Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The beginings of a new campaign

At long last the flat season is drawing to a close and with the advent of this weekend’s Charlie Hall Chase the jumps season proper will be underway. As the fogs roll down over Punchestown and the damp gets into the late October air in Lambourn gamin young hurdlers and venerable steeplechasers alike have long since begun to sense that the summer is but a memory and the time to prove themselves anew is at hand.

Just around the corner Cheltenham’s Open Meeting neatly foreshadows the great culmination towards which the modern jumps season builds. All roads lead to the festival or so the ‘Racing for Change’ marketing men would have us believe and as usual it is against the ticking of this clock that every hoof beat is measured. With this in mind we’ll take a look over the coming weeks at various aspects of the coming campaign.

First up, we peer downwards through our crescent reading glasses at the portents and omens for chasing’s blue ribband event, the Cheltenham Gold Cup...

The powers that be...

With both Kauto Star and Denman entering their eleventh years their pre-eminence in the staying chasers field will be questioned with increasing vigour this season. It has been some decades since an eleven year old won the Cheltenham show piece, yet together with Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Imperial Commander (a ten year old) they are over a stone better on official ratings than the group of young pretenders that aim to be within snapping distances of their heels this term.

Kauto Star – At his supernatural best when destroying the field in the 2009 King George last season nevertheless highlighted that the apple of Ruby Walsh’s eye is not quite the same horse away from the Kempton track, when pipping Imperial Commander in a thoroughly debatable photo finish at Haydock and never looking like he was travelling well in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. One senses that though he has the class to be untroubled by all but the very best at any track in Britain but this year a King George victory will define a successful season.

Denman – After last year’s rollercoaster season it’s difficult to know what to expect from Denman. His Hennessey win and Gold Cup second seem to suggest that he retains plenty of his formidable ability. Things don’t seem to be coming quite so easily to the Tank anymore.

Imperial Commander – Proved just how good he is around Cheltenham by exploding the Denman v Kauto hype surrounding the 2010 Gold Cup. Has a year on Paul Nicholls’ charges and can certainly make hay this term as there seems to be a season to wait before another generation of quality chasers emerge to challenge him.

The rest of the English...

Unusually there are several high quality second season chasers potentially on the Gold Cup scene but there are plenty of reasons (apart from the lack of toughness generally inherent in a graduating chasers) to have reservations about their chances. Of Nicky Henderson’s charges Punchestowns looks to lack the toughness to stay 3 miles plus around Cheltenham whilst Long Run is yet to display fluent enough jumping when questions are asked of his stamina (surely an experiment with a better jockey might shed some light on his true abilities). Indeed it may be the comparatively unheralded Burton Port who holds the biggest threat for the man from Seven Barrows, the RSA Chase 2nd surprised everybody with his progression last season and could well go on from there.

Elsewhere Weird Al, should he recover from the injury which cruelly put to death last year’s bookie busting festival accumulator might be an interesting proposition from a small yard and has already won twice at Prestbury Park. It would be reassuring for those who see him as a potential top level horse to see him pick up a win or two in large field races at 3 miles and beyond.

Somersby will progress for Henrietta Knight after looking for all the world like he needed further than the 2 miles he got in his races last season.

It maybe Planet of Sound who gets the closest of the English to the big three in his third season over the larger obstacles. Phillip Hobbs’s chaser improved to win the Punchestown Gold Cup (beating a sub-standard Denman) on his final start of last season but faces an uphill struggle to convince us that he can win at Cheltenham after his gutless Ryanair Chase flop in 2010.

Raiders from the Emerald Isle...

We saw arguably the most promising performance from a novice staying chaser last season when Weapons Amnesty confirmed his liking for the Cotswolds course with a strong victory in the RSA Chase, his second festival prize. Before trainer Charles Byrnes announced he be would out for the entire season through injury he would have been many a follower of the form’s idea of the most likely to bridge the gap to the big three.

Elsewhere the challenge from the across the Irish Sea looks nebulous at present, Joncol seems far too workman like whilst Cooldine who had a stop start season last term, may be further proof that winning an RSA, often such a gruelling race for a young chaser, may be less of boon to a horse’s long term prospects than one would expect given the fates of recent winners Denman, Weapons Amnesty and Trabolgan.

Pandorama is a horse that has been picking up plenty of wins in Ireland over the past two seasons only to miss the festival on both occasions. Noel Meade's gelding got home in front of Weapons Amnesty on his last run and if he returns well from his injury lay off could surprise a few people.

Wild Cards...
Another Paul Nicholls stable star currently third in some layers ante-post markets is 3mile hurdle titan Big Bucks. Let us not forget that he was in danger of serving it up to a future gold cup winner before falling at the business end of the Paddy Power Gold Cup won by Imperial Commander before returning to hurdles. Nicholls has never ruled out a return to chasing for him and the twelve to one currently available could begin to look silly if he takes to fences with more gusto a second time round.

Polish Ecstasy Verdict

Though the prices will not generally be earth shattering all the horses mentioned should win you a bit of money on their way to the festival in 2011.

It would be tremendous and certainly anything but a whimisical romance to see Big Bucks given another chance in this sphere, such has been his monopoly of staying hurdle prizes over the last two years but it seems by virtue of being younger than his rivals and more mature than the chasing pack that Imperial Commander may be the one to beat.

Dark Horse: Pandorama