Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

Our Irish expert Tony Keenan reflects on the turf flat season and has a suggestion for Saturday's Ladbrokes Champion Chase at Down Royal.

  • Wednesday 30 October
  • Blog
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Jessica's Juicy Juvenile Fillies

There are just three days racing left in official flat turf season – two of which are at Dundalk, ironically – and now might be the time to do a brief stocktake on the campaign just gone.

One of the more memorable features of the last six months has been the run of the Jessica Harrington juvenile fillies, the group producing 26 winners from 116 runners in Ireland this season, landing big-race success in races like the Debutante, Airlie Stud and Flame Of Tara at home, not to mention both the Cheveley Park and Marcel Boussac further afield.

An Irish trainer breaking double figures in terms of winners with their two-year-old fillies is a very good year, typically enough to lead that division, and only Aidan O’Brien (with 27 winners last season) has bettered her numbers this decade; we are long past the stage of using O’Brien as fair comparable for other Irish flat trainers.

Harrington’s fillies were not all about the numbers though, winning a race and doing little afterwards, with the likes of Albigna, Alpine Eagle, Cayenne Pepper and Millisle among the best of their age group and this is where O’Brien might be a good comparison.

He had a similarly talented quartet in 2017 but three of them were vastly disappointing as three-year-olds; Happily (officially rated 113 at two) lost all seven starts the following year, September (OR 112) ran just once subsequently while Clemmie (OR 115) was zero from six at three.

Magical was the exception and we’ve all seen what she has become since while O’Brien did win the Oaks that season with a previously-unheralded filly in Forever Together, but it does show the next challenge that Harrington faces going into next season.

This is not to take away from her achievement – which is huge – but rather to point out the cold reality that some of these fillies may have already peaked and injury is an ever-present concern with the suspicion being that Alpine Star (not seen since August and having missed an intended target) has already met with a setback.

2019 will go down as a year when the O’Brien mafia just kept on rolling, the size of the Ballydoyle operating getting bigger and bigger. Aidan O’Brien has gone from having 151 individual horses run on the flat in Ireland in 2015 to 185, 165, 184 and 194 in each of the succeeding years and he is basically running 50 more horses per season than he was in early-to-middle part of the decade. That’s a good medium-sized stable in most people’s eyes.

Joseph O’Brien's growth has been even more exponential, going from 27 individual runners in his first flat campaign in 2016 to 93, 123 and 156 in the last three years and as of the time of writing between them the two trainers have won 194 out of 1,025 flat races in Ireland this season. That’s a win percentage of 18.9% and while not quite at the Mullins/Elliott combined figures yet (they won 30% of all Irish jumps races in 2017/18 for instance), things are trending only one way.

It’s ok to both respect and admire what the O’Briens are doing – Joseph for one seems to have helped reinvigorate the rural economy around his base, such is the employment he has brought – while at the same time wondering where does it end and how healthy it is; we have just seen an Group 1 in England with only one non-Ballydoyle entry while we had an all-O’Brien Group 3 at the Curragh in August.

Then there is Irish flat racing’s worst kept secret that Donnacha O’Brien will be starting to train sooner rather than later, Aidan commenting after Fancy Blue’s recent listed win at the Curragh that ‘she is Donnacha’s really. He does everything with her at Longfield and knows more about her than I do.’ It may not be next season but it is coming.

In the face of all this, there have been some excellent seasons from other trainers, not least Ger Lyons. Lyons is unlikely to beat his previous best winner total of 72 in 2017 but has already had his best campaign in terms of prizemoney and he continues to do well in terms of less obvious measures of success.

Of the 107 horses he has run in 2019, 50 have won a race for a winner/runner strikerate of 47%. That’s the best among Irish flat trainers to run at least 50 individual horses in 2019 with Aidan O’Brien and Adrian McGuinness next in on 43%, the latter’s returns excellent considering his yard is made up of more exposed types.

Lyons has maintained this high winner/runner strikerate despite his stable growing; in fact, it has been a consistent theme over the last five seasons with returns of 56%, 47%, 54% and 42% before 2019.

More important might be what he has done with the Juddmonte patronage, finally landing a second Group 1 success with Siskin who finished the season unbeaten. His withdrawal at the start of the Middle Park meant we didn’t learn anything more about him after the Phoenix Stakes (form that can be questioned now) but he remains one to look forward to in 2020, albeit that we have no real sense of whether he will prove a sprinter or a miler.

One final point on Lyons and something that will be worth following into 2020 was a seeming change in how ready he had his juveniles for their first start. Between 2014 and 2018, his two-year-olds won 18.9% of the debuts but that number jumped to 30% this year with 12 of his 40 debutantes winning. Whether that was down to their being fitter earlier or simply a by-product of having better horses is unclear but it will be interesting to see if it continues next season.

Ladbrokes Champion Chase at Down Royal


There may be no Kemboy, but the Grade 1 Ladbrokes Champion Chase at Down Royal this Saturday still looks a strong contest where the favourite Delta Work may be worth opposing as he typically needs his first run of the season.

Clan Des Obeaux holds a leading chance and seems likely to be ready for this with his trainer aiming him at this race since early-September and his having had a recent racecourse gallop but SNOW FALCON looks more overpriced.

Part of a strong crop of staying Irish novice chasers in 2017/18, he never got to deliver on the promise shown during a subsequent injury-shortened 2018/19 campaign where he still managed to win the Kerry National and the Grade 2 chase on this card.

He did shape with promise off an absence at Punchestown and looked better than ever last time at Gowran, defying market weakness to run an impressive winner. This is his time of the year – his form figures in national hunt races from September through November read:1223151F2111 – and he may never get a better chance to win a Grade 1.



Tony Keenan's Irish Angle
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