Let’s start with the ’bleedin’ obvious’. If Faugheen has strengthened over the summer, stays healthy and has normal luck in running then it is unlikely that he will be beaten this season. A winner of all his eleven races to date the seven year-old is rated way ahead of any of his realistic rivals, is best in spring and goes on any ground. An Irish bred ex pointer named after a Tipperary village, he could well be on his way to succeeding Hurricane Fly as our hurdling national treasure.
Aurore D’Estrval had been a strong second favourite for the mares hurdle last spring until a minor knock forced her out so it was a case of ‘what might have been.’ John Quinn’s five year old had improved a stone last year, and had solid form, including a runner up in the Grade One Fighting Fifth hurdle to the very useful Irving. Quinn’s stable is ticking over nicely with thirty three winners to date and if Annie Power buckles again or is routed elsewhere, then Aurore D’Estruval is poised better than most to pick up the pieces.
The big story of the NH season to date has been the emergence of John Ferguson as a serious disruptor of the training pecking order in Britain. He leads the numerical championship by over twenty winners, principally by winning hurdle races with Arab owned ex flat horses. One of these is Maputo, winner of a Group 3 at the Curragh, who has won his last four races and could easily continue the sequence off a mark of 138. He could have another lucrative roll of the dice while the ground is still decent in the first big handicap of the season, the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham next week.
When Barters Hill beat horses as good as Bellshill at Aintree last spring knowledgeable eyebrows were raised. From a small stable it was his fourth win on the spin and clearly identified him as a novice hurdler to watch this season. Hopes have not been dimmed as he won his first hurdle at Huntington last week by fourteen lengths. Next up is the Challow at Newbury which will tell a stronger tale against better opposition, but he could be a star in the making, especially over longer distances.
Andrew Lynch trains Zabana for Chris Jones near Dunsany Co Meath. After a fairly unremarkable early career the Halling six year-old gelding showed significant improvement in his three races after Christmas last season, winning at Navan and then following that up with a close second in the Coral Cup at Cheltenham and then a third to Jezki and Hurrcane Fly at Punchestown. As a result of all this he has been raised sixteen pounds in the handicap, but with continued improvement could be a force in grade three and good handicap hurdles at any distance from two to three miles.
Nichols Canyon won four grade one novice hurdle last season, an unusual feat and one that would normally earn much more acclaim than he has enjoyed. Perhaps inevitably, his starlight was dimmed by the shine from the supernova in the boxes beside him. Versatile at ground and distance, the question is where will he be targeted? Inglis Drever won three World Hurdles for the same owner and with an unremarkable defending Champion in Cole Hardon to beat and Annie Power likely to go for the mare’s race, this could be there for the taking.
Only one horse in the last three decades years (Katchit 2007/8) has progressed from winning the Triumph Hurdle as a four year-old to Champion Hurdler the following season. Some fine animals have tried and failed, but there is a definite prospect this season with Peace and Co, especially if Faugheen isn’t firing on all cylinders. He looked both dogged and talented last year, a true professional horse, and Henderson went on the record this week saying he believed he can win. Nicky is probably being over optimistic again, but he does represent a good each-way hedge against the favourite.
A national hunt flat race at Fairyhouse’s Easter meeting in 2014 was won by Moon Racer. Turcagua was third and Tycoon prince fourth, all were debutantes. The winner went on to win the Cheltenham Bumper , the third is favourite for this year’s edition and Tycoon Prince won his first novice hurdle at Punchestown last week. That bumper was a real form nugget. Tycoon was campaigned gently last season this big horse has lots of scope for improvement and it looks like a trip will suit him.
It’s been a long-time since the Triumph Hurdle was a just ‘turkey shoot’ for long shots and increasingly it is being won by fast horses with good form sustained through the winter. Alan King’s French bred three year-old Oceane could be just the type to continue the trend. Lightly raced on the flat he has thrived in his two races over hurdles to date, winning both in a canter by a combined twenty lengths. King has won the race twice so knows what it takes and could easily be in line for a hat-trick.
And finally, a random pick for the holy bumper, which at this point of the season is still an enigma wrapped in a mystery buried deep in a labyrinth. (Actually, it will still seem that way when the tapes go up at the festival in March.) So what do we know? We know that Willie Mullins has won it eight times in the last twenty years, so that makes the likelihood of a stable victory about 6/4. His principal owner, Rich Ricci, said last week. “From a bumper perspective, Fulham Road is our best by far. He’d be top of the tree of mine.” What more do we need to know?