Things We Learned » Swansong


Whatever it is that you hang up when you stop being a racehorse trainer, whatever is to ‘trainer’ what riding boots are to ‘jockey’, it was with a certain regret that you read that Charlie Swan was hanging his up on Tuesday.

It is worthwhile revisiting some of the highlights of Charlie Swan’s career as a rider: Istabraq, Istabraq and Isatabraq, champion jockey 10 times, top rider at Cheltenham twice. Swan was the original National Hunt stylist.

He did not fare too badly as a trainer either. Twenty-two winners over jumps during his first season as a trainer grew to 42 during the 2005/06 season. That was as good as it got, but he still had 21 winners from 177 runners last season, representing a strike rate of a respectable 12%, a strike rate that he had been maintaining this season.

In among those winners were some good ones, like his two Grade 1 winners One Cool Cookie and Offshore Account, who won their Grade 1s at Fairyhouse and Punchestown respectively within two weeks of each other, and Emmpat, who won the Menolly Homes Handicap Hurdle and the Scottish Champion Hurdle, and What A Native, winner of the Pierse Leopardstown Handicap Chase.

It is difficult, however, when commercial reality dictates that you sell the promising ones. Swan himself cited the example of the Grade 2 novices’ hurdle at Warwick last Saturday, in which Three Musketeers beat Ballagh, the pair of them clear. Both horses are exciting prospects, and both were formerly trained by Charlie Swan.

Fleting names

So now we have the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate. Fair play to Brown Advisory and Merriebelle Stable for coming together and coming up with the funds between them, but seriously?

We have been here before on numerous occasions (ref. the Stewards’ Cup, the Bunbury Cup, the Morgiana Hurdle), but the races are the stepping stones that take us through a season, they are the perennial milestones that we can recognise, and they are identifiable by name. Change the name and you change the identifier. Continually change it and, if you’re not careful, you lose the identity.

The Mildmay of Flete Handicap Chase may not have had the most catchy title ever thought up, but it was a recognisable and recognised feature race of the Cheltenham Festival, basking in the name from 1951, the year after the 2nd Baron Mildmay of Flete’s death, until 2006. That was the year that it became the Racing Post Plate, and over a half a century of tradition and identity-building was consigned to history.

Cheltenham have honoured several Cheltenham legends by adding their names to race titles. The Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle, the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir, the Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle, the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle. It is a great move, but it is a shame that names like Terry Biddlecombe and Peter O’Sullevan were dropped after just one year.

The Mildmay of Flete was run as the Freddie Williams Festival Plate in 2009, the year after the Racing Post’s sponsorship of the race ended. That was a fine initiative. The pity was that the Freddie Williams name was dropped the following year.

The Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Freddie Williams Festival Plate may have required the graphics guys to work overtime the night before, but it would have meant that the identity of the race would have been preserved through time, that the name of the race would not change on the whim of every new sponsor. When trainers refer to a race as ‘the Mildmay of Flete or whatever they call it these days’, you know you have an issue.

Irish chances

There are ante post markets now on all 27 races at the 2015 Cheltenham Festival now.

Some markets are obviously more robust than others. For example, the Champion Hurdle market may not change that much between now and final declarations unless something untoward happens, whereas the four bookmakers that are now betting on the Fred Winter Hurdle will probably have to revise their odds a couple of times between today and 11th March.

Even so, and notwithstanding the fact that there are a few horses who are high in the betting for more than one race, the ante post markets provide a fair indication of general expectations.

Taking a broad average from the main bookmakers’ lists, Irish-trained horses provide 12 of the favourites, 11 of the second favourites and 15 of the third favourites. It could be another good year.

Horse Racing Ireland stats

The most striking element of the statistics that were released by Horse Racing Ireland during the week was not that bloodstock sales were up over 10% on 2013 to €147.4 million, nor that the total number of owners was down 6.2%, despite the fact that the number of new owners was up 4%. It was that total on-course betting was marginally up on 2013, from €93.7 million to €94.2 million.

Okay, so it is not a massive increase, and betting in the betting ring was still marginally down, but it was only marginally down, and the overall figure is not a decrease on last year. That is important.

Of course, the total on-course figure is dwarfed by the off-course figure of €2.62 billion, but it is linked to a small increase (4%) in attendances despite the fact that the number of fixtures was down slightly, and that provides a solid base on which to build.

Plain sailing

All things being equal, it looks like The New One is all set for another walk in the park in the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock this afternoon.

Nigel Twiston-Davies’ horse has run three times this season so far, and he has won all three times, at odds of 2/11, 1/3 and 4/7 respectively. He recorded Timeform figures of 169 and 166+ in defeat last season, yet this term so far, he hasn’t had to go higher than 160 nor really break sweat.

By contrast, while Faugheen has been sent off at long odds-on for both his races this term so far, he recorded a Timeform figure of 171+ in winning the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day.

On one hand, The New One has been the beneficiary of some astute placing by his trainer. On another, we just don’t know if he has progressed this season yet as a six-gone-seven-year-old. At this stage, we will probably have to wait until 10th March to find out.

© The Irish Field, 17th January 2015