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One of the most exciting aspects of the start of every National Hunt season is the promise of untapped potential.
Every year, there is always a host of young horses to assess, all of whom could be waiting in the wings to take over from the current champions.
Of course, many will fail to make the grade, but a select few will emerge as the stars of the future. Here, we’ve asked Mike Cattermole to shortlist those horses that are destined to be at the top in 2018/19 and beyond.
BLACK OP (Tom George)
Tom George and owner Roger Brookhouse must be licking their lips at the prospect of this smart novice hurdler going over fences this season.
Black Op was the only horse to serve it up to Samcro (Gordon Elliott) in the Ballymore Properties Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival, finishing clear of another nice horse in Next Destination (Willie Mullins) in third.
There was no Elliott superstar to worry about when gaining compensation at Aintree at the expense of the Colin Tizzard-trained Lostintranslation (another nice prospect).
At seven, rising eight, connections will be keen to crack on with his fencing career especially as his family is littered with good chasers, including Balthazar King. So far, he has shown his best form with plenty of cut but I recall his winning his bumper in style at Doncaster on good ground, so that’s a plus, too.
He too would be some prospect over fences but it is understood that he will be kept over hurdles for the time being.
KALASHNIKOV (Amy Murphy)
As referenced above, there is something about him and you leave him out of a shortlist like this at your peril!
He has already gained quite a following after winning three of his five hurdles starts last season for a “minnow” (but not for long, I suspect) stable and, due to his sheer size – he is a muscle-bound monster - few chasing careers are as keenly anticipated as this one’s.
His finest hour came at Newbury when lifting the Betfair Hurdle and he then went very close behind old rival Summerville Boy when beaten just a neck in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
The mud was flying on both of those occasions but his upwardly mobile young trainer reckons we may see an improved horse on a better surface.
What is in no doubt is the promise and ability he has shown and, given that his dam is a full sister to the Gold Cup winner Kicking King, who knows how high he will climb in the chasing ranks? His chasing debut is indeed most eagerly awaited.
MASTER TOMMYTUCKER (Paul Nicholls)
We have not seen much of this rangy son of Kayf Tara but he made a big impression when winning both his starts at Exeter last February and April. There was something about the way he travelled in those contests that betrayed a big engine.
At the age of seven, he was a very late starter but now that he has matured – and, touch wood, is sound - an exciting chase campaign awaits him.
Whether his trainer elects to go there straightaway remains to be seen (he has an entry over hurdles and fences at Chepstow’s upcoming meeting) and he could make light work of his current hurdles mark of 143 if asked.
It will be fascinating to see how this unexposed gelding progresses, probably at around two miles or two and a half.
SANTINI (Nicky Henderson)
Santini just gallops and gallops and kept on strongly to win the Grade 1 Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree over three miles to set him up for a career as a staying chaser.
After he had beaten the smart Black Op over two and a half miles at Cheltenham in January, the Albert Bartlett seemed his for the taking at the Festival but for some reason he failed to fire in third place behind Kilbricken Storm (Colin Tizzard). It was good to see him bounce back at Aintree.
Both Black Op and Kilbricken Storm are obviously exciting potential chasing recruits too, but Santini is a year younger than both of them and has only had four starts under Rules.
There is plenty more to come from him and a campaign working back from the RSA Chase seems the obvious one.
TOPOFTHEGAME (Paul Nicholls)
On a visit to the yard before last year’s Festival, I was much taken by the well-being and aura of this athletic chestnut who went on to be beaten a neck by Bleu Berry in the Coral Cup off a mark of 150.
That may not have been the plan at the start of the season when he fell at the 13th fence on his chasing debut at Newbury in November, travelling comfortably enough until that point. Now, with a bit more experience behind him, saving him for a slightly later chasing career could work out well.
He has already won over three miles at Sandown but is not short of pace.
VISION DES FLOS (Colin Tizzard)
A wind operation worked wonders for this three-parts brother to Ryanair winner Balko Des Flos when he romped home by 31 lengths on heavy ground at Exeter in February.
That said, a sixth to Samcro in the Ballymore Properties Hurdle at the Festival was a touch underwhelming, at least on the Exeter evidence, although no disgrace.
However, he seemed more comfortable when dropped back to two miles to finish runner-up in the Top Novices' Hurdle at Aintree (to Lalor) and Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown.
He now has plenty of experience behind him and a very good base to start tackling the fences he was bred to jump.
Note! Watch out for him soon as he has entries at Newton Abbot and Chepstow this week.
WHOLESTONE (Nigel Twiston-Davies)
I can’t be the only one who is desperate to see this likeable and smart staying hurdler have a crack at chasing. If anything, it is a surprise he hasn’t been asked before as he is rising eight now. Then again, he has hardly let anybody down over the smaller obstacles, has he?
He is tough and consistent and among his best efforts last term were second and third in the Stayers’ Hurdles at Cheltenham and Aintree respectively and a comfortable dismissal of Agrapart in the Relkeel Hurdle. He showed plenty of pace on that occasion and doesn’t necessarily need a proper test.
Given that his dam is a full sister to the Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth, and that he is four wins, two seconds and two thirds from eight starts at Cheltenham, the RSA Chase must be a long-term target.
ACEY MILAN (Anthony Honeyball)
Seems obvious, but I am starting with the Weatherbys Champion Bumper form and Acey Milan was the first British-trained horse home in fourth behind Relegate and the other Willie Mullins-trained runners.
Acey Milan actually started favourite, having won his three previous bumpers in style at Wincanton, Cheltenham and Newbury – all on soft or heavy ground.
He was the only four-year-old in the mix at the Festival (the other three were well held) and looks to have an extremely bright future. I am also a fan of his trainer who may need a horse like this one to make the breakthrough to the top level that he has been threatening for a season or two now.
Willie Mullins saddled five of the first seven in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper and although Blackbow was only fifth, he was the one that I was most taken by in the paddock.
He has a powerful, great shape on him with loads of scope and looks like he will be well suited to the jumping game. He wasn’t the quickest of the Mullins bumper horses – obviously – and was again held by Cheltenham third and stablemate Tornado Flyer in the Punchestown Champion Bumper. He did, though, at least win his only point-to-point in March, 2017, for Tom and Sophie Lacey.
The Laceys did some good business here as having bought him for 32,000 Euros at the Derby Store Sale in Ireland in June 2016, they got £150,000 from Harold Kirk and Willie Mullins at the Aintree Goffs Sale the following spring.
Tornado Flyer is out of a dam who was a half-sister to the legendary Hurricane Fly and was bound to have that bit more speed. You would imagine that he will be kept to two miles over hurdles while Blackbow will probably step up.
COMMANDER OF FLEET (Gordon Elliott)
As the brilliant winner of the Goffs Land Rover 4-y-o Bumper at Punchestown, this is another one that picks himself.
From the legendary Pat Doyle’s point-to-point academy, he was in a different class to his rivals in April with the pack being led home by two of his stablemates.
Related to plenty of useful jumpers and by the much-missed Fame And Glory, this Gigginstown-owned gelding will have the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in his sights once he starts out on his jumping career.
ITCHY FEET (Olly Murphy)
This French-bred, who won his bumper easily at Stratford in September, has already made his mark over hurdles, winning on his debut at Southwell early in October.
To be honest, his jumping was not all that fluent but he clearly has some engine as he cruised through the race and was well on top at the line, with seemingly much left in the tank.
He is in the hands of one of the most exciting young trainers in the land and it will be interesting to see how far he can go.
The bumper which these two dominated at Wincanton last April had a decent look to it and it will be a surprise if both don’t make their mark when they start jumping.
At the time, I remember being impressed most by the appearance of Bold Plan who is certainly a looker and would partly explain why he fetched a tasty £195,000 when sold to his trainer at the Cheltenham February Sale.
He looked to have the race won until Samarquand, who wore a hood, pulled out a bit more near the finish to get up. Part-bred by the trainer Alan King, Samarquand was the much cheaper buy at £38,000 at Goffs UK in May, 2017.
Given the disparity in their perceived “value”, it will be fascinating to watch how they progress.