The excitement surrounding the early part of the National Hunt season is beginning to get fairly fevered, mainly because there are so many super-talented horses either side of the Irish Sea. It hardly needs me to tell you that the likes of Thistlecrack, Douvan, Vautour, Coneygree, Cue Card et al are a collection of the most exciting steeplechasers we have had for years.
As such, the list of horses below are ones which haven’t been garnering quite so many column inches but, in different ways, could prove of strong interest in the next few weeks/months. They are a mixture of horses with star potential, horses that may have been written off by some and horses that just look well handicapped or open to improvement.
CASTELLO SFORZA (Willie Mullins) This horse has only had two runs – an impressive bumper win at Fairyhouse before finishing three-lengths fourth to Ballyandy in the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival, where he still looked badly in need of the experience and, in the circumstances, ran a blinder. I’m sure there are many associated with the Mullins yard, closely or otherwise, that think there are 25 or 30 better horses in the stable but you get all that smartassery every season and we can only go on what we see. As such, this son of Milan, owned by JP McManus, looks a top prospect for novice hurdles this season.
JENKINS (Nicky Henderson) Comfortably the least original pick in this list as he has found his way into most similar documents but the son of Azamour looks one of the most exciting novice hurdle prospects this season after going down by just half a length in the Punchestown bumper on just his second start. He has loads of speed and already looks bang up for the job of being one of Henderson’s Supreme Novice Hurdle candidates.
NED STARK (Gordon Elliott) Bought by Gordon Elliott from Alan King’s stable in the close season. I thought he travelled well enough in last year’s Hennessy, shaping as they much of his old ability remains intact, and he has now dropped down to what could be a very competitive mark if his new connections can work their magic. He ideally wants decent ground and possibly to go left handed.
PEAK TO PEAK (Paul Nicholls) Peak To Peak is a bit of a guess horse given he’s yet to run in this country, but I fell in love with him when I saw him at Paul Nicholls’ Open day in the summer. He looks a tremendous athlete, is very well bred and his trainer holds him in quite high regard. He has entries this weekend, including at Ascot, and I will be very interested to see how he gets on.
SAPHIR DU RHEU (Paul Nicholls) Everyone was raving about this horse last year, including his trainer, yet he has now been virtually forgotten. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that he was the only horse to give Smad Place a race in the Hennessy despite giving him 8lb, and it’s well worth bearing in mind that he starts this season off an 11lb lower mark. He is only a 7yo, so remains an interesting horse granted a decent surface.
SECRET DOOR (Harry Fry) I’ve been following this mare closely since I saw her finish second in a point-to-point at Lemonfield in Ireland, and I remain convinced that she is incredibly well handicapped off a mark of 111. She is in at Uttoxeter on Friday but would need rain to take her chance.
SHE’S OTTO (Ms Margaret Mullins) Skipped through the heavy ground at Gowran Park to win the second of her two bumpers with remarkable ease. I don’t think there was a whole load substance to that form but I was very taken with the manner of the performance and this daughter of Milan looks a lovely prospect for mares’ novice hurdles this season – she could probably even hold her own against the geldings too. She is a half-sister to the smart mare Chomba Womba, who won three Grade 2 events over hurdles.
TAQUIN DU SEUIL (Jonjo O’Neill) Another that people will down as having limited potential to progress at this stage of his career, but his comeback run over hurdles was very good and he posted two efforts last season that make me think he isn’t at all badly handicapped off a mark in the mid 150’s. I can see him running a nice race in the BetVictor Gold Cup (old Paddy Power Gold Cup), a race his stable have a decent record in, if that’s the route connections choose to go with him.
WILLIAM H BONNEY (Alan King) This horse probably isn’t going to set the world alight but I do think he could be nicely handicapped off a mark of 136 given connections thought enough of him to have a crack at the Supreme Novices Hurdle last season. At a more realistic level he could become quite a moneyspinner because he’s got a really good attitude to the game and could easily have more to offer after another summer on his back.
WINTER ESCAPE (Alan King) Unbeaten in three starts last season and although it would appear on the face of it that he needs to take quite a leap forward from a mark of 142, he is open to plenty more improvement and could yet develop into a championship contender. He has been kept to flat tracks thus far so may be more of an Aintree type for the spring, but a race like the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton would appear a suitable mid-season target.