The steeplechasing season is always like this, unexpected fairy stories from left field combining with the expected brilliance of established champions. At the true cusp of the season, here is a mix and match of ten chasers that it could pay to follow.
Five days after winning a point to point at Horse and Jockey in 2104, Minella Rocco was bought by JP McManus for £260,000 and subsequently sent to Jonjo O’Neill’s Jackdaws Castle yard. From the family of the classic winners Brian Boru and Workforce he sluiced up in two novice hurdles last spring and it’s been suggested that this could be the best young horse O’Neill has ever trained. He is expected to begin his novice chasing career this winter over longer distances. Reeks potential.
Once thought of as a bit of flat track bully, Don Cossack has quietly developed into the highest rated steeplechaser around. He breezed up in his seasonal reappearance at Punchestown a couple of weeks ago and is a short-priced favourite to add todays Grade 1 JNWine Chase at Down Royal to his ever strengthening CV. Although he has not won in two visits to Cheltenham, this eight year old has matured into a robust and dependable chaser.
When winning the JLT at Cheltenham last year, Vautour put in a performance that was the most visually stunning performance by a novice chaser for years. A supremely athletic animal he looks to have all the attributes to build a legacy as a steeplechaser. One doubt remains – will he truly stay three and a quarter miles in the white heat of battle? We should learn more on St Stephen’s day when he contests the King George at Kempton.
One of the more lucrative betting waves to catch at the start of any season is a lightly-raced improving chaser, form in the book, returning fit and well with a fair rating that gets him into the early handicaps and a trainer who knows what he is doing. Oscar Rock trained by the wily Malcolm Jefferson exactly fits the profile. He comfortably won a listed event at Market Rasen last week and should be very competitive in handicap chases, at least until the ground gets very heavy.
As his name suggests, Aux Ptits Soins is an ex French trained horse who was imported by Paul Nicholls last year. With only a couple of low level hurdle victories under his belt and despite a horrendous mistake he won the Coral Cup at the Cheltenham festival on his first British outing having sneaked in with a ridiculous rating of 139. He was raised 13lbs for that win so Nicholls has banked the hurdles career and sends him novice chasing. This could be a serious tool over bigger obstacles.
If horses felt fear then it’s safe to say that the most relieved horse in Willie Mullins yard this autumn was Faugheen when he learned that the owner he shares with Douvan say that one was going novice chasing and he would not be firing two darts at the Champion Hurdle. Douvan could be this year’s Vautour - maybe even speedier. His 5/2 quote for the Arkle Chase could look pure charitable by March.
The key to Holywell is good ground. Generally a solid and reliable jumper he was an excellent fourth to Coneygree in the Gold Cup having emerged from nowhere to win the three mile handicap chase at Cheltenham a year earlier. The problem for Jonjo is how to campaign him as he looks about ten pounds short of true championship class. His season commences at Weatherby this afternoon, but could easily conclude at Aintree in April as he looks to have the classy profile of a modern National winner.
One of Irish racing’s more extrovert characters, Paul Nolan happily has the winner count on an upward trend again after some quiet years. He will have all his fingers (and probably his toes) crossed that his fragile returning star, Defy Logic, can continue the momentum. His burgeoning career was interrupted by burst a blood vessel at Leopardstown in January 2014 and his recovery was thwarted by subsequent ligament damage. If the ground is heavy Defy Logic could do damage in those good two mile chases around the turn of the year.
Another Mullins/Ricci combination and while a little less prominent than Douvan and Vautour, this six-year-old mare is unbeaten in her five Irish chases and has class in spades. It’s too early to predict if she can improve enough to make a viable Gold Cup contender in March, but she is well fancied for the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in three weeks-time where she will be getting the guts of two stone from Coneygree. If the ground is on the soft side she could readily pick him off under these race conditions.
(Recommended ante-post bet: Hennessy, Newbury, 9/1)
This is a risky one, and the answers to three unknowns will define his season. Firstly, is he beyond his heart and health problems? Henderson thinks so, remarking this week that “Sprinter Sacre is working at a level that I’ve not seen for 18 months.” Second as a rising 10-year-old will he now swerve the two mile speedsters such as Un De Sceaux and Dodging Bullets? Third will he truly stay two and a half miles in the Ryanair Chase? If the answer is ‘yes’ to all three The Ryanair could be at his mercy.