Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

The Irish Jockeys' Championship is in the balance and our Irish expert Tony Keenan examines the leading protagonists

  • Wednesday 25 September
  • Blog
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Keane vs O'Brien

There can’t have been too many people who were happy that Gowran Park was abandoned last Saturday, thunder and lightning meaning that it was a rare weekend without Irish racing, but Colin Keane might have been one of them.

The 2017 Champion Jockey was having a rare away day at Ayr where he was among the winners while his rival for this year’s title, Donnacha O’Brien, had a strong book of five fancied mounts, last year’s winner clearly taking the race seriously as he was down to 8-12 to ride Pasley, a weight one pound lower than he has ridden at in the past year.

O’Brien will likely reprise most if not all of those rides at the rescheduled meeting on Thursday though at least Keane will be participating this time and he will be looking to again build a title lead, O’Brien having reduced the margin to just one after a double at Fairyhouse on Monday, the tally now Keane on 87, O’Brien on 86.

There are plenty of individual races that are interesting in their own right for the remainder of the domestic flat season but in terms of narrative things can go flat after Irish Champions Weekend as the real season-defining stuff moves to France and the UK but this championship has the potential to add intrigue through to early November.

Despite Keane currently leading, Paddy Power rated O’Brien as 4/7 favourite with Keane at 5/4 and this has been quite a volatile market all season as seen in the price history below. O’Brien was initially put it 1/4 at the start of the campaign with Keane at 5/2 but those prices at flip-flopped by mid-July as Keane built a double-figure lead. Since then O’Brien has gradually shortened up though the betting has levelled off in the past few days with the quoted odds from Paddy Power.

The typical champion flat jockey rides at least 100 winners in their season of victory though looking at where the two are at now it seems likely both will break triple-figures. O’Brien rode 111 winners last year while Keane hit the even 100 in 2017, Pat Smullen registering 115, 103 and 108 winners respectively in the three previous seasons.

Below are the respective records of the two riders and it soon becomes apparent the different ways in which they have achieved their success this year.

Jockey

Winners

Rides

Strikerate

Seconds

Thirds

A/E

Keane

87

572

15.2%

78

74

0.92

O’Brien

86

361

23.8%

58

47

0.94

Keane has had a bigger volume of mounts, taking 1.58 rides for every one of O’Brien’s, with part of that likely down to his weight; bar apprentice-only races, Keane can ride in basically every race on the card where the opportunity presents itself.

O’Brien has had to be [much] more efficient with his rides and maintain a higher strikerate though it is interesting to note that both are performing similarly in terms of the market at represented by actual over expected.

One edge for Keane has been handicaps where he has ridden an impressive 37 winners, 11 more than the next best, but O’Brien has held his own here with 23 handicap winners considering his father’s yard is not built to compete in those races.

It could be argued that O’Brien has been the luckier of the two with 20 fewer seconds than Keane but just less than half his rides were for Ballydoyle who consistently have more winners than runners-up year to year.

Perhaps the most important consideration as to who will come out on top is the stables they ride for and again the contrast is huge. Of Donnacha’s 86 winners, 48 have come from Aidan and 37 from Joseph and he rarely takes outside rides at all now, just five all season; not that he needs to either!

Ger Lyons has supplied Keane with 51 of his 87 winners but he has ridden for a wide array of other yards, only two of which (Noel Meade and Ado McGuinness) have given him more than four winners.

The question now becomes what more have those trainers got left to run, especially among the juveniles with so many maidens making up the backend programme.

Aidan O’Brien has run 179 individual horses in 2019 where he ran 184 last year though it does need pointing out that his efficiency, as measured by winner-to-runner percentage, is down; only 40% of those 179 horses have won a race whereas in the three previous seasons those figures were 60%, 53% and 48%.

There is also the idea that having so many talented horses can be a blessing as much as a curse with a view to supporting a champion jockey title bid as picking between the different options adds another layer of difficulty.

To this point in the season, Lyons has run 98 individual horses for a winner-to-runner percentage of 42% (slightly better than Ballydoyle) and having run 109 horses in all last year likely has a few more to go yet.

It is also worth considering how many meetings Keane and O’Brien will ride at for the remainder of the season. From today, there are 22 and a half meetings to go, the half being the mixed meeting at Tipperary on Arc day, which will offer a rough total of 160 races, give or take a divided handicap here or there.

Keane seems sure to miss this Saturday’s card at the Curragh as he rides Siskin in the Middle Park at Newmarket and there are four other obvious clashes too with Arc day, the Fillies Mile, the Future Champions meeting and British Champions Day all paired with Irish meetings. O’Brien rode at all five of the above away meetings in 2018, allowing that his title was a foregone conclusion at that point.

So who wins it? I’d love to have a strong view but I don’t. Ballydoyle typically get their way in things Irish racing and O’Brien makes sense as favourite but Keane has the support of a powerful yard himself and has access to fancied mounts from an awful lot of other trainers too. Let’s just hope it goes down to the last day.

Tony Keenan's Irish Angle
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