Well, that was rather good, wasn’t it? The 2016/17 Irish jumps season may not have delivered a horse that will echo down the ages but by other measures it was highly enjoyable; not only did we get some deeply competitive racing but also a battle for top trainer that legitimately went down to the last days of the campaign.
Willie Mullins – Grade: B+
It was the depth what done it. When Willie Mullins looks back on how he won the title for the tenth consecutive time, it won’t be the stars he has to thank. Many of them were missing for all or some of the season and one need only look at his top ten money earners in Ireland to see a more workmanlike group that may not have won every time they ran but were available to race throughout the campaign and pick up chunks of prizemoney even in defeat. In order, they were: Clondaw Warrior, Westerner Lady, Wicklow Brave, Ballycasey, Airlie Beach, Bacardys, Nichols Canyon, Great Field, Djakadam and Bapaume.
One of the features of past seasons at Closutton has been unbeaten horses hammering through the winter to the spring festivals but Great Field was the only real example of that in 2016/17 with, bizarrely, Bacardys being the next closest thing; on jockey bookings at least, he seemed unfancied for his two Grade 1 novice wins but his only defeats came when bad luck intervened. Douvan would likely have proven one of those unbeaten stars but for getting injured at Cheltenham but while that was a freak occurrence, keeping horses sound was an issue for Mullins all season. I’m unsure whether getting horses to the track is down to trainer skill or luck; readers can decide themselves but one area where Elliott holds the edge over Mullins is in having his horses run frequently.
With Douvan below-par and in the absence of Annie Power, Faugheen, Min and Vautour, Mullins did very well to extract six Cheltenham winners from this team. While Yorkhill, Un De Sceaux and Let’s Dance were in the mould of typical Mullins Festival winners, well-backed horses with standout form claims, the other three were anything but. Nichols Canyon had looked a bit sour on previous starts and was trying a new trip for the first time, Arctic Fire had been off the track for a long time, Penhill had been running in summer novice hurdles in 2016. All three represented good training performances though it was interesting that none of the six Cheltenham winners were able to win again before the end of the season, again proving how important depth was with all sorts of down-the-pecking-order types winning races at Punchestown.
In terms of raw numbers, Mullins actually surpassed his previous best in total prizemoney though that might say more about what was going on in the middle reaches of the trainers’ table than anything else. This was not a flawless season by any means however and I wonder if the Ricci team are getting a little edgy about their suddenly depleted team: Annie Power seems destined for retirement, Faugheen and Min remain out, Djakadam continues to struggle against the very best while their best novice was probably Let’s Dance and she was exposed as the season went on.
Mullins also remains without a championship chase winner at Cheltenham, Douvan unable to make the breakthrough this year, and his media engagement remains as frustrating as ever. It is fine for racing writers to say that he is easily accessible on the phone, something that is not the case in many other sports, but what is the point if he is simply putting out misinformation?
Whisper it quietly, but was this season the beginning of Ruby Walsh’s decline? One never knows how a great athlete’s career will taper off; it may be a slow drop-off or a rapid plunge towards the mediocre. It could be simply recency bias but Walsh wasn’t at his best at Punchestown, his rides on Nichols Canyon, Melon and possibly Un De Sceaux questionable from a pacing and sectional time perspective.
Gordon Elliott – Grade: A-
Elliott’s ascent to the pinnacle, or near-pinnacle, of Irish jumps trainers has not be gradual; it has been meteoric. Consider his record over the past five seasons, made all the more impressive by his not having the advantages of family connections in racing.
The number of total runners here is staggering and there is a sense that he accumulated his prizemoney total through brute force; run them out there often seemed the rule of thumb and get them into the valuable handicaps. His top 10 money-earners back this up: Ball D’Arc, Lord Scoundrel, A Toi Phil, Apple’s Jade, Death Duty, Noble Endeavor, Wrath Of Titans, Bless The Wings, Outlander, Fayonagh. Five of that group won a graded handicap chase while another was second in the Irish National. Ball D’Arc was a fine advertisement for Elliott’s method, running to form in seemingly every available race, and if I were an owner I would enjoy his aggressive approach to campaigning; what is the point of having a horse if it does not run?
There are arguments against this method however. Some horses simply thrive with time between their races and one wonders if Elliott will be able to adapt when faced with such a horse. Furthermore, there was something unsporting about his running so many horses in both the Thyestes and the Irish Grand National, especially when a few of those had taken part in gruelling races just days before. He seemed to be using economies of scale to keep other horses out of the race though it should be pointed out that Willie Mullins has not been above variations on this theme in graded races over the years, often entering a raft of high-class types to scare off potential rivals.
Elliott obviously had an excellent Cheltenham, winning with horses with less than obvious form claims; Labaik got it all together on the day that mattered as did the often poor-jumping Tiger Roll while Cause Of Causes in the Cross-Country was a sharp bit of placing in a weak race and getting in extra schooling session over the course a clever spot. He did well with a number of the Gigginstown horses that arrived from other yards, at worst maintaining Apple’s Jade’s level while improving Outlander and Empire Of Dirt. He also had his best Punchestown yet. After just nine winners at the meeting since 2010, he had three Grade 1 winners this season and made Mullins fight to the end.
There was a lot to be proud of here for Elliott but it was bittersweet too. I suspect he will be champion trainer in time but circumstances fell right for him in 2016/17 and they may not be as suitable in the coming seasons. His rise through the ranks has been so rapid one has to wonder if he can go any higher and there might be some regression next time; after all, he did equal the record of winners trained in a season despite finishing second. Sport is about grasping opportunity when it presents itself as one never knows when that window will close. Elliott did so this season and still came up a little short but given his upward trajectory it would be hard to count out further improvement.
Henry De Bromhead – Grade: B
Horses moving yards was the story of Henry De Bromhead’s season, his stable seeing a high turnover with the Gigginstown horses arriving and the Potts horses leaving. The new arrivals helped in bringing the trainer a career-best season in terms of total winners and prize-money with five horses standing out in terms of improving for the switch. Petit Mouchoir won two Grade 1s and rose from 147 to 164, Sub Lieutenant (145 to 162) was placed three times at Grade 1 level, Champagne West (152 to 167) sharpened up his jumping and landed a Thyestes while both Valseur Lido and Some Plan won Grade 1s. That should certainly be enough to keep the results-driven Gigginstown operation happy.
There is an elephant in the room here however. De Bromhead had a Gold Cup winner in his midst over the last few seasons and seemed not to know it though it could be argued that no one else did either; Sizing John was 270 on Betfair to win the race a year beforehand. Even so, that’s not the sort of thing you want to miss and it wasn’t an isolated example. Other Alan Potts-owned horses like Supasundae, Sizing Codelco, Viconte Du Noyer and Pingshou improved for the move to other yards. If anything, his whole season was an object season for owners in the value of not being too loyal as there are positives to be derived from mixing up trainers.
Special Tiara winning the Champion Chase at the fourth attempt was the highlight of De Bromhead’s season though he was a fortunate winner with Douvan not performing in a race that came apart at the seams. Even so, the trainer deserves credit for keeping him so sweet for so long, much like his former stablemate Sizing Europe. Identity Thief was a much more disappointing horse, the wheels coming off from Christmas on, and it will be interesting to watch the development of Petit Mouchoir over fences next winter. They have very similar profiles, with Petit Mouchoir a slightly better horse, but the extra season over hurdles is rarely of benefit to a prospective chaser.
Noel Meade – Grade: B+
Given his history at the Festival, any season with a Cheltenham winner is a good one for Meade, his Road To Respect winning the Festival Plate in fine style before following up in the Grade 1 Ryanair Novice Chase where he took advantage of the errant Yorkhill. Indeed, a number of Meade’s Festival runners acquitted themselves well, Disko, Snow Falcon and Monksland all running decent races, with the first-named the great hope for 2017/18. Subsequent events at Punchestown might suggest Disko was in the wrong race at Cheltenham and certainly his stamina wasn’t drawn out to full effect in the JLT; only a six-year-old, he is a live Gold Cup outsider at 33/1.
Meade did well for Gigginstown this season, their Ice Cold Soul a big handicap hurdle winner at Leopardstown to go with Waxies Dargle winning a similar race at Fairyhouse pre-Christmas. Meade can be streaky as a trainer but his horses held their form well all season and were healthy too, a criticism that could fairly be levelled after the last few seasons.
Jessica Harrington – Grade: A+
In terms of pure winners, this was not Jessica Harrington’s best national hunt campaign; she recorded higher winner totals in both 2007/8 and 2008/9 along with a number of seasons where she produced broadly similar figures. It’s probably harder to hit those totals now though and you have to go back to the days of Moscow Flyer and Macs Joy to find a time when she had such top-end quality. Basically, she had two really high-class animals in Sizing John and Our Duke along with a few good if not great horses backing them up. One could ask what were her third, fourth and fifth best horses this season and ponder it for a while with the likes of Supasundae, Rock The World and Jezki in the mix.
But she simply went on beast mode in the spring, winning valuable prizes at Cheltenham, Fairyhouse and Punchestown, with her placing and training of the two kingpins excellent. To get three Gold Cups out of Sizing John was a monumental achievement, especially when he wasn’t even on the radar for races beyond two and a half miles at Christmas. The decision not to enter Our Duke at Cheltenham was a brave one, one that I questioned at the time, but she spotted the value of the Irish National and he went on to put up one of the chasing performances of the season at Fairyhouse.
While we will remember 2016/17 for Mullins versus Elliott, the untold story of the season is the squeezed middle of the Irish training ranks. All of the top five trainers mentioned above had good seasons, a few doing better than ever before by one measure or another, but if the big are to get bigger (which is what happened this season), then something has to give.
That has been the middle rank of Irish trainers and in the past year we have seen two of their group stepping away from the job in Colm Murphy and Sandra Hughes. I don’t feel comfortable doling out grades to trainers who may be struggling financially and while this group is worth a statistical study in their own right, one small point of comparison is worth making. Five years ago in the 2011/12 season, there were 12 trainers that had 20 or more winners while this season that number was down to seven. The top five trainers back then are the same as they are now but consider how the rest of the top 12 in 2011/12 did this season:
|11/12 Rank||Trainer||2011/12 Winners||2016/17 Winners|
*Sandra Hughes total winners
All seven have seen their winner numbers drop with some falling off a cliff. There is something dramatic going on here and whether that is for good or ill is for others to decide; one thing is for sure, the races that would typically be won by medium-sized trainers are being swallowed up by the bigger handlers. Perhaps this simply means that employment is being shifted to the top five yards and the jobs are still there but even that is less than ideal for staff that are used to working in a particular area and now have to move.
Let’s end on a brighter note though. Rookie trainer Ellmarie Holden was one of the revelations of the season with twelve winners on her first go around. Triumph Hurdle fourth Ex Patriot was the star, and he might have done even better but for bolting before the start, but her winners to runners ratio of 62% was an even bigger achievement. That was best of all the trainers with a meaningful sample size with Willie Mullins next in at 59% and shows that there may be hope for the smaller yard yet.
– Tony Keenan