Sir Des Champs to warm winter
One of the more charming aspects of the racing game is its seasonality. One minute we are savouring the joys of Frankel, and the next we are on the look-out for future Cheltenham winners.
One sure thing is that when the clocks go back, the jumpers come forward. And so -- as temperatures dip below zero for the first time -- here are 10 jumpers to keep you warm this winter.
Sir des Champs
It is hard to believe, given his accomplishments, that Willie Mullins' star novice could have run four times in bumpers for his previous master Emmanuel Clayeux in France and only have a third placing to show for it. Indeed he was even tried in cheek-pieces for his hurdling debut as a four year-old at Auteuil.
The transformation that has seen the French-bred's unbeaten record stretch now to eight (seven for Mullins) over three seasons is enough to offer hope to even the most recalcitrant, and makes even Hunt Ball's dramatic climb to fame last season appear tame by comparison.
What is perhaps most taking about Sir Des Champs' nap hand of novice chase wins last term was that, without ever being in any way flashy, it appeared every time (whether Leopardstown or Cheltenham) as if he had matters very much under control. Still only six, he bids to emulate War of Attrition for Gigginstown House in the Gold Cup, and provide Willie Mullins with an elusive first winner in the race. Likely to start off in the Durkan Chase at Punchestown.
Another with aspirations to the highest chasing honours this season is Hidden Cyclone, whose only two career defeats so far have been at the hands of Gigginstown top-notchers First Lieutenant (over hurdles in 2010) and Sir Des Champs earlier this year. His trainer's softly-softly approach could have earned the Cyclone the label of being a Festival-dodger -- as his career so far has avoided any trips to England, or indeed visits to either Punchestown or Fairyhouse during the spring.
However, the patience and kindness shown to date by John 'Shark' Hanlon could be repaid with interest in the season ahead as the seven-year-old approaches the peak of his powers. With the yard under a cloud for much of last season Hidden Cyclone was limited to just a couple of runs but appeared a natural over the larger obstacles both times. It would be interesting to see his handicap mark in England but something like the Hennessy would seem an ideal early-season target given his stamina and love of soft ground.
It is always difficult at this stage to gauge how good last year's juvenile hurdlers might have been but one thing is for sure -- it is unusual to find one so close to the top of his peer-group that still qualifies as a novice for the season ahead. That is, however, the position Paul Nicholls finds himself in with Dodging Bullets -- a late acquisition from Irish trainer Andrew Oliver, which only saw a hurdle for the first time in public at the end of February in a Grade 2 at Kempton.
It is to his eternal credit then that he was in a position to finish fourth in the 20-runner Triumph Hurdle less than three weeks later.
He travelled and ran like the best horse in the race that day. The combination of inexperience and the jockey arriving too soon collided to diminish the horse's finishing position. His mishap when on a follow-up mission at Aintree (stablemate fell in front of him) could prove a blessing. Already off the mark last Saturday at Cheltenham, the progressive son of Dubawi returns again for the graded hurdle on the Friday of the Paddy Power meeting. Supreme Novice candidate even now.
We have had to wait a little longer than expected but it may -- at last this season -- be worth it. There are few more impressive looking horses in training. At over 17 hands he has been carrying the cliched moniker of 'embryo chaser' for quite a while now. Indeed after travelling like a really good horse before failing to stay in the 2010 Spa Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, he confirmed the promise six weeks later by winning the same novice hurdle at Punchestown won by both Copper Bleu and Sizing Europe en route to their Festival success the following season.
Unfortunately, we had to wait over two years for Arvika Ligeonniere's next public appearance (at Punchestown in May). It didn't disappoint. Even the circumspect Willie Mullins admitted his jumping was "electric". Still only seven and with only seven races to date he reminds me of the Dickinsons' The Mighty Mac.
Careers can often rotate on a single turning point. Fingal Bay, even at this early stage of the season, has played his hand as a novice chaser and leads the market for the RSA Chase as a result.
However, if he had retained his unbeaten record instead of suffering a narrow defeat in the Sefton Hurdle at Aintree he would be training his sights this season on Big Buck's as a hurdler.
It is hard to figure that Fingal Bay only made his hurdling debut exactly a year ago yesterday (in Chepstow's Persian War Hurdle) such was his impact last season. He was made to forfeit his Cheltenham Festival engagement with an 11th-hour hamstring injury but, given the fluency of his Chepstow chasing introduction it seems only injury again will prevent him from becoming a leading player in the staying novice division.
It is ironic that the build-up to last year's Cheltenham Festival had the match-up between the best staying novice in the UK (Fingal Bay) pitted against the best in Ireland (Boston Bob) as a key thread. As mentioned, Fingal Bay missed the gig entirely and Boston Bob switched to the three-mile Spa Hurdle in the end where he was narrowly defeated by the ill-fated Brindisi Breeze. It is to Boston Bob's credit he got as close to victory as he actually did as he neither travelled nor jumped like the horse which had brought its A-game on the day.
From one of the last crops of Bob Back (died at age 30 in early 2011) it will be a big surprise if he isn't in the firing line to emulate another Bob Back, Bobs Worth, in the RSA come March. There he may -- 12 months late -- meet his putative rival Fingal Bay.
It may seem churlish to list Grands Crus as a horse to follow for this campaign, given the height of his achievements in the last two seasons. However, following the tame effort of his final start in the RSA Chase a couple of elements are worth summarising.
The way he races, Grands Crus is not likely to be at his best in the Gold Cup. He is going to be seen to much greater effect where the emphasis is on speed. His victory in the Feltham at Kempton in December was his finest hour last season and a repeat visit for the King George this term would see him an irresistible rival.
Furthermore, his RSA blow-out has a silver lining in that the grey's BHA mark is now just 157 -- 10lbs below his hurdling figure. This will make the Paddy Power Gold Cup fairly irresistible as an entrée in three weeks. The Pipe family has won it just the nine times.
If Sir Des Champs makes it to Cheltenham on Gold Cup day it may be that his greatest foe will also have travelled over the Irish Sea to meet him. Peter Casey has been receiving offers for stable star Flemenstar with the frequency of 46a buses on the Stillorgan dual-carriageway. His five straight domestic wins -- and in particular his concluding Powers Gold Cup victory -- were the equal of anything Sir Des Champs achieved last season.
His style of running and hallmark spectacular jumping made him exhilarating to watch. Although never tried beyond two and a half miles his pedigree is stacked with stamina -- being by Flemensfirth (sire of Imperial Commander) with a distaff line whose progeny includes both Carvill's Hill and Bregawn. A noted poor traveller he is bound for Cheltenham in March even (according to the trainer) "if I have to carry him on my back myself". Likely to begin in the Fortria at Navan.
An underachiever in the last season the 2011 Triumph Hurdle winner didn't even make it to the racecourse until February of last season. Even at that, it was a rushed preparation to ready him for the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. Although he won, he was unimpressive.
His next race -- the Champion Hurdle -- saw him notably weak in the betting on the day. Having never been in contention he stayed on very strongly to finish fifth. A step up to two and a half miles for the Aintree Hurdle was inconclusive as he fell before the race took shape. Like many Triumph Hurdle winners he looks essentially a stayer. However, he could be the one to ruffle the feathers of his illustrious stablemate Big Bucks this season.
Rule the world
An impressive winner of his only point-to-point at Affane (when the notes afterwards read "looks most exciting with a very big future") the portentously named Rule the World did just that in his maiden hurdle at Punchestown when bolting up by 13 lengths recently.
It isn't in the style of the yard for a Mouse Morris inmate to deliver first time in a hurdle. The trainer was characteristically reticent after the event -- a sure sign he's got a good horse. Follow with care.
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