For whatever reason, the Irish Grand National seems to bring the competitiveness issue in Irish jumps racing into sharp focus, writes Tony Keenan. Perhaps it is the long-held view, correct or incorrect, that the National is a lottery race where everything has a chance; in the early part of this decade, there were wins for Bluesea Cracker at 25/1, Lion Na Bearnai at 33/1 and Liberty Counsel at 50/1. Those three horses have more in common than their prices though as all were trained at small yards by James Motherway, Thomas Gibney and Dot Love. In the seasons since their big wins, those trainers have averaged 3.4, 1.6 and 3.4 winners per campaign so we really are talking about smaller operations.
There was some representation from similar stables in this year’s race; Forever Gold for Edward Cawley, Call It Magic for Ross O’Sullivan, Killaro Boy for Adrian Murray and Westerner Point for Eoghan O’Grady and I wouldn’t argue with anyone looking to stretch that out to John Ryan’s Kilcarry Bridge or Pat Kelly’s Mall Dini. Still, the story of the National, pre-race at least, was Gordon Elliott’s record number of runners, 13 in all, eight owned by Gigginstown who also had two more runners with other trainers.
The Elliott/Mullins duopoly is often said to have made life difficult for small trainers and when possible measures to redress this imbalance are discussed – if indeed they are necessary – it is always in the context of improving the lot of the small trainer. This may misrepresent the reality however as it is the middle-rank trainers who have really suffered during the rise of the ‘Big Two’ with the minor yards still getting by to a degree. Consider the snapshot of three seasons from the last decade, the 2006/7, 2011/12 and 2016/17 campaigns. In those years, the number of total races was 1,377, 1,399 and 1,422 respectively so the totals are broadly similar. In them I have broken down trainers by winner totals to see the distribution of winners across the size of each yard.
|50 to 99||1||1||2|
|20 to 49||11||10||2|
|6 to 19||41||46||41|
|1 to 5||211||222||202|
As you can see, the small trainers are holding their own in terms of getting a handful of winners; whether they are getting into the better races with their one good horse is another issue however. It is those in the middle, trainers having between 20 and 49 winners that have been wiped out. In 2006/7 that group comprised Jessica Harrington, Charlie Swan, Paul Nolan, Dessie Hughes, Tom Taaffe, Tony Martin, Edward O’Grady, Michael O’Brien, Joe Crowley, Dusty Sheehy and Michael Hourigan. Only Harrington is any sort of force now. The top trainers were much more compressed back then and while Noel Meade did break the 100-winner mark it was with 102 winners. As an aside, I can’t have any comparisons between Meade winning eight trainers’ championships and what is going on now; that 102 winners was his highest ever total with 86 his next best and this was a time when he struggled massively for Cheltenham winners.
Back in in 2006/7, Willie Mullins has 79 winners but by 2011/12 that number was up to 138 while Meade had dropped back to 59. Elliott, meanwhile, had 40 winners. But five years later, things had shifted again with Elliott and Mullins having 193 and 180 winners, followed by Henry De Bromhead on 68, Meade on 57, Harrington on 48 and Joseph O’Brien with no one else breaking 20 winners. The gap between the best and the rest is going to widen further this season with Elliott having already broken 200 winners and Mullins certain to do so. There will be more trainers breaking into the middle tier of 20 winners-plus this season albeit at the lower end.
Some observations on all this. For betting purposes, Elliott versus Mullins is eminently preferable to Mullins bossing everyone as was the case five years ago. Back then, he was running his horses sparingly and often in the most uncompetitive races which was boring. It is fascinating that Elliott has made Mullins dance to his tune this season, forcing the champion into running his horses much more frequently than previously, a pattern that was especially noticeable at the Dublin Racing Festival and Fairyhouse just gone. When the season comes to a close, Mullins’ average runs per season will be well up.
If the championship leaves Closutton this season – rated more likely than not by current odds – it could well be because he failed to be aggressive enough in campaigning his horses in the early part of the jumps season proper, the months of October, November and December; he eventually followed Elliott’s lead, but not soon enough. Seeing good horses run more frequently and in more competitive races is obviously a positive though a balance needs to be struck with not running them into the ground, literally in this current season. One wonders what sort of racing we will have at Punchestown after both Cheltenham and Fairyhouse were held on testing turf.
It also needs pointing out that while both Mullins and Elliott train for some massive concerns, they also handle horses from single-horse owners. This is cherry-picking but consider the Irish National just gone; the runner-up Isleofhopendreams runs in the colours of the Kilbroney Racing Partnership and seems to be their only horse while the official fourth Folsom Blue is the only horse to run this season for the Core Partnership, allowing that their most high-profile partner Gary O’Brien has shares in some others. How do you crab such owners for wanting their horses in the best yards, allowing that there is the chance they could be lost in the mix?
The role of big ownership is much more interesting to consider. This season, Gigginstown have had horses run for six trainers: Elliott, De Bromhead, Meade, Joseph O’Brien, Mouse Morris and Edward Hales. Last season, that number was nine. In 2015/16 it was 12, in 2014/15 it was 16 and it peaked back in 2013/14 at 17. The pattern is of contracting their roster of trainers each season and while it is possible they will give an opportunity to some up-and-comer in the near-future, it seems at least as likely further consolidation will occur; I can certainly foresee a point when Elliott trains all their horses. With the achievements of Road To Respect and Balko Des Flos this past season, Meade and De Bromhead have done enough to be kept on but it is hard to be believe that a conversation about sending everything to Gordon hasn’t been had by the O’Learys.
Of the other major owners, the likes of Rich Ricci, Graham Wylie and the Sullivan operation are all single trainer setups with Mullins the handler in question. Ann and Alan Potts Limited have used five Irish trainers this season – Harrington, Jim Dreaper, Liam Burke, Jimmy Mangan and Mouse Morris – though the future of their racing interests remains in question. All of this make JP McManus look like racing’s benevolent fund which is not something I thought I would ever write; this season he has had horses run for 49 (yes, 49!) separate Irish yards.
One does wonder however about the effect this is having on attracting new owners to the sport. While watching racing from Fairyhouse on Sunday I was struck by a representative from Tattersalls Ireland saying that “national hunt racing is traditionally about opportunity for everyone” which rings a little hollow at the moment. I can’t speak for any owner as they will all have their own views but I do wonder about the attractiveness of the sport to the person who wants to spend a reasonable few quid – let’s say small six-figures on a horse – and send it to their local mid-tier trainer. That ownership space seems to be gone now though those people obviously have the option of sending it to Mullins or Elliott.
Ownership is not the only concern however; employment might also be an issue. Both Mullins and especially Elliott seem to have a raft of assistant trainers and staff, many of them evidently excellent at their jobs. Is the increased employment they provide enough to make up for the other trainers slowing down? And if it is, there is also a pressure on racing staff to move away from their homes closer to the power-bases in Carlow and Meath though perhaps that is just a fact of life in any profession. I am completely unqualified to answer these questions but it would be interesting to get the views of those involved.
The rise of Mullins and Elliott is evidence of capitalism/meritocracy in full flow but there is a complicating factor in all this; racing in Ireland is heavily subsidised by the state with almost €64 million going into the coffers for 2017. Rural employment and approximately 18,000 jobs are frequently trotted out as the justifications for this funding. That employment seems to be becoming less available however with the total national hunt trainers in Ireland down to 93 in 2017, the lowest total since 2008, and a recent course for new trainers cancelled due to lack of interest. When asked about this in February, HRI boss Brian Kavanagh said that their “emphasis [was] on quality” and that Ireland was “a very, very competitive market and ultimately that’s no bad thing.” Perhaps I am soft but those comments seemed a little harsh; HRI might need to do more than just let things take their course.
I don’t have any solutions to this, if indeed solutions are needed. The fantasist in me imagines a weird sort of draft system where smaller trainers get access to top equine talent and what fun that would be. Could you imagine: ‘with the first pick of the 2017/18 draft, Garrett Power selects…. SAMCRO!’ But this is Ireland, not America, where the ‘sure, it will be grand’ attitude prevails. Perhaps it will and racing is always changing as we see from the tables above; maybe Michael O’Leary will decide over the summer that he prefers football and wants to see Westmeath United in the Champions’ League!
– Tony Keenan