Summer racing comes thick and fast
The dog days of the Flat season have come at us fast in 2020. July and August are traditionally the most fixture-intense months of the year, but it feels all the more packed this year with nothing having happened from mid-March to early- June; Monday gone was just the third day without a card since racing returned.
A compacted fixture list means that trainers are being forced to run their horses more often and some are thriving on it. Serpentine had his first start of the year on June 12th, not convincing with his attitude when a dropped into fifth in a Curragh maiden, but has not seen another horse since in his races. Returned to the same track 15 days later he won a similar contest by nine lengths, and you know the rest.
Speak In Colours is an even more extreme example. He had four runs in 22 days, all at Group level and including a trip to Royal Ascot, with the last two of those yielding wins at the Curragh and Fairyhouse. For others, the quick return may not have been such a positive and might be the reason for an otherwise unexplained disappointment.
It’s the same with trainers and the set up of the current Flat season makes me wonder if doing well with horses backing up quickly is a specific skill set. I looked back at the last five official Flat seasons in Ireland on Horse Race Base to see which yards do well or struggle when bringing horses back to the track quickly.
Willie Mullins spoke about the optimal time between runs for a National Hunt horse being around three weeks, though with a Flat horse it is likely shorter; for the purposes of analysis here, I looked at horses running back within 14 days, 7 days and 4 days.
The first thing that stands out is that horses, as a rule, do better the sooner they back up, as the table below shows.
Runners by Number of Days Since Last Run, Ireland Flat Seasons 2015-2019
Wins Runs % Places Place % Actual/Expected
All Runners 5,052 56,781 8.9% 14,416 25.4% 0.81
14 days or fewer off 1,502 15,993 9.4% 4,372 27.3% 0.81
7 days or fewer off 483 4,451 10.9% 1,326 29.8% 0.86
4 days or fewer off 185 1,255 14.7% 421 33.6% 1.05
We have already seen how good Aidan O’Brien is returning horses to the track quickly this season and his historical record backs this up. Over the last five seasons, his win and place strike-rates are 20.8% and 44.5% respectively, but they improve to 24.9% and 49.8% when running back within a fortnight. He also does particularly well with juveniles coming back quickly; they are 84 from 244 (34.4%) with 146 places (59.8%) for a level stakes profit of 38.58 points, and an actual over expected of 1.11.
Dermot Weld is the one major trainer whose numbers drop appreciably when running one back quickly. From overall win and place strike-rates of 16.4% and 37.9%, his returns drop to 11.7% and 31.8%. Interestingly, he doesn’t often run horses back quickly relative to his total number of runners; in the period covered, he had the third highest number of runners overall but came tenth in terms of running them back within two weeks.
Willie Mullins is another who sees his percentages drop when bringing his Flat horses out quickly. From overall win and place strike-rates of 23% and 43.7%, his returns fall to 13.4% and 35.8% when running within 14 days.
Trainers yield quick return
There are some interesting positives among the smaller yards. For instance, don’t confuse the Faheys, as Jarlath Fahey seems to struggle with quick returners, but Peter Fahey is 14 from 84 with 33 places (level stakes profit of 27 points, A/E 1.32) when bringing one out within a fortnight, those numbers improving when using older horses only, which is the focus of the yard. Tony Mullins – 6 from 43 with 14 places, level stakes +7.38 points and A/E of 1.33 – is another to do well.
With horses returning within the week, John Murphy is a name that stands out. His overall win and place strike-rates are low at 5.7% and 17.4%, but jump to 16.7% and 27.8% if the horse runs in the previous week; he has a level stakes profit of 57.83 and an actual over expected of 1.62 under these criteria.
Pat Flynn (6 from17 with 9 places, +13.38 points, A/E 1.9) and Tom Mullins (5 from 26 with 9 places, +16.25, A/E 2.08) are others who do much better than their overall figures when running one back after seven days or fewer.
Running a horse back after fewer than four days off is more unusual, with only two trainers (Jim Bolger, Adrian McGuiness) having done so more than 50 times since 2015. The one that interests me most, however, is the third in, Michael Mulvany, with 48 runners under such criteria.
This seems a strategic decision by Mulvany, as he is only 32nd on the list of overall runners in this time, but 10 of his 48 runners here won with 20 total places for a small level stakes profit of 5.25 points and an actual over expected of 1.66.
The rest of the summer and indeed the season will surely see some other trainers do well when returning horses to track sooner than their norms, not least because they are forced to do so, but some of the names above might prove useful heading into Galway and beyond.
COVID paves way for 48-hour cards to stay?
You have to look for a long time at the dark cloud that is COVID-19 to find silver linings, but there should at least be some learnings from the experience as society continues to open up. All pubs – most likely – will be open in Ireland by July 20th, the date when owners will be permitted back on Irish tracks, which should be a precursor to the general racegoer being allowed in, albeit in small numbers.
Horse Racing Ireland announced the week before last they will continue with safety limits of 18 runners, with one or two exceptions for the moment, while 48-hour declarations will also be retained; for me, that second position should be kept as a rule.
Some of this is purely selfish – I find it makes the form study process less rushed – but 48-hour declarations work well in the UK and for Irish racing on Sundays. The downside is that you may have more non-runners, but that has not been the case this June at least; the non-runner rate has been 8% whereas in the three previous years is was 8.5%, 6.8% and 7.3%, allowing that this year was almost entirely comprised of Flat racing.
Even if there was a small uptick in non-runners, it would be a price worth paying for that extra day of knowing what is running.