The clocks have gone back, and once Santa Anita has let off its Breeders’ Cup fireworks this Bonfire weekend, it really will be all over.
The end of another Flat season, and the signal to concentrate fully on the new Jumps campaign.
It’s been a tremendous year on the level, littered with terrific horses and terrific performances, spearheaded, of course, by the Aidan O’Brien battalions and Jean-Claude Rouget’s devastating duo, ALMANZOR and LA CRESSONNIERE.
In MINDING, we have marvelled at one of the best, and most versatile, 3yo fillies of modern times. The likes of LIMATO, MECCA’S ANGEL and QUIET REFLECTION have lit up the most exciting sprint division for many a year. The quartet of THE GURKHA, GALILEO GOLD, RIBCHESTER and AWTAAD provided four top-notch 3yo milers.
Both the Derby at Epsom and the St Leger at Doncaster were three-way thrillers. Those who believe the National Hunt code has exclusive rights to old favourites who return season after season and race month after month were clearly not following the remarkable career of Arc heroine FOUND.
And the juvenile scene not only gave us the fascination of Frankel’s first crop but also produced at least five brilliant performers in CARAVAGGIO, CHURCHILL, RHODODENDRON, LADY AURELIA and RIVET. Incidentally, anyone doubting the end-of-season form of the Dewhurst, Racing Post Trophy and Champagne Stakes should catch up on the win by THUNDER SNOW in the last major European Group One 2yo race at Saint-Cloud on Sunday.
Only the staying division lacked stardust in 2016, but even that supplied one of the best Ascot Gold Cup performances you are likely to see, courtesy of ORDER OF ST GEORGE, and one of the most popular horses in training, BIG ORANGE.
However, now it’s time to turn our attentions to the winter game and lock away all Flat thoughts until the Craven Meeting next April. Before you know it, Cheltenham’s three-day Open meeting will be upon us, and it won’t be long before annual staples such as the Betfair Chase, the Hennessy Gold Cup, Tingle Creek, the Long Walk Hurdle, the King George, the Christmas Hurdle, the Welsh National and the Lexus Chase are sending shivers down the spine.
Unlike the Flat, the narrative for all Jumps seasons these days is unashamedly one-dimensional in that all roads lead to the Cheltenham Festival, which is swiftly followed by any number of other blockbusting spring meetings, from Aintree to Ayr.
At the risk of sounding like the worst of TV football pundits, there are sure to be many twists and turns along the way, and predicting what might happen and who might emerge as the vintage crop of 16/17 is no easy matter. For example, the ante-post market for the Cheltenham Gold Cup at present is a veritable minefield.
I have compiled this list of 20 horses I hope will prove profitable to follow over the coming months. I have tried to avoid the blatantly obvious, most of whom are housed in the Willie Mullins yard, and have concentrated primarily on animals with proven ability but still on the up. Here’s to a great season!
5yo mare, Willie Mullins
Belfast owner George Creighton looked to have found a potential successor to legendary champion Hurricane Fly when ALLBLAK DES PLACES burst on to the juvenile scene last winter. He suffered a setback and hasn’t been seen since, but Creighton has a very interesting proposition in this mare, who ran well when, significantly, pitched straight into a Grade One on her first and only start so far for Mullins at Fairyhouse last Easter.
7yo chaser, Willie Mullins
Gorgeous-looking horse who looked like developing into a Gold Cup candidate until Mullins made the surprise decision to drop in trip at the Cheltenham Festival. The trainer’s shrewdness was richly rewarded by a tremendous victory in the JLT Novices’ Chase that provided jockey Ruby Walsh with his 50th Festival triumph. There’s much more to come from a lightly-raced 7yo who oozes star quality.
5yo hurdler/novice chaser, Nicky Henderson
After being bought by JP McManus, it looks likely that Henderson’s classy French-bred will switch to fences after making a huge impact in novice hurdles last season, which culminated in a close third in a red-hot Supreme at the Cheltenham Festival and victory at Aintree. But if he stays over timber, he’s capable of mixing it at the top table, given a bit of dig in the ground.
6yo novice chaser, Malcolm Jefferson
Northern Jumps racing has rarely been in deeper doldrums, but Jefferson continues to churn out the winners and could have something above average in this exciting grey, owned by Trevor Hemmings. He boasts remarkable toe and after progressing nicely over timber last season, he took to fences like a duck to water at Carlisle last month, His liking for Good ground makes him Festival potential too.
8yo mare, Nicky Richards
Three runs, three wins is the Rules record of Paul and Clare Rooney’s recruit from the Irish point-to-point field, all gained in different spheres, Bumper, hurdles and fences, and all achieved in impressive fashion. A minor setback cut short her debut chase campaign last term, but she’s firing on all cylinders again now and is capable of going a long way on her favoured Soft or Heavy ground.
4yo novice hurdler, Nicky Henderson
Few Bumper winners caught the eye more in 2015/16 than this son of former champion Azamour. He coasted and quickened on debut and would have won again at Punchestown but for an injudicious ride. Of course, jumping hurdles is a very different kettle of fish, but his handler reports that he has schooled well and it just might be significant that he spent his summer sharing a field with the one and only Sprinter Sacre.
7yo chaser, Noel Meade
No sooner had JP McManus’s son of Flemensfirth made a winning chasing bow last term than he was sidelined. But so taking was that textbook performance, the form of which has been franked several times over, that his return is eagerly anticipated. Astute trainer Meade likes him, and he could be one for decent handicaps over 2m4f-3m this winter, particularly when there is cut in the ground.
7yo chaser, Willie Mullins
After injury curtailed his maiden chasing season last winter, Mullins’s lightly-raced son of Old Vic is unlikely to be seen until well after Christmas, and even then, he might he handled with kid gloves. But there is no limit to what he could achieve, possibly over any trip from 2m-3m, on the evidence of what we have seen so far. As a hurdler, he was a Cheltenham Festival winner and even beat the mighty Thistlecrack.
5yo novice chaser, Paul Nicholls
Respectable seconds to the outstanding duo Yorkhill and Yanworth are on the CV of this French import after a fine first season in the UK in novice hurdles. But Nicholls resisted over-racing or over-facing him, despite a tempting handicap mark, in the knowledge that his chief metier would be chasing. He made a pleasing start in a warm contest at Uttoxeter last week and has the ability to cut Grade One mustard at 2m or 2m4f.
5yo novice hurdler, Willie Mullins
Somehow this filly was one of the few products of the Mullins/Ricci empire that failed to find the winner’s enclosure last term. But she arrived from France with a huge reputation and hardly let the side down, running blinders behind the very best juveniles. Tellingly, she also remains a novice for this term and must surely be a banker to put her experience and ability to use at the highest level.
9yo chaser, Rebecca Curtis
After running well for a long way in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, this lightly-raced stayer was lined up for a tilt at the Grand National only to be withdrawn at the 11th hour. Hopefully, with his yard now back in top form, Aintree will be on the agenda again this term because lots of potential remains untapped for a horse who is attractively handicapped considering he won the 2014 RSA Chase and beat the likes of Smad Place and Many Clouds in his novice chasing season.
ONE TRACK MIND
6yo novice chaser, Warren Greatrex
Lightly-raced stable star who made giant strides as a staying hurdler last term, progressing from 139-rated handicapper to Grade One winner at Punchestown, and now makes the transition to fences, for which he is built and over which his trainer is sure he will be even better. Give in the ground seems essential to bring out the best in him, but he has stamina to burn and an attitude to die for.
7yo chaser, Warren Greatrex
The resolution of Greatrex’s former Nicky Henderson-trained inmate has been questioned in some quarters, particularly after he bombed when fancied in a Cheltenham Festival handicap last term, and a suspcion lingers that he prefers small fields. But the natural talent is unquestionably there and the best bits of his light career so far mean he remains on a decent handicap mark that could be exploited as he matures.
5yo novice hurdler, Dan Skelton
I’m not keen on getting too carried away with early-season performances, particularly on unusually quick ground. But it was impossible not to be startled by the striking victory of this Irish point winner when bolting up on his timber debut at Aintree last month. And his brilliant trainer agreed, instantly nominating the Grade One Challow Hurdle at Newbury over Christmas as his next target, en route to the Cheltenham Festival.
5yo mare, Gordon Elliott
Although Elliott inherited many horses from the split between Willie Mullins and Gigginstown House Stud, this powerful, scopy mare has been with him since being snapped up after becoming the first progeny of the four-time Ascot Gold Cup winner Yeats to land a point. Two terrific performances in Bumpers last term were followed by a successful hurdling debut a month ago, and as a half-sister to Saturday’s Charlie Hall Chase winner, Irish Cavalier, she could go all the way to the top.
THREE FACES WEST
8yo chaser, Philip Hobbs
The wheels rather came off the progression of this lightly-raced chaser in a dire reappearance run at Carlisle last month. But in the hope that he can find his feet again, I believe he can develop into a smart handicapper over staying trips. At his best, he attacks his fences with zest, much like his half-brother, Frankie Figg, who often ran with credit around Aintree’s Grand National course during his career.
UN TEMPS POUR TOUT
7yo chaser, David Pipe
The first season over fences for the Pipes’ former French Champion Hurdle winner looked like turning into a huge letdown until he unleashed a magnificent display to land the 3m1f handicap at the Cheltenham Festival. Although he was subsequently disappointing again when upped in class at Aintree, he is still young enough to develop into a top-class chaser, with a tilt at the Gold Cup not out of the question.
VROUM VROUM MAG
7yo mare, Willie Mullins
Unbeaten in ten starts, Rich Ricci’s fantastic, flexible mare is being talked of as an able substitute for stable superstars Annie Power, Faugheen and Vautour should anything go wrong with their campaigns. In my view, she deserves to be treated as a potential championship-race winner in her own right. That’s how good she is, whether it be over fences or hurdles, and whether it be over 2m, 2m4f or 3m. Sheer class.
5yo novice hurdler, Philip Hobbs
It’s unlike Hobbs to make bold and bullish declarations, so when he describes this recruit from the Irish point field as possibly the best horse in his yard, on the back of just three runs in Bumpers, it would be folly not to sit up and take notice. Although only fifth at the Cheltenham Festival, the son of Westerner actually ran a cracker, defying glaring greenness, unsuitably drying ground and a 2m trip too short.
5yo hurdler, Alan King
The best trainers know when to draw stumps with young, maturing horses, and King’s decision to resist the temptation of Cheltenham and Aintree last spring with JP McManus’s purchase from the Flat could pay handsome dividends this term. He won three on the spin, showing a high cruising speed and a turn of foot in modest events at Doncaster before battling gamely when stepped up to Grade Two class at Kempton. Exciting prospect.
6yo hurdler, Alan King
After an imperious performance on Trials Day in January, JP McManus’s class act returned to Cheltenham as many punters’ Festival banker in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle. Cue tearing out of hair when he was turned over thanks to a combination of the way the race was run and a rare, misjudged ride by Barry Geraghty. Ample consolation could arrive for all concerned next March. In my view, he has the speed and quality to win a Champion Hurdle.