May 2, 2014 Leave a comment
The National Hunt season has finally come to an end and once again we have enjoyed a thrilling campaign on both sides of the Irish Sea. The feature races were once again dominated by the big name trainers but rarely have we finished a season so excited to get the next one underway after a number of young horses ‘jumped’ on to the scene.
Established superstars like Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig were non-existent this winter due to injury, while the likes of Hurricane Fly, Bobs Worth and Big Buck’s to name just three, were disappointing at the Cheltenham Festival with a new, younger crop stepping up to challenge the old guard and provide plenty of reasons to wish away the next six months…
A void was left in the two mile chasing division after Sprinter Sacre was ruled out for the campaign after being pulled up on his seasonal debut at Kempton in December. The door was left wide open for another star to emerge and barging straight through was Sire De Grugy!
The Gary Moore trained eight-year-old swept all before him to win the Tingle Creek Chase, the Desert Orchid Chase and the Clarence House Chase before going on to Cheltenham to claim victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. He proved himself as a Champion in his own right and added the Celebration Chase at Sandown last weekend before being named the horse of the season to ice a wonderful campaign. Sire De Grugy appeared to get better with every run this winter and with his colourful owners adding some great personality to the season, the prospect of him meeting a fully fit again Sprinter Sacre next season is something to look forward to.
There was also a new star emerge in the stayers hurdle division with the unexposed More Of That going unbeaten through the campaign for Jonjo O’Neill. That culminated in a famous victory in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham where six-year-old saw off hot favourite Annie Power up the Cheltenham hill.
More Of That is likely to have plenty of improvement in him ahead of next season given that he has only had half a dozen starts and remains just six-years-old. However, it does remain to be seen whether he will be aimed a World Hurdle repeat in 2015 or whether the chasing route will be pursued. The same can be said of Annie Power who does still appear to have the world at her feet despite her defeat in that race with two mile and three mile hurdling or even a title at chasing under consideration for the Willie Mullins star.
Willie Mullins has long sung the praises of Annie Power and that has also been the case for two other young horses currently residing in his County Carlow yard. Faugheen and Vautour wowed punters at the Cheltenham Festival back in March as they won the Supreme Novices and Neptune Novices Hurdles’ respectively and both could really still be anything. Faugheen remains unbeaten and looked even better down at two miles when winning on his last start at the Punchestown Festival while Vautour was equally impressive in winning the Supreme at Prestbury Park.
Both horses are owned by Rich Ricci and decisions need to be made about their futures with one likely to go chasing and one likely to be aimed at the Champion Hurdle in a bid to take over from their legendary stable-mate, Hurricane Fly. Wherever these two horses turn up, they are both set for big futures given their form this past winter with both clearly possessing an abundance of talent, massive engines and the ability to win over various trips and I’ve a feeling it will be Vatour that takes his chance over bigger obstacles and Faugheen will be the Mullins flag-bearer as he bids to emulate The Fly.
Over fences, there was a surprise winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup back in March when Lord Windermere got up on the line in a blanket finish and it will be fascinating to follow his progress next season but it may be worth taking this season’s Gold Cup form with a pinch of salt. Nicky Henderson meanwhile will be hoping that Bobs Worth can bounce back to his best, while a new crop of Gold Cup contenders’ looks set to emerge come the autumn with Cheltenham winners Dynaste and Champagne Fever expected to be stepped up in trip for their respective connections.
It is also worth acknowledging two legends of the sport who retired this past season with Big Buck’s and Quevega bowing out after glittering careers. Big Buck’s was unable to win a fifth World Hurdle despite returning from injury but was retired as the greatest staying hurdler of all time, while Quevega recorded a sixth success in the Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham before being sent off for a breeding career after suffering defeat at the Punchestown Festival. They will of course be missed but with stars like Faugheen, Vautour and More Of That coming through, a new golden age of National Hunt racing could just be round the corner.