The novice chase division – no matter what year – is always one to look forward to. Chasing is the real mainstay of National Hunt racing with most of its prestigious prizes coming over the larger obstacles. Here’s our man Declan Rix with ten horses to follow.
You don’t get much better racing connections in National Hunt than JP McManus and Willie Mullins. And with Barry Geraghty doing the steering, Alvisio Ville will be given every chance to prove himself this campaign.
There was a bit of hype about him last season, but the fact remains, he is the winner of one race, a maiden hurdle. Having won that contest connections considered him good enough to step-up into Grade 1 company at Leopardstown in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle on his next start.
Pre-declarations he was a huge gamble for the race and also for the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. When race day came, however, he only managed to finish a well-beaten third, a lack of big race experience blamed.
The fact he was quite keen also didn’t help and although on the face of it disappointing, you couldn’t not be struck by the pre-race confidence. Now a year older and a horse that is sure to excel over fences, this could be his breakthrough season.
Hopefully he has strengthened up and takes to chasing. The JLT Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham might be the long-term goal. He has plenty of stamina in his pedigree, but his keen-going nature may see him better over intermediate trips.
Arbre De Vie
This was a horse that didn’t make our radar till last season’s Cheltenham Festival when running a brilliant race in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. Having tanked around Prestbury Park for a fair bit of the race it’s to Arbre De Vie’s credit he was only beaten under five lengths into fourth in a Grade 1.
On his sixth lifetime start and just his fourth over hurdles, Willie Mullins’s inmate looks a horse with a fair amount of natural ability. The son of Antarctique then showed a durable side to his game when after a hard race at Cheltenham he ran a gallant second under a big weight at the Punchestown Festival in a handicap hurdle.
The drop in trip, hold-up tactics and sharper track probably found him out in a competitive contest, but you’d have to be happy with the run. Going over fences, it’s certainly something to build on.
We have yet to see the Rich Ricci-owned gelding in the flesh, but connections consider him a chaser. He’ll need to improve, but we feel he can. Trips of two-and-a-half to three miles will suit and the JLT novices Chase and the RSA look to be the long-term targets.
Beast Of Burden
Beast Of Burden is a horse born to jump fences. As his name suggests, he is quite a sizeable type and given the glimpses of talent he showed in bumpers and over hurdles, there is a burden of some degree upon his shoulders.
While he hasn’t achieved anything worthwhile in terms of form where the major racing festivals are concerned, there is still hope that he can make it to somewhere near the top over fences. As the old racing cliché goes; anything he did over hurdles was a bonus.
The six-year-old’s sole effort in graded hurdles, on paper, looks disappointing. In the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March he was beaten 46 lengths by Windsor Park, but to be fair, that doesn’t tell the full story.
In the hands of Paul Townend, the son of Flemensfirth never really settled and gave himself little chance of getting home. Post-race, it was also reported he broke a blood vessel so the run is best scratched.
Fences were always going to bring out the best in him and with a top-class pedigree – being by a proven sire from the family of Voy Por Ustedes – there is plenty to like. While we have doubts about him reaching the very top, on winter ground he is sure to pay his way for a trainer – Rebecca Curtis – who can progress hurdlers over fences.
Of all the horses we managed to see in the flesh last season Blue Fashion was one of the most striking physically. Nicky Henderson’s inmate has chaser written all over him and he’s one horse we can’t wait to see over larger obstacles.
The son of Scorpion comes with risks, however. At the age of six, Blue Fashion has only made it to the racetrack nine times in what can be described as an in-and-out career. He’s obviously been a hard horse to keep right which is frustrating.
Connections must be tearing their hair out, the reason being, two pieces of proper graded form over hurdles suggest the latent ability is there. In November of 2013 he finished second to More Of That in a handicap hurdle before his conqueror went on to score at the top-level.
Last season, on debut, Blue Fashion would finish second to the brilliant Faugheen at Ascot.
Subsequently, however, his form tailed off. A twelfth of 16 in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham was followed by a pulled-up in another Grade 1 at Aintree. We are not quite sure what caused the below par efforts, but connections have reported the gelding to have had a wind-operation over the summer.
His breathing may have been the issue. If that has managed to be rectified, there is a good chance Blue Fashion can compete in some of the better novice chases as the season progresses.
A strong-travelling type, intermediate distance should prove ideal. We are not sure if he is a proper staying type so trips of three miles would deter us a touch. Hopefully he returns in good order this season.
Willie Mullins has an army of top-class horses at his finger tips and different racing fans will have contrasting opinions on the ones they are most looking forward to, but, for us, Douvan ranks right up there with Mullins’s most exciting.
Another horse to race in the famous pink of Rich Ricci, Douvan’s win in the 2015 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival was one of the highlights of last season’s Festival.
Despite Mullins suggesting this five-year-old was potentially one of the best horses he has ever trained pre-race, a SP of 2/1 was still obtainable for the Cheltenham Festival curtain-raiser.
Although there were worries how the son of Walk In The Park would handle his first proper test on good ground, his backers never really had a moments worry under the guidance of Ruby Walsh.
His previously facile wins at Gowran Park and in a Punchestown Grade 2 were no flukes as he bounded up the hill to score by over four lengths from stablemate Shaneshill. There was no substance to his style. Douvan then went to the Punchestown Festival and put up a performance just as impressive in another Grade 1.
All this, despite everything about the bay gelding suggesting he would be even better over fences. Douvan has a physique of immense stature and jumping fences should be no problem to him especially considering Willie Mullin’s comments of him being a ‘real athlete’.
You can never be sure of how a horse will translate hurdles form over larger obstacles, but Douvan rates as the most exciting novice chaser to follow this season, if taking to it. The Arkle (5/2) at Cheltenham looks to be his main target.
Trips from two-and-a-half to three miles should help bring out the best in Killutagh Vic this season. A horse connections always felt would need fences to bring out the best in him, it’s an indication of his natural ability he’s competed competitively at the highest level in bumpers and over hurdles.
Sixth in the Cheltenham Champion Bumper two years ago, the son of Old Vic would go five places better in last season’s Martin Pipe Conditional Hurdle at the Festival to just get up close home under young Irish jockey Luke Dempsey.
The six-year-old would then be asked to take a huge step-up in class at the Punchestown Festival and compete in his first Grade 1 event over smaller obstacles.
Under Paul Towned, Killutagh Vic took the step-up in grade in his stride and in the end would see off a previous top-level victor in Thistlecrack.
There will be horses with better official ratings over hurdles going chasing so Willie Mullins’s inmate will need to improve further should he wish to compete at the top-tier over fences. He’s in the right hands to do so, though, and his useful pedigree is another variable that points to a big season ahead.
One of Great Britain’s most exciting novice chasers to follow this season has to be Nicky Henderson’s L’Ami Serge, the 2015 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle fourth. This son of King’s Theatre, despite finishing just outside the placings at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, was one of week’s biggest disappointments.
He was the one horse who we felt capable of beating Douvan, but the Simon Munir & Isaac Souede-owned gelding was fighting a losing battle right from the get-go. He and Barry Geraghty were slow away from the tapes and on ground riding pretty quick, were on the back foot early.
When hampered at the fourth hurdle that was game over so it was to his credit and ability he rallied to finish fourth behind three classy horses in Douvan, Shaneshill and Sizing John. No doubt he should’ve finished a lot closer.
Like Douvan, a horse who he’ll surely cross paths with again this season, L’Ami Serge has the physique to be an even better chaser. Nicky Henderson’s inmate has scope in abundance and our gut feeling is he’ll really take to the larger obstacles.
He had top-class hurdles form, has a beautiful pedigree and has the size to tackle fences in his stride. This, along with representing leading connections means we can’t wait to see him over fences. The Arkle (14/1) or JLT Novices’ Chase (25/1) look to be his end of season goals.
No novice chase list is complete without a Paul Nicholls horse and while Sametegal may not reach the very top over fences, he is one of his trainer’s more interesting recruits to this division.
We didn’t see the son of Saint Des Saints at all last year due to injury, but hopefully he can make up for lost time this season. He was a useful juvenile hurdler and was second in the Greatwood Hurdle two years ago.
He has a good base to go jumping fences from, we just hope he is over his injuries fully and can fulfil his potential. Trips from two to two-and-a-half miles should prove ideal.
Although no match for Douvan the three times they met last season, Sizing John is a horse we really like and just the type his trainer Henry De Bromhead does well with.
De Bromhead has a fine record in improving hurdlers when they tackle fences. Maybe it’s the type of horse he buys, but his CV with chasers is quietly impressive.
This son of Midnight Legend has the scope to go a long way in this division; quite simply, chasing should be easy for him. Already a Grade 1 winner over hurdles (Future Champions Novice Hurdle), albeit in a race that fell apart, with plenty other competitive top-level form, Sizing John is sure to make his mark during this campaign.
A horse with a nice, if not top-class pedigree, it’s surprising the level he has reached given the stamina in his bloodline. His sire – Midnight Legend – has shown to get progeny that stay well while his dam’s side looks all two-and-a-half miles.
Yet to venture past the near minimum trip, intermediate distances on good ground may well prove to be his optimum. Nice terrain will really bring out the best in Sizing John so should he appear to fluff his lines on winter sod, keep the faith going into the spring.
Longer-term, the Arkle and JLT Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham may be on his radar. Aintree’s Grand National meeting is also a festival his trainer likes to target so he’d also be of interest on Merseyside.
Value At Risk
Value At Risk is another horse who we have small doubts about reaching the very top over fences, but he is sure to pay his way throughout the season.
Maybe that will be a premature worry given his bumper form is top-class, but he was a little disappointing at Cheltenham in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle last season having made a brilliant start to his hurdle career at Newbury.
The fact he joined Dan Skelton later than the norm last season means now the trainer has had a full work programme into him, he may improve and hold his form better. The son of Kayf Tara has the size and strength to compete with the big boys over fences.
His pedigree could also be described as useful and one laden with stamina. Two-and-a-half miles to three miles will be his game and the RSA Chase (20/1) at Cheltenham in March is sure to be his main target.
The Old Course will suit him much better than the stiff nature of the New Course at Prestbury Park given how sweetly he can travel. He is a nice horse for young trainer Dan Skelton to have and hopefully the pair are in for a rewarding season.
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