Long threatened and finally here. Let us take a realistic view of the publication "Two Year Olds of 2007" by S. Taplin and published by Timeform. This year's edition will be the 23rd and will be available in the first week of May at a price of £9.99. Entitled as a 'Preview' rather than a 'Review' because B2yoR hasn't seen the 2007 edition but the last 10 or so have been pretty consistent so let us assume the format is going to be very similar. The one line summation that Timeform use in their current ordering literature is "Pedigree Analysis of around 1,500 two year olds" which is slightly worrying because 'Pedigree Analysis' isn't an area that it is particularly useful for. We'll return to this in the later sections.
At the outset it is worth stating that B2yoR recommends that anyone even mildly interested in 2yo racing should purchase the book. Despite a range of flaws it contains enough useful information, in an at-hand format, that it is worth the price (there you go Timeform, you can have that endorsement for the back cover, FOC). Any book which is dedicated to 2yo racing is not going to be dismissed by this site for obvious reasons. However, the hyperbole and praise that accompanies the marketing and the racing press reviews each year is misleading to various degrees and a realistic assessment hard to find.
Also, because it is produced and sold under the 'Timeform' banner it is protected by the apparently unimpeachable reputation of that organisation. It is extremely difficult to find anything negative ever said about the company, it's methods, etc. This is the orthodox view and questioning their output places any author outside the mainstream but the questions should be asked. While thorough and consistent within their own parameters they do not have the perfect approach.
In the next three sections we will look at the 'hype' and take a more pragmatic view of what the book contains, including highlighting the shortcomings. The fourth then looks at the most useful part of the book - the trainer comments - but put in the proper context of how to interpret those comments.
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The back cover of the 2006 edition gives a typical set of examples of the hype under the title 'Acclaimed by the Media'. Channel 4's Teletext began "A remarkable piece of work...", the Racing Post started with "Hails from the Timeform stable...." as if that was all that needed to be said and Racing Ahead magazine were even more gushing with "Simply brilliant....it is impossible to find fault with this book...". My word, at only £9.99 it is a robbery committed by the purchaser, surely, this publication must be close to priceless.
All unsolicited testimonials of course and no reason to doubt the genuine feelings of the reviewers. The last negative comment B2yoR saw came in 2002 when after a typical piece of gushery the reviewer felt he had to find some fault and suggested putting the trainer's names at the top of each page would be helpful and the indexing better (Oh, God, the world is such a perfect place, but couldn't everything be in alphabetical order?, It is came the reply - in Swahili.). Both comments have since been incorporated and are beneficial but in life generally commenting on the format rather than the content is a sign that the reviewer is not knowledgeable, and/or confident, enough to analyse the information. With good reason, perhaps, if you are taking on Timeform and someone who has spent the last few months talking about 2yos with trainers and bloodstock agents.
The marketing for the book often uses the 'Positive Selection' technique to try to make the point that it is an invaluable book when it comes to winner finding. We all know that adverts for tipsters stating "Winners at 9/1, 11/2, 9/2,....etc" usually leave out the fact that those winners have been surrounded by stacks of losing recommendations. But you expect something a bit more thoughtful from Timeform.
The usual format is for trainer and experts' comments from the book to be published along with the fact that they won on debut or in a big race. This can be done for any of the horses in the book but we will consider an example from the back cover of the 2005 edition. The comments here were from horses which made the "Five Star" list of the 2004 edition so they were for horses that could be claimed to have been highlighted for recommendation.
Trainer Barry Hills had said in the 2004 edition that Etlaala had "..done fantastically well. Everything he's done has been good... if we look after him he'll be a lovely horse". It was then noted that he had won the Group 2 Champagne Stakes. All very well but by the time September came around it isn't likely that the comment in the 2004 edition made any difference to how anyone bet in the Champagne Stakes. Are we celebrating the book as a tipping sheet or Mr Hills knowledge of a useful runner when he sees one?
Richard Hannon was quoted as commenting on Galeota with "As nice a 2yo as there is around the place, big and strong.. I've got a lot of time for him... Look out for this colt." The text then notes that Galeota won the Group 2 Mill Reef Stakes. Again, there is an inferred connection here that the text links directly to how someone would have considered betting in the Mill Reef. It's worth noting that he was beaten as odds-on favourite in his maiden and in two Group races before improving in later season to win the Group race. The more useful interpretation would be to consider how much Mr. Hannon knows about his 2yos before they run rather than the implied link between the text and the later result.
For example, in 2004 the horses mentioned were the only ones that the two trainers had in the "Five Star" list so perhaps what we have really learnt is that these two trainers really know their 2yos abilities before they run? If that were the case we could filter the comments in the main section of the book to find the real positives among the merely 'hopeful' quotes. In 2005 Barry Hills had two in the "Five Star" list with Criminal Act ("A real nice horse that's well put together....He's a good goer and could be anything.") & Deceptive Step ("Quite a nice horse.....just cantering at the moment but a real nice horse and one to follow"). The first took three goes to break his maiden including being beaten as favourite on his second outing and has managed one place in four later races as a two and three-year-old. Deceptive Step died at 2yo so we don't know what type of racehorse he would have been.
Mr Hannon had three in the 2005 "Five Star" list with Asset ("One of our nicest colts. Lovely & strong.... a seriously nice horse"), Punta Galera ("A very impressive horse, jet black, goes well.... looks a nice 2yo") & Sun Catcher ("A beautiful colt, well balanced and a good mover. He could be anything and one to watch for."). Asset was beaten as favourite on debut before a good win as favourite on his second outing and unplaced in his other run. The other two managed maiden wins on their fourth and fifth attempts.
The 2005 results tell us two main things, firstly that it is very easy to go down even the "Five Star" list and pull out more 'failures' than the selectively used extracts that the marketing types will use for their splashes. The second is that if you look as the quotes you may start to see useful hints of human traits of the trainers. Mr Hannon starts his 2yos early but doesn't press them at home so he knows which do the basic training relatively easily but doesn't know their full ability. That's a big part of the reason why even the best he has often get beaten on debut but snap 'together' second time out. That sort of interpretation is far more useful than selecting the quotes you want when they match the outcome you hoped for.
The other point you might have picked up with Mr Hannon is what he likes in a horse. He is clearly moved by certain horses just by their physical appearance but can let that cloud his judgement of just how much ability they have. The same 2005 edition included very positive comments on Rubber ("...possibly one of the best we've ever had...") who didn't win; twelve race maiden Feu D'Artifice ("Like Rockets N Rollers, big colt, ...horse i've always loved, very nice and good value.") & Plum Pudding ("Very big, different class from everything at the sales") who placed at best in four 2yo runs but proved a useful handicap winner at 3yo.
Trying to encapsulate the usefulness of the comments in the book by reducing them to tips to be selectively quoted doesn't serve anyone well. Trying to analyse and interpret the information included is far more useful and is considered further in section 4. below.
[Aside - one of the most annoying aspects of the book is when a trainer has made a vaguely positive comment about a horse and it has won before the book is published. The author then includes a (self-)congratulatory comment confirming what a great piece of work this was. It's too late Mr Taplin, it is called 'after-timing', please desist from this practice.]
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Before getting onto the individual sections let us start with some obvious shortcomings of the publication as a whole (it isn't 'impossible' to find fault after all):-
For example NA Callaghan can usually be relied on and his only entry was debut & Group 2 winner Excellent Art while R. Hannon had four in the list including Dazed And Amazed (Listed winner), Major Cadeaux (debut winner and Coventry placed) & useful type Resignation (won 1 of eight runs). However, even comments from knowledgeable trainers can go astray and his quote on Dubai's Fairy ("goes like the wind.. goes very, very well") proved less than accurate on-course. Equally, J. Noseda counts as a very good trainer of 2yos and had two in the list and gave a good one with Bahama Mama but with a so-so recommendation ("..filly to get on with, definitely win races at 2yo"). He was more positive about the moderate AW winner Capannina ("..bundles of pace, could be a Queen Mary Type"). B2yoR wouldn't think any less of Mr Noseda's skills because he tipped a slightly duff one, picking out horses does that to you - regularly. But it points out the limitations that the timing and static nature of the book confer.
The 'Star Two Year Olds' and 'Bloodstock Experts' parts are more of the same with 2yos from the main book selected. The '5 Star' list had 38 entries of which 15 won (2 x Group 1 and 13 below Listed level), 7 non-winners and 11 no shows along with 5 Irish trained and no British run. Similar points can be made as with the '50 to Follow' list and a particular problem was the number of Godolphin horses on the list when the stable had a 'no show' kind of season.
The Bloodstock Experts (agents and stud managers) is more interesting although not as the 'winner finding' tool that the 2006 edition covers at length in the preamble. For example, we could pick on the comments by Chris Richardson of Cheveley Park Stud (3 chosen, 1 minor winner at odds-on having been previously beaten at odds-on, one poor runner and one no show); or agent Amanda Skiffington who has a perfectly good record of buying 2yos but gave four horses of which none won, three placed and one ran poorly. B2yoR has chosen these two people because they have good track records and are big enough to take a knock. But it makes the point that picking out horses that early, even for experts, can be a fool's errand and will produce widely varying results from one year to the next.
The few more interesting points in the section come when the experts are released from tipping duties and comment on the bloodstock market in general. For example James Delahooke gives useful asides about the US view on Lemon Drop Kid as a sire and on valuing horses before a sale. Agent Will Edmeades also explains why four-time winner Il Palio cost only 5,000 guineas at his yearling sale. But these are just rare glimpses of the type of explanation and interpretation of the background to 2yo racing that would improve the book greatly rather than the relentless, unquestioned, positive hopes for young horses (Another quote for the back of the book, perhaps).
The main section of the book with the 1,500 horses covered by trainers is considered in the next part of this article. The 'Stallion Reference' section is very weak with the minimum of information and no interpretation nor even a 2yo focus to the data. There are much more useful sources of information with the Racing Post having produced a free supplement carrying similar data and covering sales and trends. The book "250 Two Year Olds to Follow" by P. Lincoln and published by Raceform in 2005-6 contained more useful stallion data and with that book not being produced in 2007 it would be a great benefit if something more akin to that style of information, or the summaries on this site replaced the current format.
The 'Racing Trends' section is actually a list of previous winners of 14 major 2yo races and as such is a useful part although the information is available in many other publications and it doesn't give an overview of the whole 2yo Pattern races. The addition of the number of major wins as a 3yo by the latest winner is also useful. The section then feels it has to start tipping winners again and the text accompanying can be a little limp. It tends to be simple listing of previous winners which we can see and the tipping formulation of 'Ought to win a race or two at 3yo' which is not adding anything worthwhile. Telling us that Champion 2yo George Washington "..will be a leading contender in top mile events and he may get a touch further. Seems sure to win more races...." would not be good use of space in any book. In one that might reach you just before the 2,000 Guineas if the post is good it is clearly wasting space that could be better used.
The final section are extracts from other Timeform Statistical review publications and other than the first two tables which cover entire data for trainers the remaining tables are 2yo racing specific. More notably they are British racing specific and this is very welcome. The usual method has been to lump Irish racing in with Britain as if it were some minor offshoot which is patronising to Ireland. They have their own racing, with their own structure and set of characters and it should be treated as a separate racing sphere. In British sales catalogues 'winner at home' still means Ireland and Britain for example. Apart from structural concerns this does matter because the Goffs sales races in Ireland are now so valuable (the Goffs Million in euros, etc.) that they completely distort sire and trainer tables ordered by money won.
However, the tables presented are a useful summation of 2yo racing Britain if you know how to read them. The table which lists the trainers with the best strike rates is useful to see which names are at the top and to start thinking about why they are there - usually a mix of trainer methods and quality of 2yos.
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The main section of the book is the listing of the 2yos (1,462 horses in 2006), ordered by trainer, and with quotes from most of the trainers. Before going further Mr Taplin should obviously be congratulated on being able to get access to so many trainers and to get their responses. Keeping well enough in with that range of people to get them to respond, even with the Timeform backing and the carrot of some stable promotion, cannot be easy. However, as with many in the racing press and writing group the access does come with the expectation that any published material will be positive & unquestioning. Apart from the yearly barb at AP O'Brien and Coolmore because they won't talk to him every other trainer comes across a terrific lady or gentleman whose technique in the training of 2yos is nothing short of exemplary.
Without the trainer comments the book would be an uninteresting list of names and basic pedigree notes. The book and the Timeform advertising say that the pedigree notes amount to 'Pedigree Analysis'. This is not the case they are the usual incomplete lists of previous foals from the dam. The performance information is put in a paragraph format and is difficult to read and the quality of the performances uses a word scale (Fair, Quite useful, Fairly useful, etc.) which is unhelpful. Timeform are involved - why not just have some cut-down version of their Sales product instead with ratings included? Anyhow, this is not 'Analysis' and there is no summation of what the pedigree might mean for the 2yo, for example in the way that the publication "250 Two Year Olds To Follow" used to make inferences about distance and ground requirements. The included Timeform Provisional Ratings are a single figure indication of the quality range that the pedigree might produce.
The earlier sections have included quotes from the trainers and it has been difficult preparing this article in getting a handle on how to interpret these comments. The problems of early timings and the need to be only positive make for some of the problems and compress the comments into a quite narrow range. The use of the word 'nice' is so prevalent that it would improve the book greatly if it were banned and the trainers were forced to find other words.
Initially, B2yoR tried looking through various editions at Richard Hannon's entries to see what patterns showed up. This process left a feeling that this was a slippery problem to try to get a handle on - but why? The answer is likely to be that for the reasons touched on in Section 2 and that the correlation between certain phrases and actual ability just isn't there for Mr Hannon. The one piece of real advice would be to take seriously any quote where Mr Hannon refers to jockey R. Hughes being impressed. If he uses words like "corker", "smasher", "beautiful" etc., then they really could be anything in the true meaning of that phrase, i.e. useless to useful. In short, his earliest 2yos will already have run by the time the book is out and they won't have fully sorted the others out.
Ok, so let's try a smaller and hopefully more informative example. Peter Chapple-Hyam made his name with his handling of 2yos and has a reputation for knowing just how good they are early in the season and certainly before they run. He had a very good season with his juveniles and his comments for his best 2yos were encouraging with Authorized ("..probably my nicest horse... excited about his prospects."), Dutch Art ("He's more than useful and probably even better than my Dr Fong 2yo [the unraced Thunderbolt Jaxon] who is at a similar stage.") & Striving Storm ("..done a couple bits of work... probably the nicest of my 2yos"). There we are, a trainer that we do not have to interpret, surely?
But then we look at the quotes for some lesser lights like Our Ruby (".. she's more than useful. Definitely one to look forward to."), Nordic Light ("Going well"), & Silver Hotspur ("He moves well and goes well"). Things are less clear, he's positive about most horses and even he hasn't got far enough with his more development 7-8f 2yos to really know how good they are. We do need to interpret and look for phrases that are better than just nicely positive but even that wouldn't save us from believing Our Ruby was useful.
Working through trainers like MR Channon and BR Millman come to similar conclusions. There are hints as to which are the best types but they are not obvious because of the general positive language and the early stage of the training for many of them. The key becomes to find :-
a) Which are the trainers who actually know how good their 2yos are,
especially the early ones who are close to running by early May
b) What are the indicators of a truly positive trainer quote.
To take one further example we can look through the quotes from DM Simcock for 2006. A younger trainer who prepares his 2yos fully before they go to track and does know which are the best. Among his entries there is a clear split between 'hopeful' words for later season 2yos who aren't ready and three positive comments on 2yos who are already ready to go. The most positive words were for Pelican Key who won on debut in a Conditions race before boiling over in a Group race on her second outing. Both are characteristics of the full preparation that the trainer gives his horses (as is running his better 2yos in Condition races at Windsor on debut). The other positives were for Cosmopolitan Lady who proved she was a 'sharp' type but took until her eight start to win a Class 2 nursery after 5 placed runs. The third was for an unraced 2yo called Tax Bracket who was supposed to be ready for mid-April and above average and it will be interesting to see what ability he shows if he runs at 3yo.
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In conclusion, a book with some useful elements but which could be improved greatly by removing some sections and restructuring others. The two major improvements would be :-
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