Autumn has arrived and that means attention is switching to the new National Hunt (jumps) season.
We can look forward to seeing the cream of hurdlers in action, including Buveur D’air, Faugheen, Defi Du Seuil, Melon and Apple’s Jade – plus top chasers like Finian’s Oscar, Un De Sceaux, Top Notch, Thistlecrack, Might Bite and Sizing John.
It’s horses such as these that will be expected to scoop the big prizes, over the coming months, but there are others that look more than capable of gatecrashing the parties. Here are our top 10, to watch out for…
#10 Brain Power (IRE)
Age: 6 (Foaled May 8th, 2011)
Sex: Bay Gelding
Breeding: Kalanisi (IRE) – Blonde Ambition (IRE) (Old Vic)
Trainer: N J Henderson
Owner: Michael Buckley
The Michael Buckley-owned gelding made his seasonal reappearance, at Cheltenham in November, looking very rusty in the G3 Greatwood Handicap Hurdle. Just 3 weeks later he was winning in Listed company at Sandown though and then produced one of his best performances to date – a 5-length defeat of Consul De Thaix in the Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle, at Ascot. Only Hargam went into the contest with a higher rating and getting the better of the likes of Golden Spear, Modus and Meet The Legend was impressive.
Nicky Henderson decided that the Cheltenham Champion Hurdle would be his next destination and the horse was well-backed. Brain Power raced keenly though and made various jumping errors. Of the 10 horses that made it home, only Cyrus Darius finished behind him. Henderson remained bullish, however, following this setback.
“I think he is a lot better than what he showed and we’re thinking about taking him back to Punchestown again after he ran so well there last year. Don’t give up on him.”
Indeed, he did run in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle and 5th place was a significant improvement. If Brain Power retains Henderson’s full backing, in the upcoming season, don’t be surprised if the Arkle is seen as the campaign’s big target.
#9 Our Duke (IRE)
Age: 7 (Foaled May 12th, 2010)
Sex: Bay Gelding
Breeding: Oscar (IRE) – Good Thyne Jenny (IRE) (Good Thyne (USA))
Trainer: Mrs J Harrington
Owner: Cooper Family Syndicate
If you don’t follow the action in Ireland, too closely, the amazing performances of Jessica Harrington’s gelding probably passed you by last season but he’s now seen as a genuine Cheltenham Gold Cup prospect – despite having yet to race on English soil.
A comfortable victory at Navan was followed by a narrow G1 success in the Neville Hotels Novice Chase, at Leopardstown. He returned to the Dublin venue, only to be beaten by Noel Meade’s Disko – one of the horses he had gotten the better of, in his previous outing.
Our Duke still began the Irish Grand National Chase (Fairyhouse) as favourite and fully justified market-support with a 14-length trouncing of Gordon Elliott’s Bless The Wings. Harrington now has a couple of serious 2018 Gold Cup contenders under her command, the other of course being last year’s winner Sizing John, but she was keen to keep both of her feet on the ground following Our Duke’s win in the Irish National.
“They’ve both got to get there first… but it probably is the obvious target and we’ll keep them apart until then.”
#8 Debuchet (FR)
Age: 4 (Foaled April 25th, 2013)
Sex: Grey Gelding
Breeding: Smadoun (FR) – (Royal Charter (FR))
Trainer: Ms M Mullins
Owner: Force Eight Syndicate
Mags Mullins’ charge is already seen as a serious Supreme Novices’ Hurdle prospect, following excellent performances in a quartet of 2017 contests. The grey gelding debuted at Naas, finishing over 5 lengths ahead of the even-money favourite Le Richebourg although behind the surprise winner Red Jack. Mullins sent him to Leopardstown and dominance over Le Richebourg was confirmed with a first win, by an even-more emphatic margin.
He found Fayonagh just a little too good, in the Champion Bumper, but it’s worth remembering that Gordon Elliott’s horse had one more race under her belt and Debuchet was only headed as the finish approached. He bowed-out with a 5-length victory over Joseph O’Brien’s Cornelius Sulla, in a Listed race at Limerick. Mullins is pleased with what she has seen so far.
“His bumper form has worked out well and he’s got to make the next step now.”
#7 Willoughby Court (IRE)
Age: 6 (Foaled June 7th, 2011)
Sex: Brown Gelding
Breeding: Court Cave (IRE) – Willoughby Sue (IRE) (Dabali (IRE))
Trainer: B Pauling
Owner: Paul & Clare Rooney
The 6-year-old really came into his own, during the second-half of the previous campaign. There were two victories, at Warwick, the second of which was in G2 company. Geordie Des Champs was very disappointing, in that encounter, but Willoughby Court’s 8-length defeat of Evan Williams’ Gayebury was still impressive.
Few gave him much of a chance in the Neptune, at Cheltenham, though. This was expected to be a duel between Neon Wolf and Bacardys, but (with Willie Mullins’ charge soon out of contention) the race turned into a battle of wills between Willoughby Court and race favourite Neon Wolf. Harry Fry’s horse was very game, but Willoughby Court hung on by a head and won the G1 encounter at a handsome price (14/1).
Sadly, Neon Wolf is no longer with us, following a freak accident at the stable last month. Ben Pauling intends to take Willoughby Court chasing, in the forthcoming campaign, with low-key races at Huntingdon and Bangor earmarked for the horse’s education over fences. If all goes well, we could see him line-up for the JLT at Cheltenham in 2018. Should fences not be to his liking, then the Stayers Hurdle is a possible plan B.
#6 Fayonagh (IRE)
Age: 6 (Foaled April 6th, 2011)
Sex: Bay Mare
Breeding: Kalanisi (IRE) – Fair Ina (IRE) (Taipan (IRE))
Trainer: G Elliott
Owner: Mrs M Gittins
The Kalanasi-sired mare gave very little indication of what was to come, when finishing 8th of 22 runners in a modest flat race for mares at Cork. That led to her starting as a 33/1 outsider, at Naas, but she was never headed after taking the lead 3 furlongs from home. Moves to both Gordon Elliott’s yard and Listed company at Fairyhouse were taken in her stride and Sassy Diva was thrashed by 20 lengths (with race favourite Miss Sapphire a further 15 lengths in arrears).
A tilt at the Champion Bumper was inevitable and even though a poor start left her with plenty to do in the final couple of furlongs, she showed true grit – overcoming Debuchet in the final few yards. An outstanding campaign was topped-off with victory in the Racing Post Champion I.N.H. Flat Race, where Fayonagh made all and scored comfortably.
“She’ll have a nice holiday and go jumping next year.”, said a delighted Elliott, after the race. She’s already among RaceBets’ ante-post favourites for the 2018 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and looked anything but rusty, when winning at Fairyhouse on her seasonal reappearance on Saturday.
*Fayonagh sadly passed-away, shortly after this piece was published.
#5 American (FR)
Age: 7 (Foaled March 26th, 2010)
Sex: Bay Gelding
Breeding: Malinas (GER) – Grande Sultane (FR) (Garde Royale)
Trainer: H Fry
Owner: The Jago Family Partnership
American only raced 3 times, during the last campaign, but was immaculate throughout. The first victory came at Exeter where he made all to beat the likes of Label Des Obeaux, Vieux Lille and favourite Missed Approach. American was stepped-up to Listed company, at Warwick, where connections of Champers On Ice were forced to put the bubbly back in the fridge as the French horse was a comfortable winner.
Harry Fry then took him handicapping and Rock The Kasbah was soundly beaten in a Class 2 contest at Uttoxeter, despite receiving 6lb from the Malinas-sired gelding. The win will only have provided a degree of consolation to connections, as they had hoped to see him in the RSA Chase earlier in the week (the ground was too firm).
“Something like the Hennessy could be for him, we will be looking at all those sorts of races. Hopefully the handicapper won’t get too carried away.”, said Fry following the Uttoxeter win. The King George VI Chase (Boxing Day, at Kempton) could well be another target.
#4 Balko Des Flos (FR)
Age: 6 (Foaled March 16th, 2011)
Sex: Chestnut Gelding
Breeding: Balko (FR) – Royale Marie (FR) (Garde Royale)
Trainer: H de Bromhead
Owner: Gigginstown House Stud
While he’s still only a 6-year-old, he’s no stranger to Cheltenham having competed at the Gloucestershire festival in both 2016 and 2017. He was a 40/1 shot, for the 2016 Albert Bartlett, but finished an encouraging 5th of 19 runners.
Henry de Bromhead’s inmate already had 3 victories to his name, at that stage, but had to wait until New Year’s Day (2017) at Fairyhouse before scoring again and that was just a beginners chase with 3 finishers. 3rd place in the G1 Flogas Novice Chase (Leopardstown), where Bellshill was a faller, looked to be excellent preparation for Cheltenham and he led the JLT before falling 4 fences from home.
Balko Des Flos comfortably got the better of Willie Mullins’ Shaneshill, in the €250,000 Galway Plate, to round-off a season that left pundits somewhat divided on how high the ceiling is for this Gigginstown horse.
“He’s already a proven winter horse, he won his beginners’ chase at Fairyhouse in January so we’ll see now if he can go to the next level.”, said de Bromhead after the Galway win. The 2018 Ryanair Chase might well be in the crosshairs.
#3 Movewiththetimes (IRE)
Age: 6 (Foaled March 12th, 2011)
Sex: Chestnut Gelding
Breeding: Presenting – Dare To Venture (Darazari (IRE))
Trainer: P F Nicholls
Owner: Mr John P McManus
This Presenting-sired horse won on debut, at Wincanton, keeping on well to see off Cruisaweigh in what was his only NH flat race. Movewiththetimes first crack at hurdling was also a success and the 2-length defeat of Azzerti was a great deal more comfortable than 2-lengths would seem to suggest.
This eye-catching progress came to an abrupt end in the G2 Cheltenham Supreme Trial Novices’ Hurdle, where just about everything went wrong. He was keen under Barry Geraghty, before blundering at the first flight. Later in the race he was both hampered and carried left, finishing 5th of 6 in a contest where he looked capable of pushing winner Moon Racer all the way to the winning-post had he been in a better frame of mind and if luck had not deserted the Paul Nicholls-trained gelding.
A straightforward victory at Wincanton followed and a narrow defeat by Ballyandy (who was 1lb better-off), in G3 handicap company at Newbury, showed huge improvement. The performance of both runners led to them being considered serious Supreme Novices’ Hurdle contenders, but a pulled muscle put paid to Movewiththetimes’ hopes and Nicholls was unable to get him right for either Aintree or Punchestown.
Ballyandy finished 4th of 14, in the Supreme – somewhat disappointing, although it could be said in his defence that he was not getting the rub of the green over the first mile. You’ll find tempting odds on Movewiththetimes, for the 2018 Arkle right now, but the price will surely crash if he can put the injury setback behind him and continue to progress.
#2 Sutton Place (IRE)
Age: 6 (Foaled April 11th, 2011)
Sex: Bay Gelding
Breeding: Mahler – Glebe Beauty (IRE) (Good Thyne (USA))
Trainer: G Elliott
Owner: John P McManus
Gordon Elliott’s Mahler-sired gelding has proved himself a formidable opponent, since debuting at Navan as a 50/1 outsider and finishing 3rd of 28 runners. He then won no less than 5 races in a row, beginning with an easy victory at Fairyhouse.
Following over 300 days off the track, he returned with a 6.5-length defeat of Royal Caviar in the Listed Kingsfurze Novice Hurdle (Naas) and though Willie Mullins’ charge got a lot closer to him in a G2 encounter at Fairyhouse, 2 months later, Sutton Place was starting to attract a great deal of attention in Ireland.
He was sent-off as an odds-on favourite, for the G2 Boyne Hurdle (Navan) and though Barry Geraghty did have to keep Sutton Place honest the JP McManus-owned horse asserted well after the final flight and De Plotting Shed could find no answer.
Elliott had seen enough to test him in an elite race and he lined-up against the likes of Unowhatimeanharry, Lil Rockerfeller and Nichols Canyon for the Champion Stayers Hurdle at Punchestown. Sutton Place was making eye-catching progress, as they jumped the 3rd from home, but Mark Walsh quickly realised something was amiss and pulled him up.
Slight lameness was diagnosed and the fact that the ground (good to yielding) was the firmest the horse had ever competed on will obviously make many punters hesitate before backing him in good conditions, but Sutton Place still goes into the new season as a major player. Along with brilliant stablemate, Apple’s Jade, he’s one that could be aimed at the 2018 Cheltenham Stayers Hurdle.
#1 Constantine Bay
Age: 6 (Foaled April 15th, 2011)
Sex: Bay Gelding
Breeding: Kayf Tara – Alina Rheinberg (GER) (Waky Nao)
Trainer: N J Henderson
Owner: Grech & Parkin
Nicky Henderson’s inmate certainly hit the ground running, winning on debut at Haydock before comprehensively outclassing Prime Venture at Chepstow. His first real test came at Doncaster, in the G2 River Don Novices’ Hurdle. The race ended with a spectacular duel between Constantine Bay and Dan Skelton’s No Hassle Hoff and the Kayf Tara-sired runner was the one who wanted victory just that little bit more.
Henderson then pitched him into the Cheltenham Albert Bartlett, a race that featured the likes of Death Duty, The Worlds End, Augusta Kate, Monalee and Wholestone. Constantine Bay was travelling very-well and handily-placed, as he cleared the 2nd-last, but plunged into the guts of The Worlds End’s nasty fall and had to take evasive action. Any chance of victory was lost, but he stayed on well to finish 4th.
Henderson then took him to Aintree, for the G1 Sefton Novices’ Hurdle. The horse clearly didn’t fancy it on that day and Nico de Boinville was hard at work almost as soon as the contest was underway. Incredibly, Constantine Bay still managed to stay in touch and only finished 1.5 lengths behind the winner (none other than The World’s End, ironically).
If Henderson has got him right again, he’ll win some big races in the upcoming season and if he takes to fences then a tilt at the Cheltenham RSA Chase looks quite likely.
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