It can’t wait any longer! The 2014-15 jumps season is looming on the horizon and with a month to go until the Showcase Meeting at Cheltenham, I have decided to post a list of twenty horses from both England and Ireland which I feel are worth following throughout the season. I would like to thank a few people for their help over the last few months including Dan Heap who kindly gave me permission to use his photos for the piece and to Luke Elder for proof-reading throughout the written process.
ABBYSSIAL – 4 – Willie Mullins
To start the list, it seems fair to begin with one of the most exciting novice chasers for next season in Abbyssial. The chestnut son of Beneficial first came to my attention on Thyestes day at Gowran Park when he won a juvenile hurdle in taking style in the famous Violet O’Leary colours who had such great days with the likes of Florida Pearl, Missed That and Cooldine. However, what caught my eye most about the performance was his size compared to the majority of juvenile hurdlers. He then continued his unbeaten spell in Ireland (he was third in a hurdle race at Auteuil) with a Grade Two win at Fairyhouse beating stablemate Adriana Des Mottes giving her six pounds with her receiving the fillies allowance.
The performance was enough to convince connections that he deserved a go at the Triumph Hurdle where unfortunately he took a crashing fall at the second flight and broke Ruby Walsh’s right arm. Considering how bad the fall was and how sometimes it can really affect a horse’s confidence, his Grade One win at Punchestown was fantastic to see with especially the way he kicked for home after two out and put the race to bed in a matter of strides.
Next season for him is even more exciting as he will receive the weight for age allowance in novice chases and he will be very hard to beat plus a step up in trip to 2m4f wouldn’t be a surprise either. Another note is how similar he is to his own stablemate Djakadam who features further down this list with Patrick Mullins noting this on the excellent Final Furlong Podcast back in March. If you haven’t heard it, I highly recommend doing so – listen now – as it features excellent analysis of the Mullins stable runners plus some nice pointers including some that happened at Punchestown.
BALDER SUCCES – 6 – Alan King
If there was a horse that changed my complete outlook of him during the last National Hunt season then it was Alan King’s top rated two mile novice chaser. The quote that King used after his thoroughly deserved Grade One win at Aintree of “Fences have made a man of him” couldn’t be truer. He had showed plenty of promise in his younger days as a juvenile and was well fancied to win the Triumph Hurdle before falling at the fourth.
Last season saw how effective he could be given his preference of a small field with five wins from eight starts including two Grade Two wins at Warwick and Kempton over 2m4f. The times he didn’t win included a fall at Cheltenham under a penalty where he would have won but for being blinded by the sun two out, Sandown where most of the yards’ horses were running badly so for him to finish only twenty two lengths behind Hinterland in the Henry VIII was a commendable effort and Punchestown where you could question whether Wayne Hutchinson went too soon when trying to keep up with Champagne Fever and leaving himself vulnerable to God’s Own when third.
I still think there is improvement to come and whilst he has never completed at Cheltenham before, it isn’t a huge concern as he matured plenty over the course of last season plus he was unlucky back in October with the reasons mentioned above. Possible early season targets could include the Shloer Chase and the Tingle Creek where we will find out whether he is Champion Chase class or not.
BALLYCASEY – 7 – Willie Mullins
This is possibly Ireland’s best chance of taking next year’s Ryanair Chase at the Festival. This grey son of Presenting on pedigree looks to have stamina to burn yet on the evidence shown of both his runs over three miles at Cheltenham and Punchestown, he looked to be a non-stayer. On the whole, he is a very sound jumper having shown that in all of his starts with his ability to take lengths from his rivals but he does have a tendency to make a mistake which he did in the Powers Gold Cup at Fairyhouse when falling at the second last and during the schooling fall at Leopardstown.
On the basis of his PJ Moriarty win back in February before the Festival and with the knowledge of what he did after that, an intermediate trip will probably see the best out of him with races like the Clonmel Oil at Clonmel, the John Durkan at Punchestown and the Red Mils Chase at Gowran all looking nice targets before the Ryanair.
BEAT THAT – 6 – N Henderson
Surprisingly, this is the only Nicky Henderson horse to make the list but his profile and the way he improved towards the end of last season after being given time by connections was very imposing on the mind. He caught the eye on hurdling debut at Ascot where he was very impressive considering negative comments beforehand about how he looked pre-race regarding his physique.
He would have probably won the Winter Novice Hurdle at Sandown without the dreadful blunder at the last when second to a useful yardstick in Killala Quay before being given a break and most importantly he missed Cheltenham which was probably the best decision made for the horse’s future. The other decision was the step up in trip to three miles which happened at the Grand National meeting in the Sefton Novice Hurdle and the way he travelled through that race, he looked a completely different animal with how he relaxed plus how he saw the race out in tenacious style to beat the gutsy Cole Harden.
He then ended his season in similar style at Punchestown in their Grade One Novice Hurdle where he beat another horse that makes this list in Don Poli showing his battling qualities as well as his class. With the changing of the guard in the staying hurdle division, he could easily make up into a World Hurdle contender which could make for a mouth-watering contest with More Of That if he also stays hurdling.
BE POSITIVE – 5 – Enda Bolger
This selection is more of a left field one but I feel this will be the banks horse to follow for JP McManus over the next few seasons. An impressive winner on banks debut on the first day of the Punchestown Festival, he returned on the final day to be just denied by the veteran Sizing Australia. He has plenty of time on his side to progress into their number one Cheltenham cross country and Punchestown banks horse.
BLAKLION – 5 – Nigel Twiston-Davies
A winner of a Point to Point at Tinahely, this son of Kayf Tara was an extremely easy winner of a bumper at Ffos Las and showed a strong willingness to battle when beating Degooch in a Haydock bumper. Whilst he probably won’t achieve the levels of his owner’s star The New One, he will pay his way in novice hurdles between two and two and a half miles. He is one to definitely keep on the right side of.
CLARCAM – 4 – Gordon Elliott
The one race of last season’s Cheltenham Festival where I was left thinking what might have been was the Fred Winter in which this horse was going extremely well when leading before falling at the second last and breaking jockey Bryan Cooper’s leg. Before this, he had finished second to two horses that contested the Triumph Hurdle in Guitar Pete and Broughton without looking on the naked eye to have been given a hard time in either race.
After his Cheltenham fall, he ran the race of his life to finish second behind Guitar Pete in the Grade One Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle showing considerable improvement which would have been more than enough to win the Fred Winter before disappointing slightly on his final start at Fairyhouse when behind Ivan Grozny. He fits a similar mould to his trainer Gordon Elliott’s 2013 Fred Winter winner Flaxen Flare and a campaign with all the big two mile handicap hurdles in the UK and Ireland will probably be the plan with races like the Greatwood and the Ladbroke looking suitable options early in the season.
CLONDAW COURT – 7 – Willie Mullins
From the embarrassment of riches that both Willie Mullins and the Riccis have, this horse looks to have a very bright future over the larger obstacles. He was bought by Ricci for £130,000 after winning a Point to Point at Largy in April 2012 by fifteen lengths. He then absolutely bolted up in a Punchestown bumper beating De Glebe Star by twenty seven lengths without coming off the bridle under a supremely confident Patrick Mullins. He was made favourite for the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham but missed that engagement through injury.
His hurdling debut over Christmas at Leopardstown was very workmanlike but Ruby Walsh just got him up on the line to beat Little Rocky over a trip that was on the sharp side plus having had a year off the track, it is possible he needed a pipe opener. Sadly we only saw him once more when he demolished a field over two mile six furlongs at Thurles with a performance that reminded us why he is so highly rated in the Mullins yard. He then missed the rest of the season having picked up a stress fracture.
When given his optimum conditions over fences which will be three miles and soft ground, it will take a very good animal to beat him and races such as the Florida Pearl and the Grade One Topaz Novice Chase over Christmas look perfect early season targets whilst the RSA Chase at the Festival lingers at the back of the mind.
DJAKADAM – 5 – Willie Mullins
As previously mentioned above with Clondaw Court, Mullins and Ricci have a wealth of quantity and quality to do battle with this upcoming season. Djakadam could be their most exciting second season chaser even though Ballycasey has been included in this list. Even from his juvenile hurdle days, fences were always going to bring out the best in him so connections decided to use the advantage of the four year old weight allowance.
His chase debut at Leopardstown last Christmas was a little hair-raising with some very deliberate jumps early on in the contest however he used his class to easily beat some above average opposition in Si C’Etait Vrai and the ill-fated Minsk. Back over the same course in the Grade Two Killiney Novice Chase over a slightly longer trip of two miles five furlongs, he jumped a lot better when beating Bright New Dawn who is another exciting horse for the future. It was then a last minute decision from connections to send him to the Cheltenham Festival for the JLT and for a horse with a lack of chasing experience; he jumped beautifully before over jumping at the fourth last and unseating Paul Townend. The original plan was to end the season at Punchestown in the Growise Champion Novice Chase but he was withdrawn on the day due to the quickening ground.
Although he has only had three runs over fences, this season represents a fascinating time for his career with plenty of options open to him. A BHA mark of 147 could tempt connections to run in a handicap somewhere but with a horse with as much potential as him, it could be best to start off in a conditions chase before stepping up in grade. He could be Mullins best chance of winning a Cheltenham Gold Cup in the future but this season could be planned around a bid at the Ryanair with him attempting three miles at some point, possibly in something like the Lexus Chase over Christmas at Leopardstown.
FLETCHERS FLYER – 6 – Harry Fry
Harry Fry has a wealth of lovely horses to go novice hurdling with including the likes of Jollyallan and Thomas Brown but this handsome son of Winged Love put in two encouraging displays in bumpers which looked full of potential. A Point winner at Kilworth in March 2013, he made his debut under rules in a bumper at Uttoxeter on Midlands Grand National day over a trip that was always going to be on the sharp side for him. Despite that and trying to make every yard of the running, he ran a race full of credit when narrowly denied by Relic Rock who himself franked the form when just beaten in the Grade Two Aintree Bumper by Ballybolley.
Fletchers Flyer then went to Punchestown for the two mile two furlong bumper and the step up in distance worked in his favour as he made just about all the running to deny Sub Lieutenant and Totally Dominant under a brilliant ride from Derek O’Connor. His short term future lies in long distance novice hurdles where he could very easily notch up a sequence before going chasing next season. A very exciting prospect.
MENDIP EXPRESS – 8 – Harry Fry
A prolific Point to Point winner for Richard Barber, he returned to racing under rules with Harry Fry after falling on his only start over hurdles for Paul Nicholls back in 2011. His chase debut at Wetherby on Charlie Hall day was visually impressive on the eye although he was entitled to be considering the opposition he beat after his main rival that day Sixty Something fell early on. After the race, Fry was keen to note that the horse needs to go left handed with cut in the ground.
He continued the winning thread under a penalty with his amateur rider Will Biddick claiming five pounds at Bangor beating Bob Ford which gave him a handicap mark of 139 to potentially exploit. He was given that opportunity on New Year’s Day where he sauntered home under top weight beating some stout stayers in the likes of Alfie Spinner and Ballypatrick in horrendous conditions. However, on that occasion the ground was easy enough to get through compared to his next start at Newbury where the ground was holding and he disappointed when last of three behind RSA Chase runner up Smad Place and Sam Winner.
There were several excuses to come out of that defeat including the ground and that he came out of the race a sick horse. On that basis, the run in the Scottish National can be forgiven too when he was pulled up behind Al Co. Freshened up after a break and with a BHA mark of 144, connections still have an exciting prospect on their hands. Potential early season targets could include the 3m3f handicap at the Paddy Power meeting or the Hennessy Gold Cup or if they want to be more ambitious, a return to Wetherby where he won his novice chase for the Charlie Hall could be also in mind. Further down the line, the Grand National could also be a realistic target.
NO MORE HEROES – 5 – Gordon Elliott
Gigginstown have a wide range of novices in both categories to go to war with this upcoming season and this handsome son of Presenting looks likely to take top rank in staying novice hurdles. He won his four year old Point to Point at Dromahane beating a very useful prospect in the Aintree Bumper sixth Battle Born in decisive fashion. He started his career under rules in a maiden hurdle over two miles at Down Royal and he certainly wasn’t disgraced when fourth behind three rivals who all mixed it in better company later in the campaign over an inadequate trip.
His next run was where he first caught my eye when absolutely bolting up in a Leopardstown bumper over two and a half miles by thirty nine lengths where the further he went, the better he looked on atrocious ground. He put that race to bed in a matter of strides and went onto further success at Naas where he beat another highly regarded Gigginstown horse in the Willie Mullins trained Milsean over two miles three furlongs. I expect him to rank highly in long distance novice hurdles with the Albert Bartlett looking the ideal long term plan for him. He is definitely one to be excited about, not just for this season, but for the future when he goes chasing.
O’FAOLAINS BOY – 7 – Rebecca Curtis
At the beginning of last season, I thought this horse looked tailor made for the National Hunt Chase with the evidence from his novice hurdle days that he was a relentless galloper who would appreciate three miles plus with plenty of give in the ground. However, Rebecca Curtis’s inmate improved plenty during the season to take the Reynoldstown Novice Chase at Ascot beating Many Clouds after a desperately bad run at Haydock when he scoped badly when pulled up just after halfway behind Taquin Du Seuil. Before that, he had finished second on chasing debut in a graduation chase at Ascot over two miles five furlongs behind Easter Day.
He then went onto Festival glory in the RSA Chase with an impressive performance where he and Smad Place both pulled clear from Morning Assembly. Considering he lost two shoes during the race whilst proving he can handle better ground which was the slight doubt about him before the race, it was a performance full of promise especially towards this upcoming season. Forget his Aintree run where he was probably over the top and the track looked too sharp for him. He looks an ideal type to start off in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in late November which should tell us whether he can make the jump into being Gold Cup class or whether the Grand National would be the ideal aim for this son of Oscar.
PORT MELON – 6 – Paul Nicholls
This son of Presenting already has a reputation of showing his quirky side on more than one occasion which included going for a swim in a lake before winning a Point to Point and also when dumping Daryl Jacob on the way to the start at Cheltenham, ending Jacob’s season prematurely.
In between those incidents, he showed plenty of promise when thrown in at the deep end on hurdling debut in a Grade Two at the Paddy Power meeting at Cheltenham when third behind Creepy and Timesremembered. Also worth noting is in the paddock that day, he looked a big raw baby who would grow into himself as time went on. After Cheltenham, he went to Aintree where they were always going a stride too quick for him on a track that didn’t suit so he can be forgiven for that effort on his second start under rules behind Beat That.
Chasing was always going to be where we saw the best of Port Melon and it will be interesting to see whether Paul Nicholls starts him off low key or even puts him into Graded company on chase debut. An early target which Nicholls tends to like with his better staying novices is the Worcester Novices’ Chase at Newbury’s Hennessy meeting having won it eight times with the likes of Shotgun Willy, Valley Henry and more recently Just A Par.
RUBEN COTTER – 8 – Paul Nicholls
We stay with the champion trainer’s yard for the next entry in Ruben Cotter who has a lack of experience over fences with just the four starts but has promised to be a smart handicapper. He started out like most of Nicholls’ horses do in the Point to Point field where he beat Dedigout at Dungarvan on his second start. His novice hurdle campaign didn’t entirely go to plan with defeats at Exeter, Chepstow and Haydock in the Albert Bartlett trial when beaten by the ill-fated Brindisi Breeze until he won a handicap at the end of the season at Exeter beating Water Garden by three and a half lengths.
His return the following season at the Open meeting didn’t go to plan on ground softer than ideal when a beaten favourite behind Double Ross in the Intermediate handicap hurdle that throws up some future superstars. Given an enforced break due to bad ground over the winter, he made his chasing debut at Doncaster over three and a quarter miles and won nicely from Vintage Star who proved himself to be a very useful staying handicap chaser last season. Things didn’t go to plan on his last start of the campaign when he fell at Wincanton around halfway.
The handicapper gave him a mark of 139 which looked lenient but he disappointed on his return to action at the Open meeting in the amateur riders handicap behind Handy Andy and was subsequently dropped five pounds for that effort before running a much better race on Hennessy day when third behind Tatenen over two miles six furlongs. He wasn’t seen after that but looks attractively handicapped for staying handicap chases on better ground so something like the Scottish National at the end of the season could be ideal.
THE GOVANESS – 5 – Fergal O’Brien
With some potential smart mares coming out this season, this daughter of Kayf Tara has showed considerable promise on all her appearances on a racecourse. She won on debut at Towcester at the back end of the 2012/13 campaign having travelled well throughout that contest to overturn a Nicky Henderson short price favourite.
Last season began at the October meeting at Cheltenham in an Open National Hunt bumper where she caught the eye when travelling ominously well before being hampered on the home turn before plugging on to finish fifth behind Carningli. She returned to Cheltenham back her own sex at the Paddy Power meeting in a weaker race and again showed how much of a strong traveller she is before going about her business in a professional style beating Lily Waugh and Legacy Gold who was giving weight away back in third.
She was then given a break before reappearing in the Aintree bumper where she ran a race full of credit trying to give the whole field weight when fourth behind Avispa only beaten four lengths, again after travelling like the winner. She will be a force to be reckoned with in mares novice hurdles and a step up in trip wouldn’t go amiss either having looked a strong finisher, most notably when she won at Cheltenham.
UN ACE – 5 – Kim Bailey
For a horse to be only eleven lengths eighth to the mighty Vautour in the Supreme on his second start over hurdles is a hugely commendable effort. Take Vautour out and he would only have been five lengths away from the runner up Josses Hill who then went onto win at Aintree impressively. Before that, he won on hurdling debut only in February at Doncaster where he beat Stellar Notion by eight lengths in impressive fashion before his run at the Festival.
He then disappointed at Aintree when stepped up trip behind Lac Fontana but there were excuses that day including a broken blood vessel and he was beaten before distance was an issue. Although he looks a chaser in the making, connections could be tempted by a handicap hurdle with a potentially lenient mark of 142 considering how close he was in the Supreme.
URBAN HYMN – 6 – Malcolm Jefferson
A horse that I have a big soft spot for and can only be described as a giant in Urban Hymn who made a promising impression on debut in a bumper at Huntingdon where he beat Mr Cardle by seven lengths. He began his hurdling career at Haydock over the fixed brush hurdles where he was beaten by a very useful type in Spirit Of Shankly at the Betfair Chase meeting over two and a half miles.
He returned in December over course and distance and was hugely impressive on desperate ground when making all the running and jumping superbly to win hard on the bridle by twenty lengths. Afterwards in the winners’ enclosure, he was hardly blowing which indicated the ease in which he won. He then stepped up to three miles for the first time at Doncaster in the River Don where he showed a true willingness to battle when just beating Blakemount in a fantastic finish although his jumping that day did leave a lot to be desired. Connections then took him to Cheltenham for the Albert Bartlett where he ran well until the top of the hill and then faded to finish seventh behind Very Wood in what was an attritional race with him and Kings Palace setting an unrelenting gallop. Novice chasing is the obvious plan for him and with his love of soft ground which he should get up north, he will win more than his fair share of races this season.
WILDE BLUE YONDER – 5 – Alan King
Alan King has plenty to look forward to for this upcoming season and when trying to find horses to fill this list, several emerged from his yard but Wilde Blue Yonder stood out for several reasons, not just because he remains a hugely exciting talent.
Although his novice hurdle form figures read 1FF54, you could argue both times he fell that they would have ended as wins at Newbury and Ascot. He started off his career as a promising bumper horse when second to Purple Bay at Doncaster before slightly disappointing in the Grade Two bumper at Aintree however he was slightly over the top on that occasion and was looked after by Wayne Hutchinson.
Before going hurdling, he began last season in a bumper at Uttoxeter where he was a very easy winner by thirteen lengths and galloped all the way to the line showing a hugely likeable attitude. His hurdling debut at Newbury highlighted his willingness in a battle when making a mess of the final flight before battling past the ill-fated Tiqris to win by a length from Seedling. His next two starts as mentioned earlier ended with him on the floor both times. The first was at Newbury on Challow day when still finding plenty against Stand To Reason when taking a crashing fall at the last. Ascot was a similar affair but before his fall he had quickened away from some useful novices on bad ground which was very impressive.
The two falls were both put down to a lack of concentration and he was well worth his place in the Supreme where he ran a race full of promise with his jumping standing up to the test when fifth behind Vautour staying on smartly up the hill. He ended his season at Aintree when he stepped up in trip to two and a half miles with a fine effort when fourth to Lac Fontana considering it probably wasn’t Robert Thornton’s finest hour at the end of the back straight when getting squeezed out. It was also possible that he was slightly over the top after a long season. He stays over hurdles this season and has a number of options open to him including handicaps with his mark of 145 or connections could decide to go straight into Graded company between two and two and a half miles.
WUFF – 6 – Tom George
This son of Beneficial looks to represent the future of Tom George’s stable after the retirement of Nacarat and won his only Point to Point at Dromahane in December 2012. His debut under rules was full of promise when second to Desoto County in a bumper over two miles at Haydock which was always going to be too short for him. He then stepped up in trip to two and a half miles on hurdles debut at Uttoxeter and although it was a workmanlike performance, he won going away from Allow Dallow.
His next start at Haydock again over two and a half miles was over the fixed brush hurdles and whilst on visual reflection he looked to make very hard work of it to just get up and beat Straidnahanna in dogged fashion, his jockey Paddy Brennan reported to connections that he was flat out the whole way and that a step up to three miles would be ideal. However on his only attempt at the distance he was very disappointing behind Toubeera back at Haydock on Grand National Trial day but the ground was atrocious that day and he is very much forgiven for one bad run. A horse that looks as though fences are made for him, he looks a promising staying novice who will no doubt be visiting the winners’ enclosure on several occasions this coming winter.
Which of the above (or perhaps one of your own) are you looking forward to seeing most this season? Let us know in the Comments below. JP