You know the drill by now. It’s mid-September and the National Hunt season draws closer. The yearly highlight of picking a collection of horses to follow is here, which will no doubt prove an interesting mix of horses living up to expectations, some potentially exceeding expectations, and of course the crushing reality of many of them leaving me bitterly disappointed. Oh racing, welcome back.
We start with last season’s brilliant Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner Altior. The High Chaparral gelding boasted useful bumper form in the previous season and kicked off his campaign with a ruthless 34-length victory in his first race over hurdles at Chepstow. He then showed tenacity to win his next two starts, firstly at Ascot, then a good Grade 2 contest at Cheltenham where he resolutely saw off Maputo, who himself had looked more than smart in notching up four wins from four over hurdles.
Altior winning the Supreme Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham
We got a real indication of the star quality that Altior possess at Kempton on Boxing Day, when he routed good opposition in style, showing a devastating turn of foot. With four races over hurdles, Nicky Henderson kept Altior back for Cheltenham, where he was sent off 4/1 second-favourite. Despite facing the much touted Min from the powerful Willie Mullins yard, he traveled through the race as well as anything, before showing a brilliant burst of acceleration towards the finishing line.
It’s unclear yet whether Altior will stay over hurdles for a crack at the Champion Hurdle or go the novice chasing route with the Arkle in mind. The latter will surely be the easier of the two targets, however I for one would absolutely love to see him take on the likes of Faugheen and Annie Power. Either way, I’m expecting more big things this season.
Sticking with last year’s Supreme, I also want to keep Buveur D’Air firmly on side this season. Whilst he was ultimately well beaten by Altior, it was an impressive performance from a horse with just two runs over hurdles. He built on that effort when landing the Grade 1 Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree, showing real guts to get the better of Petit Mouchoir having traveled smoothly throughout. Having not given the impression of being the strongest stayer, that battle and spirit from Buveur D’Air was incredibly pleasing.
Buveur D’Air can take high rank over fences
I have to imagine they’ll be going chasing with Buveur D’Air this season. The pleasing news is he’s still with Nicky Henderson after the owner decided to leave the sport, and he’ll now be sporting the famous JP McManus silks. With another summer to strengthen and mature, I really do think Buveur D’Air has the potential to be one of the leading novice chasers this season, with the Arkle the obvious main target.
It wouldn’t be a list of horses to follow if Willie Mullins didn’t feature, and one horse of his that excites most is Yorkhill. A brilliant winner of the Neptune, when turning over the red-hot favourite Yanworth, he then won the Grade 1 Mersey Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree in fine style. Disappointing in his final run of the season, when a well beaten fourth at Punchestown, that was clearly one race too many for the season after the Cheltenham-Aintree double.
Yorkhill gets the better of Yanworth in the Neptune
Despite winning at Cheltenham and Aintree, Yorkhill was keen and still somewhat raw. This suggests that as he matures and develops there could be further progress, which makes him a hugely exciting prospect this season. Novice chasing looks likely to be the path connections go, and it’s no surprise to see him prominent in the ante post betting.
Despite being beaten by Yorkhill at Cheltenham, Yanworth still remains an incredibly exciting prospect this season. Whilst I don’t think it would have changed the outcome of the race, Yanworth definitely had to cover more ground than Yorkhill being ridden on the outside by Barry Geraghty, whereas the winner saved ground up the inside before finding a gap. He didn’t travel through the race quite as well as expected, and there’s a chance we didn’t quite see the best of him.
Having looked completely imperious in his previous four starts, not least when bolting up at Cheltenham on Trials Day, I think there is still plenty more to come from Yanworth. Whilst he’s yet to tackle further than 2m4f, he’s given the impression that he could stay further. A step up to 3m would be an unknown, but if he did prove capable at that distance he’d be a leading World Hurdle contender in my book.
The unbeaten Winter Escape looks a very exciting prospect, having notched up three wins from three over hurdles last season. The last of those wins come in the Grade 2 Dovecote at Kempton, where he comfortably got the better of Marracudja to win the style expected of a 4/6 favourite.
Connections decided to skip Cheltenham which will likely turn out a smart decision. Kempton was the first time he’s come off the bridle and he showed that his jumping has room for plenty of improvement. This contributed to his win at Kempton being by a smaller distance than it should have been, which points to him being on a handicap mark that will be very workable. No doubt McManus will be looking to exploit that with one of the big handicap races this season, but ultimately Winter Escape should prove a high class graded horse.
Sent off 5/6 favourite on his debut for Dan Skelton, it was obvious there was plenty of excitement for Born Survivor last season, having looked hugely promising on his P2P start. Odds-on backers weren’t left disappointed as he won at Warick with ease, confirming himself a smart prospect in the making. Stepped up to Grade 2 company in his next start, Born Survivor was sent off 6/4 favourite in the Leamington Novices’ Hurdle at Warwick, however he was never able to land a blow. The race was run at a very strong gallop, headed by two very smart ex-flat horses from the Willie Mullins yard.
A race of that nature might have come too soon for Born Survivor, but the experience will no doubt have been valuable. He got back to winning ways on his next start at Wetherby, winning with ease as was expected having been a 1/8 shot. He didn’t race again that season, and strikes me as the type to have matured well both physically and mentally over the summer.
One of my big fancies for the festival earlier in the year, Barters Hill couldn’t quite get the job done in the Albert Bartlett, but he lost little in defeat. Having looked a brilliant, remorseless galloper when landing the Grade 1 Challow at Newbury, he was unable to match that brilliance at Doncaster and then Cheltenham. He still looked a raw, slightly green horse, one that still has plenty more to offer as he matures and gains racing experience.
Barters Hill should be a leading novice chaser
A campaign over fences awaits this season, with the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase having already been earmarked as his first main target. Despite his racing style, he’s clearly not short of speed and it’ll be interesting to see what way they go with him with Cheltenham in mind. The RSA is always an attritional contest and it may be that the JLT proves a more ideal race this season. Whatever way they go with him, I expect him to be a leading contender over the bigger obstacles.
ONE TRACK MIND
Another leading stayer from last season that looks set to go over fences is One Track Mind. The Flemensfirth gelding started off his campaign in handicap company, winning well at the second time of asking, before moving on to Grade 2 company in the Rendlesham Hurdle at Haydock, where he finished a good second behind the gallant multiple Grade 1 winner Reve De Sivola.
One Track Mind then went one better when stepping up to Grade 1 company, causing somewhat of a surprise when a 10/1 winner of the Grade 1 Stayers Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival. The form of the race isn’t hugely convincing, with the favourite Alpha Des Obeaux likely feeling the effects of chasing home the brilliant Thistlecrack at Cheltenham. That being said, the runner-up Jennies Jewel came in to the race in the form of her life, and has subsequently won her next two races on the flat. One Track Mind was very strong at the end, and should he take to fences well the RSA looks the most suitable target.
Arguably the most exciting horse to go over fences this season, Thistlecrack was an absolute revelation last season. Not only did he win all of his five races over hurdles, he obliterated his rivals each time in a style reminiscent of Big Buck’s at his peak. Highlighted most brilliantly when winning the World Hurdle at the festival, the way he traveled, jumped and put the race to bed truly was a sight behold under the near motionless Tom Scudamore.
World Hurdle winner Thistlecrack could go for the Gold Cup
A campaign over fences beckons this season, and trainer Colin Tizzard has certainly not kept quiet about his excitement. There’s already talk about him being a Gold Cup horse, and the bookies are certainly taking no chances here as he’s already the ante post favourite. Whilst it seems crazy that a horse yet to jump a fence in public is favourite for the Gold Cup, we saw Coneygree win as a novice in 2015 and Thistlecrack clearly has a enormous amount of ability. The Tizzard team still have the brilliant Cue Card in the yard too, and presumably that provides them with an indication of where Thistlecrack stands. If he can translate his brilliance over hurdles to fences we’re in for a treat.
There are a few key things you can highlight about Killultagh Vic. He’s a Cheltenham Festival winner, having won the Martin Pipe in 2015. He’s famous for that race, where he was all but down on the floor yet somehow managed to carry on and get up on the line. He’s also the last horse to beat Thistlecrack, narrowly getting the better of him at the Punchestown Festival in 2015.
Killultagh Vic is a previous festival winner
All of these things point to Killultagh Vic being an incredibly talented horse. We don’t fully know the extent of his abilities, having missed the rest of the season after being ruled out from that fall, but there’s no doubt he’s high class. He looked to have more speed than I initially thought last season, which opens up lots of options for him, as well as looking like a horse that would be more than at home with the stamina challenge of a Gold Cup. He’s a big contender wherever he goes.
MORE OF THAT
On the face of it, More Of That was disappointing when not winning the RSA Chase, having been sent off the 6/4 favourite. However, it was revealed afterwards that he had burst a blood vessel during the race. Given how dominant he had looked in his two races over fences prior he still remains a very exciting horse.
With just nine runs under his belt there’s still so much potential with More Of That. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s campaigned this season. I don’t see a reason why he wouldn’t be competing in the top Grade 1 contests over fences this season. After all, he did beat Annie Power in the World Hurdle.
Tombstone is a horse that I’m very excited to see over fences. Having bolted up in a bumper at the start of the season, he made his hurdles debut against the smart Pylonthepressure, where he displayed a great turn of foot to brush him aside readily. Stepped straight up to Grade 1 company at Leopardstown over Christmas, he arguably should have won but couldn’t quite reel in the game Long Dog, who stole a march on him under the brilliant Ruby Walsh.
Tombstone should excel now going over fences
Second in another Grade 1, again at Fairyhouse but this time over an extra 2 furlongs (2m2f), he had every chance of winning but arguably was outstayed by Bleu Et Rogue. It was then onto the Supreme at Cheltenham, where he ran a more than respectable race in 4th, 4 lengths behind subsequent Grade 1 winner (and horse to follow) Buveur D’Air. Like all Gigginstown horses chasing will be his game, so to have solid Grade 1 form to his name over hurdles is more than encouraging. We could see big things over fences.
Those of you who know me will know that I’m a Gigginstown fanboy, not least highlighted by my love of the mighty Don Cossack. In Death Duty I believe Gordon Elliott has another high class stayer in the making, who impressed in two bumpers last season that have both worked out well.
The first was a Listed contest at Navan, where he got the better of Our Duke, who subsequently beat Pylonthepressure well before running a more than respectable third in a Grade 2 Hurdle. The second was a contest at Fairyhouse where he was a beaten favourite, finishing just over a length behind fellow Gigginstown horse Blow By Blow. Whilst that was initially disappointing, Blow By Blow went on to win the Grade 1 Champion Bumper at Punchestown. Death Duty has shaped like he’ll need much further in time, like most Gigginstown horses, and I’m hoping he’ll prove to be a top class novice this season.
Jenkins went to the Punchestown Festival with very high expectations, being sent off the 8/11 favourite having bolted up impressively on his debut at Newbury. The odds-on shot looked set to reward his backers when traveling much the best throughout, surging clear under Patrick Mullins. However, he started to fade and was caught just before the line by 22/1 outsider Coeur De Lion.
Given the way Jenkins traveled throughout the race, it’s hard not to form the opinion that he has the potential to be a very smart hurdler. We only need to look back 12 months to see the likes of Altior and Buveur D’Air putting up smart displays in bumpers before progressing to Grade 1 winners. Whilst expecting Jenkins to achieve that level might be dangerous, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was to take high rank amongst this season’s novices.
LA BAGUE AU ROI
La Bague Au Roi is clearly a horse that has always been well regarded, having been sent off favourite on three of her four starts and second-favourite on the fourth. An impressive winner back in April 2015 at Newton Abbot, she was then a facile winner last season at Aintree before easily beating her rivals in a listed contest at Huntingdon.
Stepped up to Grade 2 company at Aintree, she was rather disappointing when only finishing 7th, 19 lengths behind the winner Kayf Grace, however the soft ground may not have been in her favour. A big strong mare, she has the size and scope to make up in to a very smart hurdler, and she could potentially have the newly introduced Mares Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival as her big target for the season.
Capeland was hard pressed to get up on the line on his debut at the start of the year at Cheltenham, however he was ultimately impressive and will clearly relish further with the race ran over 1m6f. Paul Nicholls takes things steady with his young horses, so the fact we didn’t see him again for the season is arguably a good thing.
Encouragingly, Nicholls has been giving positive vibes when talking about Capeland for the season ahead, describing him as a horse with bags of potential. He’s likely to start his campaign off in mid-October.
Some of the bumpers towards the end of the season throw up wide-margin winners who fall in to the ‘could be anything category’. Robin Roe wasn’t as visually striking as many, however he won nicely at Warwick despite clear signs of inexperience. Having been sent off the 11/4 favourite in an eighteen-runner contest, there was obviously positive vibes about the Robin Des Champs gelding.
Whilst he didn’t win by half the track, the form of that Warwick contest has worked out incredibly well. Royal Supremo, who caught the eye in second, won his next two starts (a bumper and a novice hurdle), whilst the 5th and 6th placed horses have also won since.
The first of my dark horses is Whin Park, who has yet to race for trainer Ben Pauling. He is a three-quarters brother to Azertyuiop, the former top class two-mile chaser. From the same seller as the Cheltenham Festival winners Blaklion and Ballandy, the trainer is quoted as saying: “I haven’t bought a nicer horse”.
Given Ben Pauling’s rise as an upcoming trainer, helped by stable star Barters Hill putting him firmly on the map with his Grade 1 win, I think we can expect to see him progress further and this will hopefully be a horse of his that will emerge. Described as big and backwards last year, but an exceptional jumper and beautiful mover, Whin Park will likely start in a bumper before connections plan further.
Sticking with Ben Pauling, Le Breuil is another dark horse that looks like one to watch. Jockey Richard Johnson rode him on his only start last season, when he ran out a stylish 10-length winner at Warwick, and he was very encouraged by the performance of his mount. The Champion Bumper is being suggested as a potential target, though connections will take their time and see if he’s up to that level. He could be out in October.
There’s a strong argument to suggest this filly deserves a place on my list just for the quite brilliant name. Aside from the name, she’s of obvious interest given she was purchased for £200,000 for the Willie Mullins yard, having looked very smart in winning her sole P2P start by 10 lengths. It’s evident that she has the size of a chaser in time, and that’s what she’s ultimately been purchased for, but that’s not to say she won’t be a smart hurdler. (Just look at Vroum Vroum Mag).
The price will obviously build up the hype, and suggestions that she could be the new Annie Power are clearly premature, but there’s no doubt she looked the real deal in her P2P. If she can get anywhere near the level of Annie Power, or Vroum Vroum Mag for that matter, she’ll be a very smart filly.