Irish stars can dominate narrative
Willie Mullins and Gigginstown look set to once again contest all the big jumping prizes
It is not that long ago that Irish racegoers descended on Cheltenham merely hoping for a winner, but nowadays we expect around half of the bounty. The powerhouse that is Gigginstown - which keeps all its horses in Ireland - has had a hugely positive effect, while Willie Mullins has a team of around 50 horses for Rich Ricci alone this season.
The British will look to Thistlecrack, Coneygree, Altior and even Sprinter Sacre but there is enormous strength in depth to the Irish National Hunt squad as the season commences. And with Mullins losing 60 horses owned by Michael O'Leary, the top Irish horses will probably lock horns more than would have been the case: Mullins prefers to send his stars on assignments which do not involve beating a stablemate.
Winter's first chill snuck up on last week and that is a reminder that Navan, Punchestown and Thurles are calling. Irish racing has never been as muscular as it is now and there is no reason to think negatively about our prospects of dominating the narrative this season. Here are ten stars, or potential stars, to keep an eye on . . .
When Gordon Elliott got news of the bombshell that Willie Mullins' Gigginstown horses would be going elsewhere, this was the one he wanted most. Though no match in the Triumph for Ivanovich Gorbatov, she routed him at Aintree and seemingly confirmed that when she had gone beyond him at Punchestown.
She was treated like a Champion Hurdle prospect until a disappointing defeat on Friday at Down Royal. However, she was carrying a penalty and may have needed the run a little. She can step up in distance and come into her own.
Altior was utterly awesome in winning the Arkle last year, slamming Min by seven lengths. It was a shame that he did not come to Punchestown and connections had to consider whether to go down the Champion Hurdle or chase route. However, in September, trainer Nicky Henderson revealed that "after a lot of thought, discussion and, at times, a lot of indecision, (connections) decided to take the novice chase route."
It is hard to see much of the British novices troubling him and his position as Arkle favourite is probably deserved. Epsom Derby winner High Chaparral has not sired many chasers of note but this horse looks to have the physique for it.
I've left Faugheen out because of his weakness in the Champion Hurdle betting but one can only hope that the 2015 Champion Hurdle hero comes back as good as ever. There seems little prospect of Annie Power taking him on, which is a shame, but it might help in terms of her winning Grade Ones.
Annie Power will likely tend to avoid stablemates in general and she should have the measure of the admittedly very promising Apple's Jade. She can be placed to win a few Grade Ones this season and the prospect of her duelling with her stablemate Faugheen - or even Vroum Vroum Mag - remains a tantalising prospect.
Having backed this grey antepost at 20/1 heavily for the Fred Winter, I was disgusted at the mark that the English handicapper plucked from out of the sky but nowhere near as gutted as I was when he fell at the last, with every chance.
Campeador was nudged up a pound in the weights and he could be a well-treated horse.
Reports from Gordon Elliott's yard suggest that he has wintered well and there looks to be a big handicap in the four-year-old, which can cut it at a higher level sooner or later. He is not entered for the Greatwood Hurdle but there are other days ahead.
How good could he be? He's no less than frightening and is ten from ten for Willie Mullins, nine of those wins achieved at odds-on. He is ground-versatile, tactically adaptable, seemingly as straightforward as they come and a lamb to deal with at home.
It's nearly impossible to pick a hole in him - he's odds-on for the Champion Chase - and harder again to envisage something beating him.
He jumps incredibly well - poetry in racing. As Willie Mullins has alluded to, he could be the best he has had, which is saying something.
This is somewhat left-field but a name to note. He was part of a battalion of steeds sent to Joseph O'Brien from his dad, Aidan, for the season ahead. JP McManus will own the horses and this is the big-ticket recruit, since he was third in a Classic, the Leger, only recently.
Going hurdling seems a bit strange in that context but if he can take to the game, it goes without saying that he must have a huge chance of winning the Triumph Hurdle for last year's winning yard.
It might seem a strange one but Min has been somewhat forgotten about and Willie Mullins will place him astutely. Whether or not he can beat Identity Thief remains to be seen if they clash; however, Min was hardly disgraced in the Supreme, considering the shocker of a mistake he made at the third.
He is to go down the two-mile novice chase route and he is still a work in progress: he can often be pretty keen. He is no Douvan but he is well-capable of winning Grade One races this season and he remains exciting.
He's a novice trying to win the Gold Cup but that isn't a major concern. By the time he reaches Cheltenham, he will have attained plenty of experience, and his performances in staying hurdles last season were utterly extraordinary.
Could he jump fences as fluently? Better, if anything, according to his bloodless chase debut.
He seemed to have an innate cleverness that will stand to him in hotter races and he looks much the best chaser in Britain in staying combat potentially, including Coneygree, though that one's return is to be savoured too.
Un De Sceaux
Possibly another questionable selection but consider Un De Sceaux's record when he stayed on his feet, the ground was softer than good and the distance less than three miles: 13 from 13.
There are a few provisos there but he is easily most effective on testing ground and, as with most of the Mullins horses, expect them to avoid stablemates where possible - chiefly, in this case, Douvan.
Un De Sceaux is only eight years of age; he is far from finished. Electric to watch, he is more than capable of winning Grade Ones this term. When he gets a fence wrong, it is probably curtains, but he's an incredibly nimble leaper in the main.
He ended the 2016 campaign with a flop at Punchestown but he is otherwise unbeaten and he stamped his class last season, winning three Grade Ones. As a winning pointer, he has the novice chase world at his feet, and he looks very versatile regarding ground.
Though a little bit quirky, he appeals as an obvious type for the Jewson or Arkle this season. Ruby Walsh has reportedly said he would win the Arkle "with his mouth open".
Sunday Indo Sport