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Timefigure analysis from Graeme North on the Dublin Racing Festival


Our timefigure guru Graeme North crunches the numbers from the Dublin Racing Festival - and not just those concerning the winning performances.

I usually manage to catch most if not all of ‘Luck On Sunday’, the conversational magazine programme that airs weekly on Sunday morning (obviously) on Racing TV, and the section that provokes some of the most interesting responses, ‘Talking Points’, where the hot issues of the week are debated, promised to be particularly interesting this week given it addressed the dominance of trainer Willie Mullins at the Dublin Racing Festival with host Nick Luck putting forward the belief that the Festival is now getting to a point of ‘worrying non-competitiveness’.

There was an acknowledgement from one of his two guests that ‘yes, it is’ but in the absence of any hard factual supporting evidence what might have been a more informative analysis ended up fizzling out as the discussion turned to Gaelic Warrior.

As such, I decided to do the hard digging myself in an attempt to establish exactly how increasingly uncompetitive – if at all - the Festival has become. And it has, in spades.

While another record attendance shows its popularity continues to grow with the paying public – though there were no shortage of reports on social media of overly long queues and waiting times this year for various facilities – the data suggests the Festival reached peak competitiveness in 2020 and has been in steady decline every year since.

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What do the stats say about the Dublin Racing Festival?

The Dublin Racing Festival was run in 2018 when the two-day meeting featured seven Grade One contests, a number that increased to eight in 2019 and has stayed at ever since.

Those first seven Grade Ones (which is what I’ll be concentrating on) attracted 57 runners since when that eight-runner average has been exceeded only once (2021) or approached only once (2020).

Average runners per Grade One have nosedived in each of the last three seasons with the 2024 average of six runners being a sizeable drop on the second-lowest average in 2023. As those numbers have dropped through the floor, so has the number of trainers competing in those boutique events.

Since its inception, the Dublin Racing Festival has attracted 399 runners in its Grade One events with Willie Mullins saddling a remarkable 163 of them, a figure that equates to 41% of the total runners in those races.

However, that headline figure disguises the substantial (or worrying) stranglehold that Mullins now has on those races. In 2018 and 2019 combined, for example, he saddled just 27% of the total Grade One runners and even found himself outnumbered by Gordon Elliott in 2019.

Since then, however, that percentage has increased inexorably every year, surpassing 50% of all the runners in the Grade One events for the first time in 2023 before surging again to an extraordinary 60% in 2024.

Trainer Gordon Elliott
Trainer Gordon Elliott

As Mullins’ grip has tightened, the supporting numbers from the other leading trainers has been squeezed. Elliott’s numbers have been on the wane since 2019 and the six he ended up running in 2024 (which was the also the first time he's not had a Grade One winner at the Festival) was his joint lowest yet.

Henry de Bromhead, whose powerful Knockeen yard has run 43 Grade One runners since 2018, has saddled fewer and fewer runners every year since 2020 with the three he ran in 2024 a fragment of the ten that representing him in 2020 while Joseph O’Brien, who ties third with de Bromhead with five Grade One winners, is another whose runners have decreased every year since 2021 to the extent he had only one runner this year.

In 2020, when Mullins trained just three of the eight winners, no fewer than 21 different trainers were represented in the Grade Ones; that figure fell to 15 in both 2021 and 2022, dropped to 13 in 2023 and shrank again to just 11 in 2024.

2020 was also the last year that Mullins trained as few as three winners; since then, his yearly totals have been six, six and six before slamming what little was left of an open door with a full house this year. Some depressing figures there, and as Richard Hoiles pointed out in the same Luck On Sunday discussion, a situation that might increasingly lead punters, who fund the sport after all, towards a disinclination to bet when nearly all the runners in the race come from the same stable.

Certainly, six odds-on shots in the Grade Ones over the two days left me underwhelmed for the first time at this fixture; oh for the days of 2020 when there were only two!

I began last year’s review of the same Festival with a comment on the ground which was far livelier than might have been expected in advance and which Timeform ended up calling good to soft but could have arguably called good.

Conditions this year resembled something more akin to what might be called ‘winter ground’, on the opening day at least, but race times suggested the ground had quickened up by the second afternoon, assuming the official distances are correct of course, which they claim now to be in Ireland since sectional timing was rolled out, and Timeform’s going allowance over fences suggested that conditions weren’t much slower on the chase track on Sunday than they had been the previous year.

Saturday’s meeting kicked off with the Grade One Golden Cygnet Hurdle, a race that had gone to subsequent Ballymore fourth Good Land in 2023 but which reverted to type this time around by ending up at Closutton as it had done in 2021 and 2022 respectively with Gaillard Du Mesnil and Minella Cocooner who went on to finish second in the Ballymore and Albert Bartlett respectively.

Festival

Saturday young guns might struggle at Cheltenham

That suggests this year’s winner Dancing City deserves respect for whichever Cheltenham race he ends up despite a 16/1 starting price but given the amount the held-up runner-up Predators Gold took out of himself early on and the close proximity of Jetara, a mare that hasn’t impressed me on the clock this year, I’m inclined to think for now this race (winning timefigure 136) maybe won’t be as relevant as it usually is.

The following juvenile won by Kargese (132) has been an excellent guide to the Triumph Hurdle in recent seasons, but as in the opening race the field were once again on top of each other for most of the journey and I don’t think supporters of Sir Gino, whose hurdling form in France is in my opinion superior to anything either Kargese or third-placed Majborough showed over there, will have lost too much sleep.

The run of beaten favourites continued in the third race with Marine Nationale finding little and out of contention even before eventual winner Il Etait Temps (127) came across him at the final fence, causing him to prop on landing.

Il Etait Temps has a good record at this meeting, finishing third in the juvenile hurdle in 2022 at 40/1 and then winning the Brave Inca in 2023 at 14/1 but he followed those efforts with out-of-the-frame finishes at Cheltenham and given that this result was something of a rehash of the soon-to-be-dropped Racing Post Novice Chase at Christmas I can’t get too excited about his Arkle (presumably) prospects with the proximity of the veteran Sharjah another cause for concern.

Galopin Des Champs hardened in the Gold Cup market after defeating his nemesis Fastorslow by four and a half lengths in the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup. The race was another unsatisfactory affair with I Am Maximus never really put in the race and Conflated exiting at the final fence again after taking the same inside route he had at Christmas, reflected in a 120 timefigure and a 109.5% finishing speed on a day when nothing greatly impressed on the clock.

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The biggest cheer of the day was reserved for the final winner of the afternoon over fences, the sole British challenger of the day Madara who landed a big-field handicap. Able to race off a mark 2lb lower than in Britain up against rivals most of whom would have been racing off much higher marks had the race taken place over here, Madara scooped a far bigger prize than he could race for on home soil with a dominant performance which hopefully will encourage other British trainers to see the error of their ways and try their luck if only in the handicaps.

Hard to know what to make of Fact To File win

The opening Grade One on the second day descended into a farcical match after three of the original five runners were withdrawn for various reasons.

Graded racing in Britain has had its fair share of moaners in recent years but its interesting to note that the last time a Grade One contest resolved in a match it was in Ireland in 2013 when Briar Hill beat his only rival in the Navan Novice Hurdle.

Though there hasn’t been a two-runner Grade One Chase other than this one since 1995 (the furthest back I’m able to query) interestingly of the 12 three-runner Grade One chases in the same time frame nine of the 12 run have been in Ireland with Envoi Allen’s 2021 Paddy’s Reward Chase the most recent.

As it was a very wound-up Gaelic Warrior lost his aura over fences with a display that also seemed to turn on an awkward landing four out and it’s hard to know what to make of it all (Fact To File’s timefigure 141) but his stable-companion El Fabiolo remembered his lines in the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase with a commanding performance for all the time was slow (120) that has surely rerouted Jonbon to the Ryanair.

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Ballyburn (high 153 timefigure) was almost as impressive as El Fabiolo in the Brave Inca, despatching a strong field with a compelling display of front-running once he took it up, having too many gears for the gallant runner-up Slade Steel who himself pulled well clear of the good marker King Of Kingsfield.

State Man (142) made short work of his three opponents in the Irish Champion Hurdle, cruising to the front on the home turn and having too much speed for Bob Olinger whose head went up for a few strides when initially asked for his effort before he knuckled down. Impaire Et Passe has gone backwards under Daryl Jacob since being dropped to two miles and didn’t look to be applying himself in what is increasingly becoming a disappointing campaign for the one-time Champion Hurdle hope.

Don't underestimate Scilly Isles winner in Turners

Back home, the sole Grade One contest of the week, the Virgin Bet Scilly isles Novices’ Chase, lost much of its interest when Grey Dawning wasn’t amongst the original declarations and then ended up being marred by the sad death of Hermes Allen, but the front-running winner Nickle Back looked happier back at two and a half miles than he had at two miles at Kempton when he effectively set up the race for Master Chewy and a 152 timefigure in a race that has proved a good guide to Cheltenham in recent years (Gerri Colombe and L’homme Presse the most recent winners) suggests he shouldn’t be taken lightly if he turns up in the Turners.

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His yard reportedly think he’s better going right-handed but he won impressively at Stratford and Warwick earlier this season and you can’t get much tighter than those. On the same card Jinkgo Blue put himself in the Cheltenham picture too with a smart performance in the novice handicap hurdle, defying a mark of 124 with a great deal of ease.

A 124 timefigure can be upgraded to 140 once his finishing splits are taken into account.


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