With less than a week to go until the tape rises for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Luke Elder and Calum Madell are joined by special guest and twice Cheltenham Festival winning jockey Nick Scholfield to cover the four Championship races at this year’s meeting. Nick also answers questions put to him about his likely rides including leading Triumph Hurdle contender Zubayr and other horses at the yard of champion trainer Paul Nicholls.
Before I begin the mammoth task of reviewing the action since Boxing Day, I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Year with plenty of winners and enjoyment of some brilliant racing over the Festive period. The review will be done in chronological order from Kempton’s Boxing Day meeting to today’s action from Plumpton and Naas.
Kempton kicked off proceedings with Altior continuing his unbeaten record over timber in the opening novice hurdle for trainer Nicky Henderson and jockey Nico de Boinville, making it four from four despite hitting a flat spot turning for home. Once ridden for his full effort, he soon established an unassailable advantage and found plenty for pressure to scamper clear of some fair rivals in behind to win as he pleased by 13 lengths.
The more I see of Altior, the more I like him. Whilst he won on hurdling debut at Chepstow, he raced far too keenly and it was a concern to see how he would progress going forward in better company. Although he still raced slightly with the choke out at Kempton, he switched off better due to the gallop set by Marracudja and produced a career best over hurdles. The fact he beat Simon Squirrel by 21 lengths here compared to just 5 and a half last time at Cheltenham’s Paddy Power meeting suggests we are dealing with England’s leading hope so far for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and is worthy of a position near the head of the market with his continual progression. Better ground will also be of huge benefit for the son of High Chaparral.
Open Eagle filled the runner up spot and produced his best round of jumping to date. He loomed up menacingly approaching the second last but was comprehensively put in his place by Altior. A step up in trip will probably be on the agenda sooner rather than later and it wouldn’t surprise to see him in a handicap hurdle later in the season. Marracudja set a fair gallop but like many of Paul Nicholls runners looked to find little off the bridle. The yard form will crop up a few times throughout the piece but he does look to have ran his race whilst Simon Squirrel wants better ground to be seen at his best and remains of interest, especially when tackling the larger obstacles next season.
The two hurdling debutants Meet The Legend and Gwafa both emerge with some credit. The former was running for the Skeltons for the first time in the Highclere colours and raced far too freely even with the hood on. He will have learnt plenty for the experience whilst the latter had some quality handicap form on the Flat and jumped well enough on the whole. He will have no issue winning an ordinary novice hurdle and should prove competitive in decent handicap hurdles.
Henderson didn’t need to wait long for another winner thanks to Full Shift taking the novices handicap chase for Barry Geraghty and his retainer JP McManus in an eventful contest where several had their jumping severely tested. It was a marked improvement on his chasing debut at Newbury when well beaten behind Arzal but was all out here to hold on from Bekkensfirth who had survived a dreadful mistake at the third last. His jumping was better than most but he still made niggly mistakes and would need to improve on this in future.
The runner up Bekkensfirth jumped the best until his error three out and did well to fight back against Full Shift. On this showing, he wouldn’t be inconvenienced by a step up in distance and should continue to win more novice handicap chases. Sirabad was keen again in the hood but travelled strongly into the race before looking to not see out two and a half miles. The instant suggestion would be to step back down to the minimum distance but he still looks a weak finisher and a horse that would appreciate more time to strengthen and develop. Rock N Rhythm seemed to enjoy these new tactics but the handicapper needs to relent slightly.
Of those that failed to complete, Antony’s jumping was poor compared to Sandown and the writing was on the wall before leaving the back straight whilst Buckhorn Timothy had made jumping errors and was still travelling ok when falling six out. West Wizard crumpled on landing at the last after stopping quickly for new connections but was thankfully fine whilst Unique De Cotte spectacularly unseated Tom Scudamore around halfway.
The Kauto Star Novices’ Chase saw Tea For Two provide Lizzie Kelly with a historic success when she became the first woman to ride a Grade One winner over jumps, a feat she almost achieved on Aubusson at Auteuil in November when denied by the evergreen Thousand Stars and Ruby Walsh in the Grand Prix d’Automne.
What was quite astounding about his performance was how much he found in the closing stages considering how keen he raced early over a trip which held concerns pre-race. His jumping had been electric at Exeter on chase debut and it was a more assured round rather than him being flashy, with Lizzie Kelly keen to ensure that he got into an early rhythm over the first couple of fences. Although he saw it out well to the line, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he came back in distance for either the Scilly Isles at Sandown, where the jumping test would suit ideally, or the Pendil back at Kempton. For the future, going back left handed shouldn’t pose any issues even though his record going the other way has a stronger look.
Southfield Royale ran a much better race than expected on a track that wouldn’t necessarily play to his strengths and delivered his best round of jumping which has clearly improved on each start this season. Aintree has been muted as the target rather than Cheltenham where a sounder surface will bring about more improvement.
Native River emerged with plenty of credit back in third. The track clearly didn’t suit yet he still battled on tenaciously after making several errors on the way round. A stiffer test of stamina and a stronger gallop will see him in a more positive light. The RSA has been mentioned as the target over the National Hunt Chase so the 33’s on show looks generous each way value considering he will be better suited to the conditions of an RSA rather than last week.
I don’t really want to dwell much on the Christmas Hurdle as Faugheen proved he was back to form with an easy success over The New One in the manner in which you would have expected. On that evidence and what we saw later in the week from Nichols Canyon (see below), he remains the clear one to beat come the Champion Hurdle. The New One’s old tendency of jumping right emerged in the closing stages and a step up in trip is probably the ideal route to take whilst Hargam ran well and reversed form from the International with Old Guard who ran slightly flat. A break should do him good before a crack at the Aintree Hurdle over 2m4f in the spring. I’m already looking forward to him going novice chasing next season as he has the capability to be a high class chaser and a prime example to showcase the ability of Notnowcato as a National Hunt sire. Sign Of A Victory wants faster ground and a Flat campaign next summer could just be the right way to go with his mark of 87.
The King George on paper looked to have everything. The highest rated chaser in Don Cossack, the young pretender in Vautour, the resurgent Cue Card, the winner of the last two years Silviniaco Conti and the gallant Hennessy winner Smad Place.
What the race delivered was a Christmas cracker that will live long in the memory with Cue Card stealing the prize from Vautour in the dying strides and keeping alive the Jockey Club £1 million pound bonus after his Betfair Chase saunter. This time Cue Card had to dig deep to reel in Vautour, who had looked the likely winner turning for home. His King George record before this success had been questionable and whilst he didn’t look completely in love again with Kempton, his class managed to get him through.
Treatment of a trapped epiglottis in the summer has transformed Cue Card’s form, bringing him right back to his very best. The same horse that burst onto the National Hunt scene in the Champion Bumper as a four year old in 2010. The horse that dominated the Ryanair Chase in 2013. The only horse capable of getting close to Sprinter Sacre in his prime. One of the highlights of this National Hunt season is the return of the old guard. It would have been a braver man than myself to predict before the Charlie Hall that Cue Card would be in line for the £1 million bonus and Sprinter Sacre would be unbeaten this season
Plenty of credit rightly goes to the horse but we shouldn’t forget the human side. Trainer Colin Tizzard has done a marvellous job to get the son of King’s Theatre back, the new stable built on the yard has aided with breathing and his usually pronounced head carriage not so prominent in his races. Jockey Paddy Brennan has built up an excellent rapport, a man whose confidence and mojo has returned with a vengeance. He was adamant at Haydock that he was back on a Gold Cup horse for the first time since Imperial Commander and his comments to Matt Chapman on ATR’s On The Line regarding the King George made for interesting listening.
“When I rode him in the Charlie Hall, I didn’t really have an opinion on any race at Cheltenham. When I rode him in Haydock, I pulled up and I thought ‘Oh my God I’ve just ridden a Gold Cup horse again’ and that’s genuine. When I went to Kempton, he missed the first and second and I thought we we going no where. All he did was stay. Personally I don’t think he was in love in Kempton and class got him through. I think he’ll stay and I wouldn’t swap him for anything.”
Sometimes with connections of horses you take their comments with a pinch of salt. But I seem to remember Brennan when he rode Imperial Commander and his belief in the horse’s ability to stay and win a Gold Cup. He was proven right on that occasion and whilst there is still a question mark over Cue Card’s stamina for 3m2f round Cheltenham, he heads there with a realistic chance of becoming the second horse to win the bonus after Kauto Star in 2007 (albeit under Betfair’s sponsorship). I do think Djakadam is currently the one to beat but if Cue Card happens to be thereabouts going to the final fence, nobody will be shouting him home more than me.
Lastly, racing can be a difficult game at times and loyalty is something rarely seen all through the sport. So for owners Bob & Jean Bishop to maintain the faith in Tizzard and to be rewarded with two of staying chases biggest prizes is richly deserved. We sadly lost Bob Bishop last Wednesday, the news breaking on New Year’s Day. He got his last hurrah from Cue Card in the King George and the scenes if the horse could do the unthinkable in March for everyone involved, there won’t be a dry eye in the winners enclosure.
Vautour ran a fine race in defeat. He was a lot sharper than his return to action and despite jumping slightly to the left, it wasn’t as deliberate or noticeable compared to Ascot apart from the final fence when showing signs of tiredness. Having tracked Silviniaco Conti for the first circuit, he led going away from the stands and always looked comfortable going his pace compared to his rivals in behind until after the final fence when run down by Cue Card.
Did Vautour see out the 3m trip? The answer; yes. Connections wish to keep all options open until closer to Cheltenham and whilst there’s only one Cheltenham Gold Cup, it may be wise to wait a year. He’s only a 7 year old who has plenty of time on side and with his trainer’s approach to the Festival of ‘Win as many races as possible’, it wouldn’t be the biggest of shocks were he rerouted to the Ryanair or the Champion Chase depending on how Un De Sceaux gets on in his next start. Although Mullins would dearly love to win the Gold Cup, he already has two other leading contenders in Djakadam and Don Poli who have proven themselves as strong stayers. There’s likely improvement to come from Vautour back at Cheltenham on spring ground but it won’t be as much as some expect.
Both Cue Card and Vautour could have ended up being the bridesmaids of the piece had Don Cossack not fallen at the second last. Just like his previous start at Down Royal, he didn’t travel particularly well and a mistake at the last with a circuit to go knocked him back. From that point onwards Bryan Cooper was nudging away, trying to keep tabs with the leaders. It’s testament to the horse’s ability that he still had a winning chance going to the second last before capsizing but the issue with Don Cossack going forward is this recent trait of not travelling well through his races, something that is paramount in a Gold Cup, and he will certainly face an uphill struggle if having to be niggled along with a circuit to go.
Al Ferof proved again that he isn’t good enough at the top level over 3m but ran respectably to be third. Owner John Hales has given up on the Gold Cup and has said he will go straight to the Ryanair as a fresh horse. We could also see Smad Place heading there after being given a bizarre ride. Beforehand it was expected that he would try to go from the front and use his asset of jumping like he did in the Hennessy. Instead, he jumped off tracking the leaders and was never able to land a blow, a mistake at the ditch going away from the stands leaving him on the back-foot. In the end, he proved not to be good enough but the new tactics seen on his previous two outings had looked to revitalised him so the change seemed a poor decision.
As for Silviniaco Conti, the sarcoid issues and other factors seem to be stacking up against him. He jumped well in front but once headed by Vautour, he seemed to lose interest and dropped away tamely before being pulled up three out. The obvious suggestion is to give him a break before bringing him back in the spring for the Bowl at Aintree. The Grand National would be the last race on my mind.
Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival hosted two Graded contests on the opening day with the Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle taking centre stage first on the card. Apple’s Jade picked up the first of many Graded successes for Willie Mullins over the Festive period under a power-packed ride from Jonathan Burke to deny Jer’s Girl who had attempted to make all the running. The winner had only one start in France where she had been impressive enough at Vichy and she showed a willing attitude on ground that looked testing enough for her. It’s likely she will return for the Grade One over course and distance in February but it wouldn’t surprise me if the form of this was reversed by Jer’s Girl.
The daughter of Jeremy jumped well in the lead for Robbie Power and had he been more forceful going to the final flight, she may well have held on but lost valuable momentum. She also showed excellent tenacity when the winner challenged and is a definite runner back here in February. The Triumph Hurdle may not be suitable as her trainer Gavin Cromwell seems convinced she wants cut in the ground to be at her most effective.
Footpad stopped quickly after travelling strongly and may just appreciate a sounder surface whilst Campeador did well to finish where he did after pulling hard throughout. The application of a hood should help his chances in future and given connections, he could easily be a candidate for the Fred Winter. Rashaan was a disappointment considering how impressive he had been previously on similar ground at Fairyhouse. Let’s hope he can return to form next time for his small connections who have turned down large money offers to live the dream.
The Grade One Racing Post Novices’ Chase which beforehand looked a race full of strength and depth was turned into a demolition job by the most exciting novice chaser this season in Douvan who barely broke sweat under substitute rider Patrick Mullins. The only slight causes for concern came at the final two fences where he wasn’t completely fluent but the way he dismissed Sizing John, the horse who had finished 7 lengths behind him in the Supreme was quite extraordinary. This time he beat him 18 lengths without having to come off the bridle. There’s little more to say than barring injury, here’s the banker of the 2016 Cheltenham Festival.
Sizing John was never travelling from an early stage so praise must be given as he tried to give Douvan a race turning for home but was simply put in his place by a potential star of the future. The son of Midnight Legend still remains exciting. He still has the potential to be a Cheltenham Festival winner but as long as connections avoid the Arkle and head for the JLT where the step up in trip on better ground will bring about plenty of improvement. His main market rival Shaneshill doesn’t completely convince me as having the makings of a top chaser and he’s available at 12/1. He’s well worth the risk at that price. Velvet Maker was completely outclassed whilst Ttebbob under different tactics was a major disappointment and stopped very quickly.
With the Welsh National at Chepstow being postponed until 9th January due to waterlogging, the main UK focus was on Kempton’s second day of their Winter Festival which started with a juvenile hurdle where Paul Nicholls saddled the Prix Finot winner Favorito Buck’s whose sire Buck’s Boum is a full brother to four time World Hurdle winner Big Buck’s. The writing was on the wall when ridden along after the third last and he was pulled up quickly on the approach to two out.
Christmas 2015 was a strange one for Team Ditcheat with some of their horses running well and others running well below what was expected of them. The only recent winners for the yard came on New Year’s Day when landing an across the card double but it’s better to have the issues with yard form at this stage of the season rather than March and April where the nine times champion trainer could be able to capitalise with a fresher team to go to war.
It was left to Gibralfaro to snatch the prize from Duke Of Medina who had made an enterprising move after the third last to try and run the finish out of his rivals which almost worked. The winner, another shrewdly purchased Alan King juvenile, was an improving stayer on the Flat in France and needed every yard of a sharp 2m to get the leader. It was a more than likeable performance for a hurdling debut and his trainer is keen to get another two runs into him before sending him to Cheltenham where, on this evidence, he would appreciate a truly run Triumph Hurdle on Cheltenham’s New Course which favours stayers rather than speedier types.
The Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase brought together two of England’s top 2m novice chasers in Vaniteux and Ar Mad who served up the first part of a Nicky Henderson/Gary Moore clash with the latter confirming his Henry VIII win to be no fluke in the slightest, as he fought back tenaciously after being headed by the former two out, showing another side to a horse that could have been considered one dimensional after his two Sandown wins. Again, Ar Mad’s jumping was a joy to watch. His quick and accurate style forced many of his rivals into jumping errors, most notably Arzal and The Saint James but when headed at the second last, it looked inevitable Vantieux would clear away. However, a flying leap at the last compared to Vaniteux gave him half a chance and he fought back like a tiger under an excellent ride by Josh Moore to grab back the advantage, winning by a neck.
After Sandown, Gary Moore wasn’t entirely sold on going back left handed with Ar Mad but he is worth a second chance, especially under these new tactics which have worked a treat. If he is to have a preparation left handed, perhaps the Lightning Novices’ Chase at Doncaster or the Kingmaker at Warwick could be two ideal places to look at. The latter choice would be a sight to behold if handling going the other way round with those five fences in quick succession down the side of the course. Let’s not forget either that Ar Mad was giving the runner up weight with his Grade One penalty and both his Graded wins are backed up by the clock, especially compared to the Graded chasers that ran later on both cards.
It would be harsh to say Vaniteux was a disappointment as he has bumped into a very good horse on the day but he had every chance to seal the race up the home straight yet failed to. An uncharacteristic blunder at the first fence didn’t faze him and he again jumped soundly but he has had a questionable attitude before when coming under pressure. Arzal made a couple of mistakes on the way round but proved himself capable of winning a decent novice chase before the season finishes. Ittirad acquitted himself well with the step up in grade after two wins in smaller novice chases at Worcester and Newton Abbot. Decent ground looks the key to him and could be the type for the Red Rum at Aintree whilst The Saint James made a shocking mistake at the eighth and failed to recover.
Thirty five minutes later, Henderson and Moore did battle again in the Desert Orchid Chase. This time with their established former champions. We finally got to witness a real horse race between Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy. The first time was the beginning of Sprinter Sacre’s issues, a fibrillating heart in this contest two years ago causing him to pull up before a rematch in this year’s Champion Chase where neither were at their best.
Let’s be honest here. If you had told me after the Haldon Gold Cup that Sire De Grugy would come out next time and win the Tingle Creek, I would have thought you were mad. If you had also told me Sprinter Sacre would return and win the Shloer Chase after his efforts last season, the phone number for the nearest Priory would have swiftly been found and called.
Fast forward two months. Sire De Grugy won the Tingle Creek in a controversial finish and Sprinter Sacre showed some of the old spark remained when taking the Shloer by 14 lengths. One of the comebacks of recent seasons and greatly appreciated by National Hunt fans who had thought the former shining light of the 2m division had burned out.
Just like the Wayward Lad, we were treated to a fantastic duel but it was Henderson who brought the score level. In victory, we saw a different Sprinter Sacre. One I never thought existed before last Sunday. The ability to knuckle down in a proper battle to fend off Sire De Grugy on the run to the line, his only previous experience in a battle coming at the hands of Dodging Bullets in the Clarence House at Ascot where he found zilch for Barry Geraghty’s small urgings.
Although he travelled well enough off the pace set by Somersby, Kempton looks sharp enough these days as he wasn’t able to make up ground in the manner he did in the Shloer. Ideally Nico de Boinville would have been in front much earlier than the final fence and the return to Cheltenham in March should play more to his strengths. The Champion Chase is likely where we will see him next and the apple of Henderson’s eye will go there with as good a chance as any of the main market principals lining up.
Sire De Grugy backed up his Tingle Creek effort and served it to Sprinter Sacre up the home straight until a final fence blunder handed the momentum to his main rival. There was no disgrace in the performance and arguably, he will be more at home on softer ground. The Clarence House at Ascot will be his next port of call and on testing ground, he would be hard to beat. Quicker ground at Cheltenham would be a concern if wanting to back him ante-post for the Queen Mother.
Vibrato Valtat ran well for a horse crying out for a step up in trip and whilst he is just shy of top class, the Ascot Chase in February will likely be there for the taking. Somersby has been a terrific servant to connections down the years and this looks likely to be his final season before a deserved retirement whilst Sir Valentino completed in his own time.
To quickly round up the rest of Kempton, honourable mentions go to The Last Samuri and Cannon Fodder. The former staked his claims for a potential bid at the Grand National with a fine performance of jumping and staying in the 3m handicap chase. He might just lack the experience for Aintree this season whilst the latter was dwarfed by the runner up Desert Queen but showed huge determination to take the mares handicap hurdle; her first win in over two years. And thoroughly deserved it was.
The closing handicap hurdle won by Zulu Oscar featured a Paul Nicholls horse returning after an absence in Monsieur Gibraltar who had pulled up at Chepstow after choking mid-race. His first appearance since having a wind operation was encouraging for the future having travelled nicely before being looked after in the closing stages by Sam Twiston-Davies. There is a decent handicap hurdle prize to be won this season and is one to keep a very close eye on wherever he goes next.
Ivanovich Gorbatov started off Leopardstown’s second day by staking his Triumph Hurdle claims with an impressive hurdling debut for new owner JP McManus and Aidan O’Brien. Lightly raced on the Flat for O’Brien, the son of Montjeu was slick over his obstacles and showed a taking turn of foot to see off the filly Let’s Dance who already had winning hurdling experience in France. At this current moment in time, he shouldn’t be that short for the Triumph and I’d be more than happy to wait until nearer the day before committing myself to backing him.
The Paddy Power ‘So Quick, So Easy iPhone App’ Chase saw the return of Arkle winner Un De Sceaux who had missed last month’s Tingle Creek at Sandown. All the natural exuberance from last season was in full force as he blazed a trail until the second last fence where him and Ruby Walsh had a disagreement, ending with him on the floor. Post-race Walsh made the comparison towards Moscow Flyer, an outstanding two miler of an elite generation who, until his defeat to Rathgar Beau at Punchestown in 2005, had form figures over fences of either ‘1’ or ‘U/F’. The fall isn’t much of a concern yet. Apart from a fall on chase debut and last week, his jumping has been sound on the whole but his price is still short enough for a horse yet to prove himself at the highest level outside of novice company. Whilst it was great to see Flemenstar win, the race is worth very little going forward apart from Un De Sceaux.
In stark contrast, the Future Champions Novices’ Hurdle had plenty of depth with Long Dog earning a second Grade One success after making most of the running at a steady pace. It wasn’t a flashy performance and he arguably wasn’t one hundred percent on the day but his attitude cannot be questioned as he kept on finding after looking vulnerable turning for home. When he won in the summer at Galway, the suggestion of him being a horse for the Cheltenham Festival baffled me. All he has done since is improve consistently and now deserves to be mentioned as a genuine Festival contender, although on decent ground a step back up in distance would suit best, the Neptune looking the ideal race.
In behind Long Dog, it was a rough race on the bend where Tombstone was impeded by Woodland Opera falling back through the pack and did well to come from an uncompromising position. A slight mistake at the last didn’t aid his cause before he stayed on well to grab second. The Deloitte in February would be the sensible place to head next to determine whether you go down the Supreme route or up in distance for the Neptune. Petit Mouchoir is definitely a horse that will be suited by further but still needs time to learn to settle properly in his races. It was only his fourth start and with plenty more improvement to come, he remains one of the more exciting novice hurdlers but it could be that Cheltenham comes a year too early.
Bleu Et Rouge was another to make up late significant ground and has a decent prize in him later this season, although he may just need testing ground to show his best. Falcon Crest travelled well before finding little for pressure in the closing stages. Having had three starts over hurdles, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he got an entry for the Boylesports Hurdle at the end of January off a mark of 136 where he would be a well handicapped improving type.
Bachasson looked to dislike the ground which is surprising considering his last win in a NHF contest where he hit the ground fairly hard. Better ground in the spring will be a help and he may be one for Fairyhouse whilst you can forgive Woodland Opera’s run as he was beaten in a matter of strides, similar to Ttebobb from the same yard.
Day three of Leopardstown began with an interesting 2m4f maiden hurdle which went the way of hurdling debutante Chain Gang who stayed on all the way to the line to catch Minella Aris. The son of Midnight Legend needed every yard of the trip to win and will be suited by further whilst the runner up kept jumping to his left throughout. The horse of interest in the future is Road To Respect who stopped quickly after getting an easy lead but he looks a weak individual who needs time to develop and better ground to be seen at his best.
The Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle had the potential for an Irish contender to stamp their claim as a leading World Hurdle contender. Instead, we had a surprise result with the improving Prince Of Scars coming from handicap company to win comfortably from Alpha Des Obeaux and Albert Bartlett winner Martello Tower. The winner has put his form from last season well behind him since joining Gordon Elliott’s yard and looks a real chaser for next season. Prices of 16/1 for the World Hurdle aren’t particularly appealing as he looks to need softer ground.
Alpha Des Obeaux was left in front too early after Snow Falcon’s fall at the fourth so his performance can be marked up as he was forced to make his own running which left him vulnerable to the winner. If Ireland has any horse with a realistic World Hurdle chance then it’s him as he will improve for better ground in the spring and the 20/1 is fair each way value.
Martello Tower was entitled to need the outing, trainer Mags Mullins feeling he would come on for the run but he just doesn’t appeal for March unless the ground came up testing. He looked in the Albert Bartlett to just be a resolute galloper with a lack of pace and it showed here when having to be niggled after three out just to maintain his position. The impression left from his last two outings is that on decent ground he would struggle.
The decision to run Arctic Fire here seemed a bizarre one. In saying that, he wouldn’t have won at two or two and a half miles as he beaten a long way from home and looked laboured without possessing his usual finishing kick. The drop back to 2m will benefit him and we will hopefully see him in the Irish Champion Hurdle before another bid at the Champion Hurdle in March.
The Lexus Chase lost most of its main stars in the build up. Coneygree who had this and the King George as options is out for the season, Djakadam missed this with the Argento Chase in January the preference and Road To Riches due to an unsatisfactory scope. The turnout was pretty disappointing in the end which made the race look a penalty kick for Don Poli. Although he won, it was an underwhelming success even by his standards.
Having seen him in the flesh at Aintree, he looked more fine-tuned compared to several of Mullins other stable stars and it’s evident to see why with his style of running. Even off a steady pace set by On His Own and Foxrock, he was having to be ridden along to stay in touch approaching three out. Once he got to the lead, he looked all out to hold off First Lieutenant. His die-hard fans will all shout from the rooftops about how lazy he is and a race like the Cheltenham Gold Cup will bring him alive but he has to improve plenty to be troubling the likes of Djakadam, Cue Card and Road To Riches. He could easily do that but the fact Mullins is already talking about the Grand National as a potential target one day signifies he may just lack the pace needed for a Gold Cup.
There’s an argument as well that First Lieutenant could have won if given a more forceful ride by Davy Russell. It was definitely forceful enough after the final fence with the use of the whip down his neck looking unpleasant. Had Russell given him a couple of smacks behind the saddle, we could have seen a different result but it wouldn’t have suited Gigginstowns’ best interests. Another of the old guard that has returned to some decent form, it’s good to see First Lieutenant show resemblances of his old form but he will be difficult to place after looking on a fair handicap mark in the Hennessy.
Foxrock ran a decent race at a track he has shown his best form at and his big day will likely come in the Irish Hennessy unless one of the big guns turns up. On His Own showed a liking for returning to regulation fences after two no shows in cross country contests but he’s never been entirely reliable whilst Sir Des Champs proved the form of his comeback run to be worth very little, a race which was handed to him on a plate thanks to a strange ride on Rubi Light at Thurles. Carlingford Lough showed no promise compared to this race last season and is probably waiting for decent ground in the spring.
Nicky Henderson has a good recent record in Newbury’s opening juvenile hurdle on Challow day for owners Simon Munir & Issac Souede with the likes of Grandouet and Top Notch succeeding before going onto bigger and better things and they look to have another useful recruit in Fixe Le Kap. Only a juvenile, he has the build of a chaser already and raced lazily throughout but once Jeremiah McGrath got stuck into him he responded well for pressure to fend off Tommy Silver in the final hundred yards.
It seems surprising that the son of Kapgarde is the first to emerge as a genuine Triumph contender for Henderson, a division he tends to do well in and the end to end gallop will see the best of him. He already has enough experience of jumping so the ideal place to go is the Triumph Hurdle Trial at Cheltenham’s Trials Day to give him vital experience of the course and distance. With the reasons listed above, 20/1 with Skybet for the Triumph is more than a fair price.
Tommy Silver ran with plenty of promise on hurdling debut having jumped well in the main and shouldn’t find it difficult to win a juvenile hurdle in the coming weeks whilst Kasakh Noir failed to build upon a hugely impressive course and distance win at the Hennessy meeting although time may show that he bumped into two decent horses.
The Grade One Challow Hurdle had a small but select trio head to post but the race lived up to expectations with the unbeaten Barters Hill showcasing himself to be one of the leading staying novice hurdlers on either side of the Irish Sea by winning his first Grade One for trainer Ben Pauling. The son of Kalanisi still showed signs of greenness passing the stands with a circuit to go when needing a reminder to keep his concentration on the job and also at his hurdles with jockey David Bass having to make his mind up for him.
Turning for home he looked slightly vulnerable when coming off the bridle but he’s exceptionally deceptive, a trait now well known from his bumper days. Whilst he’s always saving a bit for himself, the way he dismissed Politologue and Label Des Obeaux was hugely impressive. His Listed/Graded bumper form stands up strongly as does his maiden hurdle success at Huntingdon with the second winning a decent contest at Cheltenham which contained Politologue and post-race, connections stated the likely Cheltenham target would be the Albert Bartlett on decent ground where the step up to 3m should bring about further improvement and is currently the clear one to beat. The fact he’s showing this level of form over hurdles makes me even more excited about what he could potentially achieve later this year when going novice chasing. I’d also go as far as saying he’s the most exciting winner of the Challow Hurdle since Denman romped to victory on New Year’s Day at Cheltenham in 2006.
Politologue would arguably have gone very close under a penalty at Cheltenham but for jinking and unseating Sam Twiston-Davies. He travelled strongly through the race before not finding as much for pressure as expected and similar comments apply to Label Des Obeaux who had looked decent on his two British starts. Both are nice horses but it could be that they have bumped into a very smart prospect in the winner. As an aside, Ireland’s likely leading contender for the Albert Bartlett Up For Review was impressive enough in the Doran’s Pride Novices’ Hurdle at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve but will need to improve for decent ground if he is to be a danger to Barters Hill.
Leopardstown’s fourth and final day saw No More Heroes continue his progression over fences when stepping up to 3m for the first time over the larger obstacles when taking the Grade One Neville Hotels Novices’ Chase with considerable ease. Having taken a keen interest in the son of Presenting’s career since his 39 length rout in a bumper at this meeting two years ago, it’s always pleasing to see a horse you have a high opinion of from an early stage make into a top class chaser.
His current price for the RSA Chase is skinny enough but on his chase starts to date, he has looked so assured in the jumping department and whilst some are concerned about the prospect of him handling decent ground, it shouldn’t be an issue. The only time he has encountered good ground was when he was clearly over the top at Punchestown at the end of last season. I wouldn’t be adverse to him having one more run before the Festival, just to keep him ticking over and a either the Flogas over 2m5f back at Leopardstown or the Ten Up at Navan over 3m would slot in perfectly.
The Ryanair Hurdle saw Faugheen’s Morgiana successor Nichols Canyon take on Fighting Fifth victor Identity Thief with the former making it six Grade One wins over timber. From a long way out the race turned into a match between the pair, a mistake at the second last not helping Nichols Canyon but he showed a tremendous attitude to battle back at the last and outstay Identity Thief in the conditions. Even though he handles testing ground, Nichols Canyon clearly wasn’t at his best on this occasion.
It will be interesting to see whether he has another outing before the Champion Hurdle and he still rates as the main danger to the more illustrious Faugheen on reputation but his record speaks for itself. After the Festival, the Aintree Hurdle would be tailor made for him with the majority of his stablemates likely to have other targets.
Identity Thief has improved again from his Fighting Fifth effort and has underlined his Champion Hurdle credentials after slightly losing his way last season. Better ground shouldn’t be an issue come March and he would hold definite each way claims before going on next season to potentially make into a quality chaser. Windsor Park was disappointing but it was more down to the negative tactics used rather than the horse flopping. The only real piece of evidence we have of him performing over hurdles came at the Festival when actually ridden properly and those backing him ante-post for March will only have his Neptune win to cling on to for a glimmer of hope.
New Year’s Day
The ground was desperate at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day and with plenty of good horses disappointing, the majority of the form does look questionable. What doesn’t though is Seeyouatmidnight’s determined effort in the Grade Two Dipper Novices Chase with an all the way success, seeing off Blaklion by just over 3 lengths with Le Mercurey a further 20 lengths away in third. The winner’s jumping was a joy to watch and he underlined his RSA Chase credentials. His trainer Sandy Thomson stated that he doesn’t exactly need deep ground to be at his best which gives more confidence towards a Festival bid. The likely next port of call is the Towton Novices’ Chase at Wetherby before a return to Cheltenham in March.
Blaklion appreciated the stamina test over this distance and has bumped into a fair horse but he doesn’t convince to have the scope to make a real top chaser. It seemed strange to see Le Mercurey out so quick after his Ascot win with the yard seemingly under a cloud and he weakened tamely on the long run to the final fence whilst Volnay De Thaix hated the ground and lacked fluency. Three Musketeers never really looked comfortable whilst Minella Rocco has been a huge disappointment since going chasing.
The Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle looked highly competitive on paper but was turned into a procession by Camping Ground in a really likeable manner after taking up the running at the top of the hill under Leighton Aspell for Robert Walford. Sent back hurdling after a fall in the Peterborough Chase, the success may have come as a surprise to some but he had decent form as a younger horse in France and a classy performance over fences at Warwick off 145 last February.
A wind operation after a fine fourth in the Imperial Cup has clearly improved the son of Goldneyev who now heads for the World Hurdle via the Cleeve where he will have a rematch against Thistlecrack who he finished ahead of at Sandown. The form is questionable to an extent but if Lil Rockerfeller has ran his race in second then we are looking at a 160+ rated hurdler who wouldn’t need to improve much to figure in March. Lil Rockerfeller has proven himself again as a model of consistency but has ruled himself out of handicaps. He could be the type that heads for the National Spirit at Fontwell at the end of February.
There’s little point in discussing Cole Harden as the season revolves around one day but you would have at least expected him to finish closer to Camping Ground. Aurore D’Estruval travelled well through the contest before shaping as if in need of the outing. Her long term target is the Mares Hurdle whilst Top Notch disappointed for the first time in his career and can ultimately be forgiven. Whisper has also become disappointing and is difficult to assess, just like stable mate Bob’s Worth.
Sandown’s Tolworth Hurdle saw Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh over in England chasing more Grade One success which they achieved yet again with Yorkhill who handled the testing conditions in a professional manner to see off O O Seven whose trainer Nicky Henderson was seen giving Mullins his marching orders back to Ireland in the most eloquent fashion. Considering it was just Yorkhill’s second start over hurdles, his nimbleness from one side of a hurdle to the other was a huge asset and he was entitled to wander under pressure due to greenness in the closing stages after travelling so effortlessly into the race at the second last.
On this evidence, he looks more of a stayer rather than a speedier type, the obvious Festival target being the Neptune where he would improve a great deal for decent ground and could follow in the footsteps of French Holly in 1998 and Monsignor in 2000 who both did the double. O O Seven lost his unbeaten record over hurdles but wasn’t disgraced in the slightest. He is another that will be suited by a step up in distance whilst Agrapart confirmed his Aintree victory not to be a fluke with a good run back in third. Welsh Shadow was beaten a long way out having not been particularly fluent at his hurdles and can be forgiven easily.
To end the blog, a couple of stand out performances from today starting with L’Ami Serge who jumped well on his chase debut in desperate conditions at Plumpton, albeit out to the left. The first victim seemingly of the latest phenomenon that is a trapped epiglottis, he showed no ill effects here and a fine leap at the last signified there was plenty left in the tank even on bad ground. He will need more chasing practice but has plenty of options between 2m and 2m4f over the next couple of weeks.
Shaneshill continued his unbeaten record over fences when beating Sizing Codelco at Naas but he was more impressive in the sense that his ability got him out of trouble rather than his jumping being outstanding. The last two fences in particular were heart in mouth moments and of the Mullins battalion sent chasing this season, he looks the most opposable going forward to the bigger tracks like Leopardstown and Cheltenham where more stiffer fences compared to Naas and Thurles are a major cause for concern which were also highlighted above when discussing Sizing John.
Sizing Codelco put up a career best back in second and was more sure footed than the winner but he was eventually overcome by Shaneshill’s natural ability. He probably isn’t one for Cheltenham this season but could easily head to Aintree for the Maghull, a route taken by Sizing Granite last year. Kitten Rock was ultimately disappointing, his high head carriage potentially caused by a wind problem. It was also found post-race that he was lame but he now has plenty of questions to answer.
The final race to be covered from the last eight days of racing is the Grade One Lawlor’s Hotel Novices’ Hurdle where Bellshill cemented his position as clear favourite for the Neptune after taking an unspectacular victory with most of his market rivals under performing. The ground was probably as testing as he would want it and his jumping was sketchy at times but his class saw him through. There’s plenty still to work on but it’s worth remembering that he thrived on his racing towards the back end of the season so you would imagine there’s a fair amount of improvement to come.
The Deloitte at Leopardstown will likely determine where we see him at the Festival but he certainly isn’t devoid of speed and with the Wylies having Up For Review for the Albert Bartlett, it’s almost certain he will head for either the Supreme or the Neptune. The form of the race is hugely questionable with the proximity of 127 rated Last Encounter. Whilst he’s been a consistent performer, you wouldn’t be considering him for any major prizes in the spring.
Anibale Fly didn’t look completely in love with the ground today and was minded by Barry Geraghty whilst Marakoush failed to build on his quite remarkable success at Punchestown. Stone Hard was soon beaten once turning for home and it wouldn’t surprise were he to bounce back at one of the Irish spring festivals.
Sizing John – Not essentially an eyecatcher but take the 12’s for the JLT.
Falcon Crest – Boylesports Hurdle would be very interesting off 136.
Monsieur Gibraltar – Showed promise and once the yard is fully firing, he will land a big handicap.
Road To Respect – A more long term prospect rather than a ‘Back next time out’ type.
Fixe Le Kap – 20’s for the Triumph Hurdle looks generous.
As soon as one preview is completed, another word document begins for the following season. It starts off with a small list which grows throughout the campaign, culminating with a vast array of different horses. This list contains 30 horses and mainly concentrates on novices and handicappers with only one horse I’d consider to be challenging for top ranks in the championship divisions. With the 2015 Flat preview so far working out to £20.74 profit to a £1 stake, I hope this jumps preview can work out a profit as the season progresses. Whilst there’s an inevitability with a few that they will start at short odds in novice events, other selections may negate that.
To counter the issue of shorter priced horses, I made a conscious decision to include no Willie Mullins horses in this list. Some of them are just too blatantly obvious to have down as a horse to follow, especially the established stars like Faugheen, Un De Sceaux and Annie Power. For instance, Douvan is already as short as 9/4 for the Arkle without having jumped a fence in public but should reach an exceptionally high standard over fences. Other novice chasers to keep a close eye on include the imposing grey Alvisio Ville who looked immature last season and Albert Bartlett fourth Arbre De Vie.
The amount of novice hurdlers that could feature from the yard is stupendous. The likes of bumper winners Bellshill, Yorkhill, Petit Mouchoir, Nambour and Castello Sforza mixed with the new expensive purchases over the summer in Townshend, Min, American Tom and Inspired Poet. The list is a bottomless pit of talent which also makes it impossible to pinpoint targets throughout the season due to the quantity and quality based in Closutton.
With a lack of seasoned Graded horses in the piece, I thought I would do a quick overview of each division, highlighting the leading contenders we may see throughout the season. The Champion Hurdle looks a one horse race with the unbeaten Faugheen looking for back to back successes. The main threats to his crown are Triumph Hurdle winner Peace And Co, last year’s runner up Arctic Fire and the potential flies in the ointment, Nichols Canyon and Windsor Park who both have options to come back in trip or go up to 3m and tackle the World Hurdle. However, come March, I fully expect Faugheen to prove himself the best hurdler at 2m again.
The staying hurdle division looks more wide open than last season with no real stand out performer. Cole Harden stays over hurdles in an attempt to retain his crown in March but will face stiff competition from the likes of Whisper who remains hurdling after a difficult season last year, Zarkandar who will head for the race a fresh horse after jarring himself in the summer at Auteuil and Albert Bartlett winner Martello Tower who connections have decided should stay over hurdles, a wise decision considering the lack of top class 3m hurdlers in Ireland.
The 2m chasing division lacks strength and depth with Dodging Bullets leading the home charge and looking to defend his Queen Mother Champion Chase crown. The obvious main danger is the impressive Arkle winner and ante-post favourite for the race Un De Sceaux, unbeaten over fences when completing with his bold front running style a joy to watch. Other novices from last season who may play a hand in the division include Aintree winner Sizing Granite whilst a horse that has the potential to be a surprise package is Traffic Fluide who looked a horse firmly on the upgrade when slamming a decent enough field at Sandown and wasn’t disgraced at Aintree behind Sizing Granite.
The one division that has everyone chomping at the bit is the staying chasers, headed by Gold Cup winner Coneygree who may yet still have more to come having only had four chase starts which is a frightening thought. He will face a stiff task in defending his Cheltenham crown, as he could potentially face the most impressive novice chase winner seen in recent years (beside Coneygree himself) in Vautour who slammed his opposition in the JLT by a staggering 15 lengths. Add to that list RSA Chase winner Don Poli, the highest rated chaser in training Don Cossack, the pair that chased Coneygree up the hill in Djakadam and Road To Riches, two times Grade 1 novice winner Valseur Lido and the dark horse of the bunch who features further down the page in Saphir Du Rheu.
The last thing to do is thank those who I have pestered with this project, most notably Luke Elder (against his own will) and Will Kedjayni for taking their time to read and suggest improvements. If there is anything you wish to discuss, drop me a message in the comments underneath or contact me on Twitter at @AdamWebb121 and I will be more than happy to respond.
ARPEGE D’ALENE – 5 – Paul Nicholls
We begin this season’s list with the first of several entries for champion trainer Paul Nicholls, who proved himself last season to be head and shoulders above his opposition in the UK. Nicholls has regrouped over the last couple of seasons with the retirements of key stable stars and has established a strong team of young horses to go to war with for this upcoming season, particularly in the novice chase department with the likes of Aux Ptits Soins, Emerging Talent, Le Mercurey and Sirabad.
This son of Dom Alco looks to be near the top of the pecking order and has made a considerable impression on his three starts to date in England. Having finished third in a stakes race in December 2013 for Marcel Rolland, he was bought by Potensis Limited and made his hurdling debut at Ascot in November over 2m3f. Sent off an unfancied 12/1, in a field that looked on paper to have a fair bit of potential, he trounced his rivals with a real staying performance by 9 lengths. The most pleasing aspect of the performance being the professional manner in which he disposed of Its A Steal after the final flight, shaping as though he would be suited by much further in the future.
Connections then pitched him in at the deep end in the Challow Hurdle at Newbury just after Christmas where he didn’t disgrace himself, only beaten less than 10 lengths by Parlour Games, in what looks a decent renewal of the race going forward with two long term chasing prospects around him at the finish in One Track Mind and Native River. His final start at Ascot in February over the same distance as his November win saw him off the bridle some way from home but he showed a determined attitude to beat odds on favourite Tea For Two in a driving finish.
His season could start in the race Southfield Theatre won at Chepstow last season in the middle of October with other potential early targets including the Rising Stars Novice Chase at Wincanton, the Berkshire Novice Chase over 2m4f or possibly the Worcester Novice Chase over 3m early in the campaign at Newbury’s Hennessy meeting. Long term, the RSA Chase would likely be his Cheltenham target given how he looks more of a stayer than a speedier type.
BALBIR DU MATHAN – 6 – Gordon Elliott
Bought for €300,000 by Barry Connell, his chasing debut at Fairyhouse was where he first caught my attention, jumping neatly in an above average beginners chase over 2m5f before capsizing when still in front at the second last. The form of the race worked out particularly well with the winner Adriana Des Mottes going onto place at the highest level and finish fourth in the RSA Chase behind Don Poli. The race also contained the first two home from this year’s Irish National in Thunders And Roses (third) and Rule The World (second) with National Hunt Chase third The Job Is Right back in fifth.
Over the Christmas period, he went to Leopardstown for a beginners chase over 2m3f where he proved no match for the ill-fated Le Vent D’Antan, beaten 8 lengths by that rival before disappointing back at Fairyhouse when upped to 3m, finishing fifth behind Thunders And Roses with no excuses seeming to emerge.
The son of Saint Des Saints has yet to get a handicap mark over fences and retains his novice status for next season. He could start off in an easy beginners chase to gain some confidence before making into a decent handicap chaser. His best trip would likely be around 2m4f and whilst he has done all his running on testing ground, better ground should hold no concerns for connections.
BARTERS HILL – 5 – Ben Pauling
The son of Kalanisi made the list after his second bumper win at Warwick with expectations that he would make into a decent novice hurdler who would pick up several races over the course of the season, in a similar fashion to how Blaklion made the list twelve months ago. Whereas Blaklion exceeded my expectations of him over timber, Barters Hill did likewise in his following two runs in bumpers and now rates as one of England’s leading staying novice hurdle prospects.
At Warwick he beat Joe Farrell of John Ferguson’s in decisive fashion but before that success, he had been sent off 25/1 on debut in a Huntingdon bumper where he looked beaten a furlong out but rallied back tenaciously to see off Simply Rouge. The performance at Warwick saw him make every single yard of the running, a trait that would continue for the rest of the season.
Thinking he could potentially be a left field selection for the list at the time, it was a huge surprise to see him improve as much as he did in bumpers. He relished the step up in grade in the Listed Bumper on Betfair Hurdle day at Newbury, fighting off all challengers including the strong travelling Buveur D’air who loomed up menacingly on the bridle.
Instead of going for the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham, connections selected the Aintree Bumper where the main concern was whether a speed track would suit. Whilst he looked vulnerable halfway up the home straight, he dug deep to repel Bellshill to maintain his unbeaten record by just over a length. The runner up then went on to complement the form with success in the Grade 1 Bumper at Punchestown whilst the third Potter’s Corner has come out in the last week to make an impressive start to his hurdling career at Chepstow.
A resolute galloper, Barters Hill looks tailor made for a step up in distance and would fit in either the Neptune or the Albert Bartlett come March. He has already been penciled in to make his hurdling debut back at Huntingdon over 2m3f on the 1st November before tackling higher quality races. Potential targets early season include the Winter Novice Hurdle at Sandown’s Tingle Creek meeting where the stiff finish would play to his strengths. Other targets could include the Challow Hurdle at Newbury or the Neptune Trial on Cheltenham Trials Day which should help determine where he ends up come March.
BE DARING – 4 – Paul Nicholls
Paul Nicholls excels with the progeny of Dom Alco with examples including Neptune Collonges, Al Ferof and Unioniste. The trio are all owned by John Hales who has another grey here in the shape of Be Daring.
His debut outing at Wincanton in a newcomers bumper was an eye-catching effort on ground plenty quick enough, finishing strongly to take second behind Star Trouper. The pace throughout was sedate and he did well to make up ground from several lengths back considering how he would appreciate a stiffer stamina test. Looking through his pedigree, his great-grand dam Alconea’s half sister Fortanea is a notable producer in the family, with Grade 1 winner and 2015 Grand National runner up Saint Are. She also produced two half sisters to Saint Are. The first being Naiade Mag who is the dam of the highly talented mare Vroum Vroum Mag and Pazadena, the dam of useful juvenile hurdler Bivouac.
With the promise shown on debut, he is sure to improve up in distance. He could potentially start off in another bumper just to gain some valuable experience before going novice hurdling. He could possibly follow a similar route to stablemate Arpege D’alene before going chasing in twelve months time.
BINGE DRINKER – 6 – Rebecca Curtis
Teaforthree was the horse that gained Rebecca Curtis prominence amongst the top trainers when taking the 2012 National Hunt Chase and she looks to have another ideal candidate for the gruelling stamina test in this son of Spadoun.
Having shown enough promise in bumpers, he started his hurdling career with a trio of victories at Worcester, Ffos Las and Chepstow before stepping up in grade in the Bristol Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham’s International meeting where he had to be cajoled along to keep in touch before fading away tamely after the second last to finish fifth behind the impressive Blaklion. Whilst outclassed, it was his fourth run in a short space of time so he could be forgiven for performing slightly below par.
His next start in the River Don at Doncaster showed more promise as he stayed with the leaders longer and travelled through the race better before getting left behind to plug on into fourth, beaten 12 lengths by Caracci Apache. Dropped into handicap company for the first time on his next start, he duly bolted up off a mark of 133 at Bangor beating the difficult Western Jo by 7 lengths. He was then tried at the highest level at the Punchestown Festival where he was disappointing, finishing last behind Killultagh Vic.
For the future, he very much shapes like a staying handicap chaser with this season probably aimed around the National Hunt Chase as mentioned in the introduction. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him appear at Chepstow a couple of times throughout the season with their October meeting hosting a 3m novice chase which Teaforthree contested back in 2011. Elsewhere in the calendar, the Listed novice chase at Warwick on Classic Chase day won by Sego Success could prove to be an ideal stepping stone during the season.
CAROLE’S DESTRIER – 7 – Neil Mulholland
The Grand National is a race that I particularly like to find a long term fancy for at the start of the season and this year, two horses make this list that could potentially make up into ideal candidates for the world’s greatest steeplechase next April. The Druids Nephew will be high up on several people’s list after his display in this year’s renewal when travelling powerfully before over-jumping and falling five from home but his stable mate Carole’s Destrier has a fair amount of appeal as an Aintree type.
For a novice chaser, the son of Kayf Tara had a busy campaign with his debut coming at Ffos Las where he carried top weight in a novice handicap. He looked the winner most of the way up the home straight before being denied by the late rally of Doing Fine in the final strides. Mulholland’s charge built upon that chase debut at Exeter where he made all the running and jumped soundly in the main, whilst fighting off the attention of the loose If In Doubt, winning comfortably from Carraig Mor by 6 lengths. The runner up went on to boost the form at Newbury, beating Southfield Theatre by just under 2 lengths in the Grade 2 Worcester Novices Chase.
With his Exeter form looking solid, he was sent off a warm favourite in the Welsh National Trial at Chepstow but disappointed, a mistake at the eleventh fence proving costly and was pulled up shortly after turning for home. He was given some time after that run before next appearing on Trials Day in the novice handicap chase. A change in tactics benefited him over the shorter distance and he looked a key player on the turn for home before staying on one paced up the hill to finish fourth, shaping like a return to 3m would suit perfectly.
The handicapper surprisingly dropped him 1lb for that Cheltenham effort and he was sent off a strong favourite on his next start in the Wetherbys Hamilton Listed Handicap Chase at Ascot where he looked vulnerable at one point as Clondaw Warrior was travelling much better after the third last. However, his endless reserves of stamina kicked in and he ended up a fairly easy winner by 8 lengths.
Whilst having several options at Cheltenham, he missed the Festival and was aimed towards Aintree via a relatively facile option in a novice chase at Wetherby where all he needed to do was jump round safely to beat Wolf Shield with the regressive Creepy finishing last of three. Connections decided he was worth a go at the highest level in the Mildmay Novices Chase but he was outclassed by the impressive Saphir Du Rheu whilst potentially feeling the effects of a long season.
He begins this upcoming season rated 149, the handicapper having dropped him 3lb after Aintree, and he appears to have the makings of a top quality staying handicap chaser. Potential targets may include the Murphy Group Handicap Chase at the Paddy Power meeting, the Hennessy Gold Cup and the Welsh National. Hopefully, all routes lead towards the Grand National itself where his sound jumping and endless reserves of stamina will be a huge asset.
CHATEZ – 4 – Alan King
It seems surprising that Chatez gets a second chance in this list but the circumstances explained below means my view of the horse has somewhat changed and is able to be forgiven for some poor efforts last winter.
The son of Dandy Man had a mixed spell over hurdles with two fluent victories at Bangor and Warwick to begin with, establishing himself as an above average juvenile but trainer Alan King was keen to stress that the Triumph Hurdle wasn’t necessarily an option. Over Christmas, he went to Kempton in a handicap hurdle with an introductory mark of 128 and with the juvenile allowance taking almost a stone off his back, he looked well treated. He travelled kindly until the field turned for home, where he stopped in a matter of strides like something was ailing him, subsequently finishing a well beaten eighth behind Cloonacool.
Similar also happened in the Chatteris Fen Hurdle at Huntingdon where he came off the bridle after the fourth last briefly. That was just before he made a costly error at the following flight which saw the writing on the wall for his chances as he was pulled up soon afterwards. It was found subsequently that his breathing was causing him to cut out quickly in his races and having had treatment to correct the issue, he returned to the flat in the Spring Mile at Doncaster where he duly bolted up.
Off a mark of 125, he looks a well handicapped horse now his breathing issues seem to be behind him. His current mark may not be high enough for a race like the Greatwood so a good early season target could be the Listed handicap hurdle at Ascot at the end of October. After that, hopefully all other big 2m handicap hurdles would come under consideration.
CHOCCA WOCCA – 5 – Nicky Henderson
Chomba Womba was a fine racemare for both Margaret Mullins and Nicky Henderson throughout her career, winning 10 of her 23 starts and over £250,000 in prize money. Her first offspring came to prominence last year for Henderson and for owners Mr & Mrs Kelvin Hughes with Chocca Wocca.
She made her debut just before Christmas in a bumper at Ludlow over 1m6f. On paddock appearance, she looked a relatively small filly compared to her rivals. However, it was an impressive debut with her showing a very taking turn of foot to see off her main challengers on ground that was pretty holding by the end of the card. The daughter of Kayf Tara was only seen once more after that in the Mares Bumper at Aintree where she travelled strongly through the race and was one of the last off the bridle. However, she just found Hollies Pearl too good for her on the day but it was a highly commendable effort on only her second start.
She looks to be one of the leading prospects in the UK for mares novice hurdles and you would imagine that all roads would lead to the new race at the Cheltenham Festival. Two possible early season engagements could be on Hennessy day at Newbury with the mares novice hurdle won in previous years by As I Am and Carrigmoorna Rock and a Listed novice event at Taunton just after Christmas, the race won last year by Tara Point. She would also get further than 2m if required to do so.
DEFINITE OUTCOME – 6 – Rebecca Curtis
A winner of his sole point-to-point at Dromahane in December last year after making all the running, the son of Definite Article looked vulnerable as the chasing pack closed in on him turning for home but he pulled out more for pressure to take a decisive win by 5 lengths. He was then sold for £35,000 as a wildcard entry at Cheltenham’s Brightwells Sale the following week and ended up with Rebecca Curtis.
His only start for his new connections came in a bumper on Midlands Grand National day at Uttoxeter where he faced some stiff opposition with What A Moment who had beaten the useful mare Briery Queen at Towcester and Fortunate George who had won nicely on debut at Wincanton. He was taken wide throughout by AP McCoy in search of better ground and whilst his main rivals failed to run their races, it was hard not to be impressed by the manner of his success as he galloped all the way to the line despite showing signs of greenness to win by 9 lengths.
Both of his starts have come on testing ground and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him pick up novice hurdles at tracks like Chepstow and Ffos Las in the upcoming months with his ability to handle conditions although it wouldn’t be a concern if he ran on decent ground.
(Definite Outcome is entered twice at the weekend at Chepstow, including the Grade 2 Persian War Novices Hurdle)
DIAMOND KING – 7 – Gordon Elliott
A late addition to the list after finding out recently that the son of King’s Theatre had moved over the summer from Donald McCain’s to Gordon Elliott. When compiling my first ever horses to follow piece two years ago, Diamond King was one of the top names on the list for his novice hurdle campaign after two effortless wins at Wetherby and Bangor.
Big things were expected of him but he was only seen in lower grade events, winning at Wetherby on hurdling debut before suffering defeat at Bangor after making a shuddering error at the final flight which enabled Masquerade to pick up the pieces and Goohar to grab second. His final run at Doncaster was a comfortable success, making every yard of the running and jumping economically. A setback meant that he missed the Cheltenham Festival but was entered up for Aintree before failing to take up his entry.
Instead of going chasing, he stayed over hurdles and returned on Festival Trials Day in the closing handicap hurdle. On paddock appearance, he shaped as if he would need the run which was confirmed in the closing stages after travelling strongly until the turn of home. He was also slightly inconvenienced by the bunching field trying to go round the omitted final flight but it was a fair enough return, beaten 16 lengths into seventh by Lightentertainment.
His only other appearance came at Ascot when stepped up in distance on really testing ground and he failed to land a blow, pulled up before the second last behind Unique De Cotte. It was reported that he bled on this occasion which is a slight concern but the switch of yards can only do him the world of good and it will be interesting to see what route Elliott decides to embark upon. He is still leniently treated on his hurdles mark of 130; whilst having the size and scope to go and jump fences.
DISKO – 4 – Noel Meade
As always, Gigginstown had a decent amount of potential from a variety of horses in bumpers last season with the likes of Tycoon Prince, Nambour and Petit Mouchoir but the one that caught my imagination most for the upcoming season was the imposing grey Disko. The son of Martaline created a big impression, bursting onto the scene in devastating style on debut in a Punchestown bumper where he travelled all over his field and the well bred Jett, putting the race to bed in a matter of strides to beat Chain Gang by 15 lengths.
Whilst that performance was breathtaking, it was a big surprise to see him go off favourite for the Punchestown Champion Bumper where his lack of experience showed as he was keen in rear under Nina Carberry who did an excellent job of settling him. Leaving the back straight, the pair moved up menacingly but he was left behind by Bellshill who kicked for home on the turn for home. Under pressure, he showed greenness but stuck his head down to battle past Modus to finish second.
Even with the ammunition of Gigginstown, he looks to be one of their best prospects for novice hurdles. Races like the Royal Bond at Fairyhouse, the Future Champions at Leopardstown over Christmas and potentially the Deloitte back at Leopardstown in February should feature prominently before Cheltenham where he could turn up in either the Supreme or the Neptune.
GENEROUS RANSOM – 7 – Nick Gifford
The days of Straw Bear winning Grade 1’s may seem a distant memory for the team of Nick Gifford but recently their stable stars have shone at the biggest National Hunt festivals with Fairy Rath giving connections the thrill of a lifetime, chasing home Rajdhani Express in the Topham Trophy and Gifford may have the ideal candidate for the race with a favourite of the blog last season in Generous Ransom, himself placed at the Cheltenham Festival behind Irish Cavalier.
The son of Generous was for the most part a model of consistency last season after an unfortunate introduction to chasing in a novice handicap at Ascot, slipping up at Swinley Bottom on the heels of the leaders. His next outing was used as a confidence booster at Leicester, where he was fifth behind Three Kingdoms in a decent beginners chase which contained the likes of Thomas Crapper and Deep Trouble in behind.
He returned to novice handicap company at Sandown’s Tingle Creek meeting where he was ponderous at a couple of early fences but warmed to the task and travelled well on the heels of the leaders before taking up the running between the final two fences. In a fantastic Sandown finish, four came to the last with claims but a good jump helped his cause and although he idled up the run in, he looked better than the bare result in beating Howlongisafoot by just over a length. His next start on Boxing Day was in a more competitive novice handicap where he looked in trouble having made an error mid-race and looked well beaten before the second last before stamina reserves kicked in and he finished an eye-catching third behind Stellar Notion.
With the horse still looking idle through races, a set of cheek-pieces were added on Cheltenham Trials Day in the novice handicap chase which were a huge positive as he travelled almost too well throughout the race, scooting clear after the second last. A last fence blunder didn’t stop his momentum in the slightest either and even with the runner up Astigos closing on him at the line, he looked as though there was plenty left in the tank. That performance was a career best effort which meant he went into the Festival as a strong fancy for the novice handicap where he ran respectably behind Irish Cavalier in third, that rival reversing the form from Trials Day in a race worth keeping a close eye on form wise for the upcoming season. His season ended with a disappointing effort at Sandown in the race named after Gifford’s father Josh, travelling with little zest behind runaway winner Cocktails At Dawn.
His mark of 140 still looks a competitive one for all the big handicap chases and at some stage, a step up to 3m could even bring about some improvement. He will likely start off in the Paddy Power Gold Cup in November but a race that could be on the radar long term is the Topham Trophy at Aintree, with his dam’s half brother Latimer’s Place finishing third back in 2007.
HEATHFIELD – 8 – Tony Martin
On the final day of the National Hunt season in Ireland, Tony Martin and JP McManus both combined together in the two feature staying handicap chases with strong chances. The second of the pair was Gallant Oscar who duly confirmed how well handicapped he was, annihilating his field in the Pat Taaffe Handicap Chase by 9 lengths. Although he was more impressive of the pair visually, McManus’s first winner on the card Heathfield still looks to be a fair way ahead of the handicapper.
Having started life in point to points for Edna Bolger, the son of Definite Article moved to Martin’s yard in May 2012 and began his career under rules attempting to get a handicap over fences. It took four attempts before he was allotted a mark of 95 but it took him another two starts before he got off the mark last November rated 102 at Uttoxeter, looking to fight a losing battle but an excellent jump at the last sealed the race. He then ran over hurdles at Bangor where he didn’t travel with much fluency but did well to finish second behind Saint John Henry.
A return chasing beckoned at Leopardstown at the end of January off a 1lb higher mark than Uttoxeter where he was narrowly beaten by Bishop’s Road, that rival’s jockey Bryan Cooper actually managing to hit Heathfield across the face on the run in. Up 7lb for that effort, the run suggested a step up in distance would really suit him. After missing a potential engagement in the Midlands National at Uttoxeter due to being balloted out, he ran the following day over 3m in a novice handicap at Navan where he duly bolted up after travelling like the best horse throughout.
The handicapper reacted by giving him a 10lb rise and the performance at Navan persuaded JP McManus to purchase the horse before the Punchestown Festival, where he went for the 3m6f handicap chase on the final day on testing ground thanks to heavy overnight rain. Given a lovely patient ride by Paul Townend, he crept into contention almost unnoticed on the inside and once he loomed on menacingly going to the second last, there was only going to be one winner. A fine leap at the final fence sealed the prize and he was ridden out with hands and heels to win with a fair amount in hand beating Audacious Plan by just over 4 lengths.
His new mark in Ireland is 133 and with his connections, you can guarantee that he will be laid out for a big handicap prize. I still think he could be at least a stone well ahead of the handicapper so with that in mind, he could win a couple more big pots over the upcoming months. A race like the Paddy Power Chase over Christmas would suit even with 3m potentially being on the sharp side for him. Longer term, he will likely contest the Irish National but, if he came over for the big one at Aintree he would be a fascinating contender and there shouldn’t be any issue with him handling a sounder surface.
HEDLEY LAMARR – 5 – Jonjo O’Neill
The colours of the Hitchins haven’t tasted the success of yesteryear recently in both codes with past examples including Toby Tobias, Princeful, Tagula and Halmahera but they have two fairly exciting horses with Jonjo O’Neill in Mad Jack Mytton (see below) and this son of Gold Well who has only been seen twice on the racecourse.
Out of Donna’s Tarquin who also foaled Grade 1 placed Donna’s Palm, his racecourse debut was filled with promise, finishing second behind Great Try at Bangor after jumping well and travelling smartly under Richie McLernon before his inexperienced showed in the closing stages. His only other start came at Warwick in a weaker race where he was lucky to survive a dreadful mistake at the third last and made heavy weather of beating Aston Cantlow by less than a length. It was pleasing however to see him jump the last two flights well under pressure after such a mistake.
Given a handicap mark of 128 and with him maintaining his novice status until the end of October, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him out of the blocks early to gain some vital experience before going into handicap company. A potential early season target could be the intermediate handicap hurdle at the Paddy Power meeting where the step up in distance will suit well.
IBIS DU RHEU – 4 – Paul Nicholls
In December 2013, Paul Nicholls unleashed Saphir Du Rheu properly onto the UK scene where he turned a competitive Pertemps Qualifier into a procession at Sandown; showing real improvement for a step up in trip. Two years on, he could very easily do the same with Saphir Du Rheu’s half brother Ibis Du Rheu having shown signs of immaturity last season for the champion trainer.
The son of Blue Bresil had just two runs in France, trained by Guilliame Macaire. The first of those a 1/2 length second behind Triumph Hurdle runner up Top Notch, given what is best described as an educational ride at Bordeaux. The promise from that first effort was duly confirmed on his next start at Enghien, demonstrating a decisive turn of foot to win by 7 lengths.
His first run in the UK came at Cheltenham on Trials Day in the Finesse Hurdle where he looked in the paddock that he still had some growing up to do both physically and mentally. In the race itself, he ended up setting a really slow pace in front due to nothing else wanting to make the running. As a result, he was far too keen and threatened that he would run out approaching a couple of hurdles but this was more down to greenness rather than being ungenuine. He was soon beaten once push came to shove and finished last beaten some distance by Peace And Co. His only other run came at Taunton on handicap debut, where he settled better due to chasing the pace but was still too keen to see his race out, eventually finishing a one-paced fourth beaten 11 lengths by Fox Norton.
He was dropped 2lb by the handicapper to 131 and stepping up in trip over hurdles will highlight how well handicapped John Hales’ charge is. The start of the season may begin slowly just to build him up before potentially following a similar route to his stable-mate with the Pertemps Qualifier at Sandown and the Lanzarote at Kempton two likely destinations. He could even be contesting Graded hurdles by the end of the season.
KRACKATOA KING – 7 – Noel Williams
Noel Williams isn’t exactly the biggest household name in the sport of horse racing but he has had a bright start to his training career, most notably with Briery Queen who looked a smart mare in bumpers last season. Whilst she remains one to keep a close eye on, the former assistant to Alan King has a son of Kayf Tara that would undoubtedly win the award for the biggest horse in this list.
Having failed to cut much ice in his three bumper appearances at Wincanton and Towcester on two occasions, he hugely benefited from going over obstacles and running over further than the minimum distance of 2m on debut at Plumpton beaten less than a length by Murrayana, despite some lacklustre jumping throughout. He returned for a similar race over course and distance the following month where apart from a mistake three out, his jumping was a lot better and he stayed on resolutely to finish second behind the ill-fated King Edmund.
In the New Year, his next outing came at Lingfield on testing ground over 2m7f where his jumping lacked fluency and looked very one-paced when second for the third time in a row behind the comfortable winner Broadwalk Empire. Going further up in distance next time at Warwick on handicap debut with a mark of 116, jumping again was the issue and he plugged on into third, 17 lengths adrift of Heronshaw. Connections decided for his final run of the season to put cheek-pieces on at Newbury and they worked the oracle, enabling him to concentrate more on the job in hand. Whilst his jumping had been suspect during the season, two fine leaps at the last two hurdles helped his cause and he galloped on resolutely to deny Manballandall by 3 lengths in an attritional finish.
Unfairly, he was hammered by the handicapper who put him up 13lb but that shouldn’t be a concern to his connections as chasing should be the number one plan this season. With him looking to relish a stamina test, he will be one for those real slogs around tracks like Chepstow and Uttoxeter, the Midlands National looking an ideal long term target. His full brother King Kayf is also one to look out for in novice hurdles after performing a lot better in bumpers, including a victory at Ffos Las on good ground in the spring.
MAD JACK MYTTON – 5 – Jonjo O’Neill
A half brother to John’s Spirit and a full brother of The Game Changer, Jonjo O’Neill’s inmate took a fair amount of time to come to hand last season due to a variety of reasons including the yard’s virus and potentially being on the weak side. Two runs in bumpers showed a glimmer of promise before going hurdling at the start of last season with two lower key efforts at Bangor and Southwell, typical of the yard’s approach.
The first of those he became outpaced at the third last before plugging on to a distant 24 lengths third behind Zaidiyn before a second to the useful Some Buckle at Southwell, beaten 14 lengths, at a time when the yard wasn’t completely firing. A mark of 116 looked fair enough on handicap debut at Ludlow where he raced keenly for the majority of the race so did well to finish 1 3/4 lengths second behind Ascendant.
The son of Arcadio finally got his head in front in a maiden hurdle at Huntingdon in March, benefiting from Fair Loch setting a strong gallop from the front to win comfortably by 5 lengths. He ended his season with another win, defying a penalty at Kempton to beat main market rival Nicolas Chauvin, despite running down the last two flights of hurdles.
Now rated 132 over hurdles, that mark can be transferred to novice handicap chases and with his relation to John’s Spirit, it wouldn’t be a huge shock if his season revolved around the novice handicap chase at the Festival whilst potentially taking in various races throughout the season including one on Boxing Day at Kempton and on Cheltenham Trials Day in January.
MAJOR IVAN – 6 – Malcolm Jefferson
Named after the late Major Ivan Straker who played a key role in saving the Grand National in the mid 1980’s and part owned by his wife, this handsome son of Fruits Of Love had some fairly decent bumper form when chasing home two Nicky Richards horses in Sir Vinski at Kelso and only going down a short head at Perth to Looking Well.
He made his debut over hurdles last September at Ayr over the minimum 2m which looked to be on the sharp side for him, but ran with enough promise when 20 lengths fifth behind Hurricane Hollow. The performance that caught my attention for this piece was his following start at Sedgefield over 2m3f, where he travelled all over a 120 rated horse in Black Jack Rover and beat him easily by 15 lengths, jumping the last and scampering away like a fresh horse.
The following month, he returned to Sedgefield on softer ground with a penalty but was beaten 6 lengths by Sharp Rise. Whilst on first reflection it looked a disappointing effort considering the impression he made the previous month, the winner went on to improve a fair amount over both hurdles and fences with him ending up rated 130.
Recently, he made his reappearance at Perth over a trip just shy of 3m still in novice company. He travelled all over the field and made smooth headway onto the heels of the leader Tradewinds but a lack of a recent run told in the closing stages as he got tired going to the final flight, dropping back to third. Something the horse has is a fair amount of scope to go jump fences and if he goes chasing over the winter months, he will be definitely picking up either novice or novice handicap chases at Northern tracks like Catterick and Newcastle between 2m4f-3m.
MATORICO – 4 – Jonjo O’Neill
A fairly expensive French purchase, the son of Mastercraftsman had some decent form to his name in big 3 year old handicaps with two seconds at Longchamp over 1m2f before being sold for €115,000 at the 2014 Arqana Mixed Sale to Jonjo O’Neill.
His new connections had fairly high thoughts of him with his hurdling debut coming at Huntingdon in the Chatteris Fen Hurdle. Settled in rear by Tony McCoy, he moved smoothly into contention when the race began to hot up and loomed up menacingly on the quarters of Arabian Revolution. However, when push came to shove, he failed to make any inroads on the leader under tender handling to finish second beaten just over 3 lengths. The run caught the attention of the stewards which makes for interesting reading.
Despite his inexperience over hurdles, he took his chance in the Triumph Hurdle and travelled kindly through the race in mid-division for Paul Carberry. Having moved onto the heels of the leaders turning for home, he weakened on the long run to the last ending up 25 lengths behind Peace And Co in tenth. His season ended at Punchestown in the AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle where he ran a similar race to Cheltenham, this time finishing eighth to Petite Parisienne, 41 lengths away.
Although the horse has had three runs which would qualify him for a mark, the handicapper is yet to give him one. It is likely that he will start off the campaign in a novice hurdling before being of serious interest when getting a handicap mark, preferably around the mid 130’s which would allow scope for improvement and appeals as the type to excel in 2m handicaps.
MAXIMISER – 7 – Simon West
Formerly trained in Ireland by his breeder Brian Hamilton, this strapping grey made his debut in a hotly contested bumper at Punchestown where he looked relatively weak but ran well to finish eighth to the one and only Faugheen. His only other start for Hamilton came in a Point to Point at Tattersalls Farm which he won.
Having changed hands between his Point win and his UK debut for Simon West, the son of Helissio was sent off 10/1 on hurdling debut at Carlisle over 2m4f with odds on favourite Master Dee bringing some interesting form to the table having finished third to Un Ace at Doncaster in February 2014. Racing prominently throughout, he wound the race up from a fair way out and routed the opposition by 36 lengths without Joe Colliver having to get too serious on him.
Sadly, we only saw the horse once more in the season at Haydock’s Betfair Chase meeting. Under a penalty (negated somewhat by Joe Colliver’s 5lb claim) he relished the fixed brush hurdles, jumping beautifully to see off the keen Vago Collonges with relative ease by 11 lengths. The Challow Hurdle was next on the agenda but a tiny pelvic fracture meant that he missed the rest of the season.
With Vago Collonges going on to boost the form several times in Graded company, it makes me wonder how far Maximiser would have gone over hurdles. However, the upcoming months are of huge excitement for his connections with a novice chase campaign likely. A potential early season target could be the Junior Novice Chase back at Haydock in November over 2m6f where he will likely get soft ground which he reveled in on both occasions over hurdles. A scary thought as well is that he will improve for 3m when asked to go that far.
MEET THE LEGEND – 4 – Keith Dalgleish
When nearing the end of writing this piece, I didn’t expect to be adding any extra horses but this is one deserved exception, albeit unexpected. When checking Paul Nicholls’ website, it appeared that Vago Collonges wasn’t in training for the season. So with me being insistent on having 30 horses for the piece, this son of Midnight Legend scraped in after creating a big impression on debut a couple of weeks ago.
A £65,000 purchase from the Doncaster Sales, he made his racecourse debut at Kelso where he was well supported beforehand and duly obliged in impressive style. Having raced keenly early on, he pulled his way to the lead and showed a taking turn of foot to dispatch of his rivals by 7 lengths. It was also noteworthy that he took a fair while for Craig Nichol to pull up after the race, indicating there was plenty left in the tank.
With the owners having sold Nexius and Warriors Tale, this looks an exciting prospect for connections. Whilst he handled quick ground at Kelso, he will appreciate more cut in the ground and as a half-brother to Kayfleur plus related to former Cheltenham Festival winner Young Spartacus, he certainly has inherited some of their ability. If he remains in bumpers, a penalty won’t inconvenience him on his next start and could be the type to turn up in one of the Listed bumpers at Ascot or Newbury.
MORITO DU BERLAIS – 6 – Paul Nicholls
Chica Du Berlais has been an excellent broodmare with the majority of her progeny proving themselves at Listed level and beyond with Grade 1 winner Bonito Du Berlais, twice Grade 2 winner Nikita Du Berlais and two Listed winners in Bonita Du Berlais and Carlita Du Berlais. Whilst this son of Turgeon hasn’t scaled those heights yet, he looks more than capable of improving on his handicap hurdle form in novice chases.
His first novice hurdle campaign failed to lift off properly with all three runs proving disappointing. However, a wind operation last summer worked a treat which allowed him to deliver on the promise he showed in his bumpers at Sandown and Exeter. He returned to the latter for his first start last season over 2m7f in an amateur riders novice hurdle. Sent off 14/1, he was dropped out in rear by Will Biddick and crept smoothly into the race travelling ominously well before being delivered soon after the second last to win comfortably by 3 lengths from The Nephew. For the type of contest, the form reads well with The Tourard Man in third going on to place in the Pertemps Final and Howlongisafoot who showed decent form in novice handicap chases.
The handicapper reacted surprisingly in a lenient manner by giving him a mark of 120 and confirmed how well treated he looked at Cheltenham’s Paddy Power meeting in the intermediate handicap hurdle over 2m5f won by the likes of Punchestowns and Grand Crus in recent years, beating two decent horses in Knight Of Noir and Cup Final. Only upped 5lb, he turned out quickly the following week at Haydock where a mistake three out left him with ground to make up and a scruffy jump at the last saw him land flat-footed before staying on stoutly to take third behind On Tour.
He continued his progression with a second place at Newbury, only beaten a short margin by Polamco after a prolonged battle after the final flight before stepping up in distance to 2m7f at Exeter in a Pertemps Qualifier where they went a crawl for the first half of the race which suited the speedier types in Regal Encore and Alavian, staying on into a one paced sixth beaten just under 7 lengths. His final start came over 3m at Ascot where he ground it out against a non stayer in Greybougg who looked the likely winner until his petrol ran out shortly after the final flight.
Now rated 139 over hurdles, his future looks to lie over the larger obstacles and looks the type we haven’t yet got to the bottom of yet. His mark is probably too high to send him for novice handicaps but he should pay his way in staying novice chases. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him appear again at Exeter, with a 3m novice chase on Haldon Gold Cup day looking an ideal starting point at a track Nicholls likes to send novice chasers too for an education.
(Morito Du Berlais is entered on Thursday for a novice chase at Exeter, a 3m2f handicap hurdle at Newton Abbot on Friday and a 3m novice chase at Chepstow on Sunday.)
SANDYGATE – 5 – Philip Hobbs
One of the lower rated horses to make the list, he made his racecourse debut in the same race that Chocca Wocca won at Ludlow, shaping with enough promise beaten 9 lengths back in third, running on at the one pace. Fancied to go well at Bangor on his next start, he was slightly disappointing when showing signs of greenness in the final furlong when fourth behind Nutcracker Prince.
He returned to Ludlow over the minimum 2m for his first experience over hurdles where he caught the eye having pulled fairly hard off a sedate early pace. When the tempo quickened he was outpaced and like his bumper efforts, was staying on one paced in the closing stages back in fourth behind Slowfoot. His jumping wasn’t entirely convincing over the last two flights but he improved on that effort at Fontwell when upped to 2m4f. Having travelled well into the race, he loomed up looking the likely winner turning for home but a clumsy leap at the last cost him any winning chance when third behind Towering.
A mark of 118 seems fair on his Fontwell run and he can only improve for a further step up in distance in handicap hurdles over the next few months. He could potentially head to Aintree on Old Roan Chase day for a 0-125 conditional jockeys handicap hurdle over 3m with Ciaran Gethings on board, a race won last year by Parish Business and a track where owner Trevor Hemmings enjoys having runners.
SAPHIR DU RHEU – 6 – Paul Nicholls
Part of the excitement of the National Hunt game is trying to find the next potential star of the future. It’s incredible how at the start of 2015, fans were discussing how weak the staying chase division looked. Fast forward nine months and the division has been brought back to life with one of the best renewals of the Gold Cup in recent times. Trainer Paul Nicholls has conceded defeat with Silviniaco Conti ever winning the race but has potentially found the successor of Kauto Star and Denman in the shape of Saphir Du Rheu.
One of the highest rated hurdlers his trainer has sent novice chasing with a mark of 165, his season began at Newbury where he was sent off favourite in the Berkshire Novices Chase despite trainer Paul Nicholls indicating beforehand that he would need the run. He jumped well just behind Coneygree until getting in too close to the seventh; unseating Sam Twiston-Davies who was given no chance to recover. A week later he made a quick reappearance at Exeter in the Harry Dutfield Memorial Novices Chase over 2m3f, where he was pitched in against the 2014 Albert Bartlett runner up Deputy Dan. It was easy pickings as he made amends for Newbury, a spring heeled round of jumping under a confident Nick Scholfield saw him consummate ease by 11 lengths from Horizontal Speed.
On the back of that win, he was sent off a warm favourite for the Feltham at Kempton but another error similar to Newbury at the seventh fence gave Twiston-Davies no option but to jump off as he skidded on landing. Initial comments following Kempton were to get plenty of schooling into him over fences but the decision changed, as he went to the Cleeve Hurdle at the end of January. Unlike Kempton, Saphir Du Rheu was fairly weak in the market on the day with Un Temps Pour Tout going off favourite but he got his season back on track with a real game performance to see off Reve De Sivola, albeit receiving 4lb.
The World Hurdle was the obvious target rather than go back chasing for the Festival and he ended up being sent off 5/1 favourite but on ground probably the quickest he has encountered, he was flat out the whole way chasing Cole Harden who was given a superb ride by Gavin Sheehan who set the perfect fractions from the front. He still ran with plenty of credit to finish second beaten just over 3 lengths, pulling clear from the remaining pack which was headed by stable mate Zarkandar and At Fishers Cross.
Reverting back to the larger obstacles at Aintree’s Grand National meeting in the Mildmay Novice Chase, the horse and Sam Twiston-Davies both silenced their doubters with an electric performance, jumping beautifully to win eased down by 15 lengths from Carraig Mor and stable mate Irish Saint. There was one slight semblance of an error at the third last but, unlike Newbury and Kempton, he was completely unfazed and galloped on in a dismissive manner which was hugely pleasing to see.
The Gold Cup is the ultimate aim but he still needs chasing experience at the top level before he can go there. The son of Al Namix is likely to start at Sandown in the Future Stars on the 8th November, a race that has moved forward a month where he will likely need his first outing before a tilt at the Hennessy Gold Cup. To emerge as a creditable Gold Cup contender, he needs to be going very close against the likes of Coneygree and Many Clouds. If all goes to plan, other potential races in the season include the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown and potentially a visit to Cheltenham on Trials Day to gain vital experience around Cheltenham before the acid test next March. The only ante-post bet I currently have for the season so far is Saphir Du Rheu at 16/1 and he will hopefully confirm his trainer’s belief in the horse that he is their next Gold Cup winner.
SIZING JOHN – 5 – Henry De Bromhead
In recent years, one of my all time favourite horses was Sizing Europe whose record spoke for itself. Winner of 22 of his 45 races which included 8 Grade 1, 2 Cheltenham Festival successes and over £1,300,000 in prize money, he was finally retired back in April at the grand age of 13 leaving a massive hole to be filled in the yard of Henry De Bromhead. Whilst De Bromhead has a number of promising horses that could be considered to be the next stable star, Sizing John looks to have the most potential to reach a similar heights to what Sizing Europe did over fences.
The son of Midnight Legend showed some promise in bumpers, his fourth at Punchestown behind runaway winner Forgotten Rules being his best effort but left his bumper form in his wake once sent over hurdles. His debut came at Naas in early November where having tracked the leader travelling powerfully, he showed his authority in the closing stages to see off Phil’s Magic by 2 lengths. Later on in the month, he went to Gowran Park for a 4 year old novice hurdle where he met Douvan who beat him comfortably on the bridle by 11 lengths. The performance left connections disappointed but as the season progressed, it turned out he may potentially have bumped into a future superstar of the National Hunt game.
As a result of his Gowran performance, he was sent off outsider of the field in the Future Champions Novices’ Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas. In an incident packed race which saw odds on favourite Nichols Canyon unseat Ruby Walsh at the third flight and McKinley pull up several strides after that hurdle, Johnny Burke kept Sizing John out of trouble by making every yard of the running to earn his first Grade 1 success as a rider. There was a slight moment for concern when he nearly ran out due to the loose Nichols Canyon charging past, but his jumping on the whole was impeccable and quickened nicely off the final bend to see off Sub Lieutenant by just under 7 lengths.
Given an intentional break after that win, the plan was to head to Cheltenham for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle where he belied his odds of 25/1 to run an excellent race in finishing a 7 lengths third behind Douvan having travelled up strongly to lead at the second last flight. Having led into the straight, he was a sitting duck with the favourite looming up menacingly on his tail and ended up fighting a losing battle for second place with the Mullins second string Shaneshill. To end the season, he reopposed Douvan at Punchestown but the result was the same as Cheltenham, the margin this time being a half length further than at Prestbury Park.
Of all the novice chasers in this list, this is the one to most look forward to on chasing debut with De Bromhead having an unbelievable ability to get horses to jump as well as they do. You would expect him to make his chase debut in the next couple of weeks with the first big target likely to be the Craddockstown Novices’ Chase at Punchestown in November, a race De Bromhead likes to target with both Sizing Europe and Days Hotel being successful in 2009 and 2011 respectively. The Racing Post Novices’ Chase would also be likely to appear on his radar before a potential crack at the Arkle in March all being well. Apart from Douvan, he rates as the most exciting 2m novice chaser in Ireland.
STELLAR NOTION – 7 – Tom George
When looking for well handicapped horses to make the piece, this son of Presenting stood out like a sore thumb with his official rating of 137. Bought for £140,000 by Roger Brookhouse in May 2013 at Brightwells, he started off by winning a bumper in December 2013 at Bangor and a novice hurdle the following month at Newcastle before a promising last start of the season when second behind Un Ace at Doncaster.
Given a BHA rating of 120, connections decided to exploit that mark in novice handicap chases, starting off at Leicester over 2m at the end of November where he made every yard of the running jumped efficiently to win by 13 lengths with his main rival Crookstown falling at the final fence when looking held in second. He then followed up in a competitive novice handicap chase at Kempton on Boxing Day when stepped up to 2m4f, using similar tactics to jump and gallop his rivals into the ground. The only scare came at the last when horse and jockey had a slight disagreement, but there was plenty left in the locker to fend off Knock House by just over a length.
On the back of that success, he was sent off favourite on Trials Day for the novice handicap chase where he attempted again to make all the running by setting a strong gallop from the front but his assured jumped from both Leicester and Kempton lacked slightly, an error at the eleventh was compounded by a shocking mistake at the third last. He weakened away shortly after to finish seventh behind Generous Ransom who reversed Kempton form.
Softer ground was blamed for that performance and he was well fancied back on decent ground for the novice handicap at the Festival but a bad mistake at the fourth last seemed to knock the stuffing out of him as he dropped away tamely coming down the hill, eventually completing beaten 31 lengths by Irish Cavalier. Interesting to note was that he was tongue tied for the first time which may signify that he may have needed a wind operation.
With his current rating, it would be a huge shock if he wasn’t better than 137 but he may be worth keeping away from Cheltenham as his two disappointing efforts have come there over fences. A potential early target on a flatter track could well be the Old Roan at Aintree in October or, if he isn’t ready, the valuable 2m4f handicap chase at Newbury’s Hennessy meeting could prove ideal as long as the ground is half decent. You would also hope that he would prove to be better than a handicapper with the promise shown so far.
TARA POINT – 6 – Paul Nicholls
When looking at the list of big race winners during throughout the career of Paul Nicholls, a particular absence from them is Graded success with a mare. However, he may just have the right horse to change that and again, like last season, she seems to have slipped under the radar.
The daughter of Kayf Tara created a strong impression in the Point to Point field, winning by 36 lengths at Mollington in March 2013 for owner/trainer Chloe Roddick in a 4-7yo Open Maiden over 2m4f under Nico De Boinville before being sold to Nicholls. Her debut for the yard came over a year later in April 2014 in a mares bumper at Taunton on good ground where she bolted up under Harry Derham, quickening clear of her field in a number of strides to win eased down by 8 lengths from Catherines Well.
She was put away after that one run for the new National Hunt season, making her debut in November at Exeter over 2m3f where she made all the running and jumped nimbly under a confident Sam Twiston-Davies. Up the home straight, Twiston-Davies gave her half an inch of rein and she sauntered clear without coming off the bridle to win by 15 lengths on testing ground.
Off the back of that performance, connections decided to let her have a crack at the geldings in a decent renewal of the Grade 2 Winter Novices’ Hurdle at Sandown over 2m4f where she was allowed to get into a lovely rhythm out in front, albeit racing a tad keen. Her jumping again was a huge asset for the most part and at one stage, she had all her rivals off the bridle but a slight mistake at the last and her earlier excursions told in the end with Vyta Du Roc and Shantou Bob outstaying her up the hill. To her credit, she battled back up the hill to just be beaten over a length.
We only saw her once more after Christmas back against her own sex in Listed company at Taunton, with the racing bordering on farcical due to five of the nine hurdles being omitted because of the low sun. Like Exeter she stamped her authority, but this time she was given more of a race by better quality mares, winning by 4 lengths from Dusky Legend.
A small injury kept her out of action for the rest of the season but she returns this season to hopefully be part of the strong Nicholls novice chase team. Although she will likely be kept within her own sex on debut where she rates as one of England’s leading lights, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see her mixing it with the geldings at some point during the season.
VALUE AT RISK – 6 – Dan Skelton
A trainer expected to have a big season by many is Dan Skelton who looks to have an array of smart prospects for the future. Of his novice chasers, his three stand outs all merited a place in this list. Blue Heron will make his mark over 2m and could make up into a lively outsider for the Arkle whilst Three Musketeers looks the type to make up into one of the yard’s long term flagship horses along with Value At Risk.
Having proven himself to be a very useful bumper horse for Philip Fenton, he moved to Skelton’s yard at the beginning of last season after the controversy surrounding his former trainer. From the start, Skelton was keen to state that he needs plenty of time, highlighted when missing the fixed brush race won by Maximiser at Haydock with the trainer stating that he needed a couple more weeks before a run. Instead, he went to Newbury just before Christmas over 2m3f and demolished a capable field without coming out of second gear by 22 lengths. The fact Harry Skelton wasn’t moving a muscle and he was still going further clear of his rivals was extremely pleasing on the eye. To add some context, the second Foryourinformation had ran the previous time at Newbury in a decent novice hurdle and was beaten just over 7 lengths by Out Sam, Thomas Brown and Tea For Two who all looked decent prospects in their own right. Value At Risk beat him 22 lengths on the bridle, showcasing how deeply impressive he was for a hurdling debut.
The son of Kayf Tara’s next assignment came on Trials Day in the Neptune Trial to see whether 2m5f or 3m would be the right way to go in March. In a race that wasn’t run to suit due to a stop/start pace, he raced keenly early on and looked in trouble on the turn for home. However, he showed great tenacity after the final flight to battle back, only beaten less than a length by Ordo Ab Chao. This confirmed him to be more of a staying type and we only saw him after that in the Albert Bartlett where he settled a lot better than he had done in his previous starts and travelled down the hill as good as any until he began to weaken when the three ahead of him kicked for home, ending up fifth beaten 12 lengths by Martello Tower.
The plan has always been to go novice chasing this season, with him already pencilled in to make his chase debut on the 27th October at Bangor before going on to the Hennessy meeting at Newbury. Long term, he does look a real stayer with his dam Miss Orchestra being a Midlands National winner and the ideal target would be the RSA Chase at the Festival. Of the horses that make the list, he rates as one of the more exciting prospects.
VINTAGE CLOUDS – 5 – Sue Smith
With Great Try another that appears not to be in training this season on Paul Nicholls website, another Trevor Hemmings horse that was in my tracker last season was this grey son of Cloudings who looks to have a fairly decent future over obstacles.
His debut came last December at Catterick where he showed signs of inexperience but stayed on nicely to finish third beaten 4 lengths by After Toniight. On his next start, he was sent off favourite at Sedgefield on Boxing Day where he gave Bedale Lane too much rope in front when beaten 7 lengths in second.
That experience wasn’t lost on him as a change in tactics at Wetherby on his next start did the trick. Sent off in front by Danny Cook, he made every yard of the running and showed an excellent attitude by galloping all the way to the line to win by 14 lengths from Bollin Ace. The same tactics were used when trying to defy a penalty at Newcastle, in what looked a decent bumper on paper, but he was swallowed up by the well backed Brain Power, eventually finishing fifth beaten less than 7 lengths.
A half brother to useful staying chaser Vintage Star, he will improve once stepping up in distance over hurdles and will probably start over 2m4f before getting further in time. Considering his high knee action, soft ground will likely be a necessity for him so we will likely see him at a track like Haydock over the upcoming few months with the races over the fixed brush hurdles a likely target.
YANWORTH – 5 – Alan King
The final horse to make the never-ending list was arguably not given the greatest of rides at last year’s Festival in the Champion Bumper but this son of Norse Dancer looks more than capable of being one of England’s leading novice hurdlers. Originally owned by his trainer Alan King, he made a winning debut in May 2014 at Wincanton when lowering the colours of the well regarded Urubu D’Irlande, both of them pulling nearly 30 lengths clear of the third Admiral Miller.
Kept to bumpers last season, his return at Newbury was one of the easiest wins you will witness. Although the margin was 2 lengths, the runner up Rabunda was hugely flattered by the winner who hardly broke sweat in a race that was effectively an exercise canter. He then headed to Ascot for the Listed bumper just before Christmas and whilst the slow pace early on inconvenienced most, he travelled nicely into contention but found Supasundae too strong for him in the closing stages, the pair pulling 11 lengths clear of the third Rio Treasure.
His final outing came in the Champion Bumper where, as mentioned above, it wasn’t exactly Tony McCoy’s finest hour as he allowed the race to develop too much in front of him and was momentarily shuffled back crossing the path before the turn for home, costing him valuable ground on the leaders. Once in the clear, he stayed on eyecatchingly up the hill, beaten just under 4 lengths by Moon Racer. The body language from McCoy on pulling up suggested he could have finished closer than his finishing position of fourth.
It appears that trainer Alan King already wants to start him over 2m4f over hurdles and the way he finished at Cheltenham suggests he should have no issue starting off over further. He could even clash with Barters Hill who features earlier in the list a couple of times and, long term, the Neptune would probably be the ideal aim for this season. Hopefully he can provide his lad Steve Ayres with some big success to cheer about after sadly losing his pride and joy Balder Succes at Aintree in the spring. The future’s bright. The future’s Orange. The list finally comes to an end. Halleujah.
Our first Cheltenham Festival 2015 preview kicked off with a bang with special guest Nick Scholfield and surprise special guest Sam Twiston-Davies who joined us very briefly to preview the four Championship races that take place next month.
Thank you for all the contributions to the show, we shall be back as usual on Friday covering the BetBright Chase from Kempton and we shall continue our Festival previews next week. We shall let you know which races on Twitter and on the blog so you can get your questions to us.