There are lots of tremendous races and great meetings along the way, but it’s fair to say that the British and Irish jump racing seasons both head in exactly the same direction, to the glorious four-day Cheltenham Festival in March. So, when looking forward to the 2015/16 winter campaign, it’s probably best working back from the showcase fixture at the home of world ‘National Hunt’ racing.
The Cheltenham Festival
The Cheltenham Festival is essentially the annual Olympics of this great sport and the man who has dominated the fixture in recent years is the superb Irish trainer, Willie Mullins. The County Carlow-based handler sent out a remarkable eight winners across the 27 races of the fixture last season, (including a stunning four winners on the opening day), and went very close to winning a number of others.
A glance at the ante-post markets for the 2016 Cheltenham Festival reveal that a significant proportion of the showcase races feature Mullins-trained runners as favorites, no surprise given his dominance of the meeting in recent years, together with his stable jockey Ruby Walsh.
The highlight of Mullins’ first-day spree was the success of the brilliant Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle in which he beat stable companions Arctic Fire and the legendary Hurricane Fly. The defending champion is a hot 5/4 favourite to retain his crown on March 15. The seven-year-old is unbeaten in 10 career starts, and as long as he remains fit and healthy it’s hard to see anything lowering his colours this term – although plenty will try.
Mullins’ Douvan had begun that opening day by landing the Supreme Novices Hurdle and he may feasibly represent the biggest danger to Faugheen should connections decide to have a crack at the Champion Hurdle. Another big winner for the yard that day was the bold front-runner Un De Sceaux who made it 13 wins from 14 races when making every post a winning one in the Arkle Trophy, the two mile novice chasers championship.
Queen Mother Champion Chase
The Queen Mother Champion Chase looks the certain target this time around for Un De Sceaux, a 6/4 shot at present to beat more experienced campaigners over the two-mile trip, including the defending champion Dodging Bullets, trained by champion British jumps trainer Paul Nicholls. Dodging Bullets’ second day triumph was one of three for Nicholls that afternoon, and the reigning champion certainly cannot be lightly dismissed.
It is likely that Un De Sceaux will warm up for Cheltenham with a series of runs in Ireland, although the pair could potentially clash in the Grade 1 Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown Park in December, a possibly early test of the relative merits of the champion and the pretender to his Champion Chase crown.
Cheltenham Gold Cup
Don Poli was another winner for Mullins at the Festival, taking the three-mile RSA Chase, the ‘novices Gold Cup’ and he is amongst the ante-post market principals for the blue riband event of the fixture, the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself, where another Mullins-trainer star, Vautour, winner of the JLT Novices Chase on day three of the big meeting last season, is also among the market principals. It will be fascinating to see how both Vautour and Don Poli fare against high-class seasoned performers including, of course, the tremendous reigning champion Coneygree, trained by Mark Bradstock, who proved a revelation last season carrying all before him after returning from a serious injury that kept him on the sidelines for 22 months.
Coneygree’s brave length-and-a-half defeat of Mullins’ Djakadam – yet another potential Gold Cup contender for the Irish trainer – was one of the ‘feel good’ results of last year, the sight of a small stable with just a handful of horses beating the most powerful battalions proving that in jumps racing dreams really can come true.
The unplaced favourite in the Cheltenham Gold Cup was Nicholls’ classy Silviniaco Conti, a horse who patently is not at home on the undulating track but will once again take plenty of beating in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November, and in the mid-winter feature event, the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, a race in which he will bid for a hattrick of successes following his convincing defeat of David Pipe’s smart Dynaste last term.
Last season was something of an overall disappointment for former British champion jumps trainer Nicky Henderson with his star performers Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig, and Bobs Worth all failing to return to their best. Reports emanating from Henderson’s Seven Barrows yard suggest the trio are back in training and working well, so hopes are high that the injury prone but hugely talented performers will return to the track and show something close to their form of old.
Three-Mile Staying Hurdles
The three-mile staying hurdles division looks the most unpredictable this season. Last year’s World Hurdle hero Cole Harden, trained by Warren Greatrex, is a rock solid performer and should be thereabouts together with the horses who finished just behind him in the big race, Paul Nicholls pair Saphir Du Rheu and Zarkandar. The stage though could be set for others to muscle into the picture.
The obvious candidates are Mullins’ brilliant mare Annie Power, runner-up in the 2014 World Hurdle and who was well clear of her rivals when coming to grief at the final flight in the Mares’ Hurdle in the most dramatic moment of last year’s Cheltenham festival. It’s likely the popular performer will be targeted at the World Hurdle but former Champion Hurdle hero Jezki, trained by Jessica Harrington, widely expected to bid for the World Hurdle has sustained a training injury and will be out for the rest of the season.
As the jumps campaign begins to crank into gear in October the absence of the legendary 20-times British champion jockey Tony McCoy, who retired at the end of last season, will become more noticeable, but with his long-time rival Richard Johnson already clear in the race for this season’s title and riding like a demon the sport moves on. There are a host of other great younger riders to follow’ this term, including Sam Twiston-Davies, Aidan Coleman, Harry Skelton, Sean Bowen and Cheltenham Gold Cup winning jockey Nico de Boinville, as well as long established stars alongside Johnson such as Tom Scudamore, Noel Fehily, Brian Hughes and Paddy Brennan.
The season really gets into swing with the first two-day meeting at Cheltenham that begins on October 23rd. There is also a big meeting at Wetherby at the end of that month while top Irish horses return to the fray at Down Royal, amongst other venues.
Aintree Grand National
We mustn’t forget the Aintree Grand National fixture in April at the famous Liverpool track, always one of the sporting highlights of the year. It comes three weeks after the Cheltenham Festival and will, as always, be an opportunity for rematches between the main protagonists from the feature meeting. The Grand National itself is the most valuable jumps race of the year with over £1 million in prize money on offer, and while it is essentially a staying handicap, the unique nature of the race and the massive money on offer make it a prize every trainer, jockey and owner want to win.
Senior jockey Leighton Aspell won the race for the second year running in 2015 when guiding Many Clouds to a memorable success for trainer Oliver Sherwood and lucky owner Trevor Hemmings, who was winning the race for a third time. Could Aspell possibly make it a hat-trick of successes, setting him apart from any other jockey in history? All will be revealed at Aintree on April 9, 2016.