Aidan O’Brien has had an unusual last couple of weeks, writes Tony Keenan. Rather than concentrating on preparations for Irish Champions Weekend, he’s been defending Ballydoyle work practices at the Labour Court and the decision there could yet have wide-reaching consequences for Irish racing. On the track however, it’s been business as usual for O’Brien with none of his rival Irish trainers causing anything like as many problems as the labour lawyers; so it seems sensible to expect a good number of winners for the trainer this coming weekend.
In truth, Irish Champions Weekend hasn’t been the best meeting for the yard since it took its current form in 2014. In that time, O’Brien has had nine winners in total with the other Irish trainers having 23, Dermot Weld doing best with six, and the now retired David Wachman next on three. UK-based trainers had 15 winners while Almanzor was the sole French success in last year’s Champion Stakes. Despite these historical figures I’m inclined to drink the Cool(-more) Aid and expect a massive weekend for Team Ballydoyle in light of what has been going on with the other main Irish trainers this season.
Excluding O’Brien, 2017 has been one of the worst years in recent memory for Irish trainers winning good flat races in the UK. Consider the following table which totals the record of non-APOB Irish trainers in UK races worth £10,000 or more since 2011:
Irish Trainers in UK Flat Races worth £10,000 or more (excluding Aidan O’Brien)
|2017 (to date)||4||69||5.8%|
This season is far from over of course but with roughly two months of it left it is going to be a struggle to beat even last year’s total of seven winners which itself was well down on previous years. Even the quality of the four winners has been below-par; two were handicap winners, The Tartan Spartan at Salisbury in April and Thomas Hobson at Royal Ascot, while the other two were Ken Condon-trained winners on soft ground, Elusive Beauty at Carlisle and Success Days at York, hardly the most competitive contests.
One could ask what this has to do with events at home but I would counter quite a lot. Irish trainers have long gone to England for better opportunities with their best flat horses but if you can’t win at home you are unlikely to start looking away for possible targets. Perhaps the most revealing figure above is greatly reduced number of runners in the better UK races, just 69 so far in 2017 with the previous five seasons all comfortably breaking three figures. Some major Irish trainers haven’t even been trying in the UK this year with Dermot Weld and Jim Bolger being notably absent with one and four runners respectively.
It has been an entirely different story with O’Brien. As you can see below, his tally of UK runners continues to grow. He looks certain to outstrip his previous highs in terms of runners with the winner total likely to follow and the last two seasons have basically seen a 35% increase in the number of horses he runs in England. O’Brien seems to have more good horses than ever before and he needs to find more good races in which to place them.
Aidan O’Brien in UK Flat Races worth £10,000 or more
|2017 (to date)||96||17||17.7%|
This would be less of a concern to the other main Irish trainers were they succeeding in battening down the hatches at home, maintaining levels of success for upcoming seasons when better horses come along. This has not been the case however. Here we have a table of O’Brien’s record in Irish group races over the past five years and note how not only his percentage of runners in these races has grown but also how his percentage of winners has gone into the stratosphere in 2017.
Aidan O’Brien in Irish Group Races
|Year||Runners in Irish Group Races||Total Runners||% Runners in Irish Group Races||Winners in Irish Group Races||Total Group Races Contested||% Wins in Group Races Contested|
|2017 (to date)||100||375||26.7%||23||50||46.0%|
The evidence again points to him becoming more dominant in terms of runners and winners but the question is where this improvement has come from. An obvious answer is that it is a by-product of a down year for Dermot Weld and he has just picked up the races that would typically go to Rosewell; but a barely remarked upon point has been the retirement of David Wachman and the relocating of the horses he had in training as well as the ones that might have been destined for his yard.
I’m sure there were a few trainers with Coolmore associations – Fozzy Stack and Joseph O’Brien perhaps – that might have hoped for some of those runners but all of them seem to have finished up in Ballydoyle. Wachman may have had a nightmare time in his final season, finishing twenty-fourth overall in the championship and having only 118 runners, but this was by no means a small operation: the previous three years yielded 261 runners (sixth overall), 265 runners (ninth) and 293 runners (fourth) respectively. Nor was Wachman short on quality, training the likes of Legatissimo, Curvy and Again in recent seasons.
So a good-sized yard with well-bred horses was basically subsumed into Ballydoyle over the winter with Winter herself the obvious standard-bearer. O’Brien has had some strong crops of juvenile fillies in recent campaigns but this season’s might be the deepest which makes sense if he has gotten extra inmates from Wachman; that trainer was often given a sizable number of well-bred Coolmore fillies and had a good record with them. Despite his skill with such runners, it is hardly unrealistic to expect O’Brien to extract more from them: not only is he a better trainer than Wachman, he is a better trainer than anyone else too.
All of this could lead to a record-breaking year for O’Brien in terms of prizemoney won in Ireland. Below is a table of prizemoney earned by the big four Irish trainers of O’Brien, Bolger, Lyons and Weld over the past five seasons. I’ve included a figure for each yard for the current season along with a projected total that they might reach. The projected figure is simply a fast and loose calculation that pro-rates what they have done already across the rest of the season; in a typical Irish flat season running March to October/November, there will be roughly 940 races and we have had 720 to this point so we are just past the three-quarters point of the season.
|Trainer||2013||2014||2015||2016||2017 (to date)||2017 Projected|
Obviously these projections are subject to error as trainers like Weld that have done poorly up to now may improve over the final two months of the season while others could regress. But what they do reveal is that a €6 million figure is very much in play for O’Brien which would be more than €800,000 ahead of his previous best. Some of that might be down to prizemoney inflation in a rising economy but not all of it can be put down to that.
The vagaries of training race-horses means that their form ebbs and flows but the increase in the number of O’Brien runners suggests there could be something more going on as he takes his career up another level. Certainly a look at the top 20 flat horses in Ireland per Horse Racing Ireland’s race administration website is a sobering experience for other trainers; O’Brien trains 17 of them with the other three – Jet Setting, Awtaad and Heartbreak City – either retired or deceased.
So where is Irish flat racing as we go into Champions Weekend 2017? Weld has had a down year and Jim Bolger has basically spent recent seasons flat-lining in terms of achievement. The interesting one – and the one who has hardly been mentioned yet – is Ger Lyons. As a younger man, he might be more ambitious than Weld or Bolger and there is a chance that he finishes second overall this season though how meaningful that achievement would be can be questioned as it would have come when the usual runner-up Weld was having a bad time.
The reality is however that there is a ceiling on what he can achieve as his yard is currently constituted. Subjectively, I view him as at least as good a trainer as Weld and Bolger in how he goes about his business but he needs a major patron that can take him to the next level. That opportunity has not presented itself yet but a winner or two over Irish Champions Weekend would hardly do him any harm though the going will not be easy with O’Brien in total control. That said, owners doing shocking things and moving horses wholesale from champion yards is not unfamiliar in Irish racing; it was just that sort of seemingly crazy move that breathed life into a long-dormant jumps trainers’ title this past winter.
– Tony Keenan