I was truly gutted to hear of the loss of Arzal; Harry Whittington’s talented young chaser.
When tragedy befalls a stable star, and that of a relatively fledgling yard, the loss seems all the more distressing. Arzal had become the flag-bearer at Hill Barn Stables having excelled in his first winter over fences, culminating in a terrific success in the Grade 1 Manifesto Novices’ Chase at Aintree.
On his Facebook page, Whittington released the sickening news, saying: “We regret to announce the tragic news that we had to put Arzal to sleep today. We are all devastated here at Hill Barn. He was a standout horse in a small yard who brought us all so much joy. He was also a good friend to everyone who was involved with him. He will be sorely missed and never forgotten.”
The six-year-old had won five of his 12 UK starts, with three of those victories coming over fences. A bold front-runner, his dominant display in a novices’ handicap chase at Newbury in November gave notice of his undoubted talent. But for a serious error, he’d have finished much closer to Ar Mad at Kempton over Christmas in the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase.
At the end of January he chased home Henderson’s classy young chaser Vaniteux at Doncaster. Whittington made the decision to bypass the Cheltenham Festival, and was rewarded when his young star romped home at Aintree by eight lengths. After Arzal’s victory his ecstatic trainer had said: “I was going into it with no expectations, but once he jumped the first I was pretty happy. It's amazing for the whole team. I can't tell you how much of a team effort it has been at home. It has been way beyond my expectations and this has been the icing on the cake.”
His liking for flat tracks meant the Old Roan back at Aintree had been the logical long-term target. Sadly, such hopes and dreams have been crushed. Of course for those involved in the sport, these dramatic highs and lows are all too familiar. The team at Hill Barn Stables must now dust themselves down and continue with the great work under the leadership of Harry.
When he started out in 2012 with just five horses, he could not have imagined such stunning progress in such a short period of time. With around two dozen horses now in the yard his strike rate in the region of 25% for the 2015/16 season was quite incredible. Prize money of over £200,000 compared to £44,000 in the previous campaign, emphasises the giant strides that have been made. Whittington, along with Mulholland, Skelton, Fry and Greatrex, are part of an exciting crop of young trainers, set to change the face of Jump racing over the coming years.
For those at Hill Barn, they will be hoping that another talented six-year-old can raise the spirits, when Emerging Force takes the plunge at Punchestown later today. This strapping gelding has all the attributes of an exciting chaser, but for now will step-up in company to take on a strong looking field in today’s Grade 1 stayers novice hurdle. The likes of Bellshill and Coney Island set a high standard, but Whittington’s youngster looks to have a bright future and is clearly highly rated by connections.
The loss of Arzal is a sickening way to end such a thrilling season. Our thoughts go out to Harry and his team, along with our wishes for a rapid return to brighter times.