Donn's Articles » Ten To Follow

Ten To Follow

If you are a National Hunt racing fan, this is your time of year. Standing on the verge, the new season stretching out before you to March and beyond; champions lurking among the hopefuls, awaiting coronation; hope bursting forth from every corner of every stable yard in the land with a horse and a National Hunt licence. You could argue that the anticipation is more enjoyable than the fulfillment. In a sense, the anticipation is the enjoyment.

No Kauto Star this year, the quintuple King George hero eventually succumbed to the inevitable prod from Father Time and accepted the gold watch. This year, the early season anticipatory headlines have been dominated by youngsters: Sir Des Champs (Gold Cup), Sprinter Sacre (Champion Chase), Boston Bob (RSA Chase), Simonsig (Arkle, probably). Here are 10 more who may be worth watching as the season evolves.

Arvika Ligeonniere
Trainer: Willie Mullins

A hugely exciting novice hurdler three seasons ago, it was always as a steeplechaser that Arvika Ligeonniere was going to make his mark. Off the track for over two years after he won a novices’ hurdle at Punchestown in April 2010, the Willie Mullins-trained gelding made his chasing bow back at Punchestown last May, when he put in a consummate round of jumping for a debutant, making all the running and beating some potentially useful rivals without breaking sweat. He has obviously had his problems, but he is only seven, he still has time on his side and, although he had the pace to win over two miles over hurdles, he could prove to be top class if he is stepped up in trip over fences.

Trainer: Nicky Henderson

Nicky Henderson thought enough of the hitherto unbeaten Darlan to pitch him into one of the most competitive handicap hurdles on the calendar, the Betfair Hurdle, on just his fifth ever run at Newbury last February. Unfazed by his relative inexperience, he jumped well, and arrived there at the second last flight travelling really well for AP McCoy, but he got the obstacle all wrong and took a crashing fall.

He bounced back from that mis-hap to finish a staying-on second in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, and he rounded off last season with a thoroughly impressive display to land the Top Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree. JP McManus’s horse will have to step forward again this term if he is to develop into a genuine Champion Hurdle contender, but that is more than possible. He is only five, and he has bundles of scope for progression.

First Lieutenant
Trainer: Mouse Morris

Winner of the Neptune Hurdle at the 2011 Cheltenham Festival, First Lieutenant was one of the top staying novice chasers in Ireland last season, despite the fact that he won just two of the seven races that he contested.

It may have been that the Gigginstown House horse was just out-stayed by Bobs Worth in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham last March, but he ran a cracker to finish second to Kauto Stone in the Champion Chase at Down Royal last Saturday on ground that should have been softer than ideal for him. He should be even better back on better ground, possibly over a slightly shorter trip and possibly going the other way around. It may be that the owner’s own race, the Ryanair Chase, over an extended two and a half miles, will be the race for First Lieutenant at Cheltenham this year.

Trainer: Peter Casey

Flemenstar makes his seasonal debut in the Fortria Chase at Navan today, embarking on a road that could lead all the way to the Cheltenham Gold Cup next March.

Peter Casey’s gelding stamped himself as one of the most progressive young chasers in training last season, winning his last five races, including the Arkle Chase at Leopardstown and the Powers Gold Cup at Fairyhouse. He proved in the latter contest that he stayed at least two and a half miles and that he could handle good ground and, a point-to-point winner, if he can stay three miles under Rules, he could be a massive player this term.

Glam Gerry
Trainer: Colm Murphy

Glam Gerry put up a career-best when finishing best of all to take third place behind Salut Flo in the Byrne Group Plate over two and a half miles at Cheltenham last March.

Barry Connell’s horse warmed up for this season by winning the October Maiden on the flat at Navan last month – a race that has featured top class National Hunt horses like Back In Front, Macs Joy, Sweet Kiln, Magnanimity and Hardy Eustace in recent years – when he had Go Native behind him in third place. Colm Murphy has entered him in the Racing Post Hurdle at Cheltenham next Sunday, which is interesting, but it is as a two-and-a-half-to-three-mile handicap chaser that he is of most interest for now.

Trainer: Jessica Harrington

Jenari put up a fine performance to come from the back and land a hot beginners’ chase at Naas 10 days ago. A high-class two-and-a-half-mile novice hurdler last season, the Jessica Harrington-trained gelding’s jumping on his chasing bow was accurate and fluent, he made his ground easily over the last two fences and he stayed on well under just a hands-and-heels ride from Robbie Power to win well. He has the pace for two miles, but he should be even better when he steps up in trip, and he could be a generally under-rated horse in some of the top novice chases.

On His Own
Trainer: Willie Mullins

On His Own was travelling really well in last year’s Grand National when he fell at Becher’s Brook second time. Becher’s Brook second time is still a long way from home in the National, and it is impossible to know how he would have fared had he not fallen, but he had been clever up to that point, he had jumped the big fences well, and there is every chance that he would have been involved in the finish.

An impressive winner of the Thyestes Chase last January, it is probable that Willie Mullins will protect his handicap mark until the Grand National weights are published, so we are unlikely to see much of him before next February. He will be the perfect age for the Grand National next April, and he could be a leading player in the race.

Oscars Well
Trainer: Jessica Harrington

It is remarkable to think that, when Oscars Well won his beginners’ chase at Punchestown 10 days ago, he was winning for the first time since he won the Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown in February 2011. A high-class hurdler who basked in a rating of 160, he could be an even better chaser in time. He jumped his fences fluently and easily at Punchestown, and he could make up into a top class novice chaser this term. Two and a half miles could be his optimum trip.

Peddlers Cross
Trainer: Donald McCain

Runner-up to Hurricane Fly in the 2011 Champion Hurdle, it looked like Peddlers Cross was going to develop into a high-class chaser last season when he won his first two races over the larger obstacles, but he was well beaten by Sprinter Sacre at Kempton last December and he ran no race in the Jewson Chase at Cheltenham after a less-than-ideal preparation.

Donald McCain intends to return the son of Oscar to the smaller obstacles this season, and that makes him really interesting. Winner of the Neptune Hurdle over two and a half miles as a novice, there is every chance that he will be even better over longer distances this term than he was over two miles and, if he can recover his form from two seasons ago, he could be a top class staying hurdler this term.

Trainer: Dermot Weld

It was good to see Waaheb make a winning debut over hurdles at Fairyhouse three weeks ago. A high-class bumper horse, he was racing for the first time in almost 18 months at Fairyhouse. His jumping was far from fluent early on and the winning time was not good, but he warmed to his task nicely, he won the race well, and he should be even better with this experience under his belt. A son of Elusive Quality, he should be even better on better ground, and he could take a high rank among this season’s novice hurdlers.

© The Sunday Times, 11th November 2012