Jumpers that look the part
Ian McClean marks your card as he selects his ten National Hunt horses to follow over the season ahead
T hese are certainly confusing times. Time shifting last weekend. Cyclone warnings this. A French-trained horse called Americain wins the Melbourne Cup on soggy ground.
And yesterday you had to get your brain around the November Handicap at Doncaster mixed with the reappearance of the greatest chaser of our times in Northern Ireland, married to the Breeders' Cup in Kentucky.
In times of such great uncertainty, we need the reassurance of simplicity. So here follows some jumpers to simply keep you warm this winter . . .
The Punchestown Festival novice hurdle won by Willie Mullins' giant French-bred in April may appear innocuous enough, but interestingly the previous two winners of this ungraded novice hurdle (Copper Bleu and Sizing Europe) were both successful over fences at the latest Cheltenham Festival.
And it's not beyond reason that Arvika Ligeonnaire could follow their lead in next March's Arkle. There are fewer bigger chasers of his quality and Mullins reports that he has summered and strengthened better than practically any other horse in the yard. As outsider of Mullins' four runners at 28/1 in Cheltenham's Spa hurdle, the French-bred didn't travel like one for most of the race, looking an ominous threat travelling downhill until stamina ran out. As fascinating a recruit to fences as we will see this season.
Back in 2000/'01 Function Dream lit up the Northern scene in England by winning six races, culminating in a hat-trick in the prestigious Castleford, Victor Chandler and Game Spirit Chases. The brood mare passed away in 2008 but her second foal could potentially provide her with an even more lasting legacy.
At this stage, potential is what the six-year-old has in abundance. After a tender introduction last season, Captain Chris went on to win his next three starts -- the last of which came at Cheltenham's April fixture. He avoided the blue-chip novice events as his more high-profile stablemate Menorah was already mopping those up.
However, in terms of actual achievement there are clear formlines which easily equate the talent of Captain Chris to his more vaunted companion. A recent introduction over hurdles at Chepstow decided trainer Phillip Hobbs there should be no further delay in despatching this bundle of talent over larger obstacles. Expect a slow, steady build-up with an Arkle endgame.
Reve de Sivola
Reve De Sivola is the type of project with which trainer Nick Williams excels. What the horse forfeits in size, readiness, and furnishing, he makes up for in long-term scope.
As a juvenile hurdler, the son of Assessor retired still a maiden. However, after his inaugural racecourse introduction he was restricted to only either Grade One or Grade Two events, rounding off with a staying-on sixth in a fairly vintage Triumph Hurdle. Last season, he never dipped below Grade Two either, winning thrice and finishing second twice -- including two Grade Ones (Challow Hurdle and Punchestown's Cathal Ryan Memorial) in his haul. His achievements were often overshadowed by the older and sexier stablemate Diamond Harry, whose style often overlooked his substance -- the very opposite of Reve De Sivola -- for whom the term workmanlike might have been coined.
His performances throughout last season were all the more meritorious when you consider he tried to bring practically every hurdle, at practically every track, home with him. He must have ruined many in-running layers. If -- as is often the case -- he shows more admiration for fences he could go all the way to the top.
Time for Rupert
Paul Webber was in the process in a recent interview of describing the imposing Time For Rupert as one of the best horses he has ever had -- only to pause and say, hang on, with a rating of 166, he IS the best horse I've ever had.
That rating seemed far from likely after he trailed in over 60 lengths behind Zaynar on his first run last season at Ascot.
However, stepping up to three miles and transferring to Cheltenham changed all that and in the end he was the only runner to remind Big Buck's he was in a race in the World Hurdle in March. Big Buck's previous season's World Hurdle had been fought out with Punchestowns and that rival acquitted himself superbly over fences before injuring himself when favourite for the RSA.
In company with Punchestowns, Time For Rupert would appear more the embryo chaser than hurdler. If indeed Rupert was purely biding his time over the smaller obstacles, then perhaps it will truly be time for Rupert over the large ones.
In most seasons Cheltenham's Arkle hero wins the honour of top-rated performance in the two-mile novice chase division. However, many who witnessed Tataniano's near-perfect demolition of a field including the Arkle third Osana would vote it the most impressive anywhere all season. Indeed, Tataniano was not even lined up for the Arkle at Cheltenham, preferring instead to capitalise on a mark of 144 in the Grand Annual. Ironically, he wasn't even the selection of Ruby Walsh for that race (Walsh preferred Free World) before his late withdrawal on account of the softening ground.
Ground seems an important consideration for the lightly raced six-year-old -- it was given as the excuse for his demise at 2/11 in a three-horse at Newbury in January -- but given benign conditions the Nicholls chaser is as exciting a prospect as there is this year.
whenever Henrietta Knight gets a good horse, the comparison with Best Mate inevitably follows. She has described Arkle runner-up Somersby as more flamboyant, a wild schoolboy type. He lived up to that reputation on his seasonal reappearance last Tuesday at Exeter when racing too freely before staying on late behind his Sandown Henry VIII victim from last December Tchico Polos.
The debate as to Somersby's best trip is no further to resolution as a result, with many suggesting a step up in trip, while the trainer, at least for now, is intent on sticking to the two-mile trip for the Tingle Creek on his next run. His breeding suggests he has a good chance of staying the Gold Cup trip and he may well end up there next March but whichever route he takes he is certain to significantly outrun his current handicap mark of 156 during the season.
The world is his oyster is an overworked cliché but if it applied to one horse from last year's catalogue, that horse would be Peddlers Cross.
He has competed in one point-to-point, a bumper and four hurdle races and is unbeaten in all. He raced in every month from November to April (excepting February) and became truly a horse for all seasons. His victory in the Baring Bingham was only his third ever run over hurdles and it left a deep impression -- an impression that was confirmed again at Aintree.
A very polished jumper of hurdles, he looks every inch the part of a chaser so it was a very confusing compliment when, after his Cheltenham success over two miles five furlongs, he received ante-post quotes for the 2011 Champion Hurdle, World Hurdle, Arkle and RSA Chase.
Reckoned ready to return shortly over hurdles, after that, like I said, the world is his oyster.
If Peddlers Cross boasts a flawless scorecard to date, then Weird Al falls just short of perfection owing to his defeat on his racecourse debut in a bumper at Exeter. A win in a hurdle race followed and when he resumed after injury a year later, he ran up a hat-trick in novice chases culminating in a Grade Two at Wetherby. He was a single-figure price for the RSA Chase at the Festival before a minor cannon fracture to his off-fore ruled him out.
Normal service was resumed a week ago when Ian Williams' eye-apple shared the spoils with Little Josh over a trip too sharp at Carlisle to put him perfectly in line for the Hennessy at the end of the month. Off 152, and with Denman (and possibly Kauto Star) to prop up the weights, Weird Al is a tempting proposition.
Good goods, small parcels could have been invented for the Keith Reveley eight-year-old which in stature looks the very antithesis of an embryo chaser. His record over fences however belies his looks -- winning three from four attempts with only Long Run in Kempton's Grade One Feltham denying him the full set.
Ironically for one so compact, the hallmark of his season was his slick jumping and his redoubtable stamina which proved a potent mix time and again, but once more a minor tendon injury intervened before the Cheltenham Festival. Wins at Doncaster, Huntingdon and Musselburgh speak of his preference for flat tracks so while not Gold Cup class he should pay his way in decent handicaps this season with Doncaster's Skybet Chase a likely mid-season target.
In March, Cue Card became only the fourth British-trained winner of the Festival Bumper from 18 renewals. It is hoped his career fares better than the last English trained winner Liberman (2003) whose trajectory descended ignominiously from Cheltenham and concluded itself in a Newton Abbot bumper four and a half years later.
A Fontwell bumper in January is hardly the typical aperitif for the rigours of the Cheltenham feast but Cue Card beat a quality field on merit. Beautifully bred and with plenty of improvement still in the locker, he can jump hurdles too, on the evidence of his seasonal reappearance at Aintree. Quotes for the Champion Hurdle may seem premature now but we'll happily get another chance to evaluate his true potential next weekend at the Open meeting.