A winter packed with wonderful possibilities

Easter Monday 2016. Somewhere in County Meath. The traffic all the way up to Fairyhouse is brutal. It’s not surprising really.

Even though Cheltenham is already over a week in the rear view mirror the attraction of the Irish Grand National on Easter Monday has always been an irresistible one for lovers of jump racing.

When this meeting finishes only Punchestown stands between them and a summer of scrawny-legged two-year olds.

This is the penultimate sting of a dying wasp and they are going to enjoy it.

Yes, the punters are out in force today, many of them quietly conscious that their journey to Meath has deep historical resonances with the one made by their forebears 100 ago on this equivalent day.

The day when All Sorts won the Irish National and Pádraig Pearse dropped the flag on a longer and much trickier contest from the steps of the GPO.

Still gridlocked. Going to be here a while by the looks of things. Time to think.

To think that it doesn’t seem all that long ago since it was the last Saturday in October, the bank holiday weekend, when the whole National Hunt season stood ready to unfurl itself before us.

Willie Mullins was expected to dominate again. Although age and the horsey circle of life meant that Hurricane Fly was absent from his war party for the first time in eight years, Mullins wasn’t all that short of exciting replacements, some of them already Cheltenham champions.

Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen looked unbeatable in any of the two mile hurdle contests he showed up for and with owner Richard Ricci sending his Supreme Novice winner Douvan over fences, his biggest rival was already out of his way.

‘The machine’ looked destined for his second title and an unstoppable gallop into folklore.

Douvan was en route to two mile novice chases, to culminate probably with a crack at the Arkle in the spring.

Ruby Walsh was confident that he would make the grade. “He’s an unbelievable jumper,” he said, “When you have a horse with Douvan’s pace and the ability he shows jumping a hurdle, if you can transform that into chases… happy days.”

Happy days seemed all that Ricci had to look forward to. He was still prevaricating between the Mares and World Hurdle for Annie Power but he had no doubts about his other superstar, maybe the greatest of them all, Vautour.

“We have to go to the Gold Cup. He will start in the Amlin and then the King George.”

Ahh — the Gold Cup, the very thought of it was already enough to shorten the approaching winter, an intricate web of salivating possibilities in what looked to be a very deep edition.

Last year’s small yard winner, the beloved Coneygree was going well, Don Cossack had breezed through a pipe opener at Punchestown, Don Poli, Djakadam, Honeywell, Saphir Du Rheu, Road To Riches and of course the monster — Vautour were all battle ready.

Their connections were planning campaigns carefully while the rest of us wondered if there were enough Grade One races to keep them apart until March. The good news was the answer was ‘no’ and races like the King George, the Lexus and the Hennessy were bound to be epics.

Another big theme for the upcoming season was the increasing dominance of smaller numbers of trainers and owners. Last season there were over 1,400 races run under National Hunt rules in Ireland. 50% of the winning prize money was won by the country’s top 12 trainers and a total of 18 trainers provided the winners of half the races.

Ten years ago the carve-up was almost twice as wide, indicating some difficulties for new entrants to get traction in the training ranks.

But there was optimism that the powerful new alliance between trainer Alan Fleming, owner Barry Connell and jockey Adrian Heskin could disturb the prevailing incumbents.

The consolidation was mirrored in the ownership ranks too and was expected to continue this season too. Ricci, Gigginstown, JP McManus and the Potts had deepened their firepower buying xpensively in the off season.

The chaps over at the economics desk tell us that oligopolies will eventually squeeze on the small guys out — if the small guys don’t get their acts together.

And while we all wondered if the AP McCoy-sized hole in the jockey room could ever be filled, some natural justice looked to be afoot.

By the end of October Richard Johnson, so often second to McCoy in the race to be championship jockey, was already over 30 winners clear. Surely fate would now smile upon him?

And we resolved once again, as we always do, not to allow the growing dominance of the Cheltenham Festival cast its long shadow over the whole season. Like always this didn’t work.

There it was at the start of winter already waiting for us in the Cotswold spring, hoovering up the end of every speculative conversation on the season’s possibilities.

So what actually happened, how did the season pan out? Well, as we know well by now it was seriously dramatic with many surprises….oops hang on.

The traffic is moving again, no more time to think. Sorry, but you’ll just have to work it all out for yourselves.


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