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My pre-season Ten To Follow last season went very well as between them they notched up 18 wins from 39 starts giving a level stakes profit of 51 points so the pressure is on a little. Chopping it down from around 25 to 10 was not easy but I’ve gone with the following. It’s a little novice-chase heavy but I wanted to keep back the championship performers ahead of when I start the Cheltenham Ante-Post copy from mid-November onwards.
No horse caught my eye more in the paddock in terms of the combination of wellbeing and physical presence at last season’s Cheltenham Festival than Noel Meade’s Apache Stronghold which is the principal reason for his inclusion. He was no match for the brilliant Vautour in the JLT but confirmed places with Valseur Lido from their Grade 1 clash at Leopardstown the previous month virtually pound for pound. Valseur Lido then had his revenge at Punchestown but I always tend to treat end-of-season form with a pinch of salt and also suspect that 3m1f stretched Apache Stronghold a little and was in favour of the winner moving up in trip whose trainer has already mentioned the Grand National for this season. Rated Gold Cup material last season by connections who were genuinely gutted when he was beaten by Don Poli at Christmas, I am not sure that he stays well enough for that and he is also unfortunate to be around with such a fantastic group of staying novices from last season but I like the chances of Meade having him ready early enough to win a race or two at up to 3m through superior fitness in the first half of the season before the Mullins Gold Cup horses are at full peak.
I made reference to Willie Mullins’ mare in my blog after she streaked home on her bumper debut at Listowel, a performance that had a real wow factor about it. By Yeats and out of the top-class mare, Feathard Lady, who was Champion Hurdle favourite until she got injured, I don’t want to sound like I am getting ahead of myself but the way her little legs were rotating like a hamster on a wheel helped her scamper 23 lengths clear after rounding the home turn very much reminded me of Quevega in her younger days. She just flew. Likely to be sent novice hurdling, the new mares’ novice hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival is bound to be on her high-profile owners’ minds (Alan Shearer, Lee Westwood and Ant & Dec amongst others) and her trainer has reportedly already mentioned that race.
Restricted to just one run last season when he was badly in need of the outing behind Rock On Ruby on New Year’s Day after showing up well for a long way, the plan thereafter was the World Hurdle but connections decided to draw stumps a fortnight before Cheltenham as they just couldn’t get him right. Henderson has yet to go into full detail as to what was ailing him but has stated that he has put it right and I am sure it will all come out fairly soon that Beat That has had a wind operation and is back on song. Don’t forget that he beat Cole Harden by 4l into second in the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle before taking care of Don Poli at Punchestown so they have every right to head down the World Hurdle route if they want to but he is a high-class chaser in the making and I doubt that they can hold him back any longer from tackling the bigger obstacles. Having raced just seven times under Rules he has a huge future ahead of him and it would be no surprise whatsoever if he ends up being the leading home hope for the big spring staying novice chases.
Heading into the Cheltenham Festival last season it was Nicky Richards’ seven-year-old son of King’s Theatre who was officially the best British-trained novice hurdler but it was no surprise that he was sent to Aintree instead given his connections. He wasn’t entered in fairness but this season a supplementary stage has been added for Grade 1 novice races for the first time, just to make it even more tricky for ante-post punters! As it transpired he flopped as the 7/4 favourite behind Cyrus Darius trailing home by 22 lengths never looking a threat at any stage. Maybe it was one run too many having won all four races in the previous three months which followed a 587-day absence or maybe he had a physical problem but I am easily prepared to forgive him that run having seriously impressed giving Bristol De Mai 9lb at Kelso when completing his four-timer. Like with most of his offspring’s horses, Glngerburn is a good mover and is likely to be seen at his best on a decent surface and I dare say that his connections are already eyeing up the Fighting Fifth Hurdle.
I like the chances of Henry de Bromhead’s Cheltenham Festival runner-up winning a big handicap chase this season. The stable have already won two big handicap chases this season with Shanahan's Turn (Galway Plate) and Sadler's Risk (Munster National). I was one of those grinding their teeth in annoyance when he was left at the start of the Bet365 Gold Cup, when I doubt that the Starter even saw him, off the back of finishing runner-up to The Druid’s Nephew at Cheltenham. Judged by how well The Druid’s Nephew was going until tipping up five out when leading the Grand National a merry dance and then the third at Cheltenham, Galant Oscar, went on to win a 19-runner handicap at the Punchestown Festival by nine lengths on his next start, that looks strong handicap chase form to me. I note that he has an entry in the Grade 1 JNWine Champion Chase at Down Royal but I hope that they head down the handicap route with him for the time being.
It has been a long time since Edward O’Grady has trained a seriously good horse but I fancy he has one now in the shape of this five-year-old who looks set to go novice chasing this season and I expect him to develop into a leading Arkle contender, a race that his trainer has won with Ventana Canyon. Having won four small-field pattern races on the spin it was decided by J P McManus’s team to have a crack at the Champion Hurdle rather than a Grade 2 at Fairyhouse where he wasn’t disgraced for a five-year-old when beaten just under ten lengths by Faugheen. He first really caught my attention with his mid-race move at Naas in January where, as quick as a flash, he took the gap that he needed to in order to be in Position A at a crucial part of the race and eventually beat the subsequent Mares Hurdle winner, Glens Melody, with comfort. That move alone told me that he had the gears to go a long way and I think that he will be at his best over a strongly-run two miles.
I am certainly not in the minority in featuring Minella Rocco as every similar article or horses to follow book I have read have also highlighted this unbeaten son of Shirocco for Jonjo O’Neill and J P McManus so there is a chance he could be over-bet having picked up such a following already despite having not tackled a pattern race. He was, however, all set to start favourite for the Grade 1 Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree until withdrawn. It was the way that he moved through the novice hurdle at Newbury in late February rather than any other factor for his inclusion taking it up on the bit at the penultimate flight and strolling home in a canter after which his trainer stated that he would be sent over fences this season. With More Of That also headed over the fences the O’Neill-McManus axis have an awful lot to look forward to in the staying novice chase division this season.
We’ll have another go with Red Sherlock as he featured in my pre-season Ten To Follow last season only to pick up an injury and miss the campaign. David Pipe has recently commented that it was nothing major and he is back in full training. This son of Shirocco out of the high-class Lady Cricket was one of my stronger fancies at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival where I liked his chance in the Neptune so for him to finish only ninth was my biggest individual disappointment of that spring. I am not going to lose faith however as he looked a magnificent specimen in the paddock muscled up to the hilt so I am hoping that it was just a one-off performance as he never looked happy at any stage. The season that he has had off since suggests that effort could have been down to a physical problem, even though the faster ground wasn’t given as an excuse. I am going to trust my eyes as he has the potential to go right to the top judged on his win at Cheltenham in January 2014 and he is still only six.
Might end up being the pick of the Nicholls novice chasers this season despite going under the radar a little in his two runs in Britain since impressing winning on testing ground in France. A big horse who will relish plenty of cut and who has reportedly already done plenty of schooling, he looks an exciting prospect judged on his defeat of Seven Nation Army at Sandown in March after which he was given a wind operation. It was the way that he lengthened at the Esher track that really impressed after which his trainer commented that Sam Twiston-Davies couldn’t hold him heading to the final flight. Whether he is as effective on better ground for the spring festivals we shall have to see but I can see him having a very good winter on a soft surface in the build up.
Fourth behind Moon Racer on his debut in April 2014 when trained by Pat Doyle, he went 3-3 in bumpers for Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown last season and was particularly impressive beating Up For Review at Naas on his last start in February. The owners have relaxed their policy not to send any of their bumper horses to the Cheltenham Festival but, significantly in my view, they elected to put Tycoon Prince away for the season after that success suggesting that he was the most exciting of their bunch. An imposing-looking half-brother to Puffin Billy, there are very early comparisons that can be drawn to Elliott’s approach with Don Cossack at the same stage of his career.