Now the Christmas and New Year celebrations are well and truly behind us, it’s downhill all the way to the Cheltenham Festival.
As I write, fewer than nine weeks need to pass under the bridge before the tapes go up for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on Tuesday 11th March.
And the recent wet weather, which forced the first major postponement of the UK Jumps season last Saturday, has given punters time to analyse and assess the big races as the countdown to the Festival begins.
A full programme over the festive period generated lots of clues, most notably for the CHAMPION HURDLE, with HURRICANE FLY disposing of young pretenders JEZKI and OUR CONOR in Ireland, and MY TENT OR YOURS lowering the colours of THE NEW ONE at Kempton Park.
So fascinating is this year’s Champion that many of you have probably changed your opinions from week to week as the season has progressed.
Before the Kempton race, I was all over The New One because of his lethal combination of pace and power.
But the theory of connections that the horse was good enough to cope with any kind of race was shot down in flames. And in subjecting him to a hard race by kicking for home so early and trying to draw the sting out of My Tent Or Yours, I wonder if the Twiston-Davies team were right to run him so soon after his hard-earned win in the International at Cheltenham 12 days earlier.
Certainly the fact that they now plan to wait for the big one in March suggests the six-year-old has been affected by his exertions. Yes, there are not that many options for a potential champion hurdler between Christmas and the Festival -- unless you want to travel for the Irish Champion, lump a big weight in the Betfair Hurdle or tackle the flat, speedy track of Wincanton. But it’s very rare for the big race to be won by an animal not previiusly seen that calendar year.
Of course, Hurricane Fly remains the horse to beat. His extraordinary record at the highest level speaks for itself and if he completes a hat-trick of Cheltenham successes, even Simon Holt might be persuaded to accept him into the pantheon of racing legends.
Come March, though, he will be ten years old and given that he’s never been seen to best effect at Prestbury Park, I am still persudaded to oppose him with a youngster on the upgrade, especially as there are so many of them this year.
I lay myself open to accusations of recency bias, but I was mightily impressed with My Or Yours in the Christmas Hurdle. It can be argued that he was always likely to be better suited to Kempton than The New One -- but not in the manner the race panned out. Nicky Henderson’s seven-year-old had to dig deep and grind for a sustained few furlongs to reel in his rival -- gritty characteristics that some questioned he possessed after he was caught up the hill in last season’s Supreme Novices.
Remember this is a horse who won the 2013 Betfair Hurdle off a mark as high as 149 as a novice, and posted a brilliant success at Aintree’s Grand National meeting, three weeks after Cheltenham. The indications this term are that he has strengthened up and is still improving.
Henderson, who boasts years of experience at peaking potential champion hurdlers, plans one more outing for his charge, and come March, I will be amazed if AP McCoy does not opt to ride My Tent ahead of JP McManus’s other Champion challenger, Jezki, who does not have as much toe.
Hurricane Fly’s stablemate ANNIE POWER night yet throw a spanner in the works. She has the class and the speed to be competitive, but the manner in which she has been campaigned so far suggests the World Hurdle over 3m will be her main target -- unless, of course, the staying superstar that is BIG BUCK’S returns from his long absence as good as ever and appears as unbeatable as ever at Cheltenham.
Big Bucks’s trainer, Paul Nicholls, does not have a record in the Champion Hurdle to match his imperious talents. But at a massive each/way price, his exciting five-year-old P’TIT ZIG, is worth a look. He ran a blinding race off top weight in the Ladbroke Hurdle at Ascot just before Christmas and is improving rapidly.
Moving on to the Blue Riband of the Festival, the GOLD CUP, and two more big races at Kempton and Leopardstown over the holiday, the King George and the Lexus Chase, proved hugely informative.
Last year’s hero, BOBS WORTH, landed the Lexus with a magnificent display that signalled a return to his tough and tenacious best. After his Haydock flop on his re-appearance, I was among those who feared the attritional three-way slog up the hill in the 2013 Gold Cup had left his mark. But on this evidence, his return to the head of the market is deserved.
Of course, that three-way go might have been a four-way had not SILVINIACO CONTI come down at the third last when still travelling smoothly. But Paul Nicholls’s eight-year-old looks sure to be a player this time round after his terrific King George triumph in which he wore down the front-running CUE CARD.
It was an effort that confirmed Nicholls’s assertion that the son of Dom Alco is essentially a stayer. The extra 2f at Cheltenham will be right up his street and notwithstanding last season’s fall, he is a wonderfully efficient jumper.
Of those lower down the market, I would not rule out another Nicholls inmate, ROCKY CREEK, outrunning his current odds of around 33/1. I can’t remember such a technically flawless performance in a Hennessy Gold Cup go unrewarded with victory as his last November when runner-up to TRIOLO D’ALENE. Like Silviniaco, the eight-year-old boasts bucketloads of stamina, but the Newbury run suggests he is beginning to ally class as he matures. Incidentally, it would be no surprise either if the winner was re-routed to the Gold Cup from his original target, the Grand National.
Keen to regain his champion-trainer crown, Nicholls holds a strong Festival hand wherever you look. I will eat my hat if WONDERFUL CHARM does not win the JEWSON NOVICES’ CHASE, while CALIPTO and VICENZE MIO give the master of Ditcheat two bites of the cherry in the TRIUMPH HURDLE. The former won the hottest juvenile hurdle seen so far this season, while the latter has any amount of scope for improvement.
Nicholls is also double-handed in the ARKLE CHASE with crack novices HINTERLAND and DODGING BULLETS, while SUPREME NOVICES’ HURDLE fancy IRVING can only get better on better ground and BLACK THUNDER is shaping up into a very viable candidate for the RSA CHASE.
Mind you, the competition is fierce in the Supreme, the Arkle and the RSA -- thanks mainly to the powerhouse Irish yard of Mullins. My information is that the pick of his novice hurdlers is VAUTOUR, who remains attractively priced at around 20s, while I’m sure you can forget Arkle hope FELIX YONGER’S surprise setback over Christmas. He remains Mullins’s best novice chaser -- alongside BALLYCASEY, who looks more likely to go up in trip and take all the beating in the RSA.
Mullins became the first Irish handler since 1996 to take the top trainer award at the 2013 Festival -- and more glory looks guaranteed when you consider the chances of the likes of BOSTON BOB. The lightly-raced, well-regarded nine-year-old was second in the 2012 Albert Bartlett as a novice hurdler and probably would have won last season’s RSA but for crashing at the last. Maybe this term it will be third time lucky in the World Hurdle, which is where he appears to be heading after a sparkling return to action at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve.
Of course, the saddest sight of all the racing action over the Christmas and New Year period was the ill-fated return to the course of the great SPRINTER SACRE. All the signs are that he is now back on track for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but his fibrillating heart has cast a shadow of doubt over his invincibility.
Although he needed more intensive treatment, it took the mighty DENMAN more than a year to rediscover his best after suffering from a similar condition, so it is worth hunting for value in the Champion Chase market. Ironically, it is provided by Sprinter Sacre’s stablemate CAPTAIN CONAN, something of a forgotten horse despite a perfectly respectable seasonal re-appearance in the Tingle Creek at Sandown.
Keep an eye too on MARITO, another potential star from the Mullins camp. The trainer has passed up an attractive handicap mark with this classy eight-year-old, who ran well in the Jewson at the Festival last year and could emerge as a dark horse for either the Champion or the RYANAIR CHASE.
That 2013 Jewson was won by another Irish raider, BENEFFICIENT, who is on course to complete a notable double in the Ryanair this time round. Rarely wlll you see the Cheltenham fences attacked with such vigour.
Other possible Festival-bound horses to monitor at this stage include David Pipe’s young hurdler DELL ARCA, who was unluckily brought down in the Ladbroke after winning the Greatwood on his UK debut at Cheltenham. He would be dangerous to all and sundry if switched to novice events.
Pipe also houses the worthy favourite for the ALBERT BARTLETT NOVICES’ HURDLE in KINGS PALACE. I have been a fan of this horse from the day he bolted up on his Bumper bow last term. Since tackling timber, his form has been franked everywhere you care to look. Ironically, his chief threat at the Festival could be Nicky Henderson’s Grade One Challow Hurdle winner CAPTAIN CUTTER, who touched him off in a Bumper at Ascot in December 2012.
Finally, it’s back to Mullins and a couple of talented animals who just might slide under the Festival radar. One is novice chaser THE PAPARRAZI KID, whose defeat of Felix Yonger at Limerick on Boxing Day should not be under-estimated. The other is novice hurdler URANO, who finally got his act together earlier this week when stepped up in trip.