A COUPLE FOR THE NOTEBOOK
It was a good weekend for Irish (non-Ballydoyle category) horses in Group 1s with Siskin in the Phoenix Stakes and Romanised in the Prix Jacques le Marois being the second and third Irish-trained (again, non-Ballydoyle) winners at the top level in 2019.
Typically, we can expect about a half-dozen or so of these in Ireland, the UK and France each year; there were eight in 2018, just one in 2017, seven in both 2015 and 2016 and five in 2014 from a wide spread of trainers, 13 different Irish-based handlers not named Aidan O’Brien winning such a race since the start of 2014.
Both Ger Lyons and Ken Condon really enjoyed their success though Lyons seemed a little peeved about the price of Siskin for the 2,000 Guineas afterwards; I don’t know what to say about that beyond that the trainer as odds compiler shtick can wear a bit thin.
I get that connections don’t want to fan the flames of expectation – if they want a lesson in this they should listen to Kerry people in the build-up to the All-Ireland Football Final over the next two and a half weeks – but Siskin is an unbeaten winner of the Phoenix Stakes and can’t really be much better than double figures for the first classic.
He has had some hype around him since the Marble Hill win and the trainer’s vocal spurning of Royal Ascot while he did something that only good horses tend to do last Friday: win when things were against him.
The ground, officially soft, was hardly ideal, Lyons commenting in his blog that ‘he’s not as impressive when the gallop rides slow’, but he overcame that and showed toughness too, battling in the finish which hadn’t been necessary on his previous three starts.
Judging on time-figures and finished speed percentages, the Phoenix was a test of speed, something Siskin has excelled in to date, but the seventh furlong, much less the mile remains uncertain. Most his sire First Defence’s best progeny get little more than eight furlongs though Siskin’s dam was placed at a mile as a three-year-old and is related to a few that stayed further.
Romanised won the Irish 2,000 Guineas last season but for the rest of the campaign that win was firmly lodged in the fluke basket, not getting within ten pounds of that level in three subsequent starts.
This season has been different entirely as he has built on three promising early runs to win the Minstrel and the Marois, again travelling notably strongly on Sunday and looking like one that doesn’t do much in front; in that regard, he has the right jockey on board in Billy Lee.
The mile division he competes in is hardly a strong one, weakened further by the retirement of Too Darn Hot, and races like the QEII and the Breeders’ Cup Mile are obvious autumn options for him though he may not want typical Champions’ Day ground.
In the interim, perhaps the Boomerang Stakes at Irish Champions’ Weekend would be a suitable target. It is only a Group 2 but a valuable one and while he would have to carry a three-pound penalty, the race might fit in well with where he wants to go in the autumn.
You could add up all the Group 1 winners from Irish stables other than Ballydoyle since 2014 and still barely surpass Aidan O’Brien’s record season of 28 Group 1 wins in 2017 but he managed just half that number last year amidst sickness in the yard and this current campaign is starting to feel underwhelming too.
He has had nine Group 1 winner this season but of that cohort, Magna Grecia is on the injury shelf, Hermosa has gone the wrong way, Magical is on a break while both Anthony Van Dyck and Circus Maximus have been found out a little. Sovereign has yet to get the chance to back up his Irish Derby win but that seems unlikely given his price on the day and how the race went.
Japan and Ten Sovereigns are two about which fans could legitimately get excited about and Sir Dragonet has an entry this weekend, but while some trainers would kill [most of their family, probably] for that talent, we have come to expect more from Ballydoyle.
None of their many US runners have won while they drew a blank at Glorious Goodwood too (the market suggested they would have about two and half winners there); things seemed very different after the Epsom Derby and Royal Ascot.
O’Brien’s win strikerate as of Sunday just gone with all Irish and UK runners in 2019 is 16.5% which is his lowest in a season as far as my records go back to 2003; the next lowest was 18.2% in 2010. His place strikerate of 39.3% isn’t quite so bad – he has dipped below that for a season three times since 2003 – so is likely due some regression in terms of pure winners.
His horses are underperforming market expectation too, an actual over expected figure of 0.81 so far in 2019 whereas his figure for the previous five seasons combined was 0.91.
What this means I am unsure – there is every chance O’Brien roars back into form at the Ebor meeting makes this look silly – but if I were a UK-based trainer thinking of coming with a runner to Irish Champions’ Weekend, it could look the right call as there may be a rare chink in the Ballydoyle armour at the moment.