Novice chasing ranks swell with some real contenders
Ian McClean leans towards young talent in his 10 to follow for the jumping season
Pinpointing precisely where we are on racing's calendar is readily encapsulated in the fact that the second favourite for next March's Cheltenham Gold Cup (Time For Rupert) reappeared back to back with the final appearance of the second favourite for next year's Derby (Born To Sea) on the same weekend that the clocks go back.
For wary punters, this period is a sporting twilight that often brings with it Twilight Zone results. For Flat racers, it signals the start of hibernation. Whilst for jumps enthusiasts, the near interminable wait is finally materialising into a frisson of hope and giddy anticipation. In the same spirit of anticipation, here are 10 jumpers to keep you warm this winter.
I have deliberately avoided the very obvious and have erred towards those I feel have it still within them to accomplish even higher heights. Perhaps, even in some cases, the very highest.
As "Get Broke Quick" schemes go, they don't come much better than buying NH store horses for big money. However, Captain Chris is one of a rare breed that has almost already repaid the eye-watering £220,000 tag he fetched at the 2007 Derby Sales.
All the more remarkable given he only saw a racecourse for the first time barely a year before his victory in the 2011 Arkle. Indeed, for much of the approach to Cheltenham it seemed far more likely he would run in the half-mile longer Golden Miller -- and certainly would have had his owner not had Wishfull Thinking already earmarked for that event. Still relatively inexperienced, he always appeared as if he would transmute into an even better chaser this season. As he broke his maiden over fences at Kempton in the Grade Two Pendil Chase, he seems tailor-made King George material.
Graham and Diana Whateley must have spent most of last season pinching themselves -- for as well as owning Captain Chris, their colours were worn by another equally exciting novice in Wishfull Thinking. If there was a more accurately athletic jumper of an obstacle amongst the first-season chasers then I didn't see it. Having finished second at Cheltenham, he followed an exhibition at Aintree by signing off with a spectacular win at Punchestown that Timeform rated 9lbs clear of any other novice performance throughout the campaign. Captain Chris ironically was rated second best.
In the Punchestown graded novice handicap, 13 of Wishfull Thinking's 16 rivals raced from out of the handicap, yet he still humped top-weight to an ultra-smooth victory. Even the great Jodami failed in his bid to carry top-weight in this race. Likely to start this campaign -- again with top-weight -- in the Paddy Power.
A third sophomore chaser for this campaign, Ghizao has two comprehensive victories over Captain Chris in his CV from last year. Unfortunately for him, Captain Chris gained comprehensive revenge in the Arkle where a critical mistake at the ditch on top of the hill put paid to his chances.
Compensation looked to be his in Aintree's Maghull Novice Chase when a jumping misdemeanour -- this time at the second last -- wrestled defeat from the jaws of victory against Finian's Rainbow. The great irony remains that jumping is actually a strong point for this son of Tiger Hill and provided he can keep his concentration, he can take high rank amongst a weakened two-mile chase division this season. Starts off in the Haldon Gin at Exeter on Tuesday.
Peddlers Cross stretched his unbeaten record to seven under rules before finally giving way in one of the strongest renewals of the Champion Hurdle in recent memory. He went down gallantly to the insuperable Hurricane Fly -- the pair well clear of Oscar Whisky and Thousand Stars. That pair in turn went on to win the Aintree Hurdle and France's top hurdle race, the Grand Course de Haies, in subsequent outings -- reinforcing the fact that Peddlers Cross would have been a worthy Champion Hurdle winner in most other years.
Still just six, and a maiden point winner in 2009, he has the make and shape of a chaser and as such is one of the most exciting and highest-rated hurdlers to go fencing in recent years. All roads will inevitably lead to the Arkle and that road is scheduled to start at Bangor early next month.
It seems peculiar when a horse, priced as fourth favourite for the Supreme Novices Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, is being spoken of more fondly in the context of the next year's Arkle by his trainer in the run-up to the race. However, such was the case for five-year-old Sprinter Sacre and just one look at him quickly reveals why.
The cliché "embryo chaser" could have been coined for him. Victorious in four of his five starts prior, he travelled like the best horse for most of the Supreme Novice -- only for lack of physique and torque to tell up the final hill. A year older and stronger and with the obstacles more made to measure, he looks like a formidable force for this season.
"We are not going to waste another season over hurdles" is a peculiar comment for a trainer (Colin Tizzard) to make about a four-year-old eight-length Festival Bumper winner in 2010, which started one of the shortest-priced favourites at the 2011 Festival (7/4 for the opening Supreme Novices). Already a horse hyped in the manner of some child prodigy, his pedigree suggests his trainer is fully vindicated in sending him straight over fences now.
Most of his family improved significantly for the switch to fences and a step up in trip. Furthermore, his recent debut win at Chepstow was characterised by swiftness and fluency. Yet another to swell the appetite for the new crop of young chasers.
Not many hurdlers win a competitive Grade Two on their debut. Fewer still win a Triumph Hurdle on their second start. However, that was the sequence of events befalling Zarkandar after his gelded transfer from the Aga Khan following his three-year-old career.
One further run continued his 100% record in his new career when he doubled up with the Grade One Hurdle at Aintree after which he was sensibly let off for the season. His twin engines of slick jumping combined with a lethal turn of foot will make him a strong candidate for top hurdling honours this year.
the real article
Hindsight might continue to scratch its head as to how The Real Article didn't win the 2011 Galway Hurdle from a handicap mark of just 127. Surrounded by media coverage of presidential proportions, the whole world seemed to know The Real Article was a better horse than his rating in Ballybrit.
History records the horse finished fourth, beaten seven lengths in July, but handicap ratings today record a rating of 147. In two races since his failure at Galway, The Real Article has won a Flat race and a Grade Two hurdle race on very contrasting grounds. As a six-year-old winner of seven from his 11 starts, his manner of victory at Tipperary strongly suggests he has not stopped improving yet. 147 may be the limit for Ronnie O'Sullivan, but I doubt if it is for this Real Article.
It looks as if Oscars Well will make his reappearance against no less than Hurricane Fly in Punchestown's Morgiana Hurdle next month. Oscars Well didn't have enough speed to win any of his three bumpers but it didn't prevent him from becoming the top-rated Irish trained novice hurdler during the last campaign, showing a rate of improvement that must have surprised even his trainer.
His win in the Deloitte at Leopardstown was deeply impressive and -- as Maradona might have put it -- it was only the Hand of God that got him beaten in the Baring Bingham at the Festival. He was forced to miss Punchestown but we can look forward to him making up for lost time this season.
Jumping may be the name of the game but it has proven very costly for Quel Esprit so far. The irony is that the hallmark of his deeply imposing chasing debut at Limerick last November was the fluency of his jumping. Yet he failed to even complete the course in three subsequent outings. Had he done so, however, I doubt his handicap mark of 145 would be quite so lenient. Assuming the Mullins magic can iron out the jumping kinks, he could be set for a lucrative year from an irresistible mark.
Sunday Indo Sport