The vagaries of trainer form, those often-elusive shifts in the wellbeing of a yard’s horses, have never done anything for me as a punting angle, on Irish racing at least. With a limited programme book relative to the UK, the sample sizes are just too small be to be meaningful and fleeting veins of form seem to be constantly beyond a bettor’s grasp; it is only with hindsight that we can recognise a good or bad period. What looks like a pattern is often just noise and certainly the perception of a trainer going badly would not put me off a bet.
But what if we could broaden the sample a little and try to predict when a stable will go in or out of form? Discussions of trainer form tend to be limited to what the trainer is doing in the current moment or the weeks previous but what if we look back at how they did at the same time of the season in the previous years? At least this way we have a much greater number of races to evaluate and we can see if form at different parts of the calendar is repeatable from season to season.
For the purposes of this article, I used the excellent HorseRaceBase database [though this research can now be done using Geegeez’ own Query Tool (£) – Ed.] to look at Irish flat races run with the traditional flat season from 2010 to 2016, a total of 6,538 races. I divided the season into four sections: Spring (March and April), Early Summer (May and June), High Summer (July and August) and Autumn (September, October and the odd race in the November). Not all seasons are equal however as the distribution of races far from even:
|Stage of Season||Number of Races||Percentage of Races|
I’m going to present the top ten trainers from each point of the season with all the usual measures with overall strikerate used as the key figure before going deeper on a trainer or two that could be worth following within that period.
The early months of the flat season present an interesting challenge for trainers and there are pros and cons to having their horses ready from the start. Some of your opposition will be playing the long game and aiming to peak their horses later on in the year and if you can try to acquire soft ground types there are some relatively uncompetitive races out there. However, there simply aren’t very many of those races, March and April making up just 12.3% of the overall total, and even if you train a big winner you will be in competition with national hunt racing for column inches. A hot start in the first two months might feel great at the time but there is an opportunity cost here; it could be a long, lean summer if a trainer goes for everything early as their horses become badly handicapped and/or suffer a loss of form.
Two trainers that have long proved willing to pay that cost are Fozzy Stack and Paul Deegan. Obviously Stack has only recently taking out the licence in his own right but by all accounts things are basically as was in his Golden yard from when his father held the license. He wasn’t hanging about again in 2017 with seven winners in the first two months of the season and that’s something that has been a long-standing pattern with this operation; taking the season in four stages listed above, strikerate goes from 20.4% in spring to 15.9% and 16.1% in the two summer phases before dropping to 10% in autumn.
Paul Deegan’s horses are never better than early in the season, his average strikerate of 8.3% rising to 12.6% in the March and April period. The summer stages are rough on him though with May/June returns of 6.7% and 5.2% in July/August before a rebound of sorts at the backend with his autumn strikerate back up to 10% flat. Perhaps his horses take time to overcome their early exertions or it could be a case that the ground is most suitable at the start and finish of the season.
Summer races, be they in the early or late high season, are by definition easier to win as they simply attract smaller field sizes; the average strikerates for all horses in this period is typically around 9% whereas that number drops towards the end of the campaign as trainers rush to run their horses before the turf seasons dwindles to nothing.
One trainer to make the most of these opportunities is Charles O’Brien and it was a surprise to see him rank fifth overall in strikerate at this time of the year as his general rates of return are mediocre; this is a trainer who has had just one Group race winner since 2011. But come May and June his horses appear to find form and it isn’t just the result of one or two fluky good years; in the past seven seasons, he has managed an actual over expected of 1.0 or greater five times. Though without a winner thus far in 2017, he could be about to hit form.
Rightly or wrongly, high summer in Irish racing means one thing: Galway. It is thus no surprise to see trainers that do well at this meeting, like Willie Mullins and Denis Hogan, in the overall top ten for this time of year. The racing at Galway is very competitive with races there frequently over-subscribed but if you have your string in good order aiming at that meeting then the knock-on effect is that they will win at the many other fixtures that are on around this time.
Mullins is a high strikerate trainer by any definition of the term as we saw this past national hunt season when he retained his title despite having appreciably fewer runners than Gordon Elliott. Of his 29 winners in the period covered, seven of those came at Galway where he was top trainer last year, finally ending the reign of Dermot Weld. And remember, this doesn’t include his winners under national hunt rules! Hogan, incidentally, trained five Galway winners from his total of 19.
Andy Slattery is another trainer that does well at this period of the season but while he did have two winners at Galway in 2016 it seems more a by-product of his star horses peaking at this stage of year. Ucanchoose won six times in the months of July and August while An Saighduir won five times; both of those appear on the downgrade now but Creggs Pipes (three wins) and Sors (two wins) might fill the breach. It needs pointing out that Slattery seems to be suffering a hangover (or natural regression if you prefer) from last year’s excellent campaign and is without a winner in 2017.
Almost every trainer sees their strikerate drop off at the end of the season for one simple reason; races are harder to win as the field sizes balloon. As mentioned above, Deegan is someone who sees a bounce-back while the Stack’s 10% return at this time may not be as bad as it seems; the point of comparison here probably shouldn’t be his earlier numbers but those of other trainers around him.
The reason for races being more competitive at this time of year is clear and can be seen best by placing the national hunt and flat seasons alongside one another. When the jumps season concludes, jumps racing just carries on; after Punchestown, there’s another meeting two days later and there are plenty of classy races through the summer at tracks like Killarney and Galway. When the flat stops, it stops and trainers are left with the sole option of the all-weather; to Dundalk or a winter break, you might say.
Readers may have noticed I have avoided referring to the major yards throughout this article; it was intentional as I want to return to those bigger yards next time where I will also look at what if anything all this might mean in the current campaign.
– Tony Keenan