Matt Tombs / Friday 7th November 2014 / 15:05
At the start of the season it’s easy to make a list of the obvious top class prospects – Faugheen, Vautour, etc. What’s more difficult, but potentially more useful, is to list horses that during last season you thought might be top class prospects, but that haven’t yet proved themselves on the big stage and so are liable to be forgotten.
It’s worth making the distinction between ‘forgotten horses’ and ‘dark horses’. This column is about the Cheltenham Festival – the 10 horses below are all horses I think might become contenders at the Festival, not 110 rated horses I think are 20lb well in.
Everyone loves to see a tiny stable have a star and Seeyouatmidnight could be that for Sandy Thomson. Thomson had had 2 winners in each of the previous 3 seasons before Seeyouatmidnight rattled up a hat-trick last term, culminating in an open Grade 2 over 3m, (RPR of 154.)
Those 3 wins were all on testing ground and he was eventually a well beaten 3rd of 18 in Beat That’s Sefton at Aintree (good to soft). However, he was upsides 2 out and was heavily eased approaching the last as the front 2 pulled away, in the manner of a horse for whom hurdle races are a mere preparation for a chasing career, (might not have liked not being able to dominate). He won’t be out until December after a minor hold up, which has meant a firm decision to go novice chasing has been delayed, but he looks a cracking novice chase prospect, (25/1 for the RSA.)
I put up Zamdy Man at 33/1 for the Supreme last season after he won what’s usually a strong 2m Grade 2 at Haydock, (The New One and Cinders And Ashes had won the previous 2 renewals,) beating £450,000 purchase Un Temps Pour Tout by a cosy 1¾l. Zamdy Man didn’t run again but his reputation was enhanced in his absence.
Un Temps Pour Tout went on to thrash Cole Harden by 16l at Ascot over 2m3½f, and Cole Harden then chased home the leading staying novice Beat That in the Sefton, earning a rating of 150. Un Temps Pour Tout then was 7l 3rd off 150 in a £50,000 handicap at the Punchestown Festival. Zamdy Man was very weak as a juvenile and was strengthening up all the time last season. He’s a chaser on looks and would be an Arkle (25/1) contender, but if he stays over hurdles he might be an interesting long shot for the Champion Hurdle, (66/1).
Occasionally a seemingly exposed horse improves out of all recognition in a short time. Saphir Du Rheu had won only once in six hurdle runs before contesting a 2m6f Sandown handicap off 130 in December. He won there, followed up at Kempton off 145 and then edged out Whisper off 158 in the Welsh Champion Hurdle, (2m4f, heavy). To put that in context, he was giving Whisper 11lb before claims are taken into account and Whisper went on to win the Coral Cup off 6lb higher (153) next time, and then won the 3m Grade 1 at Aintree.
It looked a case of one race too many when Saphir Du Rheu flopped in the National Spirit and he was then put away with a novice chasing campaign this season in mind. Rated 165 over timber, he might be the highest rated hurdler going chasing this season. Whilst hurdles form doesn’t always translate, it’s easy to imagine him as a leading contender for the JLT (16/1) or RSA (16/1).
Understanding yard vibes is an art, but is a crucial element of punting. One vibe that’s really worth looking out for is Nicky Henderson’s approach to his novice hurdlers. He’s not averse to campaigning novices aggressively – My Tent Or Yours ran 6 times in his novice season including winning the biggest 2m handicap hurdle of the season, the Betfair at Newbury, off 149. However, his less mature novices get the kid gloves treatment. Nicky tends to use phrases like “I won’t be bullying him this year” or “I was only playing with him last season.” I can remember him using those phrases about the likes of Sprinter Sacre and Finians Rainbow who were both beaten in novice hurdles at the Festival.
This season the obvious one is Vaniteux. Almost throughout last season Nicky said that it would be a year too early for the 5 year old to go to the Festival. Impressive homework caused a late change of plan and he ran a blinder to be 3rd in the Supreme. He stays hurdling and whilst it’s a strong looking Champion Hurdle market, 33/1 looks generous, (although it’s possible he’ll be best over further than 2m.)
I backed Corrin Wood in the RSA but everything conspired against him. Donald McCain had insisted how important to his chances Jason Maguire was, (who missed the Festival through injury.) Then Annacotty was declared for the RSA rather than a handicap and they cut each other’s throats up front. Corrin Wood beat off Annacotty but dipped his legs in the water on the second circuit and folded tamely after a mistake at the next. He’s easily forgiven that run and his previous form had looked really strong. He’s not yet quoted for the Gold Cup (66/1) but could develop into an interesting contender if there’s cut in the ground.
A small stable with a cracking prospect is Liz Doyle’s with Le Vent D’Antan. He was sent off joint favourite as a 4 year old for Briar Hill’s Champion Bumper but was much too keen, (didn’t get a clear run either,) finishing 7th. He had minor niggles, including stomach ulcers, last autumn and didn’t make his hurdling debut until January. He shaped as if far from fully wound up in his early races, but was apparently straighter for his final run when bolting up in a winners of one hurdle over 2m4f at the Punchestown Festival. He looks the classic sort who was being trained with the following season as a novice chaser in mind. It’d be disappointing if he wasn’t contesting the Grade 1 novice chases over 2m4f+ in Ireland over the winter. The JLT (20/1) and RSA (33/1) both look realistic targets.
Another fairly small stable with an interesting prospect is Stuart Crawford who saddles Gilt Shadow. He was sent off 9/2 in a red hot Royal Bond won by The Tullow Tank, (Arctic Fire and Very Wood behind), but picked up a minor injury there. His only subsequent run was in late January when 3¼l 3rd to Sure Reef (who received 3lb) in what’s normally a hot Grade 2 at Leopardstown, (2m4f, soft to heavy). He was reported to be badly in need of the run there and his trainer said that he would improve a ton for a step up in trip and better ground. Despite lots of entries in the spring he never made it back to the track, but if he has a clean bill of health this season, the 6 year old looks a top prospect for staying novice chases. He’s 33/1 for the JLT and 50/1 for the RSA, with the latter looking the more likely target.
The big handicap hurdle at Leopardstown in January is always a hot contest and this year was won by Gilgamboa, with 7/4 favourite Quick Jack a close 3rd. Gilgamboa went off 9/1 for the Supreme but blundered 2 out when still in contention. He’s very much seen as a chaser in the making and I doubt he was hard trained for the Supreme. The vibes from Enda Bolger were really strong and he rates an exciting novice chasing prospect – he’s 20/1 for the Arkle and 16/1 for the JLT.
Willie Mullins has so many top horses that it’s inevitable some will have slipped below the radar – even though in other yards they’d be trumpeted as stable stars. Last season Vautour and Faugheen bolted up in the Supreme and Neptune, which led to a wall of money for Briar Hill in the Albert Bartlett, for which he started 2/1f, only to fall at the 7th. He suffered a minor head injury there, which kept him off for the rest of the season, so, whilst it’s stretching it to call him a ‘forgotten’ horse, he begins this term with a slightly lower profile. It’s more a case of being easy to forget how good his form now looks, and how highly regarded he is. He was unbeaten under rules before that fall and gave the winner of the Albert Bartlett, Very Wood, 10lb and a 3l beating the time before over 2m4f. In the preview nights Patrick Mullins continually put him up as the stable’s nap of the Festival. He stays over hurdles and whilst More Of That will be a formidable opponent, Briar Hill looks as likely as anything to beat him in the World Hurdle, (10/1).
A Mullins horse on the come back trail is Clondaw Court. He’s clearly been fragile as he’s 7 and only run 4 times, unbeaten in a point, bumper and two hurdles. He looks a stayer and demolished subsequent Grade 2 winner Giantofaman at Thurles over2m6f in January. He picked up a minor injury after that but is reported back in good form for a novice chase campaign. Given his fragility I wouldn’t be backing him for the RSA (25/1) at this stage, especially given the other runners the Riccis might have for the race. However, he is one to have onside in the good Irish novice chases this season and, if gets a clear run to Cheltenham, would be one to consider backing nearer the time.