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 that status.
The seven-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 last season, his connections elected to send him novice chasing and his campaign very much justified that decision.
Altior didn’t have to be overly extended to win his first three starts in novice chases, but he was thrown into open company for his fourth start in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury in February. Despite facing the likes of Fox Norton and Dodging Bullets, the novice was sent off at 30/100 and produced a devastatingly impressive winning performance to win by 13 lengths.
That victory made him look all-but unbeatable in the Arkle Challenge Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival and that is how it duly panned out, with him winning in more workmanlike style by six lengths after the leader Charbel fell at the second-last fence.
However, the best was still to come from the son of High Chaparral, with him taking on the Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Special Tiara in the Celebration Chase at Sandown in April. Despite what seemed a tough challenge on paper, Altior was sent off at 30/100 and treated Special Tiara with disdain, dismissing him by an impressive eight lengths.
That performance sets the standard in the two-mile chase division and while a clash with the returning Douvan will be hotly anticipated, right now it is Altior that holds the advantage.
While the creation of the Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival remains a point of contention for many that see it as a race that dilutes other championship races at the meeting, 2017 saw the race finally come to the fore by producing a thrilling contest that saw the Gordon Elliott-trained Apple’s Jade come out on top from Vroum Vroum Mag and Limini.
Apple’s Jade had established herself as a top-class juvenile hurdler for Willie Mullins in the 2015/16 season, producing one of the most impressive performances in that division for many years when winning a Grade 1 contest at Aintree by a stunning 41 lengths.
Hopes were high that she could progress into a Champion Hurdle contender last season, but her campaign was turned upside down at the outset when her owners Gigginstown House Stud switched her from Mullins to Gordon Elliott and she met with a surprise defeat on her seasonal reappearance at Down Royal.
That defeat led to a change in plan with the Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival being her new target and Elliott brought her along steadily with a view to peaking on that day. She duly did just that, lowering the colours of her former stable mates Vroum Vroum Mag and Limini with a gritty display in what was a thrilling contest. She arguably produced an even better effort on her final start of the season at the Punchestown Festival, winning the Mares Champion Hurdle by a bloodless 14 lengths.
It seems likely that the Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival will be the target for Apple’s Jade once again and while Vroum Vroum Mag and Limini amongst others will provide tough competition for her, she is the one in pole position at the outset of the campaign.
Every season there are horses that miss the spring festivals due to injury and one that has fallen into that category in each of the last two seasons has been the Gary Moore-trained Ar Mad.
The seven-year-old had stamped himself as a highly-exciting novice chaser in winning four of of his five starts during the 2015/16 season, with his bold-jumping front-running style capturing the imagination of many observers. While injury denied him his chance to compete at the Cheltenham Festival that season, the performances at that meeting of some of his previous victims such as Vaniteux and Bristol De Mai suggested that he would have been capable of running very well.
He made his belated return to action in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown last December and he produced an effort that was as unorthodox as it was admirable. Having made the running at the strong pace, he began to make jumping errors in the middle part of the race that saw him headed and looking well beaten, but he rallied in the closing stages to finish just 3½ lengths behind Un De Sceaux. Unfortunately, that would be the only time Ar Mad was seen on the track last season as a succession of injury niggles meant he didn’t run again.
While little has gone right for Ar Mad in the last couple of seasons and he still has to prove that he is as effective going left-handed as he is going right-handed, he is clearly a very talented horse. Still only a seven-year-old, he shouldn’t be forgotten about this season.
The Champion Hurdle scene underwent a series of seismic changes last season due to leading contenders being injured, but one of the more unlikely stories that emerged from the division was that of the Nicky Henderson-trained Buveur D’Air.
While he won a Grade 1 novice hurdle at Aintree at the backend of the 2015/16 season, Buveur D’Air was not generally considered one of the very best novices from that campaign. With that in mind, his connections decided to send him novice chasing last season and he duly won his first two starts over fences in adequate style.
However, with the Champion Hurdle division looking rather flaky with the continued absence of Annie Power and Faugheen, Buveur D’Air’s connections made the dramatic decision to switch him back to hurdling and it proved to be an inspired decision.
Having got his eye in back over hurdles with a win in Listed company at Sandown, Buveur D’Air went to the Champion Hurdle and produced an authoritative winning performance, 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.
Those victories make Buveur D’Air the standard-setter in the Champion Hurdle division at the outset of the season. With him still only being a six-year-old with just seven runs over hurdles to his name, there is every chance he can find more improvement in his bid to defend his crown.
It is a given that the Mark Bradstock-trained Coneygree has not been the easiest to train, he has only raced 13 times in his near six-year career, but in 2015 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.
Unfortunately, injury has resulted in him having just three starts since then, but he showed he retains the majority of his ability when returning from a five-month absence to finish a tremendous third to Sizing John and Djakadam in the Punchestown Gold Cup in April.
With his preparation for this season reportedly going well, the collective fingers of the National Hunt racing world will be crossed that he stays sound and we get to see him cross swords with his old rivals and the younger generation in the staying chase division this season.
The Colin Tizzard-trained Cue Card really is one of the most remarkable National Hunt horses of the last decade. The son of King’s Theatre won the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival as a four-year-old and has shown truly remarkable durability in the years that have followed that precocious victory.
While his supporters endured some frustrating times during the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons, he looked a different horse from the very outset of the 2015/16 campaign, winning the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby, the Betfair Chase at Haydock, the King George VI Chase, the Betfred Bowl at Aintree and falling when travelling well in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Despite his advancing years, he wasn’t far off his best at times last season, winning the Betfair Chase at Haydock and the Betfair Ascot Chase in tremendous style.
While all logic suggests that he is unlikely to be able to compete at the very highest level this season as he approaches his 12th birthday, Cue Card has been defying his doubters for long enough to suggest that he might have another big day in him.
There have been enough cases of top-class juvenile hurdlers failing to make the significant improvement needed to compete in the Champion Hurdle the following season to justify caution in expressing such hopes at the outset of a new campaign, but there will be plenty that have such hopes for the dominant juvenile hurdler of last season Defi Du Seuil.
Philip Hobbs’s charge went through his juvenile hurdle season unbeaten in seven starts, with him showing steady improvement with each start. The pick of his performances were his last two runs of the season, with him running out the authoritative winner of the Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and then following up in the equivalent contest at the Aintree Grand National meeting.
While his connections were tempted to send him novice chasing this season, they have elected to stay hurdling to try to make the aforementioned leap forward required to compete in open hurdling company. It will be a big leap for him to make, but he has the potential to find the necessary improvement.
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
One of a strong team of staying chasers that Willie Mullins has in his yard, Djakadam has represented himself very well indeed in recent seasons and while he has acquired a reputation as being something of a “nearly horse”, he is still 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.
Since then, Djakadam has won the last two renewals of the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase, but he has fallen agonisingly short on the biggest days, finishing in the frame in the last two Cheltenham Gold Cups as well as the equivalent races at the Aintree and Punchestown Festivals. His most agonising defeat came in his latest start, with him being short-headed by Sizing John in a tremendously exciting renewal of the Punchestown Gold Cup.
While winning a Cheltenham Gold Cup after three previous unsuccessful attempts at it may be too much to ask, Djakadam is still only an eight-year-old and is likely to more Grade 1 days in him.
This time last year, 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 to 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 it would be unfair in the extreme to lower one’s opinion of Douvan based on one defeat for which he had a legitimate excuse, that is what many people seem to have done, with him having been usurped by Altior in the ante-post market for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. With his recovery from injury having been reported to have gone smoothly, the prospect of seeing Douvan back in action is a very exciting one indeed.
The Willie Mullins-trained Faugheen has never quite followed the route that most top-class hurdlers take. He has his own way of doing things, but it has worked very well for him, leading to him earning an official rating that is the equal of the great Istabraq and superior to any ever 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 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.
That all changed the following season when Faugheen lined up in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in January 2016. What transpired was without doubt the most impressive performance of his career, with him making all for a stunning 15-length victory over his stablemate 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. While he was close to reappearing on a number of occasions last season, he never made it back, meaning that it has been nearly two years since we’ve seen Faugheen.
Recent reports suggest that he is in excellent shape, so the collection fingers of the National Hunt racing world are crossed that he stays sound and makes it back to the track this season.
One of the biggest improvers at the top end of the chasing ranks in the 2016/17 was Fox Norton.
Trained by Neil Mulholland to finish in the frame in a succession of Graded novice chases in 2015/16, he began last season as a 146-rated chaser. However, he made a mockery of that rating on his seasonal reappearance in a handicap chase at Cheltenham, bolting up by 11 lengths in the style of a much-improved performer. That performance caught the eye of owner Alan Potts who bought him and switched him to the care of Colin Tizzard.
The son of Lando made the perfect start for Tizzard, winning the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham in great style. He suffered a cut in that race which held him up long enough to result in him not being at fever pitch when he returned to finish second to Altior in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury, but he was in top form for the Cheltenham Festival and he ran a huge race to finish a head second to Special Tiara in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. 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.
With his connections having the option of stepping Fox Norton up in trip this season, the seven-year-old looks to be an exciting prospect for the months ahead.
Won/8, made all, soon went on, slight mistake 3rd, reduced lead 7th, good jump 4 out and extended lead again, slight mistake 2 out, asserted from before last, ridden out and stayed on well run-in
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 six-year-old was not one of Mullins’s higher-profile novice chase prospects at the beginning of last season, but he quickly went about making a name for himself after making his belated seasonal and chasing debut in January.
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.
Considering that Great Field beat Ordinary World at Punchestown by almost as far as the all-conquering Altior had beaten him at the Cheltenham Festival, his connections will be hoping that he can make a successful transition into open chasing company this season. However he fares in his bid to do so, Great Field is sure to be an exciting watch.
Few horses frustrated and excited in equal measure during the 2016/17 National Hunt season to the extent of the Gordon Elliott-trained Labaik.
The son of Montmartre arrived to Elliott with a reputation of being tricky at the start having refused to race when trained both in France and in England. His time with Elliott didn’t begin well with him refusing to race at Listowel in September, but when he consented to jump off in his next two starts he duly won well including in a Grade 3 novice hurdle at Navan. He went back the wrong way after that, refusing to race on two occasions and losing a huge amount of ground before eventually consenting to jump off at Naas in February.
It was off the back of that disastrous series of non-performances that he was sent to the Cheltenham Festival for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. On the day that mattered most, he consented to jump off at the rear of the field and in a spectacular turn of fortunes, he swept through in the closing stages to take the spoils from Melon.
There were hopes that Cheltenham would represent a change in attitude from Labaik, but alas he returned to his old tricks at the Punchestown Festival, losing all chance by starting very slowly in the Champion Novice Hurdle. Not to be deterred, his connections sent him back into the fray a couple of days later for the Punchestown Champion Hurdle and this time he jumped off, running a stormer to finish a close fourth against his more experienced rivals.
That wasn’t the end of the drama, as it transpired that Labaik picked up a career-threatening injury in that race, but he has reportedly recovered well and is on track to race again this season. As is always the case with him, his talent is not in question, but it’s whether or not he fancies racing on any given day which is sure to make him an intriguing watch throughout this season.
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 came to prominence as a novice hurdler when being sent off as one of the Irish bankers of the Cheltenham Festival in the Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle in 2016. She duly delivered on the day, running out the easy 4½ 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 last season until February, 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.
Her two runs last season stamp her as one of the best hurdling mares in training and with her still being lightly raced over hurdles, she promises to be a leading candidate for the Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival this season.
The Nicky Henderson-trained Might Bite was a horse that split opinion throughout his novice chase campaign last season, but no matter whether one loved or loathed him, he was highly entertaining throughout the campaign.
The son of Scorpion burst onto the big-race scene in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on King George day. Having disputed the lead early, he surged away from his rivals fully four fences from home and had the race well and truly shot to bits only to fall at the final fence with the race at his mercy. It was a performance that compared very favourably in terms of times with that of Thistlecrack in the King George on the same card and it was one that stamped him as a top-class novice chaser.
Following a bloodless win at Doncaster in February, Might Bite was sent off as favourite for the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. 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.
As had been the case at Kempton, 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. His final start of the season came in the Mildmay Novices’ Chase at Aintree and there was no repeat of the dramatics, with him beating his old rival Whisper by a straightforward two lengths.
The King George at Kempton is reportedly Might Bite’s first big target and given the display he put up at that meeting last season, it will be a prospect that National Hunt racing fans will be eagerly anticipating.
One of the biggest disappointments of last season was that we never got to see a rematch between the Willie Mullins-trained Min and the Nicky Henderson-trained Altior.
The pair clashed in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 2016 and while Min had been heavily favoured to prevail, it was Altior that emphatically took the spoils. It later emerged that Min had picked up an injury early on in that race, fuelling speculation that he might be capable of turning that form around in the future. When both of them were sent novice chasing last season, the big hope was that they would end up clashing in the Arkle Challenge Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival.
Min made a highly-promising start to his chasing career, bolting up in a maiden chase at Navan prior to really impressing in a Grade 1 novice chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting. However, in February it was revealed that Min would miss Cheltenham after picking up an injury and indeed he didn’t race again for the rest of the season.
With his setback having been minor in nature, hopes will be high that Min retains all of his ability and that his rematch with Altior will happen this season.
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 that season.
While he gained his second successive win in the Morgiana Hurdle last November, he was a shade disappointing in his next couple of starts, so his connections went about testing their long-held theory that he could make up into a Stayers’ Hurdle contender by running him in that race at the Cheltenham Festival. Given a tremendous ride by Ruby Walsh, the seven-year-old swept through to lead on the run-in and prevail by ¾-length to earn what was his eighth Grade 1 win. While he only just failed to win the equivalent race at the Punchestown Festival with Unowhatimeanharry beating him by a head, Nichols Canyon lost nothing in defeat.
Now that Nichols Canyon has proven himself over staying trips, he promises to be a force to be reckoned with in that division.
Of all the staying chasers to emerge from the novice ranks last season, it could be argued that the Jessica Harrington-trained Our Duke starts the new season with the best credentials for a potential Gold Cup winner.
The seven-year-old was just a middle-of-the-road novice hurdler, but he came into his own over fences last season. Having won his first two starts over the larger obstacles including a Grade 1 contest at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting, he was caught out by a drop in trip when second to Disko in the Flogas Novice Chase back at Leopardstown in February. After that his connections took the unorthodox path of deliberately skipping the Cheltenham Festival to target the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse, but that proved to be an inspired decision with him absolutely bolting up by 14 lengths off a mark of 153.
It was a sensational performance of jumping and staying, one that saw him raised to an official rating of 167 which leaves him just 1lb behind the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Sizing John. He seems to be very well equipped for the unique test that the Cheltenham Gold Cup presents and he is a very exciting prospect for the season ahead.
Won/6, held up in last, closer in 4th halfway, ridden in 3rd after 3 out, close 3rd when mistake 2 out, soon 2nd, improved to dispute lead at last, stayed on well run-in and edged ahead close home
Without question one of the biggest transformations of last 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 last 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. It started with his win in the Kinloch Brae at Thurles in January, but it really kicked off when he stepped up to three miles and beyond. Victory in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown set him up for a bid for the Cheltenham Gold Cup and while there were doubts about his stamina, he made light of them by running out the authoritative 2¾ victor in National Hunt racing’s Blue Riband.
While he showed his class at Cheltenham, he showed his guts on his next start in the Punchestown Gold Cup. A bit flat on the day, he was strongly challenged by Djakadam, but the seven-year-old battled on very gamely indeed to prevail by a short-head, becoming the first horse to ever company the Irish, Cheltenham and Punchestown Gold Cup treble.
That sequence of performances makes him the one to beat in the staying chase division this season and while there are more than a couple of top-class prospects coming through this season, Sizing John sets the standard for them all to come up to.
There are a number of interesting staying hurdle prospects coming through from last season’s novice ranks, but perhaps the most interesting and not necessarily the most heralded is the Tom George-trained The World’s End.
The six-year-old was a low-profile recruit to novice hurdling last season with just one win in a bumper to his name, but he made relentless headway once sent over the smaller obstacles. Two wins at Chepstow were followed by a much-improved performance to win a Grade 2 novice hurdle at Haydock in February which set him up for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. Sent off at 10/1, he was still moving well when falling at the penultimate hurdle. Despite this setback, he returned to action at Aintree for the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle and duly gained compensation by running out the ½-length victor.
That win stamps him as a potentially top-class staying hurdler and while he needs to improve again to compete at the highest level in open staying hurdle company, he could well prove to be up to the task.
The Colin Tizzard-trained Thistlecrack is without question of the most exciting and boldly-campaigned stars of the National Hunt game in many years.
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 last season, 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 3¼ 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.
While it was a huge blow to lose him for the remainder of the season, the reports from his connections in recent months have been very positive, raising hopes that he will be back to his best this season. One can only hope that proves to be the case, as the season will be all the better off for the presence of such an exciting performer.
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 in 2015/16, he had a mixed first campaign in open chasing company, winning the Clarence House Chase at Ascot and the Prix La Barka at Auteuil, but twice being beaten by Sprinter Sacre on the days that mattered most at the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals.
While those defeats dented Un De Sceaux’s reputation, he roared back to top form last season, looking more professional than ever in winning the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown, the Clarence House Chase at Ascot and most memorably putting up a ruthless winning performance in the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. While Fox Norton lowered his colours back over the minimum trip at the Punchestown Festival, Un De Sceaux lost very little in defeat.
Un De Sceaux 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, and he promises to provide more than his share of entertainment this season.
Won/12, took keen hold early, chased leaders, 5th from 5th, closed up 4 out, travelling smoothly and almost on terms 3 out, led after 2 out, strongly pressed before last, stayed on well run-in, just held on
Unowhatimeanharry has been a tremendous advertisement of Harry Fry’s training talents. The nine-year-old joined him as an 11-race maiden over hurdles, but was quickly transformed by Fry, with him winning nine of his next 10 starts and improving no less than 44lbs.
The highlight of his novice hurdle campaign was his victory in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 2016 and that performance stamped him as one with the potential to be a leading staying hurdler last season. The first three starts of his season couldn’t have gone much better, with him winning two Grade 2s and a Grade 1 in fine style. Those performances were enough to see him sent off at 5/6 for the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, but he didn’t run up to his best on the day and finished 4¼ lengths third to Nichols Canyon. However, he bounced back to his best in the equivalent race at the Punchestown Festival, getting his revenge on Nichols Canyon by a head.
His performances last season dictate that Unowhatimeanharry begins this season as one of the leading performers in the staying hurdle division. While he may be vulnerable to a younger improver, they will have to come up to the standard set by himself and Nichols Canyon.
2/6, held up early, ran freely, jumped left throughout, led after 4th, badly left at 5th and 6 out, slight mistake 3 out, soon disputed, led before 2 out, ran around approaching last and jumped awkwardly, soon ridden and headed, rallied and just held at line
While he is a horse that tends to split opinion, there is an argument to be made that the Willie Mullins-trained Yorkhill is one of the most talented horses in training. The case for this is that the seven-year-old has won seven of his nine starts over jumps thus far including four Grade 1s despite doing a huge amount wrong in his races.
The son of Presenting has tended to race freely, jump erratically and idle in front throughout his career over hurdles, yet this hasn’t held him back from accumulating a very impressive list of big-race wins including the Neptune Investment Novices’ Hurdle and the JLT Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
His most impressive performance came in the last-named contest last March where he was given a tremendous ride by Ruby Walsh on his way to securing an idling length victory over Top Notch. However, the very worst of him was seen on his next start at the Punchestown Festival with his tendency to jump left being shown off in spectacularly self-defeating style. Despite having lost ground at most of the fences all the way around, he still looked set to prevail only to dive left and make a mistake at the final fence which let Road To Respect take the lead from him. Try and he might to rally, the line came too soon and he lost by an agonising neck. While he was beaten on that occasion, the defeat illustrated just how much raw talent he has and if it can be channelled in the right direction this season, he could be capable of anything.
While every potential target from the Champion Hurdle to the Gold Cup has been mentioned for him, there has yet to be any confirmation of what road he will go down. For what it’s worth, I personally think he would be a more than worthy rival for Altior and Douvan in the two-mile chase division.