Kevin Blake

    The Punchestown Festival is set to be the battleground between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott in deciding who becomes Champion Trainer and here leading racing writer Kevin Blake analyses the numbers behind the title hunt.
  • Monday 24 April 2017
  • Blog

The Showdown at Punchestown: the crucial numbers in the Mullins/Elliott Battle

Make no mistake, this week the Punchestown Festival will be more than the scene of one of the best National Hunt meetings of the season, it will be a battleground.

While both Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott have refused to be drawn into acknowledging the significance of their professional rivalry in pursuit of the title of Champion National Hunt Trainer this season, it has grown and grown into a showdown that will be resolved in what could be the most dramatic of circumstances in the week ahead.

While Elliott has a lead of just over €400,000 going into the week, the below statistics show why it is likely to be a much closer-run contest than many are expecting as both powerhouses go in pursuit of the almost €3m in prize money that is up for grabs this week.

So, just what has happened this season to bring about such a close-run contest? The first question to ask is how Willie Mullins has gone from a position of dominance that saw him get within a whisker of being crowned Champion Trainer in both Ireland and Great Britain just a year ago to being on the verge of losing that domestic crown just a year later.

While it would be easy to draw the quick conclusion that it was the removal of the Gigginstown horses combined with the loss/absence of the likes of star performers such as Vautour, Faugheen and Annie Power that weakened the Willie Mullins string to the extent that it allowed Gordon Elliott the opportunity to make a challenge for his crown, that isn’t necessarily the case. Of course, those facts have cost Mullins, but as these figures show, they haven’t hurt him to the extent that it has seen him underperform on the domestic front compared to what he achieved in recent seasons.

WILLIE MULLINS
Runs Wins Prize Money
2012/13 595 193 € 3,908,059
2013/14 670 185 € 3,817,779
2014/15 554 187 € 4,225,253
2015/16 557 185 € 4,489,105
2016/17 508 171 € 3,643,125

It is worth noting that despite many of his stars being diverted to Aintree to aid his challenge for the British trainers' championship last year, Mullins secured 12 winners and over €800,000 in prize money at the Punchestown Festival in 2016. In what was a more typical year in 2015 that didn’t have the distraction of a British championship bid, Mullins saddled a record-breaking 16 winners and earned just shy of €1.1m in prize money at the meeting.

Considering this, having all but shunned Aintree with his best horses this year, a typically-successful Punchestown Festival will see Mullins register very similar tallies of winners and prize money to what he has in each of the last four seasons. Thus, far be it from the case that Mullins has underperformed this season, it could well be argued that he has over-performed given the sequence of setbacks he suffered.

The real story of this battle has been the relentless forward progress of Gordon Elliott, as shown by the below figures.

GORDON ELLIOTT
       Runs Wins Prize Money
2012/13 329 54 € 1,042,995
2013/14 437 56 € 1,134,160
2014/15 533 92 € 1,546,070
2015/16 791 123 € 2,568,750
2016/17 1177 188 €4,046,980

Indeed, while I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere, not only is Elliott on the verge of taking the Champion Trainer crown from Mullins, he is also only five winners away from matching Mullins’ record seasonal haul of 193 winners from 2012/13.

Of course, Elliott’s gain of approximately 20 horses from Willie Mullins was undoubtedly a help to him this season, but it is worth noting that only three of them, A Toi Phil, Outlander and Apple’s Jade, feature amongst the top 20 prize money earners in the Elliott yard this season.

Rather than being a story of Mullins’ loss being Elliott’s gain, the real story of this season has been one of Mullins’ quality versus Elliott’s well-placed quantity. As shown by the below statistics, despite Willie Mullins having had less than half the number of runners that Elliott has, he has saddled significantly higher rates of wins in Graded contests.

Runners Grade 1 Grade 2 Grade 3
Mullins 508 9 17 11
Elliott 1177 4 4 13

Where Elliott has really gained the edge that has seen him get to where he is this season is his excellent performance in valuable handicaps. Wins in the likes of the Galway Plate, Kerry National, Munster National, Troytown Chase, Dan Moore Handicap Chase and Coral.ie Handicap Chase coupled with the sheer volume of wins he has accumulated in lesser handicaps have been the foundation of his championship bid.

Mind, while Elliott is likely to have targeted this year’s Punchestown Festival more than he has in the past, he will need to significantly better his historical rate of success at the meeting if he is to claim the Champion Trainer crown. The less than €200,000 in prize money he secured at last year’s meeting is highly unlikely to be enough to hold off what promises to be a powerful late lunge from Willie Mullins to retain his crown.

With this in mind, it is fitting that it is the season-long theme of Mullins’ quality versus Elliott’s quantity that is likely to decide the trainer’s championship this week.

As has been the case all season, Mullins appears to hold the aces in the Grade 1 races, but Elliott is likely to be very well represented in the valuable handicaps and also has a few aces in his hand for the Grade 1 races too.

Making statistical projections of how this battle is likely to pan out is made difficult by the fact that only nine of the 14 Grade 1 races are priced up at the writing, but based on the current prices in the markets, Mullins is statistically expected to outperform Elliott by just under €400,000 in those nine races alone. Those races include what are the strongest cards in Mullins’ deck in Un De Sceaux, Nichols Canyon and Annie Power who are clear favourites for some of the most valuable Grade 1 contests of the week.

While Elliott is sure to have much stronger hands in the valuable handicaps, some of which have prize money to rival the non-championship Grade 1 races, perhaps the most significant battlegrounds in deciding the overall victor of this great contest will be the Grade 1 races in which both trainers are well represented.

The early skirmishes will be the potentially anti-climactic clash between Labaik and Melon in the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle on Tuesday and in the Champion Bumper on Wednesday with Carter McKay having to face down the formidable Elliott pairing of Fayonagh and Poli Roi, but fittingly, the real drama could be saved for the last day of the season on Saturday.

Based on the formbook, there is likely to be very little between Apple’s Jade and Vroum Vroum Mag in the Mares’ Champion Hurdle and Mega Fortune and Bapaume in the AES Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle. If the championship is close going into the last day, those two contests promise to be the thrilling focus points of what has the makings of a tremendously-exciting day for Irish National Hunt racing.

Whichever way the result goes, and I suspect it will be much closer than the current prices suggest it will be, both trainers and their teams have excelled in contrasting circumstances this season and are a credit to their sport. May the best team win!

Running a Marathon for Jockeys

I am hoping to run my first marathon in the Great Limerick Run this coming Sunday. I’ve been training for it for a long time, having twice come close to attempting one in the last few years only to succumb to injury, but all has gone relatively smoothly this time and I reckon I’m ready to rumble!

I’m trying to raise a few quid for the Irish Injured Jockeys in the process and you can make a donation here. Any contributions are greatly appreciated.

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