Nights drawing in and Christmas decorations filling the shops means only one thing – the National Hunt season is upon us! With the best week in the racing calendar less than five months away I’ve pinpointed five potential Festival winners.
Vautour: Willie Mullins’ brilliant chaser will be going for a fourth successive Cheltenham Festival win when he lines up at next year’s Festival. Victorious in the 2013 Supreme Novices’ he followed up a year later with an imperious 15 length win in the two and a half mile JLT Novices’ Chase. After an agonising short-head defeat in the King George chase on Boxing Day he was set to go for Gold Cup glory but a late change of mind from Willie Mullins meant he lined up in the two mile five furlong Ryanair chase. Sent clear by Ruby Walsh at the top of the hill he coasted home, much to the punters delight. A question still remains on whether he is an out and out stayer but surely a crack at the Gold Cup awaits. 8/1 for the Gold Cup.
Altior: Nicky Henderson’s six year old put in a stunning performance to run away with the Supreme Novices’ hurdle in March and hopes are high he could well be back in March for a crack at the Premier Novice Chase event – the Arkle. A winner in six of his eight starts, if he jumps a fence as good as he hurdles one he looks set to develop into one of the most exciting young chasers around. 3/1 for the Arkle.
Thistlecrack: A year ago Thistlecrack was a promising staying hurdler but unlikely to trouble the proven grade one animals in the powerful Mullins and Nicholls’ yards. His meteoric rise between Autumn to Spring was a highlight to many National Hunt fans who saw Colin Tizzard’s eight-year-old win all his five starts under jockey Tom Scudamore. Yet to jump a fence in public he is currently the ante-post favourite for the Gold Cup in March. One slight concern for Thistlecrack’s supporters – The Stayers hurdle hasn’t produced a Gold Cup winner in over four decades. A better bet might be to back him for the RSA Chase – the long distance novice alternative – at a more than reasonable 10/1.
Apples Jade: Trained by Irish supremo Willie Mullins last season the four-year-old filly will be moving to the powerful Gordon Elliott stable after owners Gigginstown Stud fell out with Mullins over training costs. Not many Grade 1 races are won by 41 lengths but that was the distance Apples Jade won the Betfred Anniversary Juvenile Hurdle at Aintree. Not the biggest, she will certainly find things tougher in open company but if she performs anywhere near her Aintree best she could give fellow mare, and reigning Champion Hurdle winner, plenty to think about when the tapes go up on March 14. 8/1 for the Champion Hurdle.
Ballyandy: Trained in Naunton by Nigel Twiston Davies last season’s Bumper winner looks set to take high rank amongst the 2017 novice hurdlers. Traditionally the Bumper tends to produce strong stayers which suggests the two mile five furlong Neptune Novices Hurdle may be the likeliest option for a horse who has a big following in Gloucestershire. He jumped well on his first start over timber at Perth where he came second to 2015 Bumper winner Moon Racer from the powerful David Pipe stable. He could make an appearance on the weekend at Prestbury Park. 16/1 for the Neptune Novices hurdle.