Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

Tony highlights which trainers are winning this season's handiaps, while looking at the effects of Dundalk's new surface.

  • Wednesday 19 August
  • Blog
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Handicaps provide helping hand in 2020

There are times when racing seems an unfair sport, with the major races dominated by major owners, trainers and riders, but it is worth remembering that vast swathes of the programme is made up of the game’s great leveller, the handicap.

In Ireland for instance, so far in the 2020 Flat campaign, 46% of the races run were handicaps, and with things having been relatively quiet in terms of high-class racing during the past week or so, now seems an opportune time to check in on the handicap scene.

That these races create more equality of opportunity is evident among the top 10 trainers of handicap winners so far this season below; only four of the top 10 in the trainers’ championship make this list.

Irish handicaps in 2020

Trainer Wins Runs Strike-rate Places Place Strike-rate Level Stakes Actual/Expected
J. Murtagh 19 78 24.4% 38 48.7% +63.55 1.47
J. O’Brien 18 135 13.3% 42 31.1% -0.34 0.94
D. Hogan 13 115 11.3% 37 32.2% +0.58 1.14
J. Harrington 10 95 10.5% 30 31.6% -37.92 0.83
J. Levins 8 49 16.3% 16 32.7% +32.50 1.38
W. McCreery 6 43 14.0% 10 23.3% +1.50 1.52
T. McCourt 6 55 10.9% 19 34.6% +18.50 1.05
A. McGuinness 6 106 5.7% 19 17.9% -24.00 0.70
A. Oliver 5 21 23.8% 5 23.8% +32.38 2.18
F. Stack 5 29 17.2% 14 48.3% -1.37 1.25
M. Mulvany 5 60 8.3% 22 36.7% -21.17 0.76

Johnny Murtagh’s scarcely believable first two-and-a-half months of the season was powered largely by handicappers, with more than half of his 33 total winners coming in such races.

He needed to get winners from that source as he simply didn’t have many highly-rated horses at the start of the season - only Urban Beat and Know It All with triple figure marks coming into the year. But, there were some huge improvers in the yard, among them Red Kelly (up 31lb this season), Sonnyboyliston (up 31lb), Champers Elysees (up 24lb) and Springbank (up 18lb).

Three of those are three-year-olds stepping up in distance, a cohort Murtagh had success with throughout his relatively short training career, and it will be interesting to see if they maintain their progression allowing that they already done their job and then some.

Joseph O’Brien – who incidentally holds the record for the most handicap winners in a campaign with 44 in 2018 – can lay claim to having the best handicapper of the season in Patrick Sarsfield, that one starting out the season rated 86 and now a Group 1-placed 114 horse.

The reappearance of Dance Jupiter, who beat Patrick Sarsfield in a Cork maiden last October and left John Kiely for 275,000 guineas later that month, is another fascinating aspect of this story as he is now also owned by Chantal Regalado-Gonzalez.

It is also worth mentioning some other names down the list. Johnny Levins is enjoying a fine season thus far in handicaps, with three-time winner Nordic Passage his star, while Tom McCourt is enjoying his best run of form in recent times - his Lady Scathach taking each rise in class in her stride.

Andy Oliver had relatively few handicap runners, but they hit the mark with Confidence High one of the biggest improvers of the season up 30lb since the racing restarted and reportedly sold to continue his career in Hong Kong.

Premier performers

As for the premier handicaps, it is honours evens among Joseph O’Brien, Michael Halford and Ado McGuinness with three top-level wins each. Halford is having a strange season in that regard, winning just one other handicap, and McGuinness is not much different, his overall strike-rate only satisfactory.

But, his best horses ran their best when it matters, Bowerman in the Lincoln, Saltonstall in the Galway Mile and Current Option in the Ahonoora. The first-named didn’t look out of place in pattern company since, while Current Option was able to win a Listed race at Cork soon after Galway, building on his already impressive record at the specialist seven-furlong trip.

Saltonstall may not be quite up to that grade, but there has to be a good chance he will be back at Ballybrit in 2021 to bid for a third Galway Mile, something that has not been done in recent times, though both Vastonea and Riven Light were dual winners. It is a pity there is not a Listed race over the mile trip at Galway at either their September or October Flat meeting as it would look ideal for him, and I am behind anything that seeks to recreate the beautiful chaos of that handicap.

I haven’t even mentioned what was the best-handicapped horse in Ireland at the start of the season. The eye test – and the market beforehand – would say it had to be Red Kelly at Leopardstown, but there were actually two that improved more than him, albeit he is hardly done with at this point.

Beauchamp Bagenal, who came a long way since being hammered in bumpers last winter, is one of them. The decision to pick up a 15lb penalty – and only €375 in prize money – for running sixth in a Listed race on Derby day looked a foolhardy one at the time, but he more than justified the hike when winning next time at Leopardstown. He’s risen 33lb in the weights in all this term.

Better than him, of course, is dual Galway winner Princess Zoe, who rose from 64 to 101 in little more than five weeks, and who has some lofty targets ahead both on the Flat and over jumps. Pity those who backed her off 64 at Navan back in June, however!

Dundlak's kickback a hindrance for some

The challenge, however, is to find the next well-handicapped one, and perhaps Dundalk last Saturday is a good place to start. It was an unusual meeting taking place during a summer afternoon with the new surface causing its share of problems with kickback, so much so that some trainers were complaining about it afterwards - Joseph O’Brien even stated he would cut back on his runners at the track.

Whether that was merited or not is hard to know – racecourse manager Jim Martin pointed out there was always going to be a ‘bedding-in period’ – but one thing seems clear, and that it was difficult to come from off the pace at the meeting, the eight winners earning in-running comments: chased leaders, held up in rear of midfield, led, tracked leader in second, chased leaders on inner, midfield, tracked leaders in third, chased leaders.

The sole hold-up horse to win was Crystal Dawn in the second, a 45-65 handicap over six furlongs, and he looks one to follow. His time-figure was also decent, despite the race being run at an uneven gallop – he did the fastest last three-furlong split on the card despite only being rated 55 – and overcame the widest stall of all.

Perhaps that wasn’t the disadvantage it can be at the track as it allowed him to swing near-side into the straight, but racing three and four wide on the bend was hardly ideal, and he’s not been with the Cromwell yard long, who do well with switchers. This was the first time a tongue-tie was used since joining this trainer, and he remains unexposed over sprint trips with just three runs at six furlongs, all of them good, and should be able to defy his new mark of 64, especially with the bottom grade still open to him.
Four of the first home in the feature Red God Handicap were in the first four places after 150 yards, with the exception being Mirann, who had the worst of the draw and was dropped out last and did well to finish third.

Under a ride turning in, he had to pick his way through, and for the second start in a row found himself in the wrong place, held up in a race where the leaders dominated. He seems versatile regarding trip, but this ten furlongs looked just a bit sharp for him, with a mile-and-a-half perhaps his optimum. The Petingo over Irish Champions’ Weekend would be ideal.

Tony Keenan's Irish Angle
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