National Hunt season preview part 1: Championship divisions

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CY: For me, the National Hunt season really gets going around about now – when you’ve had the November Meeting at Cheltenham and the Morgiana over in Ireland.

Suddenly, the various divisions start to take shape. Let’s start with the Champion Hurdle. Who are the main contenders?

Champion Hurdle division

KW: Out of all the Grade 1 races last year, the Champion Hurdle division was probably the weakest one we’ve seen in a long, long time. We’d like to be able to build off the back of that with a couple of novices coming through.

Obviously, it looks like JP McManus is going to have two real live contenders with Epatante and Saint Roi, who was beaten by Abacadabras in the Morgiana but won the County Hurdle and was very good in Tipperary on a comeback run.

CY: I can see Epatante going to the Champion Hurdle almost as an even-money favourite. She’ll go to the Fighting Fifth and she’ll be odds-on, she’ll probably go to the Christmas Hurdle and beat Verdana Blue and a couple of others, and then she’ll go to the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown. She’ll probably be 1/10 that day as she’ll be a 130-rated handicapper and go to the Champion Hurdle as the one to beat.

ROS: I would agree with you. Epatante was a very impressive winner last year and improved all through the season. She’ll be faultless throughout the year, bar an injury or anything like that, and she will be favourite. She’s going to be hard to oppose unless one of those novices comes up through the ranks.

And, also, the forgotten horse, Buveur D’Air. He’s getting a little bit older, but he’s been there and done that. He picked up an injury last season that ruled him out of the Champion Hurdle, but he’s not to be forgotten about, either.

CY: The way you’re going, JP will have the 1-2-3 with Epatante, Saint Roi and Buveur D’Air!

KW: It’s a race that’s been very lucky for him over the last number of years, so I’m sure he’ll be looking forward to it.

media Epatante. Source: Getty Images

Stayers’ Hurdle division

CY: The staying hurdle division is another that has slightly fallen by the wayside a little bit. Paisley Park was disappointing last year. Then, when you look through the betting, we’ve got Thyme Hill, McFabulous and Fury Road. They were all novices last season, so they’ve got to step up again.

Then you’ve got Sire Du Berlais and Great White Shark, the winner of the Cesarewitch. Katie, what do you make of it?

KW: For me, it’s Sire Du Berlais who stands out. He’s been to Cheltenham twice before, winning the Pertemps twice, and was very good recently at Navan. It looks like all roads are heading that way.

ROS: It was a weak division. What was it, a 50/1 shot that won it last year?

CY: Yeah, Lisnagar Oscar, and he got thumped at Wetherby recently.

ROS: It’s wide open. Paisley Park had a heart condition. Some horses have come back from that – Sprinter Sacre, Denman – but it is a tricky thing to do. It’s still there for Paisley Park if he comes back the horse that he was.

CY: When you think about it, Paisley Park doesn’t have to improve, he just needs to return to that level that he’s shown us to be tough to beat.

I’ve always found that, in the three-mile staying division, if you’re the best generally then you’re the best for a couple of years. Look at Baracouda, Inglis Drever, Big Buck’s, Thistlecrack – they all had a good blend of stamina and speed and were top of the division for a while.

media Paisley Park. Source: Getty Images

Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase division

CY: Moving on to the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, where Altior has a little bit to prove at 10 years old. What does he have to do to regain his crown?

KW: Well, he’s going to have to come back to his best, because there are going to be horses snapping at his heels. A couple of those novices are going to come through again.

You and I were there early in the morning last year for what was said to be the race of the week. To lose Altior and Chacun Pour Soi was soul-destroying for everyone. Philip Hobbs must have been licking his lips with Defi Du Seuil and so was Barry Geraghty – but that’s jumps racing.

You kind of feel a bit robbed of the season when that happens. You always think it’s going to happen in March, that this is the place where they all meet, so you’d like to see them all line up at the start and give us a good show.

Altior isn’t getting any younger but he’s still the one they all have to beat. He’s going to have to come back to that, but it’s a little bit harder as they all get older.

ROS: Chacun Pour Soi was very impressive at the Dublin Racing Festival, beating Min. He’s a horse who obviously had a stone bruise on the day and couldn’t get the run, but he’s still a little bit unknown so I’ll be looking forward to seeing him as the season goes on.

CY: Looking at our betting, Chacun Pour Soi is the favourite.

Then you’ve got Altior at – that could be quite big in four or five months’ time if he bolts up in the Tingle Creek and then in the Desert Orchid at Kempton. He could be closer to 2/1.

There are a few others in there – Politologue, Rouge Vif – who bolted up off top weight in a handicap at Cheltenham last month. It could be that Chacun Pour Soi wins two races in Ireland and becomes the short-priced favourite for this division by default.

media Altior. Source: Getty Images

Gold Cup division

CY: The Gold Cup division looks really exciting again. Do you think Al Boum Photo can win a third?

KW: Why not? I imagine he’s going to go the same route as he went last year – Tramore on New Year’s Day and then straight to Cheltenham. Coming from Willie Mullins’ camp, if it’s not broke, they won’t be trying to fix it. I thought he was better last year than he was the year before, to be honest with you.

ROS: The one thing I’d say is that Colin Tizzard had a nightmare at the Cheltenham Festival last year. For him to have the week he had and get Lostintranslation to run the race he did in the Gold Cup – he’d be the one for me. I’m not saying Willie can’t do it, but it’s a very hard thing to go and do.

KW: Who’s going to take him on? Is there any new young gun?

CY: Well, you’ve got Santini, who was second in the race last year, beaten by a short head. You’ve got Minella Indo, too.

KW: He’s a good each-way chance if you were doing something this far out. I’m sure if there was one race last year that Rachael [Blackmore] could have had another go at, it was Minella Indo in the Novices’ Chase. She got there and then he half pulled up and Barry came out of the clouds and robbed her on the line.

He’s hanging on to plenty, which is always a good sign. You need a horse like that for the Gold Cup – something that maybe isn’t always giving you 110 per cent and, at the back of the second-last, is going to dig deep and slog.

CY: It’s funny, when you think of Al Boum Photo – he’s won two Gold Cups, has a pretty unblemished record. but is still not a major fan favourite. When you see horses quite a lot, you grow that affinity towards them.

Fair play to Colin Tizzard, when his horses are fit, he does seem to run them and make them dance every dance. That’s why his horses have a fan club – Lostintranslation is quite popular, as were horses like Cue Card.

KW: That’s it. I’m only being selfish, but you like to see these horses come out every six weeks or so and watch them progress and win all these races throughout the winter. Al Boum Photo has had four runs in the last two years, so he’ll struggle to get a following.

CY: Having said that, I’m pretty sure Al Boum Photo’s owner doesn’t care about his fan club – or lack thereof – if he keeps winning Gold Cup after Gold Cup!

National Hunt season preview part 2: Novice divisions

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