Hugh Taylor

With Covid-19 shutting down UK horse racing, Hugh Taylor will write an occasional blog for attheraces.com. Hugh's first piece is now live, covering Irish handicappers in the UK.

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“Is the handicapper letting Irish-trained horses in too lightly when they run over here?”

That must have been a common question over the last few weeks – at least, for those who follow all-weather racing. Irish raiders enjoyed a tremendous time of it in February, recording nine wins from just 21 runners on synthetic surfaces in this country, with all five of our courses that have an artificial surface witnessing at least one Irish-trained winner.

All nine of those wins came in handicaps or classified races, so on the surface, it seems that Irish raiders might be intrinsically well handicapped when they contest British races. I decided to delve a bit further back, however, and the results surprised me.

I ignored Southwell, because the theory I wanted to test was whether horses that had been racing either on Dundalk or on turf in Ireland had an advantage when coming over here to run on synthetic surfaces. Southwell is a totally different surface to anything on either side of the Irish Sea, and unsurprisingly Irish-trained horses have a moderate record there (3-53 since October 2018).

The overall record for Irish-trained horses at the five artificial surface tracks in Britain since October 1st 2018 is 31 wins from 262 runners, 11.8% strike rate, and a level stakes loss of 58 points. I must admit that surprised me, as I’ve sometimes felt that Dundalk form, in particular, has a bit more depth to it in the lower grades than is the case in this country.

I suspect the availability bias might be at play here though – we tend to notice when an Irish raider wins, but the ones that finish down the field don’t get so much attention.

The impact of selection bias has to be involved in analysing the results here too. On the one hand, it would probably seem pointless to embark on a long journey to one of the English courses with a horse that wasn’t considered to have a chance. However there are probably a fair number of “box-fillers” included in the overall results, with trainers perhaps keen to run two or more horses at the same meeting to help with transport costs.

Perhaps more pertinently, there has been a major issue with horses being balloted out at Dundalk for some time now and a lot of the Irish-trained runners that come to England are simply there because it’s the only place where they can get a run.

It’s worth noting those trainers that have done especially well in this sphere though. Gavin Cromwell has saddled nine winners from just 25 runners on a synthetic surface for a profit of 33 points (he also does well with his turf winners and has a record of 18 winners from 60 runners in Britain overall).

Gerard O’Leary (5-17, +12 points) is another trainer to keep an eye on, as is John McConnell, whose strike rate over here is far better than in Ireland.

Overall, though, the prosaic but realistic approach is that Irish-trained horses running on the all-weather in this country need to be treated on their merits, rather than assuming they are either intrinsically well-handicapped, or likely to represent some sort of “plot”.

Hugh Taylor
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