It’s a case of the calm before the storm, with one meeting this weekend, at Thurles, and Willie having just one runner, Stay Humble, which Paul rides.
I won on him in Sligo. He absolutely bolted up that day but was disappointing on his last start, at Fairyhouse, where he finished quite tamely in the straight behind Monbeg Worldwide and My Sister Sarah. He will appreciate the extra couple of furlongs, we know he goes on good ground, and the drop in grade will help. I think he has a very good chance.
The highlight of the weekend’s action is in Ascot. In the Long Walk Hurdle, now known as the JLT Hurdle, last year’s winner, Sam Spinner, takes his chance, but he was disappointing on his reappearance in Newbury.
That said, when you look back on his form from last season you see his first run wasn’t great and he improved through the season. With the benefit of that run, the Sam Spinner who won this race last year will hopefully turn up.
Unowhatimeanharry was a warm favourite for this race last year and he re-opposes. He’s a 10-year-old now but still seems to be in great heart. He had a nice run in Aintree, over two and a half miles, and improved well to win in Newbury. He definitely has his chance.
Call Me Lord is favourite, and he’s the unexposed runner in the race. He hasn’t run since he won the Grade Two Select Hurdle in April at Sandown, beating Lil Rockerfeller and Wholestone. That’s strong enough form and, while this is a step up in trip, Daryl Jacob has gone for him over Top Notch.
His trainer, Nicky Henderson, has been dominant in the big races the last few weekends. He had Brain Power last weekend, Altior the weekend before, and Buveur D’Air the weekend before that, and he’ll be looking to Call Me Lord to keep his run going.
The handicap hurdle which finishes the card has been run under many names and, as always, it’s a valuable race and will be fiercely competitive. It’s usually run on very heavy ground, but this will be as dry as it will be run on for some time. There is an Irish interest today, with Tornado Watch representing Emmet Mullins.
He was fifth in a slowly run race at Fairyhouse. I came from beside him to finish third on Saglawy, but I got a much better run from the home turn and down to the second-last. I think he is a great each-way price at about 16-1.
Ascot’s a funny sort of track, which doesn’t seem to suit hold-up horses. You have to make your move at some stage and it’s just over seven furlongs from Swinley Bottom to the finish, and that’s the point of a race you’d like to be making ground. But it’s uphill at that point in Ascot and it’s not really a track, over two miles in particular, that you can take your time on. You need a horse that can race close enough to the pace.
Christmas is an exciting time of year for everyone. It’s a holiday period in the middle of the year, but in racing we have the extra dimension of it, with so much racing coming immediately after Christmas when many people are hitting the Christmas slump.
It is a difficult time on staff, and an awful lot of effort goes into it. Christmas day in Willie’s is pretty much like a Sunday, with half the staff working that day and the other half working New Year’s Day.
But the other side of that coin is that racing is a sport and you have to realise you’re in the entertainment industry and when people are on holidays that’s when people in the entertainment industry make money.
Racing is lucky it can showcase itself as well as it does at Christmas time. To have such strong meetings at Leopardstown and Limerick over this period, we get to showcase the best of Irish racing.
My Christmas used to be so different. Since I stopped working for Paul Nicholls I haven’t been at the King George as much. What’s going on at Gatwick at the moment would have the life frightened out of me.
If I was still working for Paul I’d be trying to figure out if it was going to happen at Heathrow, where I’d be going. I don’t have the stress of that anymore, but the King George is an iconic race, one of the highlights of the whole season and I have had great luck in it with Kauto Star and enjoyed every one of them. It’s a great meeting to go to, a fabulous atmosphere and great fun.
This year’s renewal looks wide-open, with many questions to be answered by the leading contenders. The one rock-solid horse is Gold Cup winner Native River. People think he won’t have the pace for Kempton but he has loads of class.
Politologue and Waiting Patiently have to prove they stay. Bristol De Mai has looked an absolute machine around Haydock but has to prove he can back up a run at this time of year and away from that track.
Might Bite was unbelievable when he won the RSA Chase. He won this race last year before finishing runner-up in the Gold Cup but has to overcome a shocking run the last day. Thistlecrack, who looked like he had the world at his feet at one point, has to jump better than he did at Haydock.
Personally, I would like to see Waiting Patiently win for Ruth Jefferson. She inherited her father’s yard when he passed away last year. There has been a mass exodus from the yard, but this owner has stayed loyal to her, she has done a great job with the horse, and I think it would be brilliant if he could for her.
It would also be a shot in the arm for trainers in the north of England, who are struggling for good horses.
It looks like I’ll be in Limerick on St Stephen’s Day for the first time in 20-odd years. With the upgrading of the novice chase to Grade One status, it’s a great card, though I suppose if I was to be critical, I’d say the placement of a maiden hurdle for horses that have never been placed being on before the Grade One novice chase is not the best piece of planning in the world. If you have a showcase event surely you should be building the day up to it.