Published 03/01/2012 | 05:00
Racing has plenty to look forward to in the year ahead, even though -- at the highest level -- 2011 will be hard to top. During the previous 12 months, we were privy to some superlative action, as equine heavyweights of the calibre of Frankel, Kauto Star, Long Run, Sizing Europe and Hurricane Fly turned in awe-inspiring performances.
Still, at different removes over the next year, the supremacy of such stars will be tested and somewhere along the line colossal reputations are going be dismantled.
The fun, as ever, will be in staking an interest and watching it all unfold. Here we take a look at some of the big issues that look poised to define 2012, while also profiling a handful of rising stars.
Five to watch out for
Jim Culloty is beginning to look like the trainer he always wanted to be. Based in a purpose-built yard in Churchtown since his retirement from riding in 2005, the three-time Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning jockey's six winners this term mean that he is now just one shy of matching his haul for the previous four years.
Having initially chased the quick fix by cashing up for highly rated Flat horses to go jumping with, the Kerry native has gradually returned to more old-fashioned values. The benefits of that transition are becoming evident, with proper chasing types such as Lord Windermere, Barel Of Laughs and Spring Heeled all making an impression on the track.
Nowadays, most of Culloty's horses start off in the point-to-point field, as he did himself. It's a strategy that should serve him well into the future.
Heskin burst on to the scene when displaying maturity beyond his years to steer Church Island to victory in the race formerly known as the Whitbread Gold Cup at Sandown in 2010, following a first Cheltenham Festival win on A New Story in the cross-country race.
When fit, things have largely gone well for Michael Hourigan's 19-year-old protege, but just days after returning from a broken collarbone last May, he had to undergo surgery on a torn cruciate ligament. That kept him sidelined for five months.
As ever, when Heskin returned in November, he was soon riding winners, before he was then controversially slapped with a 12-day ban by the Cheltenham stewards after being led the wrong way in a cross-country race. That ruled him out of action for the busy Christmas period, but you can't keep a good man down for long.
Since taking over from his recently deceased father-in-law Michael O'Brien in 2009, Cullen has emerged as a dual-purpose trainer of some worth. Halfway through his third campaign with a licence, he has accrued 17 winners over jumps, with six of those coming this term.
Cullen further showcased his range of talents on the Flat last summer. Among his first four triumphs in that sphere was Catch The Moment, which picked up in style to deliver him a debut success at the Galway Festival.
Cullen's versatility marks him down as someone who gets the best out of what he has at his disposal, so he ought to graduate to the next level if he can get his hands on the right material. You suspect it's only a matter of time before that happens.
Seventeen-year-old Nenagh native Monaghan landed in the right yard when he was placed with Mick Halford on completing the excellent apprentice jockeys' course at the Racing Academy and Centre Of Education (RACE).
Halford has a history of producing champion apprentices -- two-time holder Gary Carroll the latest to emerge from his Copper Beech Stables -- and Monaghan has progressed well since partnering his first winner at Bellewstown last August.
By the time the turf season ended in November, he had clocked up five more, with a wide range of trainers increasingly keen to use him.
Tactically aware, stylish and possessing of a good pair of hands, Monaghan's tidiness in a finish will improve as he gets stronger and fitter, but all the basics are there for him to make a big impact in 2012.
Following the difficulties St Nicholas Abbey endured under lofty expectations after winning the same Group One in 2009, excitement generated by Camelot's effortless Doncaster rout in October is tempered with caution.
It's also of note that it appears to have been a particularly weak renewal of the mile race. Still, coming from Ballydoyle, the Montjeu colt is an enormously promising three-year-old to look forward to, not least because he did what he did on the back of just one run.
Given that Aidan O'Brien blames his attempt to turn St Nicholas Abbey into a Guineas horse for the way his three-year-old campaign fell apart, it's unlikely Camelot will venture down that particular route. He looks an Epsom Derby horse to the core.
Five hot topics that will shape 2012
A big year for our
Right now, Camelot is the clear favourite for the 2012 Epsom Derby and 2,000 Guineas.
Ditto unbeaten Galileo filly Maybe for the 1,000 Guineas, and Wading for the Oaks. All of which means that Aidan O'Brien is responsible for the market leaders in each of the four main Classics.
In all, four of last season's five English juvenile Group One races went the way of Irish-trained horses: Crusade (O'Brien), Parish Hall (Jim Bolger) and Lightening Pearl (Ger Lyons) joining Camelot.
By the time you add in O'Brien's Breeders' Cup winner Wrote and the classy Maybe, as well as John Oxx's Born To Sea and Akeed Mofeed, the depth of talent wintering over here becomes clear.
Ballydoyle hasn't enjoyed English Classic success since Henrythenavigator took the 2008 Guineas, while only Sea The Stars and New Approach have followed up for Ireland.
No pressure, then.
The whip controversy
Since the latest revision of the initial revision of the revised whip rules in England, things have settled down a little.
By and large, jockeys are finally coming to terms with the restricted strikes and big cards at Sandown, Cheltenham, Newbury, Kempton and Chepstow have passed without major incident.
Still, this issue is dormant rather than extinct.
At Aintree recently, as well as incurring a seven-day ban, Cork-born Aidan Coleman lost out on his cut of a £30,000 purse after being found in breach of the new rules, while a few Irish-based riders have been hit with lengthy bans on their travels in the UK.
How the Irish jockeys cope come the Cheltenham Festival in March will be vital, but there is a chance that the whole thing could blow up before then.
Lest we forget, bans for overuse of the whip are doubled for a second offence and plenty of lads, including Ruby Walsh and AP McCoy, have already transgressed.
Watch this space.
Finding an Irish-trained Cheltenham Gold Cup contender
The Cheltenham Gold Cup is becoming elusive. Again.
After Davy Lad scored in 1977 to conclude a golden era for Irish chasers that yielded 10 wins in 14 runnings of the showpiece event, nine years passed before Dawn Run's climb to immortality.
Ten more bridged the gap to Imperial Call in 1996, and then another nine to Kicking King, so you felt a little spoilt when Mouse Morris' War Of Attrition secured back-to-back triumphs for the raiders in 2006.
Well, something akin to normal service has resumed, with not so much as a sniff of victory since. In 2009, we didn't even have a runner, and Synchronised's comprehensive defeat of Rubi Light and Quito De La Roque at Leopardstown last week was another setback. The immediate outlook is bleak.
Can Frankel continue
on his merry way?
Khalid Abdullah's decision to keep Frankel in training as a four-year-old was as unexpected as it was welcome.
Flat racing is a fundamentally commercial arena, and the covering fee that the unbeaten Henry Cecil-trained colt would command at stud is going to be in the six-figure bracket.
Keeping him in training is the risky option, one few other owners would have taken. For starters, the likelihood of injury increases tenfold, and then there's the potential reputational damage if things don't work out.
However, Abdullah is in this for sport, and he is clearly keen to see if Frankel can further embellish his legacy. The first big test will be the Eclipse at Sandown, where a step up to 10 furlongs awaits.
Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough.
Horse Racing Ireland's 2pc funding cut for 2012 in the December budget was welcomed within the industry as a good result.
In the context of swingeing cuts in other sectors, it was, but it was also the fifth time in four years that the grant has been reduced. Previous cuts totalled 25pc since 2008.
With €26m expected to be raised from betting duty in 2011 but €45m being parachuted Horse Racing Ireland's way, the exchequer's subsidy is considerable.
Two government ministers have declared recently that legislation to snare revenue from online layers will be implemented early in 2012, forecasting an extra €20m yield in a full year.
The complex nature of the proposed mechanism -- first mooted by the last government -- is obvious, so it will be interesting to see if their optimism is justified.
Furthermore, since 2008, there remains no direct link to betting duty generated and the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund, so there is still a lot of work to be done before racing's ship is steadied.