I LOVE autumn. Change is in the air. From green to brown, from sun to rain and from flat to jumps. October is the month where dreams begin to form for starry-eyed National Hunt owners, trainers and jockeys. Chepstow’s two-day meeting kick-started the jumps season last weekend with potential stars Ballyoptic, Rock The Kasbah and Diego Du Charmil putting down promising markers for the months ahead and giving their owners dreams of standing in the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham next March.
The sight of champion trainer Paul Nicholls talking with his trademark openness and enthusiasm is another sure sign that jump racing is about to muscle its way back into the affections of racing fans. Champions Day and the Breeders’ Cup will provide a final fling for flat lovers but it’s time to start thinking of the Charlie Hall meeting at Wetherby, Cheltenham’s November feast, the Hennessy and Haydock’s Betfair Chase.
Nicholls’ battle with Willie Mullins lit up the final months of last season and the Ditcheat master has some serious equine ammunition to go to war with. Mullins, reeling from losing his 60 Gigginstown-owned horses, will do well to emulate last season but he has several Rich Ricci aces up his sleeve in Douvan, Vautour, Faugheen and Annie Power. Will we see Nicky Henderson revive his fortunes, will Barry Geraghty have a better second season as retained jockey to JP McManus and will the upwardly mobile Harry Fry, Dan Skelton and Neil Mulholland continue their rise up the training ranks? So much to look forward to…
As for the horses, there’s also much to get the juices flowing. Thistlecrack over fences, the imperious Douvan and the return of Coneygree. The hurdling divisions look more open but Altior and Yanworth could play a huge part. Here are 10 horses who I hope will make an impression during the 2016/17 National Hunt season.
INVITATION ONLY (Willie Mullins): Unbeaten in two bumpers, this strapping five-year-old made all the running and gave the impression that he has plenty of stamina in his armoury. Andrea and Graham Wylie have been effusive in their excitement at Invitation Only running over hurdles and it will be no surprise if he ends up at Cheltenham in March.
MOON RACER (David Pipe): Moon Racer won the Cheltenham Champion Bumper in 2015 but missed most of last season. His battle with 2016 Bumper winner Ballyandy at Perth the other week was a marvellous spectacle and David Pipe’s star came up trumps. His season will be geared around the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle for which he is already second favourite at around 12/1.
WINTER ESCAPE (Alan King): Unbeaten in two novice hurdles, Winter Escape then missed Cheltenham and Aintree and begins the season off 142, the sort of mark that could make him competitive in races such as the Greatwood Hurdle.
UXIZANDRE (Alan King): The 2015 Ryanair winner was AP McCoy’s final Cheltenham Festival triumph although the horse has not run since due to injury. He is back in training although will not be rushed. Uxizandre is a real Cheltenham specialist and Barry Geraghty gets on well with him. The Ryanair is a likely target again but although it appears a leap of faith, I’d love to see him have a go at the Gold Cup if the ground comes up good.
SEEYOUATMIDNIGHT (Sandy Thomson): I love this horse and he should pay his way when the ground is soft in deepest winter. He could run in the Hennessy after a prep race at Carlisle in late October and he also strikes me as an ideal Grand National type, although he would need soft ground to run.
LAKE VIEW LAD (Nick Alexander): Won four times last season and could run up a sequence in novice chases on his favoured soft ground. He has a high cruising speed and could be capable of tackling graded company if he takes to chasing.
ARISTO DU PLESSIS (James Ewart): Ran up a sequence over hurdles last season with his swashbuckling front-running style and bold jumping an impressive sight. He will go novice chasing and if enjoys it could be a real force over 2m. His trainer thinks he could develop into a Grade One chaser: he could well be right.
WESTEND STORY (Philip Hobbs): Fifth in the Champion Bumper after getting a little outpaced coming down the hill. He stayed on better than anything and finished with a flourish. He reeks of stamina and should win his share of novice hurdles in soft ground.
IMADA (Nicky Richards): His trainer rates this one highly and he was impressive at Ayr last autumn. He needs good ground to show his best foirm and when he gets it he could be an extremely well handicapped horse off 124.
STILLETTO (Paul Nicholls): Keen-going sort who does clout the odd fence but has bundles of ability. He could pop up in a big handicap off a workable mark of 141.
Do you have a dark horse or a well handicapped horse in mind for the jumps season? Let us know by leaving a comment below…