Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

Our Irish expert Tony Keenan has some interesting trainers stats as well as a conundrum from Ballydoyle

  • Wednesday 21 August
  • Blog
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The NFL season is only weeks away and if you’re not a fan (each to their own and all that), it is worth pointing out that this is the perfect companion sport to the Irish national hunt racing in the winter. So, if the sight of the last runner passing the line in the closing bumper on those dark winter Sundays fills you with dread at the thought of Monday morning, remember there is another sport available that will get you through the night!

This stage of the NFL year tends to be all about projecting how the various teams will do, the sport being unpredictable due to its short 16-game regular season, and one thing you see mentioned in the previews is the record of teams in one-score contests the previous campaign.

It is said that these results are quite random, a team that wins five and loses two such games could easily have won two and lost five, and in general teams that accumulated wins in such a way may be due negative regression the following year as luck evens out.

I often wonder if there is a racing equivalent or even something like it. Though not a direct comparison, perhaps something as simple as the ratio of winners a trainer has to their runners-up might be useful to study, allowing that such a basic figure doesn’t factor in the market with expected winners.

Not all seconds are equal of course, there could be a world of difference between one beaten a nose and one beaten five lengths, but nor are all winners equal and one would think they even out over a season in most cases. But some yards may find themselves on the wrong end of misfortune for a part of the year, even the year itself.

I looked back at the top 30 Irish trainers in terms of winners trained in 2018, taking in the flat season proper and leaving out Dundalk before March and after November.

The first point to note is that the top trainers as a group have more winners than seconds, a ratio of about 0.9 seconds per winner over the last five years; that is to be expected, they have better horses and, in theory at least, are better trainers.

This becomes even more marked at the very top with the likes of Aidan O’Brien who consistently have a lot more winners than seconds; in 2018 for instance, he had 152 winners to 97 runners-up, a ratio of 0.64.

Things get more interesting as we move down to the middle-rank trainers who have fewer runners and are more open to variance. Three yards stand out as having had more than their share of bad luck in 2018:

All things being equal (which they aren’t always), one might expect trainers like these to see an uptick the following year and that has been the case with all three. Lavery has gone from a 6.0% win strike in 2018 to 11.8% in 2019 and already had more winners this year.

McGuinness has gone from a 6.3% win strikerate to 8.2% and seems likely to comfortably beat his winner tally from last year, allowing that he has been able to acquire a better quality of horse this season. With O’Callaghan, the improvement is not as marked but he has still gone from a win strikerate of 8.9% to 10.5%.

Looking at the 2019 figures, one trainer stands out as being unlucky. In a previous blog I had said that Johnny Murtagh was having a down year but that may have been harsh; it would be more accurate to say he is having an unlucky year.

So far this season, he has had 11 winners to 24 seconds (ratio 2.18, a figure you rarely see by the end of the year) so has fairly been rattling the bar.

For the season, he is fourteenth in winners trained, twenty-sixth in win strikerate (minimum 50 runners) but tenth in place strikerate (again, minimum 50 runners) so it seems very possible that is 0.56 actual over expected for the season is a product of bad luck rather than bad form.


Master Of Reality on 118, Madhmoon and Sir Dragonet (both on 117) were the highest-rated horses to run in Ireland this past week or so and the latter remains one of the season’s conundrums heading into the autumn.

Given the respective training methods of Kevin Prendergast and Aidan O’Brien, it was no real surprise that Madhmoon won in his Champion Stakes prep and Sir Dragonet got beaten in his return from a break, the Ballydoyle horses typically needing the first run back after an absence like this while Madhmoon had not been off the track for as long anyway.

Gleaning major positives from Sir Dragonet’s Royal Whip fourth isn’t easy though; Buckhurst and Leo De Fury are on the up in their own right while he was given plenty to do in a race where the pace was slow but even so he will need find a chunk of improvement to compete in open Group 1s in the next few months.

All in all, it was a neutral run. If you were a fan beforehand, you likely still are and expect a big step forward next time, if you weren’t then there was little to change your mind.

Sir Dragonet has an unusual profile in that he didn’t race as a juvenile but ran in the Epsom Derby; since 2000, Aidan O’Brien has only done this with five horses. Two of those were sent off big prices and finished up being sent hurdling with other yards, another was the talented Mahler who placed in the Melbourne Cup but the two best comparables are most recent examples, Ruler Of The World in 2013 and US Army Ranger in 2016.

Ruler Of The World won at Epsom while US Army Ranger was second, but both were disappointing afterwards; Ruler Of The World won one more race, the following year’s Prix Foy, while US Army Ranger failed to win in ten subsequent starts.

Ruler Of The World ran in the Irish Derby after Epsom while US Army Ranger was an intended runner in the same race before a late setback, but the Curragh seems never to have been on the agenda for Sir Dragonet, his trainer intent on giving him a break after the Derby.

Perhaps O’Brien was mindful of Epsom taking a lot out of both Ruler Of The World and US Army Ranger and wanted to try something different with Sir Dragonet, his comments in a recent stable tour elsewhere on the site hinting at that: ‘I think he’s in a lovely place both mentally and physically at the minute. He’s had his break and isn’t feeling any stress. Sometimes they can get a bit anxious if they don’t get a break between running in the Classics and taking on the older horses.’

Reading between the lines of O’Brien’s comments remains one of the most interesting aspects of Irish flat racing and it is slightly unusual comment about a prospective stallion. Is he implying that Sir Dragonet is the type to horse to get ‘stressed’? That doesn’t seem to have manifested on the track thus far but the trainer knows best.

His next start will tell more though where that will be remains to be seen. The Irish Champion Stakes was mentioned as a likely target in July, but the Prix Niel has been thrown into the mix lately too as Magical and Japan have been mentioned for the first-named race. York could yet throw plans into flux again but regardless the next run is eagerly awaited.

Tony Keenan's Irish Angle
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