Monday Musings: The Irish Oligarchy

I was looking around for a middlingly-busy English trainer to make a point, writes Tony Stafford. Apologies to Jeremy Noseda for singling him out, but his situation amply puts into focus the absurd strength of the top two Irish jumps stables. Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott play out a year-long private numerical and prizemoney battle, to be resolved by five days’ head-to-head clashes with fortunes to be divvied up between them and their owners every spring at Punchestown.

And what sort of owners? After Elliott once again succumbed to the even more excessive resources of the Mullins hordes, his principal owner, Michael O’Leary of Gigginstown fame and the countless Ryanair millions, said: “We will have to strive even harder to catch up with Willie”. Actually his words were probably a little different, but that was the tenor of his argument.

One element which I did catch properly was that he thinks it is good for Irish racing that Gordon Elliott’s stable has grown to be competitive with the top man. That it has is entirely due to the Gigginstown horses’ switching from Mullins two years ago over O’Leary’s refusal to pay more for training fees than hitherto. Otherwise, he says, it would be a case of Mullins winning everything.

Last week he didn’t quite win everything, but 18 wins from 117 runners over the five days, including most of the Grade 1’s, was as fair an approximation to complete domination as you would wish to encounter.

Is it good for Irish racing? Is it good that overnight declarations for several of the top races were confined almost entirely to the Mullins/Elliott brigades? When the always-supine press applaud say Mullins or, less often last week Elliott, for a major winner with his fifth-string, do they worry about the impossibility it offers racing fans to come up with the 25-1 shot that happened to be the one that prevailed from the depths of the multiple candidates.

I mentioned Jeremy Noseda earlier. Over the past decades he has shown exceptional ability for various major owners, winning major races and placing his horses shrewdly. Sadly for him, a good number have gone elsewhere, often to the domestic big shots like Gosden, Stoute or the like, or joined the frequent yearning for the fashionable newer talents of whom Archie Watson is an obvious current example.

Yet Noseda still has the skill to plan major projects, like next weekend’s – now sadly ill-fated – challenge for the Kentucky Derby with the much-improved Gronkowski, who qualified for the Run for the Roses via a cleverly-conceived race at Newcastle. Victory there obviated the need to go for one of the North American Classic trials that would have provided a far more testing examination for earning qualification points for the big race. Alas, he misses out due to a setback.

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In the whole of 2016, Noseda won 19 races from a total of only 109 runs. Last year, slightly more active, his 28 wins came from 122 runners – in the former case eight fewer total runners in the calendar year than Mullins sent to the track at a single fixture last week. In 2017, his total exceeded the Punchestown Mullins hordes by a mere five.

In all, Mullins’ tally for the whole of the 2017-8 jumps season in Ireland was 212 wins from 797 runs (243 individual horses) at a win percentage of 27. Level stakes losses for all runners was only 80 points, testimony to the fact that the “wrong ones” often win. Additionally, he won ten races from his 74 runners in the UK during the same period.

Of course he’s a master trainer. His father Paddy was likewise a top trainer and his brothers, former sister-in-law (Mags) and the next generation of son Patrick, plus nephews and cousins form a pretty strong starting point for the country’s horse-racing aristocracy.

Then take the Walsh’s and the Carberry’s, leavened with the still-exploding Aidan O’Brien dynasty, with plenty more to come, and you can see why racing over there might seem to be something of a closed shop. Indeed, without the long-established practice of the formerly all-conquering J P McManus to spread a decent percentage of his horses around many of the smaller stables, the oligopoly would be even more intense.

It doesn’t happen here, even in jumping. Nicky Henderson might have been the pre-eminent stable this season with at least £1 million earnings more than anyone else and 141 wins, coincidentally, like Mullins in Ireland, at 27%. He had four wins on this country’s end of season climax day at Sandown on Saturday, but the ten horses he sent out there might just as easily have been routed to Punchestown in other seasons.

Four years in succession when Nicky trained Punjabi, he followed his Cheltenham runs each year by sending him to Punchestown. The first time (2007) his fourth in the Triumph and second at Aintree were followed with victory in the Four-Year-old Grade 1 at the Irish fin de saison jamboree. When he was third in the following year’s Champion, he crossed the Irish Sea and won their Champion Hurdle.

The next year he won at Cheltenham but was narrowly beaten in Ireland, while declining health (a breathing problem) caused unplaced efforts in both races in 2010. Yet even after his disappointing effort in his unsuccessful title defence, he still found his way across the Irish Sea those few weeks later. Happily he’s still fit enough at Kinsale Stud to make a yearly appearance at the Cheltenham Festival Parade of Champions.

In those days, Punchestown was Nicky’s Holy Grail, so much so that when I suggested we aim Punjabi at the Chester Cup the year he won the Champion – he’d won his only two Flat races for Ray Tooth and Hendo at Newmarket and Sandown the year before – the idea was given short shrift. As I said at the time (under my breath of course), we win another race in Ireland? So what! This is the Chester Cup, one of the great historic races. Wish we had something good enough to go for it now.

I’d have loved Gronkowski to give Jeremy a big run on Saturday at Churchill Downs, and in his absence I have to go along with Mendelssohn. His run on dirt in Dubai was astonishing, but as yet the signs are that the O’Brien team is not quite in top form. The way the market on the 2,000 Guineas has been going, it seems that Gustav Klimt, rather than Saxon Warrior, might be the one to be on from Ballydoyle.

Can you believe that both those massive races are already with us? I haven’t forgotten that a few weeks back I suggested it would be good for the sport if the home-bred Tip Two Win could do just that for the Roger Teal stable. Certainly it would be good for Roger and the colt’s owner-breeder Mrs Anne Cowley anyway. [And also for geegeez.co.uk, as Tip Two Win’s jockey is none other than our sponsored rider, David Probert – Ed.].

After that, next week it’s Chester for three days, then a week later the Dante meeting at York. It’s all just too much. Before the season gets going it seems it’ll be Epsom and Royal Ascot.

There has been quite a lot of comment about the switch from a general structure of maiden races with a few conditions events sprinkled in, to the almost total obliteration of the former by the newly-extended novice races. The big stables love them. They can have horses that won a race the year before, or in some cases, two years earlier and had gone through a campaign of Group or even Classic races, yet are still qualified to take on maidens if they hadn’t won again.

So take the example of Ray’s promising horse Sod’s Law. Second, beaten narrowly on debut in December at Kempton, he returned there for a novice race a couple of weeks back and finished fourth. The winner Fennaan, trained by John Gosden, had won a 16-runner novice last September and after the narrow win here – from a decent Richard Hannon type called Magnificent, was given a rating of 93.

It seems all the novice races, and there are few enough open to our horse when you include maiden auctions – he’s home-bred, so didn’t go to a sale, median auctions for less than £19,000, and fillies’ only contests. Hughie Morrison is looking for a satisfactory third race, but he’ll need to get cracking and we’re already into May. It’s another case of Sod’s Law. Whose idea was it to get that name?

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