Jumps Season - At The Races

Stars in the Spotlight

    Kevin Blake profiles 25 of the top jumps horses in training and assesses their chances of more glory in the coming season.
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One of the attractions of racing, and indeed National Hunt racing, is the variety of disciplines where a number of champions can emerge to earn a place in the public’s hearts.

Some have been at the top for a number of years whilst others are newer names to jumps fans but are still capable of landing the sport’s biggest prizes.

Here, leading racing writer Kevin Blake analyses 25 of the top established jumps horses in training.

Horse profiles

Annie Power (IRE)

While she was billed as one of the best National Hunt race mares in decades from a very early stage of her career, it was only last season that Annie Power was really given an opportunity to back up such a billing and she duly rose to the occasion.

Up until 2015/16, she had won all bar two of her 14 career starts, but the two times she failed to deliver were both on the biggest stage, the Cheltenham Festival.

She was outstayed and beaten fair-and-square by More Of That in the World Hurdle in 2014, but much harder to stomach was her agonising final-hurdle fall when she had the Mares’ Hurdle well and truly wrapped up in 2015.

Those defeats coupled with what many perceived as her connections taking the easy options with her rather than giving her the chance to show just how good she was led to many doubting her ability to compete at the very highest level.

However, a twist of fate would see that opportunity present itself to her. Having made a winning seasonal return at Punchestown last February, she seemed likely to be sent off a short-priced favourite for the Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

That was until her stable mate Faugheen picked up an injury and Annie Power was sensationally supplemented for the Champion Hurdle to replace him.

She now had her opportunity to shine on the greatest stage over a suitable trip and she duly seized it, making most of the running to prevail by an easy four-and-a-half lengths.

If there were any remaining doubts, she squashed then by producing an even more impressive performance in the Aintree Hurdle in winning by 18 lengths.

Now established as one of the leading hurdlers in training, her connections will have one of those “nice problems” in keeping her apart from Faugheen in the early part of the season, but a potential clash between the two in the Champion Hurdle is one that will excite like no other this season.

Video Form
17 Feb 2016:
2 May 2015:

Apache Stronghold

The Noel Meade-trained Apache Stronghold has not had the best of fortune throughout his career in terms of injuries, but on his day, he has the talent to compete at the highest level and is reportedly on track to make his return in the coming weeks.

The son of Milan has looked a high-class sort since his bumper days when finishing third in the Punchestown Champion Bumper. A mid-season setback confined his novice hurdle campaign to just four starts, but he had a clearer run in his novice chase campaign in 2014/15.

Ridden by Paul Carberry, he won two of his six starts including the Grade 1 Flogas Novice Chase and finished second to both Don Poli and Vautour in Grade 1 company.

A series of niggly injuries kept him off the track all of last season, but he is still only an eight-year-old and it wouldn’t at all surprise if he came back to be a major player in Grade 1 company at around two-and-a-half miles.

Video Form
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Apple's Jade (FR)

  • 5-y-o; bay mare
  • Breeding: Saddler Maker - Apple's For Ever (Nikos)
  • Trained by: G Elliott
  • Last Race: Punchestown, 29 Apr 2017 15:50
  • Result: Won/7, led briefly early, raced in 2nd, slight mistake 1st, closed up before 3 out, soon on terms, led 2 out, went on approaching straight, stayed on well run-in, easily
  • View full form

One of the break-out stars of the hurdling division in 2015/16 was unquestionably the Willie Mullins-trained Apple’s Jade, who is now in the care of Gordon Elliott.

Purchased by Gigginstown House Stud and sent to Mullins after winning at Vichy in France in May 2015, she made a winning start for her new connections in a Grade 2 juvenile hurdle at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival.

She met with a small setback after that which dictated she would have to go to the Cheltenham Festival for the Triumph Hurdle without the benefit of another run.

Despite her relative inexperience, she ran an excellent race to finish 1¼ lengths second to Ivanovich Gorbatov, but the best would be very much to come from her with that run under her belt.

Ivanovich Gorbatov was again in opposition when she contested the Grade 1 juvenile hurdle at the Grand National meeting at Aintree, but she reversed that form in what was one of the most spectacular performances in the juvenile hurdling division in many years, with her absolutely bolting up by a truly mind-blowing 41 lengths.

Such was the style of her victory, some wondered aloud whether it might have been too good to be true, but she duly backed it up in only slightly less impressive style when winning the equivalent Grade 1 at the Punchestown Festival.

While the jump required for a top juvenile hurdler to be competitive in open Grade 1 hurdle company is well established, Apple’s Jade is the most exciting four-year-old to try and do so since Our Conor and it will be intriguing to see how she fares.

Video Form
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Ar Mad (FR)

  • 7-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Tiger Groom - Omelia (April Night)
  • Trained by: G L Moore
  • Last Race: Sandown, 3 Dec 2016 15:00
  • Result: 4/6, raced freely, led, clear from 3rd, reached for 6th, stumbled on landing 8th and headed, lost 2nd 4 out, chased leading pair until 3 out, kept on trying and same pace in 4th
  • View full form

Every season there are horses ruled out of the Cheltenham Festival through injury in the weeks leading up to the meeting and one of the more disappointing ones from last season was the Gary Moore-trained Ar Mad.

The six-year-old had stamped himself as a highly-exciting novice chaser in winning four out of his five starts, with his bold-jumping front-running style capturing the imagination of many observers.

While he was denied his chance to compete at the Cheltenham Festival, the performances at that meeting of some of his previous victims such as Vaniteux and Bristol De Mai suggests that he would have been capable of running very well.

While there is a theory with him that he may be better going right-handed, his performance in winning his latest start in a novices’ handicap chase at Plumpton certainly added evidence to the case that he will be effective going left-handed.

He will have more on his plate in open Grade 1 company in 2016/17, but he is clearly a very talented horse and is worth keeping on the right side of.

Video Form
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Black Hercules

  • 8-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Heron Island - Annalecky (Bob's Return)
  • Trained by: W P Mullins
  • Last Race: Thurles, 19 Jan 2017 14:15
  • Result: 3/6, held up in 4th, slight mistake 2nd, pushed along briefly 4 out, soon closer, ridden after 3 out, under pressure in 3rd 2 out, soon no impression on leaders, kept on one pace
  • View full form

The Willie Mullins-trained Black Hercules has long been held in high regard, but up until last season, he had twice let his supporters down when well fancied for races at the Cheltenham Festival and thus had his share to prove.

Black Hercules had acquitted himself well when fourth in the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival in 2014, but his disappointing run when sent off favourite for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at the meeting a year later was harder to forgive.

Always considered a chaser in the making, he made an impressive start to his novice chasing campaign last season by winning at Navan and Warwick and was set to win a Grade 2 at Navan in February only to fall at the final fence with the race at his mercy.

It was after that setback that his connections made the unexpected decision to run him in the JLT Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival rather than the National Hunt Chase or the RSA Chase.

While some retained doubts about his ability to perform around Cheltenham, he proved himself in no uncertain terms by running out the ready winner over Bristol De Mai.

The seven-year-old has multiple options as he has the pace for two-and-a-half miles and the stamina for at least three miles, but whichever route he is sent down, he is likely to play a prominent role.

Video Form
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Carlingford Lough

The John Kiely-trained Carlingford Lough is without question the most underappreciated top-class National Hunt performer in Ireland. There are very few horses that have won five Grade 1 races that are as unheralded as him.

The son of King’s Theatre came up the hard way in handicaps, winning the Galway Plate in 2013 before going on to win two Grade 1 novice chases later that season.

While he has been a hard horse to catch right in two seasons since, when he has been at his best, he has proven very difficult to beat and has put together a fine CV for himself as a result.

Two consecutive victories in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown were topped off by a memorable victory in the Punchestown Gold Cup last April and there are only a handful of horses in training that can better a record like that.

While he hasn’t been at his very best in his three runs at the Cheltenham Festival, he remains a tough nut for any horse to crack at the highest level when things go right for him and that is likely to remain the case during the season ahead.

Video Form
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Coneygree (GB)

  • 10-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Karinga Bay - Plaid Maid (Executive Perk)
  • Trained by: M Bradstock
  • Last Race: Punchestown, 26 Apr 2017 17:30
  • Result: 3/6, led, pushed along 4 out, ridden and strongly pressed when mistake 2 out, soon headed and dropped to 3rd, kept on in 3rd run-in
  • View full form

It is a given that the Mark Bradstock-trained Coneygree has not been the easiest to train, he has only raced 11 times in his near five-year career, but he sealed his place in National Hunt racing history when becoming the first novice to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup since Captain Christy in 1974.

That incredible victory came on the back of just three previous runs over fences, but one would never have known it based on his performance, with him setting off in front and jumping and battling like a hardened pro in seeing off the persistent challenge of Djakadam by 1½ lengths under Nico de Boinville.

While he was no youngster at eight years old at the time, hopes were high that he could reign at the head of the staying chase ranks for some time.

Those hopes were raised when he made an impressive winning return to action at Sandown last November, but that would prove to be his only start of the season as injury intervened and ruled him out for the remainder of the campaign.

With him reportedly back in strong training and taking it well, hopes will be high that Coneygree can make it back to the track and stay sound for the season.

If he can do that, he is likely to regain his place amongst the very best staying chasers in training.

Video Form
26 Apr 2017:

Cue Card

  • 11-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: King's Theatre - Wicked Crack (King's Ride)
  • Trained by: C L Tizzard
  • Last Race: Aintree, 6 Apr 2017 14:50
  • Result: 2/7, tracked leaders, led 13th, ridden before 2 out, headed before last, kept on and held towards finish
  • View full form

Without question one of the biggest stories of last season was the transformation of the Colin Tizzard-trained Cue Card.

The son of King’s Theatre had been a source of great frustration for many in the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons, often promising to deliver more than he did, however he looked a different horse from the very outset of the 2015/16 campaign.

Impressive wins in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby and the Betfair Chase at Haydock set the tone, but it was when he lowered the colours of Vautour in the King George VI Chase at Kempton that his rejuvenation became fully appreciated.

With him being in line for a £1million bonus if he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, his connections put him away for that contest and all looked to be going smoothly when he hit the front travelling well approaching the third-last fence only to take a sickening fall.

It was a tough blow for his supporters to take and he gave an indication of what might have happened had he stood up when bolting up in his next start in the Betfred Bowl at Aintree.

While his season ended on a low note when he finished a laboured fourth in the Punchestown Gold Cup, that didn’t take the shine off what was an incredible season for him.

While he will be a 10-year-old when returning to action this season, he has already shown remarkable durability in his career having won the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival as a four-year-old, and it would take a brave man to run him out of calculations in the staying chase division.

Video Form
27 Apr 2016:
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Djakadam (FR)

  • 8-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Saint Des Saints - Rainbow Crest (Baryshnikov)
  • Trained by: W P Mullins
  • Last Race: Punchestown, 26 Apr 2017 17:30
  • Result: 2/6, tracked leaders in 3rd, went 2nd 4 out, ridden entering straight, led narrowly after 2 out, joined and mistake at last, kept on under pressure inside final furlong, headed and no extra close home
  • View full form

One of an incredibly strong team of staying chasers that Willie Mullins has in his yard, Djakadam has represented himself very well indeed in recent seasons and is right in the mix with the best staying chasers in training.

The son of Saint Des Saints burst onto the scene during the 2014/15 season when bolting up off top weight in the Thyestes Handicap Chase at Gowran Park.

Then just a six-year-old with only five runs over fences to his name, many felt he wasn’t experienced enough to compete in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but he defied that concern by running a stormer to finish 1½ lengths second to Coneygree.

His 2015/16 campaign began with an impressive victory in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase, but it was threatened to be derailed by a fall in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham in which he picked up a nasty cut.

He recovered in time for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but once again he found one too good, with Don Cossack getting the better of him by 4½ lengths.

While he ran well in his two subsequent starts in the Betfred Bowl at Aintree and the Punchestown Gold Cup, he didn’t seem to have quite the same sparkle as he had at Cheltenham.

2016/17 will see Djakadam bid to emulate The Fellow in being beaten in two Gold Cups before winning it at the third attempt and he will have every chance of doing so.

Video Form
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Don Cossack (GER)

  • 10-y-o; brown gelding
  • Breeding: Sholokhov - Depeche toi (Konigsstuhl)
  • Trained by: G Elliott
  • Last Race: Cheltenham, 18 Mar 2016 15:30
  • Result: Won/9, tracked leaders on outside, headway after 4 out, upsides when left sole threat next, led and went on before 2 out, in command after, driven out, stayed on well
  • View full form

From the very early stages of his career, the Gordon Elliott-trained Don Cossack was considered a potential star in the making.

While his career stuttered for a couple of seasons during his novice hurdle and novice chase campaigns, he erupted into form in the 2014/15 season and has progressed into the leading staying chaser in training.

Since the beginning of the 2014/15 season, Don Cossack has won 10 of his 12 starts, with his only defeats coming in the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in 2015, where little went right for him on the day, and in the King George VI Chase at Kempton last Christmas where he was arguably winding up to come with a winning run only to fall at the second-last fence.

While that was a bitter pill for his connections to swallow, compensation would prove to be only just around the corner.

Sent off favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Don Cossack produced the performance of his life to get the better of Djakadam by 4½ lengths, delivering on all the hopes his connections had for him from a very early stage of his career.

Unfortunately, in the days leading up to the Punchestown Festival Don Cossack suffered a career-threatening tendon injury.

While his recovery has been going smoothly thus far, it will be very much a case of taking it day-by-day for his connections as he bids to return to the track to defend his Gold Cup crown.

Video Form
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Don Poli

  • 8-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Poliglote - Dalamine (Sillery)
  • Trained by: G Elliott
  • Last Race: Leopardstown, 12 Feb 2017 16:00
  • Result: 3/7, close up, on terms from 4th, slight lead 11th, pressed from before straight, headed at last, dropped to 3rd and kept on without matching 1st 2 close home
  • View full form

One of the most debated horses of last season was unquestionably the Willie Mullins-trained Don Poli, who is now in the care of Gordon Elliott.

Some took the view that he was slow as a boat and wouldn’t have the pace to compete at the highest level in staying chases, whilst others took the view that laziness was shrouding his true ability.

In amongst all of the debate, Don Poli put together a fine first campaign in open company that as much as anything seemed to confirm that he is a very good staying chaser that is likely just a few lengths behind the very best around.

His victory in the Lexus Chase was typically workmanlike and while he was very laboured by his own dour standards under a quieter-than-usual ride when a well-held third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, he ran with great credit when returned to more forceful tactics in the Betfred Bowl (second to Cue Card) and the Punchestown Gold Cup (third to Carlingford Lough).

With him needing to find improvement to trouble the very best staying chasers, it will be interesting to see if his connections try him in cheekpieces or blinkers which have long appealed as being likely to help his cause.

In terms of longer-term targets, he has also long appealed as being an Aintree Grand National type in the making and that would be a very exciting prospect.

Video Form
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Douvan (FR)

  • 7-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Walk In The Park - Star Face (Saint Des Saints)
  • Trained by: W P Mullins
  • Last Race: Cheltenham, 15 Mar 2017 15:30
  • Result: 7/10, led until after 1st, tracked leaders, went 2nd 6th, hit 3 out, lost 2nd and soon beaten, well held 2 out
  • View full form

If a poll was conducted amongst all racing fans to decide the most exciting National Hunt horse in training, the Willie Mullins-trained Douvan would be odds-on to come out on top.

Unbeaten in 10 starts for Willie Mullins, he was a top-class novice hurdler, winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and the Punchestown Festival equivalent in 2015, but it was when he was sent chasing last season that he really came into his own.

Douvan went through his novice chase campaign unbeaten in his six starts, with five of those victories coming in Grade 1 company.

The most recent three of those wins saw him complete the rare Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown Festival treble and he didn’t need to come off the bridle on any of the three occasions to do it.

He is quite simply an extraordinary horse that seems to have the two-mile chase division at his mercy this season.

However, his connections have the option of stepping him up in trip, which would be one of the most highly-anticipated prospects of the season if they choose to go down that route. Wherever he goes, Douvan is sure to thrill.

Video Form
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Faugheen

  • 9-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Germany - Miss Pickering (Accordion)
  • Trained by: W P Mullins
  • Last Race: Leopardstown, 24 Jan 2016 15:05
  • Result: Won/5, made all, soon pressed, asserted entering straight, eased clear before last where mistake, shaken up briefly run-in, very easily
  • View full form

The Willie Mullins-trained Faugheen has never quite followed the route that most top-class hurdlers take, but his own way of doing things has worked very well and led to him earning an official rating that is the equal of the great Istabraq and superior to any every achieved by the great Hurricane Fly.

Faugheen has little to recommend him on either pedigree or looks, but he looked very good from his very first start in a point-to-point and quickly rose through the ranks as a novice hurdler for Willie Mullins, proving to be a leading novice hurdler prior to making an easy transition to open company that culminated in victory in the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 2015.

He achieved all of this whilst never really convincing with his jumping technique, which led to some being reluctant to put him up amongst the best hurdlers of recent decades.

2015/16 would prove to be his most dramatic season yet, as he lost his unbeaten record on his seasonal reappearance when Nichols Canyon bested him in the Morgiana Hurdle, with concerns being raised as Faugheen hung quite badly under pressure.

He got back to winning ways in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on his next start, but the best was still to come.

While he was usually given a break after running at Christmas until the Cheltenham Festival, his connections decided to take in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown along the way in 2016.

What transpired was without doubt the most impressive performance of Faugheen’s career, with him making all for a stunning 15-length victory over his stable mate Arctic Fire.

For the first time, he had jumped as well as one expects a top-class two-mile hurdler to do and it was a performance that put him right up there with the likes of Istabraq and Hurricane Fly.

However, the cruelness of National Hunt racing soon struck as it was announced that Faugheen had picked up an injury that would rule him out for the remainder of the season.

He is reportedly back on track to make his return in the coming weeks and hopes are high that the injury will not take away any of his top-class ability.

Video Form
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God's Own

  • 9-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Oscar - Dantes Term (Phardante)
  • Trained by: T R George
  • Last Race: Punchestown, 25 Apr 2017 17:30
  • Result: 3/8, tracked leaders, soon 3rd, mainly 4th after 4th, dropped to 5th briefly before straight, soon pushed along to chase leader, close 3rd and mistake last, slightly impeded run-in and no impression but kept on
  • View full form

The Tom George-trained God’s Own has to be a strong candidate for being the most underappreciated National Hunt horse in training.

The eight-year-old came alive at the backend of the 2013/14 season, breaking his maiden over fences with a shock 25/1 success in the Grade 1 Ryanair Novice Chase at the Punchestown Festival.

While he made the best of his retained novice status for the 2014/15 season by finishing second to Un De Sceaux in the Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival and going close to winning the Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree, he still got precious little respect.

God’s Own continued to acquit himself well in the 2015/16 season, but was propelled back into the limelight in the Melling Chase at Aintree where he capitalised on the fall of Vautour to secure his second Grade 1 win.

While he was somewhat lost in the post-race analysis with the focus being on Vautour, he well and truly took centre stage in the Boylesports Champion Chase at the Punchestown Festival where he took the scalp of Vautour fairly and squarely.

It was only in the aftermath of that win that God’s Own was given something like the attention he had earned and he seems sure to remain a contender in the two mile and two-and-a-half mile divisions in the coming season.

Video Form
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Jezki

National Hunt racing has produced some wonderful rivalries over the years, but one of the most dramatic of the last decade was that between the Jessica Harrington-trained Jezki and the great Hurricane Fly.

Jezki looked a potential star in the making from an early stage of his career and proved himself to be a top-class novice hurdler, winning no less than three Grade 1 contests during his novice season.

What he faced once he stepped into open hurdle company was the formidable Hurricane Fly, already established as one of the best hurdlers of recent decades. What transpired over the next two seasons was an epic over-and-back battle that captured the imagination of the racing public.

Hurricane Fly stuck first, twice beating Jezki in Grade 1 company at his beloved Leopardstown.

However, Jezki would have the last laugh, finishing in front of that rival when winning both the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and the Punchestown Festival equivalent.

Many saw these victories as a passing of the guard in the two-mile hurdle division, but 2014/15 would bring even more drama.

Against all the odds, Hurricane Fly came back to beat Jezki in thrilling renewals of the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown and the Ryanair Hurdle and Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.

He again finished in front of Jezki in the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, but once again, Jezki came into his own at the latter end of the season.

Returned to two-and-a-half miles, Jezki capitalised on the final-flight fall of Arctic Fire to win the Aintree Hurdle, after which his connections declared their intention to step him up to three miles for the World Series Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival.

Who was there to meet him? Who else but Hurricane Fly who was also trying the new trip for the first time. In what would be their ninth and final meeting, Jezki emerged on top in another thrilling contest.

That performance suggested that Jezki could go on to rule the staying hurdle division for seasons to come, but injury soon intervened and he missed the entire 2015/16 campaign. Reportedly on target to make his return this season, his comeback will be eagerly anticipated.

Video Form
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Killultagh Vic

  • 8-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Old Vic - Killultagh Dawn (Phardante)
  • Trained by: W P Mullins
  • Last Race: Leopardstown, 17 Jan 2016 15:30
  • Result: Won/5, led, 6 lengths clear halfway, reduced advantage 2 out, travelled well and 4 lengths clear when sprawled badly on landing last, rider lost iron and dropped to 3rd, stayed on well run-in to lead again close home
  • View full form

Of all those that missed the Cheltenham Festival through injury last season, one of the more disappointing ones was the Willie Mullins-trained Killultagh Vic.

While he had been a smart performer as a bumper horse and won the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle and the Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle during his novice hurdle campaign, he was always considered a chaser in the making.

Despite not making it back to the track until December last year, he made an immediate impact by bolting up in a maiden chase at Fairyhouse.

However, the real drama was still to come. Sent off at 2/7 for a Grade 2 novice chase at Leopardstown in January, he had the race at his mercy only to make a horrendous error at the final fence that brought him to a standstill.

Not to be undone, Ruby Walsh asked his mount to rally and in a dramatic finish that was broadcast around the world in the days that followed, he got Killultagh Vic back up to score by ¾-length.

While he was immediately promoted to favouritism for the JLT Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, it would prove to be his final start of the season, as he picked up an injury soon after his Leopardstown heroics.

Killultagh Vic will be short of chasing experience as he enters open chase company in 2016/17, but he is clearly very talented indeed and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he quickly progresses up to Grade 1 class.

Video Form
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Nichols Canyon (GB)

  • 7-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Authorized - Zam Zoom (Dalakhani)
  • Trained by: W P Mullins
  • Last Race: Punchestown, 27 Apr 2017 17:30
  • Result: 2/12, mid-division, 7th from 5th, closed 3 out, 3rd next, 2nd before straight travelling smoothly, challenged at last, every chance and stayed on well run-in, just failed
  • View full form

The Willie Mullins-trained Nichols Canyon may not be the biggest, but his daringly low jumping technique and a tigerish attitude to pressure have helped him progress into one of the leading hurdlers around.

Rated 111 on the Flat, he quickly made up into a high-class hurdler, winning four Grade 1 contests as a novice.

As impressive at that was, he really got everyone’s attention when becoming the first horse to beat Faugheen in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November 2015 and he gained another Grade 1 victory in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown Christmas meeting.

While he disappointed on his next start in the Irish Champion Hurdle, he bounced right back to his best to finish third to Annie Power in the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

His connections have long thought that he could make up into a World Hurdle contender and it seems likely that will be the route he goes down in the season ahead.

While Nichols Canyon will have to settle better to get that longer trip, if he does, he seems sure to be a major player in a staying hurdle division that very much lacks depth.

Video Form
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Sprinter Sacre (FR)

  • 11-y-o; gelding
  • Breeding: Network - Fatima Iii (Bayolidaan)
  • Trained by: N J Henderson
  • Last Race: Sandown, 23 Apr 2016 15:35
  • Result: Won/6, tracked leading trio and always going well, went 3rd at 4th, led soon after 3 out, 5 lengths ahead next, stayed on strongly, impressive
  • View full form

National Hunt racing has produced some wonderfully heart-warming stories over the years, but the story of Sprinter Sacre takes some beating.

Trained by Nicky Henderson, the son of Network was a high-class novice hurdle, but once he was sent over fences during the 2011/12 season he quickly emerged as one of the most exciting chasers of recent decades.

Over the next two seasons, he was simply imperious. Unbeaten in 10 starts including seven Grade 1 races, no horse came close to troubling him.

At the backend of that sequence, he completed what was an incredible treble by the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, the Melling Chase at Aintree and the Boylesports Champion Chase at the Punchestown Festival.

Those performances led to Timeform giving him a rating of 192, which put him ahead of the likes of Kauto Star and Desert Orchid, with only Arkle and Flyingbolt boasting higher ratings. He looked untouchable, but then, the wheels started to come off.

Pulled up on his return to action in 2013/14 with an irregular heartbeat, after which he missed an entire year of action.

When he returned in January 2015, he looked a shadow of himself, finishing weakly in second on his comeback, being pulled up in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and again finishing a modest second at Sandown in his final start of the season.

At that stage, the Sprinter Sacre story looked to be coming to a sad end.

However, Nicky Henderson was not prepared to give up on him and he produced him in excellent shape to make a winning return at the Cheltenham Open Meeting in November, prompting wonderful scenes of celebration.

He followed that up with a hard-fought win against Sire De Grugy in Grade 2 company at Kempton and while it lacked his former brilliance, that he battled so gamely encouraged many that his physical issues were behind him.

From there, he returned to Cheltenham to try and regain his Queen Mother Champion Chase crown, with the Un De Sceaux being his main rival.

It was billed as “the impossible dream” in the build up to the race, but it happened, against all the odds Sprinter Sacre regained his crown in what was one of the most heart-warming moments in recent history at the Cheltenham Festival.

If there were any remaining doubts, he squashed them by finishing his comeback season with an impressive 15 lengths victory in the Celebration Chase at Sandown.

Sprinter Sacre will return to the track in 2016/17 as a 10-year-old. If he can reproduce the level of form he showed last season, he seems sure to be a leading competitor in the division once again.

However, the imposing figure of Douvan is likely to stand in his way and that clash is one that all National Hunt racing fans will be looking forward to.

Shaneshill

  • 8-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: King's Theatre - Darabaka (Doyoun)
  • Trained by: W P Mullins
  • Last Race: Galway, 6 Aug 2017 16:30
  • Result: 2/4, led, stumbled badly on landing 5 out and almost unseated rider and joined, led again from 3 out, strongly pressed approaching straight, soon headed, no extra and one pace inside final furlong
  • View full form

Such is the array of talent that Willie Mullins has at his disposal, his horses that are just below the top level are often asked to race over a variety of trips and conditions in an effort to find winning opportunities for them.

Thus, versatility is a characteristic that it pays to have in Closutton and one of the most versatile horses at that address is Shaneshill.

A high-class performer in bumpers, novice hurdles and novice chases, he has finished second at each of the last three Cheltenham Festivals, namely in the Champion Bumper, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the RSA Chase.

After that last-named performance, he was asked to revert to hurdles to try and capitalise on a staying hurdle division that lacked depth and he duly adapted, finishing second to Thistlecrack at Aintree and having every chance when falling at the final flight in the Champion Stayers Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival.

With his versatility with regard to trip and obstacles very much proven, Shaneshill can be expected to have an eclectic campaign in 2015/16, but he can be fully expected to pay his way in Graded company.

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Simonsig

Nicky Henderson pulled off some exceptional training performances in 2015/16, most notably with Sprinter Sacre and My Tent Or Yours, but while it wasn’t nearly as widely heralded, he did just as good a job with Simonsig.

At one stage, Simonsig looked one of the most exciting horses in training having won the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle and the Arkle Challenge Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival.

However, after the latter success he would miss two-and-a-half years of racecourse action, only returning last November.

He again had a far from clear run of things last season, but Henderson got him back to near his best to finish a close third in the Boylesports Champion Chase at the Punchestown Festival on just his second start of the season.

While he is now a 10-year-old, he has very few miles on the clock and with Nicky Henderson is charge of him, it wouldn’t surprise if he can return to the big-race winner’s enclosure in 2016/17.

Video Form
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Un De Sceaux (FR)

  • 9-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Denham Red - Hotesse De Sceaux (April Night)
  • Trained by: W P Mullins
  • Last Race: Punchestown, 25 Apr 2017 17:30
  • Result: 2/8, close up, led before 5th, ridden after 2 out, pressed from before last, headed and kept on same pace from early run-in
  • View full form

National Hunt racing by its very nature is an exciting sport and there are few more thrilling sights in the game than a bold-jumping front-runner. The Willie Mullins-trained Un De Sceaux has been one of the finest exponents of that art in recent years.

The son of Denham Red looked out of the ordinary from the early stages of his career, with his relentless front-running style seeing him go unbeaten in seven starts over hurdles for Mullins. Though, the real excitement started when he went chasing.

While his chasing career started with a fall when well clear at Thurles, he went through the remainder of his novice chase campaign unbeaten in four starts, winning the Arkle Challenge Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival and the equivalent contest at the Punchestown Festival.

Widely expected to dominate the two-mile chase scene last season, he again started his campaign with a fall, this time at Leopardstown, but bounced back with a professional display in winning the Clarence House Chase at Ascot.

That set the scene for a clash with Sprinter Sacre in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but Un De Sceaux didn’t show his usual sparkle on the firmer going and was readily outpointed by his resurgent rival. He was beaten even more comprehensively by that rival on his next start at Sandown.

A return to softer ground conditions in the Prix La Barka at Auteuil saw him return to winning ways in impressive style, but a step up to an extended three miles and one furlong in the Grande Course De Haies D’Auteuil proved to be beyond his stamina limitations.

While Un De Sceaux’s reputation took a serious knocking in the second half of last season, he remains one of the leading chasers around from two miles up to two-and-a-half miles, with him being a particularly formidable prospect on his favoured soft ground.

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Vroum Vroum Mag (FR)

If one ever wanted to show an example of high-class versatility in a National Hunt racemare, there would be few better recent examples to give than the Willie Mullins-trained Vroum Vroum Mag.

After joining Mullins in 2014, the daughter of Voix Du Nord was sent over fences and embarked on a novice chasing campaign that saw her win all five of her starts in impressive style.

Having made her 2015/16 seasonal reappearance when winning a Grade 3 chase at Clonmel, Mullins took everyone by surprise by reverting her to hurdling thereafter.

Wins at Clonmel and Ascot followed and when Annie Power was subbed into the Champion Hurdle, Vroum Vroum Mag proved more than equal to the task of winning the Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Even more impressive was her next start, as having been a surprise declaration in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle, she made light of the drop in trip to see off Identity Thief by 1¼ lengths.

The truth is, we still don’t know how good Vroum Vroum Mag is and what her ideal trip and obstacles are, as she has shown she can perform to a high level over both hurdles and fences from two miles up to three miles.

Mullins is likely to make use of that versatility once again in 2016/17 and it will be very intriguing to see where she ends up.

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Yanworth

  • 7-y-o; chestnut gelding
  • Breeding: Norse Dancer - Yota (Galetto)
  • Trained by: A King
  • Last Race: Aintree, 8 Apr 2017 16:20
  • Result: Won/11, towards rear, headway from 6 out, led 2 out, ridden before last, held on towards finish, driven out
  • View full form

Alan King has no shortage of exciting sorts in his care, but the pick of them all looks to be Yanworth.

The son of Norse Dancer was only just off the very best bumper horses of the 2014/15 season, but he came into his own when sent over hurdles last season.

He won his first three starts over hurdles in good but not spectacular style, but he very much erupted onto the scene when stepped up to two-and-a-half miles in a Grade 2 novice hurdle at Cheltenham in January, sprinting away from Shantou Village for a highly-impressive seven-length victory.

That performance made him a banker in the eyes of many for the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, but having got caught quite wide throughout, he had no answer to the challenge of Yorkhill in the closing stages and lost out to him by 1¾ lengths.

Yanworth lost little in defeat at Cheltenham and remains a highly-exciting prospect. He will reportedly stay over hurdles this season and with his connections having the option of returning to two miles or stepping him up to three miles, it will be very interesting to observe his progress in the coming months.

Zabana

  • 8-y-o; chestnut gelding
  • Breeding: Halling - Gandia (Danehill)
  • Trained by: A Lynch
  • Last Race: Leopardstown, 28 Dec 2016 15:00
  • Result: 7/13, led and disputed, slight mistake 6th and headed, 3rd halfway, ridden to dispute 2 out, headed entering straight, no extra in 4th before last, kept on one pace
  • View full form

Despite the fact that he was one of the highest-rated hurdlers to be sent novice chasing last season, the Andrew Lynch-trained Zabana embarked on his chasing career very much under the radar.

While the 155-rated hurdler certainly caught some eyes when making a winning chasing debut at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting, he would go on to disappoint on his next start in Grade 1 company at Leopardstown.

That led him to the JLT Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival with something to prove, but in the end, he didn’t get a chance to do so, as a miscommunication between the starter and Zabana’s rider Davy Russell resulted in Russell being unseated as the tape went up.

It was a highly-frustrating incident, but compensation would soon arrive at Punchestown.

Contesting the Grade 1 Growise Champion Novice Chase, Zabana overcame a first-fence error and the unwanted attentions of a loose horse to see off Outlander by two lengths, with him giving the impression he could have pulled out more if required.

That was a performance that put him up amongst the best staying novice chasers in Ireland and suggests he can compete in open staying chase company in 2016/17, especially when he gets his favoured sound surface.

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