Monday 19 March 2018

It pays to be pragmatic as a trainer

Jamie Moore riding Sire De Grugy (L) clear the last to win The Betfair Tingle Creek Steeple Chase from Special Tiara (2L) at Sandown racecourse on December 05, 2015 in Esher, England.
Jamie Moore riding Sire De Grugy (L) clear the last to win The Betfair Tingle Creek Steeple Chase from Special Tiara (2L) at Sandown racecourse on December 05, 2015 in Esher, England.

Ian McClean

My father, a retired primary school headmaster, marvels unenvyingly at the volume of duties now laden on his modern-day counterparts that involve everything but teaching children. On a similar note, I remember once, on a visit to Chantilly at the apex of Montjeu's racing career, John Hammond making the remark over a prolonged lunch that, "Life would be so much simpler if all the trainer had to do was train the horses".

However, the very model of a modern racehorse trainer requires far more than just following the horses up the gallop. It involves hiring and managing staff, property and equipment maintenance, credit control, balancing the books, health and safety compliance, attracting and retaining owners, dealing with suppliers, handling the media, attending sales, digital marketing . . . the list is endless, and mostly light years away from why trainers became attracted to the game in the first place. The effort involved in Willie Mullins getting 50 sound horses good enough to compete at the Cheltenham Festival to the actual event itself in March had far more in common with a full-blown military campaign than doing the rounds at evening feed.

However, when you finally cut through all the commercial and related distraction of what is effectively business and project management, even when you eventually arrive at conditioning the horse to bring it to the peak of its ability for race day, the question still remains: is it the right race?

The old adage of keeping yourself in the best company and your horses in the worst rings especially true given the ultra-competitive nature of the sport today. After all, the objective of training racehorses isn't about getting the horses to peak performance on the day, it is about winning races and collecting prize-money. Some trainers win races because they have good horses; others win races in spite of not having good horses. The best trainers are most adept in the subtle art of race-planning.

One obvious example is Dermot Weld. Realising he couldn't compete with the might of Vincent O'Brien at level weights back home, he took race-planning to another unimagined level and began pioneering abroad. Winning the Belmont Stakes with Go And Go in 1990 was not only a landmark achievement for an Irish trainer, it was a global disruption for the sport. The Hong Kong Mile followed with Additional Risk in 1991, the Italian Derby with In A Tiff in 1992 and the final frontier was breached when Vintage Crop achieved "the impossible" for a European horse by winning the Melbourne Cup in 1993.

While Weld's example is both spectacular and global, it simply exemplifies the principle of doing the best with your resources. And to do so usually involves defying convention. Another example was the trend begun by Irish trainers back in the late 1990s of keeping their Grand National hopes over hurdles to preserve their handicap mark. The result was that having won only one National in the previous 40 years (L'Escargot in 1975), Ireland went on to win six of the next eight editions, beginning with Bobbyjo in 1999. The Irish haven't won the National since Silver Birch in 2006 and the art of rating-preservation has become nullified by the recent compression of the weights, resulting in the almost certainty of not making the cut because your horse's rating is too low.

Race distances are another tool used by some trainers to maximise their opportunities - although far less frequently in the modern era. Yesterday's Tingle Creek reminded me that Desert Orchid won Sandown's most famous race back in 1988. Nothing startling about that you might think, until you discover that in the same year, Desert Orchid also won the King George, Martell Cup and the Whitbread over three mile five furlongs.

Another grey, One Man, having failed each time in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, dropped back in distance to unexpectedly win the Queen Mother in 1998 and become the only horse in history to win both the King George and Champion Chase. Shifting discipline can also pay dividends. Grumeti competed in the Grand Annual at the Cheltenham Festival, but it didn't stop him winning the Cesarewitch at Newmarket.

More dramatically, Big Buck's last-fence fall when challenging in the 2008 Hennessy provoked a change of heart from trainer, Paul Nicholls, that transformed an ordinary horse into a legend over the next four seasons. It isn't as if Big Buck's was a hurdling superstar waiting to happen either. His hurdling record before joining Nicholls from France was just two wins from 13 attempts. He won three chases during his novice season for the Ditcheat trainer, culminating in victory in the Grade Two Mildmay Novices' Chase, beating Albertas Run into third. In the Hennessy, he was bidding to become the first five-year-old ever to win the race when jettisoning Sam Thomas at the last. The more obvious choice would have been to persist with the young horse's chasing career, but the trainer went the other way and, 18 races later over hurdles during the next four seasons, Big Buck's remained unbeaten.

Saphir Du Rheu's switch back to the smaller obstacles after his failure in last week's Hennessy draws inevitable comparisons to the same connections' black colossus, but whereas Big Buck's was never going to be a natural over the larger obstacles, Saphir Du Rheu is in fact a superb jumper, which Nicholls probably considers still a bit weak.

Moreover, it pays to be pragmatic as a trainer and while the Gold Cup sphere looks replete with talent this year (Coneygree, Vautour, Don Cossack and co), the staying hurdle division looks weak and wide open. It's no surprise either, therefore, that Willie Mullins is toying with deploying Vroum Vroum Mag over hurdles, even though she is unbeaten so far over fences. The mare now appears in many ante-post lists for the World Hurdle in spite of only ever winning one single three-runner hurdle race previously in the French provinces back in 2013. With this outlook, is it any wonder that Messrs Nicholls and Mullins are the dominant force in the profession so inaccurately described as racehorse trainer.

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