National Hunt Stable Tours Dilemma
It’s national hunt stable tour season, on this website and elsewhere, and it is something punters can have mixed feelings on. While acknowledging that the trainer will always be the most important [human] participant in a horse race, there are times that these tours feel like content for content’s sake and are of questionable value.
With these things, I work from the starting point that – until proven otherwise – trainers are not being disingenuous in their comments and are not trying to put people away. Yes, there is a lot of chafe amongst what they say but amidst this is pertinent information that makes the process worthwhile whether it be about plans, ground preferences, excuses for bad runs and such like.
It is important to know what the trainer is about and of the big five Irish trainers I would have clear ‘stable tour usefulness’ power rankings: Henry De Bromhead and Noel Meade at the top, Gordon Elliott in mid-table and Joseph O’Brien and Willie Mullins at the bottom.
De Bromhead is simply informative, flagging things that may not be obvious, with his comments on Poker Party in pre-Cheltenham tour a good example. The trainer said he had several hard races in the early part of the year and wouldn’t go to Cheltenham while even at Punchestown he ran flat, it taking to Listowel until he re-found his form.
Meade is honest to the point of self-flagellation, often admitting trainer error and giving lots of background on injuries horses have encountered. With Elliott, there is lots of content as he has lots of horses as well as a high-profile blog on Betfair, so it takes lots of trawling to find something worthwhile.
O’Brien is one of those polished, media-savvy young trainers who has mastered the art of speaking a lot but saying very little while a major McManus connection doesn’t help. Almost all trainers with their horses tend to speak in generalities about them (even if they are open about their other runners) and defer to the racing manager. Not ideal, but it is what it is.
Mullins deserves a category of his own. A brilliant trainer who is accessible to the media, his interviews have plenty of information but become confusing because he is constantly changing his mind; listening to those closest to him, that is just how he is. He speaks in a stream of consciousness style, and tends to be hard to pin down, often contradicting himself at a later stage. The important thing is that he gets it right on the track where it matters but as to these tours it is best to form your own views.
As to this year’s offerings on the site, there were a couple of interesting takeaways. I was surprised that De Bromhead was keeping Presented Well over hurdles for another year, a most un-Henry thing to do when the focus of the yard is so often chasing.
Like many of his stablemates, Presented Well had a short bumper career that comprised one race before posting some good novice hurdle efforts last season, the pick coming when third to the highly-regarded pair Zero Ten and The Big Dog at Punchestown. His trainer likely believes he is better than a current hurdles mark of 128.
Also interesting was Gordon Elliott’s comment about Delta Work and his defeat at Cheltenham: ‘we were all a bit annoyed with ourselves after he was beaten in the RSA Chase...at the time of the race, the meeting wasn’t going great for our horses or our jockey and between us we probably didn’t have enough confidence in the horse. On another day, with different riding instructions, I think he might have won.’
I suspect the lack of a recent run – he had been off since Christmas – didn’t help either and he did get a wide trip that day before making an early move that probably wasn’t committal enough and played into the hands of the speedier Topofthegame. He may yet be a Gold Cup horse.
Unearthing A Gem
It must be tough for Irish trainers looking at the continued success of Willie Mullins, all the moreso if he is your brother, but Tom Mullins has carved out a good career for himself away from the limelight, albeit one that has changed course over the last few years.
His yard was national hunt-focussed in middle part of the noughties when Asian Maze was the star amongst a few good Paul Duffin-owned horses like Chelsea Harbour, Made In Taipan and Oscar Dan Dan, while more recently JP McManus’s Alderwood was a dual Cheltenham Festival winner.
McManus is still around and Mullins has always been good for a winner at the major jumps festivals but there has been a shift in the focus towards the flat lately, likely a consequence of the growth in super-trainers like his brother, and the trainer landed a double at Leopardstown this past Saturday with Takarengo and Stela Star, the latter’s win in the Killavullan providing him with a first stakes success.
That brought his win total for the season to 10, the first time he has broken double figures on the flat, and what is also notable is how many horses he owns himself. Of his 20 individual flat runners in 2019, 14 ran in the colours of Mullins or his wife Helen and while the pattern isn’t as marked over jumps (in the 2018/19 national hunt season, 10 of the yard’s 26 individual runners were owned by the trainer), this is clearly an operation where Mullins is backing himself.
That can be a tough gig but one that Mullins seems comfortable with as he is his own man, something that came through in a forthright December 2018 interview in The Irish Field where he said ‘I don’t tout for owners…I’m not going to be bowing down to anyone…I had that early doors [in my career], lads bullying me, telling me to do this…I wouldn’t handle the stupid lads anymore.’
Whatever he is doing, it seems to be working now. In the last full national hunt campaign, 13 of his 26 individual horses won a race while this current flat season has produced seven winners from 20 individual runners.
The juveniles have been central to that success with three of his seven two-year-0lds winning a race and they have all been cheap purchases, none costing more than €25,000 at the sales. Joven might be the next one to make the breakthrough, having built on some barrier trial promise to finish third on debut at the Fairyhouse when things didn’t go entirely his way.