Donn's Articles » National Hunt season look-ahead

National Hunt season look-ahead

The clocks went back last night, which means three things: an extra hour in bed, darker evenings and the dawning of a new National Hunt season. As ever, there are many things to look forward to this season. Here are five of them.

Our Conor

It is many a year since there has been a juvenile hurdler who has captured the public’s imagination like Our Conor has. It is hardly surprising. The Dessie Hughes-trained gelding went unbeaten through his juvenile season: four races, four wins, his victories achieved by an aggregate of 31 lengths.

He had the Triumph Hurdle in the bag at the bottom of the hill before he sauntered home so far clear of his closest pursuer that Bryan Cooper thought for a split second that he had take the wrong course. His subsequent sale to Barry Connell, for a figure that is more closely associated with Galileo yearlings than with National Hunt horses, only served to douse the hyperbolic flames with paraffin.

Barry Connell deserves a horse like Our Conor. In a gesture of extreme generosity and munificence, the owner has pledged to donate any prize money that his horse earns this year to the Jockeys’ Emergency Fund, specifically to help JT McNamara and Jonjo Bright with their rehabilitation after their horrific falls. In so doing, Connell ensured that the whole country will root for Our Conor whenever he races.

History tells you that the son of Jeremy faces an arduous task this season, stepping beyond the sheltered confines of the juvenile programme for the first time. Only one five-year-old (Katchit) has won the Champion Hurdle in the last 28 years, and only one Triumph Hurdle winner (the same Katchit) has gone on to win the Champion Hurdle the year after winning the Triumph Hurdle since Persian War did so in 1968.

He is going to have to be a very special sophomore if he is going to go and win the Champion Hurdle in March. But he could well be.

Ruby Walsh

Ruby Walsh’s decision to forsake the Paul Nicholls early-morning airport runs and commit himself to Willie Mullins this season is significant.

There are sure to be times during the year when Ruby will look on wistfully as Daryl Jacob pops the final fence and eases clear on the run-in on a Nicholls-trained hot-pot in a big Saturday steeplechase, but the upside to the rider’s decision is likely to far outweigh the downside.

As well as the fact that he will be wholly committed to Ireland, and that he will be able to spend less time in the air and more time with his wife and young family, he will also be wholly committed to Willie Mullins, and that is a good thing. (See below.) Irish racegoers will get to see him compete on a daily basis, not just on Thursdays and Sundays. Also a good thing.

Of course, his air miles account will be severely depleted. That is probably not a good thing.

Willie Mullins

Willie Mullins has been champion trainer in Ireland now for the last six seasons, but last season, he went stratospheric. His total of 190 wins for the season was more than that accumulated collectively by the trainers who finished second, third, fourth and fifth behind him in the trainers’ championship.

Not only that, but Mullins had a strike-rate of 32%, higher than any other trainer who had more than five winners. He was crowned top trainer at the Cheltenham Festival with five winners, and he conquered a new frontier in April when he sent Blackstairmountain to Japan to land the Nakayama Grand Jump.

It is difficult to know how Mullins can progress again this season, but you might have said that at that start of each of the last four or five seasons. He has the horses, the facilities, the expertise, the confidence, the riders, the staff and the owners to kick on again. Hurricane Fly and Quevega will undoubtedly be back for more, Champagne Fever is going jumping fences, Briar Hill is going jumping hurdles, Sir Des Champs will be setting off on the Gold Cup trail again, Annie Power is one of the most exciting National Hunt mares that we have seen since Dawn Run. It is difficult to know where to start and where to stop, such is the depth of talent that has been assembled again at Closutton for this season.


It was a shame for Peter Casey that he lost a horse like Flemenstar, but the owner pays the piper, and Stephen Curran wanted the Flemenstar tune to be played by Tony Martin this year.

Flemenstar’s arrival is the latest high for Martin. With eight winners at the Galway Festival and two winners on the flat in Britain, Martin has had a fantastic summer, and he has assembled a better team of horses than he has ever had for the National Hunt season ahead, with some of the top owners in the country represented.

Flemenstar’s progress for Martin will be intriguing. Beaten in his last three races, the Flemensfirth gelding came home a sick horse after he got beaten at Aintree in April, and he has reportedly had a wind operation since then. The John Durkan Chase, in which he beat Sir Des Champs last year, is an ideal mid-range target. He is still only eight, and he remains a hugely exciting talent.

AP McCoy

AP McCoy continues to push the boundaries of the extraordinary. His five-timer at Carlisle on Thursday brought his total for the season to 104, a century of winners with a week still left in October and his 19th century in 19 seasons.

Three more winners at Aintree yesterday brought his total for his career to 3,987, just 13 shy of 4,000. It is a mind-boggling total. McCoy is setting benchmarks and totals that are already well beyond the reach of mere mortals.

And his achievements are not just quantitative. His ride on Pendra at Carlisle on Thursday, and his ride on Twirling Magnet at Cheltenham last Saturday, proved that there is a qualitative element to the champ’s riding as well. He is riding as well as ever. We will no doubt continue to marvel at his achievements all season long. The journey will be fascinating.

© Sunday Times, 27th October 2013