When asked to put together a list of 12 Irish horses-to-follow for the jumps season proper my remit was simple: ‘we want a mix of dark horses and handicappers with a variety stables covered and NOT seven from Mullins and five from Elliott.’
Initially I said I’m going to be stubborn about this and include nary a runner from the ‘Big Two’ but upon further reflection – and much trawling through the formbook – this proved futile.
In the 2015/16 season, the Mullins/Elliott combo won 23.6% of the available races in Ireland, in 2016/17 it was up to 26.2% while last season it was at a flat 30%.
It is hardly unconceivable that between them they win a third of all Irish races in 2018/19 and trying to ignore their runners is pointless; I’m stubborn but not that stubborn!
2/8, mid-division, slight mistakes 5th and 11th, went 3rd after next, pushed along to challenge approaching 2 out where mistake, ridden and no impression on winner before last, kept on one pace run-in
The early signs are that the novice chasers from last season were a strong crop, two from the group in Snow Falcon and Saturnas dominating the Kerry National finish recently, the latter in particular hardly appearing well-treated going at the time. Al Boum Photo was better than both last season and while perhaps lacking the Gold Cup upside of Presenting Percy looks capable of winning an open Grade 1.
Part of it is his age as he is still only six but more than that there is the hope that his jumping will finally come together; to date it has been erratic to put it mildly and last season he fell on two of his six starts and made errors in the other four. His engine however is immense and in the Punchestown race were Paul Townend ran him out in April, he was in the process of putting in his most complete jumping performance yet, albeit not a perfect one.
There is every chance Al Boum Photo falls during the coming months but against that there is a strong possibility it all clicks at least once to win at the top level and with his ability to get from A to B always a worry, he could well do so at a price.
His overall strikerate of two wins from fifteen career starts isn’t the most inspiring and nor – superficially – is the fact that A Rated has yet to win in four outings for Henry de Bromhead but there is a strong sense that there is still some meat on the bone of his handicap mark provided conditions are right.
Despite having a reputation as a bumper horse for Liam Kenny, he failed to win in that sphere or over hurdles but has proven a much better chaser, winning twice in the second half of 2017 for his old yard before moving to de Bromhead. His debut for his new trainer at Punchestown was excellent when he shrugged off a 190-day absence to give Kemboy a real race in the valuable novice handicap chase.
He disappointed next time at Listowel when injured before returning to form at Galway, setting out to make all and jumping well, only to be run down close home. Like his Punchestown run, that race was over an extended two-and-a-half miles and this is his trip; he failed to stay when upped in distance in the Kerry National and if kept at three miles will struggle but those good handicap chases at intermediate trips look ideal.
It is hardly unreasonable to wonder how some of the horses that ran at all the spring festivals will have taken a busy backend to their 2017/18 campaigns; not only were those races run on unusually soft ground but there was an extra meeting thrown in with the Dublin Racing Festival. The likes of Getabird, Duc De Genievres and Scarpeta all had plenty of racing around that time and not all of them held their form.
That certainly wasn’t the case with Draconien who was effectively having his first run since early-January at Fairyhouse having unseated a week earlier at Navan and that was an eye-catching effort off a break as found himself out of his ground before needing to be switched, shaping like the outing would bring him on.
It did just that at Punchestown where he comprehensively reversed form with Getabird in a good overall time, travelling like a real two-miler off a strong gallop, and strongly suggesting he was the Mullins novice hurdler to take from the season. Where he goes next is unclear – it probably hasn’t been decided yet – but he looks potentially top-class whether this season is over fences or hurdles.
Dunvegan mixed it with some of the better bumper horses around in the early part of last season, second to three-time winner Rapid Escape on debut before filling the same spot behind one-time Champion Bumper favourite Hollowgraphic. He was better than the result on both occasions, meeting some trouble first time before racing too keenly on this second run. The form of those runs is strong not only through the winners but on the fact that now 135-rated hurdler Not Many Left filled the frame in both contests.
He followed that up with a comfortable win at Fairyhouse and while he flopped when upped in class at the Dublin Racing Festival he was soon back on track with a second to subsequent Grade 2 winner Pallasator on hurdling debut. That form would have made him very difficult to beat in a maiden hurdle but connections made the sensible choice to revert to bumpers and preserve his novice status for 2018/19.
His experience edge could prove significant in the early part of the season against horses having their first run over hurdles but in any case he possesses a good level of ability, one of only five horses last season not trained by Mullins or Elliott to win more than one bumper, an achievement he reached with a win at the Punchestown Festival where the talented Getareason was among those in arrears.
Flawless Escape was an unusual Elliott horse last season in that he didn’t race after Cheltenham; he had been a bit disappointing as favourite when finishing twelfth in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle but it was hardly a terrible run and he looked a horse that could compete in a big handicap and help in the trainer’s title bid.
But Elliott instead decided to rough him off with a view to sending him over fences, saying in a recent stable tour that he had enough done as a five-year-old and I always look on it as a good thing when prospective chasers are sent that way sooner rather than later, the extra season over hurdles often proving a detriment long-term.
His form over hurdles is good, notably a third to Total Recall at Leopardstown during the Dublin Racing Festival when he had subsequent big handicap winners Delta Work and A Great View in behind. It looks a positive that his trainer was as protective of him as he is only a 133-rated hurdler at this stage and expectations seem to be much higher than that.
Henry de Bromhead is not a trainer of bumper horses; in the last three full Irish jumps seasons, he has had just three winners from 83 bumper runners. That hasn’t stopped likes of Monalee, Supasundae, Ordinary World and Attribution, all of whom failed to win in bumpers, going on to much better things over obstacles however.
Minella Indo too failed to win a bumper but in fairness he only had one go and an excellent effort it was; that came on the final race of the season at Punchestown in a contest for unraced horses. He shaped well in coming third, too free but travelling best of all, and was only run out of it in the final furlong.
Just one horse from the first seven home have run since with most of them longer term projects but the early sign is good with that horse being City Island who won a competitive maiden hurdle at Galway next time.
Misty Millie starts the winter as the lowest rated horse in this list and there is every chance it will still be that way in May; that said, it is hoped she can at least go higher than her current hurdles mark of 111. She never really built on a promising start on the flat for Peter Cluskey but Garvan Donnelly has reinvented her over hurdles this year and looks a handicapper on the up.
She won twice off low marks back in April and May before returning from a break at Galway; that was in the race Rovetta won and while she finished only tenth, you would have fancied her to hit the frame at least turning into the straight such was the way she was travelling before the lack of a run and racing wide for much of the race took its toll.
She built on that next time at Listowel when second to a well-backed JP McManus runner, again racing wider than ideal at a track that tends not to favour those tactics, and with those last two efforts in mind it will be disappointing if she can’t win at least another handicap.
Denis Hogan was one of the big overachievers of the past jumps season, finishing eighth in the trainers’ table, with Youcantcallherthat his most prolific horse with five wins in novice chases. Four of those came against mares and there is now an extensive programme for such horses and Hogan looks to have another likely sort for them in Moyhenna.
There was an element of marking time with her over hurdles, her trainer viewing her as a chaser and bred that way being out of Moskova who was rated 138 at her peak over fences, but she reached a reasonable level over the smaller obstacles. She managed to get graded placed at Limerick in March and followed that up with fourth in a competitive novice handicap hurdle at Fairyhouse.
That was her first run over three miles, a trip she is bred for, and while it may appear that she didn’t get home, she made her move very early and may have paid the price. In any case, cutting back in distance won’t be an issue and it could be ideal that most of those mares novice chases are around intermediate trips.
Pat’s Pick certainly wasn’t expected to win on debut in the valuable sales bumper at Fairyhouse, Noel Meade remarking afterwards that ‘I didn’t think he’d win [as] we never really dipped him that much.’ He didn’t look like winning for much of the race either having raced keenly throughout and been wider than most but despite both those things he found plenty in the finish to win by half a length.
That form has worked out with the second filling the same position at Grade 3 level next time and the third winning next time but more than anything the trainer comments left the impression that Pat’s Pick should improve plenty for the run. A season novice hurdling is planned and it would be no surprise to see him start off at Down Royal given he is owned by the Sloans who are both locals and sponsors at the track.
Difficult though it might be, we need to get past the view that Galway is just another summer jumps meeting with added alcohol; it really is much more than that, on the racing front at least! Sometimes the very best national hunt horses run here with two winners from the most recent Cheltenham Festival (Rathvinden and Balko Des Flos) having won there the previous summer.
Rovetta was a dual winner at the meeting in August and while a long way from the spring festivals just now does at least looks well-handicapped off a hurdles mark of 111. The hurdle race she won there looked good form, the six-length second winning a €30,000 race next time, and there a few down the field have franked it too. She impressed with how she pulled clear in the finish, showing a good attitude, with one of the jockeys who rode her on the flat afterwards describing her as ‘one of the most genuine fillies I’ve ever ridden.’
Soft ground is no problem for Rovetta – indeed she seemed to improve for it at Galway – though that was ‘summer soft’ and it wouldn’t be the greatest surprise if she was kept away from the really deep winter stuff and aimed at something like the Leopardstown Christmas meeting where the going tends not to be too soft.
Attitude is one of those intangible qualities in a racehorse but it does seem to come into play over jumps every season; some horses relish the battle while others curl up under pressure. The early signs are that Us And Them will fall into the former group, his toughness particularly evident when he beat Trainwreck at Punchestown last December, getting only 1lb from that now 138-rated rival on the day despite him being a year younger.
He backed that good effort up with a second at Limerick over Christmas where he conceded weight to the winner and while he was disappointing in the Supreme that effort came off a long break and he didn’t run afterwards. His trainer reports him in full work with a run in a novice chase intended in the next month or so and he appeals as just the sort to take to that code, his front-running style often translating well to fences at least over the shorter trips he is likely to race at.
Charles Byrnes had a fine campaign in 2017/18, his seventh place finish in the trainers’ championship finish a marked step-up on nineteenth the previous season. Bumper horses contributed more than their share with seven winners in all and while it might be chasing last season’s success to include one of them, they are young horses with upside.
That is particularly true of Van Humboldt who won his only start in February and could be underrated because he only beat four horses in his win. Two of them were decent however with the second Black Tears placed in two valuable bumpers afterwards while the distant third Feelin’ Groovy won by eight lengths next time. Racing close to a slow pace may have helped the winner but against that he is bred more for stamina and there was enough greenness to suggest he will improve plenty.
Sign up to Smarkets and get up to £50 risk-free on horse racing.
New customers only who sign up using the code HORSERACING50. £50 in risk-free bets would be applicable if you were to place £10 on five selected races after sign up. You will be refunded your net losses across applicable markets up to a maximum of £10 per race.