The time is almost upon us. The National Hunt season is within touching distance. Expect plenty of fun, thrills and spills as we near another seven months of enthralling equine action over obstacles.
What can we hope to see in 2014/2015 that we sadly missed out on last season then?
Sprinter Sacre hopefully returning to his brilliant best has to be top of the list. His trainer Nicky Henderson “genuinely could not be happier” with his superstar two-mile chaser at present after one run last winter, which sadly ended his season.
I think we can expect more than one clash with Sire De Grugy this season all being well. They will undoubtedly create some mouth-watering clashes.
Secondly we can expect the return of Simonsig. We know Sprinter Sacre will be heading to all the top two-mile chases this season but with Simonsig his long-term targets are more of a question mark.
His trainer Nicky Henderson gives off mixed signals as to whether Simonsig will get three miles this term. “He’s got a terrifying amount of speed” begs the question whether trips short of three miles is the answer.
“We might be ambitious thinking that he would get three miles. If he settles ok then I think he will”. Henderson has also stated.
We know the horse stays two miles and five furlongs round Cheltenham based on his 2012 festival success.
Personally I would have no qualms in sending Simonsig over three miles for the King George at Kempton, which appears to be his early season target. It could be the ideal race for him this season.
Henderson has also stated he will have a run over two and a half miles before Kempton to blow away the cobwebs.
Bobs Worth, Silviniaco Conti, Lord Windermere, Long Run, Sire De Champs, Jezki, My Tent Or Yours, The New One, More Of That, Taquin Du Seuil and Holywell are just a few of the many superstars we will be viewing in the coming months.
We know what all of those horses mentioned are about but what about those involved in the game who could have their breakthrough year?
One trainer who has caught my eye over the past year is Warren Greatrex. He is a young trainer who has been around for a few years now but he has some promising horses for the upcoming season and he can ready a young horse to win at an early stage in its career.
Having visited Greatrex’s website it is noticeable that he had an excellent strike rate of 22.4% last season and his strike rate in National Hunt Flat races was 36%. Greatrex trains horses for champion owner J P McManus who has also noticed his talents. The likes of Cole Harden and Madness Light are likely to be flag bearers for the yard this year after promising campaigns last season. Greatrex has also snapped up 2013/2014 champion conditional jockey Gavin Sheehan as his main rider and I think the pairing can have a fruitful season.
Anthony Honeyball is another young trainer I have been following for a couple of years now and is another I have high hopes for this season. Honeyball’s season was curtailed by a virus throughout the yard in 2013/2014 but this summer he has shown signs of a revival and I hope for his sake he won’t have the same luck this year as he did last.
The likes of Regal Encore will be leading the way for him throughout 2014/2015, who carries the colours of J P McManus. He also has a solid set of handicappers and like Warren Greatrex he does very well in National Hunt Flat races. His partner Rachael Green is a very talented rider and she can certainly put it up to the boys in a race. The likes of Aidan Coleman and Ryan Mahon also ride for Honeyball so he has some gifted riders at his disposal.
One jockey everybody will wish to see do well is Sam Twiston-Davies who begins his first full season as stable jockey to champion trainer Paul Nicholls. He was thrown into the deep end last season as he was given the ride almost immediately on the heroic Big Bucks for his final two career starts.
Twiston-Davies is a very talented rider and he has a cool head so I have high hopes for his partnership with Paul Nicholls this season.
Over in Ireland eighteen year old Johnny Burke has replaced senior rider Andrew Lynch as retained rider for the Ann & Alan Potts Partnership, which means he will be riding old favourite Sizing Europe. In the very limited times I have seen Burke ride in a race I have seen an element of Ruby Walsh in his riding style, which can never be a bad thing. I wish him all the best in this exciting role.
Scottish conditional jockey Craig Nichol has also caught my eye in recent times. Nichol rides primarily for Lucinda Russell but many northern trainers use him for his valuable claim. He has ridden fourty winners to date and when he eventually loses his claim I expect Nichol to succeed as a fully fledged professional in the coming years.
Two names that have been missing from our racecards this summer are Ruby Walsh and Jason Maguire due to injury.
The latter is back riding out again after a horrendous fall just before the Cheltenham festival in March and his welcome return to the saddle is not too far away. Walsh’s return on the other hand is not as clear but it is expected that he will return in the autumn. Walsh will be itching to get back on Willie Mullins’ brigade of superstars.
Faugheen and Vautour are the first two names that come to mind when thinking about Mullins’ string this season. Faugheen is expected to be aimed at the Champion Hurdle this season while it is anticipated that Vautour will head over fences for a crack at the Arkle. It is believed Pont Alexandre is nearing a return for Mullins and a campaign over fences awaits.
The legendary Hurricane Fly will soon be back over hurdles once again and it will be interesting to see if he is still campaigned over two miles this season.
Of the established names, David Pipe, Phillip Hobbs and Jonjo O’Neill are all likely to have their usual successful seasons.
It will be interesting to see how David Pipe’s conditional jockey Mikey Ennis fairs back over obstacles after a spell on the flat in which he performed well above his own and everybody else’s expectations. Ennis has ridden for the likes of Michael Bell, Brian Ellison and Saeed Bin Suroor this summer so his stock is rapidly rising.
Alan King has had a disappointing few years and it is about time he had success throughout the entire season and not just for a month or two. He is beginning to have more runners on the flat, so perhaps we are seeing a slow transition in this yard.
There are two horses which I will put forward to follow this season.
The first is David Pipe’s Doctor Harper. This is a horse who I expect will go over fences this season and I expect him to be at the very least a high-class handicapper in time. He won four times last season over a variety of trips, the last of which was a Grade 3, three-mile hurdle race at Aintree in April. He will in all likelihood be aimed at two and half to three-mile beginner chases to start with, before becoming a staying chaser over time.
The second horse is Paolozzi trained by Seamus Durack. Paolozzi went into my notebook during a run of the mill Worcester card in August where he won a National Hunt Flat race by twelve lengths. He shaped nicely on his debut in December 2013, finishing third over fourteen furlongs at Ludlow.
Paolozzi improved for the step up in trip and the better ground at Worcester, travelling well into the straight and when asked for his effort he powered clear from what was probably a poor field to win impressively. Paolozzi should be well up to winning another National Hunt Flat race under a penalty before going hurdling. He may only end up being a class three or four handicapper but Paolozzi may well slip under the radar and should be followed.
I suggest watching a replay of his latest start as it was very visually impressive.
Chepstow’s seasonal opener is just under one month away with Cheltenham’s Showcase meeting a week later.
Exciting times are upon us and I wish you all an enjoyable and fruitful season.