Champions Day and the Breeders’ Cup are to come but the domestic turf season in Ireland is effectively over with only five meetings left. so now is a good time to take stock before we go full bore into national hunt mode. 2017 will go down as a good year with Enable, Aidan O’Brien’s drive for 25 and Keane versus Smullen among the memorable stories, though we probably could have done without rain spoiling play on many of the major race days. Rather than grade the trainers again this year I’ve decided to go with a winners and losers approach, a change being as good as a rest and all that.
Winner: Aidan O’Brien
Breaking Bobby Frankel’s record of 25 Group 1 winners in a season has been coming for a while with O’Brien but there was the suspicion that it would take a perfect storm of circumstances to finally get over the line. In reality, that unique set of conditions didn’t unfold as the trainer had plenty go wrong this season; his best horse from 2016 (Minding) had to retire early on, his dual Guineas winner Churchill failed to build on early successes while the pick of his juvenile colts (Gustav Klimt) never got to compete at the top level.
Yet it is almost inevitable that O’Brien will break the record anyway and even in an age of Group 1 inflation it rates a sizeable achievement. The trainer himself is apparently nonplussed by the whole situation and has always struck me as having a keen sense of living in the present; he always seems to think one of his current crop is his best ever! But racing is a sport with an especially rich history attached and it is worth celebrating.
As a side-note, one also has to admire his appreciation for each and every one of his big winners and it seems the feeling of winning has not gotten old for him despite its frequency. Perhaps that simply comes with the territory of dealing with horses and the manifold disappointments they provide but I would certainly have his attitude over the stony-faced ‘celebrations’ of Jim Gavin after Dublin’s All-Ireland win.
Loser: Dermot Weld
With 40 winners at the time of writing, Weld is in line for his lowest total since at least 1988 and probably before that; 1988 is as far back as the Racing Post database for season totals goes back. Not only is it his worst tally in nearly 30 years but it is significantly below his next lowest tally of 61 winners in 2004. Zhukova’s win in the Man o’ War at Belmont back in May will likely rate the high-point but even that was a lacklustre affair as she beat a motley crew of four opponents in a race that was run early due to a thunderstorm.
Galway was clearly disappointing with just two winners for the yard though a pair of successes over Irish Champions Weekend for Eziyra and Shamreen were warmly received. To be fair to the trainer, he flagged things up from an early stage, stating that his string were suffering with a virus back in May and indeed his number of runners has been well down on previous years. Pat Smullen was an obvious victim of the down campaign but it is to his credit that he has still managed to make the jockeys’ championship such a tight race given the relative lack of firepower from a yard that is typically his strongest supporter.
Winner: Johnny Murtagh
Murtagh will likely finish 2017 with fewer winners than in 2016 but overall he’s been a much improved trainer in recent seasons after a rocky start to his new career; none of this comes as the greatest surprise given the resilience he has shown in both personal and professional spheres throughout his life. What is most impressive about his operation is that there is a plan in place and for him it is all about the two-year-olds; far too many trainers seem to approach the campaign piecemeal with no sense of overall objectives.
But in 2017 Murtagh has sought to exploit an opening in the programme book and the trainer had every right to recently tweet out that his 57% winner to runner ratio with juveniles paces the field in 2017, ahead of Aidan O’Brien on 48% and Ger Lyons on 45% with the next best on 33%. I’ve been critical of Murtagh’s placing of horses here in the past but his methods with juveniles this season are beyond reproach; he managed to win Plus Ten races (races where there is an extra £10,000 to winner along with the usual prizemoney) with all eight of his juvenile winners with three – Golden Spell, Guessthebill and Too Familiar – winning two such races. None of his two-year-olds are stars, far from it in fact, but to basically double their prizemoney on 11 separate occasions is exemplary race planning.
Loser: David Wachman
David Wachman might well be enjoying life to the full now and good luck to him if so but the racing professional in him may regret the timing of his decision to retire at the end of 2016. The likes of Rain Goddess and White Satin Dancer were good prospects for this season but the campaign would likely have been all about Winter, already a four-time Group 1 winner for Aidan O’Brien with the potential of more to come this Saturday.
Some might argue that her success is simply a by-product of her move to Ballydoyle but while O’Brien is clearly the superior trainer of the two, that is to do Wachman down a little as he showed he could skilfully manage a similar type when he had Legatissimo in her classic season of 2014. It is also likely that he would have had some of the excellent juvenile fillies that currently reside in Ballydoyle under his care and it is hardly a ridiculous suggestion that Clemmie may have been one of those given he trained both her dam Meow and sister Curlylocks before the brother Churchill ever came along.
Winner: Brendan Duke
Despite making no meaningful impact on the trainers’ championship, Duke will go down as one of the stars of 2017 for his campaigning of Warm The Voice… and I mean his media campaign as much as anything! The horse has been a good juvenile, winning three times including a premier nursery at Listowel and getting black-type when third in the Beresford, but the real story has been Duke’s interviews both in print and on TV.
His raw enthusiasm for horses and the sport have engaged many and his openness is a lesson to other trainers. There’s a wonderful sense of humour in there too and a sharp knack for the one-liners from comparing Warm To Voice to an ice-cream (‘he loves himself so much he’d lick himself’) to commenting on the difficult choice Kevin Manning would face at Newmarket next May when he had to pick between Duke’s stable star and Verbal Dexterity.
One of the most overrated horses of this century, Camelot seems likely to prove little better as a sire with the his best progeny topping out at a Racing Post Rating of just 100 and a single Listed race being the most high-profile success to date. It is early days for a horse that stayed 14 furlongs as a three-year-old and perhaps his stock will do better in time but it does seem significant that Aidan O’Brien has yet to train a winner sired by his one-time star.
His three Irish winners have instead been trained by Patrick Prendergast, Jessica Harrington and Gavin Cromwell with the pick of his Ballydoyle-based runners thus far being the limited Lucius Tiberius; after I backed said horse recently, a fellow punter remarked that he could not be any good with a name like that! Camelot has however sired winners in Russia and Italy and that might be where he finishes up for all the brilliant naming possibilities offered by Arthurian legend.
It rained plenty in Galway during race week with racing taking place on varying degrees of soft across the seven days but that did little to quell enthusiasm for all that crowd numbers and bookmaker turnover were slightly down. The big players may have won the Plate and Hurdle with Willie Mullins also taking home the top trainer prize but a greatly reduced Weld factor led to a number of winners on the flat from unexpected sources, most of which came with their own stories.
Among them were Bubbly Bellini hitting another marker on the way to 20 career wins, Cascavelle providing Robbie McNamara with a first Galway winner, Remarkable Lady winning for Team Rogers and Browne on Hurdle Day, Perfect Soldier bringing the house down for Michael O’Callaghan and his Racing Club and of course Warm The Voice and Brendan Duke. The Fahey brothers too had an excellent week and it is winners like this that breathe life into the grassroots of the sport and encourage potential owners to get involved.
Loser: The Curragh
The decision to race on at the Curragh amidst building works was a debacle from the outset and became all the more unsatisfactory as we had to listen to mealy-mouthed justifications about maintaining the integrity of the racing programme. Leopardstown was the obvious alternative and arguments about the proximity of 12-furlong start to a bend and lack of a straight sprint course rang hollow when we consider some of the compromises that have been made elsewhere. A decision to hold the Curragh’s programme at another track would have created a welcome novelty factor akin to Royal Ascot at York in 2005 but instead we got a lot of bad will towards the course.
By the end of the season it was difficult to find anyone outside of the decision-makers who were in support of the Curragh continuing to race. The weather certainly didn’t help with feature days like the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and second day of Irish Champions Weekend blighted by rain but the fact that the track failed to reach capacity for the last two meetings said plenty. In any case, the Curragh’s susceptibility to bad weather was hardly news to anyone who regularly attends the track and we have to endure more of the same in 2018. A bad situation, made all the worst by the unnecessary nature of it all.
Winner: Colin Keane
Regardless of the outcome of the jockeys’ championship, Colin Keane has been a big winner in 2017, rising from champion apprentice just three seasons ago to be one of the biggest players in the weigh-room at just 23. His record in the saddle has been one of continual progression, his winner totals rising from 1 in 2010, to 9, 12, 42, 66, 75 and 90 in the succeeding seasons with 90 his current total. 2017 may have been a down year for the Weld/Smullen connection but that shouldn’t take away from Keane’s achievement and top-level sport is all about grasping opportunity when it presents itself.
Central to that achievement is that he is competing without the support of either Ballydoyle or Rosewell and is bidding to become the first champion jockey since Declan McDonogh in 2005 to reach the top when based with a stable other than the big two. It points not only to Keane’s ambition but also to Ger Lyons, who has to be commended for taking on a prospective champion so early and putting him in a position of responsibility.
– Tony Keenan