Jumps Season - At The Races

Stars In The Spotlight

    Kevin Blake profiles the top jumps horses in training and assesses their chances of more glory.
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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 some of the top established jumps horses in training.

Horse profiles

Altior (IRE)

An unbeaten record at the highest level of National Hunt racing is one of those rare statuses that seem to elevate star horses onto another level of veneration. The Nicky Henderson-trained Altior is one of the very few active performers that can boast such a status.

The eight-year-old was a superb novice hurdler, first earning widespread appreciation as a star of the sport when readily seeing off the challenge of Min by seven lengths in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 2016. While many felt he would be a contender in the Champion Hurdle had he been kept over the smaller obstacles the following season, his connections elected to send him novice chasing and his campaign very much justified that decision.

Altior’s first season over fences was near picture-perfect, with him winning all six of his starts in clear-cut fashion, including two victories in open company that were particularly impressive.

That campaign set him up as the one to beat for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but a potential spanner was thrown in the works early last season when it emerged that a breathing problem had been diagnosed that required surgery. That setback ruled him out of the first half of the season and raised fears that he may not reach the heights expected of him, but those fears proved to be unfounded.

Following a winning return to action in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury, the scene was set for Altior’s biggest challenge yet in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

While he briefly looked in trouble approaching the third-last fence, he surged to the front on the run-in and powered away to win by seven lengths, confirming himself to be the superstar he had been billed. While he was quite workmanlike in his final start of the season in the Celebration Chase at Sandown, he finished the campaign as the undisputed leading two-mile chaser in training.

Altior will begin this season as one of the biggest stars in the sport, a clash with Footpad likely to be one of the most anticipated contests of the entire campaign. One thing for sure is that right now, it is Altior that is in pole position and Footpad is going to have to come and get him.

Bellshill (IRE)

The Willie Mullins-trained Bellshill has always looked to be a highly-talented racehorse, but he also hasn’t always been the easiest to figure out. While he won a Grade 1 bumper and two Grade 1 novice hurdles, that he had failed to run to expectations on the biggest stages at Leopardstown and at the Cheltenham Festival many seemed reluctant to elevate him to the upper echelons of his generation.

Sent novice chasing in 2016/17, a similar pattern emerged to what Bellshill had produced before. Two promising victories were followed by two defeats, most notably when a well-held third behind Might Bite in the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. While he had bounced back from Cheltenham Festival disappointment to win at the Punchestown Festival in each of the previous two seasons, a setback ruled him out of his hat-trick bid that campaign.

Having missed the first half of the 2017/8 season due to injury, Bellshill returned to action with an easy victory in the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse. That set him up for the Irish Grand National back at that track and while he looked to have that race in the bag after jumping the second-last fence, he dramatically hung left and ballooned the final fence, allowing two rivals to pass him.

While that performance raised some concerns about him, he quickly quelled them by producing a career-best effort to win the Punchestown Gold Cup three weeks later, seeing off established stars such as Djakadam and Road To Respect in the process.

That last-named performance stamps Bellshill as a potential Cheltenham Gold Cup contender in 2018/19, but the fact that he has a far better record going right handed (eight wins from nine starts) than left handed (two wins from 10 starts) will inevitably raise some doubts about his prospects in that contest. Whichever route he is sent down, he rates as a fascinating prospect.

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Benie Des Dieux (FR)

Willie Mullins has a knack for sourcing horses from France with unspectacular form that he transforms into high-class performers and that has been showcased in no uncertain terms by Benie Des Dieux.

The daughter of Great Pretender won just three of her nine starts in France and looked exposed over hurdles when joining Mullins, but the Closutton maestro quickly worked his magic with her. She looked a potential star recruit to chasing when making a winning Irish debut at Limerick’s Christmas meeting in 2016, routing her opposition by 30 lengths, but a subsequent injury meant that was her only start of that campaign.

Having been nursed back to health, she picked up where she had left off by winning Listed chases at Carlisle and Naas, but in a surprise move, she was sent back over hurdles to contest the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Given one of the rides of the meeting by Ruby Walsh, the seven-year-old surged up the run-in to secure a ½-length victory. Kept to her own sex for the Mares Champion Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival, she produced an even better performance to register a three-length success that consolidated her position as the leader of that division.

Benie Des Dieux is not dissimilar to Vroum Vroum Mag in that she is seemingly versatile enough to do any job over hurdles or fences. While keeping her to hurdles and aiming her at the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival is an obvious option, it wouldn’t surprise to see her try something different this season. Whatever she does, it is sure to be exciting.

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Buveur D'air (FR)

Two-time winners of the Champion Hurdle are a relative rarity, but the Nicky Henderson-trained Buveur D’Air could well be the least heralded member of that group through no great fault of his own.

A Grade 1-winning novice hurdler that met with his only defeat over hurdles when third to Altior and Min in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 2016, he was sent novice chasing in 2016/17 only to be re-routed back to hurdling following two wins over fences in response to the injuries to leading Champion Hurdle contenders Annie Power and Faugheen. The rest is history, with Buveur D’Air becoming the first horse since Morley Street in 1991 to win the Champion Hurdle having raced over fences earlier that season. He went on to match that performance by following up in the Aintree Hurdle.

Last season, Buveur D’Air had three straightforward races at long odds-on in preparation for the Champion Hurdle, but there was nothing straightforward about the big day. The seven-year-old was pushed every inch of way by Melon and in the end only bested him by a neck in a thrilling contest in what was his final start of the season.

Thus, despite having two Champion Hurdle victories on his CV, Buveur D’Air has yet to be elevated to greatness in the eyes of many. With several promising second-season hurdlers set to come through to challenge him for his crown, this could well be the season that Buveur D’Air either silences the doubters and establishes himself as a tip-top hurdler or is exposed as having capitalised on a weak division.

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Commander Of Fleet (IRE)

While the Grade 1 bumpers at the latter end of last season failed to produce a stand-out star, one horse that emerged in the closing days of the campaign that very much caught the eye was the Gordon Elliott-trained Commander Of Fleet.

The son of Fame And Glory realised €47,000 as a three-year-old at the Goffs Land Rover Sale and made a winning start to his career when he was the only finisher in a point-to-point at Moig South in March 2018. A month later he was sent to the Punchestown Festival to make his racecourse debut in the always-competitive Land Rover Bumper and he could hardly have made a better impression.

Racing towards the front of the field, he left his well-bunched rivals for dead on the entrance to the straight, surging clear under Barry O’Neill to register an 8½ lengths victory. It was a stunning performance, one which was sufficient to put him not far behind the best bumper performers of the season.

Gigginstown House Stud might be well known for nursing their chasing prospects through their novice hurdling seasons, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Commander Of Fleet proves to be amongst the better novice hurdlers this season.

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Douvan (FR)

  • 9-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Walk In The Park - Star Face (Saint Des Saints)
  • Trained by: W P Mullins
  • Last Race: Punchestown, 24 Apr 2018 17:30
  • Result: 2/9, tracked leader in 2nd, jumped slightly right 4 out, slight mistake next, ridden in 2nd entering straight, no impression on winner before last, kept on same pace run-in
  • View full form

This time two years ago, the Willie Mullins-trained Douvan was undoubtedly the most exciting National Hunt horse in training. Unbeaten in 10 starts for Mullins, he was a top-class novice both over hurdles and over fences and his transition into open company over fences was expected to be seamless.

The campaign started off as it was expected to, with him bolting up at very short prices in Grade 2 and Grade 1 company in Ireland. He arrived at the Cheltenham Festival for the Queen Mother Champion Chase in what was billed as his crowning moment, but disaster struck, with him putting in uncharacteristically over-big leaps in the early stages and looking in trouble a long way out, eventually trailing home in seventh. He was found to be lame after the race and was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his pelvis which ended his season.

While at one point Douvan was ruled out for the remainder of last season, he made an unexpectedly fast recover and made his long-awaited return in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

Ridden by Patrick Mullins after Ruby Walsh was injured earlier in the day, Douvan raced with great spark until taking a crashing fall at the fourth-last fence. Sent on a retrieval mission at the Punchestown Festival, Douvan was unable to peg back his front-running stablemate Un De Sceaux but ran a valiant race to finish second.

Douvan’s star may not be shining as brightly as it once was, but he is just still an eight-year-old and with a clean bill of health, his best days could yet still be ahead of him. One thing for sure is that if he meets Altior again when both are in top form, it could well be one of the races of the season.

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Faugheen (IRE)

The Willie Mullins-trained Faugheen has had a roller coaster career. He has his own way of doing things, but it has worked very well for him, leading to him at one point earning an official rating that was the equal of the great Istabraq and superior to any rating ever achieved by the great Hurricane Fly.

A winning point-to-pointer, he proved 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, achieving all of this whilst never really convincing with his jumping technique.

However, he put it all together in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in January 2016, producing a stunning performance on route to beating Arctic Fire by 15 lengths. 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 at their very best.

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.

While he was close to reappearing on a number of occasions in 2016/17, he didn’t make it back to the track until November 2017. However, it proved to be worth the wait, with him producing an incredible performance to beat Jezki by 16 lengths in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown.

The joy following that victory was short lived for his supporters, as he was pulled up in his next start in the Ryanair Hurdle and that was followed by two rather lacklustre defeats at Leopardstown and the Cheltenham Festival. Perhaps in more hope than expectation, Faugheen was then stepped up in trip for the Champion Stayers Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival and once again came back from the brink by producing a stunning 13-length victory.

With the obvious option of staying hurdling as well as the possibility of a belated novice chasing campaign in the offing for Faugheen, it seems as though his time as one of the stars of the sport is far from over just yet.

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Footpad (FR)

Perhaps the most stunning rise up the ranks of the last National Hunt season was that of the Willie Mullins-trained Footpad. The son of Creachadoir had established himself as a high-class hurdler in two seasons over the smaller obstacles, finishing fourth in the Champion Hurdle in 2017, but from the very first fence he jumped in public last season, he seemed destined to climb to all-new heights as a chaser.

Footpad could hardly have been more impressive throughout his novice chasing campaign, showing an aggressive yet efficient jumping style that looked effortless. Two wide-margin wins were followed by a comfortable defeat of his old rival Petit Mouchoir in the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown which set the scene for the Arkle Challenge Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival.

Sent off as the 5/6 favourite, there was a major scare for Footpad when he made a serious mistake at the sixth fence, but he soon recovered and powered away from his rivals to prevail by 14 lengths. He was perhaps even more impressive in securing another wide-margin victory at the Punchestown Festival the following month.

Footpad is without question one of the most exciting National Hunt horses in training. While the Queen Mother Champion Chase and a potential clash with Altior is a mouth-watering prospect, his connections have also raised the possibility of him stepping up in trip, which is just as exciting.

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Fox Norton (FR)

“Out of sight, out of mind” could well have been coined specifically with National Hunt racing in mind, as top-class performers that are absent from the track for any length of time can quickly slip from the mind. One example of this is the Colin Tizzard-trained Fox Norton, as while we didn’t get to see him on the track in the second half of last season due to injury, it wouldn’t at all surprise to see him surge back to prominence this season.

Ever since joining Colin Tizzard, the son of Lando has looked a top-class performer. He ran a huge race to finish a head second to Special Tiara in the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2017 and even better was to come after that, with him bolting up in the Melling Chase at Aintree and then getting the better of Un De Sceaux in a memorable renewal of the BoyleSports Champion Chase at the Punchestown Festival.

Fox Norton made the perfect start to last season when winning the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham, but narrowly came up short against Politologue in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown on his next start. He then stepped up to three miles for the King George VI Chase at Kempton but was pulled up and found to be suffering from a back issue.

While it had been hoped to have him back to contest the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, a slight injury to his suspensory ligament ruled him out for the rest of the season.

While it may have been the better part of a year since we have seen Fox Norton on the racecourse, it wouldn’t surprise to see him return to be a big factor in middle-distance chases this season.

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Great Field (FR)

There are few more exciting sights in National Hunt racing than a free-going bold-jumping two-mile chaser and the Willie Mullins-trained Great Field very much fits that bill.

The seven-year-old was not one of Mullins’s higher-profile novice chase prospects at the beginning of the 2016/17 season, but he quickly went about making a name for himself after switching to the larger obstacles.

The son of Great Pretender was rumoured to be an erratic jumper even before his chasing debut, but Jody McGarvey was equal to the challenge that the ride presented. While their journey through the remainder of the campaign wasn’t without jumping-related drama, they proved to be a well-matched pair as they won four races in succession, culminating in a very impressive 11-length victory in the Ryanair Novice Chase at the Punchestown Festival despite a slipped saddle.

Considered a contender for the Queen Mother Champion Chase last season, Great Field’s campaign was dogged by injury. Indeed, he didn’t reappear until making a winning return in a Grade 2 chase at Navan in late March. While it was hoped that he would then step up in class for the Punchestown Festival, he didn’t make it there.

While Great Field may only have run once in the last 18 months, he remains one of the most exciting horses in training. With a bit of luck, 2018/19 will be the season that he gets a clear run to show his abundant talents to the world of National Hunt racing on the biggest stages.

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Kalashnikov (IRE)

One of the rising stars of the training ranks in Great Britain is Amy Murphy and her stable star is unquestionably Kalashnikov.

The son of Kalanisi made a promising start to his career when winning a bumper at Wetherby in March 2017. Sent novice hurdling the following season, he won his first two starts in that sphere prior to be outpointed by Summerville Boy in the Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle at Sandown.

Switched to handicap company for the valuable Betfair Hurdle at Newbury, Kalashnikov overcame his relative inexperience to run out the authoritative winner, very much stamping himself as a Supreme Novices’ Hurdle contender. Sent off at 5/1 for that race at the Cheltenham Festival, Jack Quinlan sent him to the front after the third-last flight and looked set to prevail only for his old rival Summerville Boy to nail him by a neck in the final strides.

With novice chasing reportedly being the plan for Kalashnikov, he is without question one of the most exciting recruits to the larger obstacles this season. He is very much open to more improvement and it isn’t a surprise that he will begin the campaign as the ante-post favourite for the Arkle Challenge Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival.

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Laurina (FR)

Willie Mullins has produced a string of exciting National Hunt mares in recent years and the latest one to emerge from his equine academy is Laurina.

While the daughter of Spanish Moon didn’t look out of the ordinary in her one completed start when trained in France, she wasted no time in making an impression once she was switched to the care of Mullins.

Having bolted up in a mares’ maiden hurdle at Tramore and a Grade 3 mares’ novice hurdle at Fairyhouse, she was sent off at 4/7 for the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. What followed was perhaps the most visually impressive display of the entire meeting, with Laurina running out the facile 18-lengths victor.

From there, she was stepped up in trip to contest the EBF Mares Novice Hurdle Championship Final at the Fairyhouse Easter Festival and she registered another bloodless victory, this time by eight-and-a-half lengths.

Laurina has many options, with the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle perhaps being the most obvious. However, it wouldn’t surprise if her connections were more ambitious than that and campaigned her towards the Champion Hurdle. Mullins has also mentioned the possibility of her being sent chasing.

Whichever route Laurina is sent down, it would be a mistake to underestimate her, as she looks to have the talent to climb to the very top of the sport.

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Limini (IRE)

One of the leading players in what has become an exciting mares’ hurdle division is the Willie Mullins-trained Limini.

The daughter of Peintre Celebre first came to prominence as a novice hurdler in 2015/16 when being sent off as one of the Irish bankers of the Cheltenham Festival in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. She duly delivered on the day, running out the easy four-and-a-half lengths victor.

However, her reputation took two notable blows later that season, with defeats at the Aintree and Punchestown Festivals suggesting that she might not have been quite as good as she looked at Cheltenham.

An interrupted preparation meant that she didn’t reappear until February 2017, but she made quite the splash when she did, lowering the colours of Apple’s Jade. Based on that, she was sent off as favourite for the Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, but try as she might, she couldn’t get to grips with Apple’s Jade on the day and finished a close third.

Injury problems kept her off the track for the entire 2017/18 National Hunt season, but she did return to the Flat in recent months, winning the Petingo Premier Handicap at Leopardstown on Irish Champions Weekend. That form suggests that her ability is very much intact, and it will be exciting to see her back over hurdles this season.

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The Willie Mullins-trained Melon had been the subject of very bullish reports long before he ever had his first start in Ireland and while it has taken him some time, he has very much justified the regard he was held in.

An import off the Flat in France, Melon was talked of as a potential Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner before he had even made his hurdling debut in January 2017 and he duly got the job done by 10 lengths that day. Sent straight to Cheltenham without another run, he almost overcame his inexperience, but was outgunned late on by the enigmatic Labaik. Another defeat at the Punchestown Festival meant that he went into the summer months with a damaged reputation.

However, slowly but surely, he went about rebuilding his name last season, winning the WKD Hurdle at Down Royal prior to running very well on disadvantageous terms behind My Tent Or Yours and The New One in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham.

That was followed by a below-par performance in the Irish Champion Hurdle, but Mullins had a theory that the first-time hood he wore might not have suited him. That proved to be correct, as Melon not only bounced back, but proved better than ever on his next start in the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, making Buveur D’Air pull out all the stops and only losing out by a neck to him.

Unfortunately, his season ended on a low note when he fell at the third-last flight when holding every chance in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle.

With Melon still only being a six-year-old with just eight starts over hurdles to his name, it is very much possible that he could find some more improvement this year. He rates as one of the leading Irish-trained contenders in the two-mile hurdling division.

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Might Bite (IRE)

The Nicky Henderson-trained Might Bite is a horse that has split opinion for much of his career, but no matter whether one loves or loathes him, his talent cannot be questioned, and he has also proven to be highly entertaining.

A promising hurdler that shot to prominence as a novice chaser, Might Bite was sent off as favourite for the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in 2017. Throughout the lively build up to the meeting, plenty were willing to oppose him due to his quirks and an alleged aversion to Cheltenham.

Given all the pre-race talk, the race could hardly have panned out any more dramatically. Might Bite had the race seemingly sewn up from a long way out, but he got lonely in front and having made a mistake at the last fence, he veered out to his right up the run-in which allowed Whisper to sweep through and take the lead.

It looked all over at that point, but quite remarkably, Might Bite rallied up the hill to lead again in the very last stride and prevail by a nose. It was a sensationally dramatic finish that not only showcased Might Bite’s quirks, but also showed just how talented he was to overcome such waywardness.

Last season saw Might Bite transition to open company and he duly passed his first big test when winning the King George VI Chase at Kempton by an idling length. Sent straight to the Cheltenham Gold Cup from there, the pre-race chat again centred on the potential for Cheltenham to bring out his wayward side, but what prevailed was a tremendous horse race with him just losing out to the relentless Native River by four-and-and-a-half lengths on rain-softened ground.

Might Bite showed no ill-effects from that tough race by rounding off his season by winning the Betway Bowl at Aintree in good style.

Might Bite is without doubt one of the very best chasers in training and is sure to be a major factor in the staying chase division. Indeed, if a sounder surface prevails in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March than did last season, his connections are likely to be hopeful that he can go one better than he did on that occasion.

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Min (FR)

The Willie Mullins-trained Min had more than hinted that he could be a top-class performer in his light novice hurdle and chase campaigns and last year in his first season in open chasing company he confirmed that impression.

Having returned from the injury that robbed of his chance of a rematch with Altior in the Arkle Challenge Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival, Min got last season off to a winning start at Gowran Park.

However, having raced too freely in the early stages and interfered with Simply Ned on his way to narrowly winning the Paddy's Rewards Club Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting, the stewards placed him behind that rival.

A more settled performance at the Dublin Racing Festival saw him emphatically reverse that form and he went to the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival as the main danger to his old rival Altior.

However, try as he might, Altior proved too strong for Min on the day. A narrow defeat at the hooves of Politologue in the Melling Chase at Aintree followed and he rounded off his campaign with a disappointing fourth at the Punchestown Festival.

With Min’s best trip now seemingly established as being two miles, he can be expected to have a lucrative campaign over that distance.

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Native River (IRE)

There is something wonderful about a top-class staying chaser that makes the running and the Colin Tizzard-trained Native River has established himself as one of the most effective practitioners of that style at the highest level in recent years.

The son of Indian River has always been a strong-staying sort that sought to grind his opponents into the ground from the front and those tactics have unsurprisingly seen him collect a vast fan club over the years.

Having completed a rare double by winning both the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury and the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow prior to finishing third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2016/17, his connections opted to give him a lighter campaign last season that centred around the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Following an impressive return to action in the Denman Chase at Newbury in February, Native River’s connections would have been delighted to see soft ground prevail at the Cheltenham Festival for his second bid for the race.

Given a no-nonsense ride by Richard Johnson, the eight-year-old engaged in a great battle with Might Bite from quite a way out but proved too strong for him on the run-in and prevailed by four-and-a-half lengths. It was a result that very much justified the Tizzard’s unorthodox approach to the race and one which established him as the leading staying chaser in training.

With a bid to retain his Gold Cup crown sure to be the main objective for Native River this season, it will remain to be seen how much we see of him prior to then. However, if he turns up to Prestbury Park in the same form that he did last March, he will be a tough nut for his rivals to crack.

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Next Destination

  • 7-y-o; bay gelding
  • Breeding: Dubai Destination - Liss Alainn (Flemensfirth)
  • Trained by: W P Mullins
  • Last Race: Punchestown, 25 Apr 2018 16:55
  • Result: Won/11, soon chased leaders in 5th, closed and slight mistake 2 out, 3rd approaching straight, soon on terms, gained narrow lead run-in and stayed on well
  • View full form

One of the most exciting parts of the National Hunt season is watching the embryonic chasers that lit up the novice hurdle divisions the previous season have their first starts over fences. One such horse whose novice chase career will be highly anticipated is the Willie Mullins-trained Next Destination.

The son of Dubai Destination progressed into a high-class novice hurdler last season, winning the Lawlor’s Of Naas Novice Hurdle at Naas and the Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival either side of a better-than-the-result third to Samcro in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Throughout his novice hurdle campaign, Next Destination shaped like one that would relish a strong test of stamina over fences. Given that he was a notably fluent jumper of a hurdle, hopes will be high that he can transfer that fluency to fences.

If his transition is a smooth one, he could be expected to make up into a contender for the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

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Not much tends to amaze with Willie Mullins anymore, but what he did with Penhill to get him to win the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March on what was his first run of the season was right up there with his very best training performances.

A recruit off the Flat, Penhill had been campaigned through the summer months as a novice hurdler in 2016/17, winning at the likes of Tramore, Galway, Listowel and Tipperary. Kept fresh for the Cheltenham Festival after Christmas, he was produced in tip-top shape to win the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle in fine style.

Following a defeat in the equivalent contest at the Punchestown Festival, Penhill picked up injuries that led to him being off the track for almost a year. However, Mullins trained him with one day in mind and produced him back at the Cheltenham Festival without the benefit of a prep race to win the Stayers' Hurdle in March.

While he proved to be no match for Faugheen in contrasting conditions at the Punchestown Festival, it was very much a case of a job well done for the season in what were difficult circumstances.

With Mullins having hinted that he might well look to repeat the same feat of delivering Penhill to the Cheltenham Festival without a prep run, it may be quite a while before we see him on the track, but this talented seven-year-old will be a force whenever he runs.

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Presenting Percy

Trained by Pat Kelly, Presenting Percy has been one of the most talked about National Hunt horses of recent seasons and begins this campaign as the leading Irish hope for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

A progressive handicap hurdler in 2016/17, he was the subject of great controversy regarding the handicap mark he was given for the Pertemps Network Final at the Cheltenham Festival, with the strong feeling being that he had been harshly treated by the handicapper. As it transpired, his mark mattered little, as he absolutely bolted up in the style of a Grade 1 performer.

Sent novice chasing last season, he made an impressive start over the larger obstacles at Galway in October, but followed it up with a disappointing defeat in Grade 2 novice company at Punchestown. In the first of what was a series of unorthodox campaigning maneuverers, Pat Kelly then stepped him up to three miles and five furlongs for the Porterstown Handicap Chase at Fairyhouse. As unorthodox as it was, it yielded a handsome result, with Presenting Percy absolutely bolting up by 11 lengths.

Given a short break after that, he took up another unorthodox option, reverting to hurdles for the Red Mills Hurdle at Gowran Park. Yet again, the decision proved correct, with him running out the easy winner. Now strongly fancied for the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, Kelly made yet another surprising move when opting to switch him to open company to take on the leading Gold Cup fancy Our Duke in the Red Mills Chase over two-and-a-half miles at Gowran Park. In what was a fascinating contest, Presenting Percy finished a close second to Our Duke under a considerate ride from Davy Russell.

From there, Presenting Percy went to his RSA Chase and after the rain arrived, he was sent off favourite. What he produced was one of the most impressive performances of the entire Cheltenham Festival, travelling and jumping with great power and idling the whole way up the straight on his way to an easy seven lengths victory.

It was a performance that very much marked him down as the leading Irish hope for the Cheltenham Gold Cup and it will be fascinating to watch his progression this season.

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Samcro (IRE)

Such was the amount of hype surrounding the Gordon Elliott-trained Samcro in the early part of last season, his owner Michael O’Leary felt it necessary to clarify that the son of Germany was “not the next coming of Jesus Christ!” However, as the season progressed, his charge grew into his lofty reputation in no uncertain terms.

Samcro made a winning debut in a point-to-point for Colin Bowe and subsequently changed hands for £335,000. Having won all three of his starts in bumpers for Gordon Elliott, he embarked on his novice hurdle campaign last season. Wide-margin wins at Punchestown and Navan followed, but it was his impressive success in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival that really set the National Hunt racing world into overdrive on him.

Sent off at 8/11 for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, he didn’t disappoint his supporters, winning by a comfortable 2¾ lengths.

The discussion of which race he would run in at the Punchestown Festival was a controversial one as it took place against the background of the battle for the trainers’ championship between Elliott and Mullins, but it was ultimately decided that Samcro would step into open company and contest the Punchestown Champion Hurdle.

All was going smoothly until disaster struck at the third-last hurdle, with Samcro falling. Thankfully, he got up unharmed.

While the question of whether Samcro will stay hurdling or be sent chasing has yet to be answered, whatever he does, he will be considered one of the most exciting prospects in the sport.

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There are a couple of particularly exciting staying novice chase prospects trained in Great Britain, but perhaps the pick of them is the Nicky Henderson-trained Santini.

The son of Milan made a winning start in a point-to-point at Didmarton prior to joining Henderson. Having made a winning start over hurdles at Newbury, he won the Ballymore Classic Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in January, booking his place in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Despite his inexperience, he ran a stormer to finish third to Kilbricken Storm in what were gruelling conditions. The six-year-old showed his toughness by bouncing out of that run and improving for it when winning the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree a month later.

That form very much stamped Santini as an exciting staying novice chase prospect for this season. His connections have only ever considered him a chaser in the making and it wouldn’t surprise to see him take high order in that division.

Sizing John (GB)

Without question one of the biggest transformations of the 2016/17 season was that of Sizing John. Originally trained by Henry de Bromhead to be a high-class novice over both hurdles and fences at trips of around two miles, at the beginning of that season he was switched to Harrington who set about stepping him up in trip.

The change in distance proved to be inspired, as Sizing John quickly went from being a “nearly horse” at the highest level to being the best staying chaser in training, completing a remarkable treble of the Irish Gold Cup, Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Punchestown Gold Cup.

While there were fears that such a tough campaign might leave a mark on him, Sizing John showed them to be unfounded by making an impressive winning return to action last season in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase.

However, he was backed up just 18 days later for the Leopardstown Christmas Chase and produced a very flat effort in finishing seventh. Harrington set about freshening up her stable star for his bid to retain his Gold Cup crown, but disaster struck just a week before the race with him suffering a pelvic injury that ruled him out for the remainder of the season.

Much may have happened in Sizing John’s absence from the spring festivals, but his talent cannot be questioned, and it will be fascinating to see him return to the division in 2018/19.

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Summerville Boy (IRE)

Tom George has a couple of top-class prospects in his care at present and chief among them is the Champion Hurdle hope Summerville Boy.

Originally trained by Sam Curling to win a bumper at Killarney in May 2017, he changed hands for £130,000 soon after and was sent to Tom George.

A narrow defeat in a maiden hurdle at Stratford in October 2017 encouraged his connections to throw him in at the deep end thereafter and he finished second in Grade 2 novices’ hurdle company prior to finishing third to the well-regarded Western Ryder in a novices’ hurdle.

While he was still a maiden, George clearly retained his faith in his horse and sent him to the Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle at Sandown for his next start. It was there that the son of Sandymason made the breakthrough, seeing off Kalashnikov by four lengths to break his hurdling maiden in style.

From here, he went straight to the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and despite not perhaps being given as much respect by the market as his form demanded, he overcame a couple of serious jumping errors to grab the verdict by a neck in the dying strides.

While novice chasing had been considered for him, Summerville Boy will stay over hurdles and be aimed at the Champion Hurdle. More improvement will be needed from him to make the jump up to that class, but there is every possibility that he could well make that leap.

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The Colin Tizzard-trained Thistlecrack has been without question of the most exciting and boldly-campaigned stars of the National Hunt game in many years, but he will commence his 2018/9 campaign with questions to answer.

A top-class staying hurdler that dominated that division in 2015/16, he could have stayed hurdling and been likely to continue to dominate it for years to come, but his connections not only made the brave decision to send him chasing in 2016/7, they made it clear that he was being targeted at the Cheltenham Gold Cup rather than sticking to novice company. What transpired was a truly memorable campaign for him.

While he didn’t convince everyone with his jumping in his first three starts over fences, he was still thrown into the best of company in his bid to become the first novice to win the King George VI Chase at Kempton. Taking on his stablemate Cue Card, Thistlecrack produced a sensational performance to have the race wrapped up early in the straight, eventually coming home three-and-a-quarter lengths in front of Cue Card.

Installed as the short-priced favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup following that victory, he was sent to that track for his final prep race for it in the Cotswold Chase in February. While he seemed to have a straightforward task, the Grand National winner Many Clouds had different ideas, with the two engaging in a tremendous battle from the second-last fence with Many Clouds coming out on top by a head.

The post-script to the race was doubly tragic, as Many Clouds dropped dead soon after the finish and three weeks later it was revealed that Thistlecrack had suffered a slight tear to a tendon that ruled him out for the season.

Having recovered, he returned to action last season with a solid run over hurdles before bidding to defend his King George crown at Kempton. He ran well, but could get no closer than 5¾ lengths to Might Bite. Unfortunately, he picked up a season-ending injury soon after that and hasn’t been seen since.

So, while we have seen very little of Thistlecrack in the last year, his connections will be doing all they can to get him back to his brilliant best for this season.

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Tiger Roll (IRE)

There can have been few horses that can boast the versatility of the Gordon Elliott-trained Tiger Roll. The eight-year-old has built up an incredible CV, winning three times at the Cheltenham Festival in a series of races as eclectic as the Triumph Hurdle, the National Hunt Chase and most recently the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase.

However, his most remarkable win came in his most recent start in the Aintree Grand National. Not only is he a diminutive horse that had not seemed to enjoy the Aintree-style fences he met on the cross-country course at Cheltenham, the ground had turned heavy which was very much considered to be against him.

Despite all of this, Davy Russell guided his willing partner around the unique track and surged clear early on the run-in only to tire close home and only just hold on by a head. It was a truly remarkable achievement, one which secured Tiger Roll’s status a real cult hero amongst National Hunt aficionados.

Gordon Elliott has said that Tiger Roll is likely to be sent down a similar route again this season, which the two main aims being the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase at the Cheltenham Festival and the Aintree Grand National. He is certain to have a big following along the way and it would take a brave man to rule him out anywhere he goes.

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