Jumps Season - At The Races


    Graham Dench reflects on the highlights of another memorable National Hunt season.
  • Features

The old guard has largely been swept away by names that few of us would have contemplated 12 months ago and the top of the chasing tree has a very different look to it. This is no source of regret, however, for racing depends upon regular replenishment in every sphere and the stars of the last two or three seasons are likely to be missed only briefly.

While Altior remains at the top of his own division and the people’s great favourite Tiger Rollcontinued to gloriously defy conventional wisdom with a ridiculously easy second win in the Randox Health Grand National, most sectors of the steeplechasing world are currently headed by progressive and previously unconsidered youngsters, an unusual proportion of them just seven years old.

Few of us could have guessed at this time last year that Al Boum Photo would be the horse to provide Willie Mullins with that elusive first win in the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup after so many near misses, and in the process provide jockey Paul Townend with such exquisite redemption for that inexplicable last-fence exit at Punchestown the previous spring.

And surely nobody seriously imagined that Cyrname, strictly limited over hurdles and already seemingly exposed in top company over fences, had it in him to emerge from the pack so sensationally as to threaten the overwhelming supremacy of the unbeaten Altior over shorter distances.

As for Kemboy topping the Anglo-Irish Classifications after near effortless Grade 1 wins at Aintree and Punchestown in the spring - well anyone familiar with the Form Book would have dismissed that notion as pure pie in the sky. Yet that is where we are, and there can be little or no quibbling with it. 

The Gold Cup had real strength in depth to it, with the previous year’s 1-2-3 among the joint biggest field in ten years, and while Al Boum Photo’s defeat of Anibale Fly - with Bristol De Mai third, 2018 winner Native River fourth and favourite Presenting Percy never in it and later reported lame - was not the result many of us were expecting, it did not lack substance. 

There had been gasps from the crowd when Kemboy departed dramatically at the first, just as he had in the previous season’s Irish Grand National, but few of us dwelt on it for too long since he had been soundly beaten in two previous visits to the Festival.

However, at Aintree three weeks later we were all made to sit up and take notice when Kemboy lit up a miserably wet afternoon by barely coming off the bridle in beating both Clan Des Obeaux, who had taken his form to a whole new level by beating Thistlecrack in the 32Red King George VI Chase, and the 2018 Ryanair Chase winner Balko Des Flos.

If Kemboy was hugely impressive at Aintree, he looked every bit as good when providing the perfect send off for the retiring Ruby Walsh in the Coral Punchestown Gold Cup, helping force a strong gallop throughout and staying on resolutely to hold his stable-mate Al Boum Photo by two lengths in a finish which saw the pair pull a mile clear.

There was something of the ‘too good to be true’ about Cyrname’s 21-length demolition of what looked a strong field in a handicap chase at Ascot in January. However, doubters did not have long to wait for confirmation that he is indeed an exceptional talent - under those conditions at least - for just four weeks later he did exactly the same to a proper Grade 1 field headed by Waiting Patiently, Fox Norton and Politologue in the Betfair Ascot Chase. 

On paper it was arguably the best performance by any chaser in Britain last season, significantly better than Altior’s fourth Festival success in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, where he struggled once again before beating Politologue and Sceau Royal, and also his record-breaking 19th successive win over obstacles in Sandown’s Celebration Chase, and marginally better too than the earlier wins at Sandown, Kempton and Ascot. 

Even Altior is starting to look increasingly vulnerable, and if it’s not Cyrname who eventually takes him down then perhaps it will be Min, a 20-length winner from Politologue and Waiting Patiently of the JLT Chase at Aintree, or Min’s stable-mate Chacun Pour Soi, about whom more later.

Al Boum Photo, Clan Des Obeaux, Cyrname and Kemboy are all just seven years old, as are Ryanair Chase winner Frodon and many of last season’s leading novices, including Chacun Pour Soi, Lostintranslation and Topofthegame. The future is all theirs. 

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