As the 2014 Flat turf season begins to draw to a conclusion within the next few weeks, all racing eyes will be turning towards the upcoming National Hunt campaign.
The glorious, summer days of Royal Ascot, Epsom and Goodwood are all a fond, distant memory now as the jumping brigade begin to get their ranks in order. Here we will look at six horses to watch out for, three over hurdles and three over the bigger obstacles who should take high rank over the coming season and challenge for the big prizes at the major meetings at the festivals at Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown.
To kick-off our Chasers, we have Vautour, from the all-conquering Willie Mullins stable. The 5-year old shot to the head of the 2015 Arkle Chase betting with Betfair after a six-length victory in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (2m 1f) at the Cheltenham Festival in a very fast time. Vautour backed-up that win by turning out at the Punchestown meeting in early May to claim another Grade 1 prize over 2m 4f in the Irish Champion Novices event. All of the noises out of the Mullins’ stable suggest that Vautour will be campaigned over fences this season; while that should not be taken as certain, this gelding looks set to challenge at the highest level again.
Holywell [pictured] is a chaser to follow with more concrete targets for 2015, as the Cheltenham Gold Cup is surely high on his trainer Jonjo O’Neill’s radar. Campaigned at a lowly level early last season, Holywell came to real prominence by capturing a (3m 1/2f) Grade 3 handicap event at the Cheltenham Festival, but the 7-year olds best performance was left for Aintree in which he slammed his fellow novice rivals – including RSA Chase winner O’Faolains Boy - to claim the Mildmay Chase over 3m 1f, with a tremendous round of jumping. With the Gold Cup betting being the most wide-open market in recent history, it could be that this young pretender could rise to the top.
Briar Hill blotted his previously impressive copybook by falling in the Grade 1 Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle (3m) at Cheltenham, but his other form still stands up as a horse to follow for the new season. A winner of the Grade 1 Cheltenham Bumper back in 2013, the Willie Mullins trained 6-year old won his first three outings over hurdles in comfortable style before coming to grief back in March. Briar Hill has the size and scope to turn into an excellent chasing type, and providing his jumping holds over the larger obstacles, he may take high rank in the novice chasing sphere.
Onto the Hurdlers, and it may not be the most unobvious selection, but Annie Power must come into any thoughts as a horse to look out for in 2015. Yet another superstar from the Mullins empire, the 6-year old mare has won 11 of her 12 starts under rules, with her only defeat coming after perhaps not staying in the World Hurdle (3m) at last seasons’ festival. Legendary mare Quevega was retired after a narrow defeat at the Punchestown meeting, and Annie Power looks like the ideal horse to follow in her footsteps with the Mares’ Hurdle (2m 5f) race at Cheltenham surely as a target.
The patience showed by Nicky Henderson in keeping West Wizard from the racecourse will hopefully reap rewards this coming season as the Dai Walters owned 5-year old looks to get his Supreme Novices’ Hurdle aims back on track. An early market leader for the race around twelve months ago, his only career start over hurdles was a five-length defeat to Sgt Reckless at Kempton. Henderson later cited ‘growing issues’ as to why the son of King’s Theatre didn’t return to the track after Kempton, but the horse is highly thought of in the yard and will look to play a leading role next term.
Yet another fantastic prospect from the Mullins’ team is Faugheen who is yet to taste defeat from his first six starts under rules. A Grade 3 winner over three miles at Limerick was later followed up with a 4 ½ length win in the Grade 1 Neptune Novices Hurdle (2m 5f) at Cheltenham. His versatility was showcased further with another Grade 1 win over two miles at Punchestown back in April. It is always difficult to second guess any thoughts that the handler from County Carlow may have, but a tilt at the Champion Hurdle could be on the agenda.