COUNTDOWN TO CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL: horses to follow from the opening weeks of 2017

Two of Yorkshire trainer Malcolm Jefferson's top horses make the list. He is pictured here with his crack 2m novice chaser, Cloudy Dream.
Two of Yorkshire trainer Malcolm Jefferson's top horses make the list. He is pictured here with his crack 2m novice chaser, Cloudy Dream.

This is not an easy time of year for racing fans. On the one hand, we cannot wait for the Cheltenham Festival. On the other hand, our feverish anticipation is sullied by the dreaded news of yet another star turn sidelined by injury or worse.

Even before January and February had sunk its mud-splattered, frost-filled claws into the racing programme, we had resigned ourselves to a Festival without such heady attractions as DON COSSACK, SPRINTER SACRE, VAUTOUR, CONEYGREE, SIMONSIG, VALSEUR LIDO and JOSIE’S ORDERS.

Then came the tragic loss of MANY CLOUDS. And now we can add the likes of Champion Hurdlers FAUGHEEN and ANNIE POWER to the list, plus exciting novice chaser MIN, all victims of the curse that seems to have afflicted the all-conquering Willie Mullins yard with a vengeance.

Mullins’s star dark horse, KILLULTAGH VIC, seems unlikely to make it either, and the depression is hardly lifted by trainers becoming more and more reluctant to give their Cheltenham-bound charges a prep run, resulting in small fields at key meetings such as Newbury this Saturday. Nor does the gloom abate when you hear connections talking of giving the Festival a miss because it might not suit. If ever there was an animal tailormade for the rigours of the RSA Novices’ Chase, it’s Jessica Harrington’s OUR DUKE, yet his owners didn’t even want him entered.

Of course, the Festival will still be the Festival without any of them. No horse, trainer or owner is bigger than the greatest race meeting in the world. But in the circumstances, it seems judicious to concentrate on the horses that are fit and healthy and are being allowed to take their chances on the track.

With one eye firmly on Cheltenham and, indeed, Aintree, here is a list of winners (and one runner-up) to have demanded a place in the Silverwood Notebook since the turn of the year.

AMERICAN (Harry Fry)

WON Warwick January 14

He might be a fragile, lightly-raced 7yo who needs plenty of time between runs. But this impressive pillar-to-post victory, underpinned by a terrific exhibition of jumping, in a decent Listed novice chase magnified his natural ability. Whether he can make an impact at the top tables in the spring depends on the ground, which can’t be Soft enough for him.

BALLYOISIN (Enda Bolger)

WON Fairyhouse January 15

The shrewd and experienced Bolger might be best known for his cross-country chasers, but he has something a bit better than that at his disposal in this 6yo son of Presenting, who jumped immaculately when making all in this beginners’ chase. Apparently the apple of the trainer’s eye, he is potentially top-class, granted normal progress.

BEYOND CONCEIT (Nicky Henderson)

WON Newbury January 18

Not many horses can defy a mammoth absence of 1,267 days (nearly four years) to win as takingly as this, particularly on their first start over hurdles. The race looked weak at the time but has since been franked by the runner-up bolting up at Ludlow, and although this son of Galileo, who was a stayer on the Flat, is already an 8yo, there is still time to take high rank over timber, according to his trainer.

BLEU BERRY (Willie Mullins)

WON Fairyhouse February 4

Not many smiles have been raised in the plagued Mullins household this season, but he was unusually excited in his praise of this performance from a dark horse he considered Cheltenham Festival Bumper material last term until he flopped in Listed company at Newbury. A summer’s grass has helped him mature into a novice hurdler to be reckoned with.

BORDERLINE CHATHO (Alan Fleming)

WON Naas January 28

This Barry Connell-owned 6yo had not been seen since Christmas 2015 but, on that day, he finished a close third to Bacardys, who went on to become one of the best Bumper horses of last season. Trainer Fleming thought he’d be ring-rusty for this return, so the display is worthy of the highest praise and might be good enough to earn him a place in the big Bumpers at either Cheltenham or Aintree.

BRIO CONTI (Paul Nicholls)

WON Doncaster January 27

Those of us desperately disappointed by the performance of this 6yo novice hurdler when upped in grade at Cheltenham in December were so relieved to see him bounce back in style here. The grey son of Dom Alco has a touch of class and it’s no surprise to discover that connections are considering the Festival for him, possibly in one of the handicaps.

CHAMP (Nicky Henderson)

WON Southwell January 31

It’s not often that a bleak Tuesday afternoon at the Nottinghamshire track throws up an exciting horse for the future. But Barry Geraghty made the journey specially to ride JP McManus’s 5yo for his Bumper debut, and he must have been impressed by the way he travelled and picked up at the business end. Intriguingly, the big, raw gelding’s dam is a half-sister to none other than Best Mate.

DIEGO DU CHARMIL (Paul Nicholls)

WON Musselburgh February 4

After a couple of below-par runs at Ascot, Nicholls’s fetching winner of last season’s Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle returned to his best here, jumping with eyecatching slickness. Relishing the ferocious, end-to-end gallop and Good ground, he is now on the radar for another Festival tilt, this time in the 2m County Handicap Hurdle.

DON BERSY (Tom Symonds)

WON Warwick January 26

Very possibly the horse to put young trainer Symonds on the map, the 4yo French import upset a long odds-on shot at Sandown in early January before following up in style here. An accomplished jumper, he has the form and progressive profile to suggest he should not be ignored in any juvenile company, so it’s sad that the trainer is leaning towards bypassing Cheltenham in favour of long-term considerations.

FAYONAGH (Gordon Elliott)

WON Fairyhouse February 4

It’s not often the wily Elliott, surely Ireland’s champion trainer-in-waiting, is taken by surprise by the performance of one of his horses. But the manner in which this new recruit, a 6yo mare, shot clear to land this Listed Bumper defied her unease in the market and had the burly County Meath handler dreaming of a repeat in the big mares’ Bumper at Aintree in April.

I’M A GAME CHANGER (Philip Hobbs)

WON Bangor January 3

Few trainers are better than Hobbs at placing younger, improving horses in handicaps, and I suspect that will be the route plotted with this 5yo, who put behind him an indifferent and wayward start to his hurdling career with this convincing win. He still needs to learn to relax and he still needs to brush up on his jumping, but the way he travelled and bounded clear showed there’s a real engine under the bonnet. His dam is related to Grand National legend Corbiere.

LET’S DANCE (Willie Mullins)

WON Leopardstown January 29

Owner Rich Ricci must be pulling out the last few strands of hair on his head after such a traumatic season. But I am convinced he could still taste Cheltenham Festival glory with this talented mare, who backed up a fine win at the track’s Christmas meeting with this equally striking effort. She boasts more experience and a better change of gear than most novice hurdlers and would surely go close with her mares’ allowance in the Neptune over her ideal trip.

MICK JAZZ (Gordon Elliott)

WON Punchestown February 6

Having identified Elliott’s novice hurdler as a handicap plot waiting to happen, I was not expecting to see him pitched into this Listed contest against one of Willie Mullins’s best youngsters, Cilaos Emery. But he lowered the odds-on shot’s colours with a display that proved he’s now ready to fulfil potential first unearthed by his former trainer, Harry Fry. Providing the assessor does not over-react, the County is a realistic Festival target.

MONALEE (Henry De Bromhead)

WON Clonmel February 2

Of all the potential stars that have emerged at De Bromhead’s buoyant yard this term, this 6yo son of Milan might not be the most obvious. But he is definitely Cheltenham Festival material -- most probably via the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle -- judging by this smooth victory at Grade Three level. The step-up to 3m suited him down to the ground as he travelled, jumped and put the race to bed readily.

MOUNT MEWS (Malcolm Jefferson)

WON Doncaster January 27

Don’t rule out this 6yo forming part of a three-pronged assault on the Cheltenham Festival by Jefferson, alongside stablemates Cloudy Dream and Waiting Patiently. He recovered from a blip on his previous outing to win this albeit weak novice hurdle as he liked, enjoying the return to 2m on Good ground. Surprisingly, the handicapper left his lenient mark of 133 unchanged.

NEON WOLF (Harry Fry)

WON Haydock January 21

No prizes for originality by including on the list this 6yo, who now figures prominently in the markets for both the Supreme and Neptune novice hurdles at the Festival. But the manner in which a demolished a strong field for this Grade Two, most notably a very smart 145-rated runner-up, could not be ignored, particularly as it came on only his second start over timber, suggesting there’s more to come.

ONE FOR ARTHUR (Lucinda Russell)

WON Warwick January 14

I have written at length in a previous column about the impression this 8yo staying chaser made on me when landing the Betfred Classic, so it’s pleasing to report that he has come out of the race well and it’s all systems go for the Randox Health Grand National on Saturday, April 8. The marathon is rarely won by horses of his age, but he’s progressive, classy and sure to get a nice racing weight, while his previous Aintree experience must stand him in good stead.

POUGNE BOBBI (Nicky Henderson)

WON Ludlow February 8

A lightly-raced 6yo who emerged as a possible for one of the Festival handicaps after he romped home from the front in this respectable contest, even though he was the last experienced in the field and even though it was only his second start over fences. A big, raw sort who is just coming into his own, according to the trainer.

STARCHITECT (David Pipe)

WON Ayr January 17

The Pipe yard can no longer mix it with the very best, but must still be feared when preparing horses for the Festival handicaps. This 6yo son of Sea The Stars, who ran well at last season’s Cheltenham shindig, has been brought along quietly in novice chases and must go on the shortlist for the Grand Annual if his current mark remains below the timber rating of 150 that he achieved.

STOWAWAY MAGIC (Nicky Henderson)

WON Doncaster January 9

Henderson has any number of promising novice hurdlers on his hands, including this 6yo who fetched £100,000 when bought after winning his Irish point a couple of years ago. He’s now won three of his five starts under Rules and while this race wasn’t the strongest, he could hardly have been more convincing, powering home without jockey Daryl Jacob needing to get remotely serious.

SUTTON PLACE (Gordon Elliott)

WON Naas January 28

Negatives abounded on the seasonal return to action of this JP McManus-owned 6yo for although promising as a novice last term, he did appear to need further than 2m and/or fences, and for this contest, he had to give weight to four of his five rivals, he was up to 13lb worse off on official ratings and he was at a clear fitness disadvantage after such a long absence. So for him to win with such ease and polish suggests he has improved dramatically and cannot be dismissed in any company.

UXIZANDRE (Alan King)

2ND Cheltenham January 28

Not since providing AP McCoy with his final Festival winner in 2015 had King’s richly talented 9yo been seen on a racetrack. But he proved he’s no back number when running on to chase home the brilliant Un De Sceaux in this re-routed Clarence House after getting outpaced over an inadequate 2m trip and on unsuitable ground. He’s now on target for a repeat tilt at the Ryanair Chase in March.

VERNI (Philip Hobbs)

WON Taunton February 6

This was only a seniors’ race for hurdlers aged eight and above, but the son of Sabrehill careered to victory despite refusing to settle for a long way, and is palpably streets ahead of the handicapper. He’s not been easy to train but given it was only his eighth career start, there must be more petrol in the tank and he might turn into a dark one for the Coral Cup or Martin Pipe Handicap at the Festival.

WAITING PATIENTLY (Malcolm Jefferson)

WON Haydock January 21

Everything appeared to be in the favour of Paul Nicholls’s smart favourite, Politologue, for this Grade Two novice chase. Yet Jefferson’s improving 6yo travelled conspicuously well and jumped with elan before pouncing to collar the grey from the second last and complete a four-timer. The trainer insist he needs Soft ground to bring out the best in him, but his natural ability should not be under-estimated.