Everyone loves a comeback. The 2017-2018 National Hunt season is all about the return of some high profile chasers and hurdlers who confounded anti-post followers last season but now look set to challenge once more for the big prizes at The Cheltenham Festival next March. The 2015 Champion Hurdler Faugheen figures prominently among these returnees, along with King George hero Thistlecrack. But they will not find things easy. The chase market is as competitive as ever and the Irish challenge spearheaded by the twin powerhouses of Gordon Eliot and Willie Mullins is again set to dominate the distribution of big prizes. So who will be the key trainers this season?
The above statistics represent the amount of winners enjoyed by the County Meath based trainer in the last five years. It certainly demonstrates the level of achievement and determination which has characterised Gordon Elliot’s yard in recent seasons.
He ruled at last year’s Cheltenham Festival bringing home 6 winners. His arsenal this season is better than ever and he has made no secret of his fierce determination to win the Irish trainers championship after Willie Mullins pipped him at the Punchestown Festival last April. His challenge this season is led by Apple’s Jade who was simply brilliant last season, winning three Grade 1’s. Although fancied for the World Hurdle, the trainer is set to run her for another crack at the Mares Hurdle although he is not ruling out the extended trip.
Another exciting prospect is Death Duty who after his desperately disappointing run in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham, has made a positive start to a chasing career, having registered two cosy wins in the last several weeks. Elliot isn’t sure of Death Duty’s optimum distance as yet saying
"I've always thought the world of this horse. Last year I was of the opinion that he probably wanted three miles, but I'd say I might have been wrong, to be honest.” (Gordon Elliot speaking to The Racing Post)
Elliot is also gushing over the 5 year old bumper winner Samcro. He has a well mapped out plan who looks set for the 2m 5 furlong novice hurdle route and is currently 6/1 favourite for the Ballymore Hurdle at next year’s Festival.
Willie Mullins will no doubt see last year as a trainers championship to savour considering how his season was marred with setbacks including the transfer of the Gigginstown stud horses to Gordon Elliot and the loss of Festival participation by the likes of Faugheen and Annie Power.
Without doubt the talk is dominated by the imminent return of the 2015 Champion Hurdler Faugheen who looks like he will make his much anticipated comeback in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November. Faugheen has been off the track since January 2016 but Mullins has sent out positive reports of his superstar and the 9 year old is firmly set to try and regain his Champion Hurdle title where he is best backed at 6/1 most firms.
Douvan is primed for another crack at the Champion Chase whilst the future of the enigmatic Yorkhill is still a little undecided over whether he should go over fences or hurdles and his tendency to jump left is a concern for Mullins in his prep runs before Cheltenham. He is entered for just about everything at The Festival so keeping an eye on his progress is key.
The often overlooked Melon who ran a great race behind Labaik in the Supreme Novices last March, is set for another season over hurdles as he is still only 5 years old. Mullins’ long term plan is probably chasing and believes he has a huge scope for improvement considering he has had only 5 runs so far. Djakadam, so often the bridesmaid for the Gold Cup will have another campaign aimed around the Blue Riband as a target again.
The Ditcheat handler has himself admitted that he simply doesn’t have the Cheltenham conquering big guns these days in his current pack, although he can more than match with some up and coming talented youngsters. Speaking to the Racing Post he says “We’ve got as strong a team as we had last season, and we’ll have a good season again, but we don’t have so many at the Graded end, so we’ll need a miracle to win the trainers’ championship.”
So who are the potential miracle workers?
Modus was good last season over hurdles, winning the Lanzarote at Sandown and now could be a potential contender over fences. He has reportedly schooled well so worth keeping an eye on for novice chase handicaps towards the Festival. Capitaine is another who will go novice chasing.
However, it’s the new names that excite Paul Nicholls the most and prominent among these is Binge Drinker who got the beating of Might Bite at Ffos Las last season. He is being touted as a Grand National horse and will probably make an appearance at Chepstow for a the 3 mile trial there in December in preparation for a tilt at The Welsh National. Malaya is an exciting 3 year old filly that Paul Nicholls has also singled out. She’s had one run, a decent 2nd at Chepstow which she should improve on.
After wrestling the UK Trainers’ Championship from Paul Nicholl’s grip last season, Nicky Henderson will have high hopes to win again this season. Without doubt, it is the awesome Might Bite who leads the Seven Barrows team for potential Cheltenham glory. Henderson is pondering the £1 million “Triple Crown” and so may take him to Haydock to contest the Betfair Chase and take on current Gold Cup champion Sizing John in the process. However the trainer who is chasing 3000 winners this season would prefer an easier target for his RSA Chase winner in preparation for a crack at the King George on Boxing Day.
Comparisons with Sprinter Sacre were always going to be rife, but Altior is not far off. Unbeaten over fences last year, he goes for the Champion Chase this season, setting up the most anticipated clash of clashes when hopefully he will take on Douvan. Henderson looks likely to start Altior’s campaign at Sandown in December to contest the Tingle Creek.
Of the rest, Buveur D’Air will most likely start his Champion Hurdle defence in The Fighting Fifth at Newcastle in November whilst Vyta Du Roc and Whisper will attempt to break Henderson’s Grand National hoodoo.
The big question on everyone’s mind is where and when will Colin Tizzard’s King George hero Thistlecrack re-emerge after his injury last season which ruled him out of participating at The Cheltenham Festival. Tizzard has reportedly said that his 9 year old will have a run over hurdles before The King George. Thistlecrack is reported to be in fine fettle and well recovered from the tear in his tendon that ruled him out.
Native River, who established himself as the leading staying chaser of last season, won’t be seen until at least Christmas but The Gold Cup is very much a target again for this tough galloping 7 year old.
Finian’s Oscar is another big hope in the Tizzard yard after his gutsy victory in the Grade 1 Mersey Novices Hurdle at Aintree in April. He’s scheduled for a novice chasing campaign and won comfortably at Chepstow last week. Tizzard will hope to get a run into him for The Showcase meeting at Cheltenham at the end of the month or in November for The Open Meeting.
Elegant Escape and West Approach completes what looks like a formidable novice chasing team from the Dorset handler.
Five to Follow!
OUR DUKE (Jessica Harrington)
Sizing John maybe the star of the Harrington yard but Our Duke’s rise through the ranks last season was phenomenal, underlined by his dominance in The Irish National at Fairyhouse where he galloped the opposition into submission for a memorable win. Entered for The Gold Cup and priced around 10/1 best (bet365, Betfred), his progress this season is well worth keeping an eye on.
JURY DUTY (Gordon Elliot)
Third in the Pertemps Final at Cheltenham last March, he is widely considered to be a good chance for the World Hurdle if he sticks to hurdles but could be a good prospect over fences too. The RSA Chase or the four mile National Hunt Chase are not beyond him.
KING’S RYDE (Nicky Henderson)
This horse ran an absolute blinder in a bumper at Worcester in the summer and could develop into a smart hurdler for the Henderson team over the next few months.
SAMCRO (Gordon Elliot)
Absolutely primed for the Ballymore Novices Hurdle, this Gordon Elliot hurdler should make smooth progress during the season over extended 2 mile trips.
SLATE HOUSE (Colin Tizzard)
This horse purchased at the Cheltenham sales last March for £320,000 is set for big things over 2m 5f and has an impressive point to point record.
Best Antepost bets
Always best to be cautious at this time of year! However, a couple of enticing bets have caught my eye.
Saphir Du Rheu has to be a decent each way punt for the Bet Victor Gold Cup at 16/1 (Betfred & most firms). He’ll be carrying top weight but his 5th in the Gold Cup last March was arguably a career best and maybe on the upturn.
Samcro for the Ballymore Novice Hurdle at 6/1 will seem like Christmas come early if he puts his rivals to the sword in the coming months.
Some modest money on Might Bite for The Gold Cup at 10/1 (bet365, Betfred) will look good if he comes through the chasing ranks in the next few months.
Have a great National Hunt season and watch out for our regular coverage right up to the Cheltenham Festival in March!