Friday 19 January 2018

10 things to watch as jumps season takes flight

Richard Forristal marks your card as the buzz builds for another winter of content

Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

Not only did the wraps come off Cheltenham and Aintree last week, but Thursday's opening meeting at Thurles will have been manna for hardcore fans of the winter pursuit. Such a mundane card probably wasn't privy to any future stars, but the sense of routine has returned.

Suspense levels will continue to build, as more familiar faces dust themselves down for battle once more following First Lieutenant's recent reappearance. This Saturday, the breathtakingly exuberant jumper could clash with his evergreen counterpart Sizing Europe and rising star Mount Benbulben in the campaign's first Grade One at Down Royal.

On Sunday week, Flemenstar is pencilled in to make its debut for Tony Martin at Navan, and seven days later we'll witness a first heavyweight hurdling bout when Hurricane Fly and Our Conor trade blows at Punchestown. As ever, the whole thing promises to be utterly compelling, so here we look at 10 of the major talking points that will shape the season.

1. Ruby ramifications

Ruby Walsh's decision to concentrate his energies on the domestic scene changes plenty here. For starters, having got a headstart on Davy Russell due to the reigning dual champion being sidelined for a month, he is in pole position to reclaim a title he has won eight times.

Closer still to home, Paul Townend, champion at just 20 years of age in 2011, is another whose lot will be less as a consequence. All of a sudden, the position of deputy at Willie Mullins' yard has become slightly less gilt-edged due to Walsh's new availability.

Townend knows that things can change fast and he has displayed great patience and team spirit. Nonetheless, given his credentials as a big-race rider, it's not inconceivable that someone might seize the opportunity to lure him to pastures new.

2. Connell's acquisitions

Barry Connell has muscled his way into the elite echelons of the owners' fraternity with some high-profile acquisitions, forking out eye-watering sums for established talent. A former amateur rider, the Carrickmines-based fund manager knows enough of jump racing's whimsy to accept that a big price tag guarantees nothing. Still, there is massive expectation now.

He is reputed to have parted with a six-figure sum to buy Dessie Hughes' facile Triumph Hurdle hero Our Conor, and recently committed to donating the horse's earnings to the Jockeys Emergency Fund. As such, Our Conor will be a poster boy for the emerging regime, with Champion Bumper third Golantilla (€375,000), King George VI Chase hopeful Mount Benbulben and Old Kilcash – a combined €550,000 – others of considerable interest.

3. Flemenstar's movements

Part of the reason that Flemenstar's ascent up the steeplechasing ranks resonated beyond racing's confines was the popular appeal of Peter Casey. Apart from the saucy interviews, he generated a tremendous sense of goodwill, just as Tom Foley did during the Danoli era.

The decision of Flemenstar's owner Stephen Curran to take the horse away from Casey inevitably impacts on that David and Goliath sentiment, so there is no doubt that some of the romance of the affair has been lost. Ultimately, though, Curran will feel his action is justified if Tony Martin succeeds in transforming the eight-year-old into a Gold Cup contender.

4. The Fly's challenges

In 18 starts over five years, Hurricane Fly has been beaten just twice. Since reclaiming his champion hurdle crown in March, he is rightly deemed one of the best hurdlers of all time.

The question now is can he continue to dominate. Willie Mullins' steed will be 10 come January and only Sea Pigeon and Hatton's Grace have won a Champion Hurdle at such an age in over 60 years. More importantly, the next generation look a fierce bunch.

Our Conor, The New One and My Tent Or Yours are all a bit special, so Hurricane Fly may need to be better than ever if he is to strike for a third time. Could that actually be possible?

5. Sprinter Sacre demolitions

Sprinter Sacre is already a steeplechasing colossus. At Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown last spring, he annihilated proper horses like Sizing Europe, Cue Card and Flemenstar.

His mesmerising virtuoso display at Prestbury Park in March was all style, but the French-bred with the box office looks and swagger didn't lack grit in deep ground at Punchestown.

Of the recent standard-bearers, Sprinter Sacre is flashier than Kauto Star, more durable than Master Minded and better than Moscow Flyer.

The chief threat to his unfettered supremacy this term was expected to come from stablemate Simonsig, but Nicky Henderson had pencilled the giant grey in for a tilt at the King George VI Chase over three miles prior to his recent setback. What Simonsig does now is uncertain, but Henderson clearly knows better than to try picking up mercury on a fork.

6. Sir Des Champs' responsibilities

To these eyes at least, the hopes of a first Irish Cheltenham Gold Cup win for eight years rest squarely on Sir Des Champs' shoulders, as Flemenstar and First Lieutenant aren't cut out for a three-and-a-quarter-mile slog in the Cotswolds. While Lord Windermere is, he needs to improve, though he has scope to do so.

Of course, Sir Des Champs also has to find more if he is to bridge the gap on Bobs Worth, but his gutsy triumph over Long Run and First Lieutenant at Punchestown confirmed that he is still in the ascent. Whether he can soar sufficiently high remains to be seen.

7. Carberry's brilliance

When Paul Carberry guided Solwhit to World Hurdle success at Cheltenham in March, it marked an overdue first success in any of the traditional 'big three' championship events. However, the former dual champion has now not ridden for six months and counting, as he has struggled to get an old shoulder injury right after surgery. He is eager to return in November, but could this prove to be his swansong campaign?

After all, it is 23 years since he rode his first winner on Jim Bolger's Petronelli at Leopardstown, and he will be 40 by the time Cheltenham comes round again. He is a riding connoisseur whose legend will continue to grow as his image as a maverick is superseded by his Peter Pan endurance. Sure, his daring style hasn't always been to everyone's taste, but he will be sorely missed when he eventually goes. The sooner he gets back and the longer he stays around, the better.

8. Mullins' records

Last term, Willie Mullins smashed Aidan O'Brien's record of 155 winners in a jumps season by netting 193 firsts, accumulated record prize money of €3.9m, saddled a record 13 winners at the Punchestown Festival and five at Cheltenham to topple Tom Dreaper's Irish record of 26.

He sent out Quevega to emulate Golden Miller by winning the same race five times at the March gala, and performed a similar feat with Hurricane Fly, whose achievement in winning back the Champion Hurdle crown had only ever been done before by Comedy of Errors. On top of all that, Mullins plundered the most lucrative success of his career when Blackstairmountain's Nakayama Grand Jump success earned a pot in excess of €500,000. Next week he will move to conquer Australia with Simenon in the Melbourne Cup. Then the world.

9. McCoy's perpetuity

AP McCoy, the single most profound human phenomenon in the history of the game, is on the verge of clocking up his fastest 1,000 winners, with just 11 required to get him to the magic 4,000 mark. Barring injury, the insatiable Co Antrim native will be crowned champion for a 19th time in Britain next April, and days later he will celebrate his 40th birthday.

He has suggested recently that he is considering keeping on for a tilt at title number 20. Here's hoping he does, because the world might just stop spinning otherwise.

10. Any advance on 14 in '14?

Prior to Cheltenham last March, there was a fear that, if Willie Mullins didn't manage three or four winners, the raiding party could struggle to match the previous year's meagre return of five. Well, the seven-time champion saw that five, and by the close of play nine different stables had combined to plunder a staggering 14 Festival races.

A second record in three years following 2011's 13, it represented the first time that they outscored the home team. Few observers will expect a repeat in 2014, but we now know the folly of underestimating this country's most skilled horsemen and women. Bring it on.

Irish Independent

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