You can, if you choose, sensibly construct a case that Aintree is the best National Hunt meeting of the year, writes Tony Keenan.
It’s like a post-hype Cheltenham run at a fairer track where the racing is less watered down than at the Festival; with only three days of racing, there are fewer races like the Dawn Run diluting other events. And that’s not even to mention the spectacle of the National fences, easier though they might be nowadays, which remain one of the sport’s great viewing pleasures.
One thing the meeting has tended to lack over the years however is a meaningful challenge from Willie Mullins; he went ‘all-in’ last year with the UK trainers’ championship in mind but judging on his recent comments, he will revert to type in 2017 which means only a handful of runners. Consider his record here since 2010:
The Mullins Aintree project last year produced mixed results. There were wins for the likes of Annie Power, Douvan and Yorkhill but Vautour, Limini and Augusta Kate all got beaten and some of the victories came at a cost. Annie Power hasn’t run since while the Liverpool win seemed to leave its mark on Yorkhill as he met with his only defeat for Mullins at Punchestown next time, falling to seemingly inferior horses like Don’t Touch It and Brain Power.
So Mullins seems set to run most of his better ones at Fairyhouse and Punchestown in the coming weeks in the hope of staving off the Elliott challenge in the Irish trainers’ championship, a hope that improved with a graded race treble at Fairyhouse on Sunday but is still rated odds-against by the bookmakers, Elliott currently priced at 1/3 to win his maiden title. Aintree will be a lesser meeting for this, if a less confusing one for ante-post punters.
Mullins’ relative disinterest in the meeting has understandably had an effect on the record of Irish runners at Liverpool, covered below with the figures again going back to 2010:
There is no meaningful difference between records of the Irish- and UK-based horses here and one might expect the Irish to do better with selection bias in play: Irish connections would only send their runners over if they believe they hold a meaningful chance… though getting their hands on some precious Ladies’ Day tickets might play a part!
One Irish trainer who does quite well however is Henry De Bromhead; his two winners from 17 runners is decent and that’s backed up by six placed horses. He is on record as saying he expects to have quite a formidable team for this week. One could however question the relevance of these broader statistics in light of a Cheltenham where the Irish dominated, at least in terms of raw winners, and perhaps this season’s ‘trends’ will have a great impact on what happens at Aintree.
It is the UK trainers that tend to do best at Aintree then and their records since 2010 are considered below.
Henderson is the obvious one of the big trainers to stand out, along with Alan King, but Peter Bowen, with a big level-stakes profit and a massive actual over expected, is the most profitable to follow. It seems that the markets struggle to get a handle on his horses here with them often having struggled through the winter. Of those that finished just outside the top ten in terms of winners trained, and did well when looking at the place stats, Gary Moore and Malcolm Jefferson come out well. The latter could run his Arkle second Cloudy Dream in the Maghull where he won’t have to face Altior though the Manifesto seems the favoured option at this point.
David Pipe, trainer of the Grand National favourite Vieux Lion Rouge, is the main negative among the major handlers; he’s had three winners at this meeting but it has taken 83 runners to get there for a strikerate of 3.6% and his record with placed horses is poor too. Venetia Williams (0/51 with 2 places) and Charlie Longsdon (0/28 with 1 place) are other negatives, their poor – non-existent actually – win strikerates supported by bad place numbers.
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of betting at Aintree this week will be judging Cheltenham form. There’s a lot of mythos around horses having had a hard week little over three weeks previous and the toll it might exact at Liverpool but the facts don’t really bear this out; as a group, horses that ran well at Cheltenham do better than any other cohort at Aintree. Below I have divided the records of different groups at Aintree since 2010 by their last run: Cheltenham winners, Cheltenham placers (second, third or fourth), other Cheltenham runners and the rest.
|Last Time Out||Runners||Winners||Strikerate||Places||Level-Stakes||Actual/Expected|
The old KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid!) system seems to work best: Cheltenham winners may well have had hard races last time but more importantly they are just the better horses and thus win the most races. The placed runners have done well, too, though their level-stakes profit is rather inflated by a few big priced winners, Orsippus at 40/1 (2010 Anniversary 4yo Hurdle; third in Fred Winter beforehand), Pineau De Re at 25/1 (2014 National, third in Pertemps) and Oiseau De Nuit at 20/1 (2013 Red Rum, third in Grand Annual).
All this brings to mind one of the big conundrums of the national hunt season: if these good jumpers can take quick races well then why don’t they run more often during the winter? Their prolonged absences hurt the sport in terms of spectacle and while connections may voice their reluctance to give their horses hard races on soft ground I have my doubts about that theory. Surely the hardest races come when a horse is asked to run fast, and time and again we have seen the most strongly-run races are at the spring Festivals. And yet, the best horses in most cases seem well able to cope with this, allowing that most if not all will have a summer break afterwards.
Prizemoney and prestige as well as the imminent end of the season undoubtedly make trainers willing to run their horses more frequently at this time of the year but some might be better served taking a similar approach throughout the season as a whole which is short enough as it is without self-imposed restrictions on how often a horse might run. There have obviously been high-profile examples of success with sparingly campaigned horses, like Henrietta Knight with Best Mate and Nicky Henderson with Sprinter Sacre last season, but there might be some confirmation bias going on here.
Gordon Elliott for one seems less inclined to trust this received wisdom and has been very successful this season with running his horses frequently. Should he ascend to be top trainer in Irish national hunt racing, an outcome rated likely at this stage, perhaps his methods will catch on. I wouldn’t hold my breath though!
– Tony Keenan