The National Hunt season is fast approaching (though large parts of Twitter will damn you for admitting this) and this signifies that wonderful window of opportunity where one and all can unleash their ‘horses to follow’ for the year.
As old favourites are returning, exciting hurdlers and chasers are switching hands and those who have looked set to fulfil tremendous promise are set to be given the chance over the coming months.
It is always an exciting time of the season, with so much anticipation and a wonderful feeling that you could be getting some tremendous early value, with long-term projects around Cheltenham and Aintree followed with great scrutiny.
I’ve narrowed the list down to ten to follow this year and to set it apart from the usual group of animals that appear throughout the masses of lists that have been released and are set to be released, I’ve limited my ten to one per trainer.
This means there is more chance of variety and also stops me from naming 10 Willie Mullins machines that will mop up everything. Oh, and I’ve neglected to take the opportunity to mention Aux Ptits Soins and Yorkhill, not because I don’t rate them, but for the likelihood that they will appear in EVERY horses to follow list this year.
Chap (5-y-o gelding – Gabe Mahon)
First up is the exciting Chap, who created quite an impression on those who risked the rain to enjoy a Summer Nights – Sounds of the 80s evening at Aintree in May. Many could be forgiven for heading over to the stage ahead of an ordinary looking bumper to round off a tricky card, but those who stayed were treated to a performance to remember.
Chap was held up towards the rear by the talented Leo Mahon and it looked a reasonable pace by those up ahead, showed by the pair that raced prominently finished a solid third and fourth behind two that crept into the race. Chap was one of those who crept into the race stylishly, yet with twenty-runners there were still plenty in with a chance entering the final two furlongs.
The five-year-old caught the eye still firmly on the bit and he continued to improve to swoop past the field, taking up the running entering the final furlong up the long Aintree straight. He quickly put the race to bed, scooting clear when asked the question and he hit the line hard, suggesting there was still plenty in the tank.
There will be plenty of opportunity to get to the bottom of the gelding this year and he has the scope to improve when he sees a hurdle. He looks to have huge promise and he is one who may sneak under the radar on his first couple of starts.
Anibale Fly (5-y-o gelding – Tony Martin)
After finishing a close second to Jetstream Jack in a bumper that seen the field massively spread out, Anibale Fly was swiftly purchased by JP McManus to run in the famous green and gold silks. As he was sent-off 25/1 on debut it is fair to say the performance may have been somewhat of a surprise, yet he proved it was no fluke by getting off the mark at the second time of asking, comfortably seeing off six rivals.
He stayed on all the way to the line that day and this meant that he was given his chance in a hit-looking bumper at Fairyhouse on his final start of the season, coming up against a number of highly-rated animals including Au Quart De Tour, Space Cadet and Livelaughlove. It was the latter that gave Tony Martin’s charge most to think about but again, we seen the gelding’s fighting spirit as he nettled gamely all the way to the line to pick up the eventual runner-up, fifty yards from the line.
He crossed the line a length-and-a-quarter ahead of Willie Mullins’ charge and with Tony Martin likely to utilise his gameness over the hurdles this season, he could be in for a big year. He is a rangy gelding who looks suited to the obstacles and the strong-travelling battler could enjoy a stellar season for respected connections.
Limini (4-y-o filly – Willie Mullins)
It was hard to narrow down Willie Mullins’ legions of exciting novices’ to just one, yet after plenty of deliberation I’ve decided to let Limini fly the flag for the yard this year. The French import ran two nice races in defeat over 10f at Chantilly and then Longchamp before making the move across to Willie Mullins’ yard, where he created quite the impression on his sole start for the master handler.
Despite enjoying a lengthy break, the filly was sent off a warm favourite for her first start suggesting there may have been a level of confidence exuding from the stable. She tracked the leaders in fourth under Paul Townend before moving into the race in typical Townend fashion, creeping closer rather stylishly.
She made a mistake two out but was allowed time to find her stride again before she moved third entering the straight, edging into second ahead of the last and then finally edging ahead under hands and heels close home. She beat the battle-hardened Sandymount Duke who had race-fitness on his side and this was an effort that screamed promise.
The Rich Ricci-owned filly may not be allowed to go off too overpriced given her connections but she may well prove worth a close eye in the long-term ante-post markets before she makes her belated reappearance. She could well be the next in a long line of high-class hurdlers heralding from the stable.
Twelve Roses (7-y-o gelding – Kim Bailey)
Kim Bailey has assembled an enviable string for this season and it was hard to narrow it down to just one horse to follow for the year. The selected horse is Twelve Roses, who has become somewhat of a forgotten horse after spending over a year off the track.
The now 7-y-o enjoyed a stellar 2013/14, improving on a nice runner-up effort on debut to finish within a length of subsequent World Hurdle winner More Of That at Wetherby. It was a performance that looks even better in retrospect and he wasn’t disgraced when taking his place in the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle, a series qualifier, at Newbury, where he finished a nice fourth off a high weight.
He hated the ground when floundering as favourite on Boxing Day at Kempton but after being given a break before an engagement at the Cheltenham Festival, he appeared to grow steadily and appreciate the return to a better surface. He was sent off 66/1 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle but he massively outrun his odds, staying on bravely to take a never nearer fifth behind Faugheen.
It looks as though a step up to three miles on good ground could be perfect and although he may well need his first run after such a lengthy break, he is worth keeping onside over the course of the season.
Bailey also has the exciting Charbel who has changed hands for a big fee following two victories and a nice fourth in the Punchestown Champion Bumper. He has a lofty reputation and he has scope to improve over a hurdle, so he could be in for a big year.
Moon Racer (6-y-o gelding – David Pipe)
I’ve tried to avoid the obvious choices for this year’s ten to follow but Moon Racer was impossible to leave off, having impressed massively over the course of last season. After springing a 50/1 surprise on debut at Fairyhouse, he was switched stables to David Pipe where he delivered a jaw-dropping performance at Cheltenham last October.
He led under Tom Scudamore and he moved nicely through the race before moving clear in the final couple of furlongs, hitting top gear to put real distance between himself the field. It was an impressive time and connections were extremely bullish in the aftermath, with the view of keeping their start at home until the Festival.
The form of that race worked out nicely with the second and third both going on to win impressively and as he arrived for the Cheltenham bumper, it was no surprise to see the money come. He was sent off 9/2 favourite and somewhat rescued punters with a scintillating success, making up plenty of ground to power clear, crossing the line one-and-a-half lengths ahead of Modus.
He has a real gear change and has plenty of speed to go with his reserves of stamina, so he should enjoy a big season in the novice hurdling ranks. He is well-built and should enjoy the challenge of the obstacles, so with his long-term aim undoubtedly the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, he could be worth following all the way up the hill in March!
Penglai Pavilion (5-y-o gelding – John Ferguson)
John Ferguson has a plethora of unruly flat talent at his disposal this year with plenty of ex-Godolphin animals making the switch to the National Hunt sphere under his tutelage. There are plenty of eye-catchers in the impressive Bloomfields operation but one who is of real interest is the exciting Penglai Pavilion.
Having been trained by Andre Fabre in France during his early years, the son of Monsun fulfilled lofty potential on the level, taking fifth behind Treve in the 2013 Arc. He ran well out in Dubai before failing to land a blow when transferring to Charlie Appleby, although he was still competing at the highest level in extremely competitive group races.
It is interesting that they kept the faith for so long and didn’t attempt to drop him in grade, so the fact the was sent to John Ferguson must mean they have either lost faith in him, or they think he will better equipped over a longer distance and with a hurdle in front of him. I’m backing it’s the latter.
He scored with consummate ease on debut, making steady headway on the sound surface before pulling clear with plenty in hand. It was a performance to take note of and he was given one more outing before being put away for a break and again, he won with tons in hand, pulling clear from a long way out to score at a canter.
The form of those races leave a lot to be desired but he is yet to be tested and clearly has plenty more in the locker. He has valuable experience and the confidence boost of getting back to winning ways will mean he is ready to come out firing this season. His best flat form came on a softer surface but he has shown he can handle good or better over obstacles, so ground is no issue for him. He should mop up plenty of races and although it looks as though he would love the flat track at Aintree, he may well have enough about him to make his presence felt at Prestbury Park.
Cyrus Darius (6-y-o gelding – Malcolm Jefferson)
After a solid enough start when fourth in a Wetherby bumper on debut it was somewhat of a surprise to see what Cyrus Darius would go on to achieve last season. He switched to Malcolm Jefferson’s yard and after a nice enough third in a bumper last November, he was given a short-break before reappearing to tackle some hurdles.
He caused quite the impression on his hurdling bow, lowering the colours of odds-on favourite Course Dismissed at Newcastle, travelling into the race smoothly before pulling clear on the bit. He was heavily eased down and this ensured he was sent off 2/7 for his next start, where he landed the spoils unextended, with 23l, 28l and 16l separating the first four home.
The form of the races didn’t look anything special but the manner in which he had dismissed the field was eye-catching in itself. He was sent to Aintree for a grade two Novices’ Hurdle and he wasn’t without support, as he was sent off 8/1 in a competitive looiong field.
Despite a mistake at the first (does have one in him, so hopefully Malcolm has sharpened him up) he travelled into the race in typical smooth fashion. With the leaders getting to work pretty seriously from a long way out, Brian Hughes eased the gelding into the race from three out, taking up second, travelling much the best.
He breezed into the lead approaching the last before being given a kick in the belly, moving clear of the field with plenty in hand. He beat some useful rivals, including Vago Collonges, Qewy and Glingerburn, all of whom are well-regarded and look to be horses who warrant their place in graded races.
The manner in which Cyrus Darius cantered past with ease means he can’t be taken likely and given the size and scope of the horse, it would be no surprise to see him make a real high-class chaser. I believe plans haven’t been confirmed as to whether he stays over hurdles or begins a career over fences, but wherever he heads, he is certainly worth following.
Drumlee Sunset (5-y-o gelding – Phillip Hobbs)
There a number of nice novices in the Phillip Hobbs stable this year and there is one of real interest in Drumlee Sunset. The son of Royal Anthem has only been seen once, when running out a ready winner of a competitive bumper, despite hanging left in the straight.
He wrestles for the lead early on in the contest and picked up it over seven furlongs out, with Richard Johnson allowing the gelding to stride on in front. He hung left when asked to assert but he still managed to stay on strongly, powering clear in the final hundred yards to claim a four-and-a-half length success over previous winner O O Seven.
He looked a strong, rangy gelding who will appreciate the test of a hurdle to keep his mind on the task and after performing credibly in the p2p sphere, he should know his job by the time he jumps a hurdle in public. He showcased plenty of talent when stretching out on debut under rules and after being given a lengthy break by the Hobbs team, he should be fit and raring to go this year.
Inner Drive (7-y-o gelding – Alan King)
Alan King didn’t have the greatest of seasons last year but he has a number of animals to keep him excited as we head into this National Hunt season, including the lightly-raced Inner Drive. After finishing a nice second on debut he moved across to the Alan King yard where he didn’t look completely wound-up on his stable debut, finishing second behind Vodka ‘n Tonic.
He was put away for a lengthy break before being brought back for a maiden hurdle at Huntingdon in March this year. He was well-backed and ended up going off favourite, scoring impressively against a field that ended up spread out by some distance.
He lowered the colours of the consistent Thedrinkymeister in a nice enough looking race before being sent to Newbury for a hot looking Novices’’ Hurdle. He took a keen hold after being help up towards the rear, before he made smooth headway into contention approaching three out.
After being urged to close approaching the last, he moved upsides the leader and began to battle it out up the straight. It was his first real eye-to-eye battle and to be fair to him, he held his own very well, only going down by a nose from the respected Rock The Kasbah.
He should come on massively from that effort and on a softer surface, he should enjoy plenty of success in the mid-range hurdling division.
Legend Lady (4-y-o bay filly – Oliver Sherwood)
The final member of the ten to follow for this year is Legend Lady, who may have slipped under the radar despite to excellent runs at the back end of last season. She was given her debut in a fairly average looking Taunton bumper but she managed to turn the race into a procession, travelling beautifully with a bit of cut underfoot before moving clear with a simple shake of the reins from Leighton Aspell.
She must have done enough to impress connections as her next and final engagement of the season came in the Listed Aintree Bumper which rounds off Grand National day. She was sent off at 40/1 but outran her odds to great effect, travelling nicely towards the rear before making nice headway from two furlongs out to run into sixth of nineteen runners.
It was a nice staying-on effort that suggests she may be more suited to further, with two and a half miles looking ideal for a first port of call this season. She has the opportunity to take in another bumper for a rather patient trainer in Oliver Sherwood but she looks to have the scope to progress over hurdles when given the nod later on in the year.
Sherwood is brilliant at placing his horses and it would be no surprise to see her mop up a couple of prizes before progressing to a decent level. She is an exciting filly who could have a touch of star quality about her.