We’re now well and truly into the thick of the National Hunt season and while unfortunately the idea of crowds returning to racecourses any time soon seems wishful thinking, we should at least be grateful that horse racing is actually taking place and it’s fair to say the action on the track has not disappointed.
Much of the season seems to revolve around the Cheltenham Festival, which is just nine weeks away, and while there is no doubt those four days in March are the pinnacle for every owner, jockey and trainer, it shouldn’t undermine the excellent pattern race programme that takes place between October to April. Races like the Tingle Creek, King George, Clarence House, Cotswold, Shloer Chase (the list goes on) are particularly good races in their own right and it’s a shame when you hear some trainers (and owners) refer to them as ‘just a prep for Cheltenham’. Would Aidan O’Brien use the 2000 Guineas as a trial for the Derby? Of course every Cheltenham contender is trained to an inch of its life and primed ready for its Festival showdown; handlers such as Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls, Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins have proven time and again that they are the best in the business when it comes to priming their charges for Prestbury Park and Henderson, in particular, has made no secret of the fact that Cheltenham is the be all and end all and his results at the Festival reflect that. To date the septuagenarian (go on, google it if you have to..) has saddled more winners at the coveted meeting than any other trainer in the UK (Willie Mullins currently heads the list with 72 Festival successes to Henderson’s 68) so he’s clearly doing something right! But one wonders IF the Champion Chase was run on the same day (under the same conditions) as this season’s Tingle Creek, a race Altior was controversially withdrawn from the night before, would the master trainer have allowed his stable star to take his chance? Thankfully, it’s a question that doesn’t need answering and no one is doubting for one moment that Henderson didn’t have the best interests of his horse at the forefront of his mind, but the fact the best two mile chaser in training was absent from a Grade One event on ground he had won on before, three months before his intended target at the Cheltenham Festival begs the question why does Cheltenham have such a stranglehold over everything that comes before it?
The Festival is the greatest show on turf and the roars and cheers from those on course as they greet a horse to the coveted winners enclosure is a sight and sound witnessed nowhere else. It is truly unique and spectacular and the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention no matter how many times you witness it. Ian Renton could put on a Selling Hurdle worth just £1 and you can guarantee the winner would receive as much applause and appreciation than whoever is victorious in the Gold Cup – ahh now there’s an idea…🤔
A few years ago Betfair and The Jockey Club teamed up to create the jumps triple crown which consisted of the Betfair Chase, King George and Gold Cup and connections of any horse that could complete the winning treble would receive a £1000,000 bonus which was a great initiative and offered some sort of narrative to the season. Sadly that competition is now a thing of the past and whereas flat racing have their own Triple Crown, unfortunately jump racing is lagging behind when it comes to promoting anything outside Cheltenham which is a massive shame because there is so much fantastic racing to be enjoyed and it doesn’t all have to revolve around four days in the spring.
Without wishing to sound like Jeremy Clarkson on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire – ‘Here’s what I think’
Let’s have four races where the first, second and third gain automatic entry into their respective Festival target. A ‘win and you’re in’ type of thing.
Major chases such as the Ladbrokes Chase, King George and Cotswold Chase would seem logical contests en route to the Gold Cup while the two milers could use the Shloer Chase, Tingle Creek and Game Spirit ahead of the Champion Chase. These races will be contested by the usual suspects anyway but some sort of financial or points based incentive would encourage more owners and trainers to race against horses of similar ability on a more regular basis rather than opting for the easier option of a modest three runner event at Market Rasen on Monday. I believe there’s so much that can be done to try and improve the competitiveness of these small field Graded events which offer no real interest to the betting public or indeed those that want to see a proper horse RACE. A similar program could be introduced for the hurdlers, too.
Dan Skelton is one trainer who is never afraid to shirk a challenge and he’s already been on record as saying he wouldn’t be running scared of taking on Altior again with his Desert Orchid Chase hero Nube Negra should the opportunity arise (Game Spirit anyone?!) and also suggested his star novice Allmankind would line up against Shishkin in the Kingmaker at Warwick next month if last year’s Supreme winner heads to the Midlands track. Personally I’d say it’s extremely unlikely, although we can only hope, but that is just the sort of fighting talk we like to hear; that’s what horse racing is all about, pitching the best against the best as many times as possible and Skelton’s approach to this is great news for our beloved game and with a bit of luck more trainers will follow suit and days of uncompetitive four runner Graded events featuring odds on favourites will be a thing of the past.
On the subject of Skelton, he’s declared The Hoax in the National Hunt Novices’ Hurdle at Huntington on Friday and after an excellent seasonal return at Taunton in November, things sadly didn’t quite go to plan at Southwell thereafter when he and Harry Skelton took a tumble at the third hurdle. Thankfully all is well and the son of James and Jean Potter’s admirable brood mare Lily Potter, who resides at Yorton Farm, has the chance to get his career back on track in the colours of James and Jean Potter ltd and enhance the yard’s impressive 25% strike rate at the course this season.
At Wetherby on Tuesday, Billingsley unfortunately unshipped Sam Twiston-Davies five from home when still appearing to be travelling well so who knows what the outcome may have been. Luckily both horse and jockey suffered no ill affects and live to fight another day which is the main thing and we’ll leave it to Alastair Ralph to find another suitable opportunity for the Potter Group-owned nine-year-old.
Patroclus has an entry at Exeter in a Maiden Hurdle over 2m1f on Tuesday while fellow Seven Barrows inmate Welsh Saint could make his belated seasonal return on the same day in the 3m Novices’ Chase.
Exelerator Express is doing well and Neil Mulholland has earmarked a Novices’ Handicap Chase at Huntington on January 29th for his next possible outing after a very good effort at Newbury last time.
The best of the racing action comes form Warwick on Saturday where If The Cap Fits, who won the Canter Carpet High Performances Surfaces Novices’ Chase at Ffos Las in October, could bump into Dickie Diver in the G2 at 1:50 and Adrimel could enhance his Ballymore Hurdle claims in the 2:25 – Sugar! I’ve just mentioned a race at Cheltenham! 🤦♂️😉