Kevin Blake

Kevin looks at how "the priority list" of British-trained two-year-olds fared this season - and the instant impact of one particular first-season sire on the bloodstock industry.

A detailed look at how the priority list of British-trained two-year-olds fared so far this season

The Covid-19 crisis forced the horse racing industry into taking all sorts of unprecedented measures to get the show back on the road from the resumption of British racing on June 1. One of the most intriguing and quirky measures put in place by the BHA was the innovative introduction of a priority list of two-year-olds.

The thought was that with Royal Ascot taking place just over two weeks after the resumption of racing, trainers with two-year-olds they thought were good enough to run at the Royal meeting would naturally be very keen to get a run into them as soon as possible. Given the obvious danger of them being balloted out in the face of large entry numbers, the BHA gave trainers an opportunity to nominate these specific horses to a publicly-available list which would then be exempt from ballot for the first eight days of racing.

The number of horses that each trainer could nominate was dictated by their previous record with two-year-olds in maiden or novice races, as well as the number of runners they had in Royal Ascot two-year-old races during the last three years. Those trainers that didn’t qualify based on such criteria were allowed to nominate one horse each if they wished.

The commendable innovation understandably generated a lot of intrigue amongst the racing public. In the world of debuting two-year-olds where true expectations are routinely lost in a sea of bluster, tactical downplaying, genuine ignorance or old-fashioned secrecy, this unprecedented scenario obliged trainers, begrudgingly or otherwise, to show their hand to the public if they wished to benefit from a ballot exemption.

Bloodstock world takes interest in "the list"

The publishing of “the list” on May 28 created a great amount of excitement, and not just amongst the betting public. It was also greeted with particular enthusiasm in the bloodstock world where breeders, traders and followers of pedigrees derived a great amount of stimulation from the list.

A total of 163 two-year-olds representing 89 individual trainers were on the list. And now, with just shy of three months having passed since the resumption of racing, it seems a fair time to look back at the list and see how it performed. Doing so doesn’t intend to embarrass or lionize anyone, but we are extremely unlikely to ever be presented with a situation like this again, so making the best of the resulting data makes plenty of appeal. 

So, how did the list fare?

The first place to start is how they performed as a group relative to the rest of the British-trained two-year-old population. In terms of winners-to-runners, 66 (42.3%) of the 156 on the list that ran won a race. As you would hope, this compares well to the overall winners-to-runners rate of all British-trained two-year-olds of 23%.

Mind, a deeper dig adds more colour to the picture. The average Timeform rating held by all two-year-olds trained in Britain as of the close of play on August 28 was 68.6. The average rating achieved by the 156 two-year-olds of the 163 on the list that raced was 73.9. Given the highly-selected nature of the list, it is perhaps a little bit surprising that there wasn’t a bigger differential between the two groups.

In terms of delivering what it was created in the hope of facilitating, the list produced three winners of the six two-year-old races at Royal Ascot in Tactical (Windsor Castle Stakes), Nando Parrado (Coventry Stakes) and Dandalla (Albany Stakes). In terms of place getters, the William Haggas-trained Yazaman and the Philip Makin-trained Muker completed a 1-2-3 for the list in the Windsor Castle Stakes, the Roger Varian-trained Setarhe finished second in the Albany Stakes, the William Haggas-trained Sacred finished second in the Queen Mary and the John Gosden-trained Saeiqa finished third in the Coventry Stakes.

As well as the aforementioned Nando Parrado (111), Sacred (108), Tactical (107) and Dandalla (106), one other member of the list reached a rating of 105 or higher, namely Ventura Tormenta (108).

In terms of which trainers came out of the exercise with results to be proud of, a few stand out from the pack. One would imagine that having a higher quantity and quality of juveniles should make this task that bit easier, but examination of the list doesn’t necessarily confirm that. In terms of those that came out of it well, Clive Cox (three selections rated 111, 96 and 78), Ralph Beckett (two selections rated 103 and 93), Roger Varian (five selections rated 99, 93, 93, 92 and a 78 which is unbeaten in one start), Simon and Ed Crisford (three selections rated 98, 84 and 82), Tom Dascombe (four selections rated 98, 92, 86 and 74), and William Haggas (five selections rated 108, 102, 85, 85 and 81) all did well with their picks.

Those trainers that only had one selection and very much made it count by selecting what proved to be a 90+ performer were Adrian Nicholls (Mamba Wamba rated 92), Brian Meehan (Talbot rated 91), James Ferguson (Zoetic rated 95), Jane Chapple-Hyam (On My Way rated 94), Philip Makin (Muker rated 98), Roger Teal (Gussy Mac rated 95) and Tim Easterby (Winter Power rated 91).

However, it must also be pointed out that just because a smart horse wasn’t put on “the list”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it had slipped under a trainer’s radar. Take the example of Michael Bell’s The Lir Jet (108). Having made a winning debut in an auction maiden at Yarmouth on June 3 before winning the Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot, it may come as a surprise to many that he didn’t actually appear on the list.
Enquiries revealed that Bell had just two picks for the list, and while The Lir Jet was very much one a leading candidate for one of those golden tickets, Bell made a tactical decision not to put him on it. The thought process was he had two others to put on the list, and the fact that The Lir Jet was qualified to run in auction and median auction races meant he was very likely to get a run in one of those restricted races, which wouldn’t have as many entries in the days after the resumption. Bell was correct and the rest is history.

Surprise first-season sire tops the table

As mentioned previously, the bloodstock sector took a particularly strong interest in the list for a variety of reasons, and it was those that focused on the pedigrees of the 163 juveniles on the list that may well have gleamed what proved to be the most significant piece of information on it.

When one arranged the list by sire, there was a serious surprise amongst the data. The high-profile stallions that one would expect to numerically lead the way in the list were all prominently placed, with Dark Angel (11), Kodiac (9) and Showcasing (7) all being as well represented as one would have expected.
However, they were all outnumbered in no uncertain terms by a first-season sire that had stood for just €12,500. Despite never having had a runner, he was represented by a remarkable 14 individuals on the list. With Richard Hannon having given three of his seven slots to this sire’s progeny as well as Clive Cox, Richard Fahey and Karl Burke also amongst their trainers, it looked to be a serious endorsement of the promise they were showing.

Anyone that pays attention to the first-season sire scene will know just how hard the rumour mill churns in the opening months of the season with regard to what sire’s progeny are going well or otherwise, but such strong representation on the list was as loud and as meaningful an endorsement as one is ever likely to see. So, what was the sire in question? Mehmas.

As it transpired, Mehmas has utterly dominated the first-season sire table this season. He has sired by far the most winners (20) and even more importantly, he produced the highest-quality juveniles of any first-season sire this year. The Group 2 winners Minzaal and Supremacy lead the way for him, with the unbeaten Listed winner Method not being far behind.

While it will have come too late in the breeding season for many mare owners to capitalise on it, one can be sure that some savvy breeders listened to what the list was shouting so loudly with regard to Mehmas, and sent mares to him in the closing weeks of the breeding season. Those that did are entitled to feel very pleased with themselves.

It seems highly unlikely “the list” will be an exercise to be repeated. The mere notion of it would have been laughed at and/or fiercely resisted by trainers if it had been suggested in a “normal” year. However, this is the most abnormal year the racing world is likely to face for a very long time. It may only have been a relatively small thing, but as well as serving an important practical function, “the list” certainly drove a great amount of intrigue and excitement in the game when we needed something to get stuck into.

Kevin Blake
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