while Champagne West is an outsider with a chance in the Gold Cup after putting up a big figure in the Thyestes. Meade’s Cheltenham woes have been well-covered at this stage but he has two live chances in the novice chases with Disko and the strong-staying A Genie In Abottle.


Handicap Kings

Gordon Elliott has been the story of the Irish handicap scene this winter, his series of wins in valuable chases unparalleled in my memory, and not surprisingly comes in at the top of the table of handicap winners in 2016/17:


Trainer Wins Runners Strikerate Level Stakes Places Place SR% A/E
G. Elliott 28 305 9.2% -48.75 86 28.2% 0.75
T. Mullins 14 62 22.6% +27.38 34 54.8% 1.46
J. Hanlon 12 101 11.9% +31.50 32 31.7% 1.21
W. Mullins 11 66 16.7% -17.61 23 34.9% 1.16
C. Byrnes 10 52 19.2% -13.12 18 34.6% 1.09
J. Ryan 9 87 10.3% -30.34 21 42.5% 0.89
E. McNamara 9 41 22.0% +49.50 14 34.2% 2.15


It’s difficult to know if this is a positive or negative for Elliott’s chances of having handicap winners at Cheltenham: on one hand his horses are going into the meeting in good form but on the other they could find themselves too high in the weights. Chief BHA handicapper, Phil Smith, has tended not to treat the Elliott runners as well as some of those from other Irish yards but the trainer has still managed four Festival handicap winners since 2011 including two last year. One thing we can be sure of is that he will be mob-handed in these races; already this season in Ireland, he has had 305 handicap runners, with Denis Hogan next in with 117 followed by John Hanlon’s 101.

Hanlon, aka, “The Shark”, has had a quietly strong season in 2016/17 (which is about the only thing that is quiet about him) but his horses simply don’t have high enough marks to get into the Festival races. Tom Mullins’s runners do, however, and he’s been having a brilliant time across the board in terms of winners, strikerate, places and place strikerate. It’s not as if he doesn’t have some pedigree at Cheltenham either, with two handicap winners from eight runners: Alderwood in both cases as he took the County Hurdle and Grand Annual in successive years.

Mullins’s chief patron is of course one John P McManus, not averse to having a Cheltenham winner, and he looks to have three possible runners in Scoir Mear, Oscar Knight and That’s A Wrap. The last two are particularly interesting, Oscar Knight one that looks well-treated if getting his jumping together while That’s A Wrap is a horse that could thrive in a strongly-run race.

Tony Keenan

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