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What does the 2013/14 National Hunt season have in store for us?

Paul Ferguson’s Jumpers to Follow

I pick up the morning paper, take a quick glance at the date and it tells me it is the 2nd of September! Really!? Summer has been and gone ALREADY! …GREAT! As much as I love sinking a beer in the summer sunshine whilst lounging in the garden with the NTF hounds’  I love the autumnal winds and the threat of the winter rain even more. Why? Because that can only really mean one thing people; the National Hunt season proper is starting to rear it’s ugly beautiful head!

Hopefully the FREE NTF Summer Stunners guide has kept your hand in and profits rolling over the summer months – Carlingford Lough, Pure Faith, Billie Magern, Trackmate, Pires… you boys have done us proud.

There is still a wee bit to go yet before we are truly knee deep in National Hunt action and I will still be powering away over on NTF’s sister site BDH for at least the next month, probably a bit longer, but I am now starting to take dead aim and looking to crank NTF up to full power, ready to hit the 2013/14 National Hunt season full in the chops!

…and what better way to start the wheels in motion than with an overview of the impending jumps season from a racing aficionado whose opinion I greatly respect; the man behind the excellent racing publication Jumpers to Follow, Paul Ferguson.

What delights are in store for us in the 2013/14 National Hunt season?

The final Classic of the Flat season may still be ahead of us, but the start of the new National Hunt season ‘proper’ also looms large and, to coincide with the publication of the seventh edition of Jumpers To Follow, Ben (NTF) has asked me to look ahead at what we can expect from the 2013-14 campaign. 

To begin with, what has happened since the Punchestown Festival and the end of the 2012-13 season, which was dominated by the imperious Sprinter Sacre?  The main talking point over the summer for NH fans was the decision of Ruby Walsh to part company with former champion trainer, Paul Nicholls, with the 34-year-old jockey announcing in May that he would concentrate on riding for his other main employer, Irish champion, Willie Mullins.  The reason for the amicable split – Nicholls has been stated as saying that Walsh will still ride for him “when he is needed and when he is available” – is that the travel time was taking its toll on Walsh and his family.  Daryl Jacob now takes the hot-seat, rather the hot-saddle, as Nicholls’ number one. 

Interestingly, however, literally as I put the finishing touches to this feature, news is emanating that Mullins is intending on sending raiders to the UK “much more regularly with our better horses”.  Great news for jumps fans in England, but it will be interesting to see if Walsh regularly travels over with these horses, as this would somewhat contradict the reason for the split with Nicholls.  For the time being, a potential satellite yard in England is to be put on hold and only time will tell how regularly these raiders will actually appear on our shores.  However, the prospect of a clutch of Mullins’ inmates travelling over for the Open meeting, for example, can only enhance the upcoming season.  Given the number of high-class prospects Mullins has at his disposal in both the novice hurdle and novice chase divisions, it would seem a shrewd move to head over and keep some of those youngsters apart for as long as possible. 

One horse from the stable that is unlikely to be travelling anywhere this season is the highly-regarded Pont Alexandre, as it was announced in mid-July that the Neptune third, named after a bridge in Paris, had picked up an injury that was likely to keep him out until the 2014-15 season.  The five-year-old had promised to make up in to a high-class staying novice chaser this season, so it is very much hoped he returns next term. 

Pont Alexnadre aside, Mullins has a hugely strong squad to go war with this season and his string will once again be headed by dual Champion Hurdler, Hurricane Fly.  Anyone who has read my columns or publications down the years will testify to the fact that I was a fully paid-up member to The Fly’s fan club from an early stage, and the son of Montjeu is the obvious place to start when looking at the first division, the 2m hurdlers (I thought it easier to break this preview down into sections). 

The Hurdlers…

Currently joint-favourite to land a third Champion next March, Hurricane Fly looks sure to find life tougher this season, with there being plenty of strength in depth among the younger up-and-coming hurdlers.  He enjoyed a much smoother passage to Cheltenham last winter, though he is notoriously difficult to train and, of course, missed two Festivals (much to my ante-post annoyance, particularly in his novice season) through injury.  Given that he will turn 10 this season, at this stage it would take a real die-hard Fly fan to be confident of him retaining his crown and, while I would love to see him strike again, the head rules the heart and it could be time to look elsewhere. 

Compatriot Our Conor rounded off his unbeaten juvenile campaign with a bloodless success in the Triumph Hurdle, form that has been boosted since, thanks to Diakali and Blood Cotil, both at Punchestown and over in France, at Auteuil.  Dessie Hughes’ four-year-old is set to kick off his campaign in the Tipperary Hurdle on 6th October, after which the intermediate hurdle at Down Royal on 1st November would appeal as a logical target.  After this, he will be forced to carry Barry Connell’s silks (bought for an undisclosed, but presumably extremely large, fee after his Triumph romp) in open company and could meet Hurricane Fly for the first time in the Istabraq Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas.  This should give us a strong indication of the pecking order on the other side of the Irish Sea. 

Supreme Novices’ third Jezki is also likely to improve this season and could, too, form part of what looks a strong Irish hand in this division.  Hugely impressive when reversing form with Champagne Fever at the Punchestown Festival, Jessie Harrington’s five-year-old is another who could head north to Down Royal and, this year, connections will no doubt opt to get a run into him before the Festival (absent from Christmas to the Festival last season, despite appearing to improve and thrive on racing in the first half of the campaign). 

As for the British challengers, My Tent Or Yours is without doubt the most obvious contender for me and, granted he learns to settle better this season, he has the engine to win a Champion Hurdle.  A high-class novice last season, when his finest hour came when bolting up off a mark of 149 in the Betfair Hurdle, his chance in the Supreme was compromised when Ruby Walsh slowed things up from the front aboard the aforementioned Champagne Fever, which set Nicky Henderson’s charge alight.  He still looked all over the winner at the foot of the hill and, despite being outstayed by the previous year’s Champion Bumper winner, he saw the race out well enough to suggest the track is not an issue.  Likely to be campaigned along the Binocular lines, the ‘Fighting Fifth’ at Newcastle and Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day appeal as obvious targets in the first half of the season.  

Neptune winner The New One is a Cheltenham specialist and will, therefore, presumably be aimed at the International Hurdle in December, though I’m of the opinion that he may need 2m4f to shine this season, so his best chance of big race success in the spring could come at Aintree.  The Ascot Hurdle on 23rd November appeals as the most likely starting point for Nigel Twiston-Davies’ inmate, who could dominate over the intermediate trip, with Oscar Whisky set to go chasing and his Aintree conqueror, Zarkandar, likely to step up in trip. 

That leads me on nicely to the staying hurdle division.  It was nice to read during August that Big Buck’s was back home at Ditcheat and, at this stage, his planned return is likely to materialise in the Cleeve Hurdle in January, before a crack at regaining his World Hurdle crown.  At the time of writing, he would, however, have to rate as a risky ante-post proposition, for those looking to place their seasonal ‘life changing Yankees’. 

Stable-companion Zarkandar was a horse I was happy to take on last year over 2m, as I was never of the opinion he was quick enough to win a Champion Hurdle, but he showed when winning the Aintree Hurdle he could be a different proposition over further and I expect Paul Nicholls may want to try him over 3m sooner rather than later.  Newbury’s Long Distance Hurdle (30th November), a race he has won with Big Buck’s for the past four years, seems a logical starting point.  If he sees out the trip, the Long Walk at Ascot and Cleeve at Cheltenham would become probable targets en route to a crack at the World Hurdle, for which he is currently a best price 8/1. 

Last year’s winner Solwhit is likely to mop up on home soil before travelling over next March, though Charles Byrnes’ stable-star could well be facing stiffer opposition this time around and is another reigning champion who will be 10 by the time of the next Festival (Big Buck’s will be 11 if he makes the race). 

Along with Zarkandar, Champion Hurdle third Countrywide Flame would be of huge interest if tried over this sort of trip, given that he stays so well on the Flat.  There has been no statement of intent to this point from connections, however, but he looks to lack the pace to win a Champion Hurdle for me, so this route should be considered. 

The most obvious heir apparent to the staying hurdle crown from last year’s crop of novices would be Albert Bartlett and Sefton Novices’ Hurdle winner At Fishers Cross.  Rebecca Curtis’ six-year-old went from strength-to-strength last term and proved himself on quicker ground at Aintree, having looked thoroughly at home in deeper ground throughout the winter.  He has to be considered a player for top honours in this division this season, but looks tight enough in the ante-post market at this stage, for what he has actually achieved to date.

The Chasers…

On to the chasers and the 2m division can be wrapped up pretty quickly, thanks to Sprinter Sacre.  There is no need to dwell on this section for too long as, unless something untoward happens to Nicky Henderson’s son of Network, he should remain unbeaten over fences for a third successive season.  His campaign maps itself out, with the Tingle Creek, the VC Chase and the Queen Mother Champion Chase the obvious three targets.  If all is well after the Festival, he will presumably bid to land a second Melling Chase at Aintree, with the easy 2m4f trip not posing any problems to him in April. 

The King George at Kempton on Boxing Day has been mentioned as another possible mid-season objective for Sprinter Sacre, but at this stage in his career, I don’t envisage Henderson testing the water over 3m.  One horse from the Seven Barrows yard that seems much more likely to be tried over further this season is last season’s Arkle winner Simonsig with Henderson sure to want to keep the pair apart. 

The grey, of course, won the Neptune over 2m5f the season before and should have little trouble in staying the extra half-mile over fences.  With that in mind, he appeals as an obvious contender for top honours over the intermediate trip this season, with the Ryanair the likely end of season aim, before which the Ascot Chase, a race Henderson won in 2011 and 2012 with Riverside Theatre, is likely to have been pencilled in. I’d say, at this stage, the King George is only a possibility for the son of Fair Mix, too, though in time I expect him to be tried over 3m.  His ability to last home over that trip will largely depend on how well he settles, as he can be pretty keen at times. 

Colin Tizzard’s Cue Card is currently the marker horse over 2m4f and he, too, is likely to be aimed at both the Ascot Chase and the Ryanair at Cheltenham, both contests in which he was successful earlier this year.  The former Champion Bumper winner came of age of over fences last season and is the horse that Simonsig must aspire to pass.  For me, Simonsig has the raw ability to do so, but must channel his energy in a positive manner in order to fulfil his untapped potential.  In Barry Geraghty, he has arguably the best partner to make this happen. 

Over in Ireland, Flemenstar should once again dominate over this trip, with Peter Casey stating that he will race over shorter in the first half of the season.  The John Durkan at Punchestown in early December is likely to be his first major target, after which he is reportedly going to drop back in distance for the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas.  Assuming all goes to plan, the eight-year-old will then take his chance over 3m again in the Hennessy Gold Cup, a race in which he looked a clear non-stayer to me last year. Sadly, nowhere near his best when only third behind Sprinter Sacre and Cue Card at Aintree, it could be that he needs soft ground to show his true colours and he will remain difficult to beat up to 2m4f on home soil. 

Of the 3m chasers, Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth is the obvious starting point.  Nicky Henderson’s triple Cheltenham Festival winner is now five from five at Cheltenham and is a worthy favourite in the ante-post market for next year’s feature event.  A gutsy performer, he looked in trouble when avoiding the fall of Silviniaco Conti three out, but stayed on in determined fashion, eventually outstaying Sir Des Champs.  The eight-year-old raced just twice last term and is probably set for another light campaign, given he reportedly takes plenty out of himself nowadays.  Given his liking for the track and the timing of the race, the Argento Chase at Cheltenham in late January looks the most likely stop en route to the Festival, whilst it was mentioned over the summer that he could even revert to hurdles at some stage in the first half of the season. 

The Irish Gold Cup challenge is likely to be led once again by last year’s runner-up Sir Des Champs who would have appreciated better ground on the final day of the Festival, though so, too, would Bobs Worth to be fair.  Willie Mullins’ seven-year-old had also won at the Festival in 2011 (Martin Pipe) and 2012 (Jewson), and it appeared that throughout last year that his whole season revolved around one race.  Involved in a battle earlier than ideal, he was legless in the closing stages, so it was a brave effort to come out and subsequently land the Punchestown Gold Cup.  I don’t expect there will be much between the pair this year. 

The aforementioned Silviniaco Conti failed to bounce back from his Gold Cup fall at Aintree, but can be forgiven that run and, though he doesn’t appeal as an obvious Gold Cup contender, the Charlie Hall and Betfair Chase again appeal as obvious early season targets for Paul Nicholls’ flat track specialist.  Along with returning stable-mate Al Ferof, the King George could well come under consideration, though we await an update on the latter’s wellbeing (should hear something any day now, in light of the stable’s Open Day on 1st September).  The grey was, of course, last seen winning the Paddy Power off 159 last November and he gives the impression as if 3m around Kempton shouldn’t be a problem. 

Last year’s novices didn’t look a vintage crop, with Dynaste probably the pick, leaving his Jewson second behind when winning impressively at Aintree.  Again, at this stage, David Pipe’s grey appeals more as a King George candidate than a Gold Cup contender, with Haydock’s Betfair Chase an obvious starting point – he won the valuable fixed brush handicap hurdle on the card a couple of years ago and he clearly has the pace to handle the sharp track.  It is also worth noting that he has won first time out in each of the past two seasons, so this could be his best chance of big race success in his first season out of novice company. 

The final one I’d like to mention is Venetia Williams’ Katenko who was on a roll when impressively winning handicaps at Sandown and Cheltenham, admittedly off 136 and 147, respectively.  Forced to undergo an emergency colic operation and, therefore, miss the Gold Cup, he remains fairly unexposed and a possible improver at the age of seven.  Hopefully, he will return with a clean bill of health and will pick up from where he left off. 

The ‘Dark Horses’…

Moving on to this season’s novice hurdle prospects and ‘dark’ horses, of which I don’t want to give too much away (unfair to those who have kindly already purchased Jumpers To Follow), I am particularly looking forward to West Wizard and Oscar Rock over hurdles.

The former looked a high-class prospect when winning a Kempton bumper impressively for Nicky Henderson and, given he carries the blue and white silks of Dai Walters, I’d expect to see him at Ffos Las at some point this season.  He looks a lovely long-term prospect.

Oscar Rock won two strong Newbury bumpers for Harry Fry last season and is now in the care of Malcolm Jefferson.  After beating Gone Too Far and O’Faolains Boy, he returned to the Berkshire venue to see off Vago Collonges and Caledonia, with Killyglass back in fifth.  The form of that Listed event could hardly have worked out any better, with Killyglass, Vago Collonges and Caledonia filling the first three places in the Grade 2 at Aintree.  Fry’s loss is very much Jefferson’s gain and the five-year-old can be expected to make up in to a high-class staying novice hurdler in the north. 

Finally, a couple of un-raced (under rules) horses to look out for are Padge and Clean Sheet.  The former beat subsequent Punchestown Festival winner Very Wood in his point-to-point in February, after which he was snapped up for £160,000 by trainer, Evan Williams.  The four-year-old will carry the State Of Play and Cappa Bleu silks of the Ruckers’ and should have little trouble in winning a bumper, before going novice hurdling. 

Clean Sheet is another ex-Irish points winner, with the four-year-old quickening up stylishly to score by 4 lengths at Dromahane.  Trained by Enda Bolger, he has since been purchased by J P McManus and is a full-brother to Nicky Henderson’s Nelson’s Bridge.  He is another who will probably start off in a bumper and looks to have a bright future.  

Paul Ferguson’s Jumpers To Follow 2013-14 features many more unexposed types and can be bought online at www.cc-publishing.co.uk or by sending a cheque / postal order (£9.95 payable to The Racing Insider) to:

PO Box 98

Liverpool

L9 1WY 

Follow Paul on Twitter @paulfergusonJTF and read his daily online column at www.betrescue.com

WOW! If that hasn’t whetted your appetite for the jumping game then it’s probably best you check you actually have a pulse!

I’m positively chomping at the bit for the serious jumping action to begin after that. I reckon I’ll have to get Mrs NTF to put a hood on me and a pair of LONG RUN style ear-plugs! That may just pacify me until mid-October!

I’ll be adding my own thoughts between now and the start of the season with various articles and analysis but in the meantime what do you guys think?

What are you most looking forward to in the 2013/14 National Hunt season?

Can anyone bring down the mighty Sprinter Sacre?

Has Hurricane Fly got another Champion Hurdle in him?

Will Mullins really come over here before the Festival and try and plunder our big pots? Is it a good or bad thing?

Which of last season’s novices’ are you most looking forward to this time round?

Aaaaggggh?! I’m gonna explode!!

Hell we may even get a couple more wins out of our NTF Summer Stunners before we roll into the proper jumping stuff!

Finally I would like to give Paul a huge thanks for his time and I for one hugely recommend his excellent Jumpers To Follow publication, it’s simply a must for any racing fan.

Ben (NTF)

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