With the Cheltenham Festival getting closer, I have decided to do a Half Term Review on the twenty horses I put up back in September as ones to be followed throughout the 2014/15 National Hunt season. I will focus on what each horse has achieved so far and what we could expect to see if they make the Cheltenham Festival in March or indeed other targets.
By the time late October/early November materialised, the list was already depleted due to injuries picked up by O’Faolains Boy and Wilde Blue Yonder but hopefully they can return back to their best in the autumn of 2015. Others have yet to see the track this season including Abbyssial, Be Positive, Ruben Cotter and Wuff. I don’t know when we will see any of them although I do know Wuff’s in training at the moment having spoken to Tom George at Newbury races during the Hennessy meeting.
A category which for the most part has proven to be fairly successful with two Grade Two winners and another who stamped his authority at Wincanton recently. Blaklion was one of the first horses to go into the list due to his toughness when seeing him in the flesh win his bumper at Haydock and was the first winner for the piece when succeeding at Perth on debut in very workmanlike fashion. He was going to be sent off favourite for the opening contest of Cheltenham’s season but was withdrawn at the start in a race won by Vicente.
On the evidence of their next start at Chepstow, Blaklion would likely have won that day at Cheltenham as he won the Grade Two Persian War in tenacious style which showcased his preference for a stiffer test of stamina. He then returned to Cheltenham at the Paddy Power meeting where he met another horse to follow in Port Melon. However, both were outdone for speed by Parlour Games who was given an extremely confident ride by Barry Geraghty. Whatever way he’d been ridden that day, he was always going to be vulnerable to a rival who had a turn of foot; similar comments apply to his Challow Hurdle effort when third to the same rival but he certainly didn’t disgrace himself.
In between those runs, Blaklion undoubtedly put up his most impressive performance when stepping up to three miles in the Grade Two Albert Bartlett Trial at Cheltenham’s December meeting when dismissing Port Melon again in comprehensive fashion. On the evidence shown so far, he looks one of England’s leading hopes for the Albert Bartlett and his tough, likeable attitude will stand him in good stead.
Over in Ireland, No More Heroes has established himself to be one of the leading novice hurdlers. A bloodless success on his seasonal return at Punchestown over two mile six furlongs was then followed up when he lowered the colours of Punchestown Champion Bumper victor Shaneshill in the Grade Two Navan Novices Hurdle over a trip that would look to favour Willie Mullins horse more. He is currently favourite for the Albert Bartlett and the step up in distance would look to suit him there.
Fletchers Flyer ran in what looked a strong maiden hurdle at Ffos Las where he finished third behind Shantou Bob and Padge before building on that with a victory at Ascot where connections had concerns post-race with the way he hung to the right in the closing stages. That problem looked to be rectified with a dominant success at Wincanton where he went a really good gallop and won with his head in his chest. We will likely see him next at Haydock in their Albert Bartlett Trial and whilst he’s done his winning on soft ground, better ground won’t be any issue whatsoever in the spring. With his astute trainer, he could miss Cheltenham for the Punchestown Festival (I don’t think Aintree would suit his galloping nature) where he won his bumper last year.
The other two novice hurdlers Port Melon and The Govaness’ exploits haven’t exactly gone to plan. The former was put forward as a novice chaser to follow but Paul Nicholls decided to keep him over hurdles after a similar effort in the same race that he was third in behind Creepy twelve months ago. However, he didn’t progress for the step up to three miles on his next start again at Cheltenham behind Blaklion. A confidence booster would be the best way to go next with him.
The Govaness was beaten on debut due to an overconfident ride by Paddy Brennan at Ffos Las before travelling well at the Paddy Power meeting in the Sharp Novice Hurdle when finishing fourth to Vyta Du Roc. She then was fourth to Tara Point in a farce of a race. She has an enticing handicap mark of 120 and could potentially be one for the Mares Final over hurdles at Newbury in March.
I normally enjoy putting up potential novice chasers and next year’s list will be full of them but when keeping the list down to twenty, I seemed to forget this category! The two I did put up haven’t disgraced the list at all. Most notably Clarcam who won the Grade One Racing Post Novice Chase over Christmas claiming the notable scalp of Vautour by seventeen lengths although the original plan I had in mind, was to exploit his hurdles mark. He won on return over hurdles at Limerick before finishing runner up to Vautour on chasing debut at Navan. He then backed that effort up with a good win at Navan before his demolition job over Christmas. What is important to note is that he was getting a fair amount of weight which he won’t be getting in the Arkle, but he goes there with a solid chance.
My other novice chaser entry Un Ace had a race to forget on his chasing debut at Cheltenham when he fell at the third fence but made amends next time at Huntingdon when beating a useful yardstick in Chris Pea Green. He then followed up with an easy victory at Doncaster before a good second behind a very good novice in Champagne West back at Cheltenham. I don’t think he’ll be good enough to win a top novice chase at the Festival, but he wouldn’t disgrace himself wherever he turns up.
Two hurdlers made the list and both of them have only had one start apiece. Clondaw Court was another to make the list for a novice chase campaign but with his issues, he has been kept over hurdles and won easily at Thurles in the Rock Of Cashel beating a 115 rival. It’s hard to weigh up where he can go with his problems whilst my other horse Beat That seems to have had his fair share of issues since returning to Nicky Henderson’s last autumn. His return on New Year’s Day had plenty of promise as he travelled ominously well before blowing up on the turn for home. For the World Hurdle, he would likely need another run to give you confidence but the 12/1 NRNB with various bookmakers is tempting enough – if he was to make the race he would definitely go off shorter on the day.
The final category to cover is the chasers with all of them in their second season under rules with Mendip Express having plenty of experience in the Point to Point field. Harry Fry’s chaser looked to have a progressive profile over fences last season, before losing his form badly but had his reasons for doing so. He returned in a novice hurdle at Warwick to gain some confidence and that did the trick as he put in a smooth performance.
Fry then aimed him at the Becher Chase and he was given a superb ride in defeat by Will Biddick; he was fairly sticky over Aintree’s unique fences early on in the contest but once he warmed to the task, he crept into the race almost unnoticed in the final mile before finding Oscar Time just slightly better on the day. He should get an entry in the Grand National but his trainer’s comments included a warning about his ability to see out the distance. One thing he must do is go left handed with some cut in the ground and he could potentially be seen beforehand in something like the Grimthorpe at Doncaster.
You could argue that Balder Succes has been a bit of a disappointment so far this season but the reality is that two miles is too short for him now. He probably needed his comeback when a promising second in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter behind God’s Own before disappointing in the Tingle Creek when fourth to Dodging Bullets. He can be forgiven on account of the ground that day which he didn’t handle plus his jumping wasn’t as slick.
Before his next start at Kempton in the Desert Orchid, trainer Alan King was worried about whether two miles was his trip and Special Tiara confirmed those fears by setting a searching gallop and exposing his limitations when beating him. He was then stepped up to two and a half miles on Saturday at Kempton and looked a much happier horse over that distance when beating Fox Appeal convincingly. He may go for the Ryanair at the Festival but with his questionable record around Cheltenham, Aintree’s Melling Chase could suit him more.
Willie Mullins completes the list with Ballycasey and Djakadam who are both owned by Rich Ricci. The former started his season at Gowran Park with a comprehensive win over two and a half miles. He was then dropped to the minimum distance for the Dial-A-Bet Chase over Christmas at Leopardstown where he disappointed. He’s on a watching brief currently whilst Djakadam was sent off favourite for the Hennessy Gold Cup as a five year old. Although I had put him up as a horse to follow, the Hennessy wasn’t a race in mind and whilst he travelled strongly for most of the contest, inexperience and the lack of a prep run probably did for him in the end. His likely next port of call is the Thyestes on the 22 January and he will need a big performance to convince connections to go for either the Ryanair or the Cheltenham Gold Cup.