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Willie Mullins – An Off Season?

Willie Mullins has led the Irish charge to Cheltenham for a number of years. He was the leading trainer every year from 2013 to 2016 and is largely responsible for the recent Irish dominance at the festival. However, this year there his Cheltenham raiders aren’t surrounded by the usual excitement and hype. There is a general feeling that his yard never quite hit form this season, and as a result he sits third in the betting for leading trainer at the festival.

Previous Festivals – Where do the Winners Come From?

Mullins has trained 32 winners at the last 5 festivals, so it’s worthwhile to break them down in order to identify his areas of strength. I’ve divided the festival races into 7 categories:

  • Non-Handicap Novices Hurdles – the Supreme, Ballymore, Albert Bartlett, Mares Novices Hurdle and Triumph Hurdle
  • Non-Handicap Novices Chases – the Arkle, JLT, RSA and National Hunt Chase
  • Open Grade 1 Hurdles – the Champion Hurdle, Mares Hurdle and Stayers Hurdle
  • Open Grade 1 Chases – the Champion Chase, Ryanair Chase and Gold Cup
  • Handicap Chases – the Ultima, Close Brothers, Festival Plate, Kim Muir, Grand Annual
  • Handicap Hurdles – Coral Cup, Fred Winter, Pertemps, County Hurdle, Martin Pipe
  • Other – Bumper, Cross Country, Foxhunters
Non-Hcp Novices Hurdle Non-Hcp Novices Chase Grade 1 Open Hurdle Grade 1 Open Chase Handicap Hurdle Handicap Chase Other
2018 wins 1 2 2 0 1 0 1
2017 wins 2 1 1 1 1 0 0
2016 wins 3 1 2 1 0 0 0
2015 wins 1 3 2 0 2 0 0
2014 wins 2 0 1 0 1 0 0
Total wins 9 7 8 2 5 0 1

So, a few points worth noting:

  • Mullins has had 16 wins in the non-handicap novice races over the last 5 years – in other words, he has trained 16 of the 43 winners of these races in the last 5 years.
  • He has had just 5 wins in handicaps, and no wins in handicap chases.
  • He has had 10 wins in open grade one hurdles and chases, and his other win came in last year’s Bumper.

Novices

It would seem that Mullins’ key strong point is, unsurprisingly, the level-weight novice contests. In the Supreme, Arkle, National Hunt Chase, Ballymore, RSA, JLT, Mares Novices Hurdle, Triumph and Albert Bartlett, he has trained 18.4% of the total field in the last 5 years. His horses accounted for 37.2% of the total winners in that period of time. Mullins trained 27.6% of the horses to make the frame in the last 5 years (including winners).

However, the general consensus seems to be that these wins followed seasons of domination in Ireland, and that the horses were well fancied and in good form when Cheltenham came around. I want to weigh up how Mullins’ novices are performing this season compared to past seasons, so I’m going to look at how his novice hurdlers and chasers performed in graded level-weight contests in past seasons before the month of March. Firstly, his novice hurdlers (note that this doesn’t include juvenile hurdles):

Mullins Novice Hurdlers (Graded Non-Handicaps) Before March

Season Runners Wins W% W/P W/P%
2013-14 25 9 36 14 56
2014-15 31 10 32 16 52
2015-16 27 14 52 18 67
2016-17 30 8 27 14 47
2017-18 31 8 26 11 35
2018-19 31 8 26 12 39

The 2015-16 season was a standout one in terms of novice hurdlers – Mullins won 14 graded events in Ireland before heading to Cheltenham, with over half of his runners in these races winning. However, the following 2 seasons were slightly lower with 8 winners each year before Cheltenham. This season has actually seen the same number of winners to date.

Looking at novice chasers next:

Mullins Novice Chasers (Graded Non-Handicaps) Before March

Season Runners Wins W% W/P W/P%
2013-14 16 5 31 8 50
2014-15 26 10 38 17 65
2015-16 16 8 50 8 50
2016-17 22 6 27 9 41
2017-18 25 6 24 11 44
2018-19 20 6 30 10 50

It’s the 2014-15 season that was the standout this time, but again Mullins has trained the same number of winners in these races as he did in the previous two years. In fact, he has done so with slightly fewer horses, so his win rates (and win/place rates) are actually slightly superior this year to anything else we’ve seen since the 2015-16 season.

These numbers alone tell us that Mullins isn’t having that much of an “off season”. However, a closer look at this year’s winners to date might. I’ve listed the winners in the 2018-19 season below in all cases where they appear towards the top of the festival markets:

  • Cadmium – 20/1 Grand Annual
  • Voix Du Reve – 25/1 Arkle
  • Camelia De Cotte – 33/1 Arkle, 25/1 JLT
  • Ballyward – 6/1 National Hunt Chase
  • Sancta Simona – 12/1 Mares Novices Hurdle
  • Aramon – 12/1 Supreme, 25/1 Ballymore
  • Klassical Dream – 8/1 Supreme

Some of these horses accounted for more than one of the wins in the tables, and some other winners are out for the season and won’t be heading to Cheltenham. This list tells a fairly different story to the tables – Mullins’ horses may be winning races, but they’re certainly not well fancied for festival races. The fact that Ballyward (second favourite for the four-miler at 6/1) is Mullins’ leading hope in the novice contests according to current prices is fairly damning considering the fact that he trained the Supreme favourite or joint favourite in each of the last 4 renewals, and that all of them were shorter than 4/1. He also trained the Arkle favourite in 4 of the last 5 renewals, and 3 of these were odds-on. This year, his leading Supreme contenders sit 3rd and 5th in the market at 8/1 and 12/1, and his leading contender in the Arkle is fourth in the betting at 13/2.

These are just two examples of races in which Mullins doesn’t seem to have the same strength as in past years. Another is the Mares Novices Hurdle – he has trained all 3 winners of the race, each of them the favourite at odds of 4/7, 11/8 and 8/11. This year, his top contender is probably Sancta Simona who can be backed at 16/1, putting her around 10th in the market (although she is as short as 8/1 with one firm).

In short, I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that Mullins is having an “off season” as a whole – we’ve seen that his success in big novice races has been on a par with the last few seasons, and his win strike rate in all Irish races so far this season (25.08%) is more or less on a par with where he finished up last season (26.6%), even if they are below the 3 seasons before last (33.75, 33.21 and 31.52). However, it seems unlikely that his success at the Cheltenham festival (with novices at least) will match that of previous seasons.

The Positives – Handicap Hurdles

So, are there any positives to be taken from this? Well, there is one area which isn’t necessarily associated with Mullins, but in which he has excelled over the years – handicap hurdles. He hasn’t always aimed a large number of runners at these races (from 2007 to 2012 he had an average of just over 3 runners per year, including none in 2008 and 1 in 2009). However, he was nevertheless successful, with 3 winners and another 2 places from his 20 runners in that period. In recent years he has aimed more runners at the handicap hurdles – he has had 55 runners in these races in the last 5 years. His win rate has been relatively low by his own high Cheltenham standards, with 9 winners from these 55 runners (a 9% strike rate with 1.27 A/E) and a further 7 places (a 22% W/P strike rate). The 1.27 A/E is the more interesting point – despite Mullins’ high profile, his horses in these races don’t tend to be as heavily backed as in grade one contests – Bleu Berry was 20/1 when winning the Coral Cup last year, and Arctic Fire was the same price when he won the County Hurdle the previous year off top weight.

An interesting angle is that all of these winners and placed horses ran in a graded race last time out – if we focus just on horses which ran in graded hurdles last time out, it makes the record even more impressive:

Mullins Hcp Hurdlers (Ran in Graded Hurdle LTO)

Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
36 5 14 12 33 71.53 1.81

I’ve broken this down a bit more with a few other angles, which can be seen below:

Location of Prep Run

Track Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Leopardstown 15 3 20 5 33 50.87 2.56
Clonmel 3 1 33 2 67 11.59 1.96
Other 18 1 6 5 28 9.07 0.93

As ever, a Leopardstown prep run is proven to be valuable experience heading towards the festival. Interestingly, Clonmel has also produced a winner and a runner-up from 3 runners. Both of these (Don Poli when he won the Martin Pipe in 2014 and Roi Des Francs when finishing 3rd in the same race the following year) ran in the Surehaul Mercedes Benz Novices Hurdle, a grade 3 3m novices hurdle run at Clonmel in February. Battleford took the same route to the Martin Pipe in 2017 but only managed 8th.

Graded or Listed Winner?

Won at Listed Level or Above?

Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Yes 19 4 21 7 37 79.36 2.9
No 15 1 7 5 33 -5.83 0.82

4 of Mullins’ 5 handicap hurdle winners had previously won a graded or listed contest, as had another 3 placed horses.

Which Race?

Race Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Coral Cup 18 1 6 3 17 13.29 0.89
Fred Winter 5 0 0 0 0 -5 0
Pertemps 1 0 0 0 0 -1 0
County Hurdle 18 2 11 6 33 34.48 1.71
Martin Pipe 13 2 15 3 23 10.76 1.57

An obvious question to ask is which handicap hurdles Mullins’ horses are being aimed at and are winning – it’s clear that he doesn’t tend to run many horses in the Fred Winter or Pertemps, but does run them in the Coral Cup, Martin Pipe and County Hurdle.

More Festival Content can be found in the Cheltenham 2019 Section.

Willie Mullins’ Chasers at the Cheltenham Festival

One interesting note to come from last year’s festival was that Willie Mullins didn’t school Douvan over fences before he went to the Champion Chase. Not only this, but he didn’t school Rathvinden for the four-miler either. Mullins’ priority seems to be getting them to the race safely as opposed to having them jump flawlessly. However, Mullins’ record with chasers at the festival hasn’t really been magnificent through the years.

His record at the festival as a whole doesn’t need to be explained – he has been the undisputed King of Cheltenham for a number of years now. However, if we compare his runners in hurdles and chases, there’s a stark contrast.

Race Runners Wins W% W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Hurdle 245 33 13% 30% 25.14 1.1
Chase 118 13 11% 31% -77.94 0.79

The hurdles record is outstanding – you actually could have made a profit by blindly backing his hurdlers, and this has been the case in 6 of the last 10 years. For 8 of the last 10 years, his hurdlers’ A/E has been over 1, suggesting that they’re still performing better than the market expects. His chasers, on the other hand, have only been profitable in 1 of the last 10 years to level stakes, and only had an A/E of over 1 twice in that decade.

This obviously isn’t all due to their jumping. After last year’s festival, however, there was a lot of attention given to the fact that he has had 19 fallers (including horses which unseated and one which was brought down) in chases over the last 10 years at the meeting. 6 of these were last year, making this a more pressing “issue” than ever. 19 fallers from 118 runners is a total of 16%.

Before adding to the narrative that Mullins’ horses aren’t good jumpers, I want to compare his faller rates to those of other trainers. I’ve included the only other trainers to have had over 100 chasers at the festival in the last 10 years (Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls and David Pipe) as well as Gordon Elliott, as Mullins’ main current rival and the trainer to whom he is most often compared at the moment.

Trainer Chasers Fallers Fall%
Willie Mullins 118 19 16%
Nicky Henderson 153 9 6%
Paul Nicholls 154 20 13%
David Pipe 101 9 9%
Gordon Elliott 48 6 13%

Firstly, Nicholls and Elliott have very similar rates to Mullins, if slightly lower. If we eliminate last year’s fallers (this is hardly unreasonable as there’s a distinct possibility that last year’s high faller rate was an anomaly), Mullins’ rate drops to 12.87%, which is on a par with Elliott, the trainer currently closest to Mullins in terms of success at the top level, and Paul Nicholls, still often referred to as the best trainer of chasers in the game, despite a lack of recent success at the top level.

Looking away from fallers, though, Mullins’ record with chasers compared to hurdlers should still be noted. We can break it down by looking at the record of different jockeys when riding for Mullins – three jockeys have been seen in chases over 10 times for Mullins at the festival in the last 10 years, and these are Ruby Walsh, Paul Townend and Patrick Mullins:

Jockey Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Ruby Walsh 35 9 25.71 14 40 -11.27 1.06
Paul Townend 28 0 0 5 17.86 -28 0
Patrick Mullins 23 2 8.7 7 30.43 -13.9 0.87

Ruby’s record is impressive. He has won on over a quarter of his rides in chases for Mullins and has (just about) outperformed the expectations of the market. Patrick Mullins’ record isn’t bad and he has been on plenty at massive prices – if we narrow it down to those at 10/1 or less, his record is 2 wins and another 3 places from 12 runners (A/E 1.12).

Paul Townend’s record isn’t as impressive, although one would suspect that he has played second fiddle to Ruby over the years, riding second-strings. For this reason, I want to look at his in the same way as I looked at Patrick Mullins’ – narrow them down to horses priced 10/1 or shorter. This narrows the amount of runners down to 8, confirming the theory that he’s regularly on stable second-strings and relative outsiders. His form reads 56F2P2P – the last four were at last year’s festival when Walsh was injured.

He has managed to place twice – however, the prices on the exchange would have suggested 3.2 places from these 8 runners, as well as 1.5 wins. This is admittedly a small sample size and it’s possible that we’re being harsh on Townend (especially considering the fact that one of his second-place finishes was a very respectable one on Min behind Altior in last year’s Champion Chase) but his inferior chase record to Ruby’s may be worth bearing in mind.

More Festival Content can be found in the Cheltenham 2019 Section.

Saturday Selection – 21/7/2018

2:25 Newbury – JLT Cup – Class 2 Handicap – 2m½f

This is a tricky puzzle to start the day off, with 17 horses in contention. However, there is plenty of form to get stuck into and 4 places on offer (or 5 if you choose to take 1/5 of the odds), so it’s worth taking a look. Stratum is the 9/4 favourite and he has a very attractive profile – he ran well to finish 3rd at Royal Ascot last time out in the Ascot Stakes over 2m 4f, shaping as if this step back to 2m could suit. Mullins is trying out first time headgear and he has been the subject of market support which is interesting considering he is owned by Tony Bloom. However, his price isn’t overly attractive in a race like this and I’ll be hoping that we can successfully oppose him as he takes up almost a third of the market, and therefore should create value elsewhere.

The next horse in the betting may be of more interest. Almoghared runs off bottom weight by virtue of being the only 3yo in the field, and comes into his handicap debut having also shaped nicely at Royal Ascot last time out, having finished 4th in the Queens Vase.

Buzz is one very interesting contender. He was taken out of the John Smiths Cup last week and the decision has been made to run over this trip instead. He’s unproven over the trip but breeding would suggest that it won’t be a major issue, and one would imagine that he’s being tried out over this distance with a view to running in the Ebor. This won’t mean that he’s not trying here today, however – he’ll need to put in a good run in order to go up in the weights to get into the Ebor. He’s a very consistent type, improving from run to run, and could be seen at his best here if he handles the trip. At 14/1, he looks the best bet.

SELECTION: BUZZ E/W (14/1)

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Ryanair Gold Cup

It’s sometimes difficult to analyse a race at Fairyhouse based on previous renewals, as the make-up of the race can be quite different each year due to the fact that the date of the meeting varies a lot in comparison to other big meetings in the spring. The proximity of Fairyhouse’s Easter meeting to Cheltenham varies each year, and it can fall on either side of Aintree’s Grand National meeting. However, it tends to attract a few high-class Irish novice chasers, a couple of which have come from Cheltenham.

Cheltenham Last Time Out

This brings us to the first point – most years, horses run here having had their last run at the Cheltenham festival. Overall, their record has been fairly poor.

Year Horse Days Since Cheltenham Run Odds Finishing Position
2009 Golden Silver 33 days 11/2 7th
2010 Nicanor 17 days 16/1 Pulled up
2011 Noble Prince 38 days 13/8 Fell
Mikael Dhaguenet 39 days 3/1 4th
Loosen My Load 38 days 4/1 2nd
Realt Dubh 40 days 9/2 1st
2012 White Star Line 26 days 16/1 6th
Call The Police 25 days 6/1 4th
2014 Ballycasey 39 days 11/8 Fell
2015 Apache Stronghold 24 days 5/1 Fell
Valseur Lido 24 days 4/1 6th
Smashing 26 days 25/1 3rd
2016 Mckinley 12 days 14/1 4th
Outlander 10 days evens 2nd
2017 Baily Cloud 31 days 66/1 4th
Road To Respect 31 days 7/2 1st
Some Plan 33 days 20/1 6th
Yorkhill 31 days 4/7 2nd

 

According to Betfair SP, this table should include 3.4 winners and 7.2 total places. It actually contains 2 wins and 6 total places, so there’s just a small underperformance.

Last year, the success did come from Cheltenham runners. However, it had been over a month since the festival. If we narrow this down to years in which the race came within 30 days of the Cheltenham start, the table is shorter and shows less success:

Year Horse Days Since Cheltenham Run Odds Finishing Position
2010 Nicanor 17 days 16/1 Pulled up
2012 White Star Line 26 days 16/1 6th
Call The Police 25 days 6/1 4th
2015 Apache Stronghold 24 days 5/1 Fell
Valseur Lido 24 days 4/1 6th
Smashing 26 days 25/1 3rd
2016 Mckinley 12 days 14/1 4th
Outlander 10 days evens 2nd

 

If we look at these horses alone, they underperformed, but only marginally – the market would have expected 1 winner and there were none, while according the Betfair SP there should have been 3 places (there were 2).

Willie Mullins

Mullins has traditionally been the man to follow in Irish National Hunt racing at the end of the season, but this race has been an exception. In the last 10 years he has had 18 runners, with no winners and 5 places (this record doesn’t get any better if you go back further, with no winners and just 5 places from 26 runners this century).

In those last 10 races, he has failed to train a winner despite his runners accounting for 27% of the total field. On that basis, they’ve underperformed just marginally in terms of making the frame, filling 24% of the total places from 27% of the total field.

However, if we look at the horses behind these numbers we see that this underperformance is more significant than it may seem at first. Mullins trained the favourites in 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014 at 4/7, evens, 5/4 and 11/8 respectively. They finished 2nd, 2nd, 4th and fell. Whilst it seems clear that Mullins horses underperform, it’s possible that they’re also overestimated by the market – the market certainly doesn’t seem to factor in this poor record. Based on Betfair starting prices, Mullins would have been expected to train 3.7 of the last 10 winners (actual number is 0) and 8.3 horses to make the frame (actual number 5).

2018 Renewal

Footpad was due to represent Willie Mullins here, and may have been a favourite worth taking on with these two angles in mind. However, it is interesting to see that the majority of the field are either trained by Mullins (only he and Elliott are represented in the race) or ran at Cheltenham:

  1. Al Boum Photo – Willie Mullins, ran at Cheltenham
  2. Invitation Only – Willie Mullins, ran at Cheltenham
  3. Montalbano – Willie Mullins
  4. Saturnas – Willie Mullins
  5. The Storyteller – ran at Cheltenham
  6. Tombstone
  7. Tycoon Prince – ran at Cheltenham
  8. Up For Review – Willie Mullins
  9. Shattered Love – ran at Cheltenham

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The Irish Grand National – One For The Small Yards

This year, the Irish Grand National will play a vital role in the year’s Trainer’s Championship, which both Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott desperately want to win. Mullins has 4 runners, which Elliott has an incredible 13. Last year was similar, however, with Elliott running 9 horses but the race ultimately going to Jessica Harrington’s Our Duke.

Whilst Harrington’s can hardly be called a small yard, it has been worth looking beyond the obvious powerhouses in this contest in the past. In the last 10 years, only Mouse Morris has won the race twice. 5 of the last 10 winners were their yards’ sole representatives at the track that day, and these horses (96 of them in total) were, as one might expect, underestimated by the market (Betfair SP’s would have suggested that they would account for 3.3 winners – although the Betfair place market would have suggested 13.9 places, despite only 9 of them actually making the frame).

It’s quite incredible that neither Elliott nor Mullins has ever won this race despite the attractive prize money on offer and the fact that both have won the English equivalent. Mullins has fired 23 darts at the race in the last 10 years and has had just 2 placed horses to show for it, despite 7 of his runners going off at 10/1 or less (none of these 7 even made the frame). Elliott, meanwhile, has had 20 runners in the last 10 years and has come away with just 3 places. He hasn’t trained as many contenders at the top of the market as Mullins has (just one horse with a starting price of 10/1 or less), but last year his runners took up around 30% of the total book and just one made the frame.

This is not a critique of either Mullins or Elliott – the reason for their ducks in this race aren’t clear and it’s never an easy task to win a National of any description, but it may be worth looking beyond the obvious big names (particularly in a race which attracts once a year punters who are likely to back horses from iconic yards, causing their prices to contract). Indeed, at the time of writing, 7 of the top 8 in the market are trained by either Mullins or Elliott. It may pay to look beyond the obvious.

William Hill are offering 5 places in this year’s Irish Grand National. When you sign up through our exclusive link, you’ll get €30 of free bets when you place your first bet of €10 or more. By signing up, you can support The Parade Ring and also be in with a chance of winning some cash prizes – find out more on our Free Bets page

Cheltenham – Half-Way Observations

We’re half-way through the greatest four days of jumps racing on earth, and while there is never really time to sit back and reflect while the festival in ongoing, it might be worth making a few observations:

Irish Raiders Rule The Roost

This goes without saying – while we’re used to a few Irish bankers coming in on day one, their domination on Wednesday was incredible. Mullins has picked up 5 winners from 31 runners and has had another 5 runners make the frame. This is an over performance according the the market – his horses would have been expected (based on starting prices in the win and place markets on the exchanges) to win 3 times and place a further 6 times. It’s hard to believe, but Mullins runners could still be underestimated in the market this week.

Gordon Elliott has run less horses so far but has been similarly successful – 3 wins and 4 places from 17 runners. Again, this has been an over performance – his horses would have been expected to win twice (243% implied probability) and place another 4 times (572% implied probability). Odds-on favourite Apples Jade’s loss would have put a dent in these figures, so the performance of Elliott’s horses is most definitely worth noting.

While the Irish have been running Cheltenham, Nicky Henderson has won with both of his stable superstars so far, with Buveur D’Air and Altior getting the job done. He has had 16 runners, 2 winners and a further 5 places. This has actually been the most significant over performance of the 3 in therms of places – he would have been expected to have 2 winners (162%) and another 2 places (412%). He may not be firing in the same high-profile fashion as Ireland’s top two, but his horses are most definitely in top form.

Ruby Walsh

What can I say here – it’s absolutely sickening to see Ruby injured again. He had been riding fantastically, with two winners on the first day, and seemed to be back to his best.

His rides will essentially be taken over by Paul Townend for the remainder of the week. Townend is a very talented rider in his own right and this should be of no great concern, particularly in hurdles contests. However, in chases at Cheltenham he doesn’t have the strongest record ever. Townend has won just once and placed another 4 times from 43 rides over fences at the track. He obviously hasn’t ridden the same caliber of horse over fences at the track as Ruby has, but the odds would suggest that Townend should have done slightly better, with implied probability of 2 winners and a further 7 places.

This isn’t a definite negative, and Townend gave Min a good ride yesterday to finish 2nd, but if Invitation Only and Un De Sceaux were to be beaten today, the figures may look slightly more worrying.

Our Tipping Partner

As usual, if you’re looking for tips throughout the festival, A Racing First is highly recommended. Their results are on their website, and so far this festival include some very solid places at big prices such as Mengli Khan (advised each-way at 14/1), Rather Be (advised each-way at 12/1), Monalee (advised at 16/1), Topofthegame (advised at 20/1) and Min (advised at 20/1), as well as a couple of winners. Their members will be confident and in profit going into the last two days at the festival, and I would advise anybody to take a look at their website to find out more.