With the 2013/14 jumps season at a close and the Guineas-fuelled flat season now well underway, fans of National Hunt racing may rightly feel a bit blue heading into these summer months. But fear not, for before you know it the days will start to shorten again and one event above all others will begin to loom large on the horizon says Tom Chilman.
Next year’s Cheltenham Festival will no-doubt be as electrifying, gut-wrenching and inimitable as ever and, as is customary, I see no reason why we can’t already start to look ahead to the 2015 renewal.
Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
For all his recent success, Nicky Henderson must be thinking he is doomed to never win another Supreme Novices’ Hurdle 22 years on from his latest success with Flown back in 1992. In the last four runnings he’s saddled all four runner-ups, as well as the third both this year and in 2011.
But the Lambourn-based trainer may hold the key to breaking his streak this time in the form of the lightly-raced West Wizard. The five-year-old was a leading protagonist in the build-up to this year’s race before a then shock defeat by Sgt Reckless back in November raised some questions. But both the trainer and owner, Dai Walters, have always been very bullish about the horse’s ability and decided early-on that he was too good to be risked on the bad ground experienced at the beginning of the year. Henderson then ruled him out of Supreme Novice contention in February due to ‘issues’ and has since decided to retain the horse’s novice status for next season.
A year older and a year wiser, you can expect to see the horse pick up a few useful novice races, on ground that surely won’t be as testing this time around, en route to the Festival opener. At 16-1 he looks a good price for what should be the stable’s best chance in a race in which they’ve come so close to winning in recent years.
As is the calibre of the Willie Mullins yard that any number of potential top-class novice chasers could line-up for him in next year’s RSA Chase with a good chance of victory. However, whereas many of those possible candidates still have multiple options open to them, it seems as if this would be the only logical route for the progressive Don Poli.
The five-year-old looks to be an out-and-out stayer on his most recent performance when finishing second to Beat That in Punchestown’s 3m Novice Hurdle, but also showed enough class to land the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle at Cheltenham over four furlongs shorter.
Sir Des Champs was the last Mullins-trained winner of the Martin Pipe and he went on to win the 2012 Jewson Novices’ Chase before finishing second in a Gold Cup. Don Poli also looks a chaser in the making and his well-renowned connections are always looking for a potential Gold Cup contender. The 12-1 available with Betvictor looks an absolute steal in a race where many currently at the head of the market probably won’t even feature.
If there’s ever a horse in recent times that deserves a win at the Festival it’s Oscar Whisky. Nicky Henderson said his nine-year-old could not have been in better order heading into the JLT Novices’ Chase at this year’s Festival and was confident of a big performance, only to see his hopes come crashing down at the first fence. Yet, in typical Oscar-Whisky-fashion, the horse bounced-back well to finish a dwindling one and a half lengths second to the JLT runner-up Uxizandre in the 2m 4f Novices’ Chase at Aintree next time out.
We’ll never know just how close he might have got to the same horse or even the winner, Taquin Du Seuil, at Cheltenham that day, but there’s little doubt that he has the ability to have beaten them both. By running him over fences at Aintree it looks likely that he’ll once again be campaigned over the larger obstacles, and a tilt at a fifth different race at the Festival could be on the cards if he is takes his chance in the 2m 5f Ryanair Chase.
Oscar Whisky is two for two over the course and distance, including a win over Taquin Du Seuil back in January, and should relish the race conditions.
The shock result of this year’s Gold Cup is also likely to cause a large number of the usual Ryanair suspects to take their chance in the main event, so the 20-1 currently available for another Dai Walters-owned runner looks far too tempting.
Following Lord Windermere’s heroics in winning this year’s Gold Cup, the stat now reads that three of the last seven winners of the race had won the previous season’s RSA Chase. With that in mind, and a couple of impressive performances to boot, O’Faolains Boy looks to have every chance of extending that record come next March.
Rebecca Curtis’ seven-year-old couldn’t have had a tougher task in beating the consistent Smad Place by a neck in what looked an extremely competitive RSA Chase, and the victory was made all-the-more impressive after it was found the horse had pulled off a front shoe and twisted a back in running. Afterwards, jockey Barry Geraghty alluded that the horse wasn’t anywhere near his best during the race, but to still win in the manner in which he did was mightily impressive.
Prior to that victory, O’Faolains Boy had won nicely over 3m at Ascot, beating the well-fancied pair of Many Clouds and Gevrey Chambertin in the process. However, the Cheltenham bubble was somewhat burst next time out at Aintree when the horse could only finish a distant fifth behind Holywell, with the poor performance rightly put down to fatigue.
Despite that run, he still looks the mostly likely of the RSA runners to be suited by an extra two furlongs and the 20-1 available looks a tad over-priced.