With Chepstow’s two day meeting (the start of the season proper in the writer’s opinion) on the horizon and having not done a piece of writing in this ilk for a while due to numerous factors, the time felt right to pen something. Something a little different.
Over the past couple of years, horses to follow pieces for the National Hunt season have gathered a fair old momentum with more emerging each year. Therefore, instead of doing a typical list of ten horses, I thought of doing it the other way around in identifying horses that could potentially be opposed throughout the upcoming months for various reasons. Having thought vaguely about this idea last year and discussed it with a couple of people, the past couple of months have seen it come to fruition. Had I done a list last season, it would have contained A Toi Phil who won four times in the season and actually proved to have a good attitude (which hadn’t looked so likely at Cheltenham & Punchestown in 2016) so the potential is there for one or two of these to prove my pre-season thoughts to be completely wrong.
In all honesty, I expect most of the ten listed below to win races throughout the season but, for betting purposes, the majority are likely to be overbet due to certain factors surrounding them.
A few things that must be noted before scrolling down the list.
1. This piece is in no way trying to insult any horse or any connections involved.
2. I have included ten horses ranging from novice hurdlers to the other end of the scale in handicap chasers. Each of them are from different stables to ensure a lack of bias towards particular trainers. Gordon Elliott is conspicuous by his absence due to having little willing to be taken on that has solid form in the book – the only horse that was considered was Death Duty as he could potentially be over-hyped again in what looks a strong novice chasing division. The horses are also listed in alphabetical order – despite being stronger on some in the list – to keep an impartial view.
3. A couple of the selections will clash with horses put up in the recently published Jumps Guide Annual, by Grant and Lee and some of their contributors, but that’s what the game is all about. A difference of opinions.
I hope you enjoy this unique take on the upcoming season.
1. Ballyandy – Nigel Twiston-Davies
There’s no doubt that trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies will be his usual bullish self when talking about stable stars pre-season, including The New One and this former Champion Bumper winner who both will be near the top of the pile. It would be very unfair to place the former in a list of this nature at his current stage of life, but Ballyandy more than warrants his place in my opinion.
His bumper season saw him race often enough with six starts, winning four of them, and only one of them coming under Listed level (his debut which he won at Worcester) with his trainer not shy to send the horse to the well more than was possibly required. Sent novice hurdling, the feeling left from the campaign is rather underwhelming. He chased home Moon Racer on his first two starts at both Perth and in a Grade 2 at Cheltenham’s November meeting but the form of the latter contest worked out poorly on the whole, apart from Ballyandy himself and Movewiththetimes dominating the Betfair Hurdle. He finished off 2016 with another placed effort behind Messire Des Obeaux at Sandown when tackling 2m4f (that form admittedly looking a lot stronger with Alan King’s gelding proving a very reliable yardstick as the season progressed.).
Given a mark of 135 for the Betfair Hurdle, he finally delivered his one and only win of the campaign when getting the better of Movewiththetimes, but that rival seemed to throw the prize away by wanting to lug in behind. Subsequently, he was sent off 3/1jf for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle where very little went right under a poor ride from Sam Twiston-Davies, which included clipping heels in the early stages and being shuffled back at vital points, but he ultimately proved not to be good enough when beaten over 10 lengths into fourth by Labaik.
Before finishing this piece, he made his chasing debut at Perth where he jumped okay and beat Fagan by a length (which he was entitled to do considering he was receiving 6lb) but, while he will definitely have his supporters for the upcoming season, he looks the type that is likely to prove vulnerable when coming up against real Graded class opposition. There could also be the argument that there is little improvement to come as a couple of his relations, most notably Megastar, were decent bumper horses before failing to go and fulfil their potential as National Hunt horses.
2. Cause Toujours – Dan Skelton
Last season’s Champion Bumper will feature a couple of times in the piece with two completely different types of horse making the list. Apart from the winner, Fayonagh, who looks an exceptional talent, and the runner-up Debuchet, the initial viewpoint taken is a pretty negative one and one of the disappointments of the race was the favourite Cause Toujours, who features in the Jumps Guide Annual publication, who has a few questions to answer.
He arrived at the Cheltenham Festival with a lofty reputation following success on his only start at Warwick last December by seven lengths but the race could not have worked out worse with nothing at the time having come out and remotely given the form a boost (The only two winners to come out of it being the fourth Whatmore and a horse that was pulled up in Stealing Mix winning mediocre contests over timber after March).
Connections also raised question marks about whether it was the right decision, trainer Dan Skelton stating he would only run if the ground turned up soft at one stage, but they took their chance with the gelding sent off favourite at 9/2. Having travelled powerfully through the contest, once push came to shove, he found little for pressure and faded to finish ninth.
An effort in the Champion Bumper can definitely be forgiven, young horses tending to lack the experience for a race of that nature, but this may well be overplayed when it comes to a horse with a profile like Cause Toujours. The other concern is whether he may lack substance over style, a point that will crop up throughout, especially with what he found off the bridle at Cheltenham, so it will be interesting to see how he progresses through the early part of the season. In his defence, it could be proven that he is seen to best effect on flatter tracks.
Similar comments also apply to another leading fancy from the same contest in Carter McKay, but he would definitely be one who has a questionable attitude. Especially having tried to prove capable of flying with a tail whirling round like a helicopter and having gone backwards at both spring festivals once fully asked for an effort.
3. Clan Des Obeaux – Paul Nicholls
Paul Nicholls will be eagerly relishing the chance to regain his title back from Nicky Henderson and to win it for an 11th time. That said it will be a tough assignment, even for a trainer of Nicholls’ quality, with him lacking the top notch firepower that currently resides in Seven Barrows (no pun intended).
One horse that connections hope showcases the ability they believe he has is Clan Des Obeaux, a son of Kapgarde, who had a mixed campaign as a novice chaser last season. Getting the four-year-old weight for age allowance was always an incentive to send him chasing rather than spend another season over hurdles, he looked in need of his first outing at Chepstow, a trait that tends to repeat itself year on year with the yard’s horses, before bolting up in a Grade 2 at Newbury’s Hennessy (no longer) meeting.
That performance sent plenty into overdrive. Sean Bowen came out with the “best I’ve ever ridden” quote and the media asking the question “had we seen the next Denman?”. Firstly, Bowen has limited experience with top class horses so that kind of comment can be questioned and, secondly, the latter was a quite simply ludicrous comparison. A precocious four-year-old French-bred compared to a work in progress from the point-to-point field who went onto true greatness. Add in the fact the race completely fell apart with one of his main rivals, One Track Mind, beaten after jumping one fence, the others not appearing to run their races, and there’s an argument to be made that the performance was vastly overrated which the rest of his season seemed to prove. Style over substance…
New Year’s Day saw him sent off a warm favourite for the Dipper Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham, when his vulnerability against a determined Whisper was borne out with the slog from the second last fence where he pitched on landing and allowed his rival past. His ugly trait came to the fore in the Scilly Isles at Sandown when coming on and off the bridle throughout the race before seeming to lack the heart to go between rivals going down to the Pond Fence and ultimately faded away to disappoint once again behind Top Notch. A “confidence-boosting” success at Exeter set him up for the Future Champions at Ayr where, once again, he let his supporters down with a fairly lacklustre display.
Despite him only being a five-year-old, supposedly having a ton of improvement to come, and the fact he will prove popular in ante-post markets for all the big handicaps early season, the feeling is that he will prove to be an enigma once again, especially on undulating courses. His trainer has stated recently that he still needs minding and that graduation chases are on the agenda which doesn’t give me a good feeling about his future.
4. Charli Parcs – Nicky Henderson
If there was a horse during the previous National Hunt season that an opinion changed so dramatically in the shape of a couple of weeks, then Charli Parcs would win the award hands down.
From looking one of the most exciting talents to emerge in the 2m hurdling division, the space of a few weeks saw those thoughts go up in smoke. Bought for a hefty amount by JP McManus at the Arqana sale last November with trainer Nicky Henderson bemoaning his lack of decent juvenile hurdlers – a group the veteran handler has excelled with over the years – he made a quite spellbounding debut at Kempton when disposing of Master Blueyes in the manner of a top-class individual.
Prominent in both the Supreme and Triumph Hurdle markets afterwards, his next start at the same track in the Adonis Hurdle was a complete 180 on what was witnessed over Christmas. Coming off the bridle surprisingly early and looking beat, he made up a fair amount of ground to tackle the aforementioned Master Blueyes when falling two out. At the time, I was in the minority camp believing he would have kept finding for pressure but I had to revise that after the Triumph Hurdle, where his effort off the bridle was somewhat limited when urged for a response by Noel Fehily.
It wouldn’t be the biggest of surprises if the murmurs from Seven Barrows over the next couple of weeks were exceedingly strong as he shows plenty on the gallops but, on what we saw on his last two starts, it could well be the case that he is a morning glory and won’t replicate it on the track when asked to come off the bridle (as much as I’d want him to prove me completely wrong).
5. Melon – Willie Mullins
Unquestionably the most talked about/hyped horse going into last year’s Cheltenham Festival, Melon had been all the rage since the summer of 2016 but clearly isn’t the most robust having already met with a couple of setbacks during his time at Closutton.
Bought after a couple of promising efforts on the Flat in France – which included a win at Moulins over 1m4f – his eagerly anticipated debut came at the Irish Champion Hurdle meeting at Leopardstown where he won his maiden hurdle in pretty impressive fashion but did he warrant his price thereafter for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle? Eventually he was sent off as the joint favourite on the day with Ballyandy and, for a horse with his supposed inexperience, ran an excellent race to be runner-up to the enigmatic Labaik having travelled strongly throughout before finding the grey too strong.
The pair met again at Punchestown, where Ruby Walsh’s tactics pre-race to force a standing start worked a treat with Labaik planting himself at the start. However, that tactic went out the window when engaging in a battle from a long way out with Grade 1 winner Pingshou, which left the pair vulnerable to a closer in the shape of his stable companion Cilaos Emery who grabbed them both late on.
It looks likely another season over hurdles will be the plan but, while the hurdling scene in Ireland looks sparse, a couple of factors make me question him. Of course, there’s the clear argument that he only had three outings as a novice so there will be something to work on but, while he turned up at Cheltenham off the back of one outing, the Mullins yard use schooling races to determine their best novices so it is impossible to believe Melon turned up having amounted such little experience. The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle form from last season, on the whole, doesn’t begin to compare to recent years and, if he is to go down the Champion Hurdle route, he would have to find a fair amount of improvement to trouble Buveur D’air and co. Also, as mentioned in the introduction, his fragility may come back to haunt him with his trainer not having the best of records with keeping horses totally sound.
6, Petit Mouchoir – Henry De Bromhead
Petit Mouchoir has always had a fairly tall reputation since winning his point-to-point and the Goffs Land Rover Bumper for Gordon Elliott back in 2015 before spending his novice hurdle campaign with Willie Mullins with two placed efforts at the highest level.
Last season saw him move to Henry De Bromhead after Gigginstown House Stud fell out with Mullins but, for this horse in particular, this could have come as a blessing in disguise as he proved to be a stable star for his new yard. A solid return behind Rashaan and Apple’s Jade when not given a particularly hard time at Down Royal at the end of October set him up for the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, which he should have won but for falling when hard on the bridle at the third last.
Despite the heavy fall, it didn’t seem to knock his confidence as he produced a career best at Leopardstown over Christmas when given an extremely positive ride by Bryan Cooper to outjump and see off Nichols Canyon with a fair amount of ease. Those tactics were adopted once again when pressured more for the lead by the same rival and it was very pleasing to see him show plenty of guts compared to the class of his Christmas success.
His last run came in the Champion Hurdle where he essentially set the race up from the front for the stalkers in the shape of Buveur D’air and My Tent Or Yours so to finish third was an excellent effort.
Whilst I’m a fan of the horse and thought he was capable of going very close in the Champion Hurdle, a novice chasing campaign may come a season too late for him to fulfil his potential over fences.
The original plan after Down Royal last season was to go over the larger obstacles so the late change has to raise some questions (likely reason was the 2m hurdling division having very few credible contenders for top honours) and while De Bromhead has had notable success with one Sizing Europe, who spent plenty of time over timber before proving top class as a chaser, the pair wouldn’t exactly compare much. Sizing Europe had that controlled aggression which made him a thrill to watch over fences, whereas Petit Mouchoir is more headstrong and arguably harder to control which could make him a risky proposition despite his trainer having a knack with his chasers.
Another point that makes me wary of him as a chaser is the record of his sire Al Namix. His most notable progeny to go chasing included the likes of Saphir Du Rheu, Grandouet & Solix who, at some stage of their career, all had jumping issues.
7. Ramses De Teillee – David Pipe
The past couple of seasons have seen a slump for David Pipe and his team, in both quality and quantity, with very little to shout about other than Un Temp Pour Touts winning the same handicap two years on the bounce at the Cheltenham Festival and Vieux Lion Rouge’s successful campaign leading up to last season’s Grand National.
Rated 122, this horse has a profile typical to many from the yard who turn up at Cheltenham in November for the conditional jockeys handicap hurdle, a meeting the Pipes love to target, but the son of Martaline is yet to win a race in five outings and hasn’t appeared the most resolute in a fight. Key examples of this include his second at Doncaster to Chelsea Flyer, when looking wayward in the closing stages, and on his last start at Fontwell when a close up third to Workbench having been given every chance to go past.
At the time of writing, he is declared to run at Newton Abbot tomorrow which looks a more than winnable race but I’d err on the side of caution.
8. Thistlecrack – Colin Tizzard
A star that needs no introduction but is likely to cause a fair amount of surprise being added to such a list. In all honesty, it would be fantastic to see the horse at his imperious best, as he showed in the King George last year, but a couple of factors strain the enthusiasm for this happening.
Wind the clock back 12 months and connections made the difficult decision to send him over fences having looked a cut above all opposition when dominating the staying hurdle division throughout the 2015-2016 season. Fast forward to the start of 2017 and that decision, at the current time, had proved to be justified as he went unbeaten in four starts, including when he stepped out of novice company to take the King George on Boxing Day which was a stunning display to defeat stable companion Cue Card.
Problems began to emerge little over a month after that success when he met his first defeat since April 2015 at the hands of the gutsy and ill-fated Many Clouds in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham’s Trials Day fixture. That was followed by him being ruled out of the remainder of the season due to a slight tendon tear when being built up towards a crack at the Gold Cup itself in March.
These issues are the main concerns regarding whether he can return in tip-top condition. Tendon injuries are harder to return from compared to a fracture (Douvan a good recent example who returns this autumn) with them needing plenty of time to heal up properly and there has to be the thought that pushing himself so hard against Many Clouds could potentially bottom him out. Also, the earliest connections have mentioned him making a return would be back at Kempton where he potentially faces the toughest assignment of his whole career with top second season chaser Might Bite and this year’s Gold Cup hero Sizing John.
9. Vintage Clouds – Sue Smith
Staying handicap chasers are horses that I tend to look for as ones to follow with the hope that they will make up into Grand National contenders – my favourite race on the entire calendar – and while Vintage Clouds looks to have the perfect profile with what appears a very tempting handicap mark, he showed enough in his novice chase career to warrant an appearance in this piece.
One that I was fairly keen on making an impact over fences this time 12 months ago, he shaped well on his first couple of starts at Carlisle and Haydock to the eye but showed the first signs of looking a horse that was potentially tripless when a beaten favourite by stable companion Delusionofgrandeur at Catterick last December, tackling 3m for the first time.
Having shaped over shorter as though he would relish the step up in distance, he ran a similar race by getting behind before staying on into second. Similar happened on his handicap debut in the Peter Marsh at Haydock as he fell at the third last when beginning to plug on through beaten horses before a repeat of the same dose when finishing third over a half mile further at the same track in the Grand National Trial when third, beaten over 20 lengths by Vieux Lion Rouge.
Another fall at the Cheltenham Festival when admittedly closer than he had been in races at the second last in the Ultima before disappointing when fancied to go well in the Scottish National at Ayr, only finishing seventh to Vicente. When looking at some of those big staying handicap chases over the winter months, he is guaranteed to head a lot of lists but he remains a novice for a reason and he could struggle once again. Another potential example could be Potter’s Legend for the Lucy Wadham team as he threatened to land a decent pot last season but his jumping let him down last season on more than one occasion.
10. Western Ryder – Warren Greatrex
The inclusion of Western Ryder does appear a tad harsh considering he proved himself to be very likeable as a bumper horse but, on reflection, it feels the right decision.
Having made the perfect start to his career when bolting up in a bumper at Ffos Las in May 2016, he looked an awkward ride when beaten by Infinite Sun at odds on in November at Market Rasen before improving tenfold to land a Listed bumper at Ascot just before Christmas.
That performance marked him out as being one of the UK’s leading hopes for the Champion Bumper and his effort at Newbury the month before when trying to give Nicky Henderson’s Daphne Du Clos the fillies and WFA allowance of 21lb was extremely commendable. With that in mind, his Cheltenham performance appeared slightly disappointing when only fifth to Fayonagh but that performance could arguably be as good as he is. His final effort of the season came at Aintree when third to Lalor having travelled up powerfully.
He is expected to make a strong impact in the novice hurdle division but one factor that is off-putting towards his progression this campaign is his trainer’s modus operandi; bumper horses tending more often than not to be drilled to either win or go very close first time out before very few seeming to progress in the manner typically expected once they go novice hurdling.