Willie Mullins's Jockey Choice
Since this time last week, Willie Mullins has had four graded winners in Ireland; nothing unusual about that, indeed it is typical of the yard during the winter, but it did raise an eyebrow that Danny Mullins rode all four while Paul Townend also had a mount in those races.
Looking at the 2019/20 season, this has been happening a bit. In listed or graded non-handicaps where Mullins has only one runner, Townend is 11 from 22 for a 50% strikerate, a level-stakes profit 13.05 points and an actual over expected of 1.35.
When the trainer has multiple runners, Townend’s figures drop to 11 winners from 37 rides for a strikerate of 29.7%, a level-stakes loss of 15.64 points and an actual over expected of 0.79. Danny Mullins has been the main beneficiary, his record being 8 winners from 29 points, a strike of 27.5% for a level-stakes profit of 13.18 points and an actual over expected of 1.94, allowing that one of those winners came when Townend was riding elsewhere.
Digging a little deeper than just winners, there have been 10 other occasions this season where Townend has been on ‘the right one’ in terms of finishing ahead of his stablemates but not winning, six occasions where he has been beaten by one from the same yard.
None of this is to suggest that Townend has suddenly lost his grasp on the top job and nor can any stable jockey get it right all the time. But riding arrangements at Closutton may be little more complicated than they sometimes seem and it was interesting to read and hear some comments from the people involved in the last few days.
After winning the Michael Purcell on Five O’clock at Thurles last Thursday, Danny Mullins said that he ‘was surprised that Paul didn’t ride him. I think Paul was disappointed he didn’t win better the last day but to me it was over the wrong trip and on a tight track and didn’t get to show himself off. For once it wasn’t my decision!’
That seems to say that Townend has the choice though Willie Mullins suggested otherwise to Johnny Ward on the ‘On The Wire’ podcast at his recent stable tour commenting that ‘a lot of the decisions are mine and not Paul’s’ and when Gary O’Brien put it to him in a post-race interview after Burning Victory’s win in the Winning Fair on Saturday that these bookings are ‘not always Paul’s choice’, he didn’t argue though went to say that in the case of the Bobbyjo Chase ‘Paul probably had first choice.’
These sorts of mixed message are hardly unusual with the yard, the trainer notorious for changing his mind, often at the last minute, but it does seem that a broader spectrum of riders is having big-race winners for the yard than in Ruby Walsh’s time.
It is hard to compare those periods, not just because Townend has had the role to himself for less than a year but also because Walsh was so often injured in recent times, but one gets the sense that Ruby was very good at the political side of things, manoeuvring horses into races that suited his interests perhaps more than those of the trainer or the owners. His experience gave him clout which his replacement may not have yet.
Ruby may also have been a better judge which is a different skill-set to race-riding; it requires being a good reader of form and homework, making calls based on limited evidence. These decisions are difficult and making them against the backdrop of a trainer constantly changing his mind is unlikely to help.
Coming after Walsh would be difficult for anyone and Townend has done well to this point but there will always be a sense that he is akin to the Brazilian number 1o that came after Pele, an excellent player in his own right no doubt but always in the shadow of greatness.
There is also the complicating factor that the other riders who take mounts for the yard are related to the trainer. Danny, Patrick and the returning David Mullins are all fine riders in their own right, their skills negating any argument of nepotism, and in any case there is plenty to go around, more than there was in much of Ruby Walsh’s time as the stable has grown in recent seasons to keep pace with Gordon Elliott’s huge volume of runners.
All this might be something to bear mind for the coming spring festivals, especially Cheltenham where there will be choices to be made. In some races, the decision will be easy for Townend and Mullins but in others it will be extremely difficult; sorting between the novice mares in the Dawn Run is one challenge that springs to mind, the trainer running seven in the race last year, along with many of the handicaps.
Perhaps Townend will agonise over such choices but I suspect not, his time that he has available outside of work commitments more likely spent on thinking through tactics for his obvious big race chances like Chacun Pour Soi and Al Boum Photo rather than what he might ride in the County.
That might create an opportunity for punters as the figures mentioned at the outset suggest the market still places a lot of stock on his choices and certainly I would not be put off were he to select something other that what I fancied.
One For The Notebook
Coverage of racing has been Cheltenham-centric for months now – and I admit to being part of the problem rather than the solution – but, hard as it may be to believe, there will be race meetings after March 13th and a horse to keep in mind for them might be Beacon Edge.
He returned from a 130-day absence at Naas on Sunday and ran a cracker to go down by a nose to Jason The Militant, that one the beneficiary of a more forward ride when the pace was steady, Timeform returning a finishing speed of 114.6% when par is between 105 and 108%.
The six-year-old would likely have won with a better jump at the last but his hurdling to that point had been excellent for an inexperienced horse but more than this it was a difficult spot for him.
Horses coming back from a break at this point in the season face a tough task with a double-whammy of negatives; not only are they coming in against sharp rivals but they have often met with minor setbacks themselves in the interim.
Noel Meade confirmed that all had not gone smoothly with Beacon Edge pre-race, saying ‘we’ve been unfortunate to miss some time with him after a slight hold up’ and re-iterated the point on Monday stating ‘he just got held up with me all winter.’
Looking at all horses running in Irish graded or listed non-handicaps off a break of between 90 and 180 days from the months of January to April, they are 19 wins from 263 runs (7.2% strikerate) with 58 places, a level-stakes loss of 112.11 points and an actual over expected of 0.66 with Meade’s record under the same conditions basically a carbon copy of these figures.
Perhaps Beacon Edge is just the type of horse that is going to pick up niggling injuries as his career to date has featured five spaced-out runs but all of them have been good and there should be improvement to come if he can put starts back-to-back. He retains a Supreme entry but may be more likely to stay at home for Fairyhouse and Punchestown where he could well win a graded novice if kept right.
Incidentally, Joseph O’Brien’s Front View was another that ran well off a break in a graded race at Thurles last Thursday though one suspects his reappearance may be a little sooner given JP McManus’s love for Cheltenham handicaps.