ROAD TO THE CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL: horses to follow for the 2015/16 Jumps season

GOLDEN GLORY -- novice Coneygree fights off Djakadam (right) and Road To Riches to win the 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup. (PHOTO BY: Nick Potts/PA Wire).
GOLDEN GLORY -- novice Coneygree fights off Djakadam (right) and Road To Riches to win the 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup. (PHOTO BY: Nick Potts/PA Wire).

When I let slip my indifference towards the Melbourne Cup a couple of years ago, I received bucketloads of abuse on Twitter from angry Australians.

Underlining that the web is truly worldwide, they were staggered that I had dared to sully the good name of their pride and joy.

I took more interest in the race this year. It had a great shape to it. And it yielded a wonderful story for the sport as Michelle Payne became the first female jockey to ride the winner.

I even had a bet. And although my Melbourne Cup phobia wasn’t entirely cured by the narrow, luckless defeat of Max Dynamite, at least the performance of a horse who was, and may well remain, a smart hurdler succeeded in reminding me that it was time now to concentrate on the new Jumps season.

After all the early skirmishes, that season comes alive this weekend with the three-day Open meeting at Cheltenham. The institution that used to be the Racing Post/Tote Ten To Follow competition might no longer with us but, in time-honoured fashion, I have still come up with a list of horses to monitor on the road to the Cheltenham Festival over the coming months.

Although it features several up-and-coming prospects, many might moan that the list contains too many obvious names from too many of the big yards. But I thought it made sense to concentrate on the top end of the National Hunt spectrum. On the horses most likely to be bossing the big races that most of us are interested in. Last season’s Festival was arguably the best ever for sheer quality. Rarely have so many magnificent performances been packed into one meeting, and predominantly from animals likely to be at the peak of their powers for some time to come. They cannot be ignored.

BOONDOOMA

8yo Dr Richard Newland

Fast-improving, front-running, lightly-raced eight-year-old, who takes his chance for the Grand National-winning trainer in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham this Saturday. Has risen in the weights and goes up in trip, but he was very impressive when defying a ten-month absence on his seasonal re-appearance at the same track last month. Whatever happens this weekend, he is sure to win more races.

CHAMPERS ON ICE

5yo, David Pipe

Highly-rated grey son of a cracking grandam called Ra Nova, who brings back so many personal memories for me, having won the old Schweppes Gold Trophy Hurdle (now the Betfair Hurdle) at Newbury back in 1984. Bought by two of the yard’s top owners, Bryan Drew and Caroline Tisdall for £205,000, he is an Irish point winner who showed speed and attitude when winning a Punchestown Bumper in April, and begins his novice hurdling campaign at Cheltenham this Friday.

CHOCCA WOCCA

5yo, Nicky Henderson

The Cheltenham Festival’s new mares’ novice hurdle race, named after the great Dawn Run, is very much on the agenda for this daughter of Chomba Womba, who was not far off Champion Hurdle class for the same stable. The race is to be sponsored by the stud run by her owners, Richard and Lizzie Kelvin-Hughes but, more significantly, she has the ability to tackle it, judging by the progress she made in Bumpers and the manner in which she has reportedly schooled over timber.

CONEYGREE

8yo, Mark Bradstock

Few who were there will forget the momentous achievement of the front-running lionheart when becoming the first novice to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup since 1974. The manner in which he relentlessly ground top-class opposition into the ground on only his fourth start over fences was a sight for sore eyes -- and those who believed he would struggle to recover from such a gruelling race have to think again after his polished romp at Sandown on his seasonal re-appearance the other day. Next stop will be Newbury and a Denman-type bid to shrug off top weight in the Hennessy. If all goes to plan, he will lock horns with the likes of Vautour and Don Cossack in the King George at Kempton, where he won in familiar front-running fashion last year, and then on to a repeat mission in what is shaping up to be a vintage Gold Cup.

DJAKADAM

6yo, Willie Mullins (Ire)

The huge reputation of Rich Ricci’s strapping chaser was dented severely when he failed to justify heavy market support for last year’s Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury. But by the end of the campaign, we all found out where the hype had come from because he was a brilliant runner-up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, despite a gruelling gallop that would have exposed most horses of his age and inexperience. There’s no sign yet that the race has had an adverse effect on any of its combatants and, with natural improvement guaranteed, the French-bred gelding is surely set for more success.

DON COSSACK

8yo, Gordon Elliott (Ire)

The highest rated chaser in training is already on the board this term, having won weakish contests at Punchestown and Down Royal, and it’s all systems go now for a tilt at both the King George at Kempton and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He produced two of the best displays of the 2014/15 campaign when thrashing Cue Card at Aintree and then Gold Cup runner-up Djakadam at Punchestown, both after a defeat in the Ryanair Chase at the Festival that left connections visibly stunned but which could be explained by a jumping error and interference at key moments. He’s quick, he stays, he jumps. He’s all class.

DON POLI

6yo, Willie Mullins (Ire)

In the words of his trainer, this hard-as-nails, Gigginstown-owned chaser powered up the hill “like a loose horse” when landing a sub-standard RSA Chase at Cheltenham in March. It was a performance that defied doubts about his age, lack of chasing nous, drying ground and an absence against Christmas, which were all against him. It was also one, said Mullins, from a horse that “had Gold Cup written all over him” and was “as good an RSA winner as we have had”, which is some praise considering he saddled the mighty Florida Pearl.

FAUGHEEN

7yo, Willie Mullins (Ire)

March 10 2015 will go down in history as the day we all saw a machine win the Champion Hurdle. Dangerously inexperienced and a worryingly unnatural jumper, the son of Germany did not convince everyone of his credentials, despite sensational exploits at the previous Festival and then at Ascot and Kempton before Christmas. But once that formidable engine cranked into gear, he could not be caught and bagged a place in folklore as one of the finest winners of the great race. Such is the paucity of serious opposition at the moment that a repeat performance is on the cards, providing he stays fit and healthy. He’s set to return to action at Punchestown on Sunday.

GALLANT OSCAR

9yo, Tony Martin (Ire)

Bought by JP McManus with the Grand National in mind, the rapidly improving stayer was balloted out of this year’s Aintree marathon and was then withdrawn from the Scottish version on the morning of the race because the ground was too quick. However, he proceeded to win as he liked at Punchestown off a mark of 135 in only his eighth outing over fences, and everything this season is likely to be geared around a trip to Liverpool.

JOLLY’S CRACKED IT

6yo, Harry Fry

As a novice last term, this rangy, classy hurdler never quite fulfilled his potential when stepping up in grade. But he was given too much to do in the Betfair Hurdle, didn’t stay the 2m5f in the Martin Pipe at Cheltenham and was over the top by the time of Aintree. That all means he begins the new season still on a fair handicap mark, which the trainer is keen to exploit before sending him fencing, for which he is built. Shaped well on his seasonal bow at Ascot, to where he will enticingly return for the Ladbroke Hurdle next month.

KILCREA VALE

5yo, Nicky Henderson

Viewed as a 3m fencing prospect and may yet go novice chasing this term, having already won an Irish point. But his first target is reportedly a hurdle race at Ascot on November 20, and Henderson reports that he is working “incredibly well”. Bought by high-profile owner Alan Spence for £100,000, the son of Beneficial could be special on the evidence of his sole run so far in the UK when bolting up by 26 lengths at Market Rasen in January.

KILLULTAGH VIC

6yo, Willie Mullins (Ire)

Questions were asked as to why he was so well handicapped (off 135) for the Martin Pipe at the Cheltenham Festival when his previous form in novice hurdles and Bumpers bore the closest scrutiny. And after duly winning, he went on to prove how ridiculously handicapped he indeed was when lapping up the switch to 3m and landing a Grade One at Punchestown with a terrific staying performance to beat a very good field. Mullins must now choose between aiming him at the World Hurdle or novice chases. Oh, and incidentally, he’s still nicely handicapped on 149!

MONETAIRE

9yo, David Pipe

Ahead of this weekend’s Paddy Power Gold Cup, all the focus from the Pipe yard has been on the favourite, Kings Palace. In my view, his stablemate has equally strong claims, particularly as he remains realistically weighted after a light campaign last year that didn’t deliver all it had promised. Yes, he’s getting on a bit and yes, he’s fragile, on account of what his trainer describes of “dodgy front feet”. But he’s raced only nine times over fences and has twice run stormers at Cheltenham, including at this year’s Festival off a mark only 3lb higher than his current official rating.

MOON RACER

6yo, David Pipe

The highest-rated Bumper horse in the UK last season after an electric victory at Cheltenham’s Showcase meeting and a tremendous follow-up when returning to Prestbury Park for the big one at the Festival. He wasn’t as spectacular that day, but was equally impressive because he was left at the tape when a standing start replaced the false original and then was caught behind a wall of horses on the inner as the race unfolded. All roads this season lead back to the Festival for the opening race, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and Pipe reports that he has schooled well.

NICHOLS CANYON

5yo, Willie Mullins (Ire)

If Faugheen fails to deliver, maybe his classy stablemate will be the one to pick up the pieces in the Champion Hurdle. Like the mighty Istabraq, the son of Derby winner Authorized was trained by John Gosden on the Flat, where he reached an official rating as high as 111 and was sent off as low as 8/1 for the 2013 Great Voltigeur at York. He took to hurdles superbly last term, winning four Grade Ones in novice company and disappointing only when resenting restraining tactics over 2m5f in the Neptune at the Festival, a race won, of course, by Istabraq before he matured into a champion. Mind you, it was also won by Faugheen!

NOVICE CHASERS

I am always reluctant to include novice chasers on the main list before they have barely jumped a fence in public. Some turn out to be better than they were over hurdles, some do not. Some exceed expectations, some don’t. Here is an elite band of youngsters confidently predicted to make the grade. One or two have already won this term.

ARBRE DE VIE, 5yo Willie Mullins (Ire)

ALPHA DES OBEAUX, 5yo Mouse Morris (Ire)

AUX PTITS SOINS, 5yo Paul Nicholls (may stay over hurdles this season)

BITOFAPUZZLE, 7yo, Harry Fry

DOUVAN, 5yo Willie Mullins (Ire)

FLETCHERS FLYER, 7yo Harry Fry

GARDE LA VICTOIRE, 6yo, Philip Hobbs

HENRYVILLE, 7yo Harry Fry

KILLER MILLER, 6yo Noel Meade (Ire)

KITTEN ROCK, 5yo Edward O’Grady (Ire)

LESSONS IN MILAN, 7yo Nicky Henderson

MINELLA ROCCO, 6yo Jonjo O’Neill

NO MORE HEROES, 6yo Gordon Elliott (Ire)

SILSOL, 6yo Paul Nicholls

SIRABAD, 5yo Paul Nicholls

VALUE AT RISK, 6yo Dan Skelton

VYTA DU ROC, 6yo Nicky Henderson

Back to the main list…….

OK CORRAL

5yo, Nicky Henderson

Forgive me if I have a soft spot for a horse whose dam is a half-sister to one my all-time favourites, Tidal Bay. It’s not hard to like the son of St Leger runner-up Mahler, however, after an impressive victory on his Bumper debut at Kempton, which was followed by a close second to the very useful Yorkhill at Punchestown, where the pair pulled 20 lengths clear. He’s a scopy, strong chasing type, but his trainer is convinced that, first, he can develop into a ”high-class novice hurdler”.

OSCAR ROCK

7yo, Malcolm Jefferson

Cynics might suspect that I’m covering all early-season bases by selecting a third candidate for Paddy Power Gold Cup glory. But whatever happens at Cheltenham on Saturday, it’s impossible to resist the upwardly mobile profile of arguably the North’s most exciting youngster, who is at last fulfilling the potential he showed as one of the UK’s best Bumper horses in 2012/13. Even as a hurdler, he started 2/1 favourite for the Grade One Challow at Newbury, but he’s really come into his own over fences, for which he was bred, and has improved with every one of his five outings.

PENDRA

7yo, Charlie Longsdon

Until his re-appearance victory at Ascot last month, I would not have given a second glance to an animal who looked seriously over-hyped -- and indeed over-bet, judging by the way the JP McManus-owned gelding was backed every time he ran. But I was thoroughly won over by his ability, and willingness, to boss such a competitive handicap. Maybe it was his first try at 3m that unlocked the door, or maybe it was the fact that he is finally maturing. After all, it was only the 13th start of his career. Either way, what I do know for a fact is that he has run blinders at the last two Cheltenham Festivals and is now looking an attractive proposition at the foot of the handicap for the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in two weeks’ time.

RENNETI

6yo, Willie Mullins (Ire)

I might be barking up the wrong tree completely here, but I reckon this lightly-raced recruit from France can land a big handicap hurdle this season. Almost two years ago, he finished a fine second in the Grade One Royal Bond at Fairyhouse, just in front of supposedly inferior stablemate Arctic Fire, who has since gone on to major success, culminating in the runner-up berth behind Faugheen in last season’s Champion Hurdle. In contrast, little has gone right for this one and he has even shown signs of temperament. But he ran on in eyecatching manner when returned to the level in the Cesarewitch at Newmarket last month and has been allotted a mark of 144 for Sunday’s Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham. Arctic Fire, meanwhile, sits on a perch of 169.

SAINT CHARLES

5yo, Nicky Henderson

Although reportedly sidelined by injury at present, this JP McManus-owned Flat-bred son of Manduro, out of a Peintre Celebre mare, is worth remembering if he returns because he’s arguably the best handicapped hurdler in training. Yes, the £140,000 purchase must learn to settle in his races, but the form of his last two starts, when winning a Doncaster maiden in January and then when he ran subsequent Grade One winner Thistlecrack to three lengths at Ascot, reads considerably better than it did at the time.

SAPHIR DU RHEU

6yo, Paul Nicholls

A penny for the thoughts of our champion trainer as Coneygree made all to grab the Gold Cup in March. For this horse had started a short-priced favourite in two novice events won by the Bradstocks’ champion earlier in the season, only to come down or unship his rider. The mishaps persuaded Nicholls to give him a Big Buck’s-style return to timber, where he covered himself in glory and was second in the World Hurdle. But his chasing career is back on track now after a scintillating triumph at Aintree and a very pleasing seasonal bow. His next stop is the Hennessy Gold Cup, but then it could be the big one for a horse his handler says “has the speed of Kauto Star and the stamina of Denman”.

SIZING GRANITE

7yo, Henry De Bromhead (Ire)

It was possibly an ordinary Grade One Maghull Novices’ Chase that this big, strong son of Milan won at Aintree in April, and he opened his new campaign by getting beat at even-money at Nass two weeks ago. But I am convinced that, as he matures mentally and physically with every run, he can evolve into a serious candidate for the Queen Mother Champion Chase next spring. He jumps for fun, has scope to burn and a game and genuine attitude to die for. Even if De Bromhead is forced to abandon lofty plans for the Festival, his charge’s pedigree suggests he is sure to stay further.

TRAFFIC FLUIDE

5yo, Gary Moore

The heir apparent to Sire De Grugy at the Sussex yard, this young French import has made remarkable progress in his five runs since arriving in this country, particularly after he was dropped to the minimum trip. He won off 129 and then 135 before producing a highly respectable performance when stepped up to Grade One company at Aintree. He is bound to be stronger and more mature this season and could progress into one of the chief rivals of Un De Sceaux in the Queen Mother Champion Chase that stablemate Grugy won last year.

THISTLECRACK

7yo, Colin Tizzard

Not content with revitalising Cue Card, the Dorset handler has another stable star on the horizon in this powerful son of Kayf Tara, who was a revelation when stepped up to 3m in top-notch novice hurdling events last backend. After landing the Sefton at Aintree, he was a luckless second at Punchestown when various bouts of interference hindered his chance. Tizzard freely admits he’s “a chaser through and through” but is to sensibly stick to the smaller obstacles for the first half of this season in the hope that he can develop into a World Hurdle contender.

UN DE SCEAUX

7yo, Willie Mullins (Ire)

Mullins’s trailblazing speedster was such a talented hurdler that many believed he should have gone for the 2014 Champion. And some took Mullins’s reluctance, justified by him as fear the horse might be too buzzed up by the occasion, as a reason to doubt his credentials for hot favouritism for the Arkle as a novice chaser 12 months later. However, he proceeded to smash the doubters to smithereens with a special performance that suggested he can develop into one of the great 2m chasers. Setting the briskest of gallops, without giving the impression that he was being remotely stretched, he jumped like a pro, especially at the last, from where he sprinted up the hill. He’s already at the top of a Festival market again -- this time for the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

VALSEUR LIDO

6yo, Willie Mullins (Ire)

It’s a measure of the astonishing strength in depth in the Mullins yard that this classy gelding barely rates a mention in dispatches. Indeed the trainer himself often gives the impression that he is surprised by his charge’s achievements. And yet, despite living in the shadow of the likes of Vautour and Don Poli, he landed two Grade Ones last season, showing marked improvement when upped to 3m at Punchestown in April. He might always need give in the ground to show his best, but he’s a terrific traveller and jumper, and currently sits on a very tempting weight of 10-8 for the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury later this month.

VAUTOUR

6yo, Willie Mullins (Ire)

“He’s a machine and could be better than Faugheen,” says his trainer. “He’s a weapon,” says his jockey, Ruby Walsh. Big statements indeed, but fitting accompaniments to one of THE great Cheltenham Festival performances that this superstar unleashed in the JLT Novices’ Chase in March, destroying a top-class field to back up his equally devastating success in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle 12 months earlier. He jumped immaculately, quickened majestically when Walsh let the handbrake off and then sprinted up the hill after pinging the last. Unlike his trainer and jockey, I have a smidgen of doubt about his suitability for the Gold Cup trip, but his first major target, the King George at Kempton, should provide some of the clues we need.

WAIT FOR ME

5yo, Philip Hobbs

Until this year, the only debutant to have won the traditionally warm Bumper at Ascot’s February meeting was the mighty Sprinter Sacre. Hobbs’s rising star not only managed it but also came out of the race so well, losing only two kilos when he would normally have expected to lose ten to 12, that he was pitched into the Festival Bumper only a month later. He distinguished himself again, tanking through the contest and losing only to a couple of ultra-smart rivals. In time, he will be a crack 3m chaser, but don’t be surprised if he’s tackling the Neptune as a novice hurdler when returning to Cheltenham next March.

WINDSOR PARK

6yo, Dermot Weld

As an international trainer, capable of handling racehorses to succeed at all disciplines, Dermot Weld has few peers. The manner in which he brought this son of Galileo to the boil at just the right moment to peak in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival in March was sheer perfection. The gelding is a stayer with speed, capable of winning on the Flat. Indeed Weld even considered a tilt at the Ascot Gold Cup this summer. Instead, the plan is now a return to Cheltenham for the World Hurdle, and the fact that he relishes good, spring ground is sure to stand him in good stead.