Donn's Articles » Novice chasers

Novice chasers


The National Hunt season rolls on. We had another clash between steeplechasing stalwarts Silviniaco Conti and Cue Card yesterday and the return of Vautour, today we have the Troytown Chase and the return of Douvan.

It’s all enthralling. The falling temperatures and the shortened days are all worth it because you know that the shorter the days become, the deeper into the season you roll and the greater the immersion.

If the season is a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle that you spread out on the dining room table, then the novice chasers are the edges and the corners, and this season, there appears to be as exciting a bunch of novice chasers as there has been in years.

Douvan is one of the corner pieces, no question. Today’s chasing debut has been patiently awaited since the Walk In The Park gelding won the Grade 1 novices’ hurdle at the Punchestown Festival last April, after which trainer Willie Mullins said that he should probably go chasing.

This is the race that Mullins used for Vautour’s first step on the steeplechasing ladder last season, and the profiles of the two horses are remarkably similar. Both five-year-olds on their respective chasing bows, both horses were bred in France, and both had two runs in their native country before joining Mullins. Both race in Susannah Ricci’s colours, both went unbeaten through their novice hurdling season, both won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle doing handsprings, and both followed up by winning the Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown.

Vautour was seriously impressive in winning this race last year, and he went on. He was beaten by Clarcam in the Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, but he bounced back to win a Grade 2 chase at Leopardstown in January, and he danced in at Cheltenham in March. Douvan is as exciting a chasing prospect today as Vautour was on this day last year.

Sizing John is another corner piece in the jigsaw. Henry de Bromhead’s horse was beaten three times by Douvan last season, but he was a high-class novice, and he ran a cracker behind Douvan in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham after racing up with a fast pace. More than that, however, his trainer has always said that he couldn’t wait to get him going over fences.

And he has got him going over fences. Last month, Sizing John made his chasing debut at Punchestown, and he was electric. Last Sunday he went back to Punchestown and he won the Grade 2 Craddockstown Chase, a race that de Bromhead had won in 2009 with Sizing Europe. Parallels all over the place.

Sizing John has 10lb to find with Douvan on official ratings over hurdles, but, given the accuracy with which Alan Potts’ horse jumps his fences, it is probable that he will achieve a much higher rating over fences. He is exciting.

The other two corner pieces are stayers, More Of That and No More Heroes. More Of That ran four times over hurdles in 2013/14, and he won all four times, his season culminating in a defeat of Annie Power in the 2014 World Hurdle at Cheltenham. He only ran once last season, he was well beaten at Newbury last November, after which trainer Jonjo O’Neill left him off the track, got his problems sorted and produced him for his chasing debut at Cheltenham last weekend, when he won nicely.

His rating of 167 over hurdles tells you that he is a classy recruit to fences. He is seven years old, but he has raced just seven times in his life, and he has the potential to go right to the top as a staying chaser.

As does No More Heroes. The Gigginstown House horse was a high-class staying novice hurdler last season, but trainer Gordon Elliott always maintained that we would not see the best of him until we saw him jumping a fence.

You could see what the trainer meant when the Presenting gelding made his chasing debut at Punchestown last month. Every time No More Heroes approached a fence, he lit up, relishing the challenge that each one presented, attacking it with verve. He was fluent and fast over every obstacle, he won impressively, and he can progress from there. Like More Of That, all things being equal, he could have a serious future ahead of him as a staying chaser.

There are others. Outlander and Free Expression both looked good in finishing first and second in a beginners’ chase at Punchestown last Sunday, while Kitten Rock was impressive in winning on his chasing bow at Navan two weeks ago. Across the water, Garde La Victoire, last year’s Greatwood Hurdle winner, is already two for two over fences.

And there are others waiting in the wings, like Alvisio Ville and L’Ami Serge and Shaneshill, high-class novice hurdlers from last term who are destined to jump fences this term.

The days continue to get shorter.

© The Sunday Times, 22nd November 2015