National Hunt Season Teaser With The Snout
Altior vs Douvan? Cue Card vs Thistlecrack? Apples Jade vs Vroum Vroum Mag? That’s right, head to your wardrobe and dust off your tweed, as the National Hunt 2017/18 season is just around the corner.
As much as the Flat season still has some big days to rattle off and plenty of Group races up for grabs in October, the Chepstow Jumps opener meeting that is typically seen as the curtain raiser for the season takes place this weekend. Trainers have already started to wheel their stars out for racecourse gallops and many will have already begun plotting their path to Spring Festival glory. We look at some key themes that could dominate over the first few months of the year in order to whet the appetite.
1. The big names return
Last year was plagued with many much-loved horses either being ruled out for an extended period of time or even in some cases we have unfortunately lost them all together. Many Clouds, rightly given the 2017 Horse of the Year award, lost his life after giving his all in a ding dong battle up the hill in the Cotswold Chase with Thistlecrack. Vautour, whose performances of his three Cheltenham Festival wins still send shivers down my spine whenever watching those replays. Unfortunately we will not get a chance to see Neon Wolf or Captain Forez return this year either, after suffering fatal injuries over the summer. This just serves as a stark reminder as to just how fragile these beasts are and we must cherish them whilst we can.
Plenty also missed out on the Spring Festivals last year through injury, and these who are returning to training this year have it all to prove. Thistlecrack is the biggest name in this cateogry and it will be intriguing to see just how well he comes back. Will he retain all of his ability? The early season vibes are good, however we won’t really know how this super-talented lightly raced horse is until we see him on the racecourse. His first aim will no doubt be the King George on Boxing Day.
2. Paul Nicholls seeks his flag-bearer
Denman, Kauto Star, even the likes of Silvianaco Conti, have all been multiple Grade 1 winners for Paul Nicholls, however after a period of transition, he is still looking for that horse that can catapult him back to competing in those top level races. Are there any he has that can do just that this year?
One of the more likely contenders is Politologue. He looked to have a Grade 1 in his sights approaching the final fence at Aintree in the 2m Novices’ Grade 1, but slipped on landing when in front and unfortunately came down. He was highly progressive last year and could be one that contests the top 2m chases this year. Expect to see him reappear in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter.
As for his Novices, Movewiththetimes was a highly progressive young hurdler last year, who put in a big performance when narrowly touched off by Ballyandy in the Betfair Hurdle. He was a big mover for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle but was ruled out through injury. Another young horse who could well be a big player in top Novice Chases’ this year is Topofthegame, who looked the perfect type to jump fences when we saw him last year. He could be appearing in some 2m Novice Chases over the coming months before targeting the likes of the Arkle or the JLT further down the line.
Paul has started the season fairly slowly in terms of runners but his strike rate is up there with some of his best years and expect him to farm those big prize money handicaps that he has done so well at through the years.
3. Willie vs Gordon
At around this time last year, Gigginstown removed all their horses from Willie Mullins’ care and sent the majority of them to Gordon Elliott’s yard, a move in which gave him a huge chance of securing the Irish Trainers Championship. Heading into the final few weeks of the year, and particularly the Punchestown Festival, Gordon was a long way clear. Without the likes of Annie Power and Faugheen, Mullins was still able to claw back his 400k deficit and regain his championship.
Elliott is a fierce competitor and will want to get his hands on that trophy. With the likes of Fayonagh already coming out and showing she means business this year, expect him to mount a serious challenge against the Master of Closutton.
4. The Million Pound Triple Crown Bonus
The Betfair Chase is just around a month away, and already trainers have put forward their stable stars to having a crack at the Triple Crown, consisting of winning the Betfair Chase, King George, and Gold Cup.
Sizing John is just a 2/1 chance to win the Betfair Chase, with Might Bite closely following him at 5/1 and he also heads the betting for the King George at 9/2.
5. One Eye on Cheltenham, Already?
One of the biggest match-ups in years could take place this season, with two of the highest ever rated Novice Chasers in Altior & Douvan both potentially going down the 2m Chase route this season. The Queen Mother betting is currently topped by Altior at 6/4 with Douvan at 10/3. That will be some spectacle for sure. Perhaps we may even see them in the Tingle Creek before the big Spring Festivals.
However, we cannot allow ourselves to get sucked into Cheltenham talk in October. There is so much fantastic racing to get stuck into over the coming months, including the seasoned handicappers that we have come to know so much about over the years, the top rated hurdlers making their transition to jumping fences, and the exciting novice hurdlers making their marks. The Winter months are ones to look forward to.